SweetSpot: Washington Nationals

Five things we learned Friday

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
1:40
AM ET

The big news of the night was the Kansas City Royals clinching their first postseason berth since 1985, ending the longest playoff drought in the majors. (That honor now belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays, last in the playoffs in 1993, when they won the World Series on Joe Carter's home run.) Doug Padilla was on the scene for the Royals' win over the White Sox, so he has that covered, but one quick note about the Royals before we get to five other things we learned on Friday.

The Royals don't have the best starting rotation in the American League -- they're fourth in ERA and that's playing in a pitcher's park with perhaps the league's best defense behind them. But it's a good rotation that has done a nice job of pitching deep into games. Only the Tigers have received more innings from their starters among AL teams. Now, the gap between the Royals and the bottom teams isn't large -- 80 innings -- but they've also thrown nearly 100 innings more than two years ago, before they acquired James Shields. When the Royals made that controversial deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, trading away top prospect Wil Myers, this is exactly why general manager Dayton Moore thought it necessary to add a guy like Shields. He's not the best pitcher in the league, not a Cy Young contender, but he's a durable workhorse who annually ranks among the leaders in innings. He led the AL last year with 228⅔ innings and has thrown 227 this year. He's been exactly what the Royals desired, and maybe it doesn't show up in the sabermetric evaluations, but you have to believe having a staff leader like him has had some effect.

So, congrats, Royals. The wild-card game isn't necessarily much of a reward if you go one and done, but there's always this: The Tigers lost. You're only one game from tying them for the division lead.

1. The Pirates win but suffer a potentially big loss.

The Pirates broke a 1-1 tie in the eighth with the Reds when Jay Bruce misplayed a line drive into a run-scoring, go-ahead double for Travis Snider, but their 17th win in 21 games came with potentially bad news when Russell Martin left the game after drawing a seventh-inning walk, his lingering battle with a sore hamstring getting the better of him. Martin didn't discuss the issue after the game but manager Clint Hurdle said, "Some days are better than others, and today it just seemed to be tougher for him to get loose." Chris Stewart will start Saturday afternoon. For a spell, it looked like the Pirates would tie the Cardinals for the NL Central lead when Arizona led early and almost rallied late, but …

2. The Cardinals win in extra innings to keep their one-game lead.

St. Louis caught a huge, huge break in this one. Leading 6-3 in the eighth, Pat Neshek couldn't hold the lead, and the Diamondbacks appeared to take the lead when Ender Inciarte hit a double over left fielder Jon Jay's head, which would have scored Arizona's seventh run … except the ball bounced into the stands and Didi Gregorius had to return to third base. Neshek got the next batter and Jhonny Peralta eventually delivered the go-ahead single in the 10th. (By the way, Peralta is a worthy top-10 guy on the NL MVP ballot.)

Michael Wacha had another mixed review. He gave up two runs in the first and then nothing else, leaving after 98 pitches and a leadoff single in the sixth, but he still walked three in his five-plus innings. If the Pirates do end up catching the Cardinals to force a one-game playoff, Wacha could potentially be in line to start the wild-card game. Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright will go on Saturday and Sunday.

3. The Oakland A's magic number is down to one.

Scott Kazmir has been the one Oakland starter struggling -- the first-half All-Star has a 5.42 ERA in the second half and owned an 8.58 ERA over his six previous starts entering Friday's game -- but he came up big in a 6-2 win over the Rangers, going seven innings and allowing four hits and just one earned run. Kazmir threw 72 percent strikes, his highest percentage since Aug. 8 and fourth highest of the year, throwing more cutters and fewer sliders than he had recently. "It's been a long time coming it feels like. Just feels good," Kazmir said. Keep an eye on Josh Donaldson's knee. He tweaked it in the third inning and played the rest of the game (he went 2-for-4) but looked hobbled and took it slow on the bases.

The Mariners held on to beat the Angels 4-3 as Fernando Rodney allowed a run in the ninth but recorded his 48th save in 51 opportunities, so Seattle needs two wins and two Oakland losses to force a Monday tiebreaker game.

4. Doug Fister might be the real ace of the Nationals.

Fister threw a brilliant, three-hit shutout in the first game of a doubleheader against the Marlins, clinching the NL's best record for the Nationals and a Division Series date against the wild-card winner. Fister improved to 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA. While Fister fanned a season-high nine in this game, he's an anomaly in this age of strikeouts: He has just 98 in 164 innings, but he also has just 24 walks in 26 starts and induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls even though he tends to pitch up in the zone, a testament to the movement he gets on his two-seam fastball and ability to change speeds. Fister isn't starting Game 1 of the Division Series, but he has a 2.98 career postseason ERA in 48⅓ innings.

5. Corey Kluber couldn't keep the Indians alive but did help his Cy Young case.

Kluber finished his season with another dominant effort: 8 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 11 SO. When Cody Allen closed out the 1-0 win, the Indians were still alive, but they were officially eliminated once the A's won. But Kluber's three-start finish -- 39 K's, including becoming the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2004 with back-to-back games of 14 strikeouts -- might have pushed him past Felix Hernandez as the Cy Young favorite. The final opposing-batter stats against Kluber's curveball: .091 (19-for-209), with no home runs, 126 strikeouts and five walks. Wow.

Five things we learned Thursday

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
1:17
AM ET
What did we learn Thursday night other than Derek Jeter has lived the most charmed baseball life any of us could imagine? (Not that we needed confirmation.) We learned that we'll have weekend baseball that still matters. Playoff spots remain unclinched and two divisions are still up for grabs.

1. The A's continue to find unique ways to lose. A friend of mine who is an A’s fan sent me an email in the ninth inning of the A's-Rangers game that read, "Coco Crisp has reached base FIVE times tonight ... and has not scored! Unbelievably bad." Quickly followed up with, "Awful. Just awful. The A's deserve to lose this game. Colby Lewis? C'mon." A few moments later Adrian Beltre hit an 0-1 slider from Luke Gregerson out to right field and the Rangers had a 2-1 victory, the fourth straight win for the Rangers over the A's in the past two weeks. The A's left 10 runners on base and went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. The leadoff man reached base in five innings and scored just once -- and that came on Geovany Soto's safety squeeze in the sixth inning. Poor Jason Hammel: The A's have scored two runs or fewer in 11 of his 12 starts.

The A's are 8-15 in September and nine of those losses have been by one run. The only thing keeping them in a wild-card position has been the poor play of the Mariners, who had lost five in a row and 11 of 15 before finally beating the Blue Jays earlier in the day. Out of starters with Roenis Elias injured and Chris Young benched for the season, M's manager Lloyd McClendon used nine relief pitchers and saw Logan Morrison hit two home runs in the 7-5 win.

So the A's lead the Mariners by two games with three to go, putting their magic number at two. The A's have Scott Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija and Sonny Gray lined up against the Rangers while the Mariners have Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton and Felix Hernandez facing the Angels. The A's should hold on as a Mariners sweep seems unlikely, but this is baseball and stranger things have happened. If the teams do end up tied, the tiebreaker on Monday would likely feature Jon Lester against rookie Taijuan Walker.

2. The Royals are this close to clinching their first playoff spot since 1985. Trailing the White Sox 3-1 through four innings, the Royals tied it up with a run in the fifth and then Eric Hosmer's homer off Jose Quintana in the sixth, just his second off a left-hander this season. The Royals rallied for two more in the eighth off Quintana -- Hosmer added a big single -- and the Chicago bullpen. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland pitched the final three innings for the win, hold and save. Kansas City's magic number over Seattle is one and they're also effectively two games ahead of the A's for home-field advantage in the wild-card game since they hold the tiebreaker edge if they finish with the same record.

However, the Royals remained two games behind the Tigers in the AL Central as ...

3. Detroit's bullpen pitches well! Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera homered to stake the Tigers to a lead and Max Scherzer survived four walks, five hits and 116 pitches in six shaky innings to leave with a 3-2 lead against the Twins. But the story for the Tigers was Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan retired all nine batters they faced. It's just one game, but Tigers fans will take it as a positive sign. (Although my favorite line of the night came from MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac saying that may have been Nathan's cleanest inning since the All-Star break. Maybe it's not a good sign if that's what people are saying about your closer.) Rick Porcello, Kyle Lobstein and David Price will try and wrap up the division title over the weekend.

4. Pirates keep the pressure on the Cardinals. The 10-1 win over the Braves put Pittsburgh one game back of the idle Cardinals. Josh Harrison led the way with three hits (raising his average to a league-leading .319). The odds obviously favor the Cardinals -- they get the worst-in-baseball Diamondbacks in Arizona -- but the Pirates are rolling and the Reds are running on fumes right now. Remember, if the Cardinals and Pirates tie for the division, they will then play a tiebreaker game. So both teams will be going all-out this weekend and not resting up for the playoffs.

5. Nationals get closer to clinching NL's best record. After Washington lost the opener of a doubleheader to the Mets, Gio Gonzalez pitched the Nationals to a 3-0 win in the nightcap -- and maybe solidified his spot in the postseason rotation over Tanner Roark. The Nationals are also one win (or Dodgers loss) from securing home-field advantage in the NLCS, should they advance. Ryan Zimmerman played seven innings in left field in the first game and pinch-hit in the nightcap. "I can't really go 100 percent yet," Zimmerman said. "I'm sort of learning what I have, what I don't have, and the only way to do that is to go out and play." He played seven innings on Saturday, but had pinch-hit just once since then. Both his appearances in the field have come in left, so watch this weekend to see if he plays third base, in case that's a possibility for the postseason (with Anthony Rendon sliding over to second).

5A. The Giants clinch a wild card. It was anticlimactic, as they clinched while driving to the ballpark when the Brewers lost.

SweetSpot TV: O's-Nats rivalry

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
2:19
PM ET
video

Eric and I discuss the brewing Beltway rivalry between the Orioles and Nationals and whether we may see them square off in the World Series.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
11:02
PM ET

We're starting to see a little clarity. I think. Check the standings, playoff odds and remaining schedule at the Hunt for October page.

1. The A's with their biggest win of the season.

Of course, they needed their biggest win after weeks of biggest defeats. The Oakland A's entered extra innings against the Phillies knowing the Seattle Mariners had already lost, so they had a chance to increase their lead over Seattle to two games while maintaining a half-game lead ahead of the Kansas City Royals. Oakland's much-maligned bullpen tossed 4.2 scoreless innings -- kudos to Bob Melvin for letting closer Sean Doolittle pitch two innings -- and then Josh Donaldson hit a two-run walk-off home run to dead center to give Oakland the 8-6 win. As the Oakland announcer says, "The A's finally got a hero today." It may provide the lift they needed to get them into the wild-card game. Oakland finishes with three at home against the Los Angeles Angels and four at the Texas Rangers.

2. Hisashi Iwakuma, meet the wall.

On Aug. 19, Iwakuma tossed eight scoreless innings to beat the Philadelphia Phillies and lower his ERA to 2.57. King Felix was getting all the attention for the Mariners but Iwakuma wasn't far behind. But since then, he has been a disaster. On Sunday, he got knocked out in the fifth inning, unable to hold a 3-1 lead and the Houston Astros eventually rolled to an 8-3 win. In his past six starts, he's 2-3 with a 9.12 ERA, raising his season number to 3.54. The Mariners are now 1.5 games back of the Kansas City Royals for wild card No. 2. (Or one game, if you want to count that suspended game as a loss for the Royals, which you really shouldn't do until it's official, one way or the other, because this is baseball and crazy things can happen.)

With Chris Young also looking like he's done, Lloyd McClendon is going to have to think of some desperate measures for his pitching staff this week. That means more than just quick hooks for his starters, but maybe even trying a couple of bullpen games -- starting Tom Wilhelmsen or another reliever, for example. It doesn't help that the Mariners will have had just one day off in September and now have to travel to Toronto and then back home to face the Angels to wrap the season.

3. Pirates playing for wild-card home-field advantage.

Pittsburgh essentially eliminated the Milwaukee Brewers with a 1-0 victory behind Vance Worley's eight scoreless innings and also pulled into the wild-card lead with the San Francisco Giants at 84-71. Edging out the Giants is important: The Pirates finished 51-30 at home and are 33-41 on the road. The Pirates won the season series over the Giants, so they get the tiebreaker if the clubs finish with the same record. While Pittsburgh is still just 2.5 behind St. Louis for the NL Central, they finish with four in Atlanta and four in Cincinnati, so they need a good road trip to win that home-field edge, let alone catch the Cardinals.

4. Matt Kemp just about wraps up the NL West.

Kemp went 4-for-5 with a home run and four RBIs in an 8-5 win over the Cubs. Kemp since the All-Star break looks a lot like 2011 MVP candidate Kemp: .310/.374/.594. Oh ... Yasiel Puig is also starting to heat up: .419 with two home runs and four doubles over his past 10 games. The Dodgers took three of four in the series, with only a bullpen collapse on Saturday preventing the sweep. The lead over the Giants is now 4.5 games with the Dodgers hosting the Giants on Monday through Wednesday, the Giants obviously needing a sweep to have a shot at the division title. The pitching matchups: Jake Peavy versus Dan Haren, Madison Bumgarner versus Zack Greinke and Tim Hudson versus Clayton Kershaw. (Catch the final two games on ESPN.)

5. Stephen Strasburg may have locked up Game 1 of the division series.

Strasburg threw 84 pitches in seven scoreless innings in a 2-1 win over the Marlins and speculation out of D.C. has Matt Williams selecting Strasburg as his Game 1 starter for the playoffs, even though Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann and Tanner Roark all have lower ERAs. Strasburg is 5-1 with a 1.88 ERA over his past eight starts, with 49 strikeouts and just seven walks in 52.2 innings. He's topped 200 innings for the first time, but his fastball velocity has held strong, 94-95 mph and touching 97-98. After being benched two years ago, he still hasn’t made his first postseason start. I can’t wait.


Teams make the playoffs with expected production from their stars, with young players who improve, maybe a couple rookies who step up. But on almost every playoff team, you can find a guy who came out of nowhere to offer a major contribution.

Vance Worley is one of those guys. Where would the Pittsburgh Pirates be without the journeyman right-hander? The Pirates all but wrapped up a wild-card spot with Sunday's 1-0 win over the Brewers, giving Pittsburgh the series victory and moving the Pirates into the wild-card lead with the San Francisco Giants, 4.5 games over the Milwaukee Brewers. Worley went eight innings and allowed just four hits before a sellout crowd at PNC Park, improving his season numbers to 8-4 with a 2.93 ERA over 17 appearances (16 starts).

Worley wasn't even supposed to be out there on Sunday. Charlie Morton had replaced him in the rotation earlier in the week, but Morton's hernia flared up in his start so Worley was back out there against the Brewers. Worley pounded the strike zone with 63 strikes in 82 pitches, relying on his sinking fastball, a cutter and a slider, with an occasional curve.

[+] EnlargeVance Worley
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesVance Worley was an afterthought, more or less. Now he might be the captain of the All-Surprise Team.

"A little rest was good for me," Worley said after the game. "This is the deepest I've gone into a season the last couple of years, so it gave me some time to get my feet back under me, to gather up some of the energy I used up early in the season."

Worley is a journeyman right-hander because his fastball velocity doesn't light up the radar gun, but this is a guy who has had intermittent success in his four seasons in the majors. Of course, none of that came last year with the Twins, who had acquired him from the Phillies. In 10 starts with Minnesota, Worley got pounded like few pitchers in recent history, going 1-5 with a 7.21 ERA and .381 batting average allowed -- the highest average allowed by a pitcher with at least 40 innings since Mike Torrez in 1984.

With numbers like those, it's no surprise the Pirates were able to purchase Worley from the Minnesota Twins late in spring training. There was no downside for the Pirates, and he started the year in Triple-A before joining the Pirates' rotation in mid-June when Francisco Liriano went on the disabled list. He tossed seven scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins in that game and has been solid ever since.

Worley is one member of what we'll call the All-Surprise Team. Or maybe we can call it the lucky pickup team. Should the Pirates receive credit for Worley turning into gold? Hard to say. The Twins had actually put Worley on waivers and nobody claimed him until the Pirates made the cash deal. In the end, it's still a lot of luck. I'm pretty sure the Pirates didn't envision Worley making 16 starts with a sub-3.00 ERA. Here are some other members of the lucky pickup team:

Steve Pearce, Orioles
Pearce began the season with the Baltimore Orioles (they had originally claimed him off waivers from the New York Yankees in 2012) but only appeared in three games before they released him on April 27. The Toronto Blue Jays actually claimed Pearce, but he had the right to refuse the deal and instead become a free agent and apparently had an agreement to sign back with Baltimore. Two days later, with Chris Davis injured, the Orioles re-signed him. Pearce has responded with 20 home runs in 327 at-bats -- after hitting 17 in 743 career at-bats spread out over seven previous seasons. A new, closed stance has done wonders. Among American League hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, he's fourth in wOBA behind Jose Abreu, Victor Martinez and Mike Trout.

Chris Young, Mariners
Young has faltered a bit of late, including a bad loss in a vital game against the Houston Astros on Saturday, but the big right-hander is 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA. That's one more than he had from 2009 to 2013. That the Seattle Mariners ended up with Young was a result of their own penny-pinching ways. Originally, they had signed Randy Wolf as their token veteran to fill out the back of the rotation. Wolf had made the team out of spring training but the Mariners refused to give Wolf a guaranteed full-year contract, instead insisting he sign a 45-day contract. Wolf refused and the Mariners released him, picking up Young, who had been cut by the Washington Nationals. Now that was a stroke of luck, as Wolf ended up making just four poor starts with the Marlins.

Justin Turner, Dodgers
ESPN researcher Mark Simon wrote about Turner last week. The Los Angeles Dodgers' infielder has hit .332/.397/.467 in 310 PAs while starting games at all four infield spots. The Dodgers signed him as a free agent in February after the New York Mets non-tendered him, apparently because they tired of him not running hard. The Mets saved $500,00 or so, replacing Turner's $1 million salary with a minimum-salaried player. The Dodgers got themselves one of the year's best utility infielders.

Josh Harrison, Pirates
Harrison wasn't a free pickup since he was already in the Pirates' system, but nobody could have projected the 26-year-old to have this kind of breakout season. He entered 2014 with a .250 career average in 575 PAs and actually played more in Triple-A in 2013 than with the Pirates. Now he may win a batting title.

[+] EnlargeTanner Roark
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesFifth starter? Hardly. Tanner Roark has a 2.85 ERA.
Tanner Roark, Nationals
After beating out Ross Detwiler and others for the final spot in the Nationals' rotation, Roark has gone 14-10 with a 2.85 ERA in his first full season in the majors. The 27-year-old has actually been in the Washington system since the 2010 trade deadline, but his production this year was certainly a surprise. Plus, consider how the Nationals acquired him: For Cristian Guzman, whose major league ended that year with a .152 average in 15 games for the Rangers. Think Texas could have used Roark the past couple of seasons?

Matt Shoemaker, Angels
We've written about Shoemaker here before, so you know what kind of season he's put together, helping the Angels surge to the AL West title even after Garrett Richards went down. He's certainly the definition of free talent: The Angels signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan in 2008. But consider this: Before the season, Baseball America rated the Angels' farm system the worst in the majors and Shoemaker wasn't listed as one of the team's top 30 prospects. Thirty. Riding a terrific splitter/changeup, he's 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA.

J.D. Martinez, Tigers
For all the moves the Tigers have made, this has perhaps been the biggest as Martinez has been worth 3.9 WAR with his .320/.363/.570 line with 23 home runs and 76 RBIs. Released by the Astros in spring training, Martinez made some minor tweaks to his swing and the results have obviously been impressive. After a hot start and prolonged slump, he's been red hot again in September, hitting .394 with six home runs. (Note: I missed Martinez upon first publishing the piece. Apologies to Tigers fans!)

Pat Neshek, Cardinals
The veteran reliever pitched OK in 40 innings with the A's last year, but that was also the most he had pitched since 2007. So it wasn't a surprise that teams weren't pounding down his door with offers over the winter. He finally signed a minor league contract with the Cardinals in February, with an invite to spring training. He made the team, pitched his way into a setup role and even made the All-Star team. He's 7-1 with a 1.39 ERA and a 65/8 strikeout/walk ratio.

What do these guys prove? For starters, all the analytics out there can't project every player, and that's a good reminder that players aren't robots, their statistics always predictable within a small range. And as much as we praise front offices for building a winner or criticize them for building a loser, there is still a fair amount of luck involved. It's hard to really praise the front office for any of these performances.

None of these guys may do this again next year, but that's not important now. They did it this year and helped their teams into the playoffs or into contention.

Don't bunt on Anthony Rendon

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
2:26
PM ET
Washington Nationals infielder Anthony Rendon has made the jump from impressive rookie to elite player in the span of a season.

Anthony Rendon
Rendon
Rendon has fared very well in the basic stats -- a .285 batting average with 20 home runs and 80 RBIs. He ranks sixth among National League position players with 5.9 wins above replacement.

But there's something he's currently doing that no one else has managed to replicate. In making the move from second base back to third base, where he played in college at Rice, Rendon has made significant statistical improvements defensively. He has nine defensive runs saved (DRS), which ranks eighth among third basemen (he also has four DRS at second base in the games he's played there).

For a third baseman, DRS is based on the ability to turn batted balls into outs, convert double plays and defend bunts. The majority of Rendon's defensive rating comes from his defending bunts like no one else in the 12 years that the stat has been tracked. Rendon has six defensive runs saved specifically from fielding bunts. No one else in the majors has more than two. In fact, no player has recorded as many as six runs saved in the 12 seasons in which this stat has been tracked.

One of the reasons for this is volume: The Elias Sports Bureau tells us that Rendon leads the majors with 22 assists on bunts this season. Rendon has nailed the lead runner on bunts three times and recorded a double play once (those four plays provide a nice spike to his numbers). He's also recorded at least one out on each of the sacrifice attempts against him this season. In all, he's fielded 26 bunts, and they've resulted in at least one out 23 times. That's a success rate that hasn’t been matched.

Watch Rendon's highlight reel of bunt defense and a few things stand out. A look at one bunt by Peter Bourjos illustrates Rendon's abilities well.

He anticipates well, as was noted on the broadcast, allowing him to get really close to home plate without fear that the hitter is going to swing away. He has good fundamentals when it comes to picking the ball up with his bare hand. Baseball Info Solutions (which devised the DRS metric) has tallied barehand plays for us this season. Rendon is tied for second among infielders with 13, two behind major league leader Nolan Arenado.

Rendon also has a strong throwing arm, one that has suited him well at the hot corner and allows him to nail the fastest players in baseball, including Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton on another bunt attempt worth watching.

Some may knock the advanced defensive stats for the manner in which they're calculated. But in some cases, they allow us to become aware of things we wouldn't possibly know otherwise.

This is one of those instances. We already knew that Rendon was a well-skilled player in all aspects of the game. It just turns out he's performing one skill far better than anyone knew.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
12:51
AM ET
What a night. Two clinchers, a no-hit bid into the eighth inning from the Cubs' Jake Arrieta (for the second time this season), a benches-clearing incident between the Yankees and Rays after manager Joe Girardi went a little crazy when Derek Jeter got hit by a pitch, Jose Altuve breaking Craig Biggio's Astros club record for hits in a season. As always, check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedule on the Hunt for October page.

1. The Nationals clinch the NL East behind Tanner Roark. That's one way of asking: Will Roark be in the Nationals' postseason rotation? He's 14-10 with a 2.85 ERA now after tossing seven shutout innings in the 3-0 clincher over the collapsing Braves. There's nothing fancy about him except he throws strikes, locates his two-seam sinking fastball and four-seamer on the corners and mixes in a slider, changeup and curveball, giving him a five-pitch repertoire. He's in his first full season in the majors, but don't worry about an innings limit here: Roark is 27, turns 28 in early October and still looks strong.

Starting Roark would bump Gio Gonzalez from the rotation, although, depending on the opponent, maybe having the lefty Gonzalez in there instead of four right-handers make sense. There's also an argument that Gonzalez -- despite a 3.79 ERA -- has actually been every bit as good as Roark. The fielding independent pitching numbers (FIP) have Gonzalez at 3.20 and Roark at 3.54 entering Tuesday. That's because Gonzalez has the better strikeout rate -- 9.0 K's per nine innings compared to 6.4 for Roark. But is that a deficiency for Roark? His two-seamer isn't a big strikeout pitch but gets ground balls. Yes, that means relying a little more on defense than Gonzalez does.

The difference in their ERAs stems primarily from results with runners in scoring position: Roark has allowed a .252/.310/.397 line, while Gonzalez has allowed a .281/.348/.465 line.

Of course, Gonzalez is the veteran, which might ultimately enter into manager Matt Williams' decision. Plus, Roark has more experience pitching out of the bullpen, having made 29 relief appearances between Triple-A and the majors last season. Either way, Williams has a nice luxury in that he can have a quick hook with any of his starters in the postseason if necessary.

2. Joe Nathan is starting to remind of 2009 Brad Lidge. Remember that year? Lidge was horrendous all season with the Phillies, going 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and 11 home runs and 34 walks in just 58⅔ innings, and yet, Charlie Manuel stuck with him as closer all season and the Phillies still managed to reach the World Series. Manuel's loyalty finally burned him in Game 4, when Lidge entered in the ninth of a 4-4 tie and gave up three runs.

What does that have to do with Nathan? He hasn't been quite as bad as Lidge but inspires the same level of confidence in Tigers fans right now. After J.D. Martinez hit a dramatic three-run homer in the top of the ninth off Glen Perkins to give the Tigers a 3-2 lead over the Twins, Nathan coughed it up by allowing the Twins to score twice. It wasn't all his fault, although he did get the rally started with a one-out walk to Trevor Plouffe. Kurt Suzuki hit a liner to shallow left-center on which Ezequiel Carrera appeared to get a slow read and missed the diving catch. (Would Austin Jackson have made the play?) The winning run then scored with two outs on Aaron Hicks' infield chopper up the middle. Nathan is 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA and seven blown saves. Again, not quite as bad as Lidge, but still the symbol of a shaky Detroit bullpen.

3. Don't blame Ned Yost! Unfortunately for the Royals, they weren't able to take advantage of Detroit's loss and remained 1½ games behind the Tigers -- or two games behind, counting the suspended game they're losing to the Indians. (Yes, I'm required to mention that every night!)

Yost actually did what he didn't do on Sunday: bring in Kelvin Herrera in the sixth inning. And it worked, as Herrera got the final out to preserve a 4-4 tie. After the Royals then took a 5-4 lead, things were looking good, but Herrera gave up two singles in the seventh, and Wade Davis -- pitching in the seventh for the first time all season -- walked Jose Abreu, pitching him a little too carefully. Conor Gillaspie, after fouling off two pitches, then hit a 2-2, 97 mph fastball for a bases-clearing triple, and Herrera and Davis both saw their scoreless-inning streaks of more than 30 end.

Yost did the right thing. He brought in his two dominant relievers in crucial situations in a close game. On this night, they just got beat. Considering how dominant they'd been, they were probably due. But don't blame this one on Ned.

4. Steve Pearce, legend in the making. The Orioles clinched with an 8-2 win over the Blue Jays (good night, Toronto). The big blow was Pearce's three-run homer in the first. What a story he's been. The 31-year-old had spent parts of seven seasons in the majors but never batted more than 188 times. Pearce began the season with the Orioles but appeared in just three games before Baltimore designated him for assignment on April 27. The Blue Jays actually claimed Pearce on waivers, but Pearce had the right to become a free agent rather than accept the claim, which he did. Two days later, with Chris Davis injured, the Orioles re-signed Pearce to a major league contract. He hasn't stopped hitting and is now at .294/.371/.541 with 18 home runs, and he's hitting fifth for a division winner. Just another reason we love this game.

5. Brewers notch big comeback win. In the first of a three-game series in St. Louis, the Brewers tied it in the top of the ninth and won it in the 12th inning. They move up to four games back of the Cardinals and remained 1½ behind the Pirates for the second wild card. Good job by the Milwaukee pen with just two hits over five scoreless innings. Jhonny Peralta nearly tied it with a long fly in the 12th to the warning track, but Gerardo Parra hauled it in and Francisco Rodriguez escaped with a 1-2-3 save.

Five things we learned Monday

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
1:41
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Check the standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedule on the Hunt for October page.

1. "That's what speed do." A few years ago, Kansas City Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, talking about his ability as one of the fastest players in the game, coined the phrase "That's what speed do." It's kind of a popular thing for Royals fan to quote although it's never quite caught on on a national level. Hey, it's the Royals. Well, it may be reaching a tipping point after the wheels of Dyson and fellow pinch runner Terrance Gore inspired a dramatic ninth-inning comeback as the Royals scored twice with two outs to beat the White Sox 4-3. Here's Dyson on second base with two outs, running on the pitch, and scoring as the ball bounces to the backstop; love the excited Royals announcers quoting Dyson. And here's Gore on second base after Norichica Aoki doubled. He's also running on the play and scores the winner on Lorenzo Cain's infield hit.

What a turn of events for the Royals, who trailed 3-0 entering the bottom of the seventh. By that time, they knew the Tigers were on their (likely) way to a win over the Twins. Considering Sunday's bullpen fiasco created by manager Ned Yost, it was looking like doom-and-gloom time in Kansas City. So give them credit for coming alive late against the White Sox bullpen. Give Dyson credit for stealing third on his run -- a base that didn't seem all that important to risk with two outs -- especially considering he got picked off second in a similar scenario last week. As I wrote when Dyson got picked off, there are times you can throw the numbers out the window and just say either the player makes a play or he doesn't. Dyson made a big play.

This is one way the Royals have to manufacture runs. They're last in the AL in home runs and last in walks. They're not a good offensive team. But they have speed, ranking first in the league in steals, and FanGraphs rates them as the second-best baserunning team in the majors behind the Nationals (some of their speed advantage is negated by the likes of Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, two of the worst baserunners in the league). It's not a big statistical advantage -- plus-7.8 runs above average entering Monday -- but as Monday showed, there are moments in games where speed can be the deciding factor.

The night got even better when the Mariners lost, so the Royals are two up on Seattle for the second wild card, just one game behind the A's and still 1.5 behind the Tigers. (You know the caveat: The Royals are losing to the Indians in that suspended game.)

2. Kudos to Don Mattingly. The Dodgers' skipper didn't fuss around with Roberto Hernandez, yanking him in the fourth inning of a 2-2 game with the bases loaded. With lefty Charlie Blackmon up, Mattingly went to southpaw Paco Rodriguez. Blackmon doesn't have a huge platoon split, but his OPS against lefties was 70 points lower entering the game. Hernandez doesn't have a platoon split this year but has in the past. With all the extra relievers that September provides, there was no need to keep Hernandez in there as you probably would have before rosters expanded. The player still has to execute and Rodriguez got the groundout. The Dodgers went on to break it open with an 11-3 win, but it was a move that shows Mattingly understands that you can manage September differently from April through August.

Oh ... and the Giants lost, so L.A.'s lead in the NL West is now up to four games.

Oh ... if Hyun-Jin Ryu can't make it back for the playoffs because of his sore shoulder, is Hernandez really the team's No. 4 starter right now?

3. Stephen Strasburg with another gem. Christina Kahrl touched on how the Nationals are winning with roster depth and not on the backs of the heralded duo of Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But Strasburg has put together four straight solid starts now, with no walks, 28 strikeouts and just six extra-base hits allowed. His average fastball velocity those four starts: 95.7, 95.6, 95.9 and 95.3. This doesn't look like a guy tiring down the stretch.

One note, however: The past two starts came against the Braves, next to last in the NL in runs; the one before that came against the Phillies (in D.C.); and before that against the offensively impaired Mariners at Safeco. So I'm not quite ready to declare Strasburg has turned the corner from his inconsistent ways. Still, a good sign.

4. Good night, Yankees. Wait, did I write this on Sunday as well? As blog contributor Katie Sharp tweeted after the Yankees' 1-0 loss to the Rays, the Yankees have scored six runs in their past five games, their fewest in a five-game span since June 30-July 4, 1997. By the way, Derek Jeter got the day off. Understandable and needed. Jeter has completely wilted down the stretch, as much to blame as any player for the Yankees' struggles. Over his past 21 games, he's hit .145/.189/.169. And has still been hitting second in the lineup. Shame on you, Joe Girardi, for putting the individual over the team.

5. Tired Hisashi Iwakuma. Felix Hernandez hasn't been quite as dominant of late and Iwakuma has definitely not been sharp. Over his past five starts, Iwakuma has allowed 22 runs in 21.1 innings. On Monday, the Angels pounded him for seven runs in 3.1 innings. The big blow was Albert Pujols' three-run double with two outs in the third -- after Iwakuma had retired the first two batters of the inning. Now two games behind the Royals, the Mariners' playoff odds have dropped to 31 percent -- this after climbing over 50 percent heading into Saturday's game (with King Felix starting). But three straight losses and now it's a tough climb back.

For the Angels, Matt Shoemaker keeps winning, Mike Trout keeps hitting and they've won 11 of 12, averaging 8.2 runs per game in that stretch.

Nationals' delivery on promise a team thing

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
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Some ways of winning you find yourself liking better than you expected. Five and a half months ago, most of us anticipated the Nationals would win the NL East, so now that Washington is on the cusp of clinching, there isn’t any drama. It’s done. For weeks, it’s been a matter of math and shrinking odds.

Admittedly, the Braves made a better-than-expected showing with a cobbled-together rotation, but the Nationals should clinch at some point this week, which provides time to reflect on how and why they did it. This is why I’d argue it has been more fun to actually see them do it than you might've expected from a slam-dunk preseason favorite.

[+] EnlargeNationals
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesIan Desmond and Wilson Ramos are among the many guys who have put the Nationals on top in the NL East.
For example, if you thought they’d win because of their much celebrated young duo of nascent superstars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, guess again. Both have been good, but Strasburg isn’t the Nats’ best (or second best) starter, and Harper hasn’t been as important to the Nationals’ success in the lineup as Adam LaRoche or Anthony Rendon or Jayson Werth.

So set aside the guys such as Strasburg and Harper who get the most headlines. If you had to peg the “worst” player in the Nats lineup, whom would you peg? Wilson Ramos? Catchers with an OPS north of .700 don't grow on trees -- not these days. Ian Desmond? Asdrubal Cabrera? Those are both useful players with whom you can win, as the Nats have.

Take Desmond at shortstop, one of the last legacies from the franchise’s Expos incarnation, a third-round pick out of high school in 2004. His prospect status languished as he spent the better part of four years bouncing between Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg before he finally broke through with a reminder that, in time, youth will be served. If you look at what he doesn’t do -- generate positive numbers in advanced defensive metrics or walk -- you might underrate him. He’s durable and has already notched his third straight 20-homer season while playing a solid shortstop.

Instead, the Nats are an interesting success story because of their depth and because of the number of guys who put them over the top. It’s even more interesting when you consider how many analysts have been critical of the decisions to sign Werth and LaRoche. Some might still lament getting three years of control of center fielder Denard Span in a deal with the Twins for hotshot pitching prospect Alex Meyer. But in the end, this is a concentration of talent that has used financial muscle via free agency and accumulated value from more than a decade of scouting.

That isn’t the only thing that has worked out well, even if the current management regime can’t claim all the credit. Whether getting Doug Fister from the Tigers or stealing Wilson Ramos from the Twins, there’s plenty to brag about. Betting the upside on Werth in his 30s has worked out well for the Nationals, as David Schoenfield noted recently. Reviewing his seven-year, $126 million deal at the midpoint, it certainly looks much better than the B.J. Upton contract (five years, $75 million), a deal many celebrated and a lot of smart folks liked at the time and a deal that has almost no chance of working out, now that Upton’s on the short list of worst regulars in baseball. LaRoche? It used to be fashionable to bash him as a mediocrity; these days he's a solid sure thing the Nats can bet on.

That is not to say the Nationals will have it easy from here on out. They still have important questions to ask and answer -- and two weeks to find answers before they head into October.

Perhaps the biggest question involves their former starting third baseman. As Ryan Zimmerman tries to work his way back from the DL, he went through a full workout Monday at instructional league and will play a simulated game Tuesday. If he can come back in time to get a week or so of everyday play in the majors, the Nats might be able to determine if they can move Anthony Rendon back to second base and start Zimmerman at third or if they’ll have to settle for Zimmerman spot-starting at first, left and -- should they make it -- DH in the World Series. It’s a nice problem to have.

Less enjoyable will be sorting out what they’re going to do with former closer Rafael Soriano. Handed a four-run lead in the ninth inning Monday, he brought the Braves back into the game by allowing two runs to score. Since his latest save Sept. 1, Soriano has allowed six runs and blown two saves in his past 4 1/3 IP across five games. He’s allowed 10 baserunners. He’s giving Nationals fans the willies, and if Matt Williams had any hair left, it would have long since gone grey. Drew Storen came in to clean up the mess, notched his fifth save in five appearances and demonstrated there is no “committee” solution to Soriano’s struggles as a closer -- the job is Storen’s.

The question now might be whether Soriano is worth a postseason roster spot. That might sound extreme, but if he doesn’t show anything in the next two weeks, would you invest the space in keeping him around? They’ll be adding someone from the rotation -- probably Tanner Roark -- to the pen, and with Tyler Clippard and Aaron Barrett around, it isn’t like they’re short of quality right-handed arms for setup work. It might come down to a choice between Soriano and third lefty Jerry Blevins.

The Nationals will be better off if Soriano can put people’s minds at ease in the meantime. He didn’t Monday night, but thanks to the margin they’ve built to clinch shortly, they’ll be able to afford him the time to get back in gear. Those are the benefits you win for yourself when you deliver on the expectation that you’d win going away -- and then you do.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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Check out all the playoff odds and upcoming schedules on the Hunt for October page.

1. The Tigers will win the AL Central.

It hasn't always been easy the past three seasons, but after sweeping the Indians, it appears the Tigers will win their the fourth straight division title. It's not over, not with a big series against the Royals this weekend, but 10 of Detroit's other final 13 games are against the Twins and White Sox, so they should finish strong. That said, Sunday's win didn't resolve two major issues the team will carry into the postseason: Justin Verlander and Joe Nathan. Verlander gave up six hits and three walks in 5.2 innings and you have to think he still slots in behind Max Scherzer, David Price and Rick Porcello in the playoff rotation, and that's pending the return of Anibal Sanchez, who threw Saturday and is hoping for a return in the final week of the regular season. Nathan earned his 32nd save, but gave up a run on two hits and a walk. Yes, he hasn't blown a save since Aug. 9, but he's also pitched just three 1-2-3 innings in 12 outings since. He's still shaky, to say the least.

2. Jordan Zimmermann looking like Nationals' No. 1 starter.

He tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 2.83. His next start is Friday and then Wednesday or Thursday of next week after that, giving him plenty of time before the first game of the Division Series. Over his past 10 starts, he's 6-0 with a 2.16 ERA and just eight walks; meanwhile, Doug Fister has had a couple shaky outings lately and Stephen Strasburg remains inconsistent. Look for Zimmermann to draw the first game of the Division Series.

3. Good night, Yankees.

Pitching for the third day in a row, David Robertson didn't have it Sunday night and the Orioles rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 3-2. The Yankees are now five games behind the Royals for the second wild card. It may only take 88 wins to get that second wild but the Yankees would still have to 12-2 to get to 88. Their playoffs odds are now under 1 percent.

4. Pirates looking good.

With a 7-3 win over the Cubs, the Pirates' playoff odds have now increased to 79 percent. They're three games behind the Giants for the first wild card and home field be important there -- Pittsburgh is 46-29 at home, 33-41 on the road, the second-largest home/road split in the majors behind the Cleveland. Of course, there are still slim hopes of catching the Cardinals, but the Cardinals finish with the Brewers, Reds, Cubs and Diamondbacks, so it's going be difficult for the Pirates to make up 3.5 games.

5. Clayton Kershaw with his biggest win of the season.

After the teams exchanged 9-0 and 17-0 blowout wins in the first two games of the series, Kershaw went eight strong innings in a 4-2 win over the Giants -- although his ERA did climb all the way from 1.67 to 1.70. This doesn't look like a man wearing down at the end of the season, as he's pitched at least eight innings in seven consecutive starts. The Dodgers are now up three games and their odds of winning the division are over 90 percent.

Five things we learned Friday

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
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The Pirates won to move to 13-4 against the Cubs this season, and the Brewers won their third straight, walking off versus the Reds, as both teams kept pressure on the National League Central-leading Cardinals.

Check out the Hunt for October page for standings, playoff odds and the upcoming schedule. Here's what else went on Friday night:

1. The Mariners beat the slumping A's.

The A's got closer Sean Doolittle back, but that did little to stop their slide: When Doolittle went on the disabled list with an intercostal strain on Aug. 23, the A's were 76-52 and tied for first in the American League West. They had already lost eight of their prior 12 games and had relinquished a four-game lead on the Angels. With Doolittle shelved, the A's lost 13 of their next 18, which included six blown saves.

What was once a lead-pipe cinch for a playoff spot has become quite precarious, with Oakland now only a half-game ahead of the Mariners for the first wild-card spot. Doolittle returned just in time to help his team battle Seattle in the first of a three-game series at Safeco Field. However, he never got in the game, as Seattle hit three solo homers and the A's went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position in a 4-2 Mariners win.

Going forward, the A's have the vastly easier schedule, but can they restart their offense in time to hold off Seattle?

2. The Dodgers and Giants will go right down to the wire in the roller-coaster NL West.

On June 8, the Giants (43-21) led the Dodgers (33-31) by 10 full games in the division. The teams then swapped momentum, as Los Angeles won 36 of their next 57 and San Francisco lost 36 of their next 56. The Dodgers were up by 5.5 games on Aug. 12, a 15.5 game swing in just over two months. The Giants had trimmed that lead down to two games as they headed into a three-game series at AT&T Park that started on Friday. Matt Kemp came into the game hitting .333/.400/.635 in his past 17 games, while Buster Posey was an obscene .463/.477/.838 in his past 19.

Posey contributed an RBI double in the first inning as the Giants touched up Hyun-Jin Ryu for four runs en route to a 9-0 victory, cutting the Dodgers' lead in the division to one game. Ryu left after that first inning with a recurrence of shoulder irritation that had shelved him for three weeks earlier in the season, and it remains to be seen if he'll be available for his next start. Even after this weekend, these two teams still have a three-game set in Los Angeles that begins on Sept. 22.

3. Royals' infield defense let them down again, and Tigers retook AL Central lead.

On Thursday, Kansas City made three errors on the infield, which led to two unearned runs in a 6-3 loss to the Red Sox. Those three miscues brought the total errors by Royals infielders (including 21 by their pitchers) to 76 this season. On Friday, Mike Moustakas made his second error in as many nights, and Yordano Ventura threw a wild pitch to allow the Red Sox to score another run.

Eric Hosmer provided the only offense with a two-run homer, and Kansas City dropped a 4-2 decision. Meanwhile, David Price tossed 7 2/3 innings of one-run, eight-hit ball as the Tigers routed the Indians 7-2. Detroit is now back in the AL Central lead for only the second time since Aug. 10. Given the Royals' ordinary offense, they have a smaller margin for error (all puns intended) and can't afford to be giving runs (and games) away so easily.

4. The Orioles can take a punch, and then some.

The Orioles had their All-Star third baseman (Manny Machado) for a mere 82 games before losing him in early August for the rest of the season to a knee injury. Their No. 1 catcher (Matt Wieters), off to a career-best start at the plate, went down and needed Tommy John surgery in May. Their starting first baseman (Chris Davis), who despite slumping to a sub-.200 average had still hit 26 homers, just got suspended for 25 games for testing positive for amphetamines. With all this, Baltimore continued its surge toward the AL East title, sweeping a day/night doubleheader from the Yankees in which they yielded only one run over 20 innings.

The sweep pushed the Orioles' AL East lead to 11.5 games and moved them within 3.5 games of the best record in the AL. Since being only one game over .500 after 69 games, they've won 53 of their past 78. Coming into Friday, the O's had used only seven different starters pitchers (fewest in the AL), with five of those amassing at least 20 starts (second-most in the AL). It's not that the starting pitching has been superb all year, as they rank in the middle of the pack in most categories. However, they have pitched much better as a whole since the All-Star break: a 34-17 record with a 3.03 ERA prior to Friday, versus 52-42 with a 3.84 ERA in the first half of the season. The staff's good health has meant they haven't had to rely upon untested, not-ready-for-The Show talent.

5. The Mets finally said "no more hospitality" to the Nationals in Queens.

If the Nationals manage to secure the best record in the NL (they currently lead by a half-game), they can credit their league-best .622 winning percentage at home, as well as their "home-field" advantage in Queens, New York. Coming into Friday, Washington had won 12 straight (and 26 of its prior 30 games) at Citi Field. This season, it had won all four contests in New York, by a combined score of 20-6.

The Mets got off that schneid by jumping on Gio Gonzalez for three first-inning runs and outlasting the Nats 4-3. The Nationals still have two more games at Citi Field this weekend, with Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann scheduled to start.

Diane Firstman writes the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
When the Washington Nationals signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract before the 2011 season, the deal was widely criticized. It was made out to be symbolic of the further decline of baseball or something like that.

The criticism was certainly understandable. Werth, while an excellent player, was hardly a household name, had never hit .300 or knocked in 100 runs, and had made one All-Star team. He was also entering his age-32 season. So even though he was coming off his best season, giving a seven-year deal of that amount to any player from ages 32 to 38 is usually a bad idea. And $126 million for Jayson Werth seemed a little insane.

And it looked bad in 2011, when Werth hit just .232 with 20 home runs, his wins above replacement (WAR) dropping from 4.5 to 1.3. In 2012, he broke his wrist and played just 81 games. The injury sapped his power, but he did hit .300 with a .387 OBP, and the Nationals won the NL East. Still, at that point, the contract wasn't looking good, with five years and $99 million remaining.

But Werth was excellent in 2013, hitting .318 with 25 home runs -- even with the lingering effects of his broken wrist. "I’ve got one plate, three screws and eight pins in there," he told Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post last August. "It's never going to be 110 percent again. But I'm hitting as well as I ever have."

[+] EnlargeJayson Werth
G Fiume/Getty ImagesIf Jayson Werth helps keep the Nationals playing well into October this year, that contract will look even better.

Despite playing through a shoulder issue, he's been very good again in 2014, hitting .283/.381/.446, ranking fifth in the NL in OBP and 10th in wOBA -- ahead of, among others, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, two players mentioned as MVP candidates, as well as teammate Anthony Rendon, also mentioned as a down-the-ballot kind of guy. The Nationals are going to win their second NL East title in three years, and Werth has been a key reason why.

So how does that contract look now?

Let's value each win above replacement at $6.5 million -- that's about the going rate on the free-agent market. Maybe it was a little lower in December 2010 and a little higher now (or trending higher), but $6.5 million serves as a rough proxy. At $126 million, Werth would have to earn about 19.3 WAR to justify the value of the contract.

Right now, he's at 9.9 WAR in his three-plus seasons, via Baseball-Reference.com (3.0 in 2014), and 11.2 via FanGraphs (3.7 in 2014). In other words, he has a chance to come close to reaching the 19.3 total WAR over the life of the contract. That doesn't necessarily mean it was a sweetheart of a deal for the Nationals. Back in March, when Miguel Cabrera signed his mega-extension, Buster Olney tweeted that he hadn't heard such disgust from executives since the Werth contract. The implication being that the Nationals went much, much higher for Werth than any other team had been willing to go.

So they did overpay at the time, which can't be ignored. But it's also not looking like a disaster of a contract, either. It shouldn’t be a big surprise that Werth has aged well; he's a good athlete, a minor league catcher converted to the outfield due to his speed. His walk rates have always been excellent, and that's a skill that generally holds up well. (Not always: See Albert Pujols.) Werth has actually cut down on his strikeout rate the past three seasons, which has helped him maintain his good batting averages.

Compare Werth to Josh Hamilton. Maybe Hamilton had the higher peak value, but his biggest weakness -- strike zone control -- is Werth's strength. Hamilton hasn't been the same player at ages 32 and 33 with the Angels that he was earlier with the Rangers. Or compare Werth to the more one-dimensional Prince Fielder, whose value is all wrapped up in his bat (same with Cabrera). Werth is still a plus on the bases, and while his defensive metrics aren't what they were during his best years with the Phillies, he's not a big liability in right field.

Werth's contract might have been a joke in December 2010. But the Nationals may yet get the last laugh.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
2:43
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Don't forget to check out the Hunt for October for standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

1. Don't go burying the Oakland A's just yet.

Ahh, America: We love to jump on a bandwagon and then crush it as soon as we can. Witness the A's. Remember back on June 21? That was when they beat the Red Sox 2-1 in 10 innings. It was an exciting walk-off victory. They were 47-28 after that win, the best record in the majors, on pace for 102 wins. They had a six-game lead over the Angels and were still weeks from acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. We all loved the A's back then, praising this team that had overcome injuries to two-fifths of its projected rotation, writing our "Billy Beane has done it again" stories.

Then came the trades. Then came the losses. Then came the Angels and the loss of the division lead. Then came those two defeats on Sunday and Monday -- blowing leads in the ninth inning -- and even though the A's were still in the wild-card lead, we were ready to put them 6 feet under. Enter Jon Lester on Tuesday against the White Sox. Considering the somewhat dire straits of the bullpen, the A's needed a big game from their new ace and Lester delivered with eight innings of two-run baseball. The A's piled on seven runs over the final three innings to turn it into an 11-2 laugher, but Lester was the key guy in this one.

Lester has been as good as any pitcher in the American League this year not named Felix Hernandez or Chris Sale. And considering Hernandez has been shaky of late, Lester might be the best starter going right now on any of the playoff contenders in the AL. Meaning: The A's might have blown the division, but if they can hold on to win the wild card and have Lester ready to go, he's still a good bet to get them into the next round.

Of course, one game doesn't mean the A's have suddenly turned things around, but it has to feel good after the previous two defeats (and knowing Sale is on deck to start against them on Thursday). The A's are still in the wild-card lead with 18 games left in the regular season. You can jump back on the bandwagon if you wish. No hard feelings.

2. Drew Storen pretty much locks down the closer job for the Nationals.

A few days ago, following the recent struggles of Rafael Soriano, Matt Williams announced he'd go with a closer by committee. Well, Storen has pitched the past three games, faced nine batters, retired all of them and picked up three saves. He has a 1.29 ERA. See you in the seventh inning, Rafael. Oh, and with two straight wins over the Braves, the Nationals not only got that "unable to beat the Braves" monkey off their backs a little, but pretty much wrapped up the NL East title with a nine-game lead now.

3. Yusmeiro Petit keeps Tim Lincecum in the bullpen.

Petit threw 84 pitches in a complete-game, 5-1 win over the Diamondbacks. How efficient was he?


Oh ... the Dodgers lost, so their lead is back down to 2.5 games.

4. Not so soon, Michael Wacha.

You don't want to read too much into Wacha's rough outing -- six runs, four extra-base hits and three walks in four innings in a 9-5 loss to the Reds -- since he's barely pitched after coming back from the stress fracture in his shoulder. Still, it suggests the Cardinals' playoff rotation -- yes, I'm assuming they win the division -- isn't settled yet, with Wacha and Shelby Miller presumably battling for the fourth spot behind Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and John Lackey.

5. Brewers, Braves ... still alive!

The Brewers lost again, 6-3 to the Marlins, as closer Francisco Rodriguez served up a two-run homer and then a solo shot with two outs in the ninth. Brewers fans were not happy. They've lost 13 of 14. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. The Braves have lost seven of their past 10 and have hit .193 and average two runs per game during that span. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. I mean ... even the Marlins are only 3.5 behind the Pirates.

Yay, wild card?


Fifty-one players later, one of the strangest games of the season was over, an 8-5, 14-inning victory for the Nationals over the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, a game that featured three blown saves, Jayson Werth's dropped fly ball that allowed the tying run to score in the bottom of the ninth, Carl Crawford's dramatic game-tying home run in the 12th and, finally, a three-run outburst for the Nationals off Kevin Correia in the 14th kick-started by a throwing error by Dodgers shortstop Justin Turner.

In the middle of all the action for the Nationals was first baseman Adam LaRoche, who didn't start the game due to a lower back strain. He hit a pinch-hit two-run homer in the ninth, singled in two runs in the 12th and drove in the go-ahead run in the 14th. Not a bad day for a guy who was supposed to have the day off.

He was also hit by a pitch in the 11th and couldn't meet with the media after the game since he was receiving treatment for his elbow and back.

"Getting hit in the elbow there makes it really difficult for him to swing the bat," manager Matt Williams said. "When we loaded the bases in the 12th he didn't know if he could swing. We were thinking about putting down a bunt, but he just stayed on the ball and hit a two-run single."

LaRoche is one of those players who doesn't get much attention, a reliable veteran who isn't a star nor an up-and-coming prospect who may turn into one. He's never made an All-Star team, won a lone Gold Glove, has driven in 100 runs just twice (100 on the nose both times), has never led the league in anything, has moved around a bit (Atlanta to Pittsburgh to Boston back to Atlanta to Arizona and then to Washington the past four seasons).

He's also a guy whom WAR doesn't rate very highly: His career-best season in that category was 2012, the year he finished sixth in the MVP voting, at 4.1. His second-best season was 2009 at 2.2. Most of his other seasons fall in the 1.1 to 1.8 range (his total this year). According to Baseball-Reference.com, a WAR of 2.0 is starter-level. His career triple-slash line is .264/.339/.471. This year, he's at 20 home runs, 75 RBIs with a .259/.364/.446 batting line.

All-Star? OK, maybe not. But solid regular? Yes.

LaRoche's wOBA (a stat that weighs all of his offensive numbers) of .352 ranks 36th in the majors out of 152 players who qualified by playing time. At first glance, his numbers don't blow you away for a first baseman, but this is 2014, not 2004. The league average wOBA at first base is .328.

If it's so easy to find a first baseman who can hit, then why do 21 teams have a lower wOBA than LaRoche's from their first basemen? Look at playoff-contending teams whose offenses have been hurt by a lack of production at first base:

Orioles: .320 wOBA
Royals: .317
A's: .313
Yankees: .312
Pirates: .310
Angels: .308
Mariners: .298
Brewers: .289

You don't think the Mariners or Brewers could use a player of LaRoche's caliber?

The Nationals have several players like this. Denard Span is a solid player who lacks home run power but is having an excellent season in the leadoff spot. Ian Desmond gets criticized for his below-average on-base percentage and erratic play in the field, but he's also a shortstop with 22 home runs and 81 RBIs. Asdrubal Cabrera never matched the numbers he put up in 2011 and the metrics haven't liked his defense, but his bat is still fine for a middle infielder. Even Jayson Werth was that "guy with the $100 million contract" and the numbers that didn't seem to match.

Those are guys for whom it's easy to focus on what they don't do instead of what they do deliver. See Mr. LaRoche: Some teams would have looked for a better first baseman, especially after a down year in 2013. To their credit, the Nationals saw a consistent run producer.

So it's a team that you could nitpick from a variety of angles. In fact, according to the wins above average (as opposed to wins above replacement) totals at Baseball-Reference, the Nationals are eighth in the NL in WAA at catcher, eighth at first base, 10th at second base, ninth at shortstop, 10th in left field and sixth in right field. The only positions where they rate even one win above average are third base (mostly Anthony Rendon) and center field (Span).

Nonetheless, the Nationals are a good team, a team proving to be the best in the National League, and not just a team riding its starting rotation. Maybe they don't have an MVP candidate, but they have a solid lineup one through eight, including a 34-year-old first baseman who quietly does his job year after year.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
11:18
AM ET
1. The NL West race is heating up.

The Giants pounded the Brewers 15-5 to win their sixth in a row. They had two blowouts over Milwaukee but the pitching had its best week of the season, giving up 14 runs in seven games (three of those coming late on Sunday when Tim Lincecum made a relief appearance). After beginning the week five games behind L.A., now they're 2.5 games behind the Dodgers and have just nine games remaining against winning teams -- three against the Tigers and six against the Dodgers (they're 7-6 against the Dodgers). To be fair, the Dodgers are also have nine games left against winning teams (subbing the Nationals for the Tigers), so it appears this race could come down to the head-to-head showdowns later in September. If Buster Posey hits like he did in August -- .336, six home runs -- the Giants, without Matt Cain, with Lincecum banished to the bullen, can catch the Dodgers.

2. The Indians suddenly matter.

Sunday's game in Kansas City was suspended in the bottom of the 10th with the Indians up 4-2 and will be finished later in September when the Royals visit Cleveland, but the Indians are now just 3.5 behind the Royals, 2.5 if they hold on to this lead. As Christina Kahrl writes, the Indians are now stealth playoff contenders, both for the division title and the wild card. Next up: A big four-game series at home against then Tigers, kicking off with David Price facing Corey Kluber.

3. Bryce Harper finally looks healthy.

Harper crushed two long home runs on Sunday, although the Nationals lost to the Mariners (but still won the series). When Harper first came off the DL, either his timing was off or his thumb was still bothering him, but he's in a groove now and looks much better. In his past 23 games, he's hitting .307 with seven home runs.

4. Alex Wood comes up big for the Braves.

Wood's line in a 1-0 win over the Marlins: 8 IP, 5 H, 0 BB, 12 SO. His final two outs were strikeouts before he turned it over to Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. Wood is 10-10 with a 2.92 ERA and the Braves may regret those nearly two months he spent in the bullpen after beginning the season in the rotation (and pitching well). Combined with Mike Minor's resurgence -- four runs, nine hits in 21.2 innings over his past three starts -- the Braves' rotation is once again looking as formidable as it did back in April.

5. The Tigers' defense is still a problem.

The four errors on Sunday were bad enough, but the Tigers are also 29th in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. The defense was supposed to be improved from 2013 by moving Miguel Cabrera to first base and acquiring Ian Kinsler and Kinsler has been excellent with 15 DRS. But Nick Castellanos has been just as bad as Cabrera at third base -- if not worse -- with -27 DRS and Torii Hunter's predicable lack of range in right field (-17 DRS) has hurt. Rookie Eugenio Suarez hasn't been great at shortstop. If the Tigers miss the playoffs, defense will be a major reason why.

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