On Dozier, pinch-hitting decisions and losing series openers

DENVER - It got lost in the Nationals’ 7-5 loss to the Rockies that saw the home team score the final five runs, but in the larger picture the Nats have to be encouraged by Brian Dozier’s recent resurgence at the plate.

Dozier, among the biggest disappointments on the roster through the season’s first three weeks, has come back to life on this road trip. He has now homered in three of his last four games, including a towering, three-run blast to left Monday night that temporarily gave the Nationals a 5-2 lead.

The veteran second baseman still has a ways to go - his batting average remains well below the Mendoza line at .188 - but he’s now second on the club in homers with four and he’s feeling much better about himself at the plate.

dozier-high-fives-in-dugout-after-homer-gray.jpg“There was a lot of different things early on to fix some bad habits and stuff,” he said. “We’ve done that. We’ve cleaned that up. I think the biggest thing is now just the approach, getting comfortable and really attacking pitches.

“The past week or two - before the past four or five games - I let a lot of pitches go by. I don’t know if I’ve ever done that in my career, letting strikes go by. Just having the mentality to swing. You can’t hit it unless you swing, right? So be aggressive and get back to how it used to be. It feels good right now.”

Dozier and hitting coach Kevin Long have worked extensively in recent weeks to fix some mechanical glitches, but also to fix Dozier’s mindset.

“It’s not necessarily going after the first pitch, it’s just having the mentality and going up there ready to hit,” Dozier said. “And when you’re comfortable mechanically and you’re comfortable at the plate, you can allow yourself to do that. Because oftentimes when you struggle and you start doing little things and you start tweaking stuff, you don’t feel very comfortable. You’re worried about this, and this foot down, and all that kind of stuff. So, you know, all that is fixed and it’s just: Get up there and hit and attack and be aggressive.”

* Late-game managerial decisions are paramount every night of the season, but they feel all the more important at Coors Field, given the way it seems every game played here is decided late (often after flip-flopping several times).

Perhaps Davey Martinez’s biggest decision Monday night didn’t involve his bullpen but when to use his best pinch-hitter: Matt Adams.

With the game tied 5-5 in the top of the sixth and Dozier at the plate against right-hander Chad Bettis with two outs and nobody on, Martinez sent the just-recalled Jake Noll into the on-deck circle to pinch-hit for starter Jeremy Hellickson.

Dozier, though, grounded out to end the inning, so now the pitcher’s spot was leading off the top of the seventh. But instead of sending Noll back out there to hit, Martinez this time went with Adams against right-hander Seunghwan Oh. Adams would strike out on a curveball from Oh, but more significantly was no longer available to bat for the pitcher in the top of the ninth when the Nationals were trailing 7-5 but had two on and one out against closer Wade Davis.

Instead, it was backup catcher Kurt Suzuki pinch-hitting. And though Suzuki made solid contact, his sharp grounder down the third base line was scooped up by Nolan Arenado, who made a nifty play to step on the bag and then throw to first to complete a game-ending, 5-3 double play.

Here’s Martinez’s explanation for using Adams in the seventh instead of Noll: “I liked Noll against Bettis. And then to lead off (the next inning), I was hoping Adams comes up and gives us that ‘doubles or better’ at-bat. Oh did throw him a pretty good curveball.”

You might think a manager would be motivated to save his best bat off the bench for later in the game, but Martinez said that’s a mistake at Coors Field.

“No, there’s no saving there,” the manager said. “You’ve got to try to get runs as soon as possible. If we get the lead right there, who knows what happens.”

Yes, if Adams homers off Oh, the Nationals take a 6-5 lead into the bottom of the seventh. Then again, they still would have needed three scoreless innings from their bullpen. Which hasn’t exactly happened on a routine basis so far this season.

* If it feels like the Nationals have been trying to play uphill all season, they have. They’ve now gone 1-7 in series openers, consistently leaving them behind the 8-ball and trying to make up lost ground.

They’ve emerged from it all to win three series and split another, but none of it has come easy.

“That’s kind of what sets the tone for the ballclub: You try to win a series,” Dozier said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t done a good job of that, really every series this year. That’s unfortunate. ... We have to do a better job of winning series, and obviously, on the road getting off to a good start and winning the first one. But can’t do anything now. Still can win (this) series, though.”

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