Archive for the ‘national league’ Category

Nats Bats (And Lannan) Scuttle Pirates

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

The hitting of Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and the stellas pitching of John Lannan paced the Washington Nationals to a 9-2 victory over the Pirates at PNC Park on Saturday. Rodriguez led the Nats’ fifteen hit attack, with an opposite field home run, while John Lannan pitched seven complete — giving up only five hits. It was his best outing of the year and solidified his place in the rotation for 2011. “Pudge and I did a great job just mixing it up on both sides of the plate,” Lannan said after the game. “I threw some [four-seam fastballs] inside to righties and some [two-seam fastballs] into lefties. I had my changeup working again, and that’s been the pitch I’ve gone to if I was getting behind hitters. It kept them off-balance a little bit. You get a little more comfortable out there when your team puts up that many runs.”

Desmond Makes His Case: Washington Nationals’ rookie shortstop Ian Desmond is making a strong case for being considered as the N.L.’s premier rookie. But two obstacles stand in his way — he makes too many errors (31! — including two last night), and the competition is stiff. The early betting was that Atlanta’s Jason Heyward would win the award, and for a time it looked like he would. Heyward set the baseball world chattering through April and May, but his production fell off through the summer. Still: .282 with 16 home runs (and he’s only 20) could find him shoehorned into the top spot. The betting now seems to be that Buster Posey will get the nod — despite the fact that he started the season late. Tim Dierkes over at MLB Trade Rumors posted a list in April that included all of the good guesses, which included Heyward and Desmond, as well as Florida’s Gaby Sanchez, San Francisco’s Buster Posey, Chicago’s Starlin Castro, Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez, Washington’s Drew Storen (and Stephen Strasburg), and Cincinnati’s Mike Leake. That leaves out Cubbie Tyler Colvin, who’s having a tremendous year — he’s stroked 19 home runs.

You can make a strong case for Desmond, who has raised his batting average over the last month from the so-so mid-.260s to .287 — an unforeseen spike that, if it continues, could see the 24-year-old ending the season near .300. And Desmond has unpredicted power, line-driving nine home runs. That number could easily increase in 2011. Desmond’s long-ball potential is a plus for the Nats, who would gladly take a .280 batting average with a handful of home runs each year — but 20? 25? Desmond says that he patterns his play on the model provided by Empire glove man Derek Jeter and his numbers show it. While Jeter seems to be struggling for homers as he ages, the pinstriper once hit 24, a number well within reach of his younger apprentice. But Jeter’s value is his day-in-and-day-out crusade in the middle of the Yankees infield, his ability to play virtually injury free and his steady glove-work. Ah, and he has a .314 lifetime BA — which Desmond might find difficult to equal. Desmond is right to emulate his hero, but he has a long way to go to reach his level (cutting down on the errors would be the way to start). It’s the fielding stats that will likely doom Desmond in any final voting for the Jackie Robinson Award, which means that Giants workhorse Buster Posey will get the nod. It’s hard to argue with that choice — with a .328 batting average, he deserves it.

Snakes: Bitten

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

On Monday night in Phoenix, Livan Hernandez showed once again why he remains the acknowledged ace of the Washington Nationals staff. In  7.1 innings of solid in-and-out and up-and-down pitching, Hernandez surrendered just five hits to his former teammates in Arizona and the Nationals notched a much-needed road win 3-1. “[Hernandez] was outstanding,” Nats skipper Jim Riggleman said after the win. “I hated that last walk he had, because I was going to let him finish that inning and maybe finish the ballgame. When he’s throwing like that, hitting spots and keeping hitters off balance, it is one of those nights where he can go nine [innings].” Livan’s performance was matched by Nats’ catcher Ivan Rodriguez, whose second inning dinger was his 300th as a catcher. Sean Burnett closed the game, striking out two of the D-Backs last five hitters.

The Wisdom of Section 1-2-9: Sunday’s loss to the Phillies, a contest in which the Nats might have notched a sweep against their I-95 competitors, was emotionally churning, in large part because of the flood of Phillies fans — in town to cheer on their favorites. The tide of Pony partisans left Nats’ fans as embittered on Sunday as they had been at the end of Opening Day. “These people ought to stay the f — home,” a Curly W supporter muttered in the 6th inning. “This is sickening, not necessary,” another said. “Are we required to sell these people tickets?” But unlike Opening Day, the Nats apparently had it all figured out: MASN broadcaster Bob Carpenter kept talking about the “growing rivalry” between the clubs, as if to protect that Nats front office from the decision to fill the seats — no matter what.”It’ll be a rivalry when we put 20,000 fans in PNC Park,” a Nats fan growled, “and not until.” Cooler heads did not prevail: “It’ll turn around,” a Nats fan opined, and was answered by a glum rooter in one of the forward rows. “Yeah, it’ll turn around,” he said, “when the Nats get into the post-season.” There were also mutterings when a fan arrived late, proudly sporting a new Donovan McNabb jersey: “Wrong jersey, wrong ballpark, wrong team, wrong sport . . .”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The exchange on the health of “the kid” between CFG and one of our readers has become a torrent. Here’s the latest: “Dear editor: Thanks for your prompt and thoughtful response. Since that give-and-take worked so well, one further suggestion if I might: as the days pass with Saint Stephen on the sideline (now hopefully on the mend), could CFG please regularly update his physical and mental condition as warranted — including any medical info/predictions and gossip picked up from the various sources/websites perused constantly by CFG’s staff.  Many of your readers don’t always have the time to collect this valuable information — and rely on you to provide it. Please don’t lose track of the essential truth of this situation:  the fate of his sore arm is the big story of this franchise . . . Sincerely, An appreciative reader . . .”

Well, well, well. This is right in our wheelhouse. And yet the head of our research staff (here he is, with a group of CFG interns) is feeling the pressure. “Yes, big boss, I jumps in it,” he said. “I leave no stone on ground.” Several hours later we had our answer: “I think Mister Stephen in Arizona, mmmmm … chance maybe not so good,” he said. “Maybe boy in L.A. pitch good. Maybe, maybe not. I dunno.” And then he puckered his lips and kissed his miniature giraffe . . .

The pride of the N.L. Central, the Phillies of the Midwest, the North Side Drama Queens are “sinking like a stone,” have “bought the baseball farm,” have “reached the bottom of the barrel.” There is no cliche perfect enough to describe the extinction level event that has become your Chicago Cubs. Think it can’t get worse? It can, because it has. The Wrigley’s have now lost six in a row, and it hasn’t been pretty. The North Siders dropped what might have passed for a softball exhibition game to the Brew Crew last night by a score of 18-1. Repeat after me: 18-1. You can expect some of those kinds of games (where nothing in the world goes right), but the Cubs play them regularly, with aplomb and with no apparent loss of sleep. Over the last six games, the Cubs have been outscored 63-17.

The cataclysm has Cubs’ fans in an uproar. And the promised makeover might be years, not months, away — the Baby Bears are stuck with huge contracts to a number of perennial head cases (Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano) and, as of July 31, were only able to rid themselves of their two best players. Way to go Jim, nice job. When in doubt, get rid of those keeping you afloat. This just in: after thinking about it for less than a milisecond, Ryan Theriot told a reporter (stop the presses) that he likes being in L.A. Really? No kidding. Worse yet: this team went nova entirely on its own; this has nothing to do with fan interference in foul ground. It’s their own damn fault, as even the most diehard Wrigleyville partisans will now admit. It’s a sad and sorry story, but (like a car wreck) you can’t avert your eyes. In a strange (and sick) kind of way, it’s almost fun to watch. Unless you’re Lou.

Stammen Buries The Hatchets

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

John, Paul, George, Ringo . . . And Jim

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Oddly (but not unreasonably), the name Jim Maloney has always been associated in my mind with “The Dave Clark Five” — the North London rock band that, for a short time, gave “The Beatles” a run for their money. The DC5, as they were called, had a number of hits (“Glad All Over,” “Bits and Pieces,” “Anyway You Want It”) and a solid following, particularly among those (and there were some) who thought “The Beatles” were over hyped, over exposed, foppish and a tad too popular. Maloney was that way: the big Cincinnati right hander was one of the best pitchers in baseball during the same year (1964) that the DC5 reached the peak of their popularity, though he was bound to be left out among all the oohing and ahhing reserved for the big four of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal. History is the best judge: Big Jim could never compete for space against Sandy, Don, Bob and Juan any more than Dave Clark could garner the same attention as John, Paul, George and Ringo. Tsk. Tsk.

I remember watching Maloney pitch the front end of a double header in Milwaukee in the deep summer of ’64. It was the week following the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed in the Congress, and two weeks after the bodies of three civil rights workers were discovered in Mississippi. But while at least some of the country was focused on war and civil rights, a large number of people in Milwaukee were focused on the August Braves-Reds match-up. The Braves-Reds tilt, it was thought, would determine whether the Braves would contend for the pennant. All of Milwaukee was atwitter with talk about how the Braves front four would match-up perfectly against the mighty Reds — and for good reason. The Braves front four consisted of a legend (Warren Spahn) and three savvy nose-in-the-dirt youngsters: Tony Cloninger, Denny LeMaster and Hank Fischer. Spahn was faltering then, but never mind: Wade Blasingame could come in to spell him in odd starts, and the 20-year-old was something to behold.

The only problem was that Cincinnati’s front four was even more formidable. Jim Maloney anchored the staff, which consisted of Jim O’Toole, Bob Purkey and Joey Jay. If that wasn’t enough, Joe Nuxhall was still kicking around (at the age of 35) and Sammy Ellis was an intimidating presence in the bullpen. The Redlegs’ starting nine was a terrifying mix of heavy lumber and hit-em-to-all-fields stars that included the underrated Vada Pinson, the man-for-all-seasons Frank Robinson and a young Pete Rose. But the real deal on the mound for the Reds was Jim Maloney, a brute of a pitcher whose up-and-in 95-plus fastball was nearly unhittable. Maloney, then all of 24, had just come off a 23-win season, with a sparkling ERA of 2.77. His ’64 season looked like much the same, though he wasn’t as well-supported as he had been the year before. While Maloney’s best games were still a year away (he pitched three no hitters in his career — and won only two of them), he was the one guy who could sink the Braves’ hopes for a World Series match-up. Which is exactly what he did.

But not with his arm.

Memories are strange things, allowing us snapshots of the past — and rarely a comprehensive account, or anything resembling a “film.” So it is that I recall that back in the deep summer of 1964 (and as I sat on the first base side of Milwaukee County Stadium) the great Cloninger-Maloney duel to decide the National League Pennant wasn’t a duel at all. It was an artillery barrage, led by none other than Maloney, a hulking presence, a converted Fresno, California shortstop whom the Reds transformed into a fastball ace because he couldn’t hit a lick. Except (of course) for that day in Milwaukee. And here’s the snapshot: in the sixth inning of the first game, with the bases loaded, Maloney came to the plate (a sure out) and swung his bat through the strike zone (click) and sent the ball sailing high and deep (I can see it still) into the bleachers in left field. It was a Jim Maloney grand slam — the only home run he hit that year and it sent all of Milwaukee into mourning (I swear, I thought Cloninger was going to have a stroke). Suddenly (but certainly, for that is how these things are) and though it was only the first game of the double header, the Braves were d-e-a-d Dead, Dead, Dead for 1964. The second game (as I recall) was all Vada Pinson and ended up a Reds win, but it hardly mattered. By then, Milwaukee fans knew for sure that at least for 1964 (which saw a legendary Phillies collapse) the Braves would not win the pennant.

Jim Maloney is one of those great forgotten pitchers. In June of 1965 he threw a ten inning no hitter and lost, giving up a home run in the 11th. He struck out 18 — still a Reds record — but he took the loss. In August of 1965, Maloney did it again, throwing another 10 inning no hitter, while striking out eight. This time he won. He wasn’t finished; after successive one hitters through ’65, ’66 and ’67 — years in which he battled an increasingly sore arm — he pitched a no hitter on May 13 of 1969 against the Astros. It might have been his best game. In 1970, Sparky Anderson took over as Cincinnati’s manager and inaugurated an era of Red baseball victories. But by then Maloney’s shoulder (and achilles tendon) had exploded. He was shipped to California, in an attempt to revive his career as an Angel, but it was too late, and in 1971 he retired. Maloney — the Dave Clark of pitchers — was only 31.

Strasburg and Harper’s “Stuff”

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Over at the Custom Card Blog, a whole raft of photo shop experts and baseball fanatics spend at least some of their time creating cards of current stars — and phenoms — using old time Topps cards as models for new sets. The 1968 Topps “tribute” design shown above (and presented last October) is accompanied by this description: “If the Nationals get the first overall pick in 2010 and can draft and sign Bryce Harper, they would have two of the most coveted prospects in all of baseball with Stephen Strasburg and Harper.” Well, the Nats have got them — with Stephen Strasburg making his major league debut tonight, and Bryce Harper now taking a few weeks of rest while Scott Boras determines how much money the kid will bank. It’s possible, in fact it’s likely, that both players are over-hyped: Strasburg is mentioned in the same sentence as Walter Johnson (and Larry Benard “Ben” McDonald), while a YouTube video shows Harper hitting a 502-foot homer off the back of the dome in Tampa. These guys are “the real deal” — they “can’t miss.”

Unless, of course, they do.

The best pitcher I ever saw was a straight-up 6-0 fastball farmboy from central Wisconsin who threw about 94-95 — and no one wanted to face him. The White Sox signed him, sent him to college and then farmed him out to the Midwest League and the American Association. He didn’t dominate, but he had electric stuff. He appeared in the majors and was traded to the Cubs (with a couple of other prospects, for — get this — Ron Santo), where he reportedly threw out his arm. He was “untouchable” — until he faced big league hitters. The best hitter I ever saw (up close) was a high school kid who was once intentionally walked, with the bases loaded, because allowing him to hit was just too dangerous. He was drafted by the Marlins and ended up in Beloit (again, in the Midwest League). The rumor that circulated ever after is that, following his first stint in the batting cage (during which he lofted several flies into the farm fields beyond the center field wall, wherein grazed the requisite number of Holsteins) a Marlins batting instructor told him: “We have to teach you how to hit.” He blew out his knee.

This is the way your career ends, this is the way your career ends: not with a bang, but with a pop — of a shoulder, knee, elbow, ankle, hamstring or heel, with an arm slot that just isn’t right, with a tweeky wrist or tender oblique, with a pulled groin, or broken tibia, fibula or rib. With a cracked, snapped, torn or shredded muscle that doctors replace with other muscles from other places. But even if your career doesn’t end that way there’s this: the stuff between your ears may betray you — or, in odd but legendary cases, make you better than you really are. Scott Sanderson had nothing compared to Stephen Strasburg, but there are pitchers who would have killed for his career. “I couldn’t throw a curve in a hurricane,” Sanderson once told Tim McCarver. You could have fooled the Phillies: whom he owned. And there have been much, much better players than Mark McLemore — who hit just .259 in his career. He’d be lucky if he hit five homers in a season, let alone a single dinger that could even wink at what Harper has done. But McLemore made $20 million hitting the ball between short and third and he played for 19 years. Who wouldn’t take that?

The Nats have drafted Bryce Harper, perhaps the best pure hitter in the first year player draft since the Yankees drafted Derek Jeter (with the fifth pick for God’s sake), and they will sign him. His journey will undoubtedly start somewhere in Florida, after which he’ll head to Arizona and then on to (I would guess) Double-A Harrisburg. Stephen Strasburg’s journey as a major league pitcher will start tonight. We can expect that he’ll overthrow the first time out, before settling down. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll show tonight that he’s the phenom that everyone says he is — or perhaps the Pirates will hit him around. But it won’t matter either way: baseball is a marathon (not a sprint) and is filled with so many oddities and potholes (with so many unpredicted cracks and snaps and tears and pulls) that it will matter less what Strasburg does tonight than what he does three months from now, and three years from now. And my guess is that, given his enormous talent, his ultimate success will depend less on the “stuff” that he pumps towards the plate than the “stuff” between his ears. Tell me I’m wrong.

E5, BS(2); E6 (3)

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

It’s not that the Washington Nationals have slipped back into their old 2009 ways (they haven’t, at least not completely — and at least not yet), it’s that their sloppy defensive play of the last two days (and their successive losses to the forlorn Houston Astros), are a cautionary note for the future. The Nats are a poor defensive team and will need to improve their fielding performance if they hope to contend this year. We begin this sad tale on Tuesday, when the Nats blew a one-run seemingly in-the-bag win against the Astros, with an unusual error by Nats third sacker Ryan Zimmerman. The error put the Astros back in the game and led to a Matt Capps blown save that gave the Astros a 8-7 win. That Lance Berkman, whose checked swing on a Matt Capps offering should have been called a strike notwithstanding — the simple fact is that if the Pedro Feliz grounder had been fielded cleanly, Berkman (an intimidator, and Nats slayer) would not have come to the plate.

The Nats’ defensive woes were even more evident on Wednesday. In the midst of a sixth inning in-the-MASN-booth love fest between Bob Carpenter and Ray Knight over how Ian Desmond reminded them of the young Derek Jeter (Holy Cow!), the rangy rookie Nats shortstop committed two errors on one play: failing to step on second on a force and then throwing wide to first. The otherwise impressive Desmond (and it’s true, he’s a work in progress) bobbled a grounder from Berkman in the seventh. It was an unusually poor play, as Desmond seemed unsure whether to charge the ball, or play it back. “Berkman doesn’t really run that well,” Desmond explained. “I figured if I stayed back on it, I’d still be able to turn the double play. It kind of took a bad hop on me. Ate me up a little bit. I trust myself as a player. Tomorrow will be a new day, bounce back and everything will be fine.” Okay. But the defensive failures and the team’s high strikeout total (thirteen, against so-so Astros’ pitching) led to an indifferently played and disappointing 5-1 loss.

All of baseball was abuzz on Wednesday with the blown call of umpire Jim Joyce that cost Detroit Tigers starter Armando Galarraga a perfect game. The call came with two out in the ninth inning: an infield roller was scooped up and served to Galarraga covering first. The ball and Galarraga clearly beat a sprinting Indians hitter Jason Donald to the bag, but Joyce called Donald safe. Joyce maintained his stance — the infield hit was a single, transforming a perfect game into a one-hit shutout. But after the game, Joyce saw the replay and admitted that he’d made a mistake. “It was the biggest call of my career,” Joyce told reporters, “and I kicked it. I just cost that kid a perfect game.” The admission set off an explosion of commentary about the use of instant replay — but that debate isn’t likely to be resolved soon.

I was hoping that Tim Kurkjian (who seems to know this kind of stuff) could have added some perspective to the Joyce call, by citing the number of calls that had gone the other way; that is, that gave pitchers no-hitters and perfect games when they didn’t deserve them. There must have been at least some small numbers of such incidents, which is not to mention the widened strike zone that recently (and in at least two cases) gave Roy Halladay strike outs instead of walks. So it is: no perfect game is possible without such calls, just as no no-hitter can go into the books without some kind of fantastic play somewhere. It’s a given. Then too, as we might remember, Milt Pappas was one pitch away from a perfect game (on September 2, 1964) when umpire Bruce Froemming, after calling two strikes on the last batter, called the next four pitches (all strikes) balls. Pappas never forgave Froemming and told him, the next day, that he’d blown a chance to call a perfect game. Froemming — who, like Pappas, could be a nasty piece of work — just smiled. “Show me an umpire who ever called a game without making a mistake,” he said.


Nats Take Chi-Town Series

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

In the “I can’t believe this is happening” 2010 season of your Washington Nationals, the late April three game series against the Cubs might stand out as one of the team’s best. The Nationals came into Chicago hovering at .500, and left two games over. The Nationals took two of three from the Cubs in a tightly played defense-and-pitching series of contests that (in retrospect) weren’t all that close. Oddly, the Nats not only won the series, they were the better team on the field. With a 12-10 record, the Nats are off to their best start since moving from Montreal to D.C. But it’s not just the wins that are surprising (or not, as the case may be), it’s the way the Nats are winning — getting solid starting pitching, playing tough defense and relying on a dependable “lights out” reliever.

The Nats 3-2 win on Wednesday at Wrigley was a model of how the Mike Rizzo makeover has taken hold: Luis Atilano pitched six solid, if unspectacular, innings, Adam Dunn ended the game with a tough near-the-boxes snag of a fly ball that kept the Cubbies off the bases in the ninth, and Matt Capps recorded his league-leading 10th save in a three-up-and-three-down final frame. Even the sometimes-shakey Brian Bruney looked good, pitching out of a two-men-on 7th inning. Bruney looked like he’s finally getting his fastball down in the zone, and gaining confidence. My sense is that Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman is desperately trying to keep his composure, while privately holding torch light parades on the team’s impressive start. “Our guys are focused and trying to play today’s game, not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow or down the road,” Riggleman said after the series. “They are just trying to win the game. Hopefully, it will add up and we win another one.”

Those Are The Headlines, Now For The Details: “Baseball Tonight” commentators are starting to take notice of the Nats — focusing, most recently, on the 10-for-10 Capps. The “who would have thought it” comments are a reflection, mayhaps, of BT’s down-in-the-mouth view of Nats’ baseball. After L.A. dropped two of three in Washington last week, BT ran a segment on “what’s wrong in L.A.” — implying that it wasn’t a matter of what Washington was doing right, but what the Dodgers were doing wrong. The lone exception is Tim Kurkjian who, when not talking about Stephen Strasburg, is celebrating his Spring Training prediction that the team is worth watching . . . The Cubs looked just average in their series loss against the Anacostia Nine. The Cubbies pitched well, but their big bombers (and the entire team, for that matter) were held homerless. That’s almost unheard of in Chicago, and shows just how effective Nats’ starters have been . . . We’ll add this: Tyler Colvin looks like the real deal. It’s going to be hard to keep the Stan- Hack-in-waiting out of the line-up, or keep Alfonso Soriano in . . .

After putting it off for several months, I am reading The Bill James Gold Mine, the most recent trademark effort from the statistical guru and now Senior Baseball Operations Advisor for the Red Sox. As if I don’t get enough baseball (a Nats game per day, plus the MLB Extra Innings package — this week it was the fascinating Diamondbacks-Rockies match-up), I now finish the evening with a chapter of James — like slurping ice cream after a visit to Chucky Cheeze. His take on the 1974 World Series is worth reading twice, particularly if (like me), you don’t exactly have a love affair with Dodger play-by-play legend Vin Scully. Then there’s this, in the chapter on the Oakland Athletics, one of baseball’s most fascinating teams:

“Who led the Oakland A’s in Win Shares in 2009? Andrew Bailey with his 26 saves and 1.84 ERA? Nope, he had 17 Win Shares. Jack Cust and his 25 home runs? No, only 14 Win Shares. Matt Holliday before he left? Only 12 Win Shares. It was third baseman Adam Kennedy with 18 Win Shares . . .” That is to say, if you peel away all the controversy (and complexity) surrounding the concept of “win shares,” James is making the case that Kennedy was more valuable to the A’s in 2009 than franchise marquee players Bailey, Cust and Holliday. The notion is almost counter-intuitive. That said, James has a point about Kennedy, and players like him. My own non-statistical sense is that Kennedy’s value to the A’s last year and to the Nats this year is more simply put: while Kennedy is hardly flashy and does not hit the long ball, his steady experience pours concrete into the middle of the Nats infield and batting order. I just feel better with him on the field. At the end of the year (and barring injury), we’ll find that the Nats are more likely winners when Kennedy’s in the line-up than when he’s not . . .

Adam Kennedy #29 and Cliff Pennington #26 of the Oakland Athletics congratulate one another following their victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium on August 29, 2009 in Anaheim, California. The Athletics defeated the Angels 4-3.

Vazquez Dominates Nats

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Faced with a must-win situation, the Atlanta Braves stayed in the race for a wild card birth in the N.L. playoffs with a three-hit shutout pitched by Chops’ ace Javier Vazquez. Vazquez was brilliant in his nine inning, 4-1 complete game outing, though John Lannan was nearly as good: the Nats’ hard luck lefthander pitched seven innings of six hit ball, giving up runs to errors and a hit lost in the lights. The Nats had one chance to give Vazquez something to think about — in the fourth inning, but Ryan Zimmerman was stranded at second as Josh Willingham and Pete Orr flied out. The only Nats’ run came on a solo shot by Josh Bard.  The Nats were once again victimized by poor play: an error by Pete Orr, a ball lost in the lights, a fly ball that should have been caught but wasn’t. This was the Nats 101st loss of the season, but the win leaves the Braves just three games behind the Colorado Rockies, who have lost two.

Down On Half Street: Nats 320 has a transcript of Josh Willingham’s fan appearance at ESPN Zone (a public service, that). Willingham’s comments on the differences between playing at Sh-ti Field as compared to Shea Stadium are interesting. He can’t quite admit that he thinks the new home of the Mets is a terrible park, but he comes close. “I didn’t get to play in New Yankee Stadium because I was home. But as far as Shea Stadium and Citi Field, there is absolutely no comparison. Citi Field is so big. The wall is so tall. And like I was saying, when you are running for a ball in the gap in left centerfield—it never ends” . . .

It’s old news, but Nats Farm Authority has Nationals roster for the Instructional League. All eyes are already on Stephen Strasburg — and Drew Storen. But, there are others to watch, including forgotten fireballer Josh Smoker. Once upon a time, in a draft far far away, Smoker was a left handed fireballing supplemental first round prodigy: and all things to all men. Then he went 0-4 at Hagerstown, before ending up in the Gulf League. He reported a little tightness in his shoulder and ended up under the knife with a couple of bloody bone spurs rolling around on the shiny steel table beside him. It’ll be interesting to see how he does. The Nats insist that he’ll be ready for spring training. With all the attention on Strasburg, it’s easy to forget Smoker, who’s only 20 . . .  

 

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The Tomahawks are on a run — they have won three in a row and 13 of their last 16. Vazquez has carried the team on his arm — in his last four outings he’s 4-0 with a 0.72 ERA. Vazquez and Jair Jurrjens have provided the Braves with an almost unbeatable one-two punch over the last two weeks, just in time to challenge the Rockies. With all the buzz about the L.A. and San Francisco pitching staffs, the troubles with Phuzzy closer and emergent head case Brad Lidge, the oohing and ahhing over Carpenter and Wainwright and the very predictable Gammonization of Dice-K (isn’t he wonderful, isn’t he fantastic, isn’t he just something), Jurrjens has been lost in the chaff. He’s had one bad outing in the last ten games and has the sixth best ERA in baseball. The heat of the September wild card race has made him pitch better: like Vazquez, he’s won three in a row. If you squeeze your eyelids together real tight and furrow your brow and think real hard you can imagine what he might become: he’s 23.

If you’re from my generation (those of us born before the Reformation), it’s hard to think of the Braves as a pitching dependent team. The franchise has a history of breeding legendary sluggers : from Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews to Bob Horner and Chipper Jones. Even when the Braves were bad they could count on the bat of at least one slugger to make headlines — with a Rico Carty or Dale Murphy or Chris Chambliss (or Sarge, for that matter) providing the lumber. Even in the 1990s, when the Braves were on their historic run, the triumverate of Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux were complimented by a trio of titans, all “hitterish” — Chipper and Justice (that bane, that bum) and (of course) Fred McGriff.

But not this year.

The Chops’ top ’09 on base guy is Adam LaRoche (a mid-season acquisition), their dominant long-ball artist is catcher Brian McCann (with a measly 20) and their spark plug is slash-and-burn singles hitter and glove man Martin Prado. Ryan Church, brought aboard to provide some spark (as well as a warm body stand-in for dearly departed Jeff Francoeur — whom the Braves couldn’t wait to dump) is slumping – with just four dingers. Worse yet, the normally dependable Chipper Jones has 17 home runs, well below his average, and is struggling at the plate. Finally, Nate McLouth, the former Ahoy and mid-season “steal,” not only looks average, he is: he’s hitting .264. That leaves the hopes of a post-season pinned firmly on Vazquez, Jurrjens and all-around clutch pitcher and tantrum thrower Derek Lowe. Add rookie phenom Tommy Hanson and a solid bullpen (saves leader Rafael Soriano — and set-up artist Mike Gonzalez) and you can see why Braves’ fans are excited. With a handful-plus games to go the Braves’ll need some help from the suddenly wobbly Rockies, but don’t count ’em out.

Mets and Dibs at “Chatter Up”

Friday, September 18th, 2009

The Nats-Mets match-up has sparked another friendly exchange of questions from “N.L. Least” bloggers. This time the N.L. East Chatter community and the guys from The Real Dirty Mets Blog (TRDMB) and Phillies Phandom provided  questions for Centerfield Gate (CFG) on the state of the Nats. Some of these questions go a little farther afield than our normal — “what are you going to do for pitching” — entries: as both teams are struggling just to finish the season with some amount of dignity intact. As it turns out, and as our readers will note, some of our blog entries have sparked a little concern among Mets fans: particularly our claim that our very own Anacostia Boys will finish ahead of the Chokes in 2010. We’re asked to explain ourselves and defend our opinions — and then to weigh in on our very own on-air personality, Rob Dibble.

chatterup

TRDMB: Most likely you guys will have the first pick in the draft again. Since you drafted a phenom of a pitcher last year, what position do you think they will use their #1 pick on?

CFG:  We would love to see them draft a middle infielder – unless there’s a Babe Ruth on the board. But what I want and what will happen are two different things. This is Stan Kasten’s team and his philosophy is unyielding: draft pitchers, pay for players. So that seems to indicate that it’s likely that we’ll draft and sign a big lefty or some big righty (out of some college is my bet) and draft a middle infielder in about the third round. That’s the typical thing for Kasten. The next draft is filled with power arms, so that seems to tilt it in favor of pitching. But there is one guy who could change all of this. Bryce Harper is the newest can’t miss player: a high school catcher who is considering enrolling in community college just to be eligible for the draft. If Harper is there, we would grab him.

TRDMB: Do you think the National will add payroll for next years roster? There were rumors about the money you were willing to drop on Texieira…any chance the Nationals use that cash to bring in some FA talent?

CFG:  . . . the front office has been wiggling all year to cut here and there to have some money in the bank at the end of the season: they reportedly have about $20 million they can spread around and that’s what we expect them to do. I don’t think they’ll offer a blockbuster deal to anyone like they did with Tex: we wouldn’t expect, for instance, that they would bring in a John Lackey. Instead, we think they’ll try to land two or three guys that will bolster the overall team: a reliever, a middle infielder and a second tier starter. We would like to see them dangle some money to Orlando Hudson and John Garland – and re-up Livan Hernandez and then go for a high end middle innings guy, like Oakland did with Mike Wuertz. Of course, he won’t be around, but someone like him would really go a long ways to fixing some sadly broken things. You know: we bet we’ll will be writing the same damn thing next year.

TRDMB: How has attendance been this year at Nats park? From a fan perspective, are they optimistic of the future right now? The off-field stories like Strasburg have to be a nice plus, but on the field, there is no consistency.

CFG: There must be a way to assess attendance as a function of projected and real team finishes. It’s probably already being done, but if not we’ll take full credit for the idea. For instance, we need to assess whether (as the worst team in baseball) the Nats could have been expected to draw better than the A’s, Marlins, Pirates, Indians, Reds and Royals — which they have the answer would be “no.” Which leads us to conclude that the front office got a gift: the fans did all the heavy lifting. Everyone else in major league baseball has a better record and yet the Nats are 24th in attendance and not all that far behind the O’s, Blue Jays and Padres. That’s pretty strong stuff. The really weak team in that list — as a measure of fans against production — are the Marlins, who are contending for the wild card but playing in a mausoleum. You could pass gas in Land Shark stadium without anyone hearing it. No. No. You’re exactly right. And there’s no getting around it. This is a terrible team. But the fans keep coming. You know, it’s weird in D.C. If you show up in the first inning, before the first pitch (a matter of principle for real fans), there’s no one there. And you think: oh, oh. But then you look up in the second inning and people are streaming in. And by the third the stadium is half full — or almost so. And then they announce attendance, and it’s always between 20-24 thousand. Which isn’t bad at all. If this city had any kind of team at all we’d be in the top 10 in attendance. Which is a great thing, really, when you think about it. Because the slam against the city is that it is a football town. And it is: but the Nats, just in virtue of what they’ve drawn this year, are here to stay. They are going to draw 1.8 million for the worst team in baseball. Not bad.

Matt R(NLEC): You wrote in one of your blogs lately that you think the Nats will finish ahead of the Mets next year (I think). How do you come to this conclusion?

CFG: Because next year the Nats will have a better team. Well, okay. We’ll explain, and we’re not saying this to bait Mets fans or because we’re Nats fans. We actually believe that all of the evidence points to it. Most of all, we point to the differences in the front office. Our sense is that the Mets front office knows their team had a terrible year and that it has to be improved. But for them it’s: ‘well, we can do this. We’re not that far away: a little dit here and a little dat there, and bingo, we have a contending club.’ And then they think: ‘and if Reyes comes back and Beltran is healthy and Johan is Johan,’ … well you know — there they are. Atop the NL Least. Winner winner chicken dininer. The Nats have no such illusion. The front office knows this is disaster and they have been working all year to get it better and to clear things out for the off-season. It’s not a little dit here and a little dat there, it’s a reset, a makeover. They don’t need to start the makeover in the offseason, they started in July. Then too, the Nats have more at stake. If the Mets fail, well you’re in New York and there’s all that TV money and the payroll is above $100 million and sooner or later they’ll get it right and they have a history — and the Miracle Mets and Casey and Tom Terrific. There’s history there. Not so with the Nats. They need to get it right now. They’ve got $80 million and that’s it. And in DC, everything is at stake. Even the future of the franchise. At the end of the day, it doesn’t come down to Wright or Zimmerman, or Dunn or Murphy or any of that. The strength of a team starts in the front office. And right now, amazingly, the Nats front office is just better. Something happened in New York. And it wasn’t on the field — and it wasn’t good. And it hasn’t been repaired. That’s not true for the Nats.

Matt S(PP): Rob Dibble is a blabbering idiot. Did you enjoy his color commentary and should he return to the booth next season?

CFG: Yeah, Rob Dibble is a blabbering idiot, but he’s our blabbering idiot. Thankfully, he’s married to a schoolteacher, so at least she’s in her element. That poor woman, we’ll bet he’s a handful. We look at it this way: if you think Dibble is bad, you oughta get a load of what we had before him. We once had Ron Darling in the booth and he was as soft as a pillow. He used to hang around media conventions looking for a job. He was desperate. It was pathetic too. So he ended up on Nats’ broadcasts for about a year. We remember he once said, as the Nats took the field: “Wow, those are sharp looking uniforms.” Sharp looking uniforms? The guy was total Brooks Brothers. If you go down there now in Manhattan and wait a while he’ll show up. Then we got Don Sutton. This guy spent his time in front of the mirror practicing his salute and telling us how great Austin Kearns was because he was just such a solid citizen. I mean, who cares? We would sign Stalin if he could hit the ball. And Sutton had this habit of talking, unintentional we’re sure, that signaled all the wrong things: like how he was giving us these really inside little gems that were big secrets. So now it’s Dibble, and he’s a child – but he can be fairly entertaining and when he actually talks about the game (which isn’t all that often) he can sometimes actually be right. Thing is, he’s often as wrong. He and his sidekick (Bob Carpenter, who really is very good) loved Ronnie Belliard, for instance – going on and on about what a good hitter this guy was. Ronnie was hitting about .183 at the time. And they play favorites. They don’t like Alberto Gonzalez (not the attorney general, the second baseman), who’s actually a good, young, up-side guy. But they’re down on him. Thing is, when he started to break out of his slump last week the damage was done. So they treated everything he did as a fluke. You know, we have to say something good about Dibble, just to kind of even it up. So here it is: back when the Nats were really suffering (back in April and May) he just let them have it. He was unrelenting. It was ruthless, ugly, articulate, and right on. So let’s give him that. He’s not a homer. There are long silences during some of these games, in the middle of a sixth inning collapse, and you can actually hear him breathing. And then he’ll say: “Long inning.” Great stuff, really. The really good news is the in-studio guy is Ray Knight, and he’s terrific. A great grasp of the game, a way of putting the viewer at ease, and he can be very outspoken. Everyone likes him: he cares about the team, the fans, the viewers. Just an all around nice guy who is always prepared.

Albert’s Walk Off… and “Buck’s Plan”

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

albert-pujols

John Lannan’s stellar eight inning performance on Friday night — which should have led to a Nats’ win — was reversed with one swing of Albert Pujols’ bat in the ninth inning, as our Anacostia Nine lost to the St Louis Cardinals 3-2. But after the game, it wasn’t Pujols’ walk-off home run, given up by Jason Bergman, that Lannan regretted, but his own eighth inning pitch that pinch hitter Khalil Greene muscled out of Busch Stadium that tied the game at two. Greene, who has struggled all season (and is hitting near the Mendoza line) came to the plate with Lannan clearly in control, but lifted a Lannan pitch that was up in the zone into the Busch Stadium bleachers. The homer shocked Lannan as much as it energized the St. Louis crowd. Without that homer, Lannan speculated, he might have made it into the ninth: and the Nats’ loss might easily have counted as a win.

Lannan was nearly spectacular: reversing a series of indifferent outings. He threw only 91 pitches, more than two-thirds of them for strikes. “That was more like what we saw earlier in the year,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said of Lannan’s performance. “He was outstanding against a good hitting ballclub. He got a lot of ground balls. He pitched a great ballgame. He got behind on Khalil Greene, and Khalil has a little power. And he had to put one in there, and Khalil took advantage of it. That was the big blow.” In fact, the big blow came one inning later, against Jason Bergman, who served up a classic in-the-wheelhouse pitch to Pujols, who rarely misses. Bergman’s third pitch of the night was his last, as Pujols’ jacked just one under the second deck in left field.

Down On Half Street: Last Monday, “Baseball Tonight’s” Buck Showalter presented his plan to realign major league baseball, arguing that the “integrity of the MLB schedule could use an overhaul.” The way to do that, Showalter argued, is to get rid of two weak teams (the Ray and Marlins), do something about the DH (either keep it or get rid of it) and realign the league into four divisions of seven teams each. The divisions would be renamed for Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson. Each team would play every other team exactly six times: three home and three away and because the teams are geographically aligned, the economic savings would be obvious. Not bad. It’s a compelling idea and shouldn’t dismissed. So watch the video, it’s entertaining. The former Rangers’ skipper is right about baseball’s current problems: the schedule is badly unbalanced, attendance is weak in at least four markets and it makes no sense for (say) the Red Sox and Yankees to play each other eighteen times.

There’s been a lot of comment about Showalter’s plan, most of it negative. Umpbump points out that Showalter’s plan worsens the problem it’s intended to solve: “None of the alleged benefits of these new divisions that Buck and [Steve] Berthiaume spend so much time praising will come to pass at all if each team plays every other team exactly 6 times. Teams will have to fly farther, more often, fans will have even more games outside their time zone they’ll have to stay up late for, and regional rivalries will be much reduced because the fans will only see that rival team three times a year.” Bleacher Report, meanwhile, rightly reports the obvious: “Some of the teams who don’t win now would go out of the frying pan and into the fire. The Nationals would not only still have to compete with the Mets and Phils, but they would pick up the Yanks and Red Sox as division rivals.” The Fair Ball notes that convincing the owners in Tampa and Miami that they should cash it in for the good of baseball is probably not going to work. (Truth is, if I had my way, I’d get rid of the Toronto Blue Jays, but only because I can’t stand them.)

Buck

Realignment in baseball is worth doing, but radical realignment isn’ possible — and it isn’t necessary. It’s time to kick the Brewers back into the American League (to help resolve the problems caused by the unbalanced schedule), get rid of the D.H. (add an extra player to each team’s roster in five years, to satisfy the players’ union), work with weak franchises to ensure the building of new stadiums (like Tampa), negotiate an increase in the luxury tax on high salary teams (and require recipients of the tax to spend it on player development) and allow teams to trade draft picks in the first year player draft. These are fairly modest proposals and they’ve been heard before: their chief elegance is that they’re actually doable.  

Still, there’s something about the Showalter proposal that is oddly compelling. It keeps you awake at night, thinking about the possibilities. Is it true that putting the Nats in “The Babe Ruth Division” consigns them to interminable mediocrity, with little hope of ever seeing the postseason? I wondered this last night, eyes staring at the ceiling, as I heard St. Louis fans cheer as Albert Pujols circled the bases. And I began to think about what the Nats might do in “The Babe Ruth Division,” say, next year. And it occurred to me. It might not be so bad. So instead of grouping the teams alphabetically (as Showalter had done in his presentation), I ranked them in order of predicted finish for the 2010 season.

So. Whaddayathink?

The Babe Ruth Division: 2010 Season

1. New York Yankees
2. Philadelphia Phillies
3. New York Mets
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Washington Nationals

6. Baltimore Orioles
7. Boston Red Sox

Pretty good prediction, eh?