Red-hot Nats in rare company

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Red-hot Nats in rare company

PHOENIX -- The 70-win plateau shouldn't mean anything for a ballclub, but in the mostly unremarkable, 78-year history of Washington baseball, that figure has been reached only 37 times.

And only twice before had a D.C. baseball team gotten to the 70-win mark in 113 games or fewer: 1925 and 1933. The common thread between those two Senators clubs? They're the last two Washington teams to reach the World Series.

So the fact the Nationals joined that rare group Friday night with a 9-1 dismantling of the Diamondbacks speaks volumes about the quality of baseball being played by this team in 2012. Even if those inside the clubhouse insist they're still not getting caught up in the hysteria.

"That number's not important to me," manager Davey Johnson said. "What's important to me is how we play every day, and we're playing like I know we're capable of playing. We're not doing anything more, anything special. We're just playing within ourselves."

And when the Nationals do play within themselves, they rarely lose. They've opened the longest road trip of their season with five consecutive wins. Add two victories to close out their last homestand, and the Nats have now won seven straight.

At 70-43, they're nine games up in the wild-card race, four games up in the NL East, three games ahead of everyone else in the sport.

They're playing .644 ball on the road and have won 11 of their last 12 away from South Capitol Street.

Here's the real reality check: If they go 25-24 the rest of the way, the Nationals will still finish with 95 wins. If they merely go 20-29 from now through Oct. 3, they'll still win 90 games.

"I think we've got our blinders on right now, just playing," outfielder Michael Morse said. "A lot of us, including myself, we don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. This is uncharted waters for a lot of guys in here. We like what we're doing. We want to keep doing what we're doing."

So they emerged from the dugout at Chase Field Friday night and did just that, cruising to a blowout victory over a Diamondbacks club that is trying to keep itself in the NL pennant race.

This victory included six innings of one-hit ball from Stephen Strasburg, a start that probably sounds more dominant than it truly was because the right-hander battled some command issues and matched his season high with four walks while racking up 104 pitches.

Strasburg actually had a no-hitter in its infant stages with two outs in the bottom of the fourth when a foul tip caught Dale Scott square in the jaw, knocked off his mask and forced the veteran umpire out of the game. The ensuing nine-minute delay before C.B. Bucknor (who had been manning third base) was able to strap on his gear might have thrown a wrench into Strasburg's slim shot at a history-making start.

"It really affected him, and it's my fault," Johnson said. "I feel bad, because I should've known it was probably going to take 10 minutes, and I let him stand there. ... When I saw him go down, I should have said: 'Boys, come on off. This is going to take a while.'"

Strasburg tried to stay loose by throwing some warm-up pitches to Kurt Suzuki, but when play finally resumed with Bucknor now calling balls and strikes, Strasburg suffered his only hiccup of the evening. He walked Miguel Montero, then surrendered an RBI single to Chris Johnson.

"I've never experienced anything like that," Strasburg said. "I hope he's OK and everything. Unfortunately, it happens sometimes. I wish I went out there and threw strikes, but it just didn't work out. Just glad I was just able to give up one that inning."

Strasburg (13-5) not only didn't give up another run after that point, he didn't put another man on base. He retired seven in a row to complete a strong evening of work, battling through a stiff back that acted up when he tried to cover first base on a grounder to the right side.

By that point, the Nationals had given their starter a 4-1 lead thanks to home runs from Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse (the latter of which traveled 446 feet to right-center field, the longest opposite-field homer in the majors this season, according to ESPN's Hit Tracker).

Nine of Morse's 11 homers this season have been hit to either center or right fields.

"It's pretty impressive what he does," Zimmerman said. "The stuff he does is stuff that normal people don't usually do."

After a series of nailbiters in Houston that might have taken a few years off Johnson's life, the Nationals decided to make this one easy on their manager. They tacked on five late runs after Strasburg departed, including four in the top of the ninth that turned this game into a rout.

Thus this ballclub won for the 70th time in 113 games. There are still 49 games left to play, and much can happen during those seven remaining weeks.

But there are fewer and fewer opportunities for complete catastrophe to happen now. If they merely stay the course, the Nationals have positioned themselves to do something special in 2012.

"We're just getting to the fun time," Johnson said. "The only thing I think about numbers is when you get to a certain point where you can play .500 ball and still win 95 games. Then you're in pretty good shape."

Guess what, Davey? One more win and you're there.

Nationals starters are throwing more pitches per game this year

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Nationals starters are throwing more pitches per game this year

It's a question I've received numerous times this season on Twitter: are Nationals starters throwing too many pitches this season? The question has been posed so many times that it warrants a closer look. The internet makes all sorts of baseball data available these days and there is plenty out there regarding pitches, both in terms of quality and quantity.

For the Nationals (17-7), it is true that through 24 games this season they are allowing their starters to pitch longer in games than they did last season. But, though their pitch counts are up, there is no evidence to suggest what they are doing is out of the ordinary. 

First, here is a look at how Nationals starters rank by pitches per start:

Max Scherzer - 105.4
Stephen Strasburg - 102
Tanner Roark - 101.4
Joe Ross - 99*
Gio Gonzalez - 98.3

*excluding injury-shortened start on April 20

For Scherzer and Gonzalez, there is not much to see here. Scherzer is second in MLB in pitches thrown, but he's always near the top of the league in that category. He was seventh in total pitches in 2015, third in 2014 and 12th the year before that. 

Scherzer has averaged at least 100 P/GS for each of the last eight seasons. In 2014, his final year in Detroit, Scherzer posted a career-high of 110.2. That's much higher than anyone in the Nats' rotation is currently on track for.

Gonzalez has also logged high pitch counts in the past. He averaged 103.6 P/GS in 2013, his second year with the Nats, and put up a career-high of 106.5 in 2011, his final year in Oakland. Like Scherzer and many other pitchers, he has proven he can take the pounding of a high pitch count.

The rest of the Nats' rotation is up in the P/GS category from their career averages. Strasburg's career average is 92.7 and he's putting up about 10 more per start this season. But his career-high was 96.9 in 2014 and that's not far off from 100.

Roark has never averaged more than 100 before, but did post a career-high of 96.7 in 2014. And Ross has seen a significant increase from the 85.4 P/GS he held last season, but that number was kept in check to limit his workload as a rookie. 

For instance, Ross went six scoreless innings in his final start of 2015, yet was removed after just 77 pitches. His penultimate start saw him throw only 82 pitches despite going seven innings with one run allowed. What he's doing this year is more normal than what he was limited to last season.

The Nationals are letting their starters reach higher pitch counts this season, but not to an extreme degree, at least not yet. Could that change as the season goes on? Sure, teams often allow pitchers to stretch out as the season goes on. For now, though, it doesn't seem to be a real issue in Washington.

Scherzer rebounds as Nats complete sweep of Cardinals

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Scherzer rebounds as Nats complete sweep of Cardinals

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 6-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium: 

How it happened: Apparently all the Nationals and Max Scherzer needed to break out of their early season slump was to play on the road against a team that won 100 games the year before. 

Just like the Nationals' bats did in the two days prior, Scherzer found his groove in St. Louis on Sunday with seven shutout innings and zero walks in his best start of the season. The Nats' lineup got to Cardinals phenom Carlos Martinez late in his outing and Clint Robinson, Danny Espinosa and Chris Heisey homered as the Nats beat St. Louis 6-1 to secure their first sweep of the Cardinals since 2007 and their first ever sweep at Busch Stadium.

What it means: The Nats have considerable momentum with a three-game winning streak and a club record 17-7 start as they head to Kansas City to face the Royals. Playing the defending champs looked much more daunting before this weekend than it does now, as the Nats head to K.C. once again looking like one of the best teams in baseball.

Scherzer bounces back: Seeing Scherzer turn things around is a very positive sign for the Nationals who were waiting for their ace to fall in line with the rest of their rotation. Scherzer finally overcame his first inning woes to set the tone for a strong start overall. He escaped the first inning without allowing a run for just the second time in six starts this season. He ended up going seven shutout frames with nine strikeouts, zero walks and four hits allowed on 105 pitches. The right-hander dropped his season ERA all the way down to 3.55 as he now turns his attention to the Cubs whom he'll face in his next start at Wrigley Field.

Martinez cracks late: Martinez was locked in from the very first pitch and didn't allow a hit until Scherzer singled (one of his two hits on Sunday) with two outs in the third. Martinez was firing 98 mile per hour heat with a dazzling curveball to complement. The right-hander finally gave up a run in the sixth on a Matt den Dekker single and then served up back-to-back bombs to Robinson and Espinosa in the seventh. It took three times through their order, but the Nats figured out Martinez on this particular day. Espinosa, by the way, has two homers in his last three games.

Harper gets a Golden Sombrero: Mired in his first real slump of the season, Bryce Harper had major trouble against Martinez and the Cardinals. The Nats' slugger went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Sunday and is now hitless in his last 14 at-bats. Harper has just one hit in his last five games (17 ABs) and is now hitting .272 on the season. Harper hasn't struck out four times in a game since he was a rookie on Aug. 21, 2012.

Robinson's homer much-needed: Robinson earned a bench spot out of spring training after a breakout campaign in 2015, but the first baseman has been slow to heat up this season so far. He was just 1-for-21 on the year before his seventh inning homer. The homer, though, could be just what Robinson needs to get going. It was a two-run shot and it came off one of the NL's hottest pitchers.

Up next: The Nationals move on to Kansas City to take on the defending World Series champions in three games at Kauffman Stadium. Monday night is an 8:15 p.m. first pitch with Gio Gonzalez (1-1, 1.42) and Edinson Volquez (3-1, 3.34) set to start.

Wilson Ramos returns to Nationals, Severino sent to minors

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Wilson Ramos returns to Nationals, Severino sent to minors

Catcher Wilson Ramos has returned to the Nationals after spending five days on MLB's bereavement list due to the death of his grandfather Jesus Campos. Catcher Pedro Severino was sent back to Triple-A Syracuse to make room for Ramos.

Ramos, 28, returns to the Nats with a .316 average, two homers and eight RBI in 15 games this season. He has the second-best average on the team this season behind second baseman Daniel Murphy.

Ramos left the Nationals on April 26 after hearing of his grandfather's death. The Nationals' lineup struggled initially with Ramos out, but has since recovered to score 11 runs in their first two games at the St. Louis Cardinals. Ramos is not in the lineup Sunday as the Nats aim for a sweep.

Jose Lobaton has been filling in most for Ramos and on Monday Gio Gonzalez is set to pitch. Lobaton has caught Gonzalez exclusively so far this season.

Ramos caught Gonzalez 11 times last season out of 30 total starts. The combo produced a 4.52 ERA in 61 2/3 innings. Gonzalez held a 3.39 mark in 114 innings with Lobaton.

Gio has worked mostly with Lobaton since the catcher was acquired by the Nats before the 2014 season, but has been very good with both catchers in his career. He holds a career 3.25 ERA and .241 BAA with Lobaton and a 3.42 ERA and .247 BAA with Ramos.