Archive for the ‘Baltimore Orioles’ Category

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.

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.

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.

Solving The Argument . . .

Friday, June 4th, 2010

The Opposition Returns

From time to time a “friend” of CFG — and a Baltimore Orioles fan — weighs in give us his views on CFG posts. Under the title “the Loyal Opposition,” this “friend” offers critiques of CFG. We are pleased to present this, his most recent, posting:

With the same attendence record held in college: I am filing for this communist, idiotic and wasteful blog for the second time in as many years. A forced break from following real journalism, I had to return because “Centerfieldgate” has once again lost it’s way, misreported and become unpatriotic yet again.  The author of “Centerfieldgate” has been on a tear recently over not only umpires, but on the way these umpires are covered. There is no question the call made by Jim Joyce in Detriot was wrong — but to attack Tim Kurkjian for not citing other examples where umpires have influenced games and then parlay it into yet another sad Cubs story is tragic. 

Not only did both ESPN and Kurkjian tell the Pappas story repeated by CFG’s main author, but “Centerfieldgate” forgot to mention that Pappas started his career as . . . a Batlimore Oriole. The great and rising stars: “your” Baltimore Orioles. Once again raising the question of loyality: the author of this rag site is clearly a die hard Cubs fan — but like all Cubs fans has adaopted a new team because of geography. This borders on what some of this country’s finest reporters would call “unpatriotic.” But I digress. The author threw in the fact that the strike zone has changed this year; all following the breaking news article that they could be sick of re-play strike zones.

What is needed is less writing for the sake of writing: rather, a solution. One between umpires (who want baseball to truly improve), and players — who are sometimes caught up in winning pennants, and finding their place in history.

Recently the SEC (of the NCAA) put a time clock in centerfield to keep the pitchers working at a decent pace (twenty seconds to throw a pitch, should the previous pitch reach the catchers mitt untouched) and five seconds for the batter to be ready for the pitch. That means one step out of the box, four seconds, and back in. Thank God, some players are retired: this could work. And it did work — in the NCAA game. The game was played with a quicker pace. Pitchers found a rhythm and batters had to keep their heads in the game. MLB games, especially in the AL East, have been played far too slow: something even the announcers have noticed recently.

Like any final peace treaty there has to be a give and take. And since young Gallaraga pitched a hell of a game (a truly perfect game when you look at the pitches thrown and the lack of 3 ball counts), we need to find a way that veteran umpires are not brought to tears because of one bad historical call. The behavior of Joyce has been nothing short of humbling. He is the model of what a professional umpire is: apologizing to Gallaraga, crying to the press about “costing the kid” the perfect game.

So, here’s my proposal. Managers will have one challenge per game. Since every home team has some futuristic slow-mo device coupled with commentators who seem like they know more about criticizing than providing any useful insight, it shouldn’t take that long to review a play. The umpire crew can huddle and the booth can tell them the way the call went. Same rules as the NFL: “overwhelming evidence.”

It has not been a pleasure solving this problem for this blog: in fact, it’s 15 min of my time I’ll never get back. Like my last relationship . . . the entire thing was a giant waste of time.

Nats Win, But Struggle

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010


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

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

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

Storen, Clippard In Form

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

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

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

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

Baltimore’s Disastrous Season

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

This wasn’t suppose to happen. When Baltimore Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos cast the sole dissenting vote against moving the Montreal franchise to Washington, D.C. — on December 3, 2004 –he was confident the new Nats would be as incompetently run as the old Expos. He had reason to be optimistic. The Nats of 2005 looked like an impoverished third world trustee: poor, and destined to stay that way. Not only had the Expos’ farm system been looted by MLB’s appointed overseers, the Nats’ new owners were a Selig-annointed tight-fisted bunch of bean counters who knew nothing about baseball. Selig’s strategy was clear: the last thing baseball needed was a winning franchise in Washington to muck-up baseball’s New York-Boston license-to-print-money axis of television revenues. As for Bud’s pal Peter — well, he could be paid off and then (pockets bulging with dough) praised for being one of MLB’s self-sacrificing boys. In that order. Angelos was only too happy to comply, imposing “the worst TV deal in all of sports” on the Lerners that was the equivalent of the requirements imposed by the IMF on a debt-ridden South American state. I swear. By the time the Nats took the field at RFK, the team looked like an Angelos step-child, to be brought out on occasion as proof of his all-American sacrifice, but never successful enough to be bragged about.

So, how’s Peter doing?

The Orioles are mired in one of their worst seasons ever, their fans are staying away in increasing numbers, Angelos has picked a fight with franchise legend Cal Ripken and the truce between the team owner and former Baltimore Sun beat writer Ken Rosenthal has broken down. Let’s start at the top. The O’s are 5-18 and sinking fast. Their best infielder (Brian Roberts) is injured, rising young star (Felix Pie) is out until at least June, the team has one (count ’em, one) young good starter (Brian Matusz) and free agent starter Kevin Millwood is a bust. The bullpen is a disaster (expensive closer-to-be Mike Gonzalez is injured), and manager Dave Trembley’s post-game appearances are now watched by masochists who get their kicks by seeing middle aged men break into tears. The savior was supposed to be Andy MacPhail, who Angelos hired to be the O’s head of baseball operations, but the otherwise talented MacPhail is now apparently on the hot-seat, the result of the O’s April meltdown. “When a team continues to founder like this,” one Baltimore Sun beat writer opined, “eventually the mobs with the pitchforks and flaming torches show up at the front office and demand change.”

Ah . . .  well . . . “the mobs” are already there. Savvy Birds Watcher and influential Birds’ Blogger Nestor Aparicio, who led a 2006 fan-based “Free The Birds” movement (complete with black t-shirts and a walk-out of an O’s game), implies that while good ball clubs are “strong up the middle,” good franchises are strong at the top. Which is to say: the problems with the Orioles start not on the field, but in the front office — with Peter Angelos. “It’s hard to argue with the promise of Matt Wieters and Brian Matusz,” Aparicio recently wrote, “but virtually every other facet of the organization is still inflicted with the cancer of Peter Angelos and his values, strong will and old-world vindictiveness and deceit regarding everything from the banning of free speech in the media to jacking up ticket prices to taking away scalp-free zones to shunning the legends of the team’s heritage and brand.” Many, many others agree. B-More Birds Nest defines Angelos [pee-ter ~ ann-gel-ose] as “1) to ruin baseball, to make it uninteresting, 2) a lawyer who should be sued for false advertising, and 3) a d–che bag.”

For Nationals fans, the spiraling failure of one of baseball’s proudest franchises brings some odd solace, as well as a sense that the arc of the universe does (though rarely) bend towards justice. The Nats are no longer the mid-Atlantic’s orphans, the O’s no longer dominate the “we’ll show you how it’s done” tone of MASN “Battle of the Beltways” broadcasts and (compared to Angelos), the Lerners look absolutely enlightened. From top-to-bottom, the Nationals are the more competently run and better franchise. While O’s fans are busy plotting ways to walk away from baseball in Baltimore, the Nats are anticipating sell-outs for a revived team that has better pitching, hitting, speed and defense — and a closer who’s not on the DL. Think of it: five years after baseball’s step-child showed up at RFK, the premier baseball franchise in the region is not the Baltimore Orioles, it’s the Washington Nationals. But Nats’ fans shouldn’t be too proud, or too happy. Not only were we once the worst team in baseball, but the MASN deal means that Nats’ fans are actually subsidizing this mess.

Nats Fall To Phillies: Again

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

The Nats must have one of the toughest early schedules in the major leagues: Phillies, Mets, Phillies (that’s six games against the Phillies in the first month), then the Brewers, Rockies, Dodgers and Cubs. With the exception of the Mets — and a single end-of-month game against the Marlins — the Nats will face-off against a top team every single day until May. Of course (as some fans will note), when you finish with 103 losses, every team looks tough. Even so. There’s two ways to look at this: Nats fans can say it’s “not fair” (a phrase popularized by four-year-olds), or we can look at these games as tests of just how good the Nats are against the league’s best. In the case of the Phillies, at least, the results seem clear. It’s not simply that the Nats are not as good as the Phillies (that’s obvious), to complete with them the Nats will need more pitching — and lots of it.

The Nats fell to the Ponies in Philadelphia yesterday and played them even, until “the killer P’s” unloosed their hitters. For Jason Marquis, who must have come up short when the staff drew straws before heading north, the second outing against the Phillies was only marginally better than his first. Frankly, it’s doubtful that Livan, who dominated the Mets on Sunday, could have done much better. The line-up of Polanco, Utley, Howard, Werth and Ibanez constitutes a latter-day murders’ row of lumber that would be daunting for an elite team — let alone the Nats. Even so, as a guy like Jim Riggleman will tell you, a competitive squad should be expected to play the Phillies tough. But so far that hasn’t happened. The lesson seems to be that once you have your boot on their neck, you don’t dare give in. “They are a balanced lineup,” Nats reliever Walker said. “They have some free swingers and have guys that will grind it out. The balance is what gets you, because they are going to be consistent every day. You give them an inch, they are going to take a mile. You give them an extra out, that’s when they really gear up. They know they can break your back.”

Andy MacPhail’s renovation project in Baltimore is making progress, though the pieces he’s added over the winter (signing Garrett Atkins was a great idea) aren’t likely to make a difference for the Orioles in the standings. At least not this year. It doesn’t help that steady-as-she-goes second sacker Brian Roberts pulled an abdominal muscle last night — and will be out for the next fifteen days. But the Orioles are coming back, if slowly, in part because MacPhail has cobbled together one of the best outfields in baseball: Adam Jones might be the best centerfielder in the game, Nolan Reimold is a surprise addition in left and Nick Markakis is becoming an established star. Even Felix Pie (above), the Cubs cast-off (you could say the same about MacPhail, come to think of it), is starting to hit, though his dinger last night against the Tampa Bay Whatevers didn’t keep the Orioles from losing — or falling to1-6 on the season.

“Overall, our pitching is doing a great job,” Markakis said after last night’s tilt. Really? You could have fooled me.The starting four of Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Guthrie, Brad Bergesen and Brian Matusz are just so-so, and closer Michael Gonzalez (brought in from the Braves as the real deal) looks terrified on the mound. The Orioles’ front office is hoping that semi-rookie Brian Matusz is the answer to the Orioles’ annual pitching woes, but he’s inexperienced. Matusz was an elite college pitcher (at the University of San Diego) with good velocity, and his trip through the minors was impressive. Signed by the Orioles in the same year that Washington failed to land Aaron Crow, Matusz is Baltimore’s  hope for the future, even if the future has yet to arrive. If there’s any good news at all, it’s not only that Matusz is unlikely to fail, but that rotation-mate Brad Bergesen has been a surprise. Drafted in the fourth round in 2004, Bergesen was 7-5 last year with a stellar 3.43 ERA. That’s two solid pitchers for the future. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the future will come only after Baltimore gets past a season with the savvy, but aging Millwood, and a bound-to-be-average Jeremy Guthrie.

None of this is cause to despair. While the future might take several years to arrive, Markakis, Jones, Reimold and Pie are fun to watch. If only they could pitch.