Here come the Phillies
Because of the quirks of this season's scheduling, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals will finally meet on the field this weekend, near the end of the second month of the season. The Nationals enter Friday's game 4.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East standings and one game ahead of the Phillies.
After a rough 10-game West Coast swing, the Nationals could use a strong showing against their fiercest division rival to boost their position. Before the season, several observers tabbed the Phillies as a dark-horse NL East contender. The Phillies, just like the Nationals, however, have managed to float around .500 despite a rash of injuries or ineffective performances. The Phillies are 23-24 with a negative-31 run differential.
The Phillies have also suffered from an impotent offense. They are averaging 3.55 runs per game, better only than the Dodgers (3.47), Nationals (3.38) and Marlins (2.66). They have a combined OPS of .690, fifth worst in the majors. Only one Phillies regular has an OPS over .800 and that's resurgent Chase Utley, who was enjoying a strong bounce-back season at 34 until he landed on the disabled list on Thursday with an oblique strain.
Ryan Howard, who is in the second season of a five-year, $125-million contract that looks like a misstep in hindsight, is hitting .263/.297/.444 with six homers and has dealt with a balky knee. Ben Revere, the center fielder the Phillies acquired from the Twins, has missed time because of minor injuries and ineffectiveness, and has .299 on-base percentage. Michael Young, the 36-year-old the Phillies hoped would solve their third base issues, has a .754 OPS with one homer. Jimmy Rollins has a .705 OPS. Catcher Carlos Ruiz, who returned from a 25-game suspension for a banned amphetamine, strained his hamstring in his 16th game back. Yet again age has caught up with the Phillies, who have the sixth-oldest roster in baseball.
The Phillies have been propped up somewhat by their starting pitching. The rotation has posted a 3.94 ERA, 15th in the majors, but the bullpen's 4.63 ERA is fifth worst. The bullpen has allowed a major-league-leading 46 percent (26 of 56) of inherited runners to score, also an issue last season.
After looking like a shell of his former self, Roy Halladay is out with major shoulder surgery and the Phillies sound almost too optimistic he could return later this season. Cliff Lee has been strong again, off to a 5-2 start with a 2.48 ERA and is yet again the subject of trade talk. Left-hander Cole Hamels, whom the Nationals face on Sunday, is off to a 1-7 start with a 4.45 ERA. Old friend John Lannan has been out since late April with a strained knee and could be back next month. Fill-ins Tyler Cloyd and Jonathan Pettibone have been serviceable, but the Phillies are in the same situation as last season. When the Phillies suffered from injuries last season, their lack of quality depth was exposed.
When the teams take the field against each other for the first time on Friday, the luster of past meetings may be missing. Both have stumbled to start the season, with the Phillies seemingly heading soon towards a crossroads, a team that might soon further sell off its parts if it sinks deeper. When both teams faced off in a rare spring-training meeting, they engaged in a playful skirmish, another moment in their heated history. There seems to be little reason for that same spark this time around.
FROM THE POST
The Nationals return from a hectic West Coast road trip still looking to improve, writes Adam Kilgore.
FROM YESTERDAY'S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 8, Columbus 7: Matt Torra started and allowed three runs over four innings. Tanner Roark tossed two scoreless innings in relief. Erik Davis blew the save but notched the win. Left-hander Xavier Cedeno earned his first save. Micah Owings went 2 for 6, drove in five and smashed his fifth homer. Chris Marrero drove in two and is hitting .300. Chris Rahl went 2 for 5 with a homer.
Erie 8, Harrisburg 6: Taylor Jordan started but lasted only one inning. Anthony Rendon went 0 for 3 with two walks and is hitting .330. Josh Johnson went 2 for 4 with three RBI. Jerad Head and Sean Nicol drove in a run each. Sandy Leon scored two runs.
Frederick 7, Potomac 4: A.J. Cole started and allowed five runs on seven hits over five innings. He has a 1-2 record with a 4.98 ERA. Michael Taylor, Cutter Dykstra, Adrian Nieto and Caleb Ramsey each went 2 for 4.
Hagerstown 7, Lexington 0: Ivan Pineyro started and allowed only three hits over seven innings, walked two and struck out six. Tony Renda went 3 for 5. Brandon Miller and Will Piwnica-Worms each finished 2 for 4.
Brandon Miller provides power in the middle of Hagerstown's lineup
Miller, a fourth-round pick last June, has four home runs and 13 RBI in his past 10 games with the Suns, moving him into a tie with Class AAA Syracuse shortstop Zach Walters for the Nationals' organization lead with nine homers. A year after hitting 23 home runs in 246 at-bats as a senior at Samford, Miller is tied for fifth in the South Atlantic League in homers and tied for 11th with a .503 slugging percentage.
"It's good pitching here," Miller said Wednesday after the Suns lost for the only time in a three-game home series against Greensboro. " A lot of guys have more command with their fastball and their off-speed stuff. There were some guys like that in college, but here it's an everyday kind of thing. But I pretty much have the same approach. Hitting is always the same."
The Suns have won six straight series to take over first place in the Northern Division at 26-16. Miller, a 23-year-old former catcher, is getting used to a more rigorous schedule than what he saw in the New York-Penn League and at Georgia Tech, Northwest Florida State College and Samford.
"It takes a toll on your body that I didn't expect, but I'm figuring out a way to work through it," Miller said. "It's been a lot of fun, with a great group of guys and a great coaching staff."
At Georgia Tech, Miller was stuck as the third-string catcher behind Jason Haniger and Cole Leonida, who is in the Nationals' system at high-Class A Potomac.
In search of playing time, Miller caught for a year in junior college before heading to Samford, which had recruited him out of high school in College Park, Ga. The Birmingham, Ala., school was a nice fit for Miller, who moved to right field because he had a bone spur in his knee. His strong arm helped him make the switch, and he has only one error in 39 games in right field this season while hitting .245 with 27 RBI.
At Samford, Miller met his wife, Jessica, who played tennis for the Bulldogs. The two were married Jan. 5.
Miller helped lead Samford's baseball program to its first NCAA tournament trip, and then he homered in a win over Mississippi State in the program's first game in regionals.
"Nothing can ever compare to that experience, going with a team that had never made a regional before," Miller said. "That's something I'll never forget."
The struggles of the Nationals bullpen
The struggles of the Nationals' bullpen reached a calamitous low this week, not all a result of their own doing. Ross Detwiler couldn't make his start Monday because of a slight oblique strain and left-handed long reliever Zach Duke took his place with Craig Stammen serving as his backup. Ryan Mattheus coughed up five runs on Sunday, punched a locker, broke his hand and landed on the disabled list. So after Monday's game, the Nationals' seven-man bullpen was down to four. During the 10-game West Coast road trip, the bullpen was handed a lead five times and squandered it three times.
Manager Davey Johnson has admitted several times this season, including this week, that it has been hard to manage the bullpen. Just as relievers were beginning to adjust to their determined roles, the starting pitchers had a string of long outings and deprived the bullpen of work and created rust. And it didn't help that before the reinforcements of Yunesky Maya and Fernando Abad arrived, Johnson was basically operating with a six-man bullpen, as he still hasn't built up enough trust in Henry Rodriguez yet to use him in precarious situations.
The Nationals bullpen has a 4.21 ERA, 22nd in the majors. They have, however, done that in relatively fewer chances. The Nationals bullpen has logged only 126 innings, the 24th highest total in the majors. Early last season, Johnson leaned more on his bullpen than his starting pitchers. Because of need, performance and injury this season, the reverse has been the case. This year, the starters have a 3.24 ERA, third best in the majors, over 289 1/3 innings, the fifth highest total. So in fewer innings, the bullpen has been worse.
Relative to the innings they've pitched, Nationals relievers have allowed too many baserunners. The bullpen has posted a 1.38 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), 23rd in the majors, sandwiched between the poor bullpens of the Marlins and Cubs. The hits and walks, as evidenced by Drew Storen's eighth in Wednesday's game, have come at costly moments. The Nationals have blown eight saves (three each by Rafael Soriano and Storen), tied for fifth most in the majors.
Roles are jumbled. Soriano is the closer, Storen is the eighth inning set-up man and Tyler Clippard is the seventh inning reliever, who is also often brought in to face a left-handed heavy inning. Stammen has been perhaps the most versatile and valuable reliever, but hamstrung by his long reliever role. But with so many other factors swirling -- performance, injuries, strong starting pitching, limited relievers -- the bullpen configuration has been out of whack.
The relief that arrived this week may help alleviate the load. Depending on Detwiler's progress, right-handed Yunesky Maya, a starter in Class AAA Syracuse, may not be needed. Left-handed reliever Fernando Abad, who Nationals evaluators have been high on after a strong showing in the spring, could help correct some of the imbalance of having only one left-hander in the bullpen. With Mattheus out for at least a month, Abad could give Johnson more options. And more than anything, the Nationals need a talented bullpen to perform more consistently in its opportunities.
Bryce Harper conquers the wall, at least for one day
On Tuesday night, Gregor Blanco smashed a ball over his head that could have been the final out. As Harper leapt to catch it, he braced for the wall even though he had not yet reached the warning track. It fell for a game-tying triple. Afterward, Harper admitted his collision last week with the fence at Dodger Stadium remained on his mind. "I better figure it out soon," Harper said. If not, he said, "I'm going to be in Triple A."
In baseball, they say, the ball finds you. With two outs in the sixth, the Nationals led by a run after Harper himself had hit a solo homer in the top of the inning. Hunter Pence launched a fly ball to deep right-center. Harper drifted back, just like he had the night before. Harper sprinted on the warning track. He made a running catch at almost the exact point the game-tying hit landed Tuesday, then tapped his feet and ran alongside the fence, ball securely in his glove.
On the mound, Gio Gonzalez smiled and clapped his hands. Center fielder Denard Span, having ranged close to the spot Harper made the catch, patted him on the head. Shortstop Ian Desmond Desmond waited for Harper by the dugout, arms outstretched. Harper tried to high-five him. Desmond moved in for a hug.
"I was just glad I was going to see him for another day," Desmond said. "He didn't get sent down to Triple A."
Desmond could laugh, because Harper had apparently conquered the wall. In his mind, though, Harper still had work left. The play helped him overcome his trepidation "maybe a little bit," Harper said. "But it's still in my head going into it. I'm trying to get past that, but it's going to take time."
Harper, remember, has only played outfield since August 2010, when the Nationals signed him and converted him from an amateur catcher into a professional outfielder. He played center for the majority of last season. Even though he played the corner spots in the minors for one-plus seasons, he is reading angles and ball flights that seem new to him.
And then he ran face-first into the Dodger Stadium wall.
"People on the outside don't really understand the type of mental hurdle that is," Desmond said. "You run into a wall, or you get caught stealing, whatever it may be, to bounce back from it is a huge mental hurdle. I just wanted him to know, 'Hey, man, we appreciate you taking it.' Because running into the wall full-speed does not ever feel good. For to put it on the line for us right there, in a huge part of the game, especially after what happened yesterday, that took some big guts."
While Harper felt he still had at least a partial mental to overcome, he seemed different from center field.
"He looked more confident," Span said. "I can tell maybe just a split second he thought about, but he just kept going. I think that was just big for him, to trust himself and trust where he was at, and just play aggressive. That's what we need him to do. We need him to be aggressive. When he's not aggressive, he's not the same player.
"It's definitely a big hurdle. Mentally, psychologically, however you want to put it, hopefully he'll turn the page on that. He's still learning how to play the outfield. I think he's just going to continue to get better."
FROM THE POST
At the end of a strange, painful road trip, Bryce Harper lifted the Nationals to a 2-1 victory over the Giants.
FROM YESTERDAY'S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse was off.
Erie 7, Harrisburg 6: Anthony Rendon was out of the lineup. Jerad Head went 2 for 4 with a double and a home run. Destin Hood went 2 for 4 with a double. Nate Karns allowed four earned runs in six innings on eight hits and a walk, striking out nine.
Potomac was rained out.
Greensboro 6, Hagerstown 2: Wander Ramos went 2 for 3 with a walk. Pedro Severino went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk. Kylin Turnbull allowed five runs, none earned, in four innings on five hits and a walk.
Rafael Soriano explains comments to Bryce Harper as hitting the wall lingers
This morning, Rafael Soriano strolled to the back corner of the Nationals clubhouse inside AT&T Park. Dressed in all black, he dropped a bag in his chair and removed silver headphones from ears, hanging them on a hook in his locker. Behind him, Bryce Harper sat facing his stall, pecking on his phone. Soriano turned, took three steps and tapped Harper on the shoulder. They walked together into a side room, away from the eyes of teammates and reporters.
"Just talking about it," Harper said later. "It's all good."
Soriano explained to Harper the comments he made to USA Today, which he had already discussed with The Post before coming to the clubhouse. The conversation, both players said, put the incident behind them. Soriano's original statement also underscored frustration at the end of a rocky West Coast trip and highlighted Harper's admitted leeriness of the outfield fence.
"We're good," Soriano said. "I don't talk to him every time, but sometimes I talk to him. Two days ago I talked to him about something about this game and he said, 'Thank you for telling me that.' You know, before I talked to you guys I wanted to talk to him and, it's fine. The [USA Today reporter], I've been joking. He asked me something. I said, 'Yeah, my son, 4 years old, he can catch that ball.' I said, 'He can catch that ball, he'd be in better position.' But that guy, he put it in the paper like I'd be fighting with [Harper] or it's be his fault. It's not his fault. I'm not that kind of guy."
Manager Davey Johnson downplayed Soriano's remarks as representative of the entire team's disappointment.
"As far as I was concerned, he was just voicing sentiments that a lot of guys on the ball club feel, that we're not doing the things we're capable of doing," Johnson said. "One of the reasons, which people overlook, is we're a young ball club. We've got an outfielder out there that hasn't been out there that much. He might have been out of position a couple feet or so. But that's just part of it. I don't know what the big the deal is about it. The comments I read in the paper, he was just voicing some frustrations a lot of us feel. Did he go too far? Maybe."
Johnson also spoke with Soriano this morning. He told his closer the Nationals lack leadership with Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos on the disabled list, and Washington's young roster will look to him.
"I knew that the strength of this ball club last year was the young guys coming in and succeeding at a high level," Johnson said. "Harper. [Steve Lombardozzi]. Tyler Moore. Just to name a few. This year, it's been more of a struggle because of the adjustments clubs have made against us. It is what is. Will we come out of it? Yes, we'll come out of it. But I don't like to overreact to little things like this."
General Manager Mike Rizzo lauded Harper's honest and self-critical reaction to the game-tying triple last night. He said he wished Soriano had met with Harper last night rather than taking his frustration to the USA Today reporter, who conducted the interview in Spanish.
"I think that it's not the first time that players have been frustrated and had issues with teammates," Rizzo said. "But we pride ourselves on this team to handle that stuff in house. There's absolutely nothing wrong with players being frustrated and talking to their teammates and asking questions, but that stays in house. That's taken one-on-one and man-to-man. That's how we handle our business here. But I feel that Harp owned up to what he thought was a mistake and he was a professional and a mature, professional player who took it on himself, and I know that since then those two have discussed it. We've all addressed it and it's over with."
The next, more important step for the Nationals will be making sure Harper feels at ease making plays on balls hit to the wall. He admitted Tuesday night his violent collision at Dodger Stadium weighed on him as he tracked Gregor Blanco's line drive, a play that ended with him bracing for the wall when he had yet to even reach the warning track.
"I don't blame him for that," Johnson said. "He's only human. Are we making him out to be super-human? I would be afraid, too, if I had 15 stitches on my chin and bruises on my shoulder and my knee all puffed up. I'd be kind of a little leery not knowing the warning track."
Said Rizzo: "It's not troubling at all to me. It's human nature and any outfielder who says after a collision with the wall that he's going back on the ball not thinking about the wall, I don't think he's being truthful. I think it's human nature. I think he'll get over it if he's not over it already and he's going to be a terrific defensive outfielder. He's already a good defensive outfielder and just learning the position."
On the play in question, Harper positioned himself a few steps back from his normal depth to prevent a double, the kind of hit that could score the game-tying run from first.
"I was playing where I was supposed to be," Harper said. "I have nothing to say about it."
Soriano still insisted the outfield should have been playing deeper.
"That's what I think," Soriano said. "More like when you've got two out, you have to play 'no doubles.' I know he's a little bit scared after what happened in LA and Atlanta, that's what I think when I see it. When I told you guys that last night, that's what I think. You know what? That's it. Game over. Come back today and we try to pitch better and he can make a better play."
Johnson said the Nationals played their usual alignment in that situation. He suggested the result had been overblown.
"Were we back against the wall doubles prevention, where everything drops in front? No," Johnson said. "And who expects Blanco, a little guy like that, to hit a line-drive bullet that short-hopped the wall? Let's not panic here and overreact to the situation. The pitch wasn't as good as it should have been. Maybe [Harper] wasn't as deep as he should have been. That's baseball. You can second-guess everything that goes on in this game. But I know a little more about it than most. And I'm not concerned with it."
After Harper's difficulty in right field this road trip, it bears a reminder about his experience. The Nationals converted Harper from an amateur catcher to full-time outfielder when they drafted him in 2010, just three years ago. They believed it would lighten his long-term physical toll and allow for his thunderous bat to reach the major-league level more rapidly.
As a rookie last season, Harper excelled in center field the statistically driven web site FanGraphs.com rated his center fielder defense as one of the best in the majors last year. Harper has said he feels most comfortable in center. This year brought another transition, first to left field and then to right after Jayson Werth landed on the disabled list with a hamstring. He is still learning the outfield, particularly the corners.
Even if Soriano meant to criticize Harper's positioning and not denigrate his play, the comments were particularly ill-timed in the wake of Harper's collision with the wall at Dodger Stadium.
"Soriano's comments about Harper are totally inappropriate," said one rival official who requested anonymity to speak freely about another team. "He's the last guy on the planet that needs to be scolded."
Nationals outfield coach Tony Tarasco pointed out the unusual right field wall in AT&T Park made for a unique circumstance Tuesday night. Harper could have been playing proper depth, but the sharp angle the high, brick wall travels from the line toward center could affect his spatial awareness.
"It's difficult to tell in this park, because you're looking at the deepest part of this ballpark," Tarasco said. "You're looking at going from a very short side in right to extremely deep in right center. The wall sort of shoots out. So a ball that hits track in right center would have gone off the wall in the right field, and h would have played it off the wall. It's difficult to judge that.
"I think you got a mix of all three. You got the mix of what he's trying to overcome. You got the mix of the diagram of the park. You got things going the way they are. It's an unfortunate play, and we're not playing to the best of our ability right now."
Harper vowed he would improve on making plays on balls hit over his head. Tarasco plans to work with Harper.
"He'll get over it," Tarasco said. "It's just the repetition of it. Reps, over and over and over, until it goes away. As much as it is mental, you can train yourself. So he's going to get reps."
The Nationals stood at 3-6 on their 10-day road swing entering Wednesday afternoon's finale against the Giants. The trip has included reliever Ryan Mattheus breaking his hand punching a locker and, now, the Soriano flap. Johnson was asked if he feels has control of the team.
"Well, I hope so. Otherwise, I would recommend they fire me," Johnson said. "This ball club has got great makeup. They get along well together. The clubhouse is relaxed. We just need to make those adjustments we need to do in order to be as good as we can be. Right now, 25 percent of our lineup is struggling. We've got too many outs in the lineup. That's very hard to get some momentum going in the offense."