Quick Links

Nats bullpen finishes the job

788922.png

Nats bullpen finishes the job

BOSTON -- As well as they seemed to be playing all afternoon -- with Gio Gonzalez dealing and the heart of their lineup scoring four early runs off Daisuke Matsuzaka -- there was a point late in Saturday's game at Fenway Park when it looked like the wheels might fall off for the Nationals.

Over a four-batter stretch in the bottom of the seventh, the Nationals saw a four-run lead turn into a two-run lead, with the go-ahead run suddenly stepping to the plate.

And then? Well, a bullpen that has been reconfigured more times in 10 weeks than Davey Johnson would like to remember bore down and finished off a 4-2 win over the Red Sox that ensured yet another series victory for the team with baseball's second-best record.

"Any time you get a performance like that out of your starter, you come in and go into the seventh inning with a four-run lead, you gotta finish games like that out," closer Tyler Clippard said. "You lose games like that throughout the course of the year, they can be big games. So it was huge."

Clippard was the last of four relievers Johnson used to get through the game's final three innings. It wasn't always pretty; Craig Stammen walked the only batter he faced and Michael Gonzalez served up a two-run single to Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the very first pitch he threw.

As Daniel Nava stepped to the plate with a chance to tie the game or put Boston ahead, the armchair managers were already questioning the situation. Should Johnson have just stuck with Gio Gonzalez, who was dominant for six innings but then was yanked three batters into the seventh with his pitch count at a still-manageable 98?

"I knew I left myself wide open to be second-guessed," Johnson said. "I just don't like it when Gonzalez starts rushing and starts getting a little wild. ... I've seen him get in those situations where it's like he's trying to get to the finish line. I've stayed with him numerous times, but I didn't have that good feeling in this ballpark."

Gonzalez had pitched brilliantly most of the day, scattering two hits and a walk over six innings and putting himself in position to reach the eighth inning for the first time this season. But as has been the case for the entire Nationals rotation this year, the finish line wasn't within reach. (The staff is averaging a modest 6.04 innings per start.)

"My job was to try to maintain as much as possible," Gonzalez said. "I wanted to go the distance, but that's a situation where I trust my bullpen 100 percent."

Though Stammen and Michael Gonzalez initially poured more fuel on the fire, the latter managed to wriggle his way out of the jam -- striking out Nava looking at an inside fastball and getting Dustin Pedroia to pop out -- and preserve the two-run lead.

"That was kind of a turning point," Clippard said.

Indeed, the Nationals seized back control of the situation after that. Sean Burnett pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, the latest dominant inning from the left-hander who rarely gets mentioned among the game's best relievers but certainly deserves the recognition.

Burnett has now surrendered only two earned runs in 24 appearances this season, and one of those runs was a direct result of Bryce Harper losing a routine flyball in the sky in Cincinnati. Go all the way back to July 19, 2011, and Burnett's composite numbers are staggeringly good: a 1.09 ERA, 1.113 WHIP and 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

"He doesn't flash up the gaudy miles per hour on the gun, and I think that's probably a lot of the reason he gets overlooked," Clippard said. "But at the end of the day, you talk to these hitters, there's no way they're comfortable in the box facing a guy like that."

Nor are many hitters comfortable facing Clippard, who has managed to translate his devastating fastball-changeup repertoire into the kind of stuff that shuts down the opposition in the ninth inning. Though he surrendered a two-out double to Ryan Sweeney, Clippard otherwise finished this game off without incident, earning his seventh save in as many tries since taking over closer duties three weeks ago.

As a result, Gio Gonzalez improved to 8-2 with a 2.35 ERA. And with five more strikeouts on the afternoon, his season total of 89 now ranks behind only one other pitcher in the majors: Stephen Strasburg, who racked up 13 K's Friday night to bring his season total to 92.

Not a bad 1-2 punch for the Nationals to throw at opposing teams.

"And it's no picnic tomorrow with Jordan Zimmermann," Johnson said.

No, it's not. Though the Nationals have been in this position plenty of times before; they've had 11 previous opportunities to sweep a series and have pulled it off just once.

"We've been really good at winning series, and we haven't really swept a lot of teams," Clippard said. "It would be really nice to do that tomorrow."

Quick Links

Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gio Gonzalez isn’t the type to harp on his accomplishments. After quality outings, he typically deflects praise to his Nationals teammates in postgame interviews when asked to describe his personal performance.

But as much as he tends to downplay, earning his career 100th win in Friday's victory over the Colorado Rockies clearly meant something to him. 

“I’m just happy it came,” Gonzalez said. “I finally showed up and I’m happy I did it here with this organization. Oakland gave me an opportunity and Washington helped me continue that opportunity and I couldn’t be happier to do it with these colors and represent the Washington Nationals.”

The feat came after two no-decisions in his previous two starts, so the third time proved to be the charm. After the game, he had a gathering of family and friends waiting outside the Nats’ clubhouse to congratulate him, some holding gold “100” balloons and others wearing hats featuring the oft-used Twitter emoji of the same number.

“I'm sure it was [on his mind],” manager Dusty Baker said. “…He didn’t want to come out of this game. He was going to get it eventually and we needed it.”

The 30-year-old left hander accomplished the milestone thanks to six innings of two-run ball on just 85 pitches against the hard-hitting Rockies lineup. Gonzalez displayed a lot of what his skipper wanted to see from him: a low pitch count, avoiding the big inning and, as he did later in the game, deliver shutdown frames immediately after the Nats offense scores.

“He threw great tonight," added Bryce Harper. Kept a very good Rockies lineup off balance and did what he needed to do. Stuck with his approach and threw like Gio knows how. Huge for him, that hundredth win. Couldn't be happier for him and his family.”

Historic achievement aside, Gonzalez has quietly turned his season around after a rough patch. In his last nine outings, he’s 5-1 with a 3.20 ERA over 50 2/3 innings. His resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time, as he’s charged with stabilizing the back-end of a rotation that’s in flux due to injuries to Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross.

“That's the key to his success,” Baker said. “Not getting runners on base or not walking people and he had a very good game tonight, excellent game. His last couple games, few games have been good. I'm just glad we were able to get him his 100th victory.”

Quick Links

Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

usatsi_9501562.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 8-5 win over the Colorado Rockies on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals have quickly gotten the sour taste of their recent four-game skid out of their mouths.

Thanks to a resurgent offense and a quality start by Gio Gonzalez, Washington got back on track with Friday’s 8-2 win over the Rockies, the Nats’ second win in as many days.

True to form, the power-laden lineup didn’t take long to strike. Jayson Werth launched a solo home run, his second in as many days and his 18th of the season, to put Washington up 1-0 in the first inning, and scored again in the third on an RBI groundout by Daniel Murphy.

With the game tied 2-2 in the fourth inning, the Nats wouldn’t create breathing room until the middle innings. The Nats took a lead they wouldn’t surrender when they scored two runs on a Jose Lobaton fielder’s choice in the fourth inning, followed by a Murphy solo home run in the fifth to make it 4-2.

From there, the game was blown open in the seventh inning thanks to a four-spot that was highlighted by an RBI double by Werth and a two-run triple by Bryce Harper that nearly left the ballpark.

The Rockies closed the gap to 8-5 on a Nick Hundley three-run home run in the ninth off Shawn Kelley, so Dusty Baker turned to Mark Melancon to notch the final out and secure the victory.  

What it means: The Nats have won back to back games and have raised their record to 75-53. Pending the result of the Miami Marlins game, Washington could be up nine games in the NL East by the end of the night.

Gonzalez notches win No. 100: The lefty starter wasn’t dominant by any means, but he did what Baker wanted him to do: keep his pitch count down and avoid the big inning. Gonzalez allowed two earned runs on four hits over six innings and 85 pitches, and limited the damage every time the Rockies were threatening. He could have easily gone deeper in the game, but Baker opted to pinch hit for him when the Nats had two on and two out in the bottom of the sixth. Regardless, the performance was good enough to earn Gonzalez the 100th victory of his career. 

Murphy’s milestone: With his 25th home run of the season, a fifth-inning solo shot, Murphy notched his 500th career RBI. It’s a remarkable achievement considering that he currently has 98 RBI on the season, which means roughly a fifth of the runs he’s driven in have come in 2016.

Bryce back? Don’t look now, but Harper is looking very much like the reigning NL MVP these days. He added two more extra-base hits Friday night, including his first triple of the season, and is now hitting an even .400 since his return from a neck injury. His season average has suddenly risen to .254, and with the way he’s going, could get to .260 by the end of the weekend.

Up next: The middle game of this three-game set will take place Saturday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. as the Nats send A.J. Cole (0-1, 5.14 ERA) to oppose Jorge De La Rosa (8-7, 5.07 ERA).

Quick Links

Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Friday night wasn't the first time the Nationals paid tribute to Senators slugger Frank Howard. After all, it’s his likeness that is featured in one of the few statues outside of Nats Park. 

But it wasn't until a recent change in the team’s Ring of Honor criteria — which now allows for any pre-Nats/Expos D.C. great to be inducted — that Howard became eligible for recognition by the franchise.  

 “It’s a real thrill for me, it really is,” said Howard, 80, before Friday’s game against the Colorado Rockies. “It’s nice when somebody says ‘Welcome to the Ring of Honor.’”

For many longtime D.C. sports fans, Howard is one of the few vestiges of the city’s last baseball team before a 34-year gap without the game. He had his best years as a member of the Senators from 1965 to 1971, hitting 237 home runs — the most any player representing D.C. has ever hit.

On Friday, Howard didn’t delve too much into his past, instead praising the current state of D.C.’s baseball team.

“They’re not a young organization anymore,” Howard said of the Nats. “They wanted to create their own image and they should. They’ve done a beautiful job, from top to bottom.”

Howard’s impact on the game went beyond the nation’s capital. Nats manager Dusty Baker said that when he was growing up, his brother would emulate Howard, who began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“As a kid, his name was big Frank Howard, or ‘Hondo.’,” Baker recalled. “We’re playing games in the back yard and my brother was Frank Howard, and I was Tommy Davis.”

Baker would get to meet and interact with Howard over the years, calling him “the most gentle giant of a man I know.” Howard returned the favor with a few compliments of his own.  

“Dusty Baker is a quality big league player, quality big league manager,” he said. "Knows the game from A to Z and back to Z to A. He’s been very successful.”

And of course, talking to any D.C. baseball great means getting their opinion on the reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper.

“He haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Howard said of the 23-year-old right fielder. “His next 10 years should be dynamite years.”

As great as Howard was for the Senators, the teams he played for in D.C. were rarely considered World Series contenders. This Nats club, on the other hand, represents a perennial threat to win it all, something Howard hopes the team will make good on someday. 

“I think it’d be great for the area,” he said. “We’ve got great fans here, and to give them a world championship ball club would be a real thrill.”