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One run won't cut it for Nats

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One run won't cut it for Nats

BALTIMORE -- As consistent and as dominant as their pitching staff has been since Opening Day, the Nationals have known all along there will be days when they simply need to score a few more runs and take some of the pressure off those electric arms who take the mound in succession inning after inning, day after day.

That's why Ryan Zimmerman is attempting to play through a nagging shoulder injury, why the veteran third baseman received a pain-killing shot one hour before Sunday's game in what could become a recurring theme for the rest of the season.

Zimmerman knows the Nationals' lineup needs all the help it can get right now, and who better to provide that spark than a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner?

"We need to score more," he said. "That's not in question."

True, Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Orioles was a direct result of Sean Burnett serving up a two-run homer to Matt Wieters in the bottom of the eighth, the first time the left-hander had blown a lead this year.

But the Nationals can ask their typically lights-out bullpen to protect such slim leads only so many times over a full season without accepting the occasional slip-up.

"It's not the easiest thing in the world," Burnett said. "You'd like to have a little bit of leniency. But a 1-run lead, our job is to come in and nail it down. And unfortunately I didn't do that today."

Had Burnett's teammates given him a cushion of even two or maybe three runs instead of one, perhaps the result would have been different. But these days, the Nationals can't count on their lineup producing anything more than the bare minimum on a daily basis.

Over their last nine games, the Nationals have given up 29 runs, a more-than-respectable average of 3.2. But during that same span, they've scored only 23 runs, an paltry average of 2.6. (It's probably no surprise their record in those games was 3-6.)

They had opportunities to add to Sunday's output but went 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position against Baltimore starter Jake Arrieta, who entered with a 5.83 ERA and an AL-leading nine losses.

The lone run-producing hit by a player wearing red and blue in this game? Zimmerman's RBI single in the third, perhaps his most-impressive hit in weeks, given the fact he drove a 95 mph fastball over shortstop J.J. Hardy's head despite the persistent shoulder pain that has afflicted him most of this season.

The difference for Zimmerman? The pain-killing shot that included cortisone and lidocaine and gave the ailing third baseman "relief" for the first time in a long time.

"Obviously, I wasn't performing," he said. "But to go out there today and feel a little bit like I could do the things that I've always been able to do gave me a little bit more confidence and just makes you happier."

Zimmerman wound up with a pair of hits that raised his batting average to .223, a well-stuck fly ball to center field and several highlight-reel plays at third base. That performance -- barely 12 hours after he finally admitted the extent to which his shoulder injury was affecting his swing and suggested he may need to spend time on the disabled list -- left the Nationals feeling better about his long-term prognosis.

Team doctors examined Zimmerman's shoulder Sunday morning and came away with the same diagnosis from two months ago: A sprained AC joint. They found no damage to any tendons or ligaments, only a bone-on-bone situation that's causing the pain.

At some point, preferably in the offseason, Zimmerman could have surgery to clean up the area. Recovery time would be roughly 4-6 weeks. For now, he believes he can continue to play, with the aid of the occasional pain-killing shot.

"I can play through this," he said. "And that's what I plan to do for the rest of the year."

The Nationals can only hope the treatment now only allows Zimmerman to take the field each day but also allows him to rediscover the power stroke that made him such a dangerous hitter through the first six seasons of his big-league career. Even so, a healthy Zimmerman might not be enough to carry a lineup that has scored only 262 runs this season (fourth fewest in the majors).

Sunday's game saw the Nationals get a total of two hits from players not named Zimmerman or Bryce Harper (who singled in the first inning and then hustled to turn a routine base hit to center into a electrifying double in the sixth inning).

That second Harper hit, which drew oohs and aahs from the bipartisan crowd of 41,794 at Camden Yards, put the Nationals in golden position to add to their 1-0 lead. But Zimmerman struck out swinging at a 2-2 breaking ball low and outside. And after Adam LaRoche was intentionally walked, Michael Morse struck out swinging at another 2-2 breaking ball, then Ian Desmond popped out to end the inning.

"I still think we're not ... a lot of hitters are doing some over-aggressiveness," Johnson said. "We're trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark instead of making good swings. But we're getting there."

The silver lining to all this is that the Nationals, in spite of their offensive woes, will hold at least a 2 12-game lead in the NL East come Monday morning. They also just survived what could be the toughest stretch of their season -- 32 consecutive games against only NL East and AL East opponents -- with an 18-14 record.

They also know that while pitching wins championships, a little offense every now and then certainly helps.

"We want to score more runs," Zimmerman said. "I think this whole series kind of shows you how good both of these teams' pitching is. It's not easy to score runs, but we definitely need to do a better job of capitalizing on our opportunities."

Whether Zimmerman's new treatment plan can keep him in the lineup -- and, more importantly, whether he can produce again -- could go a long way toward answering this club's most-pressing question.

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Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

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USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

It’s happening.

When the 2018 All-Star Weekend comes to Washington, D.C. in the middle of July, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will compete in the 2018 Home Run Derby, but only on one condition: He has to be a member of the 2018 National League All-Star Team.

Though Harper is having a down year, only hitting .213 thus far, he leads the NL in home runs with 19.

In the June 18 update of All-Star game voting, Harper sat second among all outfielders with just north of 1,000,000 votes.

That means he’s not only going to make the All-Star team, but he’ll likely start in the outfield.

Harper, a five-time All-Star, competed in the Home Run Derby once before. He was the runner-up to Yoenis Cespedes in 2013, losing by just one long ball, 9-8.

The 2018 Home Run Derby will take place on July 16 at Nationals Park.

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It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

Remember when the Nationals put Trea Turner in centerfield so they could keep Danny Espinosa at shortstop?

Two years later it's Turner who leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR, as you surely know if you follow the Nationals on literally any social media platform. 

So while Juan Soto and Bryce Harper continue to dominate all of The Takes, it's Turner who's been the Nats' best position player this season. 

We'll start with some basics: 

Did you know that Trea Turner leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR? He's currently sitting at 2.4 WAR, above the likes of Brandon Crawford, Addison Russell, and Trevor Story, to name a few. (We'll ignore the fact that the top six shortstops in the A.L. all have a better fWAR.) He's a top-10 shortstop in baseball during one of the strongest eras in the position's history.

Even after a dreadfully slow start, Turner's still on pace to have the best season of his career. He posted a WAR of 2.9 last year and -- barring injury -- will realistically eclipse that by the All-Star game. 

At the plate, two stats jump off the page in regards to explaining Turner's stellar season. 

First, Turner is drawing a *bunch* of walks. His current BB% clip (10.6 percent) would be far and away the best of his career and up four percentage points from last year. It's a factor that helps explain - partially, at least - why his on-base percentage has risen and his BABIP has dropped. More walks mean fewer swings, fewer swings mean less contact, less contact means lower BABIP, etc. It's not the whole picture, but it's a big part of it. 

Secondly, Turner is making impressive contact on pitches out of the strike zone. FanGraphs calculates out-of-zone contact using a statistic titled O-Contact, which is a blessing considering some of the titles they choose to give their other stats. 

The average O-Contact across MLB in 2018 is 64.7 percent. Trea Turner's career O-Contact is 62.4 percent (although realistically it's closer to the high-50's - a small-sample-size from his abbreviated first season mucks up the number a bit). 

This season, Turner's posted an O-Contact of 69.3 percent. Not only is that 10 percentage points higher than his O-Contact from last season, but a top-50 clip in all of baseball. He's one spot ahead of Mike Trout!  Put both of these together with some encouraging Statcast numbers (rise in HardHit%, already matched his total 'barrels' from last season) and you can see why Turner's been thriving at the plate. 

Defensively, he's improved across the board as well. His UZR and DRS - considered the two most reliable fielding statistics, if such a thing exists - are both up from last year. He has the 10th-best UZR of all major league shortstops and ranks 1st in DRS. 

Last season, he finished 17th in both UZR and DRS (of all shortstops with at least 800 innings; Turner didn't log enough innings to be considered a qualified fielder). He ended the season with both numbers in the negative. 

You may be skeptical of defensive stats, which is fine. But if nothing else, the fact that Turner is turning literal negative stats into positive ones is encouraging. 

Lastly, Turner continues to be an elite baserunner. At this point in his career, his speed is arguably his best tool:

You'll note that purple dot allllllllllll the way on the right. That's Turner! Now, let's take a look at how his speed compares across all positions:

Essentially, Turner is faster than like, 98 percent of baseball. In fact, by Sprint Speed, he's the 6th-fastest player in the game. He also ranks 2nd across all of baseball in FanGraphs "Baserunning" measurements, only behind fellow teammate and mindbogglingly good baserunner Michael A. Taylor. 

So, Trea Turner an elite baserunner (maybe the best if you combine his raw speed with his baserunning stats), a top-5 shortstop in the field, and an All-Star at the plate. 

Juan Soto's been great and Bryce Harper is still extremely talented, but this year, Trea Turner has been the Nationals' best player. 

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