Archive for April, 2009

Ankles and Ankiels

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

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No Names Plus Pujols: Two weeks ago the standard thinking on St. Louis was that with Scott Rolen’s shoulder turning to mush and Chris Carpenter out with yet another injury, the Redbirds would have a hard time competing in the NL Central. It would be only a matter of time before LaRussa’s nine faded in the face of the inevitable Cubs onslaught. So much for standard thinking: the Cards are not only leading the NL Central, they’re leading the entire league and are four games ahead of the struggling slugs.

That said, these Cards are not your daddy’s Musials — and Redbird fans surveying the Busch Stadium mound won’t find anyone to compare with Bob Gibson, or even someone of the quality of (say) Ray Washburn – the now-forgotten third pitcher on the 1967 World Series winner that featured Gibson and Steve Carlton. But none of the three, it turns out, were as good that year as the Redbird’s ace: Dick Hughes. (You remember Hughes, don’t you?) Hughes debuted in 1966, went 2 and 2, then had a breakout year in ’67. But ’67 was his last, and only, good year. In ’68 his arm turned to jello and he retired.  

Hughes is a fairly typical Cards story, of an underrated player suddenly pitching his brains out. And all because he’s in St. Louis. The University of Arkansas fireballer showed up in St. Louis at the age of 29 and everyone expected him to be of marginal value. But in July, during a visit to Pittsburgh, Gibson was struck just above the right ankle by a Roberto Clemente line drive. Gibson pitched to three more batters before collapsing.

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Gibson’s injury was a disaster for the Cardinals and sportswriters began writing the team’s obituary. For good reason: Gibson had won 106 games over the previous six years, was the most frightening pitcher in baseball — and the soul of an uncertain staff.  (The Cards later traded Carlton for Rick Wise — a galactically stupid mistake — but that was in 1971.) As team doctor’s studied the x-rays of Gibson’s fractured upper ankle, Card’s fans shook their heads in despair. That’s when Hughes stepped in — posting a season stunning WHIP of 0.954, the fourth best in franchise history.

Hughes had help. The 1967 Cards turned out to be one of the most well-rounded teams in NL history – built by none other than Stan (“the man”) himself, who served as the team’s general manager. The ’67 Cards had a veritable “murderers’ row” of hitters: Tim McCarver, Curt Flood, Lou Brock, a revived Roger Maris and Orlando Cepeda (25 home runs, 111 RBI’s and the league MVP), who had come over from the San Francisco Morons, who were angry that he spoke Spanish in the dugout in violation of team rules (I’m not making this up). Gibson returned in time to pitch the ’67 Series, taming the “impossible dream” Red Sox with three dominating wins.

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 So … the 2009 Cards are alot like the ’67 “El Birdos” — right? Well, not exactly. The ’09 version of the Redbirds features the Hughes-like Kyle Lohse in place of Carpenter, and an outfield of Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, and Chris Duncan. The feel-good story of Rick Ankiel hides that fact that he’s just average (he’s hitting a torrid .246) and Ludwick is no Curt Flood. The current Cards lack speed, with no Lou Brock in sight. Lohse’s mound support comes from a strange cast: Todd Wellemeyer (so-so with the Cubs), Adam Wainwright (a Braves castoff, but now a surprising 3-0) and Joel Pineiro (who couldn’t cut it with the Mariners, but has four wins without a loss).  Despite Wainwright and Pineiro’s numbers (who knew?) there’s not a hall of famer there anywhere; the ’67 Cards had two. Two!

So why are the Cards winning? One reason is surely Albert Pujols, the class of the NL, and perhaps the best hitter in baseball. But he’s not enough to carry a team that includes a converted outfielder (Skip Schumaker, who now plays second) a stopgap shortstop (Khalil Greene — .219) and no-names like Brian Barden, Joe Thurston, and Colby Rasmus (.259. no home runs). The difference is pitching (of course), but also Tony LaRussa, the HOF-bound manager who is mixing and matching and motivating his players to victory after victory, while Lou and the crew slog their way through a west coast trip that is fast becoming a bad dream. (Time to throw some buckets around the clubhouse, Lou.)

The Cards come to town tonight: underrated, unappreciated, unknown — and leading the league in wins. So here’s the deal: if the NATS can knock the stuff out of Lohse, rattle Pineiro, and take advantage of the soft-spot in the Cards rotation (that would be Wellemeyer), then the Birds of ’09 will do what they oughtado — they will stop looking like the ’67 “El Birdos” and collapse like a house of … well … Cards.

Coming Up: This weekend we have our first guest column — the return of “the opposition party.” And on Sunday we will have a new weekly feature (that is, until we forget to do it): a walk around the Nats blogosphere.

Z Masters NY

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

Jordan Zimmermann: pitched into the 6th today, mastering the Chokes in New York and salvaging Washington’s honor by winning the team’s first away game this year. Little Z threw 103 pitches, 62 for strikes … At one point MASN color commentator Rob Dibble described Zimmermann as “a young Roy Oswalt but with better stuff” … Speaking of which, did anyone notice how much grief Dibble gave Nats pitching coach Randy St. Claire on the MASN broadcast today? Dibble complained about St. Claire’s habit of reviewing scouting reports with Zimmermann prior to the game. Dibble was dismissive: “Just let the kid pitch,” he said. It really bugged him — he complained about it three times during the game …

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Dibble may or may not have a point, but we prefer him to his predecessor, who always made a great show of his red-white-and-blue views and fawning support for (mostly) southern players he considered better than their numbers, like Kentucky (shouldn’t he be named Lexington?) . . . Half Street Blues hates Dibs. I think he’s great, as does our sister blog, Nats 320 … when is Manny going to tell Alberto to stop playing shortstop in shallow left field? I count five errors in 81 innings . . .

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I wonder, now that Austin Kearns is hitting, whether the Nats will be shopping him as intently as they were several weeks ago (the answer, I suspect, is “yes”) . . . Manny Acta says he appreciates the support of the Nats’ front office. Manny should know: in Washington, every vote of confidence is either preceded by an indictment or a firing. Waiting in the wings is Jim Riggleman, former skipper of the Friars, Slugs and Mariners, who is known for his fiery statements.  I always liked Riggleman — he marched to the mound to remove a pitcher like he was going to execute him. Riggleman recently described Manny as “a great manager.” I sense some maneuvering here. So let’s see: Riggleman takes over in the dugout and hires Dibs as his pitching coach? Ahhhh … no thanks.

Happy Meals and Cherry Blossoms

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Assessing The National Pastime: Forbes is out with their annual list of “Baseball’s Most Valuable Teams.” The top five are predictable: the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers and Cubs. Forbes concludes that “the national pastime has never been stronger.” That said, the Tigers, Giants, Indians and Rangers are suffering, their values slipping over the past year. The Nats are ranked 14th, just behind the Mariners, but ahead of the Orioles (at 17th) as well as the D-backs, Blue Jays, and Brewers. The Marlins are dead last.

The Nats are valued at $406 million and, while their value will increase, don’t let anyone tell you that D.C. is recession proof. Barring a near-miracle, the Anacostia Boys are sure to draw fewer patrons this year, and the Washington Post reports that development around Nationals Park is at a standstill. While the team is still viewed as a Major League stepchild and needs to establish a clear local identity, the idea that the Nats are poorly run and that the city didn’t shell out enough for the ballpark is a crock.

Nationals Park is unfairly stigmatized: the result of all the oohing and ahhing over Camden Yards, a weird comparison with “the cathedral” in New York and the belief (repeated in Baseball Prospectus) that the new stadium is a “$693 million boondoggle.” But the real boondoggle is 225 miles north of here and is priced at $1.5 billion. It’s a monument to excess. It’s amazing to me that we have yet to hear from baseball’s gurus about how embarrassing Yankee Stadium is — and that has nothing to do with the wind.

I talked with a fan of the Trolleys last week who advised me on finding a nickname for the Nats’ home for use in the blog. I told him that I was playing with “the blossom” (for Cherry Blossom). He smiled and suggested “the Happy Meal.” Nats Park, he went on to say, “lacked the grit of Dodger Stadium” and “the feel of a real baseball park,” implying that all those Dodger fans out there in L.A. were not as fey as I might suppose.  That’s right: L.A. is known for its blue collar ethic, its toughness, its “grit” — which it lacked, apparently, in Brooklyn. That Athens of America.

Nationals Park is a good ballpark: it plays well, it’s easy to get to, it has great sight lines and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. The Nats are in last place, but the franchise is solid. Don’t complain about Mark Lerner, we could have this guy. The one thing the franchise could use is better radio coverage and less dependence on guys like this who, frankly, just don’t like baseball. Apart from that, there isn’t anything wrong here that winning can’t solve.

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MLB Extra Innings: I signed up in April, just as the season started. It’s been worth it. There’s nothing to hate and the local feeds give viewers a chance to assess booth talent (D-backs color man Mark Grace is overrated and the Red Birds Mike Shannon is deplorable). If you’re interested in seeing west coast games, EI is an alternative to the endless blathering about “the nation,” “the evil empire” or the New York Chokes. 

My first week I had access to over 100 games, which means you have to set limits. My rule is that I cannot watch a game during the day, unless it’s the Nats or Cubs or a game that features Lincecum, Haren, Greinke, Meche, Webb, Lowe, Lester, Buehrle, Oswalt, Harden, Lilly, Cook, Francis, Lackey, Braden, Hamels, or Maholm. Other than that …

On Friday night I watched the Nats attempt to master Johan Santana; during commercials I checked “the nation’s” game against the Yankees. I settled on the Red Sox and Yankees before switching over to D-backs-Giants game, catching a part of the Bucs-Padres tilt during commercials. I finished by watching the “Showboats” lose to the McCovey’s in Arizona, just so I could see Lincecum pitch. You can see why he won the Cy Young.

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The problem with “Extra Innings” (if it is a problem) is that there’s almost too much to watch. So, after my first week, I decided that (barring reports of a no-hitter in progress) it’s better to watch one game at a time. Like having one cigarette at a time, it doesn’t end the addiction. I couldn’t pass up the Nats-Mets broadcast on Saturday, but then watched the Red Sox-Yanks before finishing with the Rangers-Orioles. Extra Innings is great, so long as you don’t have to make a living.

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Just A Few Words: about the O’s … who are in the process of getting crushed by the Rangers, whose pitching staff is being carried by their bats.  Ian Kinsler is hitting over .500 against the birds and is on his way to an MVP season … it appears that the “great left field hope” Felix Pie might never master big league pitching. The Cubs gave up on him and shipped him to Baltimore. He’s two for his last 26 … he’s likely to be replaced by Lou Montanez, another Cubs prospect, drafted third overall in 2000. It’s been a long road to the majors for Montanez, but people say he can hit. That’s what they said about Pie … the O’s are filled with former Cubs, the result of having Cub front office guy Andy McPhail as the team’s president of baseball operations … Pie and Montanez are just two of the Cubbies that McPhail brought over: the one other worth mentioning is lefty Rich Hill who, after one good year in Chicago, slipped badly. He’s currently on the DL.

Lannan’s Gem (and other things)

Friday, April 24th, 2009

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Down On Half Street: That John Lannan is the “ace” of the Nats staff (which might not be saying much, actually), is not in doubt. Check his line for Wednesday’s outing. I was playing poker with me droogies (that’s me with the big hat) and missed it, but I hear that for sheer excitement it was hard to beat. Barring injury, Lannan could anchor the staff for years to come.

That makes two: Lannan and Jordan Zimmermann are (presumably) the front part of Stan Kasten’s dream trio, a replay of the Smoltz, Glavine and Avery frontline that took the Tomahawks from last place in 1990 to first in 1991. The chops lost the world series in seven to the Puckett-Hrbek twinkies so Kasten, the then-president in Atlanta, added Greg Maddux as Charlie Liebrandt’s replacement before the ’93 season. The resulting quartet wasn’t unbeatable, but it was damned good and enough to bring the Brave a series win in ’95. Avery was the key and toast of Atlanta in those years, going from 3-11 in 1990 to 18-8 in 1991.

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For the Nats in 2010 or 2011(let’s say) the missing piece from a litter that includes Balester, Detwiler, Martis, Clippard (and maybe Estrada or Mock) is that proven free agent who could put it altogether — or perhaps Stephen Strasburg, an Aztec righthander with a fastball clocked in the upper ’90s. Nats fans will be mightily disappointed if Kasten and crew don’t sign the pricey Strasburg, but picking a pitcher number one in the upcoming 2009 draft has its downside. Just ask the Cubs, who took Mark Prior with the second pick in 2001, after the Twins decided they couldn’t sign him. They opted instead for Joe Mauer. A guy who figured to eventually contribute in the bigs — Mark Teixeira — was taken fifth by the Texas Rangers and now plays for the Empire. So who would you rather have, Mark Prior (whose arm, thanks to Dusty, is buried somewhere in southern California) or this guy?

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ESPN’s New Look: Baseball Tonight has added some new features and mixed its delivery. Last night Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus joined the crew to add a sabermetrics touch. Nate isn’t exactly George Clooney and spent most of his time on-camera trying to figure out where to put his hands (a problem solved when they sat him behind a desk). The challenge will be to translate stats into on-air words and visuals — while trying to keep Nate from wetting his pants. One wag commented that Nate’s appearance continues the “dorkification” of sports, but I liked the guy. Then too, he predicted the Rays rise to the top last year.

The other new face reflected BT’s need to bring in experts to explain tough topics. Last night’s guest was Greg Rybarczyk of “Hit Tracker”  who explained that the reason there were more home runs at the new Yankee Stadium was because of the wind. Thanks Greg.

Say Hello To My Little Friend: There are two recent additions to the American lexicon that I hate — “shout out” and “back in the day.” That said, I would like to give a shout out to my friend Dan (here he is), whom I met back in the day. Dan (with his handy camera) has been very helpful in getting our banner set-up, is a collector of ballcards of this guy and a fan of both the Nats … and the Naps. Along with me and DWilly and Tom, expect a number of other (guest) commentators here, which might include Dan. 

Or not.

“I just throw the ball”

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

It took the Washington Post two days after the death of Mark Fidrych before it ran an obit, but it got it right when it called him “irrepressible.” For the youngsters in the audience, Fidrych was the wild-haired, ball-talking, mound-smoothing 21-year-old kid from Northborough, Massachusetts who won 19 games and the rookie of the year honors in 1976 for a woeful Tigers ball club. In the following four years he won only ten more games and was out of the majors by the time he was 26. An injury-shortened career such as his, given its meteoric rise, might have made another man bitter but it never seemed to bother Fidrych.

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Dubbed “Big Bird” (after the affable Sesame Street character), while still riding the bus in the minors, Fidrych played the game with the arm of a man and the heart of a little boy. If anyone could be said to be simultaneously intense and joyful it was him. Fidrych would talk to the ball as he paced the mound during a tight game and a moment later would cheer for a teammate after a good play, just as any Little Leaguer would. Given the boyish exuberance he brought to the game perhaps it should be no surprise that after his ball playing career was over he went out and bought a dump truck to start a business.

A couple of months ago, on a slow Saturday afternoon in February, I decided to check out the new MLB Network to see what they had to offer. Not being much a football fan I never did understand the attraction of the “classic” games that air on the NFL network; I didn’t expect too much from whatever MLB might throw on the air in late winter either.

What I came across was the eighth inning of a game from June 28, 1976. It was an otherwise meaningless contest in Detroit with the Tigers, barely one-third of the way through their schedule already 10 games out of first, facing the World Series-bound Yankees. Ordinarily, it would have been a sleeper of a game. But on that warm summer night 30-plus years ago a skinny kid named Fidrych was on the mound for the home town team trying to nail down his eighth win of the season. It was riveting.

Bob Prince and Al Michaels were doing the play-by-play and color analysis for ABC which carried the Monday night games back then. More than once in the two innings I watched, Prince, who by that time had been a broadcaster for three decades, said “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” What he, Michaels and the 48,000 raucous Detroit fans saw was Fidrych loping around the mound, fervently urging on his teammates and talking to the ball while putting the finishing touches on a masterful seven-hitter in an hour and 51 minutes.

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After the game ended, Fidrych embraced his catcher and greeted the other players as they came off the field as if they’d clinched a playoff spot. When he finally entered the dugout the 48,000 Detroiters who ventured out on a Monday night to watch the sub .500 ball club refused to leave. They were all on their feet roaring. A few moments later Fidrych came out with a huge smile and a large wave to the adoring crowd before ducking back in. For a rookie his timing was superb — he didn’t wait too long to emerge and his bow wasn’t prolonged. But it was far too brief an appearance for the faithful. They refused to leave still and Fidrych obliged them with a second curtain call accompanied by a look of disbelief.

In the post-game interview, which was conducted on the field amidst the continuing cheers, Fidrych said he couldn’t believe the reaction he was getting or how far he’d come. “I just throw the ball,” he said with his accent revealing his Massachusetts roots. And his smile revealed a total joy for the game.

ZZ Tops

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Nats Win! Nats Win! Jordan Zimmermann came up from Triple-A just in time to save the Nats the humiliation of yet another loss, pitching a stellar six innings against the Tomohawks. Zimmermann may well be a “find,” though it’s clearly too soon to tell. Unlike the other Zimmerman, this one wasn’t expected to be an immediate star: he was drafted in the second round with the 67th pick in the 2007 draft. Before the Nats focused on him he hadn’t gained too much attention — pitching for Division III University of Wisconsin-Stephens Point.

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This “Zim” (or perhaps it should be “Zimm”) is a four-pitch guy: fastball, curveball, change-up and slider. He threw his fastball at 95 last night and was low in the zone — a requirement for any NL fireballer. Nationals Farm Authority (which is indispensible) has quite a bit on Zimmermann. We note he was taken behind Detwiler, Smoker and Burgess in 2007.

Jordan Zimmermann pitched on the same day that Ryan Zimmerman was given a contract extension, which locks him up for five years for about the same amount given by the Orioles to Nick Markakis. Nats 320 has good coverage of this and I have little to add, except for the comment that those who say that “Zim” has yet to have a breakout season are absolutely right: but so what? My wife watched the Nats press conference and noted that Kasten and Lerner “look really worried.” Their same-day “roster shuffle” netted four new pitchers, including Kip Wells, who has kicked around since 1998 — pitching for the White Sox, Cardinals, Pirates, Rangers, Marlins and Rockies. Z and Z are the future: Kip Wells is not.

During the press conference announcing Zimmerman’s new contract, Stan Kasten was damn-near eloquent: “This is a big thing today, I think,” he said. “We demonstrate our commitment to building this team the right way.”

So say we all.

White Elephants: One of the best games I saw pitched this year was between two no-names — A’s lefty Dallas Braden and Blue Jays newcomer Ricky Romero. (The Jays won 1-0.) That I would even mention this is saying alot; I don’t think anything north of Buffalo should even be in the league, particularly if the team is named after a bird and plays in a hotel. The only other Blue Jays game I watched “live” from the former Skydome featured a young couple out in the left field hotel suites overlooking the field; they were shagging their brains out, all in front of a national audience.

Braden and Romero are worth watching, but particularly Braden. His 2006 shoulder surgery doesn’t seem to have had an impact on his fastball, though it is clocked only in the high 80s. The key for Braden is location, and putting his slider on the inner half of the plate for righthanders. On Sunday, Braden gave up five hits in just over seven innings. But here’s the catch: he was outpitched by Romero, who is also a lefty — and also has had shoulder problems. A graduate of Cal State-Fullerton (a baseball assembly line), Romero was picked behind Matt Garza and Ryan Braun by that “baseball genius” J.P. Ricciardi. Ricciardi, who gave us Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells, was slammed for the pick in Toronto.

Romero and Braden are comers, it seems — the new breed of young lefthanders that could dominate in the junior circuit for the next decade.  Braden may well be a part of a new white elephant staff reminiscent of the Hudson-Zito-Mulder days. They’re not there yet: Sean Gallagher is struggling (an 8.10 ERA), as are Dana Eveland and Brett Anderson. But in the Sunday tilt, Braden threw 97 pitches, 59 for strikes. His outing against the Jays followed a similar effort against Jon Lester and the Red Sox, in which Braden threw 90 pitches, 60 for strikes. Trade him to the Nats.

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From Dogz to CFG

Monday, April 20th, 2009

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We’re Back: after a nine month hiatus, River Dogz now returns as Center Field Gate. Not much has changed here, except for the name and design and links (well, that’s a lot, I guess) and we hope you like it. But if you don’t like it, feel free to protest to no one in particular, or make a comment. The perpetrators are the same: DWilly, Tom and Mark – Red Sox and Cubs fans, but Nationals afficianados (Nats lovers, really) — with their absolutely penetrating analysis and barbed comments. The rules remain the same. We get to say what we want anytime we want and without any justification. And you get to complain.

If you hate change then you love the Washington Nationals. The faces are different, but the decisions that might have made the Anacostia boys a .500 club were not made, as they were not made last year or the year before that. Now, as then, we are building for the future. This is the management equivalent of Casey at the Bat: Orlando Hudson wanted to come here with his $3.5 million contract. Not my style, said Stanley, sniffing in the air. “Strike one,” said the fans. And Jon Garland might have been had for a niggling $5 million. No thanks, said mighty Stan. “Strike Two” said the fans. We’re in the midst of strike three, where non-decisions mean empty seats, as reflected this last Saturday.

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The result has been neatly predictable: the Nats plummet while Hudson andGarland tear up the league. Okay, I admit, that might be a stretch for Garland, but Hudson is hitting .385 and he actually wanted to come here. Then there’s this, and it’s not to be dismissed: he’s good. He’s no Ronnie Belliard, of course, but he’s pretty good.

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Hudson is a deflection: the problem is not hitting (the series against the Marlins proved that), but pitching. Here it is in twelve words: we don’t have any and it’s too late now to get some. That means we will have to suffer through five innings of a head case who couldn’t stick witha minor league team and five innings with a juvenile delinquent. Give us your tired, your hungry, your poor, your worn out arms — your pitchers yearning to be arrested. If all he does is run red lights, we don’t want him.

Of course, the real problem isn’t even pitching.

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I would have picked the Showboats to win the NL West, honest to God I would have, but then Branden Webb went down. Still, Danny Haren is the best pitcher in the league. He was 16-8 last year. One of his wins came against the Nats, in which he kept the ball low and mixed his pitches. Pure mechanics. Every delivery was the same: a machine. So now he’s 0-3, in part because the Snakes are not the Nats: they have no hitting. Still, even at 0-3 Haren is my pick for the Cy Young. You’ll see.