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Nats pounce early, hang on late to beat Pirates

Aug 16, 2014, 12:05 AM EDT

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One by one, they stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first, hoping to put together quality at-bats but fully aware the percentages said more of them would make outs than didn’t.

But then Denard Span beat out an infield single to get things started. And then Asdrubal Cabrera drew a walk to keep the pressure on Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton. And then Anthony Rendon singled, setting the stage for Adam LaRoche to deliver an RBI single to right-center. And when Ian Desmond walked to load the bases, up to the plate strode Bryce Harper with a chance to really inflict some damage.

Harper may not have put the game out of reach altogether, but his 2-run single over the second baseman’s head did give the Nationals a quick 3-0 lead. He was the sixth consecutive batter to reach base to open the game, and that, more than anything, set the tone for what would eventually become a 5-4 victory over Pittsburgh after Rafael Soriano escaped a self-made jam in the ninth.

“We got some early chances and took advantage of them,” manager Matt Williams said following his team’s fourth straight win. “The thing you have to do to Morton, if you’ve got a chance to get him early, you want to, because he settles in really nice and starts getting a feel for everything out there. And he can run through a lineup quickly. So we took advantage of that tonight.”

It was the eighth time this season the Nationals scored at least three runs in the first inning. And, quite frankly, they could’ve scored more. Span got thrown out trying to steal third base, giving away an out. And Wilson Ramos grounded into an inning-ending double play, squandering an opportunity to tack on even more against the Pirates.

No matter, because the Nationals did tack on more runs later, plating two more in the bottom of the third to knock Morton out of the game.

“We’ve been swinging the bat pretty dang well,” Harper said of a lineup that has averaged 4.7 runs over its last 13 games. “Being able to have a deep lineup like we do, we just go up there, take pitches, draw walks, make him have long innings, throw a lot of pitches, get him out of there early and get to their bullpen. That was huge.”

It also helps when a veteran slugger gets hot and makes up for the losses of two other key middle-of-order bats. With Jayson Werth (shoulder) and Ryan Zimmerman (hamstring) out at the moment, the Nationals need LaRoche to step up. Which he has.

With two more run-scoring singles in the first three innings of Friday night’s game, LaRoche is now hitting .333 with four homers, nine RBI and a 1.100 OPS through the first half of August. This after a miserable July in which his OPS was a measly .465.

“It’s better. No question, better,” he said. “I hit those two balls tonight, hit them good and found the right spot. I found a hole. I feel two or three weeks ago, those are right at somebody. Potential double-play balls. Just the way this game goes. It kind of comes in streaks, and I’m feeling pretty good right now.”

One key to LaRoche’s recent success: He’s hitting line drives to left-center field. It’s been a point of emphasis in the batting cage, and it’s showing in games.

“If you watch him take batting practice, he’s really concentrating on hitting the ball shortstop side, and he did that once tonight,” Williams said. “That just keeps him on the baseball.”

Another key to the Nationals’ offensive success, especially with Werth and Zimmerman out: Harper’s slow-but-steady improvement. With a pair of hits Friday night, including his 2-run single in the first, the young outfielder is now hitting .313 with a .937 OPS and nine RBI over his last eight games. It took his 32 games to record his previous nine RBI.

“I was just happy [the first-inning hit] fell and we got those two RBIs and got the lead early and were able to get that W,” Harper said.

  1. stoatva - Aug 16, 2014 at 12:17 AM

    I think Bryce has finished his spring training and is ready to start his regular season.

    • MicheleS - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:02 AM

      Excellent point! just in time for the stretch run

  2. rayvil01 - Aug 16, 2014 at 12:24 AM

    Was at the Park. First bad experience there ever. Pittsburgh fans behind us were loud and rude all night. Gave them a smile after the win. Wow. They wanted to fight then. Terrible people.. Yuk. No more Pittsburgh games for me.

    Sori is scarier in person. N othing looks down. It all looks to be up and hittable.

    • Section 222 - Aug 16, 2014 at 12:57 AM

      You should listen to MW’s postgame presser. Sori pitches up on purpose sometimes.

      Too bad you had lousy Pgh fans near you. That stinks. The ones near us were good natured.

      • natsfan1a - Aug 16, 2014 at 8:18 AM

        Maybe they converted from Phillies Phans? Nah…

      • 6ID20 - Aug 16, 2014 at 8:33 AM

        Managers cover for their players’ failures to execute sometimes too.

    • MicheleS - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:04 AM

      Wow, I am sorry about your bad fan experience, I had several around me and they were all really nice and did good natured ribbing, nothing out of line, just good fun

      • rayvil01 - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:49 AM

        We just drew the short straw, I guess. It takes all kinds.

        Plenty of Pittsburgh fans there. They were spread all over the place. I’ve never done of the O’s games. I can’t imagine what a mess that must be.

        As for Sori…he is a walking Angina attack! He went through a spell where he was just nails. Now he’s up in the zone and is getting hit pretty hard. That first at bat was a battle. After that they were lighting him up. Tired arm maybe.

  3. Nats fool - Aug 16, 2014 at 12:51 AM

    Harper’s beginning to warm up. He’s seeing the curves better. I also like Cabrera’s plate approach, especially from the left side. The team will take off when Harper does.

    • veejh - Aug 16, 2014 at 1:09 AM

      Lets hope Harper stays on his upward trend and Zimmerman can manage to return before the season ends and have enough time to get his swing back. We’ll need both to make a run at the WS.

  4. NatsLady - Aug 16, 2014 at 7:13 AM

    Lots of Pirates fans near me. No problem at all. Some drunk Nats fans, though. Got in the P’burgh fans faces with “N-A-T-S” chant on the concourse after the game was over.

    • laddieblahblah - Aug 16, 2014 at 7:25 AM

      I’ve never seen anything like that at Nats Park, but I also never go on Friday nights, either, just because I don’t care for obnoxious, loud-mouthed drunkards, be they Nats fans, or otherwise.

      • Joe Seamhead - Aug 16, 2014 at 8:28 AM

        There were a lot of Pirate fans but I saw nothing but baseball fans rooting for their team. As to Friday’s being a drunkfest, again I go to almost every Friday game and never have any issues since the Philly Phans folded up their tents and left town. And I certainly wouldn’t write off going to games when Pittsburg, or any other team comes to town as mentioned by an earlier poster. It’s our park, damnit.

  5. llf0701 - Aug 16, 2014 at 7:38 AM

    Nail biter! Great game. I am missing Werth – hopefully tomorrow?

  6. laddieblahblah - Aug 16, 2014 at 7:58 AM

    La Roche and Werth are the guys they really need down the stretch and into the post-season. Ryan would be nice, but even if he makes it back, he usually takes a few weeks to regain his timing and rhythm at the plate. By the time he is able to do that, the season could be over. La Roche has been such a stalwart, it is hard to see how they replace him next year if they do not bring him back. I would rather see him at 1b than Ryan, any day. For once, I would like to see the DL in the NL.

    Werth should be back no later than tomorrow, I would think, and Taylor can take a seat. It is clear to me that Michael is over-matched against ML pitching, at present. He stands relatively close to the plate and likes to get his fairly long arms extended when he swings, which is one reason why he can drive pitches over the outer half of the plate. But his approach leaves him vulnerable to FBs coming in on his hands. He doesn’t see the 12-6 curve ball, and any pitcher able to throw one outside and swing it back over the plate has Taylor at his mercy.

    Bartolo Colon, who can both bust his FB inside, and who also has a killer swing-back FB, ate him up. Michael swings at those 12-6 breakers, no matter who is throwing them, but I have yet to see him so much as foul one of them off. He probably has other flaws, but the league doesn’t even need to try and find them. He is going to be an easy out until he can correct at least one of those weaknesses.

    I don’t think they should even call him up in September, unless they want to erode his self-confidence. Better to send him to Florida where they can teach him how to hit those inside pitches and to better recognize the curve ball. Then send him to the AFL to apply what he has learned and allow him time to develop a more robust repertoire at the plate.

    McClouth and Hairston can strike out, too, so they already have veteran guys who can do what Michael has been doing at the plate, but not as frequently as he has been doing it. As soon as Souza is ready, they should send Taylor back down. He is still an AA player who should not be expected to match up against ML pitching, now, with all of the flaws in his hitting game.

    It is so instructive to note that Taylor is 2 years older than Harper, but plays like he is 3 years younger. That’s not a knock on Michael, who has some impressive baseball talent, but it puts in perspective just how special Bryce is. And Harper has been playing all year hampered by a surgically repaired knee and a still balky, surgically repaired thumb.

    Wait until he is completely healthy. He has a history of playing some of his best baseball in September. If he does that, again, this year, and ALR and Werth continue to deliver the clutch hits, the Nats will be able to compete with, and beat, anyone else in the post-season.

    • Joe Seamhead - Aug 16, 2014 at 8:33 AM

      Laddie, that was a great analysis on Taylor. After his impressive debut game he has quickly become a deer caught in the headlights.

      • Joe Seamhead - Aug 16, 2014 at 8:59 AM

        Reality check: after his debut Michael Taylor has gone 0-10 with 7 strikeouts..

      • MicheleS - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:06 AM

        Joe.. fyi.. posted a comment in the last thread for you about Wilson

      • Joe Seamhead - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:36 AM

        Michele, thanks, I addressed your comment, but left it on the lasts thread.I also posted a link to the play in question.

    • Nats fool - Aug 16, 2014 at 10:18 AM

      He’s not ready. I would send him down before he loses confidence. It felt like he wasn’t ready to swing.

  7. natsfan1a - Aug 16, 2014 at 8:20 AM

    Saw the whole game, as did the cat (well, he slept through most of it – even the nail-biter portion of the night).

    Won’t see tonight’s game in real-time, as we’ll be at the P-Nats.

    • MicheleS - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:05 AM

      1A.. I will be at PNats as well! See you there!

      • wearenationals - Aug 16, 2014 at 11:37 AM

        We’ll be there too to get our Wolf-a-rine! I’ll have one eye on the P-Nats and the other on the Nats on my phone.

      • natsfan1a - Aug 16, 2014 at 2:19 PM

        See you there!

        My phone is of the not-so-smart variety, but I do try to check the Wash-Nats score from time to time.

  8. ehay2k - Aug 16, 2014 at 8:44 AM

    Was at the game with friend – a guy I helped to convert from Yankees fan, tyvm – perfect night, Nats played well, and won. But in the ninth, when NI’ers were posting about Soriano, we were asking: why wasn’t Espi already in the game? He has much, MUCH better range, and a stronger arm than Cabrera, and knows Weidermeyer’s shifts better. And what happens? A ball gets past Cabrera that Espi would have easily gotten a glove on, maybe made the out. (The earlier throw home to Ramos would not have hopped either.)

    We got the win, but there is still room for managerial improvement, so I will nitpick. (Although not to the extent George “..in SIX games…” Costanza would.)

    Mark Z., can you ask MW about defensive substitutions next presser?

    GYFNG

    • Joe Seamhead - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:14 AM

      One problem with your defensive substitution idea, other than Cabrera has played good defense and I think Espinosa’s supposed superior defensive prowess over Cabrera’s is greatly exaggerated, is that if the Pirates had tied the game up you would be stuck with Espinosa’s unquestionably inferior bat in extra innings.

      • ehay2k - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:38 AM

        We’ll have to disagree on the gap between their respective defensive capabilities, because Cabrera just doesn’t have Espi’s range or arm, in my book. But, you are correct about the desire to keep Espi out of the lineup if you need a hit. I believe he was due up second if the batted in the ninth. Can’t remember, based on who was left in the Pirate’s pen, if he would have had to bat righty or lefty.

        Still, for me, I take the risk and get the better defender out there. Goodness knows Soriano needs it!

    • Section 222 - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:54 AM

      I think it’s an exaggeration to say that Espi has much, much better range than Cabrera. Plus, his glove is not that good as we’ve discussed before. And Cabrera’s arm is just as good — he’s a SS too, remember. To say that Espi would have made a better throw home is complete speculation. That was a very long relay throw. It was on target and Ramos should have made the play.

      And then there’s the consequence of putting Espi’s bat at the top of the order. Scary.

      • Joe Seamhead - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:59 AM

        +1, Deuces, on all counts.

  9. Theophilus T.S. - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:14 AM

    FP said something last night that really caught my attention: During Harper’s brief, occasionally self-abbreviated career, Nats are 34-3 when he has two or more RBIs. I can’t read that as anything except a statement about how critical his success is to the team’s success. Sure hope he does more of it.

    • unkyd59 - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:29 AM

      I’ll be the Nars have a similar record when ANY single player has 2 or more RBI…

    • Nats fool - Aug 16, 2014 at 9:36 AM

      Desmond’s at-bats have been better lately, which makes up for the poor lineup construction. I see Span, Cabrera and Rendon as table-setters. LaRoche, Zimm (when healthy), Desmond and Harper as power guys, with Ramos being Ramos. Werth can be either due to his great eye. I think Harper would be better behind Rendon or Werth. One lineup could be: Span, Werth, Harper, Rendon, LaRoche, Cabrera, Desmond, Ramos.

  10. rayvil01 - Aug 16, 2014 at 10:03 AM

    Feeling at the time was that we didn’t get as much out of the first inning as we should have. It’s hard to argue with a 3-spot. But, that inning had 5 or 6 runs written all over it. They had a chance to chase that starter very, very early and set up a laugher. As it was MW used the A-team bullpen again.

    Span getting caught at third was painful. If that were a double-steal it would have made more sense.

  11. mrnat7 - Aug 16, 2014 at 12:05 PM

    Love last night uniforms! Now, just wear blue socks and blue undershirts. The uniform would be a thing of beauty!

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