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Nationals lineup rediscovering power stroke

Sep 13, 2013, 12:32 AM EDT

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NEW YORK — There have been any number of impressive aspects to the Nationals’ late-season surge, but right near the top of that list has been the rediscovery of power up and down their lineup.

This was a lineup that was supposed to produce runs in bunches all season yet struggled mightily for more than four months. After getting swept by the Braves Aug. 5-7 — this is now universally known as the moment this season turned around — the Nationals sported some of the worst offensive numbers in baseball: a .240 batting average, .299 on-base percentage and .384 slugging percentage.

Well, check out their numbers in 32 games since that low point: a .288 batting average, .356 on-base percentage and .466 slugging percentage.

That last number was particularly boosted this week during the Nationals’ four-game sweep of the Mets, in which they blasted 13 home runs. That’s the most homers ever hit in a series at Citi Field, shattering the previous mark of seven.

More remarkable: The Mets didn’t even hit one home run during the series, making the Nationals the first team since the 1997 Tigers to out-homer an opponent by at least 13 during a single series.

And just about everyone in the lineup (plus some reserves) contributed to the onslaught: Ryan Zimmerman hit three homers; Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos all hit two apiece; Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, Tyler Moore and Scott Hairston each hit one.

(Poor Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond, the only members of the regular starting eight who failed to connect in this series. Though Harper has the legitimate excuse of having not playing in the first two games due to his hip injury.)

“Everybody in the lineup has got power, maybe with the exception of Span,” said manager Davey Johnson, perhaps forgetting his leadoff man’s game-opening homer on Monday night. “We haven’t been as aggressive. We’re getting more aggressive. That was what I was harping on earlier in the year: Swing the bats early in the count, try to do some damage. It’s finally getting there.”

Whether it’s a more-aggressive approach, a more-relaxed approach or simply talented hitters finally producing the way they were expected to all along, it’s been a welcome development for the Nationals, who finally boast a lineup that inspires some fear in opposing pitching staffs.

“If we hit like we’re hitting right now, we’d be good all the time,” said Zimmerman, who has crushed eight home runs in his last 10 games and suddenly ranks seventh in the NL with 23 homers overall. “But it just didn’t work out like that. I think that’s why you go out and play the games. That’s why it’s hard to win in professional sports, because it’s hard to be consistent and do that kind of stuff. But we’re still going to play these games out and try and win as many as we can and hope we can somehow sneak in there.”

Though the odds remain heavily stacked against them — there’s still only a 2.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to coolstandings.com — the Nationals are at least making this thing interesting.

They now trail the Reds by 5 1/2 games for the NL’s final Wild Card berth, with 16 games to play. So, what needs to happen for the impossible to happen? Well, if the Nationals go 11-5 and Cincinnati goes 5-10, they’d each finish at 88-74 and play a one-game tiebreaker to determine which club advanced to the do-or-die NL Wild Card Game against either the Pirates or Cardinals.

In other words, it’s still the long shot of all long shots.

But as they have throughout this stretch, the Nationals aren’t letting themselves get caught up in the numbers. They’re just taking the field every night trying to win a ballgame, hoping in the end they’ve got enough time to pull off the impossible.

“It’s tough when you’ve got to rely on other teams to fall apart,” LaRoche said. “It’s never a good spot. We need to go win, but we’ve also got to count on a couple teams having some minor meltdowns. Flip a coin right now.

“All we can do is control the outcome of our game. We had a great road trip. Keep that going at home, and you never know. Crazier things have happened. We’re still not in a very enviable position.”

  1. Eugene in Oregon - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:43 AM

    Both the Nats and the Reds have five series left. Essentially the Nats need to pick up one game in the standings vs. the Reds during each of those five series. Then add one additional win during their four-game series against the Marlins for that final half-game. I’d like to believe, but it’s going to take some real help from the Astros, the Brewers, and the Mets.

  2. Sec 3, My Sofa - Sep 13, 2013 at 1:26 AM

    It’s all “speculation” or crystal ball bs. What if they go 11-5? What if they go 14-2? 16-0? They haven’t played the games yet. If we could know in advance what they would do — and we are notorious horrible at that — THIS WOULD BE NO FUN.

  3. Sec 3, My Sofa - Sep 13, 2013 at 1:34 AM

    “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

    So you’re saying there’s a chance.

    • natsfan1a - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:06 AM

      Niiice.

  4. Sec 3, My Sofa - Sep 13, 2013 at 1:51 AM

    I just want to input a little love for Tanner Roark. Nice work, kid!

    • Joe Seamhead - Sep 13, 2013 at 7:23 AM

      No matter what Tanner does over the rest of his career, the summer of 2013 will be a great memory for him. So far he has looked to be very promising in every way, shape, and form. The last time we had anybody even close to what this kid has done so far we traded him for Gio.

      • ehay2k - Sep 13, 2013 at 7:29 AM

        We traded a 6-0 reliever-turned-starter for Gio? I gotta go look that up. ;-)

        No one we traded to the A’s had done anything at the MLB level like Roark has, although Millone had a 3-run homer, so there’s that.

      • Joe Seamhead - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:25 AM

        ehay2k, did I say anything like that we traded 6-0 a reliever-turned-starter for Gio? I was quite explicit when I said “anybody even close.” I didn’t say that we traded anybody that had been as good, though Milone was very impressive, as was Pennington, that season, but read what I said before you pee in my Wheaties.

      • Section 222 - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:04 AM

        Milone had 5 starts and 26 IP for us in 2011. He had a 3.81 ERA. Maybe that’s not “anything at the MLB level like Roark” but it’s not nuttin’. Peacock had two starts in which he gave up a total of 3 hits and no runs. He was pretty promising too, just like Roark.

  5. Baseballswami - Sep 13, 2013 at 5:55 AM

    It’s September 13th. We are in a solid second place, which during every year except 2012 would have seemed like heaven, and we are still in this thing mathematically. Considering our struggles, this is not too shabby. Not what we hoped for, but not so terrible after all.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Sep 13, 2013 at 7:25 AM

      Well said Swami. I’m drinking Kool-Aid with my cereal for breakfast this morning.

    • natsfan1a - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:07 AM

      Pass the pitcher.

    • adcwonk - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:44 AM

      Exactly. As I wrote a few days ago:

      1. The dream of most teams is to play “meaningful games in September”. We are.

      2. The dream of most DC baseball fan for decades was to have a team that played at all!

      • naterialguy - Sep 13, 2013 at 1:43 PM

        Hit the nail smack dab on the head on both counts

  6. Ghost of Steve M. - Sep 13, 2013 at 7:23 AM

    Editors note to Mark Zuckerman “top of that last”? I think you mean
    “List”.

    Bryce and Desi need to join the HR parade.

  7. ehay2k - Sep 13, 2013 at 7:26 AM

    5.5 back, and you know the Reds and Pirates are paying attention. With 6 games remaining between those two teams, it will be a very interesting finish to the season. the Nats still have to take care of business, but things are looking up.

    Boz had a good column (yesterday?) about how the Nats are playing well but still not playing excellent baseball. very true, but a sweep in NY is a very good sign. Now, back to the top of our rotation to welcome the Phillies to Nats Park.

    And, does anyone still think now that Eckstein didn’t need to go? Everyone is hitting, and there have been some changes to swings and approaches. From Boz’ column, it sounds like Eck had them over-preparing which should be no surprise: when you’ve only ever held a clipboard, a few hundred extra swings before each game probably seems like a good idea.

    GYFNG!!!

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Sep 13, 2013 at 7:47 AM

      I supported Eck. Maybe they were over preparing.

      • adcwonk - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:46 AM

        Which is quite ironic, because most of the criticism here was that Eck wasn’t doing anything.

    • natsfan1a - Sep 13, 2013 at 9:02 AM

      If nothing else, some Reds fans are paying attention…

      http://redlegnation.com/2013/09/12/game-thread-reds-at-the-thorn-in-my-side-since-99/#comments

      ehay2k – Sep 13, 2013 at 7:26 AM

      5.5 back, and you know the Reds and Pirates are paying attention. With 6 games remaining between those two teams, it will be a very interesting finish to the season. the Nats still have to take care of business, but things are looking up.

      • Sec 3, My Sofa - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:47 AM

        I liked the comment there by one poster who hopes the Reds “keep the heat on and ice this thing.”

      • natsfan1a - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:07 PM

        [head explodes]

    • Jw - Sep 13, 2013 at 9:05 AM

      The Nats have/had a lot of guys who are notorious over preparers. Harper and Espinosa being prime examples. Eckstein didn’t force them to over prepare, but perhaps he facilitated it by always being available to work with hitters. But can you blame him for that when the guy he replaced, Lenny Harris, got fired for playing cards with the guys in the clubhouse?

    • Sonny G 10 - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:39 AM

      I also supported Eck and still do. However I concede that maybe a different approach was in order. I believe the biggest change is that our guys have relaxed more. I think the expectations everyone had starting this season caused the players to try too hard when things didn’t go well right away. The more they tried, the worse they got. Whether the new batting coach or the changed expectations are responsible for the improvement, I don’t know. I do think the new batting coach greatly helped Span.

  8. thecynicin408 - Sep 13, 2013 at 7:39 AM

    As swami points out, we would have all been happy with this Sept. situation up until last year. What’s more, as the team floundered at times this year, I several times said I would be happy as long as we still were in the hunt as the season wound down.

    As we are in that wind down, I’m not sure that I will be satisfied if the team comes close and then falls short. Go into the offseason feeling better than if the struggles had endured? Sure. But the many games that we seemingly just “gave away” will linger in my mind and the disappointments of the year likely won’t be dispatched until the spring.

    • Steady Eddie - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:22 AM

      Just take them one game at a time, and there will be plenty of time for other emotions when the season is over — whenever that ends up being.

      Meanwhile, I’m with swami, that after 33 years of no baseball, and 7 years of “no hope in September” baseball, this is pretty good.

      (Our distance back is partly the consequence of a more lopsided league, performance-wise. With our record, in the AL, we’d be 2.5 back like the Royals (charging) and Os (fading).

    • Candide - Sep 13, 2013 at 1:44 PM

      You need to pull out your doubtless well-worn copy of Boswell’s Why Time Begins on Opening Day and re-read the chapter, “Bred to a Harder Thing than Triumph.” Might we see a repeat of that season? Wouldn’t it be lovely?

  9. Ghost of Steve M. - Sep 13, 2013 at 7:45 AM

    Talking about HRs, one of my favorite Nats Alfonso Soriano took away one in Camden Yards last night. Takes me back to the person who argued back in the Nats series when Tyler Moore couldn’t bring one back about how high the wall is. Watch the Soriano catch.

  10. NatsLady - Sep 13, 2013 at 8:20 AM

    You have to check this out. SO FUNNY.

    Jayson Werth and Joey Votto at first base.

    • Eugene in Oregon - Sep 13, 2013 at 9:26 AM

      Thanks, NatsLady. That was…unexpected. Along similar (?) lines, saw something the other day in which Nats’ racing presidents had become the ‘Racing Precedents’ (i.e., Marbury vs. Madison taking on New York Times vs. Sullivan, Miranda vs. Arizona, and the like).

  11. Doc - Sep 13, 2013 at 9:44 AM

    Actually, the Nats had the same hitting surge after last year’s ASG—when Eck was here.

    Don’t think that I’ll try and convince people anymore, that the Nats’ hitting prowess has much to do with the hitting coach–waste of time.

    Besides, Davey has always been the boss hitting coach, and still is, and as long as he’s managing, he always will be.

    Davey’s been trying to get through to them to be more aggressive on hittable pitches—and some of them are catching on!

  12. NatsLady - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    The boys are (more-or-less) healthy. They are hitting. we have our big three up for the weekend. It’s gorgeous weather, no excuses, Mr. Strasburg.

    Step 1 – sweep Philly.
    Step 2 – sweep ATL – we do NOT want them clinching in our city, in our Park, on our pitcher’s mound. Plenty of motivation there.
    Step 3 – sweep Miami, or at least get 3 of 4.

    Need to go 10-0 or 9-1 on this homestand. Don’t say it can’t be done, we just went 8-2 on the road. Let’s say Cincy goes 5-5 in that period. We can pick up 4+ games…

    Then we are down to the final six road games. If we are within 1 or 2 of the 2nd Wild Card, man, that is all you can ask. That is “meaningful baseball” down to the LAST WEEK of September.

    Now we get to St. Louis–who knows what state they will be in. Chances, are, however, they will be in a very similar state to us: can’t afford to lose any games, regulars–including Molina–playing every day, playing hurt, subbing in call-ups when they can. Take 2/3, grab as much rest as you can on the travel day.

    Arizona is out of it. They will be playing for “pride” in that last series. But pride is no small thing. The saying is, if you are going home, take them with you–meaning US. Gotta not let that happen.

    If we go 8-2 or BETTER on the homestand, this can get very exciting.

  13. Section 222 - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    No, I don’t think Eck needed to be replaced. For all we know the Nats have finally internalized and are acting upon the advice he gave them. Doc’s point is a good one. The Nats hit great in the second half of last season when Eck was the hitting coach.

    I will repeat. Correlation is not causation.

    Here’s the Soriano catch:
    http://wapc.mlb.com/play/?content_id=30559025&c_id=mlb&topic_id=vtp_outstandings

  14. NatsLady - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:47 AM

    You want to hear about over-preparing? Ichiro. He takes hundreds, I mean hundreds, of practice swings every day. When he went to NY his wife told the real estate agent they had to have an extra bedroom, not for guests, but so he could set up his batting area.

    The fact is, hitting is tiring. Practicing hitting is tiring. Fouling off pitches is tiring. If you are injured or hurt, it’s even more draining, and the Nats top bats were in that situation a lot of the season, Ramos, Harper, ALR, Werth, and, especially, RZimm. Rendon is adjusting to the league and to the physical and mental demands of a major-league season. You don’t lose to the dreadful pitchers we lost to in the first half of the season if you are in top hitting condition. It’s one thing to lose to Fernandez, Harvey, Wainwright, Kershaw & Co. It’s another to lose to Freddy Garcia????? He was DFA two weeks later. We were losing games to the 4-5 pitchers in teams’ rotations. Can’t do that. To pile up 95+ wins, you have to win against bad pitchers and bad teams.

    Look at Werth–I seriously think he hits to the score. For a long time, even in his hot streak, early in games he would strike out a couple of times, get the measure of the opposing pitcher, preserve his energy and heat up in the late innings. Then he started hitting earlier in games for a while, try to get an early lead for the pitcher if we weren’t down 5 runs by the time he came up to bat. Now he’s easing up because other guys are hitting. He knows he’s not winning the batting title, you aren’t going to beat Cuddyer and Coors, and they don’t award the title on stuff like OPS+ or wRC. Werth is going to make sure his hits WIN GAMES.

  15. NatsLady - Sep 13, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    BTW, Morse isn’t hitting for Ballmer. After he went 3 for 7 in his first two games, he’s now on a 0 for 15 or something like that. He looked so happy when he got traded, looked motivated, made a nice catch in the outfield that I saw on TV. Showalter “isn’t worried,” but I bet Morse is hurt somewhere, because when he’s healthy, he can hit.

  16. NatsLady - Sep 13, 2013 at 12:07 PM

    >Davey’s been trying to get through to them to be more aggressive on hittable pitches—and some of them are catching on!

    I’m not sure what this even means. These guys all went to hitting school since they were ten years old, of course they are going to hit hittable pitches. If the pitcher makes a mistake, fine (see above about hitting against bad pitchers). On average a pitcher makes 30-40 “mistakes” per game, but, unfortunately, you don’t know in advance when that will happen–unless a pitcher is on the ropes, velocity is down, whatever. Absolutely, you should hit early in the count–SOMETIMES. Other times you shouldn’t. Hot day, starting pitcher on the ropes with a high pitch count, why make it easy on him to get out of the inning and recoup? Let him come to you.

    The problem is not “being aggressive.” The problem is (a) pitch recognition; (b) situations when you may want to expand the zone rather than take (hope for) a walk; and (c) out-guessing the pitch sequence. As FP says, if you throw me a change-up–a good change-up–on a fastball count, I tip my hat.

    Aside: There is a good article up on Desi, on how he hasn’t hit his HRs on fastballs, he’s a good breaking ball hitter despite his reputation.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/nationals-journal/wp/2013/09/12/why-conventional-wisdom-about-ian-desmond-is-wrong/

    • Section 222 - Sep 13, 2013 at 1:11 PM

      I think it means, when it comes to Span, getting a hit instead of grounding out to 2B. When it come to Desi, it means crushing the breaking ball instead popping it up For Zim, it means taking the pitch just off the plate and lining it to RF instead of whiffing. :-) I wish they could all “be more aggressive” too.

      • NatsLady - Sep 13, 2013 at 1:47 PM

        The most interesting of these, to me, is Span. It’s as if someone said, You don’t have to take a lot of pitches leading off so the rest of the line-up can see what kind of stuff the pitcher has. We’ve seen these guys before, they’re in our division, we’ll figure it out. Take at-bats as if you were hitting 7th in the line-up (which he was for a while).

      • Section 222 - Sep 13, 2013 at 2:15 PM

        Yes, Span does seem to have woken up after he was demoted in the lineup for several games. I just think that attributing this to “being more aggressive” seems silly. But that’s what Davey keeps saying it is. It’s almost like whenever we hit well, we were more aggressive. But when we get shut down, we weren’t. I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

  17. letswin3 - Sep 13, 2013 at 4:27 PM

    Eck schmeck, he was just another kid with a dream. And Davey obviously cant explain what aggressive is without a teleprompter, a telestrator and a translator. Lets all give it up for the person that got this whole aggressive thing started……Denards mom. She was the one one told him to stop takin 4,5,6 pitches and start swingin at the first one he sees in the zone……..immediately he starts gettin solid contact, better pitches to hit and more than just a little confidence……this leads to a 23 game hitting streak, which leads to teamates gettin the picture of “aggressiveness”. I say we give her a 2 year no-cut deal with a 12% overide on every basis point the team improves from the ’13 base, a craft beer allowance and a manacure endorsement deal.

Archives

NL EAST STANDINGS

W L GB
WASHINGTON 77 56 --
ATLANTA 72 65 6.0
MIAMI 68 69 11.0
NEW YORK 64 73 14.0
PHILADELPHIA 62 74 15.5
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TUE: Nats at Dodgers, 10:10 p.m.
WED: Nats at Dodgers, 3:10 p.m.
THU: OFF
FRI: Phillies at Nats, 7:05 p.m.
SAT: Phillies at Nats, 4:05 p.m.
SUN: Phillies at Nats, 1:35 p.m.
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