Nationals Retrospective: Week 14


Bryce Harper is back. Wilson Ramos
is back. Dan Haren is (unfortunately) coming back. Despite the loss of Ross
Detwiler to the DL with a lower back problem, this was a strong week from the
Nationals, who posted a 5-2 record with a disappointing four game split against
the Brewers followed by an impressive sweep of the lowly Padres. With all the
position players back and fully healthy, the offense has really come alive,
scoring 43 runs in 7 games, and has been able to overcome some mediocre bullpen
work to give the team four straight wins for the first time since early May.
With seven games left before the all-star break (on the road against the
Phillies and Marlins) and the NL East leading Braves only four games ahead, the
Nats have done an impressive job cutting the division lead down in a short
amount of time. Still, despite the myriad different positive takeaways one
could make from this week, a couple of observations were disheartening and will
hopefully be remedied in the weeks (and break) ahead. Through all the good, the
bad, the meh, let’s take a closer look at how the Nats got to 46-42 and sit
poised to make some serious noise in the coming NL East race.



Kurt Suzuki has done more than an
admirable job filling in for Ramos while he was nursing his hamstring injury;
after all, he is an above average defensive catcher who has been deft in his
ability to manage a starting rotation that has been consistently in flux this
year. But Suzuki has been below average at the plate, posting a .224/.281/.327
line on the year. Considering he was a .250-.260 player last year when he came
over at the trade deadline, one has to wonder whether the increased time behind
the plate sapped his hitting ability. But with the return of Ramos, Suzuki will
now have more rest before each start and it will hopefully help both players
provide stability and some danger to the bottom half of the hitting order.
Ramos, despite his defensive deficiencies, is an above average hitter, and he
put that on display during his 4th of July return, going 3-4 and hitting a two
run single in the sixth and a game winning three run HR in the 7th that sealed
the win – and the series split – over the Brewers. On Friday, Ramos hit a pair
of singles to finish the day 2-4, driving in three runs in the process. All
told, in the three games he has played since his return, he’s put up a .500/.500/.833
stat line that will obviously regress to the mean at some point, but has been
one of the biggest contributors to the 8, 8, and 11 run explosions the Nats put
up in the games he played. While it would be nice if he could add the element
of throwing base-runners out on steal attempts to his repertoire (Kurt Suzuki’s
.125 caught stealing percentage was the second lowest for qualifying catchers
in the league this season), his .270 average bat has been sorely needed for
this offensively deficient team.


The struggles of some members of the
Nats bullpen (more on that in a second) have overshadowed what has been another
phenomenal season from Tyler Clippard, who deserves to make the all-star team
since his ascendance to one of the league’s best 8th inning pitchers. He
pitched in four of this week’s seven games, surrendering no runs while posting
a solid 5:1 K/BB ratio. More importantly, he had a week that saw him throw less
of his customary “20 pitch work myself into a jam and then get out of it”
scenario. He threw 8 pitches in Monday’s 10-5 win over Milwaukee. He pitched
only 13 in Friday’s 8-5 win over San Diego. While his other two outings so
pitch counts in the upper teens, they came because he was striking people out,
not because he was getting hit – in fact, Clippard didn’t even give up a hit in
his four innings of work. It was an absolutely dominant performance from a guy
who has been remarkably consistent this year, and he has been one of the most
important cogs in ensuring that the Nationals are where they are at this point
in the season. He definitely has my vote for all-star considerations.


It has been well documented that
Storen has not been “Clippard-esque” this season, struggling a lot more often
than he has in recent seasons. I don’t know if those struggles are in
connection with his demotion from closer to 7th inning reliever, or if he has a
physical problem he’s not letting on, but he had a couple bad outings that
would have looked a lot worse had he not come back strong to record two
positive outings in a row to make it a so-so week. In Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to
Milwaukee, Storen came into a 0-0 game and promptly gave up all four runs,
getting absolutely shelled by a Milwaukee team that had been struggling all
day. But hey, bad starts happen – it would be unrealistic of fans to expect a
reliever to go out there everytime and pitch a scoreless inning of relief. But
he followed up that bad outing with another one in Thursday’s dramatic 8-5
victory, giving up two HR’s to Yuniesky Betancourt and Carlos Gomez that tied
the game and forced the Nats into doing something theatrical in order to win
the game. To be fair, he followed up those bad outings with two really good
ones, going scoreless on both Saturday and Sunday, the former of which only
required five pitches of work to retire the side. Hopefully he’s figured out
what was bothering him earlier in the week – after all, he’s probably their
second best reliever after Clippard, so having him back on track from his
earlier struggles will be key in the coming weeks.  


When the offense puts up the numbers
they did, and the starting pitching was about as good as it has been all year,
it’s hard to look anywhere else other than the bullpens for signs of struggles
this past week. Unfortunately, it was another really rough week for long
reliever Craig Stammen, who has not looked impressive in any outing he’s had in
last 2 to 2 ½ weeks or so. He has now given up at least one run in five of his
last six outings, and his one scoreless appearance required impressive
defensive plays from Anthony Rendon and Denard Span to preserve the quality
appearance.  His two most recent appearances were the most troubling. On
Friday, he entered the game in the top half of the 7th after Gio Gonzalez had
put one man on base and worked his pitch count well above 100. Needing one out,
he gave up a single to Chris Denorfia which brought Carlos Quentin at the
plate. Stammen promptly threw an 82 MPH slider that didn’t slide at all, giving
it the appearance of a batting practice fastball that was absolutely murdered
into the left field bleachers. I will confess that I found it curious Stammen
had entered the game in this position and not Fernando Abad or Ian Krol, who
have now not pitched since the 2nd and 3rd respectively, but I can understand
Davey’s desire to get him one high leverage out to boost his confidence from
his recent bad outings. I can also understand Stammen coming out on Sunday with
an 11-4 lead, hoping to get 1-2 innings of quality work in without the stress
of needing to preserve a slender lead. But Sunday’s outing was a disaster – he
gave up 5 hits and 3 runs (2 earned) that made his ERA climb to an alarming
3.86 on the season. I’m hoping this is just a rough patch that some relievers
experience over the course of the long season, but given Ross Ohlendorf’s
lackluster performance in the long relief spot earlier this week, having
Stammen back to his customary best will be key, especially with Dan Haren and
Taylor Jordan expected to have multiple starts in the coming weeks. Given their
proclivity/inexperience in pitching deep into games, having a solid long
reliever will help give us some wins that may not be expected, like his
dominant four inning relief game against the Braves back in early May when
Strasburg left injured. I’m optimistic that some rest during the all-star break
will help him out, but for now, there is no denying that his week was the most
troublesome from a fan’s perspective.



The Nats finally caught a break scheduling
wise this week, as their 5-2 record was matched by a pedestrian 2-4 record from
the Braves, who lost two of three to the Marlins at home before dropping
two of three against the Phillies in Philadelphia. Vanderbilt alum Mike Minor
has had a rough go of it lately, not winning a decision in four straight starts
– his most recent start against Miami on Wednesday saw him get tagged for six
hits and four runs over the course of six very high leverage innings. Equally
disappointing was Kris Medlen, who gave up 8 hits, 7 runs (6 earned), and 3
walks in only 5 1/3rd innings of work on Sunday in a loss to the Phillies. At
the plate, they have a number of guys who are seriously struggling: B.J Upton
is now batting an Espinosa-like .175, offensive sieve Dan Uggla is batting
.205, and Jayson Heyward is batting .229. If it weren’t for the very impressive
play from all-star caliber catcher Bryan McCann, this team would have some
serious problems at the plate. Elsewhere, 1B Freddie Freeman is the current leader
in the NL All-Star game final fan vote, with Nats shortstop Ian Desmond in
fourth place. Freeman is a quality player, but I think Nats fans would much
rather see Desmond get the nod, so it will be curious to see if he can make it
over Desmond and Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig when the end of voting comes


A nice 4-2 week for the Phillies,
who took two of three from the league best Pirates in Pittsburgh before
returning home and taking two of three from the Braves. Jonathan Pappelbon had
a pretty solid week, recording four scoreless outings of his own, including
three save opportunities, to help ensure that his team finished the week with a
winning record. In those outings, he only gave up two hits and never pitched
more than 18 pitches in any of his four outings this week. Domonic Brown had
another impressive week at the dish, posting a .375/.385/.750 slash line at the
plate this week, including an absolute bomb on Sunday that constituted his 23rd
HR of the season. His emergence continues to be a bright spot for a Phillies
team that, at 43-46, really needs to get hot if they have any shot of making
some noise come September and October.  


A split with the division leading
Arizona Diamondbacks followed by a series win in Milwaukee saw the Mets go 4-3
on the week. Leading the charge was starting pitcher Jeremy Heffner, who in his
two starts this past week, went 7 innings and gave up one run in both contests,
which resulted in wins for his ballclub. His peripherals this week were equally
impressive; nearly a 5:1 K/BB ratio and a .65 WHIP make it obvious that he was
pretty dominant in his two starts this week. He might not be this kind of
pitcher all the time, but if he can provide regular above replacement level
caliber pitching, he would be a nice compliment to the Matt Harvey/Zach Wheeler
one-two punch that should be around for some time. Kirk Nieuwenheis had a
pretty solid week at the plate, hitting .450 and showing some serious prowess
in Friday’s 12-5 win over the Brewers. He was a HR away from the cycle and had
5 RBI’s to boot. I guess he might be slightly better than Rick Ankiel.


They played the finale of a four
game set on Monday at San Diego that resulted in a win, took two of three from
the Barves Braves, then promptly got swept by the very good St. Louis Cardinals
to finish the week 3-4. Giancarlo Stanton is struggling mightily, and his
numbers this week serve as a microcosm for the season he’s had as a whole. He
went .160/.323/.200 at the dish this week, and his season totals of .246/.343/.434
pale in comparison to his career norms of .268/.349/.539. I know he had a stint
on the DL, but I think the whole world is surprised that the explosive hitter
has only hit 8 HR’s this year. While some of their young arms have been
surprisingly better than expected, and they’ve also gotten some quality relief
innings from makeshift closer Scott Cishek, Stanton’s disappointing campaign
leaves a lot to be desired for Marlins fans in what continues to be an
unfortunate season. 



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