Archive for July, 2010

Not A Dunn Deal

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

The best move the Washington Nationals made before the trading deadline was the one they didn’t. As the witching hour struck 4:00 pm, the Nationals front office didn’t budge — and thereby decided that keeping a fan-popular 35-to-40 home runs per year hitter in D.C. was better than moving him to Chicago for a sometimes-very-good and sometimes just so-so righthander. The news that Adam Dunn was staying in D.C. began to circulate 60 minutes before the deadline, with a variety of sports reporters (including SI’s Jayson Stark) saying that Dunn was staying put. Even so, there seems little doubt there was a last minute attempt to land the Nats bopper: the Pale Hose dangled newly acquired righty Edwin Jackson (the Nats wanted Jackson and prospects), while the Giants inquired about Dunn but thought the price (Jonathan Sanchez) was too steep.

Nationals’ G.M. Mike Rizzo was always hesitant to deal Dunn, the centerpiece of a formidable 3-4-5 line-up that features Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham. Even talk of trading Dunn caused consternation, with Zimmerman saying flatly that it would be a mistake to break-up the trio. Apparently team president Stan Kasten agreed. According to the MLB Network, Kasten (a Dunn partisan) met privately with the first baseman on Friday night to reassure the slugger that the Nats were doing everything they could to retain him. One of MLBN’s commentators described Kasten as “tearful” during his one-on-one talk with Dunn. Over at Nationals Daily News, Mike Henderson quotes Mike Rizzo as saying that the Nats “never got a deal that we thought was equal or greater value to Adam Dunn.” Good. There arn’t many every day major leaguers who can hit 35 to 45 home runs each year.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We here at CFG always attempt to respond to the flood of correspondence we receive from our dedicated readers. A recent missive upbraided us for our lack of coverage on the before game problems of what’s-his-name. “Dear editor:  Three days later, how could CFG not write a single word about the biggest Nats story of the year — Stephen SoreArm?  Are you and your staff covering the team or not?  At least offer a little commentary, or insight, or historical perspective on similar injuries . . . If nothing else, think about your foreign readers and their need-to-know…….. Sincerely, A concerned reader.” Hmmm. Point taken.

Okay, so here goes: we stayed away from “the kid’s” arm issue because, honestly, we don’t have a damn thing to add to what is already being said. Except that, oh yeah, we are attempting to sort through two conflicting views: that with a $15 million investment it’s hard to blame the Nats front office for playing it safe and (second), having said that we know that the very best way to protect “Stephen SoreArm” is not to pitch him at all. Put another way, we couldn’t decide between “phew, good move” and “oh c’mon.” Mmmmmm: whaddawegonnado? There’s an idea abroad in the land of baseball that today’s pitchers just aren’t as tough as the old codgers who used to pitch complete games and go entire careers without a complaint. The Warren Spahn-Juan Marichal game is cited as an example of this toughness.

But polemicists for this viewpoint fail to add that the era before rotator cuff surgery and bone chip removal is littered with the bodies of young hurlers who blew out their arms and had no recourse to bone marrow scoops or ligament replacement surgery. We here at CFG know one, for sure — who (designated as a power arm in the Kansas City A’s  rotation of 1959) blew out his arm and ended up coaching high school football. He had no choice. The reason we didn’t hear much about arm trouble in the good old days is that once you had arm trouble you had two choices — you could wait it out, or you could quit. Most times, you were simply finished. Which is to say: arm toughness isn’t the rule, it’s the exception and if there’s anything that can be done to save a young pitcher’s young arm early in his career, why then that ought to be done. The Nats are doing that and will continue to do that. But with this caveat: while the Nats have made an investment in Stephen Strasburg, they’ve also made an investment in winning baseball in D.C. Weighing the two is the challenge.

Duck Duck Goose

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

I thought it only appropriate that “the loyal opposition” should return at precisely the moment that my first date in Washington (here she is, and take a good look) arrived for our lovely evening. And if by “lovely evening” you mean watching the Washington Nationals and turning their victory into fake reporting then you’re right: but I have no choice but to do this in my current state. This CFG thing, this new-wave-inter-net “we’re down with the twitter blog,” is struggling, really struggling, so I just know that most of this blog’s readership revolves around my pen. And for the benefit of you all, here finally is a picture of me . . .

Tonight Roy Oswalt was out for a stroll with his new team –11 million dollars in tow — when, out of the blue: it’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . no, no, no — it’s the most interesting man in the world. Nyjer Morgan!  Nyjer who? In his first at bat, Morgan hit the ball 400 feet into the center-right gap, flipped off his helmet as he sped around second base, and went totally horizontal, belly first, into third. Nyjer Morgan? It was like watching lightning strike on a clear day. Former Astro Oswalt was so confused by the entire thing he had to pay someone to tell him who it was that just did that to him. “What the hell is going on! Who is that guy on third?” It’s Nyjer Morgan, channeling Ricky Henderson. “Naw, can’t be.”

Morgan wasn’t the only Nats superhero “lifting tall buildings” on Friday night. Adam Kennedy arrived in the clubhouse before the Phillies game to find Cristian Guzman’s assistant sitting (morose and weeping) in the Nationals’ locker room. Kennedy got the message — in the first inning (and with “Rickey” Morgan on third) he hit the ball hard enough to the right side (just as he was instructed) to allow Morgan to lope across the plate: Nats 1, Phillies 0. Oswalt was even more confused — “what the  . . .” But “The Miracle on Half Street” continued. Roger Bernadina began his night by gunning out a sprinting Oswalt at first. Oh, and Craig Stammen was lights out: hitting spots, keeping his pitch count low and quietly sauntering from the mound, as if he was Greg Maddux. Oswalt wasn’t the only one surprised. As I sat watching this team’s Friday night tidal wave I could only repeat Oswalt’s words — “Who the hell are these guys . . .”

Don’t misunderstand: I’ve been watching this team with vigor, knowing that on a good day they’re only mediocre. It’s a self-inflicted baseball passion. They lallygag, throw the ball over the dugout, crash into each other, slam into outfield walls, miss the cutoff man — and their “phenom” pitcher can’t go past the All Star break. It’s fantastic fun. I expected the same on Friday against the Citizens Bank Bullies. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Nats showed up to play and made glue of the Ponies, embarrassing Oswalt and frustrating Rollins and Howard and the rest of them. So . . .  what happened? The answer is obvious: Mike Rizzo is a psycho. The proof is this photo of Rizzo sitting in Jim Riggleman’s office as players arrived for Friday’s game.

More specifically, on Friday afternoon (just hours before Miss Iowa and the Phillies showed up in Washington), Mike Rizzo decided he’d had enough of his team’s mediocre performance, and that it was time to play “duck, duck, goose.” In “Rizzo Land” the game is not as simple as it was when I was a kid, but it’s the same concept: you line up the players (in any old order) and you raise your right hand and go down the line — “in, in, traded . . . in, in, traded . . .” You only change your tune when you get to Morgan: “in, in . . . and if you don’t hit a triple Morgan, I swear to God you’ll be spending August in Oakland.” Message received. The only player not really frightened by this show of Rizzo passion was Ryan Zimmerman . . . and “the kid.” Even Adam Dunn was included. As for the rest of them. Well, we might have seen the fear in Morgan’s eyes: Rizzo’s antics was placing his bobblehead night in jeopardy. Rizzo didn’t care: “do something Nyjer, or I swear we’ll woodchip those things.”

The Mike “Corleone” Rizzo, “Duck, Duck, Goose” is more than just a cute kids’ game — it’s like rendering someone to Burma for “questioning.” It’s more like playing in the Olympics for Iraq. Okay, I admit. It could be that the appearance of Katie Conners helped to spark Friday night’s outbreak of unusual excellence, but I really doubt it. For as this mammoth publication goes to press, the Nationals are fast becoming a new team. And it’s because of their general manager. They’re getting better, a lot better, and they’re doing it quickly.

The word in baseball is that you can always get a closer and Rizzo showed that this week as he dealt Matt Capps to Minnesota. And you can always deal, at the very last minute, a slap-hitting veteran infielder for a handful of prospects, especially if the other team’s All Star second sacker ends up on the DL. As Cristian Guzman learned. Adam Dunn may be next: or maybe not. But the truth it, it doesn’t really matter. Mike Rizzo — the Washington Nationals’ true fearless leader — is playing “duck, duck, goose” in the clubhouse. And he’s made it clear to those who are staying with the team: “play hard and play hard now  – – – or you’ll be shaking your head somewhere else a year from now and wondering where it all went wrong.

Sad But True . . .

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The biggest Nats news on Thursday was not the welcome pitching performance of Nats starter Scott Olsen, but the departure of Nats closer Matt Capps — who packed his bags for Minneapolis, where he will join the perennially in-the-hunt Twinkies. The sad-but-true baseball news cycle is likely to remain that way for at least the next 24 hours, as teams jockey to land needed pitching and hitting help before the coming of the trade deadline. Poor Scott: his more than modest triumph over the Braves (giving the Nats a series win, and a boost in confidence) was shoved down the Nats’ homepage after the announcement that Capps was no longer the Nats closer — and shoved further down the page by the appearance of an article extolling the virtues of Wilson Ramos, a Twins catching prospect with “a positive upside.” Capps was not surprised by the trade and praised the Nationals’ organization. “The Washington Nationals and everyone involved have been absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “It’s something that I will remember for a long time. I certainly enjoyed my time. Now, I have to focus on moving forward and helping the Minnesota Twins.”

Scott Olsen is not likely to be the last Nats shoved down the page by bigger news — the Nats are reported to be interested in acquiring D-Backs starter Edwin Jackson, which would necessitate a trade of Nats power hitter Adam Dunn to the White Sox, who are willing to deal prospects to Arizona to make Jackson available. In truth, that deal may be finalized by the end of the day, as it was just reported that the Pale Hose have finalized their trade for Jackson. Which could mean, of course, that Nats starter Craig Stammen, and his appearance opposite newly acquired pony starter Roy Oswalt, would be today’s second story. The line-up for the Stammen-Oswalt tilt would give Nats fans something to talk about besides who will replace Capps (it’s going to be a committee or relievers, apparently), as Jim Riggleman would begin to shift players (like Michael Morse) into positions that would reflect how the team views its last 62 games. Bottom line? The sad-but-true events of Thursday are now likely to be followed by the even sadder departure of fan favorite Dunn — and the break-up of the 3-4-5 slots in a formidable Nats batting order.

Hudson Too Tough For Nats

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

While the rest of baseball talks about the brilliance of Ubado Jimenez, the power of Tim Lincecum, the sheer speed of Josh Johnson and the savvy of Chris Carpenter, Braves fans have consistently extolled the virtues of Tim Hudson — who they claim should be in the running for the N.L. Cy Young Award. On Tuesday night the Nats found out why. Using a mix of up-in-the-zone fastballs and well-placed sinkers, the Braves righty subdued the Nationals in pitching his team to a 3-1 victory at Nats Park. Hudson is now 10-1 in his career against Washington. “For whatever reason, I’ve been able to go out and throw the ball pretty well against these guys and make pitches,” Hudson said of his mastery of the Nats. “It’s not to say next time I pitch against these guys I won’t be backing up third all night. But it does feel good to know you have a history with some success against a team, just for your confidence.”

How good is Hudson? From July of ’08 until just two weeks ago, Hudson reeled off a string of 27 consecutive quality starts. Nats fans might remember that, in one of the best pitching match-ups of the year (at Nats Park at the end of June), Hudson and Stephen Strasburg went head-to-head, with Hudson and the Braves ending up on top. In that duel, Strasburg provided 6.1 innings of stellar hurling, throwing 92 pitches, 57 of them for strikes. Hudson was better, and a model of what everyone here thinks Strasburg could become — Hudson threw 113 pitches, 73 of them for strikes. In that game, Hudson’s two seam sinker led to 12 groundouts, which is exactly the same number that he got last night. “His sinker is so good that you have to respect it,” Adam Dunn said after last night’s loss. “When he’s throwing it down and throwing it for strikes, it’s a long day like it was today.”

Miss Iowa Asks: We don’t usually participate in these kinds of things, but what-the-heck. Since Miguel Batista’s ill-fated comment on his surprise outing against the Braves on Monday (“Imagine,” he said, “if you go there to see Miss Universe — and you end up having Miss Iowa”), we’ve come up with our own ideas on an appropriate role for the pride of Bettendorf (A Premier City and home of “The Bulldogs“) — Katherine Conners. Since Batista has been invited to be a judge at the next “Miss Iowa” beauty pagaent, it seems only appropriate that “Katie” come to Washington to throw out the first pitch in a ballgame, with Miguel catching. That might bring in a fan or two. Katie could then sit-in for Rob Dibble in the MASN broadcast booth (“spontaneous demonstrations broke out in Oceana today”) and (since she’s thrown “a pitch or two”), add her two cents on what Jim Riggleman might do to improve the team’s play. MASN could promote it as a “new segment” for their broadcast. They could call it “Miss Iowa Asks.”

Katie would undoubtedly have the same questions we do: “Now, Mr. Riggleman (ooooh, you are a handsome man), but I mean why do you insist on starting Willie Harris? I mean, gee willikers, Mr. Harris is a nice man and all (okay, a little short but anyway, nevermind, I mean, well, nevermind), but as I understand it he’s hitting below some kind of line and that’s not good. Anyway, I mean criminy you can just bet that the coach of the Bettencourt Bulldogs wouldn’t start Willy. No siree. He’d start that nice handsome boy Michael Morse, I’d just bet that that’s what he’d do. Totally. I mean, Michael is totally rad. You know, I’ve noticed, that Michael Morse can really stroke the ball (is that the phrase, I can’t remember, oh well, but he’s a way better hitter), and really Mr. Riggleman we need to do something. I mean, I like Mr. Harris and all — oh, and that reminds me: is he a relative of yours? Because this is getting grodie. He’s hitting .184. .184! I mean, duh. Because I don’t understand (and I know, I don’t really know as much as you do) why in blue blazes (oops, sorry, I didn’t mean to say that) that you’d start him. Oh well, anyway. Whatever. I mean, I don’t want to be a stressorama or anything, but you know. Why? Why start Willie Harris? You think he’s going to get better. I mean, like, no way. And that’s all I have to say — I mean, like whatever.”

Batista Is No “Miss Iowa,” But . . .

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

He’s Plenty Good Enough: Journeyman Miguel Batista got the nod last evening when Mike Rizzo pulled Stephen Strasburg from his starting role due to shoulder stiffness. The 40,000-plus fans at the ballpark, had they had their eyes closed, might not have noticed the difference. Batista gave up just three hits in five innings with six strikeouts and only one walk as he led the Nats to a 3-0 win over the Braves.

At first greeted by the boo birds when his name was announced as starting pitcher in place of Strasburg, he left the fans smiling when he departed after the fifth frame. In a post-game interview he was asked about the chorus of boos but Batista was nonplused.  “Imagine if you go to see Miss Universe, then you end up having Miss Iowa,” he said,  “you might get those kind of boos.” I’m not sure Miss Iowa gets many boos, but we’ll take his point.

Batista hadn’t started a game since his dismal 2008 season in Seattle when he went 4 – 14. Often times when little is expected of you the pressure is off and good things can happen. Such was the case last night when the 39-year-old took the ball, ate some innings and gutted out a win. The DR native is on the last legs of a 16-year career but on one beautiful night in Washington he recaptured the form that helped lead the 2001 D-Backs to the Series.

Nats Swept In Milwaukee

Monday, July 26th, 2010

The Washington Nationals lost to the Milwaukee Brewers 8-3 on Sunday, a game that marked their third loss in a row — giving the Brew Crew a sweep of the series and a 4-2 edge in the season match-up. As now seems common with every Nationals loss, the team was victimized by unwanted errors, poor starting pitching and a lack of timely hitting. The game featured the long-awaited return of lefty Ross Detwiler, who was sidelined by a hip injury. Detwiler’s  2010 debut was marred early on, when Willie Harris — subbing for Ryan Zimmerman at third — failed to handle a ground shot off the bat of Alcides Escobar. The error kept the Brewers alive in the inning and led to the plating of two unearned runs. A fourth inning error by rookie shortstop Ian Desmond also proved to be costly. “We have to play a lot cleaner baseball. It’s ridiculous,” Harris said after the game. “We have to catch the ball and throw the ball. We have to take the pressure off our pitchers. We need to do a better job.”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Radio play-by-play guru and semi-legend Bob Uecker is the perfect announcer for the Brew Crew — with patented deadpan humor and self-deprecating remarks that dodge the seemingly endless semi-lectures that mark the Nats’ television broadcasts. His cornball comments play well in Wisconsin’s polka (that’s polka, not poker) parlors, where third generation Polish Americans sip German beer and wonder when the mill will reopen. “I inherited a castoff computer,” Uecker announced in the midst of the Brewers Saturday broadcast. “It’s so old there’s a guy under my desk with a crank . . .” (gales of laughter) . . . Uecker tends to use the word “folks” alot, but his we’re-all-in-this-together approach (which would surely flop in Washington), works well with Wisconsin’s diehard Packers, Bucks, Badgers and Brewers fans. When Ryan Braun homered on Saturday, Uecker retailed his common long-ball excitement — “get out, get out, get outta here and gone” (with a slight hesitation before his next I’m-from-the-middle-of-the-country utterance) — “Wow!” And then this: “Let me tellya folks, you go around baseball and you ask anyone about Ryan Braun they”ll tellya one thing. The guy can hit.” Through it all you’d never guess that the Brewers were struggling to stay alive in the N.L. Central, that their pitching staff is a shambles, and that their marquee player is headed out of town . . .

The 75-year-old Uecker had heart surgery on April 30 and his return to the announcing booth in Milwaukee was much anticipated. But during this weekend’s Nats series, Uecker downplayed his health problems and seemed even a little embarrassed when his doctor’s were tapped to throw out the first pitch on Friday — the beginning of the Nats’ series. “It’s good to see these guys without white smocks on,” he said. “Especially when the last time I saw them the smocks were smeared with my blood . . . ” (gales of laughter). On Sunday he noted that his doctor’s might have “done something wrong” during the operation. “They tied up something inside there and, frankly, I think it’s a little off,” he deadpanned. “Now when I raise my left leg my right arm shoots into the air. When I walk down the street people think I want to shake their hand.” But Uecker’s humor masks this blunt truth: he’s a sophisticated announcer with a talent for parsing baseball’s inner game. He presents it in blunt Americanisms– curves aren’t “curves” they’re “benders,” hitters don’t hit, they “smack” or “nurse” the “sphericals” and relievers never “struggle,” they’re “wobbly.” If there’s another way to describe someone as big or small Uecker will find it, as he did in describing Adam Dunn. “How do you not hear this guy coming?” he asked. Then later: “He loves to fish. So I’m going to strap a 9 horse on him and shove him out into the lake. We can stand on him when we fish.” Uecker likes Dunn, whose visit to him on Saturday has occasioned some comment in D.C. Uecker gave it just the right touch. “We had to put another battery in the elevator just to get him up here,” he said.

Nats Fall To Seligs

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Nats bench bat and right fielder Michael Morse slammed two home runs and drove in four, but the Washington Nationals fell to the Milwaukee Brewers 7-5 on Friday night. The game might well have come down to one play: with two outs in the fifth inning (and with Craig Stammen providing a solid outing), shortstop Ian Desmond failed to throw out a sprinting Alcides Escobar at first. Escobar then took second and scored on an up-the-middle single from pitcher Chris Narveson. The Escobar single shifted the game’s momentum, with Narveson eventually scoring on a Jim Edmonds’ single. The Desmond play, had it been made, would have ended the fifth with a Nats’s lead of 5-1 and left Stammen cruising into the sixth. “I think Desmond made a great play to get to the ball,” Jim Riggleman later said. “Escobar hit it sharp. Desmond may have had a little more time. Escobar runs well. That’s baseball. It’s still two outs, man on first and the pitcher is hitting. We have to put that inning away.”

But the Nats didn’t put the inning away — and the Brewers rallied for two runs against Tyler Clippard in the sixth before Edmonds lofted a home run against Sean Burnett in the seventh. The bullpen collapse is particularly worrisome, as it repeats a pattern that has seen Tyler Clippard struggling to find the form that made him one of the best middle relievers in the season’s first three months. “It’s about the third time we have gone through that with Clippard,” Riggleman said after the loss. “We give him a couple of games and boy, here he goes again. He is looking good. Today, he had great momentum striking out Fielder. I felt, ‘OK , that’s huge,’ but [then] he walked Casey McGehee. Again, that gives them the opportunity to think, ‘Hey, we are one swing away.'” Clippard’s ERA continues to slip: he is now at 3.45 for the season. At the end of June, Clippard’s ERA stood at 2.20.

The Team That Bud Built: While MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is a much derided figure among large numbers of baseball fans, it’s hard to find anyone in Milwaukee who openly criticizes him. For good reason: there wouldn’t be baseball in Milwaukee if it weren’t for Selig, whose loyalty to the city assured that it would retain its big league tradition. Selig was a minority owner in the Milwaukee Braves and fought a lonely, but losing battle to keep them from moving to Atlanta, then virtually blackmailed baseball to keep a team in the city by inducing the Chicago White Sox to play twenty games in the abandoned Milwaukee County Stadium in 1968 and 1969. The threat was clear: if the White Sox didn’t start drawing on the south side, Selig would buy them and move them north. But Selig’s bid to buy the Pale Hose in 1969 was blocked by the American League, which was committed to keeping two teams in Chicago. Selig got the booby prize when the league allowed him to purchase the no-account (and bankrupt) Seattle Pilots for $10.8 million and move them east.

Selig’s conviction that baseball could thrive in Milwaukee was much like a second marriage: it was a triumph of hope over experience. The Braves never drew well after their late 1950s success and the city seemed only marginally interested in supporting a major league team in the 1970s. Milwaukee was hit hard by the successive rust belt recessions that stripped jobs from the city’s machine tool and heavy engine manufacturing industries. Thousands of jobs were lost at Milwaukee’s largest plants — Allis-Chalmers, Evinrude, Briggs and Stratton, and Harley-Davidson. The city’s breweries started disappearing in the late 1960s and into the 1970s as Schlitz (“the beer that made Milwaukee famous”), Blatz (“it’s draft brewed Blatz beer, wherever you go”) and Pabst (“it won the blue ribbon”) closed or merged with larger brewers. While Milwaukee’s beer brands have been revived, the old scions of the industry (named for Milwaukee’s most famous German-American families) are gone, gone, gone. By the late 1970s, the miles upon miles of Polish, German and African-American working class neighborhoods were either disappearing or being gentrified.

Selig ignored the evidence, gambling that the city would survive and support a team. It was a lousy gamble, but it has paid off. While the team limped along in the 1970s, Selig (the inheritor of his father’s successful car leasing business), not only inaugurated a marketing program that brought fans into the city from northern Wisconsin, he built a scouting and development team that identified young talent (Robin Yount and Paul Molitor) — mixing them with Milwaukee legends (the Brewers brought Hank Aaron back to Milwaukee for the 1975 and 1976 seasons), that boosted attendance and solidified the Brewers’ identity in the city. While the Brewers were busy winning MLB Organization of the Year awards (seven in all), Selig was becoming an increasingly important figure in the game itself — leading an owners’ revolt against baseball commissioner Fay Vincent and heading up the powerful MLB Executive Council. When Selig replaced Vincent he ceded ownership of the Brewers to his daughter Wendy and in 1994 the team was sold to Mark Attanasio, an out-of-state investment management mogul, for a measly $224 million.

You have to be impressed with “The Team That Bud Built.” While the franchise has never won a World Series, it has consistently outperformed baseball’s expectations, fielding small market boppers like Prince Fielder and filling the seats by building a team that focuses on a mix of Milwaukee’s working class history and Old Europe traditions — from the Archie Bunker-like downscale “wallbangers” to the puzzlingly popular sausage races. It has helped that the Brewers were able to plan and build Miller Park, with a fan shaped convertible roof. Not surprisingly, the Miller Park brand (which runs to 2020 and costs the brewing company $40 million) comes from one of the remaining great (and financially successful) brewing companies of Milwaukee, founded by German immigrant Frank Miller in 1855 and sold by his granddaughter (a temperance advocate) in 1966 — to an international conglomerate. The opening of Miller Park was the last piece of the puzzle for Selig’s plan to make baseball a permanent Milwaukee tradition: the Brewers brought over 3 million fans into the park in 2009 in an urban area that is half the size of Washington.


Livan Tames Reds

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Backed by a ten hit and seven run attack, Livan Hernandez pitched his second complete game of the season, as the Washington Nationals notched a split of their four game series in Cincinnati. The Nats 7-1 victory compensated, at least in part, for the paucity of hits and runs the team suffered in both Miami and Cincinnati over the last seven games. Adam Dunn and Roger Bernadina homered for the Nats, as Nyjer Morgan and Willie Harris finally seemed poised to break out of their respective slumps. But the story on Thursday was the work of Hernandez, who picked up five strikeouts while holding the Reds to just seven hits. Hernandez was masterful: he threw 102 pitches, 79 of them for strikes. The complete game gave the Nats’ bullpen a needed rest, as the team now heads into Milwaukee for a three game set against the suddenly average Brew Crew.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Ralph Houk, who died on Wednesday, was once one of the giants of the game. It’s not that Houk was that good a player — he appeared in only 91 games over eight seasons, but he managed the New York Yankees in 1961, when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris made home run headlines. Houk steered the Yankees through some of their most successful campaigns. Under Houk’s leadership the Yankees won 109, 94 and 104 games — taking two world series (against the Red in ’61 and the Giants in ’62). He went on to manage the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox before becoming a vice president of the Minnesota Twins. He was renowned for his temper, though former Yankees’ testify that he knew how to handle a team. He had enormous influence on future managers Bobby Cox and Tommy Lasorda. “I remember what a tough guy he was,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said upon hearing of his death. But Houk was also a student of the game, showing up hours before the first pitch to study line-ups and statistics.

Houk’s tough guy demeanor was well earned. He had a fearsome temper and was called “the Major,” an affectionate term that also accurately described his wartime experiences. Houk was a minor league catcher in the South Atlantic League when World War Two began. He put down his mitt and was mustered into the army as a private in February of 1942. He was picked for officers’ candidate school at Fort Knox and was deployed to Europe with the 9th Armored Division. Houk was a better soldier than baseball player: he landed at Omaha Beach, served during the Battle of the Bulge and was one of the first American soldiers to cross the Remagen Bridge into Germany. “I sent him on three missions in April of 1945 and one day he returned with nine prisoners of war,” a senior American officer later recalled.  “His reports invariably had an undetermined number of enemy killed.” Houk earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart during the war. To the last day of his life he kept the helmut he had worn as a young lieutenant when he landed on Omaha Beach. It had a bullet hole in it. He died in Florida at the age of 90.

“Prying” Adam Loose

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Adam Dunn hates to talk about trades, hates to even think about them. He’s made it clear — he’s happy in Washington and would like to stay with the Nationals. And Nationals’ General Manager Mike Rizzo agrees: Adam is good for the team, good at the plate, good in the clubhouse and is a plus, plus, plus all the way around. But it’s hard to deny the rumors that the Chicago White Sox are bidding for Dunn and would love to bring him aboard, though at a price they dictate. Rizzo doesn’t deny this. He simply says that the Nationals must be overwhelmed by any offer, which could or would or might include Pale Hose second sacker Gordon Beckham and right fielder home run hitter Carlos Quentin. Or both. The White Sox have recoiled from this, knowing that Beckham is a long term talent and that Quentin is one of the guys that led their surge into contention in the A.L. Central. They would like Rizzo to focus, instead, on accepting a much more modest package that would, could or might include young righty Daniel Hudson (above) and heavy hitting youngster Dayan Viciedo.

There are problems here: Beckham is a young guy who would solve Washington’s problem at second base for years to come, but he’s having a lousy year at the plate (.237, 4 HRs), while Quentin, after a breakout year in 2009 (21 HRs., albeit without a MLB standard BA), is having trouble finding his groove (.244 BA, .344 OBP). But shifting away from Beckham or Quentin also presents problems. Daniel Hudson has a lot of promise, but it’s really only promise and while the young righty’s “upside” (gag) seems good, the Nats know all about “upside.” They need a proven pitcher (right now) who can fill the second (or third, if you count Livan) slot behind “the kid.” Hudson would look good in that spot, or he might end up being John Lannan’s roomy in Harrisburg. Mr. Dayan Perez Viciedo has his own set of challanges: he is a freeswinging Pablo Sandoval (or “kung fu house cat” as one of our readers opined) in the making. This guy couldn’t hit the water if he fell out of a boat. Well, okay — Viciedo is a good hitter and potentially a great hitter and when he does hit it it goes a long, long ways. Translation: Dayan can really hit the ball, but he strikes out a lot. Still . . . still. The simple and blunt truth is that the more that you study Hudson and Viciedo, the more tempting they become.

The White Sox end of this, at least according to Chicago Sun-Times baseball guru Mike Cowley, is that Rizzo is asking for way too much — he’s dangling Dunn like he’s Ryan Howard. The White Sox are hesitant. They’re willing to pay a good price for Dunn, but Chicago G.M. Kenny Williams is simply not willing to part with a package of top prospects and major pieces. He is countering with a package of minor leaguers (probably Hudson and Viciedo), that would keep Beckham and Quentin in Chicago. Pale Hose partisans apparently agree with this strategy, as does the White Sox clubhouse. Williams is just unwilling to trade away parts of a surging squad that has put together one of the more astonishing June and July winning streaks in recent memory. And Rizzo’s attitude? Well, Mike seems to be standing firm. In truth, he’d like to have them all — and much as we love Adam Dunn, we have to agree. We would love to have them all too. But let’s be realistic. A package that would include Hudson, Viciedo and just one of Beckham (which would be our preference) or Quentin is tempting. Very tempting.

“One Long, Losing Slog”

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

The Nats 7-2 loss in Cincinnati on Monday night might have been averted — of only the Nats had hit, pitched and fielded like a major league team. The defeat stretched the Nats losing streak to three games and means that the Nats have now lost six of their last eight. Reaching the .500 mark, which might have been hoped for in April and even in May, now seems a distant and fantastical dream, as the team struggles to find its legs. The losing spiral sparked Washington Post sportswriter Adam Kilgore to describe the Nats season of hope as “one long, losing slog.” That seems about right. So too the team itself seems infected by frustration: “We do have a great lineup. We just can’t get everyone hot at the same time,” Adam Dunn said after he loss. “It seems like we haven’t had two guys hot at the same time. If Guzzie is hot, then me and Zim aren’t hot. And then if Zim is hot, we are not. It’s bad timing, really. I don’t know how else to put it.” Luis Atilano is set to face Cincinnati rookie sensation Mike Leake tonight at The Great American Ballpark.

It’s Not A Motorcycle Baby, It’s A Chopper: On this day in 1958, Tiger’s ace Jim Bunning threw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox, clinching a victory in a 3-0 contest. Bunning seemed to have Boston’s number — he once struck out Ted Williams three times in one game (also in 1958), spurring “The Splendid Splinter” to rip off his jersey (buttons popping) and throw it to the clubhouse floor: “I’ll get you Bunning,” he said and began searching for a schedule to determine when he’d face him again. Baseball legend has it that Williams hated Bunning so much that he would use him as a foil during batting practice, leaning into the ball and swinging as he yelled “here comes Jim Bunning. Jim F — ing Bunning and that little shit slider of his.” Williams little trick didn’t seem to work: Bunning struck out Williams more than any other player.

The key to Bunning’s success was a sidearm slider, a pitch he could control from nearly any angle. It fooled Williams, as it did nearly everyone else. Bunning led the league in strikeouts in 1959 and 1960 (with 201 each year), while gaining a reputation as one of the most durable pitchers around (he was regularly in the top five in the A.L in innings pitched). He never seemed to get injured. The oddest thing about Bunning’s career came after his greatest success: in 1963, the Tigers trades Bunning to the Philadelphia Phillies for veteran outfielder Don Demeter and Jack Hamilton, a fireballing reliever with a lot of promise. It was a forgettable trade, one of the worst in Detroit history. Demeter was just okay, while Hamilton was slowed by arm injuries. While never living up to his promise, Hamilton became a kind of legend: in 1967 he threw a pitch to Boston’s Tony Conigliaro that shattered the upper left side of Conigliaro’s face and ended his career. It also ended Hamilton’s. The fireballer lost his speed after the incident, as well as his willingness to pitch inside. He left baseball and now runs a restaurant in Missouri.

Bunning’s fate was quite different. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1964 as the great new hope — the pitcher who would put the perennial losers at the top of the National League. He damn near did. The Phillies had a great line-up in ’64, led by power hitters Dick Allen and Johnny Callison and a slick defense centered on catcher Clay Dalrymple, second sacker Tony Taylor and slap hitting expert Bobby Wine (another one of those obnoxious little “pepper pots”). Bunning was complemented by starter Chris Short (a pitcher of almost unbelievable promise), Art Mahaffey and Ray Culp. The Tigers might have gotten a hint of the mistake they’d made when Bunning pitched a perfect game against the New York Mets on June 21, and the big righty went on to notch a remarkable 19-8 record.

But if Bunning was a success, his team wasn’t. 1964 was the year of “The Foldin’ Phillies” — as the ponies lost ten in a row and a seven game lead with 17 games to play. Phillies manager Gene Mauch panicked in the midst of this debacle — pitching Bunning in three games in seven days: Bunning lost all of them. Philadelphia dog-paddled its way into second place, while St. Louis passed them at a full sprint. It was the worst fold in major league history, until the Mets eclipsed it in 2007. The Phillies ’64 cataclysm seemed to unhinge the team in the years that followed, haunting Dick Allen’s successors who struggled, and struggled and struggled. But “Big Jim” Bunning continued to thrive, accounting for 70 wins over the next four years. Never mind: the Phils sputtered along, never quite putting it together again until 1980 — when they won a World Series. Their first.

After his stint in Philly, Bunning went on to Pittsburgh and Los Angeles before ending up in the Hall of Fame (it was a vote of the veterans committee that finally confirmed his entry)  and the U.S. Senate, where he now serves as a controversial and conservative voice from Kentucky. He retains the reputation he gained from his years on the mound, as a head hunting foul-mouthed lug whose stock-in-trade was a quickie under the chin — he led the N.L. in hit batters all four of his years in Philadelphia and was widely loathed for his beanball habits. Bunning’s critics say he hasn’t changed: he remains a ramrod straight, if somewhat embarrassing figure. When asked to describe Bunning’s legislative prowess, the late Senator Robert Byrd thought for a minute before issuing his praise: “a great baseball man.” But the people of Kentucky seem to love him, voting him back to his Senate seat every six years. Then too, even if Bunning is as controversial now as he was in Detroit and Philly, there is little doubt that he once threw one of the best, if not the best, slider in the game. At least that’s what Ted Williams thought.