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Confident Nats can't lose

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Confident Nats can't lose

PHOENIX -- They trailed early by three runs, facing perhaps the NL Rookie of the Year frontrunner. Their two best setup men were shelved for the evening due to overuse. The relievers who replaced them wound up putting the tying runner in scoring position in three consecutive innings.

Yet, not one uniformed member of the Nationals appeared to break a sweat during Saturday night's 6-5 victory over the Diamondbacks. (And, no, that had nothing to do with the 108-degree dry heat outside Chase Field.)

What gives? Do the Nationals ever worry about losing a ballgame? Evidently not.

"The confidence is at an all-time high right now," right-hander Ryan Mattheus said.

And why wouldn't it be the way things are going for the best team in baseball? This nailbiter resulted in the Nationals' eighth consecutive win, the last six of them coming on the road. They're now 71-43, a full 28 games over .500, knowing they can go 24-24 the rest of the way and still finish with 95 wins.

And maybe most importantly, they've managed to play their very best ball of the year precisely while the team chasing them in the NL East has played its very best ball.

On July 24, the Braves sat 4 12 games behind the Nationals. They've since gone 14-3, a roll that should have catapulted them to the top of the division. Instead, they remain those same 4 12 games back because the Nats have gone 15-4 over the same time frame.

"It's impressive that they're not falling behind at all," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, a former Brave himself. "They're a really good team. They had some streaks earlier in the year where they were struggling. Like you said, they're playing just as good as we are right now, but that doesn't affect us."

Nor does a shaky start from Edwin Jackson, who dug his teammates into an early 4-1 hole, only to watch as they climbed their way out of it during a five-run fifth against Diamondbacks rookie left-hander Wade Miley.

Clutch hits were aplenty during that rally, from Jayson Werth's RBI double to Ryan Zimmerman's two-run single to Michael Morse's RBI double to Jesus Flores' RBI single. This is the norm right now for a Nationals lineup that has transformed from one of the sport's least-productive groups to one of its most-dangerous assemblages of hitters.

On the morning of June 24, the Nationals as a team were hitting .238 with a .304 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage. In 45 games sine then, they're hitting a collective .283 with a .339 on-base percentage and a .453 slugging percentage.

Obviously, the return of Morse and Werth from injuries and the reemergence of Zimmerman as a premier offensive player after receiving a cortisone shot in his ailing shoulder has made a huge difference. But manager Davey Johnson believes it's about more than personnel. It's about approach.

"The makeup of this lineup is totally different: It's in attack mode," Johnson said. "They're not up there defending like a goalie. We're out there trying to do some damage, and it's fun to watch. I tip my hat to Rick Eckstein. He's done a great job with the offense and getting a little more aggressive. I know he's been on the gun here in years past, but he's one of the best hitting instructors I've ever met."

That revamped lineup managed to give the Nationals a lead, but a reconfigured bullpen still needed to preserve that lead to ensure this victory. Johnson didn't have Drew Storen or Sean Burnett available after excessive work over the last week, but the manager calmly called upon other relievers to come through with some big outs.

Tom Gorzelanny replace Jackson with two outs and a man on second in the bottom of the sixth and immediately struck out Stephen Drew looking at a 3-2 fastball at the knees. Mattheus then got two important groundballs with another man in scoring position to escape a seventh-inning jam. And Michael Gonzalez pitched around his own wildness to strike out Drew and yet again strand the tying run on second in the bottom of the eighth.

"I just think that speaks about the talent that's down there," Mattheus said. "Sean Burnett got a night off tonight, and Mike Gonzalez threw a perfect eighth inning and got us out of there and got the ball to closer Tyler Clippard. That's big that someone can step in and do that job when Burnie needs a day off. And Drew can close games when Clip's not here. It just speaks volumes for the talent."

And speaks volumes about the confidence oozing out of the Nationals' clubhouse these days. They've held the top spot in their division for 82 consecutive days now. And they're showing no signs of giving it up.

"It's a calm confidence," Clippard said. "Nobody gets too high or too low. Nothing changes. We're not walking around like: 'Oh, we're the best.' We're just keeping our heads down and going about our business, playing each game like it's a must-win game.

"It's a lot of fun, man."

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Will Mike Rizzo continue to shape the Nationals? The Junkies believe he's too valuable to lose

Will Mike Rizzo continue to shape the Nationals? The Junkies believe he's too valuable to lose

Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez and Matt Wieters aren't the only important guys within the Nationals organization becoming free agents in 2019.

President of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo is also becoming a free agent when his contract expires on October 31st.

In the final year of his five-year contract, the 57-year old is set to make $2.5 million.

RELATED: HOWIE KENDRICK RETURNING TO NATIONALS

Since joining the organization, Rizzo has turned the team into a legit World Series contender. They've won four division titles in the last six years under his guidance, but have been unable to get over the NL Division series hump. And even though that's a glaring red mark on his resume, Rizzo knows the success he's brought to the organization. 

When you look at what we accomplished,’’ Mike Rizzo said in a recent interview, “it’s really unsung and underappreciated. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished here. I like it here. I love the city. I love the team I put together. I like being a GM in the NL East. And I want to stay here. I just think I deserve to be treated like some of the best GMs in the game are, too.

Rizzo is talking about GM's like Cubs' Theo Epstein and Yankees' Brian Cashman, who've received big paydays over the last year.

I know we haven’t won the World Series, but I get tired of hearing how we can’t win the big one, or we can’t get out of the first round. We haven’t had that many chances.

Does Rizzo deserve an extension? The Sports Junkies think he does, but with GM's like the ones above cashing out, they can also see him wanting to test the open market.

"Why wouldn't they?", said Jason Bishop, noting his track record.

"There's a sense he wants to test the market," said Eric Bickel. That's the vibe I'm getting from him."

Rizzo is a weekly guest on the Junkies and has said that the organization will figure it out. However, the 2018 season may be the last time for a long time the Nats have a real shot at making a run before they lose some of their stars to other teams. If Rizzo does take that into consideration and decides to go elsewhere, the Junkies don't see him having any issues finding employment.

"If there was a time to roll, it would be after this season when you get your last run with this group," said Eric Bickel. And then If they don't pay you what you think you deserve, he'll be snatched up in 22 seconds."

RELATED: BEST OF NATS' RACING PRESIDENT TRYOUTS

If they do decide to sign him to an extension, will it be a long, drawn-out ordeal? The Junkies disagree on that one. 

"He is too valuable, Jason Bishop said. He's too valuable. You gotta ink him to a deal sometime during the season."

Luckily for D.C. sports fans, long, drawn-out extension talks aren't foreign to them.

To see their full discussion, click the media player above. 

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Nationals re-sign Howie Kendrick for two-years

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Nationals re-sign Howie Kendrick for two-years

WASHINGTON  -- The Nationals have agreed to a $7 million, two-year contract with outfielder Howie Kendrick, a deal subject to a successful physical.

Agent Pat Murphy confirmed the deal to The Associated Press on Monday. USA Today was first to report the deal.

Kendrick, 34, hit .293 with seven home runs and RBIs in 52 games with Washington after he was acquired from Philadelphia. The versatile right-handed hitter got just three plate appearances off the bench in the playoffs.

In 12 major league seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, Dodgers, Phillies and Nationals, Kendrick is a .291 hitter with a .755 OPS. He's now primarily an outfielder for Washington after playing left field, second base, first base and other positions throughout his career.