Archive for May, 2010

The Face of the Padres

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

I can remember my reaction to the 1969 announcement that the majors were putting expansion franchises in Seattle (the Pilots), Montreal (the Expos), Kansas City (the Royals) and San Diego — “San Diego? Are the kidding? How many people are there in San Diego?” It seemed like a fantasy, or a shameless reach. The American and National Leagues were competitive, balanced . . . interesting. Now, though, there would be four official doormats, including a team named (get this) the Padres. And for what: a shade more revenue? A dilution of talent? It’s not as if the people of Montreal, Seattle, Kansas City or San Diego were exactly clamoring for a team — there were no public marches, no grand petitions. Above all, the expansion decision meant extra time spent assessing the qualities of new meat: Tommy Dean, Ed Spezio, Ollie Brown. Oh, and Nate Colbert — a young Houston castoff whose first years defined the Friars, and led to my (admittedly irritating) habit of naming teams for their players. They weren’t the Padres, they were the San Diego “Colberts,” a perhaps too-cheeky dismissal of their claim to a place in the hearts and minds of baseball afficianados.

The Padres were an afterthought, no more than a footnote really, until 1974, when the hobbled and aging Willie McCovey came down from San Francisco to give the franchise legitimacy — and to put bodies in the seats. This must have been an MLB decision, for I can’t imagine Willie ever agreeing to accept a San Diego assignment willingly. “Go down there Willie and see if you can’t help these people out,” I imagined Bowie Kuhn saying. McCovey didn’t make the Padres winners, of course, but his arrival signaled a new seriousness on the part of San Diego’s ownership. It was during the first home game of 1974 that new owner Ray Kroc grabbed a microphone and apologized to the fans for fielding such a lousy team. “I’ve never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life,” Kroc intoned. Yeah, well . . . if Kroc had looked a little more closely he would have seen a San Diego ballclub that, despite their 60-102 record, was on the road back. For out there in left field (on the other side of the diamond from McCovey), was a 22-year-old Minnesota prospect, Dave Winfield, while standing in the bullpen (ready to begin his second season in the Padres’ rotation) was a 24-year-old curve-and-sinker specialist by the name of Randy Jones.

Jones was not an immediate success. In the year that Kroc berated his own team, Jones compiled a record that ranks as among the most futile in all of Padres’s history — 8-22 with a 4.45 ERA. It’s a wonder that Padres’ manager John McNamara kept running him out there, game after embarrassing game. But “Johnny Mac” saw something in Jones that others would not or could not recognize: an almost obsessive desire to win and (oh yeah) a sinker that (when it was thrown well) was absolutely unhittable. The Jones sinker hardly sunk at all in 1974 — but the puffy-haired semi-Afro wearing Californian went 20-12 the next year (and helped the Padres climb out of the cellar) and an astounding 22-14 in 1975, when Jones pitched in 40 games and completed 25. The world noticed. SI put Jones on its cover (“Threat To Win 30”) and Topps printed a card that showed Jones paired with Baltimore ace Jim Palmer.

Sadly, but perhaps predictably, Randy Jones was never better than he was when SI decided to put him on its cover. While Jim Palmer went on to a Hall of Fame career, Jones reverted to form: his sinker lost its edge, his arm tired, and his record over the next six years (43-69) seemed to prove the adage that while strike out pitchers succeed, ground ball pitchers fail. Jones ended up in New York (the Mets have a penchant for signing end-of-career burn outs) and then was out of baseball. In retirement, Jones perfected a line of baseball barbecue sauces (Randy Jones Original Baseball Barbecue Sauce, Inc.), and gave private pitching lessons to young and talented pitchers — including (in one notorious case) Barry Zito. Jones is an exacting  teacher and an apparently good one: he began coaching Zito when the lefthander was 12 and watched proudly when he won his first Cy Young.”It was great to inspire him,” he told a reporter back in 2002. Jones remains a part of the Padres community outreach efforts, speaking on behalf of the team to business and community groups and he has his own program on the Outdoor Channel — “Randy Jones Strike Zone.”

For me, at least, Randy Jones defines what it means to be a Padre. The Padres are (like Jones) a bright meteor of a team that, from time to time, will shock and awe before reverting to what they were in their darkest years: a left coast footnote waiting for an identity. Jones would probably and emphatically disagree. But Jones, more than either Colbert or Winfield (who went on to the Hall of Fame) is quintessentially San Diego. Then too, to give him his due, for a short time in the mid-1970s (when his sinker was sinking), Randy Jones was not only the hair-flying junk-ball master of San Diego — he was the best pitcher in baseball.

Nats, Capps Defrock Friars

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

Matt Capps pitched out of a based loaded jam in the ninth inning to preserve a Washington Nationals and John Lannan win in San Diego, 5-3. The victory marked an all-the-way back start for the Washington mainstay, who had his best outing of the year — a seven inning, seven hit semi-gem that fed off the Friar’s lack of power and Washington’s ability to put the ball in the seats. Josh Willingham began the Washington scoring with a three run top-of-the-fourth dinger off of starter Clayton Richard, who held the Nats to four hits. Ian Desmond went 2-4 for the night, which included his fourth homer, a solo shot in the seventh. The game’s comic interlude was provided by San Diego, which filled out its staring line-up card incorrectly, spurring the Nats to play the game under protest. But the protest was dropped by the Nats front office after the win.

While Richard could not stop Washington’s long ball, San Diego manager Bud Black named closer Matt Capps as the difference in the game. Capps struck out two and then induced a ground ball to pitch out of the ninth inning jam. “That was a tough one for Capps, and he got it done,” Black said following the San Diego loss. “He’s pitched well. He has that in him. We had some good swings, but we just didn’t connect. We got it in position with those four hits there in the ninth, but it just didn’t turn out.” Capps register his 17th save, throwing 24 pitches, 17 for strikes. His ERA now stands at 2.96. The Nats face off against the Padres at Petco Park in San Diego in a Saturday night game that will feature recently recalled Nats Triple-A pitcher (and spot starter in 2009), J.D. Martin against young Friar hurler Mat Latos.

Waiting For Strasburg Stanton: While Washington fans speculate endlessly about just when Stephen Strasburg will make his debut in the Bigs, Fish Fans are all agog about Michael Stanton — “the next big thing” in Florida. While Stanton (more properly, Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton) was hardly judged a “phenom” when he was drafted in the second round (79th overall) of the 2007 draft, his semi-meteoric rise through the Marlins farm system (he’s now at Double-A Jacksonville) has been accompanied by a breathtaking display of power. Back on May 6, one of Stanton’s towering drives in Montgomery not only cleared the centerfield wall, it sailed effortlessly over the 95 foot scoreboard behind it. Stanton’s teammates immediately engaged in speculation about whether the ball would ever be found — it wasn’t.

The Marlins clearly know what they have, fueling speculation about just when Stanton will appear — and what kind of difference he’ll make when he does. The excitement is not confined to the front office: when not waiting for Hanley’s next tantrum, the Uggla-Cantu Fins are twittering about Stanton’s prodigious shots. This is not all hype: through his first 38 games this year (albeit, at Jacksonville), Stanton is hitting .310 with 16 home runs and 39 RBIs with a .447 on-base percentage. He leads the minors in just about everything having to do with hitting. There’s no reason to think this won’t continue with the big club, when he’s called up sometime in June. He’s “Florida big,” following the Marlins’ tradition of drafting tall ironman types that are more Ruth than Ripken.

Of course, Stanton’s arrival as “the next big thing” is highly anticipated by Marlins’ fans (here they are), in large part because the last big thing (Cameron Maybin) hasn’t worked out so well — and because, despite fielding a good team, Miami’s fans seem as unexcited as any team in baseball not named the Blue Jays. It’s no wonder then, that Marlins President Larry Beinfest channels Mike Rizzo when he talks about Stanton, giving cagey answers to reporters who hound him about Stanton’s prospective arrival. Beinfest knows what he’s doing — increasing speculation about just when Florida’s version of Jason Heyward will arrive at Landshark Stadium. Patience, patience, Beinfest says. Stanton justs needs to continue working on his game “and the rest will take care of itself.”

Nats Victims In Frisco, Face Friars

Friday, May 28th, 2010

There are plenty of ways to lose a ballgame — and the Nats used most of them on Thursday. Leading 4-2 against Frisco starter Barry Zito going into the seventh inning (and with the game seemingly in hand), the Nationals committed a costly error, the bullpen failed to close out the game, and Washington’s bats (which had undergone a revival of sorts on Wednesday), failed to rally. The result was a 5-4 loss to the Giants in a classic “if only” game that would have given the Nats a solid on-the-road series win. The bottom of the seventh started with what should have been an out, but a ground ball from Giants’ left fielder John Bowker skipped past first baseman Adam Dunn into the outfield. A passed ball followed. The Nats were still in the game and headed for a win when the usually reliable Sean Burnett gave up a single to Nate Schierholtz, whose single to center scored Bowker. Andres Torres singled to right and Freddy Sanchez — hitting against Tyler Walker — followed with another single. That was all the Giants would need.

Facing The Friars: The Padres are baseball’s surprise team — they lead the NL West by two, are nine games over .500 and have one of the best young pitching rotations in the majors. But let’s get real: the Friars don’t have an outfield, are backing and filling on defense (Chase Headley is scooping up the impossible at third, but that won’t last), and no one excepting Adrian Gonzalez has the power of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham or Ivan Rodriguez. Credit the Padres magnificent start, then, to the pitching of groundball specialist Jon Garland, the always-around-the- strike-zone youngster Matt Latos and Pale Hose trade bait Clayton Richard. And, to be honest, the Little Monks have been helped immeasurably by an early schedule that featured massacres against Arizona, Milwaukee and Seattle.

This should not detract from what San Diego has accomplished. The Friars took three from San Francisco in mid-April, then four of five in May. The McCovey’s were embarrassed, as well they might be. Seven of eight wins against Frisco and dominant series against the three stooges (the Showboats, Brewers and Navigators) have been more than enough to compensate for what San Diego lacks: a line-up that (with two lone exceptions) does something besides stand at the plate and pretend to hit. Too harsh? The Padres rank 25th of 30 in BA, 25th in home runs, 25th in hits, and 22nd in RBIs. As for their pitching — well, they rank 1st in ERA, 1st in shutouts, and have given up fewer runs than any other team in baseball. They rank fifth in strike outs. What is even more impressive is that the San Diego rotation does not have a pitcher equal to the NL elite of Jimenez, Halliday, Wainwright, Lincecum, Carpenter, Haren or Hamels — relying for wins on free agent afterthought Jon Garland (6-2, 2.10 ERA), newcomer lefty Clayton Richard (4-2, 2.73 ERA),  talk-of-the-town speedballer Mat Latos (4-3, 3.09 ERA) and Frisco retread Kevin Correia (4-4, 4.03 ERA). Oh, and Heath Bell — who has an eye-popping 1.29 ERA to go with his 13 saves.

So here’s the question: are the Padres for real? The answer, as given by a Padres fan, is probably “no.” Writing in The Hardball Times, Friars’ partisan Geoff Young opines that the Friars “have gotten where they are by pitching way over their heads.” Which is to say — this isn’t going to last. Not only have the Padres yet to face the league’s stiffest competition, it’s hard to imagine that Garland & Company will match up well against a staff that features Halliday and Hamels, or Carpenter and Wainwright. That . . . and the Padres flat out just can’t hit. Of course the San Diego front office could dangle Adrian Gonzalez for a top-of-the-line bat, except for one thing — Gonzalez is a top-of-the-line bat. All of this is said while tempting the fates: for the Nats are headed into the dog bowl tonight to test the thesis that, sooner or later, the Pads will fold. But until they do, there’s this: if you can’t get to San Diego’s starters you’re not going to win. Because if you go into the 9th behind, you’ll be facing Heath Bell — the best closer in the game.

Nats Beat “The Freak”

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Tim Lincecum struggled on Wednesdayleaving his fastball up in the zone and failing to throw strikes with his curve — allowing the Nationals to score six runs and pound out six hits in taking the second game of a three game stint in San Francisco. Luis Atilano, meanwhile, dominated Giants’ hitters through the first four innings, before San Franciso put together a mini-rally in the fifth. Even with that, San Francisco (which is struggling at the plate) was unable to connect against Atilano, or Washington’s relievers. “Everything was working good,” Atilano said of his performance. “Finally, I was able to command my sinker. I was just throwing sinkers and changeups the first couple of innings. Everything was good. I was happy I finally got back to the point where I was on top of my game. Hopefully, it will keep going like that.” Atilano is now 4-1 on the season — and a surprise for the Nats — while Lincecum lost his first.

There’s no question the Nats need to start hitting. While the Anacostia Nine aren’t having the same problems at the dish as the Giants — who are scrambling to find their rhythm — the team’s anemic performance on Tuesday (two runs on just four hits in a 4-2 loss in San Francisco), serves as a cautionary note for a squad that should be among the NL’s leaders in scoring runs and hitting for average. They’re not. The Nats are in the middle of the pack in the NL in batting average (7th of 16), tenth in RBIs, tenth in hitting the long ball, ninth in walks and 11th in scoring runs. With Ivan Rodriguez on the DL, the team will need to have Wil Nieves step into his shoes not only behind the plate, but in the batter’s box. That doesn’t seem likely. Worse yet, the Nats are near the bottom in fielding (12th of 16), having committed more errors than any team but the Marlins. The good news? Surprise. Surprise. It’s the bullpen. The team leads the league in saves and has been solid in the middle innings. It’s a good thing, with a team ERA at 4.45, the Nats remain desperate for arms that can keep their opponents off the board.

Soylent Green Is People: There was an animated dugout conversation between Tim Lincecum and McCovey manager Bruce Bochy last night after Lincecum was removed from the game. Odds are that Bochy was zinging his ace for his inability to keep runners close at first. The Nats stole four bases on Lincecum, three of them in the top of the 5th and two of them on no-throws from catcher Benjie Molina . . . Rob Dibble’s “intestinal fortitude” speech came in inning 5 last night. This time Dibble’s victim was Luis Atilano. Dibble deemed Atilano’s performance “disappointing.” Really? Atilano gave up two earned and four hits in 5.1 and he might well have pitched a complete 6th if it hadn’t been for a Roger Bernadina misplay in right field. Then too, Atilano was coming off two previous rocky starts and was facing baseball’s best pitcher. What the hell is Dibble talking about? “These kids have to learn, there’s competition up here — they should be pitching like their hair is on fire.” Oh come on: two earned and four hits in 5.1? We’ll take it . . .

Speculation about just when Stephen Strasburg will make his debut is the focus of MLB baseball talk — and the Nats blogosphere. Nats Triple Play says that the Nats front office has been manipulating Strasburg’s debut for contract purposes (check) and to sell out a June 4 Friday night game (check). The Nationals Enquirer (meanwhile) gives the Nats a pass, noting that Mike Rizzo had never said when Strasburg would appear: “Heck, about the only thing the Nationals are guilty of is not stepping in sooner to squash the speculation around June 4th. And really: why should they have? It was only last night that anyone from the Nationals even mentioned June 4 as a possibility; and it was Rizzo denying that this date was written in stone.” Still, there’s a lot of anger on fan forums about the June 4 date. So here’s the deal: don’t listen to the Nats, listen to the pundits. About a month ago, baseball guru Tim Kurkjian had Strasburg starting against the Ahoys on June 10. That sounded about right, but Kurkjian might have been off by about two days. My bet is Strasburg will be on the mound on the 8th . . . so here’s a question: what happens if “the next big thing” gets hit around and Rigs has to pull him in the 4th? Let’s not kid ourselves — there are no guarantees . . .

Bay Watch

Monday, May 24th, 2010

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_YSj9VerPFmY/SB8aMNopd9I/AAAAAAAAAsE/tsPVmrDZ4eE/s400/rowand.jpg

How odd is it that, just over forty games into the season, the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants — teams so different in outlook, history and raw talent — would have almost identical records? And yet there it is: after suffering through a gut-wrenching five game losing streak, the Giants (predicted in the pre-season as one of the elite teams of the NL West), are one game over .500, as are the Nats (at 23-22). If the Giants are so much better than the Nats (as baseball analysts would have once claimed), then why are they playing so poorly?

At least a part of the answer became obvious on Sunday, as the McCoveys struggled through yet another punchless contest — registering a terminally fatal 0-18 with runners in scoring position and suffering their second consecutive shutout. The loss was particularly hard to swallow, as it came against their White Elephant rivals across the Bay, who not only swept the interleague series, but made the Giants look downright silly. Here’s the key, at least according to San Francisco skipper Bruce Bochy: the Giants can hit, but only sometimes and even when they do, it’s not when runners are in a position to score.

Giants fans are becoming impatient: with one of the most formidable starting rotations in all of baseball, the Giants should be winning decisively. They’re not. Bochy has responded to the team’s hitting drought by shaking up the McCovey’s batting order: dropping outfielder Aaron Rowand into the sixth spot and moving speedster Andres Torres to the head of the line-up. But even Bochy has doubts this will work — San Francisco’s problem is that it lacks hitters who can hit for power and average. Pablo Sandoval is San Francisco’s premier (and popular) young power hitter, but his batting average stands at .282 — hardly something to brag about. Aaron Rowand, signed as a free agent to anchor the outfield and drive in runs, is hitting just .242 while import Freddy Sanchez is struggling to remain above the Mendoza line.

A comparison between a line-up struggling to generate runs and one that knows how to put them on the board is sobering. The Giants have put 33 dingers into the seats, the Nats 39; the Giants are hitting an anemic .257, the Nats are chugging along at .265 — the Giants have driven in 160 runs, the Nats 191. Which is to say: a San Francisco front office that boasts a starting rotation of Lincecum, Cain, Zito and Sanchez (truly, the Nats have no one to compare), is now having to scramble to find someone comparable to Willingham, Dunn, Zimmerman and Guzman — anyone of whom would add more power and average to the Giants line-up than anyone they currently have. Which is why, in the weeks ahead, the Giants will begin to search for the hitting they will so desperately need to catch the Friars and Trolleys for the NL West flag. They must know — the price will be high.

Walk Off “Hammers” O’s

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Josh Willingham’s walk off home run in the tenth inning gave the Nats the game, the set and the match against the Baltimore Orioles in a 4-3 victory at Nationals Park on Sunday. Willingham’s game winner came off of O’s reliever Cla Meredith, and gave the Nats bragging rights in the “Battle of the Beltways” inter-league series. Perhaps as important, the Nats played a nearly perfect, tight game that relied on defense and pitching — a decided change from Saturday’s messy win and a needed boost as the Nats now head west for an extended road trip. “When you get a game winning hit like that,” Willingham said after the win, “it’s why you play the game as a baseball player . . . it got up in the air and went out.”

Willingham’s game winning knock was not the only good news for the Nats. Starter John Lannan pitched well — holding the Orioles to one run on two hits over 5.1 innings. Lannan said that his arm felt good after the outing, with the pain he had suffered over the previous weeks an apparent thing of the past. “I’m feeling healthy, which is the main thing,” Lannan said. The game also seemed to confirm Jim Riggleman’s decision to provide Roger Bernadina with a more steady starting role in right field. After a slow start, Bernadina is hitting the ball well — and he’s a defensive asset in right field. “He’s just getting a little better each time,” Riggleman noted. “He’s really finding his way and getting a little more comfortable.” The Nats will start their road journey with a series against the San Francisco Giants,  before moving on to San Diego and Houston.

Nats Win, But Struggle

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Guzman

It is a hallmark of a struggling team that they will defeat themselves — and despite their win against the Birds on Saturday, the Nats came close to doing so, rallying to win a messy 7-6 contest. Included in the win was the second inside-the-park home run at Nats Park in four days — the result of a Nyjer Morgan gaffe in center field that brought jeers from the hometown folks — and the ejection of Washington first base coach Dan Radison. But while it might be that a struggling team defeats itself, the opposite is also true: that a good team that is struggling will find a way to win. It was the hitters that did that for the Nats on Saturday, relying on Roger Bernadina, the under-utilized Alberto Gonzalez, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham to build a solid mid-game surge as they went on to defeat an Orioles team that seems to play well against their I-95 competitors.

The Nats won for only the second time in nine games — bringing the team back to .500 at 22-22. While the Nats win was less a headline than Nyjer Morgan’s tirade in center field, the team’s outburst of hitting put the Anacostia Nine back on track as they face the heart of the season. The Nationals exploded for fifteen hits, including 3-4 days from Ryan Zimmerman and Cristian Guzman — who is hitting a torrid .343. And for the first time in more than a week, the bullpen was nearly perfect, giving up a single hit in 3.2 innings of work.

If it wasn’t for the surprising steadiness of Nats pitching (and the success of the Clippard-Capps late-innings combination), the continued solid hitting of veteran Cristian Guzman might well be the talk of baseball. The former regular shortstop (his position in the middle infield now taken by rising rookie Ian Desmond), began the season as a spot-starter, having been relegated by the Nats brain trust to sometime-play while Desmond and a series of failed platoons in right field kept him out of the starting line-up. But Nats skipper Jim Riggleman has had a difficult time keeping Guzman off the field: his hot bat at the top of the order has sparked innumerable Nats rallies, and Guzman is also devoid of the regular in-game errors that plagued him in the ’09 campaign. There continues to be talk of using Guzman as mid-season bait for a contending team, but that could well change — especially if Guzman continues to show that the Nats will need him for their own late-season push.

Storen, Clippard In Form

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

The Washington Nationals broke their five game losing streak with a solid 5-3 victory over the New York Mets at Nats Park on Wednesday. The victory came with solid pitching performances from Livan Hernandez, rookie Drew Storen, middle reliever Tyler Clippard and closer Matt Capps — who notched his league leading 15th save. The win came despite an Angel Pagan inside-the-park home run and a Pagan-initiated triple play. “It was just one of those freaky nights,” Nats center field Nyjer Morgan said. “We had an inside-the-park and a triple play. You don’t see that too often.” The Storen-Clippard duo portends big things for the Nats, whose bullpen is a bright spot for the team, which struggled in middle and late innings last year. Storen and Clippard combined to pitch 1.2 innings of one-hit shutout baseball, providing Matt Capps with the opportunity of putting the Metropolitans away in the ninth.The Nats are hoping to ride the high of their win against their division rival into a second game against the Mets tonight.

Fear and Trembley In Baltimore: For the first time in what seems like forever, the Nats will enter the “Battle of the Beltways” without the younger sibling inferiority complex that seemed to mark the team’s previous meetings with “the Birds.” Bob Carpenter and Rob Dibble have every right to take advantage — slinging high-and-tight questions to Jim Palmer et. al. “We’re joined here in the booth by Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, and let me just start by asking you this Jim — what in the hell is wrong with Orioles?” . . . one of the really fun things to do is to watch O’s manager Dave Trembley’s post-game media Q & A sessions. After yet another loss last week, Trembley looked as if he were about to explode. His answers were clipped, his mouth set, his aggression kept barely in check. There were painfully long silences after his answers, as reporters considered whether they should ask just one more — or scramble for the exits.”So, ah  . . . Dave, ahhh … so, in the seventh inning, you know, when the Indians loaded the bases . . .  ah, well, never mind.”

One of the more interesting Baltimore personalities is middle inning relief specialist Will Ohman, who not only looks like he means it, but seems always in agony when he exits a game. Ohman (a sure fire candidate for anger management counseling), stared menacingly at Trembley when the O’s skipper marched out of the dugout to pull him after he walked a single batter during the O’s 8-2 loss  in Cleveland. Ohman had every reason to be angry: he hasn’t given up a run in 13.2 innings of work and has been a workhorse — pitching through 22 games. So why did Trembley relieve him? The “Birdland” skipper believes that Ohman is a lefty-on-lefty specialist, a prejudice that the last place Camdens can hardly afford. The good thing about Trembley is he doesn’t scare easy: he pointedly ignored his bullet-headed southpaw, who stood (hands on hips, no less) glaring at his skipper through the next inning. Ohman has had an up-and-down career, but a lot of it has been up. Despite his so-so-performance in for the Trolleys in 2009, Ohman has posted some pretty good numbers, particularly for the Cubs in 2005. MacPhail (in Chicago at the time) remembers this — which is why he signed him this winter. In a season of disappointments, Ohman has been a bright spot in an otherwise very shaky bullpen. But you have to wonder when Dave Trembley will figure that out.

Nats Return After Dropping Five

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

John Lannan held the St. Louis Cardinals to two runs in six innings (one of his most solid outings of the season), but it wasn’t enough as the punchless Nats lost their fifth straight on the road. The Nats return to Washington today to face the Metropolitans in a two game set, which will be followed by the “Battle of the Beltways” — a three game series against the league poorest Baltimore Orioles. Despite the loss, Lannan’s outing against the Redbirds must have brought a sigh of relief to the Nats brain trust, as the young lefty is a mainstay of the Washington rotation. With Jason Marquis down for at least the next several weeks (and with Craig Stammen and Luis Atilano still finding their way in the majors), Livan Hernandez and a revived Scott Olsen would have been the only two absolutely dependable starters in the Nats’ rotation if Lannan had continued to struggle.

In spite of the five game skid, Nationals skipper Jim Riggleman focused on Lannan’s positives. “He pitched good,” Riggleman said. “I’m really encouraged that he was out there and pitched in that 100-pitch range pain-free. He’s kind of had an issue or two. We bumped him a start and all that kind of stuff and that’s one of the better games he has thrown this year for us.” Lannan was also upbeat. “We haven’t hit our stride with hitting or with pitching and we’re still battling,” he said after the Cardinals loss. “We’re in every ballgame, and that’s all you can ask for when we’re kind of struggling. We have to get out there tomorrow and win as many as we can at home.”

Cincinnati Rising: If the Nats call up Stephen Strasburg during anything that even looks like a major skid, the expectations for him will be too high. But if they’re winning, well then Strasburg’s arrival will be seen as a move that can put them over the top. There’s no way for the Nats front office to win this “why not now” battle; which is probably one of the reasons why Mike Rizzo is sticking to his original schedule, despite the young phenom’s spectacular showing in the minors and in spite of what the Nats might be doing on the field. Then too, there’s the model being followed by the rising young starter in Cincinnati — Mike Leake. Leake has powered a surprising Cincinnati (where arms go to die) squad to first place in the Central Division. Due to Leake (whose role at the center of the Reds starting rotation is key) the Reds are giving the Cardinals fits and making the Cubs look mediocre.

So why aren’t the Nats doing the same thing?

Tom Verducci unpacks this issue in a recent SI column. The heart of the Verducci column is a comparison of the way the Reds are handling first round draft pick Mike Leake vs. the way that Rizzo & Co. are handling Strasburg. “What is most interesting about the Strasburg Plan,” Verducci writes, “is that concurrently the Cincinnati Reds are running an entirely different development plan with Mike Leake , their base model of Strasburg. Leake, 22, and Strasburg, who turns 22 in July, both pitched in major college programs, both were drafted last year in the first round, both signed too late to pitch in affiliated pro baseball last year and both went through their first spring training this year. They were born only eight months apart.” And then Verducci goes on to note that Leake’s pitch count this year add up to 691 pitches in nine MLB games as compared to Strasburg’s 469 pitches in the minor leagues. So who’s being smarter — Dusty Baker’s playoff hungry Cincinnati Reds, or Jim Riggleman’s build-for-the-future Nationals?

Verducci notes that Jim Riggleman was the manager of the Cubs in the year that then-phenom Kerry Wood was overpitched and that (as a result), he’ll be extra careful when Strasburg arrives. But the temptation is certainly there. We might imagine a resurgent Nats Nine that, in mid-September, is just two games out of the Wild Card race. With Lannan, Strasburg, Hernandez, Stammen and Olsen as the starting five and Strasburg on the mound against (say) the surging Braves, Riggleman will want to leave him right where he is — despite his pitch count. It’s not everyday you get into the playoffs. But then again, why would you rely on Strasburg in September if you know that your next day’s starter is not Craig Stammen or Scott Olsen, but Roy Oswalt? Which is not only why Jim and Mike will stick with their plan (no matter what), it’s also why it’s likely that come the trade deadline, the Baker Boys of Cincinnati will do the right thing by Mike Leake: they’ll get him some help.

Nats Skid Now At Four

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Ian Desmond went 4-4 and Drew Storen made a solid debut, but the Washington Nationals fell to the Cardinals 6-2 on Monday night in St. Louis. The Nats were victimized by a tough first inning from starter Craig Stammen, who surrendered four runs against a hitting heavy Cards line-up.  Stammen pitched well the rest of the way, but Washington’s suddenly quiet bats could not get to the Redbirds. “He got settled in and pitched really good,” Riggleman said of Stammen after the game. “He really made a lot of great pitches and gave us a chance. He kept us in there. Their guy did a good job, too. Lohse did a nice job. He kind of kept us off.” Drew Storen came on in the 7th inning with a man on and one out to face former Nats infielder Felipe Lopez (who fouled out), Redbirds outfielder Ryan Ludwick (who he hit) and big bopper Matt Holliday, whom he struck out. It was an impressive first outing for the 22-year-old reliever. “He closed the inning. He did good. He threw strikes,” Ivan Rodriguez said. “He threw the three pitches out of four that he has. He threw the sinker, the breaking ball and the slider, and he did great. He did a great job.” The Nats losing streak now stands at four — with a second game against the Cardinals in St. Louis tonight.

Those Are The Details And Now For The Headlines: It looks like one of those seasons for the Bosox, who are mired in fourth place in the AL East, a full 8.5 games behind the surging Tampa Bay Rays. The sound and fury from Boston is deafening, as fans of “the Nation” have begun to take themselves apart about the deplorable state of their lovable Yazstremskis. Over The Monster is particularly puzzled, pointing out the “surprising teams” that have better records than the heroes of Fenway: the Padres, Blue Jays, Reds, Nationals and Marlins. The head scratching in the Fens is interesting to watch, particularly for a franchise whose fans suffer from attention deficit disorder. If you had claimed back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that the Sox would one day be viewed as one of the game’s sure-to-win franchises, your claim would have been greeted with jaw-dropping disbelief.

While Sabermetric gurus are able to point to a welter of statistics reflecting the Red Sox woes, the simple truth is that the once proud pounders who thrilled the nation (and “The Nation”), with two world championships are an aging, punchless, poor-pitching and injured group of Back Bayers who play their worst against their deadliest foes. The Red Sox lost two of three in New York one week into the season, lost four in Tampa Bay a week later and two of three against the Yankees in New York in May. That doesn’t count losses to teams they should dominate. For instance, the over-confident Sox lost three to Baltimore’s wadda-we-gonna-do Triple-A Orioles . . .  for God’s Sake . (Spontaneous demonstrations broke out on Eutaw Street and Dave Trembley was given the keys to the city.)

The problem is pitching (ain’t it always). The Red Sox rank 27th in runs allowed and 27th in team ERA. While the Red Sox can put runs on the board (they’re near the top in runs scored), they can’t keep others from scoring even more: Clay Buchholz (with four wins) is their steadiest starter, Josh Beckett is a mess and Daisuke Matsuzaka (just back from the DL) can’t get anyone out. Their roster is a doctor’s dream. Beckett has back spasms, J.D. Drew suffers from vertigo (and an inability to hit an inside slider), Mike Cameron has kidney stones (the poor sot), Jacoby Ellsbury has a chest contusion, Dice-K had a neck strain (and probably still has), Jed Lowrie has suffered from mono and (OLAS) Justin Pedroia continues to battle wrist issues. And now (following last night’s game against the hated Yankees) the entire team probably needs scream therapy.

For those who like tragedy (and walk offs), last night’s Red Sox tilt against the Yankees was fun to watch (you could switch over, just in time to see this disaster, following the Nats post game wrap-up). With a man on in the bottom of the ninth and the Sox ahead 9-7, super reliever Jonathan Papelbon collapsed. He gave up a game-tying homer to Alex Rodriguez (who hit it wicked faaaaah …), then plunked Francisco Cervelli with a fastball. With Cervelli on first, Papelbon missed his spot with Marcus Thames, who cranked Mr. P’s wheelhouse fastball into the lower left field seats. As Papelbon walked from the field, it was hard to shake the feeling that the Yankees have Boston’s number. So here’s the deal: after a season of success at Fenway the current standings in the AL East are, in fact, an accurate reflection of Red Sox reality. We can be surprised by the early season success of the Padres, Blue Jays, Reds, Nationals and Marlins. But no one should be surprised by the Red Sox. It’s not that they’re a bad team, because they’re not. For Red Sox fans, it’s  worse. They’re mediocre.