Thursday, May 31, 2012

Nats Insider Party - June 14

Many of you who interact here on a daily basis have had the opportunity to meet each other, or me, over the last few seasons. But many have not, which is why Comcast SportsNet is organizing the first-ever official Nats Insider Party.

The event will take place on Thursday, June 14, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Penn Quarter Sports Tavern in the District. The Nats are off that night, so we'll have plenty of time to discuss the state of the team and how things are shaping up for the rest of the season.

Admission is free, there will be drink specials and there are rumors of door prizes as well. So please join me and CSN's Kelli Johnson on the 14th at Penn Quarter.

Get more information here.

LaRoche learns to take the bad with the good

US Presswire photo
Adam LaRoche's average has slipped from .336 to .287 in the last two weeks.
MIAMI -- There were times earlier in his career when Adam LaRoche would agonize over a prolonged rough stretch at the plate, feel like he needed to add 50 points to his batting average with every swing he took.

Times like the two-week stretch he's currently in, during which the Nationals first baseman has seen his batting average drop ... 49 points.

LaRoche insists he doesn't feel that way anymore.

"It's not the end of the world," he said yesterday afternoon at Marlins Park. "It won't be the last time it happens. But in no way do I feel lost, which I have in the past, where you're really searching for it. I'm still comfortable up there. I just need to find some holes."

Perhaps LaRoche took the first step toward getting over this mini-slump last night when he twice doubled during the Nationals' 5-3 loss to the

Rough end to tough road trip

Associated Press photo
Giancarlo Stanton clubbed another home run to lead the Marlins over the Nats.
MIAMI -- They entered this futuristic, psychedelic ballpark on Monday flying high as a kite, winners in five of the first six games of this key road trip and holding a season-high 2 1/2-game lead in the NL East.

By the time they packed their bags Wednesday night to head home, the Nationals were stinging from a sweep at hands of their longtime nemeses, their stranglehold on baseball's toughest division down to a mere 1/2-game following a 5-3 loss to the resurgent Marlins.

"It's definitely tough," left-hander Ross Detwiler said. "We hit a hot team at the wrong time."

Did they ever. A Miami club that appeared on the verge of self-inflicted implosion not long ago just completed the most-successful month in franchise history, going 21-8 in May. They've got one of the most-feared hitters in the game today in Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton and a deep

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Instant analysis: Marlins 5, Nats 3

Associated Press photo
Chien-Ming Wang was knocked out in the bottom of the fifth.
Game in a nutshell: Needing a big performance from Chien-Ming Wang to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Marlins, the Nationals instead got a ragged outing from the veteran right-hander in his first start of the season. Wang allowed 12 of the 22 batters he faced to reach safely and couldn't even record an out in the fifth before Ross Detwiler had to bail him out from the bullpen. That rough outing wasted some early production from the Nationals' lineup, which had taken a 3-1 lead on Josh Johnson in the top of the fourth. That unit, though, turned stone-cold silent the rest of the night, unable to rally and avoid a sweep at the hands of the Marlins, who now sit a mere 1/2-game behind the Nats in the NL East standings.

Hitting highlight: Slowly but surely, Danny Espinosa appears to be getting on track at the plate. Thanks in part to some advice from Davey Johnson, Espinosa now has multi-hit games in four of his last nine starts. He tripled to lead off the second inning tonight, nearly sending the ball over the very deep and very high fence in center field. Then he laced an RBI single in the fourth, adding to a solid evening for the

Morse could return Friday

MIAMI -- Having successfully made it through his first rehab game at Class A Potomac, Michael Morse could be on target to return to the Nationals lineup as soon as Friday.

Manager Davey Johnson said Morse (out since early March with a torn lat muscle) has been making throws from the outfield during pregame drills and will likely start in the outfield for Potomac tomorrow night after serving as designated hitter again tonight.

Morse made two plate appearances during last night's rain-shortened game in Woodbridge, walking once and striking out once.

"The timing's a little off, but other than that he feels fit and ready to go," Johnson said. "So his timetable will probably be [sped] up. We'll see how he does today and tomorrow, but he could be back in D.C.

Game 50: Nats at Marlins

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
It was pouring inside Marlins Park this afternoon.
MIAMI -- It's been eight months since Chien-Ming Wang last started a game for the Nationals, a 4-3 victory over the Braves in which the veteran right-hander allowed just one run over six innings. The Nats re-signed Wang for $4 million shortly after the season ended and expected him to open 2012 in their starting rotation.

Then Wang suffered a scary-looking hamstring injury during spring training, and those plans had to be revised. He finally returned from the disabled list last week in Philadelphia, made a long relief appearance Friday in Atlanta and tonight will make his much anticipated first start of the season in Miami.

Wang will be opposed by Josh Johnson, the designated ace of the Marlins staff who has pitched like anything but an ace so far this year (2-3, 4.87 ERA). On the other hand, Johnson has never lost to the Nationals in 14 career starts (7-0, 3.14 ERA).

Meanwhile, one night after doubling in his first career at-bat, Jhonatan Solano makes his debut behind the plate. Sadly, brother Donovan is not in Miami's lineup. Updates and analysis to come from Marlins Park (where it's currently pouring, with the roof wide open)...

Where: Marlins Park
Gametime: 7:10 p.m. EDT
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 186
Weather: Indoors
LF Steve Lombardozzi
CF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche

The Solanos' night to remember

Associated Press photo
The supremely proud Solano family: Myriam, Donovan, Jhonatan and Luis.
MIAMI -- Imagine the thoughts racing through Jhonatan Solano's mind as he stepped to the plate last night.

Twenty-four hours prior, he learned he was being called up by the Nationals, who were playing in Miami, where his brother Donovan happened to have been called up by the Marlins nine days earlier. Now the 26-year-old catcher was being summoned by manager Davey Johnson to pinch-hit with two outs in the top of the ninth against All-Star closer Heath Bell. With his brother watching from the other dugout. And with his parents (who flew in from Colombia earlier in the day to attend their first major-league game) watching from the stands.

Good luck dealing with all that, kid.

"Yeah, you know, it's a little pressure," Solano would say later. "There's a lot of people in the stadium, all my family here, all together. But I

Failures of execution doom Nats

Associated Press photo
Bryce Harper reacts to striking out with the bases loaded in the eighth.
MIAMI -- Among the many impressive traits Bryce Harper has shown during his first month in the big leagues has been an aversion to chasing pitches out of the strike zone, especially in big spots during ballgames.

Where some seasoned veterans have expanded their strike zone and let opposing pitchers get the best of them, the rookie has remained disciplined and unwilling to cave in.

And then came the eighth inning of Tuesday's 3-1 loss to the Marlins, when for a rare moment the 19-year-old actually looked like a 19-year-old at the plate.

Given an opportunity to hit with the bases loaded and one out during what was at that point a one-run game, Harper struck out on three pitches from Miami reliever Steve Cishek, the dagger a 93-mph fastball at his eyes. Ryan Zimmerman's subsequent fielder's choice officially

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Instant analysis: Marlins 3, Nats 1

US Presswire photo
Edwin Jackson allowed two runs over 6 2/3 innings.
Game in a nutshell: In their attempt to deal Anibal Sanchez a loss for the first time in 19 career starts against them, the Nationals came up short once again. They did lead 1-0 in the sixth behind Corey Brown's perfectly executed suicide squeeze (for his first career RBI). But Edwin Jackson served up an RBI double to Giancarlo Stanton in the sixth and committed a costly throwing error in the seventh that allowed the go-ahead run to score. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman couldn't come through with the bases loaded in the eighth, and Hanley Ramirez's 422-foot bomb off Craig Stammen sealed the deal for the Marlins, who secured the series victory.

Hitting lowlight: Rarely in his first month in the big leagues has Harper showed a poor approach at the plate and expanded his strike zone. But the 19-year-old picked a bad time to look like a 19-year-old at last. With the bases loaded and one out in the eighth, Harper struck out on three pitches from reliever Steve Cishek. The last pitch was a high fastball, well out of the strike zone, but Harper chased it. That

Tracy needs surgery for groin tear

US Presswire photo
Chad Tracy leads the major leagues with nine pinch-hit RBI.
MIAMI -- They've already lost, at various points this season, their starting catcher, first baseman, third baseman, left fielder, right fielder, fifth starter, closer, backup closer, backup catcher, third-string catcher and utilityman. Now the Nationals can add their top pinch-hitter to their never-ending list of injured players.

Chad Tracy will have surgery Thursday to repair a torn groin muscle, the club announced this evening, the latest crushing blow to a Nationals team that somehow remains in first place despite the injuries.

"I've never seen anything like it," manager Davey Johnson said. "It's kind of weird. But that's a tribute to the makeup of this ballclub and this organization. There's a lot of capable guys that we're going give an opportunity, and the're going to run with it."

Tracy will miss at least six-to-eight weeks, perhaps more, while recovering from surgery to repair a tear in the same area he was

Game 49: Nats at Marlins

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Edwin Jackson faces Anibal Sanchez tonight at Marlins Park.
MIAMI -- Over the last seven seasons, the Nationals have had 18 chances to beat Anibal Sanchez. And they're 0-for-18 against the Marlins right-hander. Perhaps the 19th time will be the charm.

Sanchez (7-0, 2.10 ERA in those 18 starts) will be on the mound tonight at Marlins Park, facing a Nationals club that would certainly like to bounce back from yesterday's 5-3 loss and avoid clinching only their fourth series loss of the season (they previously lost to the Dodgers, Pirates and Orioles). Edwin Jackson, who despite his 3.38 ERA this season remarkably has only one win (that complete-game, two-hitter against the Reds), gets the start for Davey Johnson.

The Nationals will have a new player on their bench, Jhonatan Solano, who becomes the fifth different catcher on the roster already this year. And, in a nice twist of fate, Solano's brother Donovan was just called up by the Marlins last week.

Updates and analysis to come, so please check back...

Where: Marlins Park
Gametime: 7:10 p.m. EDT
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 184
Weather: Indoors
2B Steve Lombardozzi
RF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche

Harper, Zimmerman lead offensive surge

US Presswire photo
Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman each have been swinging a hot bat.
MIAMI -- Don't look now, but the Nationals are actually scoring runs in bunches. A lineup that not long ago featured more black holes than a Carl Sagan novel is starting to produce in a manner more befitting a first-place club.

Over the season's first 40 games, the Nationals averaged a scant 3.6 runs. Over their last eight games, they've raised that average to 5.2 runs.

So, what's been the biggest difference? It's not necessarily what you might expect. The Nationals aren't producing that many more hits (8.6 per game during this stretch vs. 8.2 during the season's first quarter). And they're actually reaching base with less frequency (posting a .314 on-base percentage during this stretch vs. a .315 mark prior to it).

No, the reason the Nationals are scoring more runs these days is that they're hitting for more power.

Through games 1-40, they averaged only 2.8 extra-base hits, a pretty paltry total. Since then, they're averaging 3.9 extra-base hits. That

Monday, May 28, 2012

Two bad pitches, one tough loss

US Presswire photo
Jordan Zimmermann gave up four runs, three in the bottom of the sixth.
MIAMI -- He threw 98 pitches for the afternoon, most of them quality pitches that held the Marlins' potent lineup in check. Jordan Zimmermann, though, couldn't get past those two wayward sliders he served up on a tee to Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton in the bottom of the sixth inning.

"I mean, two pitches is what it comes down to for me," Zimmermann said. "Two bad pitches, and it cost me the game."

Yes, the Nationals did have other opportunities to avoid a 5-3, Memorial Day loss to Miami. They were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position, the lone hit coming on Ryan Zimmerman's two-run double in the fifth off Carlos Zambrano. They went 0-for-8 against the Marlins bullpen. And they let Jose Reyes hustle his way to an insurance run in the seventh.

But those two sliders from Zimmermann in the sixth probably defined this game, and they certainly stuck in everyone's craw well after the

Moore to Syracuse, Solano coming up

MIAMI -- Desperately in need of another healthy catcher, the Nationals optioned outfielder/first baseman Tyler Moore to Class AAA Syracuse following today's game and made plans to get Jhonatan Solano to Miami in time for tomorrow night's game against the Marlins.

Though they played today with only one healthy catcher in Carlos Maldonado, and though they believe Jesus Flores (who strained his right hamstring last night in Atlanta) should be ready to return in a matter of days, the Nationals decided not to take any chances and promote Solano.

"I would hate for him to pull a hamstring or something by me rushing him back in the lineup," manager Davey Johnson said following a 5-3 loss to Miami. "Just had to make that move. I didn't see any other way to safeguard. ... If you pull it a little bit and then you injure it, you're out a long time. We can't afford that."

The 26-year-old Solano will make his big-league debut, and he'll do so on the same field with his younger brother Donovan, called up by the

Instant analysis: Marlins 5, Nats 3

US Presswire photo
Giancarlo Stanton's two-run homer off Jordan Zimmermann tied the game in the sixth.
Game in a nutshell: Running on fumes after an early-morning flight from Atlanta to Miami, the Nationals came out of the gates strong, taking an early 3-1 lead behind a two-run double from Ryan Zimmerman and the first career home run from Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann also cruised through his first five innings on the mound. Then he hit a wall in the sixth. He served up a two-run bomb to Giancarlo Stanton, then let the go-ahead run score on two more hits and a sacrifice fly. The Nationals couldn't rally late against Carlos Zambrano or the Marlins bullpen.

Hitting highlight: You knew it was only a matter of time before Ryan Zimmerman started getting hot at the plate. Sure enough, the Face of the Franchise is starting to show signs of it. His two-run double

Flores improving, Morse getting close

MIAMI -- Jesus Flores says his right hamstring is feeling "much better" today than it did last night when the Nationals catcher had to depart his team's game in Atlanta while running the bases.

Flores is not in the Nationals' lineup today against the Marlins, but he's hoping he could return to play tomorrow night. Manager Davey Johnson, though, says he'll take a more cautious route and would play backup Carlos Maldonado for this entire series if needed to ensure Flores is totally healed for the long haul.

"He was feeling a lot better today, but I'll monitor that closely because of how many catchers we've had go down here," Johnson said. "I don't need another one going down, even if I have to hold him out until Friday. So that'll be played daily."

The Nationals have already lost starting catcher Wilson Ramos for the season with a torn ACL. Rookie Sandy Leon, summoned from Class AA Harrisburg to take Ramos' roster spot, landed on the disabled list

Tracy to DL, Brown called up

MIAMI -- A Nationals club already plagued by countless injuries added another key player to the disabled list today: Chad Tracy.

The veteran corner infielder and baseball's best pinch-hitter so far this season was placed on the 15-day DL with a right groin strain and will travel to Philadelphia tomorrow to be examined by the doctor that performed double sports hernia surgery in the same area in November.

Thus, the Nationals have another new player in uniform for today's series opener against the Marlins, having purchased the contract of outfielder Corey Brown from Class AAA Syracuse. (Because Brown needed to be added to the 40-man roster, the Nationals transferred outfielder Jayson Werth from the 15-day DL to the 60-day DL to clear space.)

Tracy hurt himself running out a double during Saturday's game in Atlanta, then revealed that he had the hernia surgery during the offseason. The 32-year-old is 6-for-18 with an MLB-leading nine RBI as a pinch-hitter.

The Nationals are hopeful Tracy won't need another surgery in the area, one that would sideline him for several months, and that he merely

Game 48: Nats at Marlins

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
The Nats make their first appearance at Marlins Park this afternoon.
MIAMI -- Hello, for the first time, from Marlins Park, home of the bullpen bar with dancing girls, the lime green outfield fence, the fish tank in the backstop and the home run thingamajig. Photos truly cannot do this thing justice. It is massive.

Perhaps it's a good thing the Nationals are a bit loopy this morning after their short turnaround from last night's game in Atlanta. Said Davey Johnson: "I feel like I flew from Beijing to Miami." Guys are in a good mood, though, helped by the fact they just swept the Braves.

There's a new face in the clubhouse as well. Outfielder Corey Brown had his contract purchased from Class AAA Syracuse (where he led the team with 12 homers, five of them over his last five games). Chad Tracy, meanwhile, has been placed on the 15-day DL with a groin injury; he'll fly to Philadelphia tomorrow to be examined but could miss significant time. To make room on the 40-man roster for Brown, Jayson Werth has been transferred to the 60-day DL. Jesus Flores, meanwhile, says his right hamstring feels much better, and he hopes to be able to catch tomorrow night.

It's Jordan Zimmermann vs. Carlos Zambrano on this Memorial Day. Live updates and analysis to come...

Where: Marlins Park
Gametime: 1:10 p.m. EDT
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 186
Weather: Indoors
LF Steve Lombardozzi
RF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Game 47: Nats at Braves

US Presswire file photo
The Nats try to pull off a sweep on Sunday Night Baseball from Turner Field.
This scenario may sound a bit familiar: The Nationals have taken the first two games from a division rival in convincing fashion and now have an opportunity to sweep the series in front of a nationally televised audience. Yes, we've seen this one before. Perhaps the outcome will be different this time around, considering the Nats have had nine previous opportunities to sweep a series and have yet to pull it off.

You couldn't ask for a better pitching matchup for Sunday Night Baseball, with Gio Gonzalez (6-1, 1.98) facing Brandon Beachy (5-2, 1.77). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's the first time two pitchers with sub-2.00 ERAs and sub-.200 opponents' batting averages and at least 50 innings pitched have met each other since 1985. Wow.

I'll actually be en route from Washington to Miami for the first portion of the game, the only way I could get down there in time for tomorrow afternoon's Memorial Day game against the Marlins. Until then, enjoy the proceedings and the conversation here as always...

Where: Turner Field
Gametime: 8:05 p.m. EDT
Radio: WWXT (92.7 FM), WWXX (94.3 FM), WJFK (106.7 FM), WTEM (980 AM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 89
Weather: Clear, 83 degrees, Wind 8 mph in from RF
LF Steve Lombardozzi
RF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Game 46: Nats at Braves

File photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Stephen Strasburg looks to pitch the Nats to another win at Turner Field.
How big was last night's win for the Nationals? Well, they scored seven runs off Tim Hudson for the first time ever. And Ryan Zimmerman delivered his biggest hit of a the season (a three-run double after Hudson pitched around 19-year-old Bryce Harper). And Chien-Ming Wang earned the victory in his season debut (and perhaps pushed Ross Detwiler to the bullpen in the process).

More significant than all that, though, was the fact the Nationals extended their lead over the Braves to two games. Which means even in a worst-case scenario, they'll still be tied atop the NL East come Monday. Which would really represent a worst-case scenario, because they now get to send Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez to the mound the next two nights.

Can't ask for a situation much more advantageous than that. It begins at 4:05 p.m. today when Strasburg gets the nod against struggling left-hander Mike Minor (0-3, 10.46 ERA over his last five starts). As you know, I'm not in Atlanta this weekend, so please enjoy the conversation among yourself again...

Where: Turner Field
Gametime: 4:05 p.m. EDT
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 185
Weather: Partly cloudy, 91 degrees, Wind 8 mph in from LF
2B Danny Espinosa
CF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche

Friday, May 25, 2012

Game 45: Nats at Braves

US Presswire file photo
The Nats open a big weekend series tonight at Turner Field.
In his seemingly never-ending quest to find a competent left fielder -- not to mention a competent leadoff man -- Davey Johnson's roulette wheel has stopped on Steve Lombardozzi. The rookie infielder has made a strong case for himself, both at the plate (he's hitting .317 with a .385 on-base percentage) and in the field (he's made a couple of nice plays while learning the outfield on the fly).

So tonight, in the opener of perhaps their biggest series of the season to date, the Nationals will have Lombardozzi in left field and leading off for the third time in four games. It worked twice in Philadelphia; might as well give it a shot in Atlanta.

It'll take a strong offensive performance from the Nats' lineup, top to bottom, to beat Tim Hudson (owner of a 13-3 record and 2.09 ERA in his career against them). And it'll take a strong start from Ross Detwiler (who has allowed 10 earned runs over his last 10 innings).

Unfortunately, I'm not in Atlanta for this weekend showdown, but I will be in Miami starting Monday for the Nationals' first series at Marlins Park. Until then, enjoy the big game and the conversation...

Where: Turner Field
Gametime: 7:35 p.m. EDT
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 184
Weather: Partly cloudy, 86 degrees, Wind 1 mph in from RF
LF Steve Lombardozzi
RF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche

One big series down, a bigger one next

US Presswire file photo
Ian Desmond and the Nats face Dan Uggla and the Braves in a big weekend series.
Yes, this week's series in Philadelphia was important for the Nationals, who took two of three from the Phillies and made another statement about the shifting balance of power in the NL East.

But all along, there's been an even bigger series on the horizon, one that opens tonight in Atlanta when the Nationals face a Braves club that has spent the last two weeks swapping spots with them atop the division.

Even Davey Johnson recognized this when he insisted Ryan Zimmerman sit out Tuesday's game at Citizens Bank Park with a sore shoulder.

"We can lose this battle, but I need you for three games in Atlanta," the manager told his star third baseman. "They're the ones on top, and we

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Flawed, but still winning

US Presswire photo
Danny Espinosa has struggled all season, but Ian Desmond has come up big.
Look up and down the Nationals' team stats page -- ignoring their 26-18 record -- and try to come away convinced this is a first-place club. It's not easy.

Yes, the starting rotation continues to excel, with a 2.71 ERA and ridiculously good 3.68-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But that pitching dominance has overshadowed some other obvious flaws on this roster.

The starting second baseman has an embarrassingly low .649 OPS, and the starting center fielder isn't much better at .673. Yet the numbers at those positions look All-Star worthy when compared to the stats Nationals left fielders have collectively put up this season: a .153 batting average, .240 on-base percentage and .245 slugging percentage that adds up to a .485 OPS.

Meanwhile, the Face of the Franchise and star third baseman has only eight extra-base hits while hitting .167 with runners in scoring position. The shortstop has a .299 on-base percentage. And the new starting

Hamels handles Harper, Nats

Associated Press photo
Cole Hamels tossed eight scoreless innings to improve to 7-1 this season.
PHILADELPHIA -- Lost amid the intentional plunking, the acknowledgement of the intentional plunking and the backlash that followed the intentional plunking was one minor fact.

Cole Hamels is good. Really good.

"He's one the best pitchers in baseball," Bryce Harper said. "He's 7-1 for a reason."

Hamels is indeed 7-1 now thanks to another dominant performance against the Nationals Wednesday night, resulting in a 4-1 victory for the Phillies.

While everyone else wanted to see what would happen when Hamels and Harper squared off for the first time since their emotionally charged encounter on national television 2 1/2 weeks ago, the Philadelphia

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Instant analysis: Phillies 4, Nats 1

Associated Press photo
Ian Desmond tags out Hunter Pence on a stolen-base attempt.
Game in a nutshell: Seeking their first sweep of a three-game series this season for the ninth time, the Nationals once again came up short. And this one stung a little more because of the man on the mound for the Phillies: Cole Hamels. A couple of weeks removed from his headline-making, suspension-inducing start at Nationals Park, the left-hander dominated the NL East leaders. Hamels carried a no-hitter into the sixth and departed after eight scoreless. Edwin Jackson tried to keep things close but was done in by some early struggles and wound up taking the loss. Adam LaRoche delivered a solo homer off Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth, but it was too little, too late. On this night, Hamels rose above the rest.

Hitting lowlight: Tough to find highlights when you're completely shut down by the opposition. The Nationals did squat against Hamels for five innings, managing only three walks and no hits against the lefty. And even once they did get something going in the sixth, they found a way to not score. Danny Espinosa's leadoff double broke up the no-hitter, and Bryce Harper's single to right kept things going. But Espinosa (with third-base coach Bo Porter waving him around) tried to score and was

Morse, Lidge targeting early-June return

PHILADELPHIA -- Michael Morse is already rehabbing at the Nationals' extended spring training complex in Viera, Fla. and is set to begin playing in games Friday. Brad Lidge will join his teammate there tomorrow as each injured player seeks to rejoin the active roster in early-June.

Morse, out since Opening Day with a torn right lat muscle, will begin playing in games in Viera on Friday, according to manager Davey Johnson. The left fielder expects to appear in three games in Florida over the weekend, then go on a rehab assignment with one of the Nationals' minor-league affiliates next week.

Johnson said Morse will come off the disabled list no later than June 8, when the Nationals open an interleague series in Boston.

"That for sure," the manager said. "There's some people thinking it might be accelerated ahead of that. But we'll wait and see. We'll wait and see how he comes out of Friday's game."

The only question all along with Morse has been his ability to throw; the injury doesn't affect his swing at all. Thus, the team will be most

Game 44: Nats at Phillies

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
The Nats try to make it seven in a row at Citizens Bank Park.
PHILADELPHIA -- Cole Hamels faces the Nationals tonight. The last time Cole Hamels faced the Nationals ... well, you know what happened. Will there be any carryover tonight? The hunch here is that there won't be. Hamels clearly realizes he woke up a sleeping giant with his intentional plunking of Bryce Harper. And the Nats seem to realize they're much better off exacting their revenge on the scoreboard.

So they'll be going for their 10th win in their last 11 games against the Phillies, their seventh straight at Citizens Bank Park and their first three-game sweep of the season. They've actually had eight previous opportunities this season to finish off a sweep of a two-, three- or four-game series and have failed to do it each time. This will be opportunity No. 9.

The good news is the Nationals will have Ryan Zimmerman back in the lineup and at third base after he was held out by Davey Johnson last night with a recurrence of soreness in his right shoulder. In a bit of a surprise, Johnson isn't stacking his lineup with right-handed hitters against Hamels, though he tried a similar thing last time, citing the effectiveness of Hamels' changeup against righties.

A friendly reminder that tonight's game will be on ESPN2 ... but you can only watch that broadcast if you live outside the MASN viewing area. Live updates and analysis to come, so please check back...

Where: Citizens Bank Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, ESPN2 (outside D.C. area)
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 183
Weather: Scattered storms, 74 degrees, Wind 5 mph out to LF
2B Danny Espinosa
RF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche

Clippard gets his opportunity to close

US Presswire photo
Tyler Clippard recorded his second career save with a 1-2-3 ninth inning.
PHILADELPHIA -- Rarely does Tyler Clippard get the opportunity to watch the Nationals celebrate a victory in person, let alone be at the center of such a celebration on the field. Such is life for a setup man, who upon handing over the game to his closer heads down the dugout tunnel to ice his arm and watch the ninth inning on TV.

"Usually when I pitch the eighth, I just come to the clubhouse and we just do this," Clippard said, making a high-five motion to no one in particular. "It's a lot more fun out on the field."

Something the Nationals reliever finally got to experience last night. Summoned by manager Davey Johnson to pitch the ninth inning with a three-run lead, Clippard made quick work of the Phillies and then got to receive high-fives from everyone on the Nationals' roster following the 5-2 victory.

Might we see this scene play out more moving forward? Earlier in the day, Clippard made an impassioned case for himself as the Nationals'

Bryce's Broad Street beatdown

US Presswire photo
Bryce Harper connects for a third-inning triple off Roy Halladay.
PHILADELPHIA -- It was early March in Viera, Fla., when Bryce Harper and Rick Eckstein were chatting around the batting cage at the Nationals' spring training complex, talking about how to approach certain big-league pitchers. Harper brought up one prominent NL East hurler in particular, and stunned his hitting coach with his intimate understanding of a pitcher he'd never actually seen in person.

"This is what he's going to do," Harper told Eckstein that morning. "And when he does it, this is where it's gonna go."

The pitcher in question was Roy Halladay. And when finally presented the opportunity to face the two-time Cy Young Award winner Tuesday night, Harper stepped to the plate knowing exactly what to expect from the Phillies ace.

"I've been watching him for about three years," the 19-year-old outfielder said. "He throws a first-pitch curveball to so many people, and they just let it get over the plate. So I was just really trying to get something up in that situation and get something going. We had two

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Zimmerman scratched with sore shoulder

Updated at 11:09 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Zimmerman was scratched from the Nationals' lineup less than an hour before first pitch of tonight's game against the Phillies after telling manager Davey Johnson his right shoulder was sore.

Though Zimmerman insisted he could play, Johnson insisted his star third baseman take the night off. The manager said Zimmerman would return to the lineup for tomorrow's series finale at Citizens Bank Park.

"He wanted to play," Johnson said following a 5-2 victory. "I said: 'Let's just let the thing calm down. We're in a war here. We can lose this battle, but I need you for three games in Atlanta.' They're the ones on top, and we need to put our best foot forward down there. Not that I'm slighting this club, but if we've got a chance to nip this thing in the bud, I'm nipping it in the bud."

Zimmerman spent two weeks on the disabled list earlier this season with inflammation in the AC joint of that shoulder but returned on May 8 and had been swinging a potent bat in recent days. Over his last five

Instant analysis: Nats 5, Phillies 2

US Presswire photo
Danny Espinosa congratulates Bryce Harper upon scoring in the third inning.
Game in a nutshell: What looked like a guaranteed, low-scoring, pitchers' duel at the beginning of the night turned upside-down almost as soon as the game began. A Nationals lineup that was without Ryan Zimmerman -- a late scratch for unannounced reasons -- pounced on Roy Halladay for four runs in the third inning, with Bryce Harper tripling and Ian Desmond clubbing his team-leading eighth home run. Rick Ankiel added a solo homer in the fourth to give the Nats five runs off Halladay for the first time since 2003 (when he pitched for the Blue Jays and they were the Expos). Handed a rare lead, Jordan Zimmermann then gutted his way through six innings before handing things over to the bullpen, which closed out the game, with Tyler Clippard earning only the second save of his career. Thus, the Nationals beat the Phillies for the ninth time in 10 games and earned their sixth straight win at Citizens Bank Park.

Hitting highlight: Who's scared to stand in there against Halladay? Certainly not Harper. The kid went right after the two-time Cy Young Award winner, singling in his first at-bat and then crushing a two-run triple in his second. The crowd of 45,569, which had given Harper a

Nats going with closer-by-committee

Associated Press photo
Henry Rodriguez has an 8.38 ERA and three blown saves in his last 12 appearances.
PHILADELPHIA -- One night after another near-meltdown in the ninth inning, Henry Rodriguez is being moved out of the Nationals' closer role, with manager Davey Johnson saying he'll instead use a committee of relievers in that spot.

"Henry has been great, he's been not-so-great," Johnson said before tonight's game against the Phillies. "I think he might be trying too hard. Probably change his role, put him in a little less-demanding role, try to get him back on track."

Thrust into the closer's role after both Drew Storen and Brad Lidge succumbed to injuries, Rodriguez opened the season with five consecutive saves converted and zero earned runs allowed. But in 12 appearances since, his ERA sits at 8.38 and he's blown three save opportunities.

That doesn't include two games in the last week in which Rodriguez has gotten himself into a jam and had to be bailed out by teammate Sean

Game 43: Nats at Phillies

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Jordan Zimmermann faces Roy Halladay tonight at Citizens Bank Park.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Nationals always have trouble scoring runs for Jordan Zimmermann, right? Well, they're in luck tonight, because the man on the mound opposing Zimmermann will be the very hittable ... Roy Halladay. Good luck with that.

Actually, Halladay hasn't pitched quite up to his usual standards this season; he enters this game with a pedestrian 3.22 ERA (though that number plummets to 2.29 if you throw out the right-hander's eight-run fiasco at Atlanta earlier this month).

Point is, the Nationals have their work cut out for them tonight. Davey Johnson will stick with the same lineup that last night produced two runs against Kyle Kendrick: Steve Lombardozzi leading off in left field, Ian Desmond hitting fifth, Danny Espinosa hitting sixth. Zimmermann, meanwhile, will hope to do his thing against a Phillies lineup that remains without Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins (the latter of which was placed on MLB's paternity leave list today).

Updates to come, so please check back often...

Where: Citizens Bank Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 189
Weather: Chance of storms, 74 degrees, Wind 6 mph out to LF
LF Steve Lombardozzi
RF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman 3B Chad Tracy
1B Adam LaRoche

Mattheus to DL, Wang activated

PHILADELPHIA -- The Nationals will place reliever Ryan Mattheus on the 15-day disabled list with plantar fasciitis in his left foot and activate right-hander Chien-Ming Wang from the DL before tonight's game against the Phillies, according to a club source.

Wang will be available to pitch out of the bullpen tonight, though he'd likely be able to throw only one inning three days after a 5 2/3-inning rehab start for Class AAA Syracuse.

Mattheus left the club this morning to visit a foot specialist in Baltimore after aggravating the condition, which he said had been bothering him for several weeks. Even if the injury requires surgery, the reliever said he's been told he could return in only two weeks.

The Nationals intended for Wang to make one more minor-league rehab start before activating him off the DL. Out since mid-March with a hamstring injury, the veteran was allowed to remain on his 30-day rehab assignment until Sunday.

Wang, though, was already scheduled to be at Citizens Bank Park today to throw a bullpen session in front of coaches. Rather than send him

On Desmond, Stammen and Harper

PHILADELPHIA -- We kind of got caught up in the ninth-inning drama from last night's game, and if you're interested in even more discussion about Henry Rodriguez and what the Nationals are going to do with their closer's role now, I would encourage you to watch the above video.

But there were plenty of other significant developments that played out during the 2-1 win over the Phillies, and we wouldn't want to ignore those altogether. So let's run through the other hot postgame topics of discussion...

-- Ian Desmond once again produced at the plate. With a second-inning homer (his seventh of the season) and a fourth-inning RBI single, he wound up driving in both of the Nationals' runs. Desmond seems to have taken quite well to the fifth spot in this new-look lineup -- he's 5-for-13 with three doubles, a homer and four RBI -- and he certainly seems comfortable as a middle-of-the-lineup hitter.

The third-year shortstop had an interesting explanation for his sudden

Sigh of relief

US Presswire photo
Sean Burnett bailed out Henry Rodriguez by recording the game's final two outs.
PHILADELPHIA -- For most relievers, the sight of a closer trotting out from the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning of a tight game brings with it a sense of calm.

"You bring in the closer and everybody's like: Whew," Craig Stammen said. "Take a little break."

These days, when Henry Rodriguez takes the mound for the ninth inning, the rest of the Nationals bullpen stands at the ready, knowing it may not be long before someone else's services are needed.

Monday night, it took only two wayward Rodriguez pitches before the phone rang inside the visitors pen at Citizens Bank Park. Sean Burnett immediately sprang into action.

"Once the phone rings," the left-hander said, "it's go time."

So for the second time in a week, Burnett was summoned to bail out Rodriguez. And for the second time in a week, he pulled it off, this time preserving a 2-1 victory over the Phillies.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mattheus could miss 2 weeks

Updated at 11:32 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Mattheus has plantar fasciitis in his left foot, an injury that could sideline the Nationals reliever as much as two weeks. The right-hander will leave the team and head to Baltimore Tuesday to be evaluated by a foot specialist.

Mattheus doesn't believe the injury is all that serious. The foot has been bothering him for about two weeks and may have been further aggravated while running prior to Monday's game. Mattheus received an X-ray, which showed no fractures.

The specialist will determine whether Mattheus needs surgery to repair the plantar fascia. Even if that happens, the recovery time is only two weeks.

Meanwhile, Brad Lidge threw from 180 feet this afternoon and is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Wednesday before heading to the Nationals' extended spring training complex in Viera, Fla. The veteran reliever is targeting June 15 for a return from the DL.

Chase Hughes, who is here in Philadelphia with yours truly, has the full story on both Mattheus and Lidge on

Instant analysis: Nats 2, Phillies 1

US Presswire photo
Ian Desmond homered and drove in another run with a single.
Game in a nutshell: In the second of six head-to-head series against their fiercest division rivals, the Nationals seized control and didn't let it go (despite a very tense bottom of the ninth). Ian Desmond clubbed a second-inning homer off Kyle Kendrick to put the Nats up 1-0, then delivered an RBI single two innings later to make it 2-0. Gio Gonzalez and the bullpen then took care of matters from there. Gonzalez was dominant from the outset, tossing six scoreless innings and striking out nine. Craig Stammen then churned out two innings in the setup role. Henry Rodriguez tried to finish it off, but the erratic closer was yanked after issuing a walk, a single and two wild pitches. Sean Burnett was forced to enter and bail the Nats out, which he did in impressive fashion.

Hitting highlight: Has Desmond found a home in the 5-hole? It sure looks that way. Since getting moved out of the leadoff spot, he's 5-for-13 with three doubles, a homer and four RBI. His solo blast off Kendrick in the second was his seventh of the season, tying Adam LaRoche for the team lead. And his fourth-inning single drove in Bryce Harper with the game's only other run. Would Davey Johnson keep Desmond in that 5-spot after Michael Morse returns to the lineup in a couple weeks? It seems unlikely. But the guy certainly is producing

Strasburg will make next start

PHILADELPHIA -- Stephen Strasburg will make his next scheduled start Saturday in Atlanta, with the Nationals showing no concern about the state of their ace's right arm one day after he was pulled with what manager Davey Johnson termed tightness in his biceps.

Johnson said today he sought more of an explanation from Strasburg and pitching coach Steve McCatty and emerged with no reason to be concerned.

"I was trying to get to the bottom of it, but it's just not worth proceeding," the manager said before tonight's game against the Phillies. "He's going to make his next start, that's all I know."

Strasburg threw 90 pitches over five innings Sunday against the Orioles, retiring the last 10 batters he faced (seven via strikeout). Afterward, Johnson revealed the 23-year-old noted some arm discomfort, and

Game 42: Nats at Phillies

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Citizens Bank Park welcomes (or something like that) the Nats to town tonight.
PHILADELPHIA -- Hello from the City of Brotherly Love, which probably won't be directing much love toward the visiting team tonight. Not that the Nationals would have it any other way. For perhaps the first time in eight seasons of existence, the Phillies and their fans are taking the Nats seriously. Nothing wrong with that, as long as everyone keeps things clean.

Bryce Harper surely will be the subject of plenty of vitriol, though I'm not sure he's done anything yet to warrant it. We'll see if the kid can once again channel his emotions into something positive on the field.

Harper is batting in what has become his now-regular No. 2 spot in the lineup. He'll be hitting behind Steve Lombardozzi, who gets the chance to leadoff again and play ... left field. How's that for a surprise? Danny Espinosa (who homered and doubled yesterday) will be at second base, batting sixth.

Gio Gonzalez takes the mound against Kyle Kendrick. The forecast is spotty, so check back for weather and game updates throughout...

Where: Citizens Bank Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 183
Weather: Rain, 69 degrees, Wind 7 mph RF to LF
LF Steve Lombardozzi
RF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche

What awaits Nats in Philly?

US Presswire photo
Bryce Harper figures to get a rude welcome from the fans in Philadelphia tonight.
Fresh off an eventful weekend series against their biggest interleague rivals, the Nationals tonight open another important series against their biggest division rivals.

And if you thought the scene at Nationals Park two weeks ago when the Phillies came to town was wild, imagine what the folks at Citizens Bank Park might have in store for the Nats over the next three nights.

"Hopefully I get a couple boos," Bryce Harper said yesterday. "That'd be awesome. I'm excited to get up there and play, and hopefully they don't throw any batteries or whatnot at me."

Whether the Philly faithful give Harper the old J.D. Drew batteries treatment, or whether they elect to go the "whatnot" route instead, the 19-year-old outfielder surely will be the center of attention of a series

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Once again, Strasburg all business

Associated Press photo
A crowd of 41,918 got Stephen Strasburg to take a curtain call after homering.
Perhaps one of these days -- when he throws a no-hitter or throws the final pitch of a pennant-clinching victory for the Nationals -- Stephen Strasburg will offer up the kind of display of emotion few have ever seen from him.

For now, there's very little that can happen on the field to break through the stone-faced visage of a 23-year-old right-hander who expects the very best from himself and isn't about to publicly celebrate his accomplishments.

Strike out seven of 10 batters over a four-inning stretch? Nothing. Club the first home run of your career and be summoned by an overflow crowd of 41,918 for a curtain call? Just give a quick tip of the cap. Find out your manager revealed you were were dealing with some kind of arm trouble? The exterior expression still doesn't change.

"I just think that's his thing," teammate Danny Espinosa said. "He doesn't show emotion, and that's good. If things are going good or bad, there's no emotion shown, which to me is an even-keeled guy."

Instant analysis: Nats 9, Orioles 3

US Presswire photo
Stephen Strasburg tossed five innings ... and hit his first career homer.
Game in a nutshell: Desperately in need of a win after dropping three straight, the last two to the Orioles, the Nationals dug themselves into another early hole, down 3-0 after a series of defensive miscues. Then Stephen Strasburg took matters into his own hands. Not to mention his bat. With a fourth-inning bomb into the left-field bullpen, Strasburg delivered his first career home run and sent the crowd of 41,918 into a frenzy. The right-hander also turned things up a notch on the mound, retiring the last 10 batters he faced, seven via strikeout, to improve to 4-1 for the season and send the Orioles back up the B-W Parkway with a lopsided loss.

Hitting highlight: Sure, Bryce Harper's two-run triple was nice. So was Jesus Flores' solo homer. And so was Danny Espinosa's two-run homer. But who are we kidding here. The hitting highlight of the came from none other than Strasburg, who electrified the crowd with his fourth-

Game 41: Orioles at Nats

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
The Nats try to avoid a disheartening sweep against the Orioles this afternoon.
Remember all those close games the Nationals were winning? Yeah, not so much anymore. In dropping the first two games of this series to the Orioles by scores of 2-1 and 6-5, the Nats have lost their first two one-run games at home this season. They had been 8-0 at Nationals Park. Overall, they've gone 4-7 in their last 11 one-run contests after opening the season 6-1 in those ultra-close ballgames.

If they are to reverse that trend today (and salvage one game from this Battle of the Beltways series) they'll both need Stephen Strasburg to bounce back from his shaky start against the Padres -- here's guessing he avoids all ointments, creams and other topical medications this morning -- and their lineup to produce early against Orioles left-hander Wie-Yin Chen.

Not wanting to tinker too much with the reconfigured lineup he used last night, Davey Johnson is sticking with his second baseman as his leadoff man. That man, however, is not Steve Lombardozzi as it was last night but Danny Espinosa, who returns after getting one night off. Though he hasn't done it yet this year, Espinosa has led off 38 times in his career ... producing a .162 average and .235 on-base percentage.

Plenty of updates to come, so please check back...

Where: Nationals Park
Gametime: 1:35 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MASN2, Ch. 50,
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WWXT (92.7 FM), WWXX (94.3 FM), WTEM (980 AM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 184
Weather: Partly cloudy, 79 degrees, Wind 14 mph in from CF
2B Danny Espinosa
CF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche