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Nats waste Jackson's brilliant start

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Nats waste Jackson's brilliant start

They packed themselves into Nationals Park on a gorgeous Saturday night, the second-largest gathering in the stadium's history, and for 2 hours and 35 minutes they waited anxiously for an opportunity to explode.

Even as Jon Niese posted zero after zero on the scoreboard, the sellout throng of 42,662 sensed the Nationals would eventually do something at the plate. This team had come from behind too many times and scored too many runs lately to believe another rally wasn't forthcoming, a sentiment shared by those inside the dugout.

"Put us in that situation," Edwin Jackson said, "more times than not we come through."

Except this time they didn't. The big hit never came. And by night's end, the Nationals were left scratching their heads at a 2-0 loss to the Mets that had to rank among their most frustrating of the season.

"Wasn't a sloppy game," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Just offensively we got shut down. Defense was fine. Not a lot of terrible at-bats. Just one of those nights."

Perhaps it was just one of those nights for a Nationals lineup that rarely has been carved up the way Niese and two New York relievers did in this one. But when it happened on the same night Jackson was absolutely brilliant on the mound, it was perhaps a tougher pill to swallow.

The veteran right-hander blew away the Mets with a deadly cutter-slider combo that left nearly every opposing hitter flailing away with little chance of making contact. He recorded a season-high 11 strikeouts, nine of them swinging. All told, he recorded 21 swinging strikes, matching Stephen Strasburg's June 20 start against the Rays for the most by any Nationals pitcher this season.

"I'll tell ya, Jackson's been good all year," manager Davey Johnson said. "That was probably the most dominant I've seen him pitch."

Yet when the seventh inning arrived with nary a run tallied by either club, Jackson still had no margin for error. Which made his two subsequent errors especially disheartening.

It began with a five-pitch walk to David Wright, the last of which nearly took the slugger's head off. Moments later, Jackson grooved a first-pitch fastball to Ike Davis and then watched as the Mets cleanup hitter sent the ball flying into the left-field bullpen for a two-run homer.

"You've got a guy that goes up there and shuts them down like he did, he probably threw less bad pitches than Niese," LaRoche said. "I mean hittable pitches. And one of them happened to leave the park. It's tough."

Seven days earlier, Jackson departed a ragged start in Arizona having allowed five runs in 5 23 innings yet walked away with a win. This time, he departed after seven innings of two-hit ball yet walked away with a loss.

"Tonight, Niese was the better pitcher," he said. "He came out and held us scoreless, and their bullpen did the same. I gave up two runs and we lost."

The Nationals didn't even mount any serious threats against Niese, scattering five hits over his 7 13 innings. But they came up to bat in the ninth feeling good about their chances for a last-ditch rally, with the heart of their lineup due up and a closer with a 6.06 ERA on the mound in Frank Francisco.

And when Ryan Zimmerman led off by scorching a line drive toward the right-field corner, the sellout crowd finally had reason to perk up. Zimmerman was sure the ball would ricochet off the wall for a double, and the Nationals would bring the tying run to the plate in the form of cleanup hitter Michael Morse.

Then he saw right fielder Mike Baxter emerge out of nowhere to make a lunging catch before slamming into the fence, quashing the Nationals' last hope for a game-winning rally.

"I have no idea where he was playing and why he was playing there," Zimmerman said. "Two-nothing, I don't know why you would play 'no doubles' defense. It's a good catch. I really don't know why he was there. But he got me out, so it worked."

Francisco then struck out Morse and got LaRoche to ground out, and that was that.

Some in the crowd quietly made their way toward the exits. Some remained in their seats for a postgame concert.

And inside the home clubhouse, the Nationals tried to figure out how they managed to get such a dominant performance out of their starting pitcher yet having to show for it by night's end.

"As far as being efficient with his pitches and working fast and getting strikeouts and groundballs ... probably as good as we've seen," LaRoche said. "Sucks to waste it like that."

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Dozier and Long a match made in launch angle heaven

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USA Today Sports

Dozier and Long a match made in launch angle heaven

Brian Dozier came to a realization following his rookie season in 2012. Why not hit the ball more often in the air and accentuate a strength? Instead of drilling to fix a weakness -- like opposite-field hitting or even ground ball rate -- choose to club away, in the air, to the pull side, as often as possible.

No en vogue terminology explained Dozier’s pursuit of six years ago. Omnipotent terms like “launch angle” remained shrouded and in development. Dozier didn’t need a phrase. He just needed to do what worked more often.

The idea took with career-altering results. Dozier hit 18 home runs, then 23, then 28, then 42. Pull-side fly balls turned him into an All-Star and commodity at second base. His new one-year deal with the Nationals brings him a hitting coach who is elated by the idea of hitting up and over.

Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long is the effervescent patriarch of launch angle. “We want to hit it over the shift,” Long will tell anyone willing to listen. Do damage, hit bombs, whatever slang term is preferred. Just hit the ball in the air. On the ground equals outs. In the air produces runs.

Melding a second baseman in search of a reboot after a down year with a hitting coach who is going to trumpet a cause the infielder already backed could be a powerful formula.

“When I changed my approach at the end of 2012 going into 2013, there was no launch angle, any of that stuff, but looking back at it now that’s kind of exactly what it was,” Dozier said Tuesday on a conference call. “We just didn’t have a name for it. “[It’s] recognizing your strength and doing everything you can to be really good at your strength rather than try to tweak weaknesses and stuff. And one of those strengths for me is hitting the ball in the air to left field, left-center field. Once I kind of got that part of it, I really enjoyed doing that. It’s going to be a fun year with a hitting coach that kind of sees the same thing, whether your strength is hitting the ball in the air or hitting the ball the other way, I believe in really honing into your strength and really running with that. Some guys’ strengths aren’t hitting the ball in the air, which is fine.”

The numbers coinciding with Dozier’s rise from eighth-round pick to among the league leaders in homers from 2014-2017 are stark. His fly ball rate increased year after year until peaking in 2016 at 47.7 percent, the same season he hit 42 home runs. His 120 OPS-plus in that span showed what kind of work he performed in Minnesota’s cool and spacious Target Field.

However, 2018 brought a significant recession when an April bone bruise in his left knee hindered him throughout the season. Tuesday, Dozier explained the importance of load bearing and stability from his front leg in order to execute his upward swing. Instead of landing on the front of his foot, the knee bruise pushed him back to his heel, opening his hips early. Grizzly results followed: 21 homers, a .215 average, sub-.700 OPS.

Dozier said Tuesday his knee is healed. Finally receiving a break from baseball following the World Series allowed him to recover. That’s also when he had to decide his future. Dozier wasn’t sure how the market would react to his down season following years of being one of the heaviest second base bats in baseball. He said he received multiple offers -- some providing more years and money than the Nationals’ one-year, $9 million deal he settled on -- before selecting Washington. Conversations with his ex-Minnesota teammate Kurt Suzuki, in his second stint with the Nationals, and former Washington outfielder Josh Willingham, who played with Dozier in Minnesota, too, helped sway his decision.

“It just seemed like a really good fit,” Dozier said.

That is applicable to this coming partnership between Dozier and Long. In the air, often and to the pull side. It’s a subtle pairing that could help Dozier return to the 30-home run mark, and the Nationals to receive inexpensive bop from an infield spot.

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Twists and turns keep coming in Harper sweepstakes

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Twists and turns keep coming in Harper sweepstakes

No better soap opera has graced Major League Baseball than Bryce Harper’s journey into free agency. Each spring training opened with questions about what would happen down the line for Harper, who turned from teenager to drinking age to his mid-20s fielding the same queries about his pending freedom. Harper promptly smacked those questions away at the start of spring training in 2018. That was when he delivered a threat to walk out if asked what had become a standard question on the first day he spoke each spring in Florida.

A snow-filled January Sunday in the DMV delivered another twist -- sort of. Bob Nightengale of USA Today, who has been adamant throughout the offseason Harper would sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, reported the Phillies are now the “clear-cut favorite” to sign Harper following a five-hour meeting Saturday in Las Vegas, though no offer has been made.

Nightengale went on to say the Nationals are, in essence, receding into the background.

What we know is Harper’s market is small. We also knew that from the start. Philadelphia’s spending following the 2017 offseason suggested it was in a mood to distribute cash. It took on Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, the latter move shoving slugger Rhys Hoskins into the outfield, forcing an expensive square-peg, round-hole situation. But they chose to pay for it, hinting future expenditures were to come.

So, Philadelphia’s desire to chase Harper and/or Manny Machado this offseason makes baseline sense. A key to recall here is whether Harper would actually want to play for these teams who are pursuing him. That’s unclear and will remain so until he chooses one.

Strange in Sunday’s report is the suggestion Harper would have taken a discount to return to Washington.

“Nats officials privately say Harper no longer is in their plans, and unless Lerner changes his mind or Harper accepts a contract that pays him less than $25 million a year, they anticipate life without him.”

The team already offered an average annual value of $30 million over 10 years -- likely with a chunk of the money deferred. While that deal could have been rescinded, the logic of doing so then backtracking to $25 million doesn’t make sense. Why offer $30 million per, be declined, then come back with a push for $25 million?

These machinations were expected. No easy path toward a conclusion seemed imminent from the start, not with so much money on the line, so much grandeur at stake and such length of commitment necessary. Max Scherzer, having gone through this process following the 2014 season, had a prediction of what would come.

“Stay patient,” Scherzer told me of what he would advise Harper about the process. “There’s going to be, if I had to guess, there’s going to be a lot of -- lot of -- hoopla and negative press trying to tear you down. There will probably be a lot more teams saying, no, they don’t want to sign you than you ever could possibly believe.

“They will find every little thing to critique you over and you can’t let that affect you. You have to have a business mind. You have to stay patient. You have to know the value you create and basically stick to your guns. Just know it’s going to be a fight.”

Harper last played in Nationals Park 14 weeks ago. He closed the season Sept. 30 in Colorado. He’s since been prominent, an every-few-days presence in the news cycle, without uttering a word. He was perhaps most on display -- though not present -- when Scott Boras rambled through an hour-long visit with reporters in Las Vegas.

Pitchers, catchers, and all types are a month away from walking into spring training. That leaves a few more weeks for Harper maneuvering, and perhaps, finally, a decision. An easy path has not materialized. That’s the one thing in all of this known to be true.

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