Archive for the ‘national league central’ Category

Rebuilding With Youth — Or Not

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

You know your team is in trouble when the title articles on its official website talk about next year as if it’s already here. So it is with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are not only mired in last place in the N.L. Central (again) — but contending for honors as the worst team in baseball with the likes of the Birds and Mariners. Hence: “Craving experience, young Bucs welcome Nats,” is actually a stand-in wink and nod to Pirates fans that means “Come to the ballpark — because we actually might be able to beat these guys.” In truth, while Pirates’ pundits go on and on about how the two teams have a lot in common (“two teams that are trying to squeeze some positives out of a marathon season”), Nationals fans can take comfort in the fact that while the Anacostia Nine are bad, they’re not as bad as this year’s version of the Stargells — who are 44-89. 44-89? That puts the Pittsburgers several games back of the Ripkins for MLB last place honors.

It’s not as if Bucs fans don’t know it. Just yesterday, Raise the Jolly Roger (the most acerbic critic of the Pirates’ front office), actually celebrated the Pirates 5-3 loss to the Cubs by noting that “at least they looked like a team that knew what it was doing.” Rum Bunter (a whiz with photoshop), is (if anything), even more outraged; he painfully chronicles the fall of the 2010 Pirates by listing the five reasons they “suck” — and (surprise, surprise) four of the five have to do with pitching. Bucs Dugout, meanwhile, notes that while the Pirates have been terrible, they actually haven’t been terrible enough. Which is to say: being next-to-last in baseball means that they’ve missed out on the very best prospects (including Stephan Strasburg), while picking up talent that hasn’t panned out. So, if you want to look at it this way, being last in baseball this year might be just what the doctor ordered for a team with nowhere to go but up.

Doesn’t anyone have anything good to say about this team? Well . . . no. But there is some hope. Pittsburgh’s bloggers are abuzz with talk about Jose Tabata, a hot-hitting left fielder and former prospect in the Yankees organization, which signed him which he was just “16.” Tabata is hitting the cover off the ball, though it took him time to get started: he only arrived in the show in early June, and had trouble stringing together a good run. But now Tabata is the talk of Pittsburgh, and being mentioned in the same breath as other N.L. rookies: Florida’s Gaby Sanchez, Washington’s Ian Desmond, Atlanta’s Jason Heyward, and Chicago duo Tyler Colvin and Starlin Castro. Of course (there’s always an “of course” when it comes to the Pirates), the celebration over the arrival of the young rookie (the “centerpiece” of a trade that sent Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady to the Empire), could be premature.

The rap on Tabata, an apparent leftover from yakkers in the Yankees’ minor league system, is that while the young Venezuelan has oodles and oodles of talent, he was lazy and had a bad attitude. That would have killed any thought of him playing in the Nats organization (Mike Rizzo hates the word “lazy”) but it didn’t matter to rehab specialist and Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington — who ignored the warnings, believing they were overstated. It appears the gamble has worked out. Tabata is now a featured sparkplug in the middle of a play-em-young-or-bust Pittsburgh philosophy. Yet. Yet, at the end of July a correspondent for Bleacher Report cited rumors circulating in Pittsburgh that the young phenom might not actually be that young. That instead of being 22 (his birthday is August 12) he might actually be all of 25 . . . or 26. Or, as BR says: “This is actually very important news as far as the Pirates and Tabata’s future development are concerned.  If Tabata turns 22 on August 12th, he’s a hell of prospect, given his past minor performance, even if he isn’t much of a major league left-fielder today. On the other hand, if Tabata turns 25 on August 12th, he isn’t much of a prospect at all.”

A controversy? A scandal? Not for Pirates’ GM and resident player therapist Neal Huntington (insert snide comment about Nyjer Morgan here), who responded to the reports by issuing a non-clarification: Huntington said he has documentation showing that Tabata was born when he says he was born (take that!), but that even if the reports are true (ahem) it doesn’t matter. Or more pertinently: “Apart from unfounded speculation, there is nothing to indicate his age any different than reported,” Huntington said. “My point is that while we have reason to doubt his reported age, it is a non-issue to us.” Roughly translated: the only number we care about is the one in the column marked “BA.” Pirates fans would undoubtedly agree, as they have had little to cheer about this year, or last … or the year before that …

We can take a closer look tonight, when the Stargells begin a three game set against your Washington Nationals in Pittsburgh.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Letters and cards pored in from all over the globe, as our millions of worldwide readers were justly irritated that they couldn’t get on the site over the last 18 hours or so. Our board of directors (you remember our board of directors — right?) “instructed” (that is, demanded) that our crack technical team (and here they are) clean us up a tad bit, and so they did. It won’t happen again (of course it will, but never mind), but apologies nonetheless.

Lannan Masters St. Louis

Monday, August 30th, 2010

John Lannan has now made it all the way back from exile: in his fifth start after his return from Harrisburg (where he was sent “to work on his command”), Lannan mastered the heavy hitting St. Louis Cardinals — leading the Nationals to a 4-2 victory and a much-needed triumph in three games of a four game series. Lannan pitched deep into the contest, allowing eight hits and only one earned run to up his record to 4-1 since his return. “I want to be confident with each pitch,” Lannan said after the game. “I think I did a pretty good job of that, especially to lefties. I made smarter pitches. I was more careful with the sliders today. I felt comfortable with my changeup, throwing the ball in and my curveball felt pretty good.” Michael Morse provided the lumber, going 2-4 and notching his 10th home run and Adam Dunn was 2-3.  But Lannan struck first, doubling into left field in the second inning off of Cardinals’ starter Adam Wainwright, plating the first two runs of the game.

Bad Blood? Jim Riggleman benched Nyjer Morgan on Sunday, the result of Morgan’s purposeful bump of Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson at home plate on Saturday night. Riggleman apologized to Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa for the incident and called Morgan’s actions “uncharacteristic” but “inexcusable.” Anyone who saw Morgan during Saturday night’s game should not have been surprised — after being bumped from the leadoff to the second to the eighth spot in the batting order, Morgan spent most of the 6th, 7th and 8th innings talking to himself, apparently in disagreement over Riggleman’s decision. Riggleman admitted that Morgan was angered by what he viewed as a demotion. “It was building up all day,” Riggleman said. “I think he thought I was wearing that equipment at home plate.” Morgan denied that he was aiming his anger at Anderson. “It definitely wasn’t intentional,” Morgan said. “. . . It is not my style to play dirty. I don’t play that.”

But that’s apparently not the way the Cardinals viewed the incident: while the Riggleman telephone call to LaRussa should have buried the incident, it clearly didn’t. The Morgan incident rankled the Cardinals, as seen when Drew Storen pitched the last of the eighth inning on Sunday, and lost control of a fastball — which sailed behind Matt Holliday. Cards’ manager LaRussa was immediately out of the dugout: “We were told before the game that [there would be] no funny business because of the cheap shot that Morgan did,” La Russa said. “And here’s a guy [Holliday] that hits a single and a double and they throw the ball behind him. There was going to be no ifs, ands or buts. But in [the umpires’] opinion, the pitch got away [from Storen].” Riggleman denied that Storen was throwing at Holliday: “Clearly there was no intent,” Riggleman said. “It was a terrible pitch. It was 4-1. We certainly don’t want to be hitting anybody or get anybody on base and get a rally started. After what happened last night, you could see where this is coming from.”

Is there bad blood between the Nats and Cardinals, or between Riggleman and LaRussa? That seems very much in doubt. But the same is probably not true for the Nats’ skipper and Nyjer Morgan. Morgan’s irritation at Riggleman might represent some passing anger — and Morgan has had a tough week, having been accused of throwing a baseball at a fan in Philadelphia. All of this might be forgivable, but Morgan’s comment on Riggleman’s decision to bat him eighth in the line-up will probably stay with the Nationals’ manager. “I have to be able to handle what I am able to do,” Morgan told the press. “If (Riggleman) feels like this is what he needs to do, he can go ahead and do it.” Our bet is that Riggleman (and Rizzo) view these kinds of comments dimly. Which means that it’s a pretty good bet that Morgan will eventually (and inevitably) be headed out of town.

Birds Of Prey vs. Crippled Sparrows

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

If there were ever any doubts that starting pitching makes a huge difference in a team’s success, that doubt was put to rest during Washington’s recent three game visit to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The Phillies “book-ended” the Nats by throwing two of baseball’s best starting pitchers against them, and taking two of three games from the still struggling Anacostia Nine. The one Nats win might have been predicted, as it came against Phillies’ hurler Kyle Kendrick (a young high-ERA righty who is still learning his trade), while the Nats’ losses came against two of the game’s best starters: Roy “Doc” Halladay (in a 1-0 squeaker on Friday) and Roy Oswalt — in a 6-0 blowout on Sunday. The Nats might have won on Friday, with successive runners in scoring position, but Halladay was the difference — lowering his ERA to 2.16 in seven innings of steady if unspectacular work — but the issue was never in doubt on Sunday, when Roy Oswalt sliced and diced the Nats line-up through seven innings of brilliant work.

And the Chicago Cubs? (If you have the music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, you might consider putting it on now.)

The Chicago Cubs are an entirely different story. The North Side Drama Queens, who open a series against the Nationals on Half Street on Monday night, have no one to compare with either Halladay or Oswalt — and the standings show it. The rotation that carried the Cubs into the post-season in 2008 is now past its prime, and the Chicago front office knows it. The once effective Carlos Zambrano (14-6 in 2008) is battling his anger as much as opposing batters, Ted Lilly has been shipped off to L.A. for a passel of minor league wannabes, Jason Marquis was rendered to Colorado (and then signed as a free agent here in D.C.), and Rich Harden (beset by arm problems) is struggling in Texas. The only appendage of note belongs to Ryan Dempster who, now into his mid-30s, is the staff “ace” — which means he’s won more than ten games. That Dempster stands out at all is due more to his rotation mates: a gaggle of Fisher-Price kids who look like they’d be more comfortable on the dance floor of the 9:30 Club than on the mound in Wrigleyville.

Chicago’s one young hurler of note is Randy Wells, a surprise-surprise arm who was drafted by the Slugs as a catcher in the 38th round of the 2002 amateur draft. Wells came to the show in 2009 as a fill-in for the then-injured Zambrano and pitched himself into a regular spot in the Chicago rotation — yielding a jaw-dropping 12-10 record. Tom Gorzelanny is the Cubs’ lefty, a former Buc who has had his tires recapped in Chicago after one good year in Pittsburgh. Gorzelanny “has battled injuries and inconsistency” — a Zen-like phrase for Cubs fans. Dempster, Wells and Gorzelanny are hardly the Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance of the future Chicago rotation, but the Cubs have high hopes for rookie Casey Coleman, a young righty whose grandfather (Joe) and father (Joe) were both major leaguers. But let’s not get all gooey: Coleman (who will pitch against the Nationals tonight) is not only untried and untested, he’s been lit-up in the 12 innings he’s pitched.

That leaves Thomas Diamond, a former Texas Ranger fast-track product sidetracked by Tommy John surgery in 2007 (at least he’s gotten that out of the way), who’s “all up-side,” which means he doesn’t have a clue. The bottom line? While there’s no guarantee the Nats will have an easier time against the Cubs than they did against the Phillies, there will be no Halladay or Oswalt trooping to the mound to face them. The Phillies have built an elite staff. They are birds of prey. And the Cubs? The Cubs are crippled sparrows — they’re starting over.

Photos: Roy Oswalt (AP/H. Rumph Jr). Randy Wells (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

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.

Nats Swept In Milwaukee

Monday, July 26th, 2010

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

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

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

Nats Return After Dropping Five

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

John Lannan held the St. Louis Cardinals to two runs in six innings (one of his most solid outings of the season), but it wasn’t enough as the punchless Nats lost their fifth straight on the road. The Nats return to Washington today to face the Metropolitans in a two game set, which will be followed by the “Battle of the Beltways” — a three game series against the league poorest Baltimore Orioles. Despite the loss, Lannan’s outing against the Redbirds must have brought a sigh of relief to the Nats brain trust, as the young lefty is a mainstay of the Washington rotation. With Jason Marquis down for at least the next several weeks (and with Craig Stammen and Luis Atilano still finding their way in the majors), Livan Hernandez and a revived Scott Olsen would have been the only two absolutely dependable starters in the Nats’ rotation if Lannan had continued to struggle.

In spite of the five game skid, Nationals skipper Jim Riggleman focused on Lannan’s positives. “He pitched good,” Riggleman said. “I’m really encouraged that he was out there and pitched in that 100-pitch range pain-free. He’s kind of had an issue or two. We bumped him a start and all that kind of stuff and that’s one of the better games he has thrown this year for us.” Lannan was also upbeat. “We haven’t hit our stride with hitting or with pitching and we’re still battling,” he said after the Cardinals loss. “We’re in every ballgame, and that’s all you can ask for when we’re kind of struggling. We have to get out there tomorrow and win as many as we can at home.”

Cincinnati Rising: If the Nats call up Stephen Strasburg during anything that even looks like a major skid, the expectations for him will be too high. But if they’re winning, well then Strasburg’s arrival will be seen as a move that can put them over the top. There’s no way for the Nats front office to win this “why not now” battle; which is probably one of the reasons why Mike Rizzo is sticking to his original schedule, despite the young phenom’s spectacular showing in the minors and in spite of what the Nats might be doing on the field. Then too, there’s the model being followed by the rising young starter in Cincinnati — Mike Leake. Leake has powered a surprising Cincinnati (where arms go to die) squad to first place in the Central Division. Due to Leake (whose role at the center of the Reds starting rotation is key) the Reds are giving the Cardinals fits and making the Cubs look mediocre.

So why aren’t the Nats doing the same thing?

Tom Verducci unpacks this issue in a recent SI column. The heart of the Verducci column is a comparison of the way the Reds are handling first round draft pick Mike Leake vs. the way that Rizzo & Co. are handling Strasburg. “What is most interesting about the Strasburg Plan,” Verducci writes, “is that concurrently the Cincinnati Reds are running an entirely different development plan with Mike Leake , their base model of Strasburg. Leake, 22, and Strasburg, who turns 22 in July, both pitched in major college programs, both were drafted last year in the first round, both signed too late to pitch in affiliated pro baseball last year and both went through their first spring training this year. They were born only eight months apart.” And then Verducci goes on to note that Leake’s pitch count this year add up to 691 pitches in nine MLB games as compared to Strasburg’s 469 pitches in the minor leagues. So who’s being smarter — Dusty Baker’s playoff hungry Cincinnati Reds, or Jim Riggleman’s build-for-the-future Nationals?

Verducci notes that Jim Riggleman was the manager of the Cubs in the year that then-phenom Kerry Wood was overpitched and that (as a result), he’ll be extra careful when Strasburg arrives. But the temptation is certainly there. We might imagine a resurgent Nats Nine that, in mid-September, is just two games out of the Wild Card race. With Lannan, Strasburg, Hernandez, Stammen and Olsen as the starting five and Strasburg on the mound against (say) the surging Braves, Riggleman will want to leave him right where he is — despite his pitch count. It’s not everyday you get into the playoffs. But then again, why would you rely on Strasburg in September if you know that your next day’s starter is not Craig Stammen or Scott Olsen, but Roy Oswalt? Which is not only why Jim and Mike will stick with their plan (no matter what), it’s also why it’s likely that come the trade deadline, the Baker Boys of Cincinnati will do the right thing by Mike Leake: they’ll get him some help.

Jimenez Outduels Livan

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Ubaldo Jimenez and Livan Hernandez held a master class in pitching on Thursday with Jimenez coming out on top — at least in terms of the score. Supported by two solo home runs (one each from catcher Miguel Olivo and third baseman Ian Stewart), Jimenez shut down the Nationals when it counted, wracking up his fourth win of the season in an itchy-close pitchers’ duel at Nationals Park. In spite of the score, Hernandez was (arguably), the more impressive pitcher, mixing a fastball (which topped out at 87 mph), with a slider and change-up. Hernandez changed speeds so effectively that he most often fooled Colorado’s heavy hitting lineup. Jimenez, on the other hand, relied on an overpowering fastball that topped out at 97 mph — his slowest offering was Livan’s fastest. So while the Rockies won, the result of the duel between speed and finesse was clear: Livan was the more cerebral pitcher, Jimenez the rocket.

In the end, the brilliantly pitched 2-0 contest came down to this: the Rockies could hit a hanging slider (which is what  Hernandez threw to Ian Stewart), while the Nationals most often could not catch-up to the Jimenez fastball. The contrast between Hernandez and Jimenez was most marked in the first inning. Behind in the count 3-1 against Willie Harris, Jimenez attempted to play catch-up by throwing Harris his best pitch — a 97 mph fastball in the upper part of the zone. The pitch was predictable and, in most cases, would be unhittable. But Willie was ready and put the offering over the head of the centerfielder. “The guy throws a million miles an hour,” Harris said, talking about the at bat. “He has really good offspeed pitches as well. He keeps you off balance. You get in an 2-0 count, you are definitely thinking the fastball. He drops in a changeup or a slider on you. That’s what the good pitchers do now.” It was one of the few mistakes that Jimenez made.

There are enough good third basemen in the NL to stock a separate league: David Wright, Ian Stewart, Placido Polanco, the fading Chipper Jones, Aramis Ramirez, Arizona’s wiff-or-wack Mark Reynolds and, of course, “our very own” Ryan Zimmerman. Among others. Cincinnati fans would clamor that new Reds third sacker Scott Rolen should be added to the list of the elite: and they have a point. Rolen, who once crossed swords with Tony La Russa,  is leading a Cincinnati team that could be the surprise champ in the NL Central, despite their early 7-9 record. Rolen is playing like he did in 2002, when he came over to the Redbirds from the Ponies and won a Silver Slugger Award. The often hobbled Rolen is hitting .289 with four homers and Cincinnati (where arms go to die) is responding. They took two of three in Los Angeles, notching an impressive 8-5 victory yesterday against the Trolleys that was sparked by Rolen’s cannon-shot double in the bottom of the seventh. Dusty’s Baker Boys were ecstatic. This is the way that Baker and the Cincinnati front office had planned things at the start of the season.

Rolen, who has a problem with authority figures, fits well in Cincinnati — where (very often), no one seems to be in charge. The slick-leather-big-bat third baseman was a 2nd round draft pick for Philadelphia back in 1993, but took four years to get to the majors. It was worth the wait. Beginning in 1997, Rolen began a five year run that had Phillies fans comparing him with Philadelphia legend Mike Schmidt: Rolen hit 21, 31, 26, 26 and 25 dingers before being shipped (via Toronto), to St. Louis where he battled injuries and fought with the manager. St. Louis cut him loose, shipping Rolen to Toronto (which, believe it or not, actually has a baseball team) for Rolen clone Troy Glaus, who had once hit 47 home runs for the Angels. The trade seemed an even-up; Rolen and Glaus sported big bats and tweeky shoulders — Rolen had shoulder surgery in May of 2005 (after a collision at first with Dodger fill-in and former North Side Drama Queen draft pick Hee Seop Choi), while the suddenly under-performing Glaus had shoulder surgery in January of 2009.

By the end of last year, both Rolen and Glaus not only needed to get healthy, they needed a new start. Glaus got his when he signed this last off season with the Atlanta Braves, while Rolen was traded from Toronto to Cincinnati in a move that had Reds’ fans scratching their heads: the swap seemed an expensive and questionable last-gasp effort to fill a hole at third, while the Cincy front office searched for a more permanent replacement. But Rolen has been a surprise: a solid citizen in the clubhouse (that’s the surprise) and a formidable bat in Cincinnati’s fifth hole (which, frankly, is not) Rolen is now teamed with veteran Brandon Phillips and big lumber youngsters Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to provide mashers in the middle of the Cincy order. Once Bruce and Phillips get past their early season slumps (and they will), the Reds are likely to surge past the Cubs and Brewers, giving St. Louis a run for the division title. It’s too bad Rolen can’t pitch — it took Cincinnati starters sixteen games to notch their first victory, which came yesterday against Los Angeles.

Rolen would agree — Aroldis Chapman can’t arrive soon enough.

Playing The “Brew Crew”

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Ryan Zimmerman

Down 4-2 to the hard-hitting Phillies in the eighth inning, Adam Dunn hit his first home run of the season and the next batter, Ivan Rodriguez was walked. Ryan Zimmerman then came to the plate as a pinch hitter and put a floater  from Phillies’ reliever Danys Baez into the right field seats. Zimmerman’s clutch pinch hit homer stunned Baez and led the Nationals to a thrilling and much-needed come-from-behind victory in Philadelphia. The win brought the Nats to 3-3 on their road trip to New York and Philadelphia and set up a key series against the Brewers at Nats Park beginning on Friday. Baez took the loss, but was philosophical after the game in explaining how he pitched the Nats’ silver slugger: “I was trying to stay away on him,” he said. “I’ve faced him a lot of times. I always stay in, in, in. He’s coming off the bench and hasn’t played for a couple days, so I was trying to stay on him. He hit the ball and it went out of the ballpark. I didn’t hear good contact. I was surprised [the ball went out], myself.”

The win against the Phillies broke an eight game losing streak for the Nats in Philadelphia.”They are tough no matter where you play them,” Nats manager Jim Riggleman commented after the victory. “They are very comfortable here. They are just hard to beat all the way through the lineup. It was a great challenge for our ballclub, and we met the challenge pretty good.” Dunn’s homer seemed to signal something new for the Nats: a hope that the club can shake off its early season slump and begin hitting the ball. Dunn talked about his at-bat against Baez: “I basically ambushed him,” he said. “I haven’t been swinging at the first pitch. The other day, he walked me on four straight pitches leading off the eighth. I knew he was going to try to get ahead. I just closed my eyes and swung.”

El Siguiente: The Brewers are what they’ve always been — a power hitting team that struggles on the mound. The Brewers tried to change that over the winter, shipping power hitting but disappointing shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Minnesota Twins for outfielder Carlos Gomez. The trade of the popular Hardy was a head-scratcher for a lot of Beer Town fans, but the Milwaukee front office was frustrated by Hardy’s inconsistency (he was sent down to Triple-A while suffering through a killer slump in August), and weren’t thrilled to pay him to hit in the low .200s. Most important of all, the Brewers’ brain trust (such as it is) wanted to make room for “El Siguiente” — “The Next One.” Rookie Alcides Escobar has an all-world glove, can steal bases and has a potent Punch-and-Judy bat: he stole 42 bases in Nashville and won the Venezuelan winter league batting title.

The problem is still pitching. While the Brewers signed headline ace Yovani Gallardo to a five year $30 million extension just last week, the second act to the hard-throwing righty is more than a little troublesome. The Brewers’ rotation features a group of knee-knockers, including lefty slinger Manny Parra (a 6.36 ERA last year), former Cardinal also-ran Jeff Suppan (with a knee-buckling four year $42 million contract), aging bad-boy and former Trolley Randy Wolf (who’s always right around .500), and the imposing (6-4, 215) Doug Davis — who sometimes pitches like he’s five-foot-three. That might not be so bad, but bound-for-the-hall closer Trevor Hoffman is obviously on his last legs (he sports a head-spinning 12.60 ERA so far this year) and well-traveled set-up man LeTroy Hawkins hasn’t been able to find the strike zone for the last three years.

Yikes.

The good news, at least for the Brewers, is that opposing pitchers have to face Prince Fielder four times a game. Fielder, one of baseball’s good guys, can hit the ball a ton — and is worth the price of admission. Yeah, well — even so, I’d rather pierce my eyeballs with needles than to watch this guy swing his bat against the Nats. To help Fielder, the Brewers added Jim Edmonds over the winter. Edmonds is a heckler’s paradise: he left his wife to marry a Hooters’ waitress when he was a Red Bird and Cubs fans were all over him (“Hey Jim, where’s my chicken wings?”) — until, that is, he actually became a Cub. Then they thought he was the second coming. With Edmonds, super bopper Ryan Braun and Fielder in the middle of the line-up, this team can hit. Oh yeah, and the Brewers still have all-world nifty-glove-super-sub Craig Counsell sitting on the bench, and pennants just seem to follow him around. The Brewers are doing okay — they’re 4-5 coming into Washington and just in back of the Cardinals, Bakers and Cubs, but ahead of Houston and the Ahoys. Too bad for Brew Crew fans: that’s where they’re likely to stay.

Nats Need Clutch Hits

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

The Nats skid now stands at four, with three losses in St. Louis, followed by last night’s loss in San Diego to the Padres — a 3-1 affair in which Livan Hernandez was his usual steady self, pitching a winnable game (eight innings, 90 pitches, 54 strikes, fourteen groundouts) and holding the Friars to all of seven hits. Nor does it seem that the Nats bats need any fine tuning: the Anacostia Nine outhit the Padres, eight to seven, regularly pushing baserunners into scoring position. So what’s the problem? A study of this mini-losing streak (as the Nats on-line article on the subject describes it) is that the Nats are not getting key hits when they most need them — and are leaving too many men on base. This isn’t rocket science. Let’s check the numbers.

Braves Nationals Baseball

Starting with the first game in St. Louis — a 3-2 loss to the Redbirds — the Nats collected seven hits, but left 12 runners on base. The Cardinals, on the other hand, were a symbol of consistency, pushing home three runs while leaving only eight on base and only two of those in scoring position. The next day (another loss) the Nationals collected eleven hits, while leaving 16 men on base. Oddly (or perhaps not) the Cardinals had the same number of hits, but were more efficient: their elevin hits scored nine runs — the Nats’ eleven hits scored only four. The final loss in St. Louis looked like the previous two; the Nats hit well, but not when it counted: the Mock-Wainwright pitchers’ duel was even-up in terms of hits at four apiece, but not in terms of scoring. And the Nats left 14 men on base, the Cardinals nine. By now  the pattern ought to be clear — but was repeated in San Diego, where Nats’ batters left sixteen men on base, while the Padres left seven. In order for the Nats to break their current losing streak they not only need to hit (the numbers show that they’ve actually been doing that), they need to do it when it counts.

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?