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Nationals erase 2-0 deficit for 5-2 win over Miami

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Nationals erase 2-0 deficit for 5-2 win over Miami

GAME IN A NUTSHELL: For the third straight day, the Nationals dug themselves into a 2-0 hole against the Marlins after one inning. But for the second straight day, they managed to dig themselves back out of that hole and emerge victorious.

With a 3-run rally in the fifth that included a home run by Tyler Moore and clutch at-bats by Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond, the Nationals took the lead off Marlins starter Brad Hand. Then with a 2-run homer by Harper (his 41st of the season) in the seventh, they expanded that lead and gave their bullpen some cushion.

It looked like that relief corps might need the extra cushion after rookie Sammy Solis gave up two singles to open the eighth. But Blake Treinen bailed him out by inducing a double-play grounder and then striking out Derek Dietrich to quash that potential rally. Jonathan Papelbon gave up a couple of singles to open the ninth but bounced back from two straight blown saves to finish this one off.

And thanks to the Mets' loss earlier in the afternoon, the Nationals closed to within 7 games of the NL East leaders, with 14 to play.

HITTING HIGHLIGHT: Harper's seventh-inning homer will get the most attention, and it certainly deserves it. But his fifth-inning at-bat might've been more important. At the plate with the bases loaded, 1 out and the Nationals trailing by a run, he battled Hand through a 10-pitch showdown that included five foul balls with two strikes, multiple uses of the rosin bag and a new bat after the first one broke. Harper wound up sending a sacrifice fly to right, bringing home the tying run. No, it wasn't as glamorous as a home run into the second deck, but it was no less significant.

PITCHING HIGHLIGHT: Things didn't look good for Zimmermann four batters in; he gave up three hits and found himself down 2-0 just like that. But the right-hander found his groove over the course of the afternoon and kept the Marlins from scoring again after that. He wound up retiring the last seven batters he faced, four of them via strikeout. With his pitch count at 95 after six innings, he probably could have remained in the game. But Matt Williams decided to send up pinch-hitter Matt den Dekker in his spot and turn to his bullpen the rest of the way.

KEY STAT: Over the last two seasons, Brad Hand is 0-6 with a 7.84 ERA in seven starts against the Nationals.

UP NEXT: The series wraps up at 1:35 p.m. Sunday when Stephen Strasburg (coming off a 14-strikeout start in Philadelphia) looks to stay hot against Marlins lefty Justin Nicolino.

RELATED: Scherzer's fiery exchange with Williams highlights extra-inning win

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Michael A. Taylor played winter ball to work on his hitting. Here's why the Nats are hoping it makes a difference

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Michael A. Taylor played winter ball to work on his hitting. Here's why the Nats are hoping it makes a difference

Michael A. Taylor went on an unusual hunt this offseason. He traded the serenity of fishing in Colorado or Florida, among his favorite pastimes, for the noise of the Dominican Winter League.

Taylor joined Gigantes del Cibao, a rare move for a player entering his age-28 season who has played the last four years in the major leagues. The visit to the Dominican Republic did not go well. Taylor hit .143, struck out nine times and walked once in 29 plate appearances. A small sample size, but also an indicator more work is necessary.

Everyone involved with trying to unmask Taylor’s clear talent knew change was necessary. Taylor is quiet, supremely athletic and has delivered eye-popping glimpses of what he can do on the baseball field. Whether that is running down a fly ball in the gap or driving an opposite field postseason home run in a chilled Wrigley Field, he has performed at a level which displays a high ceiling. Taylor has also regularly entered disturbing droughts where he looks overmatched and uncorrectable. Fixing him at the plate, to any degree, gives the Nationals options. They could deploy him or find a future trade partner.

Initially, he was reluctant to go to the Winter League. He previously planned to work with hitting coach Kevin Long in Florida. All parties knew that would happen. The idea to fly south took further development and convincing. Eventually, Taylor agreed. Among the driving forces for the visit -- from the team’s perspective -- was Taylor’s truncated playing time in the second half of the 2018 season.

“Because of the lack of at-bats he had toward the end of the season, it’s always important to see live pitching,” President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo said in December. “We thought it was important to get him one-on-one work with Kevin and really break down his swing and kind of give Michael a fresh start going into spring training.”

Reworking Taylor’s swing began when his appearances on the field all but stopped. Juan Soto’s emergence paired with Adam Eaton’s healthy return to jettison Taylor to the bench. The timing was difficult. Taylor hit poorly in April and May when Eaton was out and an opportunity was available. His .626 OPS and 65 strikeouts in 210 plate appearances showed what happens when things are dismal for him at the plate. His .864 OPS -- despite 15 more strikeouts in just 68 plate appearances -- in June was yet another pop of what could be. Taylor stole 10 bases in 10 tries during the month, meaning he stole a base 39 percent of the time he reached safely.

Then his playing time shriveled: 48 plate appearances, 43 plate appearances, 16 plate appearances in the final three months. His OPS declined each month, too. Taylor quietly walked around the Nationals clubhouse as the season dissolved.

Long started working with him once he was off the field. They tried to shorten everything Taylor did at the plate. The priority is contact. If Rizzo is to be believed, and Taylor’s past performances have shown this to be true to an extent, Taylor is a modest dose of consistency from being a versatile weapon in the major leagues.

“I believe, seeing him as much as I have, you’re talking about a dynamic player,” Rizzo said. “With adjustments, he could be a special type of big-league player. Gold Glove-caliber defender. He’s got a plus-plus arm that’s accurate. He throws a lot of guys out. He’s a terrific base runner, he’s a great base stealer, he’s got big power. If he figures out the contact portion of it a little bit better, you’re talking about a guy who could have five tools. He’s had flashes of it in the past and he just needs to be more consistent in his approach at the plate.”

Where he fits now is unclear. Taylor, presumably, is the fourth outfielder to be deployed as a base stealing and defensive replacement late in games. Perhaps he splits time with Victor Robles in center field. If Bryce Harper returns, Taylor’s future becomes even more clouded.

What he does have is another chance and big backer in manager Davey Martinez. The Nationals made an around-the-calendar investment in Taylor in pursuit of unlocking what they believe still has a chance to exist.

What Taylor doesn’t have is much more time. He’s entering his age-28 season, fifth full year in the major leagues and closing in on the end of low-cost team control. A warm winter trip doesn’t change those facts.

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Philadelphia and DC are both likely to get a dose of Harper - the winter storm - this weekend

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Philadelphia and DC are both likely to get a dose of Harper - the winter storm - this weekend

At least one Harper is on its way to Philly. 

But despite the hopes of Phillies fans, it's not the baseball player - at least yet.

For the second time in less than two weeks, parts of the Midwest and the Northeast is set to get hit with a major winter storm - which thanks to someone with a great sense of humor or baseball knowledge or just pure coincidence - is named Winter Storm Harper.

While this storm is no way related to Bryce Harper' s free agency (officially, at least), it does have some impeccable timing. And, it is set to hit a few of the places he's reportedly considering - including Philadelphia and DC (though it may just miss Chicago according to forecasts).

On Twitter, fans - and even Harper himself - took note:

 

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