Quick Links

Nats feel like 'sky's the limit'

809436.png

Nats feel like 'sky's the limit'

They have every reason right now to pat themselves on the back, to go watch fireworks explode over the National Mall knowing they've got the best record in the NL by three games and the best record in the NL East by 4 12 games.

On Independence Day, a traditional milepost during the baseball season, the Washington Nationals are 15 games over .500, thanks to a 9-4 pasting of the previously red-hot San Francisco Giants.

Surely, someone inside the clubhouse on South Capitol Street is gloating over all this. Right?

"We don't really think about it," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We enjoy playing. Literally, just go out every day to play, and the goal is to win each series. ... There's a lot of season left. What we've done so far is great, but it doesn't mean anything until we finish the job."

For three months, the Nationals have played well enough to put themselves in this position. Now, with the season about to transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2, they can start focusing on finishing that job.

If they need a road map for success, they need only look back at the last week's worth of games, because this team is firing on all cylinders at the moment. A lineup that struggled to produce on a nightly basis has averaged 8.6 runs and 13.4 hits over its last eight games (the last five of those against quality pitching staffs from Atlanta and San Francisco).

The pitching staff has perhaps regressed a tad during that span, but as a whole that unit has continued to perform well enough to take advantage of all that run support and win six of its last eight games.

"It's no secret to us in here," said right-hander Edwin Jackson, today's beneficiary. "We know what these guys are capable of. The last week or so, they've been showing what they can really do."

Production has come from nearly every position in the lineup, but Davey Johnson knows where this all begins.

"I always put it back to the middle of the lineup," the manager said. "Those are the guys who are your best hitters, and when they struggle it has an effect on everybody else trying to do too much, trying to pick it up. ... But when they're doing their thing, everybody else is just looking for a pitch to hit hard and, consequently, you get better pitches to hit and you're a better hitter."

Thus, the lion's share of the credit continues to be heaped upon Zimmerman and Michael Morse. Over their last 10 games, that duo is hitting .391 with six doubles, seven homers and 25 RBI.

Both sluggers were at it again today. Zimmerman came within inches of a three-run homer to left in the bottom of the third, settling instead for an RBI double. Two innings later, he cleared the fence in right-center, a two-run blast. Morse immediately followed with his own opposite-field homer, one of four the Nationals hit in this game.

With the heart of the lineup raking at the plate, everyone else feels less pressure to carry the load. Which leads to all-around efforts like this one, which saw Ian Desmond deliver a two-run single, Rick Ankiel deliver a two-run homer and backup catcher Jhonatan Solano (now hitting .393) deliver a solo blast.

Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper, meanwhile, each reached base three times, setting the stage for the big boys behind them.

"I've said it all along: It's hard to shuffle the lineup all around and have guys doing different things all year and be consistent," Zimmerman said. "Now that we're starting to get healthy and people are starting to find out what their roles are, it's a lot easier to get comfortable. And we're scoring a lot more runs."

Feeling more confident in their own ability to score runs, the Nationals don't worry so much when they give up a few early runs. There was a time not long ago when Jackson's three-run top of the first would have created an insurmountable deficit. Not anymore.

"There's no way that this offense was going to be cold all year," Jackson said. "It's just a matter of time before they get hot, and they've been in a groove and showing what they've been able to do."

And so the Nationals find themselves today in a position unfamiliar to most around these parts. Yes, the inaugural 2005 Nats also held a 4 12-game lead on Independence Day, but that team built around fading veterans collapsed shortly thereafter.

This team doesn't feel the same. This team has believed since Day One it could win. And now the rest of the baseball world is catching on.

"You look back at the beginning of the year, and we all talked about it," Morse said. "And now, the same people that asked the questions are coming back, and you give them the: 'I told you!' kind of thing.

"There's a lot of baseball left. What's good about this team is we really don't know how good this team can be. I think that's what makes us so great: The sky's the limit."

Quick Links

Nats' bullpen, defense continue to cause problems, lead to losses

Nats' bullpen, defense continue to cause problems, lead to losses

Starter A.J. Cole made it 5 2/3 innings on Saturday afternoon, which is pretty good considering that's how much Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg combined to pitch against the Rockies less than two weeks ago. Gio Gonzalez also only made it three innings in that series due to a rain delay.

And in the time since, the Nats' bullpen has been battered around by all sorts of elements including injuries and short outings from starters. The Nationals' next off-day on Thursday, Sept. 1 can't come soon enough to put them out of their current 20 games in 20 days misery.

Cole's outing, by all accounts, could have been a lot worse. But unfortunately for the Nationals, Saturday's game went to extra innings, forcing manager Dusty Baker to do some things he wouldn't normally prefer to do. Like, use the newly acquired Marc Rzepczynski for 2 1/3 innings. Or, to go to Mark Melancon for the third straight game. Or, to leave Yusmeiro Petit on the mound in the 11th even when it was clear he just didn't have it.

For Petit, in particular, Baker felt like he had no other choice, even after the right-hander served up a two-run homer to Charlie Blackmon.

"We felt badly for Yusmeiro because we had to leave him in there, he was our last pitcher we didn't have [Koda] Glover and we were trying to stay away from [Mark] Melancon because that was his third day in a row and we didn't have [Shawn] Kelley. We were down to our last player, we had no more players on the bench and that was our last player, I don't know who was going to pitch if he didn't get out of that inning. He took one for the team so to speak," Baker said.

Petit's inning got off on a sour note with an error by Anthony Rendon at third base. It was one of two errors committed by the Nationals on Saturday. One was by Rzepczynski in the seventh and that one helped lead to a run. Rzepczynski also messed up fielding a bunt in the ninth. Cole also allowed a run on a wild pitch during an intentional walk.

It was a rough day for the Nats, who were plagued by uncharacteristic mistakes. That has been a theme lately and the Nationals hope it ends soon.

“We address it daily, but you cant harp on it. Like I said the other day these things go in streaks," Baker said. "Tony is sure handed over there. We haven’t seen Rzepczynski. He just threw that ball over the head. They bunted on us twice a couple of times and got hits on us. We just have to continue to work.”

The Nats have now made 14 errors in their last nine games. It's been bizarre to watch and it has some at a loss for words.

“Can’t call it. I don’t know. One of those things," left fielder Jayson Werth said.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE NATIONALS STORIES

Quick Links

Before ejection, Bryce Harper continued recent hot streak vs. Rockies

Before ejection, Bryce Harper continued recent hot streak vs. Rockies

Before Bryce Harper earned his eight career ejection following a strikeout in the 10th inning, the Nats right fielder actually had a pretty good game at the plate. He landed an RBI double, walked and scored a run. He has now reached base in all 14 games since he returned from nursing a stiff neck.

The double was a familiar sight for Harper. He dropped it into the left field corner at Nationals Park, just as he did his triple the night before and just as he did his double the night before that. Three straight games with extra-base hits to the opposite field. That's not bad.

That, in fact, is something manager Dusty Baker has been waiting to see for quite some time.

“That’s a good sign, that’s an excellent sign," Baker said. "When he’s hitting that ball to left field and not pulling everything or rolling over means staying on the ball and he’s staying through the zone. That’s a very good sign. He’s been heating up. We know the best is yet to come.”

In the 14 games since he returned, Harper is 21-for-54 (.389) with six doubles, 16 RBI and 11 runs. This is the best Harper has played in months and he's showing no signs of slowing down.

"I feel good. I think the balls are falling where they should," the Nats right fielder said. "It's nice to go into a game and score some runs and have some fun."

In these 14 games, Harper has raised his season average from .233 all the way to .254. It's almost certainly too late for him to repeat as NL MVP, but he's heating up at a good time with September right around the corner and the playoffs, if the Nats keep their current pace, right after that.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE NATIONALS STORIES

Quick Links

Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper is not one to back down when it comes to arguments with umpires, even after he's been ejected from a game and has time to cool down and collect his thoughts.

So, it should probably come as no surprise that on Saturday after he was tossed in the 10th inning of the Nats' loss to the Colorado Rockies, Harper referred to home plate umpire Mark Winters' called strike three as a "mistake." 

Here is Harper, in detail, on the call that led to him throwing his helmet to the ground and confronting Winters, who immediately sent him to the showers:

"You're in a game like that, 4-4 in the 10th, you get to a 2-2 count. He throws a pitch off the plate which they said was a strike, which was a ball. I was reading it all the way in. If you look at the tape, I was looking down at the ball the whole way into the glove and it was just, you know, it was off the plate. I could possibly see one more pitch and maybe hit a homer or a double or walk. I could even strike out. But I just wanted to see that last pitch and I never got there. It just shouldn't happen. Just bad [call] there. It's not a strike," he said.

"You don't want an umpire to make a mistake in that big of a situation. That's just not good. I wanted to see that last pitch. We could have possibly not played the 11th or the 12th or whatever. I mean, getting on base with [Anthony] Rendon behind me would have been huge as well, possibly could have stolen second, a ball hit to the ride side and you never know."

On if Harper regretted his actions, he did concede it was not a good time to be tossed, given the game was tied and the Nats had a chance to beat the Rockies.

"I know we had a short bench. I think going into it you don't ever want to get ejected," he said.

Manager Dusty Baker didn't offer a harsh assessment to Harper's ejection. He basically described it as just part of the game.

"Everybody blows up from time to time," he said. "These things happen. Especially it happens this time of year tempers are short. It’s hot, played a lot of games, been around the same people for a long period of time. This is the time of year when tempers do flare up.”

Outfielder Jayson Werth was brief in his comments on Harper. But did note how this isn't the first time for the reigning MVP. Harper has now been ejected from eight games in his career.

"I’ve been kicked out of one game my whole career. Bryce, on the other hand, has been kicked out of multiple," he said.

[RELATED: Harper ejected after arguing balls and strikes]

SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE NATIONALS STORIES