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July 8, 2013

What You Need to Know

The NL East Gets Interesting

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
At the midway point of the regular season, the Nationals were 41-40, and their -19 run differential suggested that they were fortunate to have notched even that mediocre tally. A week earlier, they were a game under .500, at 37-38. And two weeks before that, they were a season-high eight games out of first place in the National League East, a division that, before Opening Day, they were widely expected to win.

Playing a month without Bryce Harper did not help. Neither did the apparent flop of Dan Haren, in whom general manager Mike Rizzo invested $13 million to complete a dominant rotation. And the prolonged slump that befell fellow newcomer Denard Span, who was supposed to be the sparkplug for a potent lineup, rippled through an offense that instead underwhelmed for weeks.

Harper returned from his 35-day battle with knee bursitis on July 1 and promptly homered to kick off a 10-5 drubbing of the Brewers, which came on the heels of a 13-run outburst at Citi Field. The Brewers held the Nats to one total run over the next two games, but after a 48-hour nap, the offense woke up in time to take the series finale over Milwaukee and put a 24-run hurting on the Padres over the course of a weekend sweep.

Span went 2-for-5 with a double at the top of the order in Friday’s opener, helping the Nationals chase Andrew Cashner after two-plus innings in a game they eventually won 8-5. The center fielder chipped in two more hits and a walk in Saturday’s 5-4 victory, catalyzing the seventh-inning rally that turned a one-run deficit into a one-run edge. And he added another pair of knocks and another free pass in Sunday’s 11-7 sweep-clincher, in which Harper went 3-for-4, Ryan Zimmerman cranked a grand slam, and Anthony Rendon tacked on a two-run blast.

The day before the Padres came to town, Wilson Ramos—fresh off the disabled list after missing more than a month and a half with a hamstring strain—went 3-for-5 and drove in five runs, including three on a game-winning homer in the bottom of the seventh.

If the offense was a sleeping giant, the alarm clock apparently went off on Thursday, just in time for Davey Johnson’s club to climb back into the East division race—and just in time for the Baseball Prospectus event at Nationals Park yesterday afternoon. Coupled with the Phillies’ series win over the Braves, the four-game winning streak has brought the Nationals to within four games of first place, the closest they have been since May 20, a week before Harper was forced to the shelf.

Rizzo capped off a fine weekend by acquiring Scott Hairston from the Cubs late on Sunday night, a move first reported by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal. He will take over the short-end outfield platoon role previously handled by Tyler Moore, whose .157/.202/.294 triple-slash line is likely to draw a ticket back to Triple-A Syracuse. Meanwhile, Rizzo has also “kicked the tires on” a move for Matt Garza in case rotation concerns persist, according to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.

Monday’s game, the first of four at Citizens Bank Park, could be pivotal in charting Rizzo’s course for the next 23 days. Dan Haren will return from the disabled list to supplant Ross Detwiler, who is taking his place on the DL. If two weeks to nurse an ailing shoulder—and two weeks to calm a racing mind—bring back vintage Haren, another first-half weakness might turn into a strength. If the break does not help, Rizzo seems prepared to act.

Atlanta’s early hot streak and their own first-half malaise dug the Nationals a hole, and the three-horse race in the National League Central has cast doubt on the popular Opening Day forecast of the East division sending two teams to the playoffs. Even after the four-game hike, the Nats’ odds of reaching the postseason are only one-in-four. But the Braves, just 20-19 since May 25 and 33-29 since the beginning of May, might want to look out below.

Wednesday’s Matchup in Review
In the most recent WYNTK, which ran five days ago, I wrote that Jose Bautista had given Max Scherzer trouble because of his ability to lay off of outside sliders, thereby stripping Scherzer of one of his key strikeout offerings. True to form, Bautista was one of the few Blue Jays who solved the hard-throwing righty, who pitched 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball to pick up his league-leading 13th win.

Bautista went 2-for-3 against Scherzer, notching a double—one of Toronto’s two extra-base hits in the defeat—and a single, but sandwiching a double-play ball between them. The twin killing was the result of a well-placed changeup on the inside black, on which Bautista rolled over and hit a grounder to third base. The double came on a hanging slider. And the single, the culmination of a seven-pitch at-bat, came on a center-cut fastball, right after Bautista fought off a couple of two-strike breaking balls.

The Blue Jays’ right fielder is now 8-for-14 versus Scherzer with five extra-base hits and only one strikeout in 17 career plate appearances. He remains one of the few like-handed hitters for whom the University of Missouri product has not yet developed a reliable recipe.

Matchup of the Day
With 24 home runs already to his name, Carlos Gonzalez has stepped up his power output in 2013, putting himself on pace to exceed his career-high tater total of 34. The 27-year-old will face a stiff challenge in his bid to add to that tally over the next three days, as the Rockies visit the Padres, but he has had plenty of success against San Diego’s Monday starter, Edinson Volquez.

Volquez, who turned 30 last Wednesday, celebrated his birthday by tossing six innings of one-run ball in a victory at Fenway Park, walking one and fanning six. In his previous start, he held the Marlins to two runs over six frames, walking one and striking out eight. Those walk totals are a key indicator for Volquez—who issued seven free passes in the start that preceded those two quality outings and has doled out 46 of them in 99 1/3 innings this year—and he will try to keep them down again tonight.

Of course, he will have to be careful while doing so, because Gonzalez is apt to make him pay for in-the-zone mistakes. The Rockies left fielder is 10-for-19 lifetime versus the Padres righty, with three doubles, two triples, two walks, and four strikeouts. About the only thing Gonzalez has not done against Volquez is go yard.

Zachary Levine, who filled in for me last Tuesday, featured Gonzalez in his matchup with Clayton Kershaw, a pitcher who, in nearly 30 head-to-head encounters, had never thrown him a curveball. Gonzalez, as Zach wrote, is particularly adept at hitting curves thrown by like-handed pitchers, but as Volquez has learned, he can punish those spun by opposite-handers, too. When they last matched wits, on June 7, Gonzalez went 2-for-2 with a pair of triples and a walk. The latter three-bagger came on this bender, which wound up knee-high but stayed near the middle of the plate.

Unfortunately for Volquez, the curveball is only one source of trouble. Gonzalez is also an excellent fastball hitter

…unless the pitch gets into his kitchen or tempts him to chase upstairs. Setting up this sinker, which became a double, with a first-pitch curveball didn’t work. Painting the inside corner is nice, but unless the pitch really jams Gonzalez in on the hands, he’s liable to collect a two-bagger anyway. And setting up 97-mph heat with five consecutive offspeed pitches isn’t an airtight plan either.

The good news for Volquez, as he tries to turn around a dismal track record, is that Gonzalez is an aggressive hitter with a tendency to expand the zone—one reason why he has only drawn two walks while wreaking all that havoc in 21 trips to the box. Gonzalez is also vulnerable to changeups down and away, a potential put-away alternative to elevator fastballs considering that the changeup is Volquez’s bread-and-butter offering. The most recent head-to-head strikeout between them came on April 13 of this year, in an at-bat during which Volquez threw four pitches well outside of the strike zone; the last two of them were changeups.

Volquez might want to take a page out of the playbook of Diamondbacks starter Ian Kennedy, one of the select few pitchers who have faced Gonzalez at least 20 times and almost entirely shut him down. Kennedy, like Volquez, boasts an excellent changeup, though the University of Southern California product also has better fastball command and a cutter at his disposal.

Still, notice in the above plot how Kennedy has gone about his business with Gonzalez in the box. A healthy dose of cutters under the hands, plenty of low changeups, and a good number of the upstairs fastballs at which Gonzalez has a tendency to hack and miss. The result: 4-for-29 with a walk and 13 strikeouts, a line that Volquez, to this point, could only envy.

Finally, in addition to altering his pitching plan, if Gonzalez finds his way onto first or second base, Volquez must be conscious of his wheels. The Venezuelan continues to mature as a base stealer, and he has succeeded on 15 of his 16 attempts this season. Volquez and his catchers, meanwhile, have surrendered a league-high 17 swipes—a total inflated by opponents’ .356 on-base percentage against him, but one that exposes another area in which the right-hander must try to improve (10:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Monday

  • With a bit of history already under his belt, the 13-0 Max Scherzer will chase his 14th win of the season in tonight’s matchup with the Indians. Scherzer is the only qualifying big-league starter who can claim to have fanned at least six batters in each of his trips to the mound this year, and he has not walked more than two in an outing since May 26. The 28-year-old right-hander, who held the Tribe to one run over eight innings on May 21, has also worked at least six frames in each of his assignments dating back to April 24. Scherzer will lock horns with Scott Kazmir in the finale of a four-game series between the top two teams in the American League Central, in which the Tribe will seek a split (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Tyler Chatwood pitched his first 54 1/3 major-league innings this year, 32 1/3 of them in the launching pad that is Coors Field, without allowing a home run. The nine-start stretch equaled a Rockies franchise record previously attained twice, by Ubaldo Jimenez in 2008-2009 and by Esmil Rogers in 2010-2011, but never within the same season. Chatwood’s excellent run came to an end on July 3, though, when the Dodgers visited Denver and put an 11-hit, two-homer, six-run (five earned) licking on the 23-year-old righty, inflating his ERA from 2.13 to 2.75. A second-round pick of the Angels in 2008, Chatwood was acquired in exchange for Chris Iannetta in November 2011, and he now looks entrenched in manager Walt Weiss’ rotation. Chatwood should have an easier time keeping the ball in the yard at Petco Park, where he is set to duel Edinson Volquez in game one of three (10:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Giants, who were limited to one run by Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen on Sunday afternoon in the rubber match of their series with the Dodgers, have scored only 33 runs (34, were it not for a rare lineup mishap) over their last 16 games. Now, after dealing with Kershaw, Bruce Bochy’s squad will have to deal with Mets ace Matt Harvey. The former UNC Tar Heel was charged with a season-high five runs in his most recent start, a six-inning loss to the Diamondbacks, but he has served up only one homer over 45 1/3 innings away from Citi Field this year. Tim Lincecum, who gets the ball for the home team, should not expect much in the way of run support as he tries to earn his first win since June 4, the date of the Giants’ last victory behind him (10:15 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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