Archive for the ‘Arizona Diamondbacks’ Category

Nats Win Snakes’ Series

Monday, August 16th, 2010

The Nationals defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-3 at Nationals Park on Sunday, taking two games of a three game series. The game marked the second return of Stephen Strasburg following his stint on the D.L., and “the kid” pitched well, despite giving up a home run to Adam LaRoche and making an errant throw to first baseman Adam Dunn. “I was talking to Stephen a little bit ago. He said that it is the best he felt,” Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman said, following the victory. “The ball was coming out of his hand good. Stras did a great job and gave us a chance to win.” The Nats trailed the D-Backs 3-1 into the bottom of the fourth, when slumping Josh Willingham shook loose from his doldrums and launched a pitch off of D-Backs starter Barry Enright to tie the game. The Nats won the game on a single by Ian Desmond, with Ryan Zimmerman providing an insurance homer. Typically, the Nats’ bullpen closed out their opponents, with Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen shutting down the Arizona order.

The Ghost of Kerry Wood: Nats’ fans at the ballpark on Sunday probably didn’t get a chance to see Strasburg’s frustration with being lifted after pitching just five innings, but “the kid” was clearly angered by the move. Strasburg, mouth set and eyes flashing, sat the bench after the end of the fifth inning fuming. At least that’s what the fans at home saw, with Strasburg’s irritation coming in waves through the camera lens. Nats pitching czar Steve McCatty intervened with an explanation, speaking with animation as Strasburg shook his head on the bench. This isn’t the first time that Strasburg has been angered, though he never mentions it in any post game interview. But if Strasburg is angry it’s only because he has a right to be. And he’s not the only one. Jim Riggleman’s reputation as a manager with an early hook is well-earned. He’s got a shepard’s staff as big as Little Bo Peep (oops … well, let’s go with this version) — the result of his time as the manager of the North Side Drama Queens, when he oversaw the 1998 rookie campaign of strikeout king Kerry Wood.

The ghost of Kerry Wood seems ever-present with Riggleman, who coached the Slugs when they were going somewhere and the young Wood was the talk of baseball. The problem was that Wood had a raw elbow, with his ligaments tearing and bleeding everytime he threw. And in 1998, after a stint in the minors when he rarely threw even close to 100 pitches, Wood was carrying the load for a contending team — and throwing 115 to 120 pitches per game. Eventually (after sitting out the ’99 season with surgery, and pitching just so-so over the next three years), the elbow blew itself out for good and Wood, with successive stints in rehab, became a reliever. It was a loss, for Kerry Wood might have been, perhaps could have been (and maybe even should have been), one of the best starters in the game.

Riggleman, Wood’s skipper, blames himself. “If I had it to do over, I would do it differently,” he told the Washington Post back in March. “And we probably wouldn’t have gotten to the playoffs. If I had known what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have pitched him that much, period. But I would have caught a lot of grief. I caught a lot of grief as it was. We lost a lot of games where [Wood] came out after five or six innings. I was getting comments like, ‘C’mon, Riggs, leave him in.'” Wood disagrees: the ripping in his elbow had been happening for several years (he says) and it was bound to explode at some point. It was inevitable. “My elbow was going to go,” Wood told the Post. “If it didn’t go with [Riggleman] it would’ve gone with someone else. It was the way I was throwing, the stuff I had, the torque I was generating. It was a matter of time.”

Which is only to say that there’s a good reason why Jim Riggleman is as careful with Stephen Strasburg as he is. But Riggleman’s decision today — to sit Strasburg after the 5th — struck many fans as overly careful. After all, pitchers strain their arm, or throw out their shoulder, all the time. And not simply because they throw a lot of baseballs, or have a predisposition, or because they’re not on a pitch count. Pitchers blow out their arms because they’re pitchers. Wood understood this: in the end it didn’t matter how many pitches he threw, his “elbow was going to go” anyway. “It was a matter of time.” This is not an argument for having Rizzo, Riggleman & Company allow Strasburg to throw 110 to 120 pitches each and every game. It’s an argument for perspective and practicality — Stephen Strasburg is a pitcher, not a piece of fine China.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s a recognition that Washington Nationals fans aren’t going to show up at the park on Half Street to watch “the kid” throw 70 pitches over five innings — especially when it’s clear that (as happened on Sunday), he’s just starting to hit his stride.

Back In The Win Column

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

Nationals’ starter John Lannan and relief specialist Sean Burnett combined to shut down the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night 4-2, to put the team back in the win column. The badly needed victory followed a disheartening three game set against the Florida Marlins, in which the team was outscored 22-7 and failed to get the pitching necessary to catch the hit heavy Fish in the N.L. East. The 4-2 victory had to be one of the most satisfying of the year, marking the continued comeback of Lannan and an exclamation point to Burnett’s continued mastery (2.72 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 43 innings). “I just feel good out there,” Lannan said after the win. “I feel confident with my stuff. I spent time down [in Double-A] trying to get my two-seam [fastball] back, getting in good position to hide my ball more and being more deceptive. It still is going to get better.” The Nats continue their series against the Showboats on Saturday night, when a struggling Jason Marquis will go to the mound.

The Wisdom of Section 1-2-9: The last Stephen Strasburg outing against the Marlins was unusual in at least three respects. The first is that the stands weren’t full — as they usually are when “the kid” pitches. And it was noticed. “Where the hell is everyone?” There was no answer, but at least one grumpy sigh. “Maybe that other team is playing tonight.” The point was rhetorical — they weren’t . . . The second is that Strasburg did poorly, a disappointment and a distinct surprise for the 25,000-plus who did show. “Amazing,” a Strasburg partisan noted . . . The third seems almost immoral (or perhaps simply disloyal): Strasburg’s early exit against the Marlins spurred an early exit for Nats fans. “It’s not that Strasburg is done,” a Section 1-2-9 loyalist announced while getting up from his seat and averting his eyes, “it’s just that I’ve been here before — I’ve seen him” — and there was a quick nod to Miguel Batista, warming up on the mound . . .

In fact, Batista has been exactly what skipper Riggleman said he would be: an innings eater who can pitch more than three frames per stint. That is to say, his heroism in subbing for “the kid” against Atlanta at the end of July has been quickly forgotten. “Yeah, I loved that,” a season holder noted, “but that was then and this is now. And right now I’m thinking that we need something longer term than ‘Miss Iowa'” . . . “Geeeez,” another said, in referring to Strasburg’s inability to control his breaking stuff, “what the hell do you suppose is wrong?” There was silence for only a heartbeat. “There isn’t anything wrong, it’s just a bad outing. We need to be patient. A career is a long time. There’s going to be bad outings.” The same might be said of the entire team. When the Nats failed to get to Ricky Nolasco (with Livan pitching), there was a palpable discomfort among the section’s more vocal partisans. “So much for 3-4-5,” a fan said, referring to the Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham combination. “This guy [Nolasco] isn’t exactly Cy Young.”

Adam Dunn’s “Approach”

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Adam Dunn may well be the most guileless player in a Nationals uniform. In the wake of his two home run, four RBIs onslaught of the Arizona Diamondbacks last night at Chase Field, Dunn stood in front of his locker answering reporters’ questions. What’s your secret? he was asked. He blinked and looked away, a small smile creasing the corners of his mouth, then faced the questioner. “I just try to get a good pitch to hit and put my bat on the ball,” he said. The gathering seemed somehow unsatisfied with his answer. “On that second home run,” he was asked, “you had a 1-2 count. Were you expecting a fastball? It was a fastball, right?” He reflected for a moment, trying to be helpful. “That second at bat? Yeah, I guess so. Let me think. I’m trying to remember. Yeah, it was a fastball, right? Yeah, I think it was.” And he waited for the follow-up question, but there was none. Another reporter tried a different tack. “So what’s the secret to your recent success?” he asked and added: “You seem to be really hitting the long ball lately.” Dunn nodded. “Well, I just try to get my pitch and then I try to get my bat on it. You know, just hit it hard.”

Dunn is not exactly an apostle of Crash Davis (giving “I’m-just-happy-to-help-the-team” canned answers to the same-old-questions), but that’s hardly a reason to think that the Nats’ big first baseman and batting order centerpiece is a can shy of a six pack. Rather, you get the impression that Dunn dismisses the pseudo-science of hitting, the kind of thing made famous by now discredited BT analyst and former Mets G.M. Steve Phillips. Phillips, and his ilk, are forever windging on about “opening your hips” and “making certain that you keep your head steady” and putting your bat head “through the hitting zone” and “drawing that perfect triangle stance” and blah, blah, blah. All the great hitters follow the Phillips’ mantra except of course for Babe Ruth (and counterless others), who could have cared less about hips and triangles. In fact, the Sultan of Swat damn near had his right foot planted firmly on his left in the box every time he came to the plate. Ruth was sometimes so anxious to hit the ball that he did a mini-Fred Astaire routine, dancing in the box before rearing back and turning himself into a corksrew. He could have cared less about style. Dunn is that way: see the ball, hit the ball. The simpler the better. He was once asked whether he had adjusted his “approach” to compensate for the way pitchers were throwing to him. He smiled: I’m not sure I have an approach to adjust, he said.

We should expect this kind of thing from Dunn who, unlike the rest of us, is more interested in playing baseball than in talking about it. If that is his belief, it’s well-founded. Youth baseball coaches live in fear that their ace 15-year-old pitcher will one day wake up in the 5th inning and realize what he’s doing. This “don’t think just throw” (or, in Dunn’s case, “just swing the bat”) philosophy makes a hell of a lot more sense than demanding that your stellar starter “paint the corners” or that your top drawer banger “open his hips.” (“Hey Babe, I think you should open your hips more.”) Since the passing of the trade deadline (and even before), Dunn is hitting the ball on the screws, launching mammoth blasts against careful opponents — and hence vaulting himself back into the home run lead in the National League. His prodigous hitting has not only produced needed wins (as it did last night in Arizona), it has made him the unacknowledged leader in the Nats’ clubhouse. Granted, Dunn’s mammoth blasts will make it difficult for Mike Rizzo & Company to part with him, either now or after the season, but that’s a problem we can live with. “I really, to be honest, never scratched out a lineup on a napkin without Dunn in there,” Jim Riggleman said on Wednesday night after the Nats victory. Right. So let’s keep it that way.

Is Buck For The Birds?

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

If it weren’t so obviously cruel, we’d take this space to re-baptize the Baltimore Birds the “Showalters” — in the belief that the Orioles of the last twenty years would soon reflect the go-get-’em attitude of their new manager. But even Showalter (a veteran of turnarounds in Arizona, New York and Texas), is willing to admit that it will take more than a new manager to turn around the ailing Orioles: it will take good starting pitching, a revamped bullpen, eight fielders who know their business (and can swing a bat) — and a change in attitude that has been sorely lacking in Baltimore for the last two decades. It will take, as Showalter says, little “golden nuggets” that Showalter will sift out of the detritus that has become Baltimore’s soiled nest. “There isn’t anything too complicated about this,” Showalter said at his introductory news conference. Well, he oughta know.

Showalter comes with a reputation for being a “the ultimate baseball perfectionist” with “a militaristic attention to detail.” Not surprisingly, he’s made some enemies. In his first managing job in New York, Showalter did things his way, to the great irritation of owner George Steinbrenner. Worse yet, back in 1995 — when Steinbrenner put enormous pressure on Showalter to win, he did: but not enough for George. Then too, Showalter was getting more attention than “the Boss,” a line that Yankee managers knew they should never cross. And so it was that eventually Showalter resigned — after refusing Steinbrenner’s orders to dismiss two of his coaches. But Buck he didn’t go quietly. In the wake of his resignation, Showalter called Steinbrenner “Fidel” and said that sitting next to him on a team charter was “the worst flight I ever had.” The quotes ended up in the New York Times. Steinbrenner was enraged, though not because Showalter compared him to Castro (he probably liked that), but because he’d gotten the last word. Steinbrenner didn’t know the half of it. When “the boss” died earlier this summer, Showalter praised him, called him a friend, and then paid a compliment — to himself: “I was one of the managers he never fired. I resigned because he wanted to get rid of my coaches. He knew where people’s buttons were, and mine were loyalty to my coaches.” Rest In Peace, George.

The Steinbrenner-Showalter saga is certainly known to Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos (whom Birdland fans blame for the demise of their “once proud franchise”), so it might be considered a testament to Angelos that he would hire Showalter anyway. But Showalter’s enemy’s list (“He never even smelled a jock in the big leagues,” current Pale Hose manager Ozzie Guillen once said. “Mr. Baseball never even got a hit in Triple-A. I was a better player than him, I have more money than him and I’m better looking than him”), is complemented by more than a handful of detractors who claim that “the smartest man in the room” is overrated. These detractors point out that while Showalter is given credit for turning around the last place Arizona Diamondbacks, the real credit (they say), should actually go to D-Backs owner Jerry Colangelo. Colangelo signed Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre and Steve Finley to lead the team into 1999 — and into first place in the N.L. West. But this isn’t damning with faint praise, it’s faint damning with just the right praise: Showalter knew his team wasn’t going to win with Andy Benes, Alan Embree and Devon White and he made that clear to Colangelo in the off-season. The lesson is now clear; not only will Bucky get the last word, he’ll insist that you spend some money. There are worse things.

So all of this is good news, right? Well, not exactly. While Showalter was the choice of Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos, it’s not a secret that team president Andy MacPhail preferred the lower key Eric Wedge. MacPhail might have had a point — one of the reasons that former Texas Rangers’ owner Tom Hicks had problems with Showalter is because of constant complaints that Buck kept the Rangers’ clubhouse in turmoil. As soon as Showalter’s hiring was announced, the inimitable Camden Chat ran a long piece by Rangers’ blogger Adam Morse (of Lone Star Ball), who commented that “Rangers players never knew exactly where they stood with Showalter, and that he preferred it that way . . . he either wanted guys on edge, or just simply wasn’t comfortable communicating directly with the players.” MacPhail wasn’t the only one questioning Angelos’ choice. Just this morning, Orioles icon Rick Dempsey took on both Angelos and Showalter, calling the hiring “the biggest mistake made here in a long time, and I’m not talking just today, I mean over the years.” Roughly translated, what Dempsey means to say is that Angelos should have hired a manager from within. Showalter is an “outsider” — he doesn’t understand Baltimore.

So there they are, the legion of critics who think that Buck Showalter is not the second coming: George Steinbrenner, Tom Hicks, Rick Dempsey and a huge crowd of Baltimore naysayers and former players who think that a manager with “a militaristic attention to detail” and a huge ego will be bad for the Birds. As opposed to? Well, as opposed to Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove, Phil Regan, Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo and Dave Trembley, men who presumably had no egos and could care less about details — and who led the Baltimore Orioles to precisely two postseason appearances in 27 years. These naysayers ought to listen to Orioles’ commentator Drew Forrester, one of a legion of sports gabbers that we (we here at CFG) never pay attention to. Except in this case: “This is the Orioles,” Forrester writes. “And we have about 4 players who can play. And maybe two pitchers. And a couple of other live arms that need some tutoring. Of the 25 guys on the roster right now, I can think of six I’d take on my team. I hope Showalter comes in, stomps his feet and demands better players from Angelos and MacPhail. I hope he’s a prick to deal with in the Warehouse and I hope he threatens to fight people if the roster isn’t improved and quality free agents aren’t pursued.”

Yeah, that’s right. So while Showalter has a controversial background and knows how to make enemies, he also has a history of winning. Which is hell of a lot more than you can say for either Peter Angelos or Andy MacPhail.

Praising Arizona

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Once upon a time, and not so terribly long ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks were the class of the National League. And for good reason — the Snakes had the best pitching staff in baseball (anchored by Brandon Webb and Dan Haren), a quality innings eater with a history of winning (former Fish Livan Hernandez) a group of fast, punch-and-judy hitters (Orlando Hudson and Stephen Drew), a classic high strikeouts player with punch and panache (Mark Reynolds) and a faster-than-spit closer (Jose Valverde) who was the envy of major league baseball. Plus (plus!), the D-Backs had a solid philosophy of winning, based on the foundation that had brought them a World Series Championship in 2001: the club would focus on pitching, pitching, pitching (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling anchored the staff in ’01), and build a strong farm system based on development and scouting. But those days are gone. The Diamondbacks of 2010 are 23 games back of the Friars and the face of the franchise, savvy righty Dan Haren, is living in Los Angeles. So what happened?

Injuries happened — and overspending. Brandon Webb hasn’t pitched in forever and is still attempting to recover from shoulder surgery (his arm still hurts, but he’s agreed to pitch out of the bullpen), Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton have been on-and-off the DL with a series of nagging everyday bumps and bruises, D-Backs President Derrick Hall and Interim General Manager Jerry DiPoto are still living with the effects of their predecessors’ decision to hand Showboat Eric Byrnes a three year $30 million paycheck — one of the worst contract decisions made in D-Backs history — and the farm system was plundered for short term satisfaction and is devoid of any perceivable talent. Worse yet, the once can’t-get-enough-of-baseball Phoenix fanbase has been dribbling away, making a $75 million player payroll untenable. The result has been a classic baseball fire sale, albeit one that began long before the trading deadline, and had nothing to do with players. Manager A.J. Hinch was tossed on the scrapheap on the night of July 1 and G.M. Josh Byrnes was disposed of 24 hours later. The firings signaled the beginning of a trend: the Diamondbacks wouldn’t just be sellers at the trading deadline (and before), they were dedicated to taking the team apart and starting over.

You can hardly blame Arizona fans for being skeptical. The current DiPoto salary dump looks as desperate as Byrnes’s decision to denude the D-Backs farm system two years ago — when Scott Hairston and Alberto Callaspo were shipped off for relief pitcher no-accounts (and Valverde’s salary was embarrassingly dumped) and Brett Anderson and Carlos Gonzalez (a curse, now, on Arizona pitching — in Colorado) were shipped to Oakland to land Haren. Earlier this year Byrnes attempted to compensate for these sins by sending Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy (a good swap by any standard), but the trade came way too late to silence the rising chorus of critics who noted that dumping young talent almost never works.

While skepticism about the Rattlers’ future is in order, Arizona fans can be thankful that their franchise’s tradition of trading for and developing young pitching seems to be intact. While DiPoto received good value for Haren (Joe Saunders is no slouch) and simply cast off catcher Chris Snyder for three below average players (one of whom, Ryan Church, I wouldn’t let in my outfield), his decision to buy Edwin Jackson a ticket to Chicago for Daniel Hudson (below, pitching against “the Kings of Queens”) is paying immediate dividends: the young righty (nearly a Nationals’ property, in a proposed trade for Adam Dunn), threw a gem against the Amazins, whose death spiral (“trades? sorry — we’ll play these”) is now nearly an established fact. Hudson looks like he’s in the Diamondbacks’ rotation to stay after throwing eight innings of three hit ball — a game that, by itself, is far better than any that Danny Haren threw all year. Sure, the Diamondbacks look like a mess and, yes, there’s likely to be more moves in Arizona in the offseason. But the arrival of Hudson, when coupled with the promise of a developing Ian Kennedy, holds hope for the future. In truth, the Diamondbacks of 2010 look now like the D-Backs of 1999. That team, an embarrassing but young mess, was just two years from a world championship.

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.

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 . . .

Swept

Friday, June 18th, 2010

The Washington Nationals finished an American League road trip in Detroit with a loss (an 8-3 drubbing at the hands of Kaline pitcher Jeremy Bonderman), failing to win all but one game in two three-game series against the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers. The loss brought the Nats to 1-5 on the swing west but (more importantly) continued the skid of a team that was once five games over .500. The team is now officially in a tailspin, leaving puzzled Nats fans to wonder whether their Anacostia Nine are reverting to their bad habits of 2009. The final loss in Detroit pointed up the Nats’ problems: too many strike outs, poor pitching and lousy defense. “We’re not playing tight baseball right now defensively,” Nats manager Jim Riggleman admitted in the wake of the last Detroit loss. “We need to pay more attention to details.”

In many respects, the Nats 8-3 loss was typical of their recent woes. While the team put runners on base (eight hits, including an Adam Dunn dinger), they weren’t able to push across runs in tight situations — leaving 15 men stranded. Then too, while Detroit pitcher Jeremy Bonderman is a good hurler, he’s hardly a wizard. Yet, the righty regularly retired Nats hitters in situations that might have led to runs — pitching well when he had to. Bonderman mastered Nats’ hitters with a down-and-in slider that stymied the Nats line up, throwing 95 pitches over seven complete: 65 of them for strikes. Washington starter Luis Atilano was not nearly so good, giving up nine hits in just 4.1 innings — his second poor outing. For Nats’ obsessives, the game was unwatchable after the fourth. The only good news is that Adam Dunn continues his torrid pace, lofting his 16th round-tripper in the seventh, slotting two more RBIs and raising his average to .288 on the year.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: CFG’s speculations about trading for a second pitcher occasioned more than a few comments from readers. A writer from Seattle was horrified that we believe that fireball southpaw Cliff Lee “could be had for a song.” That’s not what we said. Lee can’t be had for a song, but a longer melody might do. We’ll stick by our stand: the Navigators are looking for prospects and are sellers. Lee is looking for a long term deal and would be more comfortable in the National League. The Seattle fan begs to differ: “We’ll part with Lee,” he writes, “but we’ll need Ryan Zimmerman in return.” Yeah sure. Keep dreaming.

Others wrote more creatively, noting that the Lee-Oswalt-Peavy speculations that we launched “aimed too high” (as one responder noted), saying that it seemed more likely that Washington would fish for pitchers “more reachable.” A  reader, from Atlanta, was adamant: “Houston, Seattle, Chicago — they’ll all want one of your big hitters, and Rizzo won’t give any of them up.” Well, maybe. Our regular reader from Brazil (no kidding) mentioned Chicago hurler Ted Lilly (Ken Rosenthal thinks he might be available), Frisco fireballer Jonathan Sanchez and Showboat righty Dan Haren as likely targets. We’ve been mulling these possibilities and they all sound good. But Lilly is a finesse pitcher who will soon be looking for a big payday and we can’t imagine that San Francisco would part with Sanchez (a little different than last year at this time).

There’s always Cleveland’s Jake Westbrook, who has struggled this year (except against the Nats) and is rumored to be on the block. Westbrook is an intriguing possibility, particularly now that he looked so terrible against the Mets. The Cleveland front office is running out of patience with its pitching staff, and Westbrook is playing for a guy who knows the Nats system — and particularly its younger pitchers and developing hitters. Then too, Cleveland needs to retool: getting younger hurlers to go with Masterson and Huff. Mike Rizzo wouldn’t want to do that. But for Westbrook? Westbrook is not Lilly, or Sanchez (let alone Haren), but he’s affordable and would provide a veteran presence behind Strasburg. He’s had his Tommy John surgery, has a wicked cut fastball (well . . . it’s wicked often enough to spark interest among shoppers), is in the last year of his contract and has worn out his welcome in Cleveland.

Haren is different. The D-Backs are rumored to be at the beginning of a sell-off, which has their dugout talking, though they probably don’t need a top-to-bottom rebuilding. Haren himself has said that the team has a stockpile of talent — though SI’s Jon Heyman speculates that Arizona’s front office will listen to offers on the impressive righty. Heyman’s article on the D-Backs is thorough and authoritative, which can mean only one thing: the Rattlers are open for business. The only players who are off the table (Heyman says) are outfield bopper Justin Upton and young ace-to-be Ian Kennedy. So Heyman is right — Arizona shopaholic Josh Byrnes (he just shipped Conor Jackson to Oakland) will “listen,” but will the Nats make an offer? Haren hasn’t been his perennial lights-out ace this year, but he’s been one of the most consistent performers in the NL over the last three years. So he won’t come cheap. Which is too bad, because it probably means he won’t come at all. So we’ll look in the mirror and tell ourselves what we told our Seattle reader: Keep dreaming.

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.

Strasburg Stellar In First Outing

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Stephen Strasburg’s best pitch on Tuesday was his last — a 3-2 breaking ball that floated 12 to 6 over the plate, freezing Tiger Brent Dlugach for a strikeout. “I thought it was executed well enough to get him out,” Strasburg said of that last pitch. “I felt it was down in the zone, and if he swung, hopefully he would have grounded out. I wasn’t going to throw a hanger up there and I hoped that he was sitting on a fastball. I was going to throw [the curveball]. If it’s a strike, it’s a strike. If not, it’s down in the zone and hopefully he swings.” Strasburg’s outing may well be a sign of things to come: a young pitcher with a living arm that throws 96-98 with command of all of his pitches. I must be dreaming. And by nearly all accounts, Strasburg is bearing up well under all the attention.

If it wasn’t clear before just how much the Nationals need Strasburg, it oughta be clear now: the Nats are oh-fer in the no account Grapefruit League, where all embarrassing questions about performance are answered with two words: “it’s early.” Okay, it’s early. But early or not, Strasburg remains the single bright spot in the Nats Florida pitching outings — even Jason Marquis struggled yesterday. And while MLB Network’s Al Leiter argues (and vocally), that pitchers are simply trying to find their legs in the spring, the vast proportion of Nats pitchers have yet to find the strike zone. Still, there’s a different feel to the club — even on television. Seeing Adam Kennedy at second base (and really there, with his name stenciled on the back of the uniform and everything) brings an almost palpable feeling of security, while Nyjer Morgan’s return to the outfield (and basepaths) gives hope that the Nats will start where they left off after acquiring him last year. Morgan is as quick as ever: he bunted his way on on Tuesday, then stole second, sliding spikes up (albeit late) into the bag.

I swear, when I saw Kennedy wearing that uniform I damn near cried . . .

Those Are The Headlines, Now For The Details: Mike Rizzo joined the crew in the television booth during the second inning on Tuesday, and gave a hint of the team’s plans for Ian Desmond, who has been ripping the rind off the sweet stuff in Florida. No matter what, Rizzo said, Desmond would be playing full time, whether in the majors or in Triple-A. Rizzo has said this before, but he seemed more emphatic on Tuesday. Which is to confirm: if Desmond plays well enough, Cristian Guzman will be on the bench or he’ll be elsewhere — and probably elsewhere. If Rizzo and Riggleman decide the Desmond is ready for the show, the team will have to eat a lot of Guzman’s salary. If we here at CFG were the betting types, we’d bet on Desmond, and say “thanks for the memories” to Goozie. And why not? . . .

Who is Josh Whitesell and why is his name so familiar? Oh yeah, now I remember: Whitesell was drafted in the sixth round by the Expos back in 2003, played for the Harrisburg Senators and then was claimed off waivers by the  Showboats in 2008. The guy’s no slouch: he was Arizona’s 2008 Minor League Player of the year and he can hit the long ball. Seems he’s a natural first baseman. Or so it was said. But Arizona didn’t non-tender Whitesell because they’re stupid. (Well,except for this … ) Whitesell had an insipid year in 2009 and only a cup of coffee in the majors. The D-Backs got tired of waiting and lost faith and, and, and … there was a divorce. But Rizzo likes him, you can tell — and you never know, he might stick . . . Whitesell could back up Dunn at first (or, if he plays left field, he could back up Dunn at first) or that job could go to Chris Duncan. The only problem is that Duncan can’t hit lefties, while Whitesell is largely unproven. Then there’s Justin Maxwell, whose added attraction is that he can play the outfield . . . oh yeah, and Mike Morse — who’s proving he can play . . .