Archive for June, 2010

Stammen Buries The Hatchets

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Craig Stammen, just recalled from the Nats Syracuse Triple-A farm club, threw seven innings of brilliant baseball and super sub Alberto Gonzalez went 4-4 as the skidding Nats ended their five game losing streak with a 7-2 win in Atlanta. Stammen finally mastered what had been bothering him in successive starts prior to his demotion — he kept the ball down in the zone and threw strikes, keeping the Bravos hitters off balance. Stammen threw 99 pitches, 57 of them for strikes, before giving way to Sean Burnett in the 8th inning. “Craig was just outstanding,” skipper Jim Riggleman said after the win. And the skipper praised Alberto Gonzalez, who looked rusty at the plate on Monday. “He’s a great fielder,” Riggleman said, “and he can hit a little too.” This marked the second successive start for Gonzalez, who has done some spot pinch hitting. But Riggleman was uncertain whether the Gonzalez start was the beginning of a new trend. “He’s kind of the fourth guy among four guys, so it’s tough for him to get playing time,” Riggleman said.

In breaking loose for seven runs, the Nats end a despairing streak of one, two and three run games that saw them sink further into last place in the NL East. Relief seems to be in sight: Nyjer Morgan’s bat is finally heating up (he was 2-5 on Tuesday), Josh Willingham put one into the seats at Turner Field (his 14th), Ryan Zimmerman plated two RBIs — and then there was Alberto Gonzalez, whose 4-4 stint brought his BA to .292: oh, and he can field a little bit too. To cap it all off, Roger Bernadina is starting to look like a keeper (slapping balls to left field) and Tyler Clippard pitched a nifty clean 9th. The news gets even better from there. The Nats went errorless in nine innings, which must be some kind of record.

Today I Settle All Family Business, So Don’t Tell Me You’re Innocent: If you google “The Kid,” you get sites for a Charlie Chaplan movie, news that Angelina Jolie’s little girl wants to be a boy (“she likes to wear boy’s everything,” Angelina poofed), and a reach on Ted Williams who, it seems, was called “the kid” until someone thought of something better — like “The Splendid Splinter.” (Which reminds me: wasn’t Gaylord Perry once referred to as “The Splendid Spitter?” No? Okay, maybe not). But nowhere on the internet does anyone talk about our Anacostia Nine who, it is reported, are calling Stephen Strasburg “the kid” in the privacy of the Nats’ clubhouse. We’re betting the name will stick, confirming Angelina’s little pout about “Shiloh,” who “thinks she’s one of the brothers.”

Stephen’s nickname confirms that he too (and for sure) is now one of the Nats brothers (that’s what being given a nickname means) — albeit without the apparent transgender issues of Shiloh Vomit Pitt. And it’s a good thing. Strasburg took the heat after his Monday outing, as Braves fans everywhere (there aren’t as many as there once were for “America’s Team“) laid into “the kid” for giving up five runs (er, three earned) in the 7th inning of Monday night. Even some Nats fans were disappointed. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God — what happened? So here’s the deal: we here at CFG have taken a poll of our staff (final vote? 3-0) and determined that we would take, any day, an outing from any pitcher on our staff who could throw 6.1 (!), give up three earned runs (!), and strike out seven. You never know, if we have outings like that every game, we could actually win the division. Yeah, there’s no question about it, Monday’s performance shows that we need to send “the kid” to the minors to “straighten out his stuff” and “build his self confidence.”

Say It Ain’t So Mike: The Nats are apparently “entertaining offers” . . . no, that’s not the right phrase. Damn. Let’s start over. The Nats are “actively considering” … no, that’s not right either. Okay. Here it is. The Nats are talking to at least two teams about a trade that would involve Nats first sacker and potential All Star Adam Dunn, the heart and soul of your Washington Nationals (if you don’t count Ryan Zimmerman, Pudge Rodriguez, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Josh Willingham, Livan Hernandez . . .). The report must be true: MLB Trade Rumors has it by way of Ken Rosenthal, who has it from the Chicago Sun Times, who has it from the White Sox.

The Angels are already interested, Rosenthal says, and Joe Cowley of the Greatest Newspaper in the Greatest City in America (it’s ahead of the Trib, dontchaknow), says that the Nats and Pale Hose are exchanging names, though the Sox don’t have much to give in the way of pitching prospects — they were all traded to the Little Monks from San Diego for Jumpin’ Jake Peavy. No one likes this kind of talk, least of all Adam Dunn, who doesn’t want to be a DH and likes it just fine here in D.C.  We like him here too, Mike — as he is headed for another season of 40 home runs (oops, he had only 39 last year) and is one of the surprises, perhaps the surprise on the team: unlike the other nine we slap together to play the Baltimore Pathetics, he’s fielding his position like a pro. And who would have guessed that? Then too, don’t we have enough pitching prospects? I know, let’s try Danny Cabrera. In fact, the only positive thing we could really gain from such a trade is an end to that obnoxious public address announcer and his “now batting for your Washington Nationals …. Adaaaam Dunnnnnn.” Hey, on second thought . . .

Strasburg Getting Better, Nats Not

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Stan Kasten was pretty adamant in talking about Stephen Strasburg on Sunday, telling Nats beat report Bill Ladson that, as good as Stephen Strasburg is now, he’ll get even better. That’s good news for Nats fans, because the team itself seems to be getting worse. On Sunday, the Nationals lost their fourth in a row and their third in a row to the league worst Baltimore Orioles, 4-3. It was the third consecutive game in which the Nationals dropped a contest in which they led, and should have won. The team is now ten games under .500 — and sinking fast. But for skipper Jim Riggleman, at least, the glass is (as he is fond of repeating, and repeating) half full: “I like the fact that we scored runs early,” Riggleman said. “We had a chance to win the ballgame, and we didn’t get blown out. It’s a small consolation. We had runners out there to be driven in. We got some of them in. We are going to have to get more in. We have to get [good] pitching performances. There are a lot of good things to draw from.” We love Jim, really we do. But what glass is he talking about? Because the one that is half empty is filled with errors.

Kasten’s comments were fairly predictable, while signaling that the Nats will continue the Kasten-Rizzo philosophy of focusing on pitching — and building from within: “His [Strasburg’s] role as a symbol is very important,” Kasten told Ladson. “When we came in four years ago, we talked about wanting to build through scouting/development with an emphasis on pitching. Continuing with the fulfillment of that commitment, I think it’s very important that fans could see that we are close to turning the corner. We are close to having a really terrific, good, stable young rotation as some of our guys come up from the Minor Leagues and come back from rehab. But clearly the symbol of that movement is Stephen.”

Kasten could not have been more explicit; rather than depending on a big free agent signing, or making a blockbuster trade, the Nats will sink or swim with their young arms, and likely await the arrival (and return) of Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Jason Marquis and Chien-Ming Wang. Nats fans would be pleased if any of those four (but particularly Marquis and Wang) returned to form — filling in a now shaky rotation that is having trouble pitching into the seventh inning. Sadly, as the Nats triumverate of Kasten, Rizzo and Riggleman would undoubtedly agree, if Desmond, Kennedy, Guzman and Gonzalez could field as well as Strasburg pitches, the Nats would have emerged from Baltimore as winners, instead of also-rans.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The CFG Board of Directors (here they are, remember?) has directed our editorial staff to conduct a reset of some earlier predictions. We have refused. While the “Amazins” are contending for the division title, we stand by our claim: the Nats will finish ahead of the Apples in the NL Least. There’s a long way to go. And this we say — while everyone is focusing on “The Rise of Ike Davis” and the expertise of some guy named Pelfrey (oh, and R.A. Dickey, whoever that is), we know the truth. The truth is that the key to the New York Metropolitans is Jose Reyes. Always has been, always will be. Without him, they’re lost . . .

But in at least another instance we are inclined to offer a “redo” on our too outspoken view that the Pale Hose, which was sinking like a rock when we (arrogantly, and filled with confidence) wrote that the South Siders would be sellers and would eventually be forced to shop Jake Peavy. The day after we wrote that, the White Sox launched a breathtaking winning streak, with Peavy in the lead. They have now recouped their season and their team and the confidence of their manager. Their win streak ended at 11 yesterday, in a loss to the North Side Drama Queens. Our bet now is that, barring the resurrection of Joe DiMaggio (and his agreement on a trade to the City of Big Shoulders), Jumpin’ Jake ain’t goin anywhere . . .

And we note with interest that in spite of Stanley’s talk of focusing on development and arms in the minors, the Nats are scouting D-Backs ace Dan Haren. Here’s our question: what’s to scout? Long into the night (and we’re deadly serious), we dream of that delivery, the same delivery every single time, like the mechanism of a finely tuned watch: head down, right leg up (then, the hesitation), the head snaps to the plate, the glove is thrown out (into the face of the batter) and the arm coming perfectly over the top. It’s a thing of beauty. I swear. It’s enough to send you back to church. Go get ’em Stan, go get ’em Mike . . .

Baltimore’s “Wrigleyville”

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

Two wins against the defensively challenged Washington Nationals must be a source of pride for Baltimore Orioles’ fans, but they’re unlikely to quiet the outrage and disgust that permeates the Baltimore faithful. The Orioles are on track to match the epic futility established by some of baseball’s worst teams: the 2003 Detroit Tigers (43-119), the 1962 New York Mets (40-120), the 1904 Washington Senators (38-113) and (who can forget?), the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, whose record of 20-134 remains unmatched. The Orioles, despite their two recent wins, might well match the ’62 Mets or ’03 Tigers — or the ’09 Nationals, who tabulated 103 losses. The O’s losing ways are particularly grisly for fans who remember the franchise of the 1970s, viewed as one of the most successful in baseball, a fact highlighted by yesterday’s celebration of the 1970 version of the O’s. The 1970 O’s had one of the best pitching rotations in baseball history (well — nearly so) and the “two Robinsons,” Brooks and Frank, who hit for power, average, and drove in runs. Cal Ripken and Rick Dempsey then became the face of the franchise and defined it. Unfazed by bumps and bruises, the two were very different and very much alike. Both were desperate to win.

Those days are gone.

So what’s wrong in Baltimore? While baseball analysts talk of poor drafts, poor development, poor scouting, “a culture of losing” and an indifferent owner, a not-very-close study of the O’s young players shows an Andy MacPhail bias that is hard to defend. MacPhail, the former President and CEO of the Chicago Cubs (and the former “boy wonder” of the Twins’ of the 1980s) has brought Wrigleyville east — to Baltimore. If you don’t believe me, check the O’s roster. Journeyman lefty Will Ohman was drafted by the Cubs in 1998, spent time with the Dodgers and Braves, but then came into Baltimore — an Andy MacPhail idea. If Ohman looks around he’ll see a lot of former teammates: Jake Fox (Chicago to Oakland to Baltimore), Scott Moore (who came, with Rocky Cherry, to Baltimore from the Cubs), Corey Patterson and Felix Pie (great hopes in Chicago, before failing), tweaky armed Rich Hill and lots-of-promise Lou Montanez, the Cubs first pick in the 2000 draft. There are others, squirreled away in the minors or nursing injuries on the DL. But this is good enough: evidence that MacPhail favors those he knows — even if they’re products of a dysfunctional organization.

MacPhail isn’t alone in trading for his bias — Mike Rizzo is as partial to the outliers of the Arizona Showboats as Jim Bowden once was to the farm system of the Cincinnati Reds. But there are limits, and MacPhail seems to have reached them. Felix Pie may or may not someday be a great outfielder (as the Cubs once thought), but it’ll probably be someday. Rich Hill is a talented lefty, but the Cubs decided they couldn’t wait for his arm to be surgically reattached. Jake Fox is a pretty fair ballplayer, but the fact that Billy Beane was anxious to move him (for pitcher Ross Wolf, who apparently hasn’t pitched since 2007) oughta tell you something. Corey Patterson looks good now (.273, 3 HRs), but he’s never been able to hit anything but a fastball his entire life and Rocky Cherry — well, Rocky Cherry is gone. That leaves Will Ohman, Luis Montanez and Scott Moore. All of them are serviceable. Ohman is a tough competitor and Montanez and Moore might actually make good ballplayers some day. But let’s be clear, in the AL East, guys like Will, Monty and Scott aren’t going to win you any pennants. Or lift you out of the cellar.

It took a while for Andy MacPhail to wear out his welcome in Chicago, in part because the Cubs had sunk so low. But eventually fans of the North Side Drama Queens turned against him. He seemed to lack the “feel” for young players who could turn into something. Cubs fans now refer to those twelve years as “the reign of terror,” but only because after more than a decade at the helm in Wrigleyville the MacPhail version of the Cubs had proven to be, well, the same old version of the Cubs (their record under MacPhail’s leadership was 916-1011). MacPhail’s first round picks in the first year MLB draft included such memorable names as Ryan Harvey, Todd Noel, Ben Christansen and Bobbie Brownlie. The development and scouting department that MacPhail put in place consistently failed to produce home grown products and, when they did, they couldn’t quite believe it — MacPhail traded them in a panic to fill immediate needs. Like Jon Garland, whose trade to the South Siders (for God’s sake) left Cubs fans spinning in despair. You could hear the screams from the bars on Division Street all the way to Wrigley Field: “For Matt Karchner. Matt  f-ing Karchner.”

Last week on the radio, Peter Gammons said that he’d heard that there were two lists of candidates for the manager’s slot in Baltimore. The first list, he said, was “the Peter Angelos list” and the second was a list kept by Andy MacPhail. At issue, apparently, is the power that a new manager will have. Gammons and just about everyone else thinks that, to be successful, Angelos and MacPhail need to bring in someone who knows how to handle young players and will have the run of the system. Someone who will have “complete power.” The phrase hints that what Baltimore’s Birds really need is a baseball man who can overrule the decisions of Angelos and MacPhail, and bring order out of chaos. But ask yourself: how likely is it that either a former abestos lawyer and his sidekick enabler (who are, after all, responsible for this debacle) will cede power to a manager who can veto their decisions? The final verdict will tell the tale. Orioles fans desperately need a guy like Buck Showalter, but if Angelos and MacPhail get their way, they’ll probably get Eric Wedge.

Nats Boot It In Baltimore

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

You can’t make four errors and expect to win a ball game, no matter how much you hit — and no matter how many spectacular plays you make that are  nominated for “Web Gems” on “Baseball Tonight.” The Nats made four errors against Baltimore on Friday night, dropping an extra innings heartbreaker (and the first game of a three game set), to the Orioles, 7-6. This should have been Nyjer Morgan’s game: the Nats’ pesky lead-off hitter went 4-5, scored three runs, drove in one, stole a base and made a spectacular catch on what looked like a sure home run by Oriole Corey Patterson. Morgan climbed the centerfield wall at Camden Yards to snag the deep fly and rob the fleet-footed Patterson, who tipped his cap to Morgan in acknowledgment of his good glove work. Ironically, in an error-filled game, Morgan’s circus catch was one of the best defensive play of the year for the Nats. But Morgan’s good glove and hot bat after a month-long slump could not save his team, who played an embarrassing error-filled game.

After the game, Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman seemed befuddled, and angered, by his team’s loss. “You saw it. I’m not going to say anything specific, but the way we are playing in general — defensively — it isn’t good enough,” Riggleman said to reporters. “We do a lot of talking about it. We are out there working on it. But for some reason … I really can’t explain it. I know we put the work in. I feel bad for the players. It’s an issue for them. They see the number of errors. They see the games get away from us, because we are not making plays. We have to find a way to change that.” To compound the errors, righty reliever Tyler Clippard pitched poorly, in what has to account for his worst relief outing of the year. Clippard, who has been so consistent that Nats fans take his excellent relief appearance for granted, gave up four hits and four runs (three of them earned) in just 1.1 inning of work. While the Nats left Camden Yards disappointed, the O’s were ecstatic — registering a rare come-from-behind win on what should have been a double play ball that would have sent the game into extra innings. The O’s scored when Cristian Guzman’s flip to first eluded first sacker Adam Dunn. Guzman and shortstop Ian Desmond each had two errors in the game.

Unfortunately, while the Orioles will focus on the win and the Nats will focus on the errors, Nyjer Morgan’s play vindicated Riggleman who, prior to the game, said that he was undisturbed by the center fielder’s lack of production. Riggleman’s comments were a vote of confidence for Morgan, who has been the subject of fan criticism, and speculation that he might be benched in favor of Roger Bernadina. Riggleman has been trying to find a way to give Mike Morse more at bats — and benching Morgan and moving Bernadina into his spot would solve that problem. Morse would then play right field. But Riggleman said he’s sticking with Morgan. “I have a lot of patience with Nyjer,” Riggleman said. “One thing we kind of hang our hats on is last year when we got Nyjer at this time of the year, he had been doing OK in Pittsburgh, not having a great start, just treading water. Then he took off.” Riggleman seemed more than satisfied that his vote of confidence in Morgan worked out: after the loss to the Orioles the Nats skipper pointedly referred to the Morgan catch. “It may have been the greatest play of the year,” he said.

Mickey’s Nemesis

Friday, June 25th, 2010

It’s a well-known story, but bears repeating — particularly now that Nats’ ace Stephen Strasburg’s name is being mentioned in the same sentence as Herb Score’s. On Wednesday versus Kansas City, Strasburg eclipsed Score’s MLB record for strikeouts in a pitcher’s first four MLB starts. Strasburg has 41 strikeouts in his first four starts — Score had 40. But it will take some time for Strasburg to equal Score’s considerable achivements, even if the former Cleveland hurler (he passed on in 2008), battled injuries nearly his entire career. Like Strasburg, Score made his mark  as a rookie phenom; he came up with Cleveland in 1955 and set the American League on fire, going 16-10 with a 2.85 ERA. But unlike Strasburg, Score was surrounded by a team of All Star hitters and pitchers — Bob Feller and Bob Lemon had already made their mark on baseball, and Feller was a legend. The Tribe of ’55 were a powerful mix of slap hungry hitters and long-ballers: Vic Wertz, Bobby Avila, Ralph Kiner, Larry Doby. Score struck out 245 hitters that first year, a mark that stood until it was broken by Dwight Gooden in 1984.

In one of baseball’s well-known in-game incidents, in May of 1957, Score was hit by a Gil McDougald line drive that broke his cheekbone and sent him to the DL. It was said that Score never recovered his pitching motion and remained intimidated by the batted ball — the reason for his fall-off in production. But Score set the record straight in an interview with a baseball writer in 1987, saying that his career was cut short not by McDougald, but by a torn tendon in his pitching arm. “The McDougald line drive had nothing to do with my career ending prematurely,” he said. Score took a year to recover, but when facing the Senators in a game in 1958 a tendon in his arm snapped. Score visited a specialist in Baltimore and took three weeks off, then came back — again against the Senators. “I went in as a reliever, struck out five or six and ended the game on a popup to the outfield,” Score recalled. “But I hurt my arm again on that pitch. After that pitch, I was never the same again. My pitches never had the same movement on them. I had no snap.” Score was out of baseball after 1962. He spent 35 years as a Cleveland Indians radio announcer, before dying in his home town in Ohio in 2008.

Score had two good seasons — his rookie year in 1955 and his sophomore campaign of 1956, when he was 20-9. Mickey Mantle said that he was the toughest left hander he ever faced. It is said that Mantle tried everything against Score, alternating batting righty and lefty against him, but nothing worked. He could never touch his fastball, even after the McDougald incident. Score’s amazing rookie season (227 innings, 245 strikeouts) is a kind of touchstone for baseball statisticians, a model of what it means to be a phenom. But Score was not the only rookie pitcher to have set a league on fire. Dwight Gooden’s 276 strikeouts in 1984 (in just 218 innings) blasted past Score’s mark and Gooden was (arguably) even better the next year, when he fanned 268. Gooden matched this with a head-spinning 1.53 ERA. No one has equaled Gooden’s rookie strikeout record, though Kerry Wood came close, striking out 233 in 1998. Score, Gooden, Wood, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Don Sutton, Gary Nolan, Mark Langston and Hideo Nomo are the only rookie pitchers of the 20th century to strike out over 200 batters in their rookie campaigns.

It’s going to be virtually impossible for Stephen Strasburg to match Gooden’s feat, but only because it’s doubtful he will have a chance to pitch as many innings. St. Stephen is due to pitch every fifth day (not every fifth game) and will likely be shut down in mid-September. Plus, he’s on a strict under-100 pitch-per-game count, monitored by Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman. Then too, it’s unlikely Strasburg will pitch much over 170 innings in his rookie campaign– if that. This ought to be simple arithmetic (ought to be), but it really isn’t. The Nats know what every Nats fan knows: that if Rizzo and Riggleman had their druthers, Strasburg would pitch fewer strikeouts (and not more) because, arguably, fewer strikeouts mean fewer pitches. Which is to say: Rizzo and Rigs are not so worried about a “McDougald moment” (there’s nothing anything can do about that), they’re worried about a “Score moment” — when a young pitcher throws that one pitch that (cumulatively) snaps that tendon and sends a good arm into early retirement.

Still, Strasburg’s first three outings are not only historic, they’re in the Herb Score/Dwight Gooden range. And better. Strasburg has 41 strikeouts in just 25.1 innings and sports a 1.78 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. He’s averaging 14 strikeouts per nine. That’s better than Score (9.7 per nine) or Gooden (11.4 per nine) or Wood (12.6 per nine). In fact, it’s unheard of. So logically (arithmetically), Strasburg could slap aside Gooden’s ’84 record if he could pitch as many innings (Gooden pitched 218). He won’t. St. Stephen would likely shrug all of this off (as he has, and consistently), by saying that baseball is about winning, not personal records. That’s refreshing (and true), but baseball fans are nuts about statistics not simply because records are there to be broken, but because numbers tell us important things about players. And Strasburg’s statistics tell us that, at least to this point, St. Stephen is a Score/Gooden/Wood once-in-a-generation pitcher.

Duo In The Sun

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Washington Nationals fans, all agog over new team ace Stephen Strasburg, have come back to earth. That reality is reflected in team blogs, in newspaper reports — and in the young phenom’s own judgment. In a classic pitcher’s duel, Strasburg went head-to-head against Kansas City’s Brian Bannister, whose command of the strike zone and an up-and-down-in-and-out fastball and curve made the difference in the game. The result was a 1-0 Royals’ win, albeit with a dink and dunk, Texas leaguer contest in which the Monarchs refused to fold and (over the course of nine innings) slapped out nine hits. Strasburg lost the game, but took the booby prize: he eclipsed Herb Score’s strikeout record for the first four games of an MLB career — Score had 40 strikeouts in his first four, Strasburg had 41.

Jim Riggleman praised Strasburg, but there was a back handed caveat: “This time he was really good. The other times, he’s been spectacular,” the skipper said in his post game comments. Riggleman also took note of the difficulty of taking on the Royals’ order, a deceptively productive line-up that produces serial singles and station-to-station runs — if not wins. “The Royals have the highest batting average [in major league baseball] and Stephen competed with less than his best stuff today. They know how to hit.” Former Nats outfielder Jose Guillen was more specific: “He still has a little to learn about how to pitch in certain counts,” Guillen said. “He got me 1-2 or something and threw me a fastball right down the middle.” Those who sat through the sweltering oven of a game will add this — that Brian Bannister, lacking the Strasburg fastball (and slider, and change, and hook for that matter), won the duel, pitching six complete and giving up five hits. Bannister walked two (Strasburg none), but the final tally told the tale. When the Nats needed hits, Bannister shut them down.When the Royals needed hits, they got them.

Despite the loss, Strasburg remains the ace of the staff, garnering praise from teammates and opponents alike. It’s not everyday that your manager calls you a “treasure” (a descriptive used by Jim Riggleman in a post game interview), or that your teammates are lavish in their support. Ryan Zimmerman has, at least lately, been outspoken in his support and it seems that Pudge Rodriguez actually seems to like the kid. It shows that Strasburg is starting to fit in — not an insignificant challenge for a 21-year-old who just arrived and needs to show that he can not only pitch, but wants to win. He seems to have convinced the doubters, if there ever were any. This morning Tom Boswell reported that Strasburg summarily dismissed a reporter who asked about an auction of his rookie card on eBay. “Let’s focus on the game,” Strasburg said. “It was a tough loss for us.”

That kind of comment has to bring a sigh of relief to Riggleman and Rizzo, who have focused a lot of their attention on building a united clubhouse, which (at least in baseball) is a minimal condition for building a winning team. Gone now too (we hope) is all this talk of whether Strasburg should be an All Star, that he deserves to have his name mentioned among the NL’s probables — who might well constitute the best group of senior circuit starters in many years: Jimenez, Halladay, Lincecum, Carpenter, Pelfry, Hudson, Latos, Johnson, Wainwright, Cain, Oswalt and Silva. That’s a veritable gaggle of greatness. If Wednesday’s rare-back-and-throw hot-as-a-firecracker duel in the sun proves anything it’s that Strasburg is not there. Yet.

Nats End Slump, 2-1

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Monday’s 2-1 win at Nationals Park may be taken as “Exhibit #1” that pitching — good pitching — wins ballgames. While the Nationals squeezed out only three hits against the more-than-mediocre Bruce Chen (et. al.), Livan Hernandez mastered the Royals line-up through seven complete innings, scattering eight hits and striking out five. The Nats relied on the long ball, with super-sometime-starter Mike Morse and second sacker Cristian Guzman providing the fireworks. The victory was closed out by Washington’s “Clipp & Save” crew of Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps — who notched his 21st save. Nats starter Livan Hernandez returned to his winning ways, and his by now traditional slow-slower-slowest methods — a turnaround from his last outing against the Kalines in which he was scorched. “I left the ball up a little bit, but the slider was working very well,” Hernandez said after his victory. “The cutter was working perfectly. I had a bad game in Detroit, so today I knew I had to come through and stop the losing streak.”

The Wisdom Of Section 1-2-9: There’s a familiar touch that comes from sitting in the same section, game after game after game. It’s not like you’d want to live with these people, but after ten games (or more), you learn to value the comments of your section. Or not, as the case may be. There are times when you want to turn around, facing the guys in the row behind you and say: “Hey listen, I understand that your sale of software is important, but Gavin Floyd is pitching a great game here. Not to mention Strasburg.” You don’t do it, because people come to the ballpark for all kinds of reasons, some of them apparently having nothing to do with baseball. There’s no legislating intelligence, as they say. Still, there are those valuable moments that only a new set of eyes can see. A fan looked over my shoulder, two weeks ago, as I was scoring. “Remember, there’s no RBI on a run scored on a double play,” he said. I looked down at my score book, eraser poised. Mmmmm. Right.

“Nyjer’s act is wearing thin,” a 1-2-9 partisan said this week. A man two rows up leaned forward: “Tony Plush!” — which brought groans from down the row. The guy next to me weighed in. “He has trouble with a fastball, it’s all this dink and dunk stuff, bringing the bat down to bunt and pulling it back. That’s a clear message — he can’t catch up to the fastball. And he doesn’t read pitchers well.” There was silence through the next inning, until Morgan came to bat. He faked a bunt to third, running down the first base line. Strike two. One pitch later he was on the bench. Heads turned, checking his BA on the scoreboard. .251. “So what do we do?” Silence, and then this: “Center field is Bernadina’s natural position and Morse needs playing time.” A dissent was issued, one row back, where talk of software had been ceded to the game on the field. “We wouldn’t be saying this last year.” Two batters later, the response came, from a bright new Nats Cap three seats away. “We were a different team last year. Last year Nyjer Morgan looked like our salvation. This year he looks like a .251 hitter.” True.

“A lot of leash with John . . .”

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman made sure the press knew: John Lannan would remain in Washington’s starting rotation, had every right to be there, and would soon enough return to the good old days — when he led the Washington rotation. “I believe in John,” Riggleman said after Sunday’s 6-3 loss at the hands of Chicago’s White Sox. “There has to be something there because he has it in the bullpen. He’ll get the ball sinking. He just haven’t been able to do it in game situations. John has been too good for us to let a few starts detour us too much. We have a lot of leash with John.” Lannan was undoubtedly pleased with the vote of confidence from his manager: he failed to get out of the fifth inning for his third start in a row, yielding 11 hits and five runs in four innings of work — his worst inning coming after the Nats gained their first lead in the Chicago series.

Lannan’s troubles reflects his team’s troubles. Ryan Zimmerman is in a funk at the plate, Josh Willingham’s numbers of cratering and the get-on-base top of the order is failing to get on base. For all of that, the Nats’ front office seems unfazed — with no one scrambling impatiently to right the listing ship. Skipper Riggleman, in particular, seems willing to wait out the recent slump, counting on his hitter-heavy line-up and a bevy of young arms to set things right. “It’s just not happening for us right now. We are struggling,” Riggleman said in the wake of the Nats sixth straight loss. “Everybody in the locker room knows it. We are sticking together, though, and we are going to pass the character test. The character gets tested sometimes and we are getting tested right now.”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Jim Kurtzke over at Nationals Daily News details the problems the Nats will have in their starting rotation without a solid Lannan. Kurtzke points out that 2010 was to be a transition year for the rotation, with Lannan slotted as a solid number 3 behind Strasburg and a healthy Zimmermann. And now? His reflections are well worth reading . . . Federal Baseball spends five minutes with Tyler Clippard — and finds out what makes the Nats’ reliever tick. Clippard is a fan of Washington fans. “The fans here in Washington have been great so far ever since I stepped foot in this organization, and being in the big leagues here,” Clippard says, “even last year when we were losing a bunch the fans were still great to us as players and stuff . . .” It sounds like Clippard would rather be here than anywhere else. The big righty extols the talents of pitch-caller Ivan Rodriguez and fellow set-up wizard Drew Storen . . . It’s good to see that we’re not the only ones feeling our age. Nationals Fanboy Looser (former newspaperman Mike Harris) remembers watching a 1962 tilt at the Polo Grounds in a tribute to Father’s Day. It’s a nice reminder of what baseball was like back before the Peloponnesian War . . . Nats 320 outdid themselves with a detailed look at Sunday’s game, along with a series of in-game photos. They write that the Nats’ slump is a team effort and point out that the Nats-Royals tilt on Monday night will be the first time that the Nats and Royals have matched up since the Nationals became the Nationals in 2005 . . .

Peavy Swats Nats

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

There is a pattern here: when the Nats get hitting, they can’t seem to get pitching; and when they get pitching, their bats go silent. That pattern seemed particularly pertinent on Saturday, as the Nats frustrations with the lumber reached epic proportions — or perhaps it was the pitching of Chicago righty Jake Peavy. South Side Jake held Nats’ bats to just three hits, leading our home town nine to their fifth straight loss in a 1-0 skunking at Nationals Park. Peavy was absolutely masterful, better than he’s been since coming to Chicago in last year’s trade for young pitchers and the best he’s been for several years. Peavy threw 107 pitches, 71 for strikes. The closest the Nats came to scoring was in the 1st and the 9th, but the Nats left a runner stranded at second both times, squandering an opportunity to score.

The Nats’ nominee for futility infielder went to Ryan Zimmerman, who struck out four times against the Big Shoulder, who pitched his first complete game of the season. “Today I don’t know if Peavy beat me. He practically kicked my ass. But it’s going to happen,” Zimmerman said after the game. The Nats are now officially in a team slump: their internet site notes that the team has scored only 11 runs in the last five games — and struck out 51 times. Only Adam Dunn seems to be hitting the ball squarely. But it’s hard to blame the Nats for Saturday’s loss: Peavy looked like the Cy Young contender he was in San Diego. “It was pretty fun,” Peavy said. The White Sox are on a five game winning streak, and are 7-1 over their last eight games. They are only one game under .500 — putting them within striking distance of the division leading Minnesota Twins.

Full Metal Jacket: A reader in Bowie (in Maryland, as I recall) writes that our talk of trading for a second pitcher is “a fantasy indulgence,” and adds that “no one in their right mind would trade Dan Haren or Cliff Lee for what you’ve got in your farm system. If they did, they’d be shot.” He finishes with this: “That’s not true for Kevin Millwood. Why wasn’t he on your list?” Well, now that you mention it, Millwood is on our list. And we’re betting that the O’s would take some prospects — as they face a top-to-bottom house cleaning either before the July 31 trade deadline, or in the off-season. Millwood might be a good addition: he won his first game yesterday in San Diego and remains a hard thrower. But he’s not the future . . .

And we would add the intriguing Jason Hammel to our list — particularly after Troy Tulowitzki’s injury this week. Tulo went down with a broken wrist and will be gone a full 60 days . . . or more. The Rockies will move Clint Barmes to shortstop and work rookie Chris Nelson in at second. The Rockies smile and shrugg and feign shock when reporters wonder whether a Barmes-Nelson duo will work. It’s a show: Barmes can’t hit and Nelson is untested.  Tulowitzki is damn near irreplacable, true, but that doesn’t mean you have to sub for him with a once-upon-a-time veteran and a who-knows rookie. Particularly when you’re contending in the NL West — and looking up the skirts of the Friars, Trolleys and McCoveys. The Rockies could use Cristian Guzman and perhaps a young starter, or both.

Floyd Duels Strasburg, Masters Nats

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

You can see the effect that Nationals’ pitcher Stephen Strasburg is having on baseball: the Nationals are selling out the park, his presence increases road attendance by some 25 percent, the Anacostia Nine are gaining increased nationwide television attention, MLB Network and “Baseball Tonight” commentators are oohing and ahhing about his pitch selection and — oh yeah, opposing pitchers regularly throw way over their abilities when he’s the opponent. Case in point? Gavin Floyd, the otherwise substandard (2-7, 5.20 ERA) down-in-the-rotation starter for the A.L. South Siders, who matched St. Stephen in his recent Friday night outing, throwing baffling breaking balls and eyebrow level 95 mph heaters. The Express fanned ten (count ’em) black-and-whites over seven innings, but Floyd lasted another inning and mastered Washington’s new hitless non-wonders. In the end, while the MLB Network did “look ins” of the Orioles-Friars tilt (and cameras snaps pics of Barack Obama watching his team), the Nats dropped a beautifully played (and pitched) game: 2-1.

In the game’s disappointing wake (disappointing for Nats fans who root for the home team ever as much as for “the Acela”) the talk was of Strasburg’s use of the change-up — and Floyd’s wizardry: “I just try to focus on what I can do,” Floyd said modestly. “You can’t control or think about what [Strasburg’s] doing. You go out there and put up zeroes and give your team a chance to win.” Jim Riggleman, who is as concerned with wins and losses as he is with the development of the team’s “hope for the future” (a characteristic he shares with his youthful phenom, whose focus remains on helping the Nats win) gave Floyd his due, thereby qualifying for this week’s CFG award for understatement. “He [Floyd] was real tough,” Riggleman said. “He’s got a good arm. He was a real challenge and we couldn’t get much going against him.” That’s for sure.

While Floyd threw up-and-down and in-and-out (106 pitches, 70 strikes!), and St. Stephen matched him pitch-for-pitch (or was it the other way around?), the two Nats who seemed to get a bead on the ChiSox righty were Roger Bernadina and Adam Dunn, who battled Gavin through every at bat. But the Nats could never string together a rally that would give them a win. The difference in the game came in the 11th, when a diving Ryan Zimmerman lofted a ball just over the outstretched glove of Adam Dunn, plating Mark Kotsay from third with the winning run. The Nats went quietly in the bottom of the 11th.  “It was a tough play, tough game,” Zimmerman said. “Stras threw great. It was a good baseball game.” True enough. But another loss, alas, which brings the Nats solidly into last place in the NL East and looking desperately for a win to match the surging Phils, Braves and Mets.