8/7/2014 12:10 A.M. ET
Thornton adding valuable flexibility to Nats' bullpen
By Bill Ladson and Daniel Popper / MLB.com
WASHINTGON -- In more ways than one, Matt Thornton is an inspired pitcher.
The left-hander, who the Nationals claimed off waivers from the Yankees on Tuesday, sustained an oblique injury in early August last season while with the Red Sox. The injury caused a major setback in Thornton's 2013 campaign, and after he was unable to fully recover and return to form before the end of the regular season, Boston left him off the postseason roster.
The Red Sox went on to win the World Series.
"It's a motivating factor, period, in my career," said Thornton, who turns 38 in September and was activated by the Nationals on Wednesday. "I feel like I have a lot of baseball left in me. I feel like I have a lot of years ahead of me still. That was a very disappointing time in my career. … I don't need a whole lot of motivation in the offseason and during the season, but it was fun facing Boston this year."
That wasn't the only thing from 2013 that provided material for Thornton's proverbial bulletin board in the offseason. The left-hander spent the better part of eight seasons with the White Sox before being dealt to Boston at last season's Trade Deadline. During his time in Chicago, Thronton pitched alongside a number of talented right-handed relievers, including Nate Jones, Jesse Crain and Addison Reed.
"I didn't need to face righties," Thornton said.
That changed when he went to Boston. Thornton faced right-handed batters in 39 plate appearances during his abbreviated stint with the Red Sox, and they compiled a .353 batting average against him.
"Everyone said I was done facing righties," said Thornton, who compiled a 2.55 ERA in 46 appearances for the Yankees this season. "I took that as a little insult and focused on that and prepared myself to throw a full inning every day."
Thornton responded by performing better against righties than lefties in New York. In 65 games with the Yankees, right-handed batters hit 243 against him. Meanwhile, lefties hit .250.
Even so, manager Matt Williams said Thornton provides the Nationals bullpen, which has been scuffling of late after an impressive first half of the season, with the option to match up with left-handed hitters on a day-to-day basis. The team now carries three lefty relievers in Thornton, Ross Detwiler and Jerry Blevins.
"We've got some really good left-handed hitters within the division we can match up against," Williams said. "That's good. It's good to be able to do that."
Thornton made his Nationals debut on Wednesday night, getting two outs in the eighth inning while allowing an inherited runner to score.
Big night a good sign for LaRoche during hitting woes
WASHINGTON -- After posting a .159 average in July, Adam LaRoche showed signs of breaking out of a slump Wednesday night when he hit two home runs in a 7-1 victory over the Mets at Nationals Park.
LaRoche was one of the Nationals' hottest hitters through the first half of the season and entered last month hitting .307 with 12 home runs. But the first baseman sputtered significantly in July, as his season average dropped to .266 and he delivered just one long ball in 88 at-bats.
The left-handed slugger got off to better start in August, going 6-for-17 with two doubles in his first five games. Wednesday night, though, may be the performance that gets LaRoche back on track.
"It's nice to see them go in the seats and not to the warning track or just foul. I felt like I was snake bit last month," LaRoche said. "I never really felt lost at the plate, which I have plenty of times in the past. But I just felt like I was right there, felt like any night, it was going to click and [I would] start squaring up balls."
LaRoche's first home run of the contest came in the opening inning, when he belted a 2-1 cutter from Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese into the right-field seats. It was a two-run jack that nearly landed in the upper deck and put the Nationals up 3-0.
LaRoche hit his second dinger off Mets reliever Carlos Torres in the eighth, driving a 2-2 changeup over the center-field fence, about 20 feet to the right of the 402 sign.
"He's going to continue to hit in the middle of our order, and tonight was a good example of him being on time," manager Matt Williams said. "When he's hitting those lofty fly balls to left field, he's just a tick off. Tonight, his timing was much better."
Zimmerman taking cautious approach to hamstring
WASHINGTON -- It's been a little more than two weeks since Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman sustained a Grade 3 right hamstring strain against the Rockies.
Although he has made strides in getting better -- he is currently running on a water treadmill -- he doesn't know when he'll be back on the field. He is hoping that he can return by the end of the season.
"I don't want to say I will, I don't want to say I won't. It's so hard right now to put a date or a time range on anything," Zimmerman told MLB.com. "We want [the hamstring] to heal and rest a little bit. We really won't know much until we start doing active things. To be honest, I don't know when we are supposed to start doing that. It's in the near future.
"It's tough. It was a pretty significant injury. It's not something you can rush. You rush and come back and the first time you try to run hard, you are going to do something again. We obviously don't want that to happen. I want to come back as soon as I can, help us win more games. It's frustrating, but what can you do?"
After being relatively healthy the first six years of his career, Zimmerman has been placed on the disabled list four consecutive years primarily because of shoulder problems. Zimmerman admits he is frustrated that he can't help the Nationals during the current pennant race.
"This time of the year is why you work so hard in the offseason," Zimmerman said. "It's why you play the game and want to be out there on the field in August and September, when you are competing for a division title. [You are] doing everything you can to win every night. That's why we all play. To not be able to be out there with my teammates, it's tough."
To make up for Zimmerman's absence, general manager Mike Rizzo acquired infielder Asdrubal Cabrera from the Indians last week. Zimmerman believes the Nationals made a sound move before the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Trading for Cabrera meant that Anthony Rendon was switched from second base to third.
"Being a fan of baseball, I know how good he is," Zimmerman said of Cabrera. "Obviously, defensively, he is unbelievable. I just always remember him having good at-bats when you needed to have good at-bats. I feel like late in games, he always has quality at-bats. He does a good job grinding it out and coming through in those situations."
• Danny Espinosa started at second base Wednesday against the Mets for the first time since the Nationals traded for Cabrera. Williams said his decision relied heavily on Espinosa's numbers from the right side of the plate this season, as Washington faced New York left-hander Jon Niese. Espinosa was hitting .309 in 81 at-bats as a right-handed batter entering Wednesday night.
"Given the numbers, it's a good fit," Williams said.
• Williams said he expects Wilson Ramos, who started a three-day paternity leave on Tuesday, to be on the team plane Thursday night to make the trip to Atlanta for the weekend series against the Braves.
• The Nationals optioned right-hander Blake Treinen to Triple-A Syracuse on Wednesday to make room on the roster for newly acquired left-hander Matt Thornton.
• With a 6-0 lead heading into the seventh inning Wednesday night against the Mets, Williams opted to pull right fielder Jayson Werth in favor of Steven Souza.
After the game, Williams said he made the decision because Werth has been dealing with lingering shoulder and neck tightness for the past week. He urged it was nothing serious, but said Werth sustained the injury about a week ago because of a "funky" swing. The first-year skipper said the team would see how Werth feels Thursday.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. Daniel Popper is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.