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Nats caught napping in Philly

Nats caught napping in Philly

PHILADELPHIA -- For nearly five months, they've cruised along with no real hint of adversity, ascending to their sport's best record and putting themselves in position to reach the playoffs and win their division for the first time.

The Nationals, though, haven't actually accomplished any of that yet, lest anyone forget. There are still 35 games to be played, and nothing has been assured other than the fact they're in a better position than any other club to accomplish their goal.

If they needed a reminder of that, perhaps this weekend's series did the trick. Facing a Phillies club that has little left to play for except for pride, the Nationals came out flat and got swept, dropping Sunday's series finale 4-1 to extend their losing streak to four games.

Time to panic? Well, no. This team still boasts baseball's best record at 77-50 and still holds either a 4 12- or 5 12-game lead over the Braves (pending the outcome of Atlanta's late contest in San Francisco).

Perhaps, however, it's time for a bit more sense of urgency from a club that has maintained an even-keel all season and has insisted it's still too early to think about the standings.

"At no time did I think we were out of those games," right fielder Jayson Werth said after seeing his team lose three straight by scores of 4-2, 4-2 and 4-1. "So, no, I don't think there's any panic or anything like that. Although, when you're in a pennant chase and you're getting into September, there definitely should be a sense of urgency."

There didn't appear to be much sense of that this weekend, certainly not during Sunday's finale that featured a fifth-inning meltdown by Jordan Zimmermann and then a seventh-inning brain cramp from Werth and Adam LaRoche that cost the Nationals at least one run, maybe more.

Zimmermann had been mowing down the Phillies lineup for four innings, matching Cliff Lee's mastery, before he made a couple of crucial mistakes. First, he served up an RBI double to Lee, who drilled the ball to deep center to bring the day's first run home. Then moments later, he grooved a 3-1 fastball to Jimmy Rollins and watched the ball fly into the right-field bleachers to give the Phillies a sudden 3-0 lead.

"The first four innings were kind of a breeze," said Zimmermann, now 1-2 with a 4.05 ERA in five August starts. "In the fifth inning, I just hit a wall and got in a little bit of trouble. I definitely felt strong, which is a good thing. The stuff was pretty sharp. I got to take some positive out of it."

Laynce Nix's solo homer off Tom Gorzelanny in the sixth -- the slugger's first off a left-hander in eight years -- increased the lead to 4-0, but the Nationals appeared to have a rally going in the seventh, only to have it quashed by Werth and LaRoche's mental gaffe.

The situation: With Werth on second base and nobody out, LaRoche launched a high drive to right field. The ball struck a railing just above the fence and bounced back onto the warning track. First base umpire Gerry Davis immediately signaled the ball was in play -- the correct call according to the Citizens Bank Park ground rules -- but LaRoche and Werth each assumed it was a home run and began to trot around the bases.

The Phillies, on the other hand, realized the actual situation and got the ball back into the infield, ultimately getting LaRoche into a rundown between second and third, with Werth stuck on third base.

"I screwed up," LaRoche said. "I should've stopped at second there. Got a little confused coming around second. Looked up and saw Jayson breaking for home, and then was going to try to get into third and he came back. Just a cluster."

"I guess I saw -- what I thought I saw -- was the ball hitting the walkway above the fence," said Werth, who has plenty of experience with right field in this ballpark. "So I had no indication it wasn't a homer until I was halfway home, and for some reason third base coach Bo Porter was screaming about something, and I look up and the ball's on the way home. I obviously messed up the play, cost Rochie an easy RBI and potentially cost us a win."

Who knows what would have transpired had Werth and LaRoche responded appropriately, but the gaffe did feel worse when Tyler Moore followed with a double down the left-field line that would have scored LaRoche had he still been on base.

"I mean, this is a game you never take anything for granted," manager Davey Johnson said. "My two veteran players took it for granted that the ball was out. ... That's kind of a mental mistake, because you can always review it. You never put yourself in position with the ball still on the field, and two veteran players messed that up."

The Nationals never threatened again and went down quietly against the Phillies bullpen, dropping three in a row to a club that knows its streak of division championships will end at five but is still playing with some fire down the stretch.

In the visiting clubhouse afterward, Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo wound up in heated discussion, but nothing that seemed to linger 15 minutes later. Asked if he felt his players had eased off the gas pedal this weekend or if he felt the need to hold a team meeting, Johnson emphatically said no.

"These guys ain't easing off the gas pedal," the manager said. "They're grinding. You're never as bad as you look when you lose, and you're never as good as you look when you win. Just remember that, you know? These guys don't need a pep talk, they don't need anything. A couple guys need to get healthy, and we'll be fine."

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5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

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USA TODAY Sports

5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals traded for Royals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera this evening. 

Not only did the Nationals trade for Kelvin Herrera, but they did so without losing Juan Soto, Victor Robles, or Andrew Stevenson. The first two were never in any real danger of being traded for a relief pitcher who will be a free agent at year's end, but the Nats escaped only giving up their 10th and 11th ranked prospects:

On the surface, this deal looks exceptional for the Nationals. Herrera is another back-of-the-bullpen type that only further deepens the Nats' options in that department. Here are a handful of things you should know about the Nationals' newest pitcher:

1. Herrera's strikeout "issue" is complicated 

Herrera, like many other closers over the last half-decade, has made his name in strikeouts. He topped out at a 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and has a 23.4 percent clip for his career. His K% this season sits at 23.2 percent, which is both higher than last season and lower than his career average. 

People will look at his dramatic K/9 drop as a red flag, but "per/9" stats are flawed and not generally a worthwhile stat to build an argument around. A pitcher who gets knocked around for five runs in an inning -- but gets three strikeouts -- can have the same K/9 of a different (much more efficient) pitcher who strikes out the side in order. 

2. Herrera has basically stopped walking batters 

His career BB% sits at 7.1 percent. His highest clip is nine percent (2014, 2015) and his lowest was a shade over four percent (2016). 

This season, he's walking batters at a two percent  rate. In 27 games this season, he's walked two batters. Two! 

3. The jury seems to still be out on how good of a year he's had so far

Analytics are frustrating. On one hand, they can serve wonderfully as tools to help peel back the curtains and tell a deeper story - or dispel lazy narratives. On the other hand, they can be contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading. 

Take, for instance, Herrera's baseline pitching stats. His ERA sits at 1.05, while his FIP sits at 2.62. On their own, both numbers are impressive. On their own, both numbers are All-Star level stats. 

When you stack them against each other, however, the picture turns negative. While ERA is the more common stat, it's widely accepted that FIP more accurately represents a pitcher's true value (ERA's calculation makes the same per/9 mistakes that were mentioned above). 

More often than not, when a pitcher's ERA is lower than his FIP, that indicates said pitcher has benefited from luck. 

Throw in a 3.51 xFIP (which is the same as FIP, but park-adjusted) and we suddenly have a real mess on our hands. Is he the pitcher with the great ERA, the pitcher with the Very Good FIP, or the pitcher with the medicore xFIP? 

4. He was a fastball pitcher, and then he wasn't, and now he is again

Take a look at Herrera's pitch usage over his career in Kansas City:

In only three years, he's gone from throwing a sinker 31 percent of the time to completely giving up on the pitch. That's pretty wild. 

Since 2014, he's gone to the slider more and more in every year. 

His current fastball usage would be the highest of his career. He only appeared in two games during the 2011 season, so those numbers aren't reliable. Going away from the sinker probably helps explain why his Ground Ball rate has dropped 10 percentage points, too. 

5. The Nats finally have the bullpen they've been dreaming about for years

Doolittle, Herrera, Kintzler, and Madson is about as deep and talented as any bullpen in baseball.

Justin Miller, Sammy Solis, and Wander Suero all have flashed serious potential at points throughout the year. Austin Voth is waiting for roster expansion in September. 

The Nats have been trying to build this type of bullpen for the better part of the last decade. Health obviously remains an important factor, but Rizzo's got the deepest pen of his time in D.C. 

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Nationals trade for Royals' closer Kelvin Herrera

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals trade for Royals' closer Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals made the first major trade of the season this evening. 

Midway through their Monday night game against the Yankees, the team announced that they had completed a trade for Royals' relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera:

Herrera's a major acquisition for the Nationals, as the pitcher is in the middle of a career year. He's currently pitched 25 innings so far, posting a 1.05 FIP, 2.62 ERA and 0.82 WHIP. His 2.1 percent walk rate this season is a career low. 

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