Archive for April, 2010

Nats Take Chi-Town Series

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

In the “I can’t believe this is happening” 2010 season of your Washington Nationals, the late April three game series against the Cubs might stand out as one of the team’s best. The Nationals came into Chicago hovering at .500, and left two games over. The Nationals took two of three from the Cubs in a tightly played defense-and-pitching series of contests that (in retrospect) weren’t all that close. Oddly, the Nats not only won the series, they were the better team on the field. With a 12-10 record, the Nats are off to their best start since moving from Montreal to D.C. But it’s not just the wins that are surprising (or not, as the case may be), it’s the way the Nats are winning — getting solid starting pitching, playing tough defense and relying on a dependable “lights out” reliever.

The Nats 3-2 win on Wednesday at Wrigley was a model of how the Mike Rizzo makeover has taken hold: Luis Atilano pitched six solid, if unspectacular, innings, Adam Dunn ended the game with a tough near-the-boxes snag of a fly ball that kept the Cubbies off the bases in the ninth, and Matt Capps recorded his league-leading 10th save in a three-up-and-three-down final frame. Even the sometimes-shakey Brian Bruney looked good, pitching out of a two-men-on 7th inning. Bruney looked like he’s finally getting his fastball down in the zone, and gaining confidence. My sense is that Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman is desperately trying to keep his composure, while privately holding torch light parades on the team’s impressive start. “Our guys are focused and trying to play today’s game, not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow or down the road,” Riggleman said after the series. “They are just trying to win the game. Hopefully, it will add up and we win another one.”

Those Are The Headlines, Now For The Details: “Baseball Tonight” commentators are starting to take notice of the Nats — focusing, most recently, on the 10-for-10 Capps. The “who would have thought it” comments are a reflection, mayhaps, of BT’s down-in-the-mouth view of Nats’ baseball. After L.A. dropped two of three in Washington last week, BT ran a segment on “what’s wrong in L.A.” — implying that it wasn’t a matter of what Washington was doing right, but what the Dodgers were doing wrong. The lone exception is Tim Kurkjian who, when not talking about Stephen Strasburg, is celebrating his Spring Training prediction that the team is worth watching . . . The Cubs looked just average in their series loss against the Anacostia Nine. The Cubbies pitched well, but their big bombers (and the entire team, for that matter) were held homerless. That’s almost unheard of in Chicago, and shows just how effective Nats’ starters have been . . . We’ll add this: Tyler Colvin looks like the real deal. It’s going to be hard to keep the Stan- Hack-in-waiting out of the line-up, or keep Alfonso Soriano in . . .

After putting it off for several months, I am reading The Bill James Gold Mine, the most recent trademark effort from the statistical guru and now Senior Baseball Operations Advisor for the Red Sox. As if I don’t get enough baseball (a Nats game per day, plus the MLB Extra Innings package — this week it was the fascinating Diamondbacks-Rockies match-up), I now finish the evening with a chapter of James — like slurping ice cream after a visit to Chucky Cheeze. His take on the 1974 World Series is worth reading twice, particularly if (like me), you don’t exactly have a love affair with Dodger play-by-play legend Vin Scully. Then there’s this, in the chapter on the Oakland Athletics, one of baseball’s most fascinating teams:

“Who led the Oakland A’s in Win Shares in 2009? Andrew Bailey with his 26 saves and 1.84 ERA? Nope, he had 17 Win Shares. Jack Cust and his 25 home runs? No, only 14 Win Shares. Matt Holliday before he left? Only 12 Win Shares. It was third baseman Adam Kennedy with 18 Win Shares . . .” That is to say, if you peel away all the controversy (and complexity) surrounding the concept of “win shares,” James is making the case that Kennedy was more valuable to the A’s in 2009 than franchise marquee players Bailey, Cust and Holliday. The notion is almost counter-intuitive. That said, James has a point about Kennedy, and players like him. My own non-statistical sense is that Kennedy’s value to the A’s last year and to the Nats this year is more simply put: while Kennedy is hardly flashy and does not hit the long ball, his steady experience pours concrete into the middle of the Nats infield and batting order. I just feel better with him on the field. At the end of the year (and barring injury), we’ll find that the Nats are more likely winners when Kennedy’s in the line-up than when he’s not . . .

Adam Kennedy #29 and Cliff Pennington #26 of the Oakland Athletics congratulate one another following their victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium on August 29, 2009 in Anaheim, California. The Athletics defeated the Angels 4-3.

Lidge On “The Phenom”

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Harrisburg Senators pitches against the Altoona Curve in his minor league debut during the game on April 11, 2010 at Blair County Ballpark in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Brad Lidge, he of the 1.95 ERA in 69 innings of relief in 2008, said last night that “it’s not very often you see a guy being able to throw that hard with that kind of command.” He was talking about one Stephen James Strasburg (of course) — the youngster upon whom the hopes of Natstown rests.

They both pitched in Reading, PA — Lidge on a rehab assignment for the Philllies and Strasburg for a light work out as he flies through AA ball. Lidge noted that Strasburg “was doing pretty much everything right”: which is exactly what you want to hear from a guy who has had his share of play-off appearances. Strasburg was his usual self last night, pitching five scoreless, hitless innings. He was pulled after reaching his five inning limit despite the no-hitter. He’ll have plenty of chances for one of those in the bigs no doubt.

Strasburg may be as excited to join the team as they are to have him. The Nats are performing at a level that was unimaginable last season when the BB thrower from San Diego signed up. The Nats have actually impressed on occasion. Last night’s performance against the Cubs by Livan Hernandez is a case in point. He scattered  six hits over seven innings and gave up just one run while keeping his ERA at 0.87. Sunday’s 1 – 0 victory over the Dodgers (who were hitting .293) should turn some heads as well. These guys aren’t only winning some games, they seem to have a bit of spit and vinegar in them. It’ll serve them well during the long campaign.

Bruney Walk Sinks Nats In 10

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Nats’ reliever Brian Bruney walked home Cubs’ shortstop Ryan Theriot with the winning run in the bottom on the 10th inning on Monday night at Wrigley Field, leaving the Nats on the short end of a 4-3 contest. Bruney has had a tough go of it as a Nat: he has walked twelve hitters in 9.2 innings, while giving up seven hits. “It wasn’t my night,” Bruney said after the game. “The guys played good. I was only the one out there throwing that baseball when the run scored. I put this one on me. Unfortunately, this is not a good feeling to have in a locker room full of guys [playing hard] and you go out there and walk a guy to win the game. I’m obviously not happy with myself. We have to dig back in and grind for the next time.” If there was good news in the game, it is that the Nats were able to battle back from a 3-0 third inning deficit, with timely hitting from catcher Wil Nieves.

Neither starting pitcher was particularly sharp. Cubs’ starter Carlos Silva walked in a run in the fourth inning, while Nats’ starter John Lannan walked the pitcher (Silva), in the second, to force in a run. But Lannan settled down to pitch six complete innings, what counts as a quality start. “I fell apart in the second [inning] and that can’t happen,” Lannan later told reporters. “The goal is to finish the game strong. I’m sick of having those mediocre innings when things get away from me. I never walked three in a row and I walked the pitcher with the bases loaded. That’s disappointing. I’m just battling every game so far. I’m not going to force it, but I’m waiting for it to click and have a strong outing from start to finish.” Nieves said that Lannan has yet to find his sinker.

The game — played in frigid and windy conditions — featured the second relief appearance of former starter Carlos Zambrano, who pitched an inning and two-thirds. MASN commentator Rob Dibble speculated on Zambrano’s troubles, saying that the Cubs’ ace looked like he was pushing the ball, and that he might be in pain. Zambrano has battled shoulder problems on-and-off since 2005, but the Cubs say there’s nothing wrong with the righty’s arm. And Cubs GM Jim Hendry dismissed reports that Zambrano’s demotion to the bullpen was a tactic designed to pressure him to give up his no-trade clause.”It has nothing to with what he gets paid, there’s no agenda at all except he was the best fit at the time,” Hendry said. “And I think we know now that’s the truth. He’s capable of doing it, and that’s a good thing.”

Well, maybe. But it’s going to be tough for the Cubs to pay a tweeky inconsistent starter what they owe Zambrano, even if he turns out to be effective as a middle reliever. The Cubs are due to pay the righty $17.875 million in 2010 and 2011, $18 million in 2012 and the former ace has a $19.25 million player option in 2013. Zambrano’s name has come up in trade talks before: most recently in a much-speculated swap with the Yankess and, at the end of 2009, as a part of a trade with the crosstown White Sox for former Padre Jake Peavy. It seems unlikely that Zambrano’s troubles this April would make him as attractive for some teams as he was during the off-season, but there’s no doubt that if the Cubs actively asked around theyd’ find some takers. Zambrano, meanwhile, is under the impression that his stay in Chicago’s bullpen is temporary, pending the Cubs’ search for an 8th inning setup man. On Monday, Zambrano (6.85 ERA) said he was “okay” with his new role.

Sure.

Olsen Dominates, Nats Head To Chicago

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Scott Olsen’s seven inning gem against the Dodgers has Nats fans (and the Washington Post) oohing and ahhing about the team’s new attitude. “Instead of saying ‘Get ’em tomorrow,’ the Nats have finally assembled a tougher, more irritable group that actually does it,” Post columnist and leading baseball pundit Thomas Boswell writes. Boswell goes on to note: “It’s not just the Nats’ record that is different this spring. The Nats themselves are. They’re starting to resemble the first gritty crew that brought baseball back to D.C. after a 33 year wait.” Tougher? More irritable? Gritty? My first reaction was to scoff: forget irritable and gritty — we need front line guys who can throw strikes. Please, please, please Tom (I know you’re the best, or close to it), but you know (and I know, and it’s no secret) that a rotation of Lannan, Stammen, Olsen and Hernandez are not going to get it done.

But in studying yesterday’s box score, I began to question by own cynicism. The difference in the Nats 1-0 win yesterday (a beautifully pitched game, if ever there was one) from any of their wins last year was obvious. For right there, in the middle of the line-up, were two players the Nats needed, but didn’t have, in the ’09 campaign. When Mike Rizzo signed Ivan Rodriguez and Adam Kennedy in the offseason, he not only filled two special needs, he added two gamers to the clubhouse — players who not only know how to win, but want to. While Rodriguez and Kennedy went a combined 0-6 yesterday, their role on the team has been indispensible, providing much needed leadership to a crew of talented, but young, players. Mike Rizzo added a caveat: “We’re a long ways from where we want to be.” Yeah, true. But you’re also a long ways from where you were.

The difference between the ’09 and 2010 Nats becomes more obvious when you go through the line-up of the Chicago Cubs, whom the Nats face in Chicago starting tonight. The North Side Drama Queens are a team of head cases and disasters-waiting-to-happen: Alfonso Soriano’s penchant to drop flies in left field is damn near agonizing, the perpetually petulant Carlos Zambrano has been demoted to the bullpen, the perennially injured Aramis Ramirez is a fracture away from putting the Cubs in the cellar and Kosuke Fukudome is overpaid and (undoubtedly) on the trading block. I know, I know — the Cubs just swept the Brewers and can hit the hell out of the ball. But the name of this game is pitching, and the Cubs don’t have it. Forget the starters (or don’t — if you really believe that Carlos Silva is the answer), and focus on the bullpen. The line-up of Berg, Grabow, Gray, Russell and Marmol is a patched together crew of rookies and semi-veterans (like Marmol) who have yet to prove they can hit the strike zone. Put another way, we would be justified in saying that the Cubs bullpen collapsed in the first two weeks of the season, but we’d be wrong. It had nothing to collapse from.

Cubs fans are on a death watch. Nats 320 has an outstanding interview with Cubs blogger Joe Aeillo of View From The Bleachers, and while Joe sounds positive enough, you can almost hear the ‘Oh-God-wadda-we-gonna-do’ tension in his voice. Joe talks about Uncle Lou’s bullpen problems and notes that Zambrano has been “the weak link” in the rotation so far this year, but the icing comes when Nats 320 asks about Soriano. “I’ll give you $20 right now, straight cash homie, if you convince the Nationals to take him back,” Joe says. That’s a deal we can pass up: we’ll keep Willingham. Soriano, the bullpen — they’re all problems. But the real problem facing the Cubs is down the road in St. Louis. The Cubs don’t have anyone who matches up with Chris Carpenter, Brad Penny or Adam Wainwright. I can’t stand Penny (he should just rob a 7-Eleven and get it out of his system), but the former Dodger bad boy is pitching brilliantly — with three wins and a 0.94 ERA. That’s a record that Zambrano can only dream about.

The Cubs haven’t had a team since Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were five outs away from the World Series. Remember? Prior was a USC power pitcher with Cy Young stuff and Woods struck out 20 in his rookie season. And then . . . and then, in the 8th inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS a little pop foul that should have been caught did them in. It was their last shot. Neither Prior nor Wood have been the same since; Prior became a surgeon’s dream and is now out of baseball and Wood is in Cleveland, dealing with a cranky back. Looking at Prior (a shoulder, an achilles tendon, a hamstring, another shoulder), you can understand why Mike Rizzo wants Stephen Strasburg in the minors — and why he insists that any member of the Washington club have a winning attitude. Put another way, the problem with Cubs comes down to this: Carlos Zambrano throws the ball in the mid-90s and is capable of a 20-win Cy Young season. But wouldn’t you rather have Livan Hernandez?

Nats Leave 15, Lose In 13

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

The Washington Nationals came within inches of pulling out a victory against the Dodgers on Saturday, but a quick throw to home by L.A. third baseman Casey Blake on a slow roller by Ian Desmond caught Ivan Rodriguez at the plate in the bottom of the 13th inning — and the Trolley’s went on to win a 4-3 13 inning squeaker at Nationals Park. The play-at-the-plate call brought boos from Nats fans, but after the game Rodriguez said he believed the umpire made the right decision: “I went in and saw the replay and I was out probably two or three inches. He made a good call,” Rodriguez said. The Nats had plenty of opportunities to win the game, but left 15 men on base against L.A. starter Clayton Kershaw and a host of Dodger relievers. “I thought we played real good baseball,” Nats’ manager Jim Riggleman said in the clubhouse after the game. “We got some timely hits. Pitching was good. It was a pitching and defense game. I wish we could have gotten the runs in. It just didn’t happen.”

The itchy-close contest included another stellar outing from Washington starter Craig Stammen and a 3 for 7 day from fleet-footed speedster Nyjer Morgan — whose controversial sixth inning decision to try for third on a ball hit over the head of left fielder Xavier Paul was the talk of the post game commentators. After the game, Morgan admitted he had made a base running mistake. “I was being aggressive, but not intelligent,” Morgan said. “But my thought was they were trying to [throw out] Stammen. I should have stopped about halfway, but I was locked in. I had tunnel vision there and didn’t understand the situation a little bit. I have to be smarter in that situation. It was an aggressive play. I was thinking they would throw out the pitcher instead of trying to get me at third. I should have known better not to make the last out at third base.”

Dunn, Atilano Clip Dodgers

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Backed by two homers from Adam Dunn, right handed rookie starter Luis Atilano subdued the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, 5-1. It was Atilano’s first start. The rookie threw an effective mix of fastballs, curves and change-ups in notching his first major league victory — earning the praise of both Dodger skipper Joe Torre and Nats’ manager Jim Riggleman. “The youngster really did a good job of throwing strikes and changing speeds,” Torre said. “We had some scouting reports on him and some video, but the fact that he had so many strikes early in the count enabled him to do what he did, which was very impressive. He did a great job.”

While Dunn passed off reporters who questioned whether his 2-3 showing ended his slump, the slugger seemed more comfortable at the plate than he has since the beginning of the season: “It’s just a first game. But it felt good,” Dunn said. “Again, I’ve been feeling good all along. I just haven’t been doing much. Two thoughts went through my head. On the first home run, I went up there, I was going to basically jam myself and stay inside of [the ball]. The other one was to revert back to slow-pitch softball, minus the beer coolers in the dugout.” Dunn’s game vaulted his BA above .200 for the year and eased fears that his slump might be more permanent. His first home run of the night (in the fourth inning) was prodigious — it landed in the upper deck in right field.

Are The Nationals “For Real?” It’s a good question — at least for baseball commentators and “power ranking” gurus. From “Baseball Tonight” to the MLB Network, the Nats are getting a lot of ink. The Nats 9-8 record is nothing to brag about, unless you’re a team with 103 losses in 2009. But the baseball press is taking the Nats seriously, in spite of injuries to Jason Marquis, Ryan Zimmerman’s nasty and nagging hamstring and Adam Dunn’s power outage. Tim Kurkjian (not surprisingly) predicted the Nats’ break out, calling the Nats the “most transformed team in the National League” at the beginning of the season. Baseball’s “power rankings” reflect this new reality: the Nats are listed at 24 (ahead of the White Sox and Mets) by ESPN, but 18th by Fox Sports (ahead of the Red Sox!).

There are some simple truths here: the Nats are better than last year, are better than the Astos, Diamondbacks, Orioles and Royals and deserve credit for their strong and early start. But it’s hard to believe that a staff of Lannan, Stammen, Olsen and Hernandez can out-pitch a staff anchored by the likes of Lester and Beckett. Nats fans know that “power rankings” go out the window once Rizzo and Company have to rely on rookie pitchers to provide stop-gap wins. But the glass is half full: if Chien-Ming Wang can return healthy when he’s supposed to, if Jason Marquis can come back quickly and if Stephan Strasburg is all everyone says he is (and he is), then come June all bets are off. For the first time in five years, the team is tough defensively and has a strong bullpen. It might be hard for some to swallow (like Mets fans for instance, or that team up the road) , but Nats fans don’t need the power rankings to tell you — this team is for real.

Jimenez Outduels Livan

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Ubaldo Jimenez and Livan Hernandez held a master class in pitching on Thursday with Jimenez coming out on top — at least in terms of the score. Supported by two solo home runs (one each from catcher Miguel Olivo and third baseman Ian Stewart), Jimenez shut down the Nationals when it counted, wracking up his fourth win of the season in an itchy-close pitchers’ duel at Nationals Park. In spite of the score, Hernandez was (arguably), the more impressive pitcher, mixing a fastball (which topped out at 87 mph), with a slider and change-up. Hernandez changed speeds so effectively that he most often fooled Colorado’s heavy hitting lineup. Jimenez, on the other hand, relied on an overpowering fastball that topped out at 97 mph — his slowest offering was Livan’s fastest. So while the Rockies won, the result of the duel between speed and finesse was clear: Livan was the more cerebral pitcher, Jimenez the rocket.

In the end, the brilliantly pitched 2-0 contest came down to this: the Rockies could hit a hanging slider (which is what  Hernandez threw to Ian Stewart), while the Nationals most often could not catch-up to the Jimenez fastball. The contrast between Hernandez and Jimenez was most marked in the first inning. Behind in the count 3-1 against Willie Harris, Jimenez attempted to play catch-up by throwing Harris his best pitch — a 97 mph fastball in the upper part of the zone. The pitch was predictable and, in most cases, would be unhittable. But Willie was ready and put the offering over the head of the centerfielder. “The guy throws a million miles an hour,” Harris said, talking about the at bat. “He has really good offspeed pitches as well. He keeps you off balance. You get in an 2-0 count, you are definitely thinking the fastball. He drops in a changeup or a slider on you. That’s what the good pitchers do now.” It was one of the few mistakes that Jimenez made.

There are enough good third basemen in the NL to stock a separate league: David Wright, Ian Stewart, Placido Polanco, the fading Chipper Jones, Aramis Ramirez, Arizona’s wiff-or-wack Mark Reynolds and, of course, “our very own” Ryan Zimmerman. Among others. Cincinnati fans would clamor that new Reds third sacker Scott Rolen should be added to the list of the elite: and they have a point. Rolen, who once crossed swords with Tony La Russa,  is leading a Cincinnati team that could be the surprise champ in the NL Central, despite their early 7-9 record. Rolen is playing like he did in 2002, when he came over to the Redbirds from the Ponies and won a Silver Slugger Award. The often hobbled Rolen is hitting .289 with four homers and Cincinnati (where arms go to die) is responding. They took two of three in Los Angeles, notching an impressive 8-5 victory yesterday against the Trolleys that was sparked by Rolen’s cannon-shot double in the bottom of the seventh. Dusty’s Baker Boys were ecstatic. This is the way that Baker and the Cincinnati front office had planned things at the start of the season.

Rolen, who has a problem with authority figures, fits well in Cincinnati — where (very often), no one seems to be in charge. The slick-leather-big-bat third baseman was a 2nd round draft pick for Philadelphia back in 1993, but took four years to get to the majors. It was worth the wait. Beginning in 1997, Rolen began a five year run that had Phillies fans comparing him with Philadelphia legend Mike Schmidt: Rolen hit 21, 31, 26, 26 and 25 dingers before being shipped (via Toronto), to St. Louis where he battled injuries and fought with the manager. St. Louis cut him loose, shipping Rolen to Toronto (which, believe it or not, actually has a baseball team) for Rolen clone Troy Glaus, who had once hit 47 home runs for the Angels. The trade seemed an even-up; Rolen and Glaus sported big bats and tweeky shoulders — Rolen had shoulder surgery in May of 2005 (after a collision at first with Dodger fill-in and former North Side Drama Queen draft pick Hee Seop Choi), while the suddenly under-performing Glaus had shoulder surgery in January of 2009.

By the end of last year, both Rolen and Glaus not only needed to get healthy, they needed a new start. Glaus got his when he signed this last off season with the Atlanta Braves, while Rolen was traded from Toronto to Cincinnati in a move that had Reds’ fans scratching their heads: the swap seemed an expensive and questionable last-gasp effort to fill a hole at third, while the Cincy front office searched for a more permanent replacement. But Rolen has been a surprise: a solid citizen in the clubhouse (that’s the surprise) and a formidable bat in Cincinnati’s fifth hole (which, frankly, is not) Rolen is now teamed with veteran Brandon Phillips and big lumber youngsters Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to provide mashers in the middle of the Cincy order. Once Bruce and Phillips get past their early season slumps (and they will), the Reds are likely to surge past the Cubs and Brewers, giving St. Louis a run for the division title. It’s too bad Rolen can’t pitch — it took Cincinnati starters sixteen games to notch their first victory, which came yesterday against Los Angeles.

Rolen would agree — Aroldis Chapman can’t arrive soon enough.

Nieves, Clippard Rock Rockies

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Wil Nieves isn’t often the hero, but he was on Wednesday night against the Colorado Rockies. A Wil Nieves’ RBI double in the eighth inning ensured the Nationals a 6-4 victory over the always tough Colorado Rockies. With two runners on in the eighth, Nieves took a 1-0 pitch deep to left center, bringng the Nats back to one game over .500 early in the 2010 campaign. Nieves’ double came off of Rockies’ reliever Rafael Betancourt, breaking open the 4-4 game.”He just hung a slider up and away,” Nieves said. “I put a good swing on it and put it in the gap. I saw [center fielder] Dexter Fowler out there and he can run, but when I saw it drop, it was a huge double.” Nats’ starter John Lannan seemed to struggle in the early part of the game, but he kept his team close — scattering 11 hits over six innings before being relieved by Tyler Clippard, the Nats’ emerging middle relief expert.

Clippard was exceptional, throwing two innings of one-hit ball with three strikeouts. Only one Rockie was able to get to Clippard, with a measly single. “I have a good feel for my pitches right now,” Clippard said. “My whole career, I have always been successful against lefties and righties. For whatever reason, I have a good changeup and I will throw some pitches that will run in on your hands sometimes.” Clippard is now 3-0 on the season and sports a head-turning 0.77 ERA. While the 2010 season is still young, the Nats are playing well and the team’s scary middle-of-the-lineup is just now starting to hit.  Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham were a combined 6-11, with Dunn raising his average to just under the Mendoza line. Washington closer Matt Capps registered his sixth save in as many chances.

Those Are The Details And Now For The Headlines: All is not right down along Half Street — Ryan Zimmerman grabbed his hamstring in the 7th inning on Wednesday and may have to sit out Thursday’s game. Zimmerman, who says he is seeing the ball well and starting to hit his stride, says he believes the tightness in his hamstring is the result of a cramp — and unrelated to the soreness in his hamstring that he suffered last week. “It’s the last thing I want to happen,” he said . . . Jason Marquis is now on the disabled list. Marquis has struggled with the Nats and his injury may have something to do with that. He is reported to have bone chips in his elbow. Marquis is embarrassed by his recent outings, and he should be: Felipe Lopez has a better ERA.

Dick Bosman’s 1974 “No-No”

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Not every Nats game is a trip down memory lane, but damn near. Before the first pitch of last night’s Nats-Rockies tilt at Nationals Park, one of me droogs (here they are, for those of you who’ve forgotten), told me about watching a no-hitter pitched by fastballer Dick Bosman in Cleveland in 1974. “You’ve actually seen a no-hitter?” I asked. He nodded: “A great game,” he said. “Fantastic. It was back in the early 1970s, 1973-1974, something like that.” Being armed with one of those hand-held doohickies, I looked it up. The game in question came on July 19, 1974 at Cleveland’s Memorial Stadium, when the Naps faced off against Oakland’s White Elephants. The A’s would go on to take the World Series in ’74, but on that July day in Cleveland they looked helpless against Bosman.

Bosman had a more than serviceable career: his fastball carried him from sleepy Kenosha, Wisconsin into the Pirates organization, and then into the McCovey’s minor league system. He ended up in Washington, where he had his best years pitching for the Senators. His best year came in 1969, when he led the AL with the lowest ERA and went 14-5. He won 16 games in 1970. But even at the age of 27 — when Bosman should have been at his peak — he seemed to be running out of gas. Bosman went to Texas with the Senators, but then kicked around until 1974, when he landed a starting role in Cleveland, where the no-account Indians were doing what they have been doing throughout their long and painful franchise history: searching for pitching.

July 19, 1974 was a warm day in Cleveland, but it was not killer-hot like it can be in Cleveland and there had been showers in the morning. Bosman was slated to start against Oakland’s Dave Hamilton. With some 24,000 looking on (Cleveland Stadium — built in 1931 — held 78,000 for baseball), Bosman went to work, facing a line-up of Oakland bombers. In many ways, this was a typical Oakland team, a mix of speed and power complemented by a deep starting rotation: Bert Campaneris, Sal Bando, Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi were at the heart of the order, with Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman and Dave Hamilton the primary hurlers. “Blue Moon” Odom added to the mix, though his best years were in the past. The Indians and A’s were locked up into the third, when Joe Lis gave the Naps a 2-0 lead. In the top of the 4th, Bosman fielded a swinging bunt from Bando, but his throw was wide of first, and scored as an error. As it turned out, Bando was the only A’s baserunner for the day — and the one baserunner that would keep Bosman from a perfect game. By the end of the 7th, Bosman had faced only one more than the minimum.

In the ninth inning, on the verge of putting himself in baseball’s record books, Bosman approached his catcher, John Ellis. “Catch me on your belly if you have to,” Bosman said, “but make me keep the ball down.” Ellis squatted behind the plate, flashing his glove on the ground, nodding at Bosman. “I told myself it was John and me now,” Bosman remembered, “and I concentrated on getting those last three hitters.” In the ninth, Bosman put the Elephants down in order, sealing his no-hitter and (as he hoped) resuscitating his career. [Here’s the boxscore] At the season’s beginning he had been on baseball’s junk pile and relegated to the bullpen. Now he was “in the books.” His teammates were ecstatic, and Cleveland fans chanted him off the field: “We want Bosman. We want Bosman.” He came out of the dugout after a time, and tipped his cap. “This is the culmination of everything I’ve worked for and dreamed about,” he said after the game. “I almost feel like I am dreaming.”

Bosman wasn’t long for baseball. In 1975, he was traded to the team he no-hit, with Jim Perry for Blue Moon Odom and cash. He had a good year with the A’s, pitching effectively and registering an 11-4 campaign. The A’s finished first in the AL West, seven games ahead of the Royals, and faced-off against the Red Sox for the AL pennant. The Red Sox crushed the A’s in three games, and went on to face the Reds in the World Series. Bosman saw little duty in the Red Sox post-season series, pitching to a single batter. The A’s released him in 1977 and he retired to his home in Florida. He spent the next twenty years in Florida, restoring antique cars — his obsession. He vowed to never look back. “When you shut the door on baseball, you have to keep it shut or it will never let you go.” Bosman has been a coach in the Tampa system since 2002.

Stammen Stymies Rockies, Willie Homers

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

If Monday is any indication, Craig Stammen has arrived. The 6-3 Ohio native pitched an eight inning, 5-2 gem against the Colorado Rockies at Nationals Park last night, registering his first win of the season. Stammen mixed a moving fastball with his curve and slider to hold the hard-hitting Heltons to two runs, scattering five hits — and getting four RBIs from Willie Harris. Stammen’s outing was in stark contrast to his last visit to the mound, when he pitched batting practice to the Philadelphia Phillies, lasting just 1.1 innings. The key to Stammen’s outing, according to pitching mentor Livan Hernandez, was his slider: “He threw the ball perfectly today,” Hernandez said. “The slider, the cutter were down. He struck out people. I like the way he pitched today. He’s a good guy. I think he has the best stuff of all the starting pitchers. His slider disappears. When he throws perfectly and down, the slider disappears. He has a good changeup and curveball. He throws a little harder. You have to take advantage. The location is more important.”

Willie Harris showed surprising power — although by now, Willie’s ability to go deep should not be in doubt. With two on in the second, Harris lifted an Aaron Cook fastball into deep right field, scoring three. The Harris home run would be all the Nats needed. “I thought it was hooking foul, but somehow it stayed fair,” Harris said. “I was so happy, that you don’t know how I felt running around those bases. It was fun.” Harris entered the game hitting .150. In the third inning, Harris hit a sacrifice fly to score a run — giving him four RBIs on the night.  “If you are hitting .150, you are going to sit on the bench,” Harris said after the game. “I was happy for myself and the team. Everybody wants to play. Unfortunately, if you don’t produce, you are not going to play. Hopefully, I can keep things going and we can play good baseball.”

The Nats latest victim was Rockies’ ace Aaron Cook, who lasted just three innings. Unlike Stammen, Cook’s sinker — celebrated as one of the best in the game — didn’t sink, ending the Rockies’ nine game winning streak at Nationals Park. Cook had control problems from the first pitch.”Cookie wasn’t very good tonight,” Colorado manager Jim Tracy said. “There’s no other way to describe it. He had way too many three-ball counts, and it kind of helped create some negative momentum.” Despite the win, some Nationals are still mired in an early-season slump: Adam Dunn got credit for a lost-in-the-twilight double, but he’s still struggling at the plate. Ivan Rodriguez, on the other hand, continued his hot hitting streak — going 2-4. He’s now hitting .450 on the year. The Nats will face Colorado’s Jorge De La Rosa tonight.