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April’s Unlikely “Derby”

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014


Monday was home run day in Major League Baseball. In Miami, on their way to a 9-2 crushing of the wayward Miami Marlins (the fish have now lost eight in a row), Washington’s Tyler Moore and Sandy Leon hit dingers (it was Leon’s first ever), while the Marlins got their second run on a moon shot from Garrett Jones.

In Anaheim, where the A’s played the Belinskis, John Jaso’s pinch hit home run topped the Halos, but only after Albert Pujols put his 496th career round tripper into the Anaheim stratosphere. That was the second game of ESPN’s nightly offering, which led off with a head-shaking match-up between the Braves and Phillies.

The Braves-Phillies tilt was nearly unwatchable until the 8th inning, when Dominic Brown’s three run blast sent Philadelphia to what seemed an unlikely late-inning victory. That was not the story, as it turned out: Atlanta had scored its runs on back-to-back-to-back skyballs in the previous frame, courtesy of Evan Gattis, Dan Uggla and Andrelton Simmons, then went on to beat the Ponies in the 9th, when Dan Uggla homered.

Even then (with Washington, Miami, Oakland, Anaheim, Atlanta and Philadelphia all going long), April’s most impressive home run derby took place in Cincinnati, where the stinking Reds and mighty Pirates put ten (count ‘em) ten balls over the fence. It was a sight to behold: Pittsburgh had three sets of back-to-back home runs, while Cincinnati hit four solo shots. Pittsburgh’s Gaby Sanchez hit two, as did Neil Walker.

Ironically, while home runs played vital roles in all of these match-ups, the Cincinnati derby (at the Great American Bandbox, so there’s that) counted for nothing, with the game suspended in the 7th inning due to rain. Don’t think it was impressive? Take a look at this:

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So? So what the hell is going on? Right here would be a good time for some statistical analysis, reputedly showing that April 14 was a “statistical anomaly” — an argument any old wag could make except that nearly every game in baesball (or so it seems) provides some kind of “statistical anomaly.”

Last year at about this time, baseball writers were going on about how 2013 was the “year of the pitcher” (when I was younger, the year of the pitcher was 1968). By June of last year, it was official, with analysts pointing out that over a period of five years the majors had seen 18 no hitters and six perfect games.


Cardinals Sweep The Nats, 4-1

Thursday, September 26th, 2013


With their chances of a playoff berth at an end, the Washington Nationals played flat in St. Louis on Wednesday, losing to the Cardinals, 4-1. The loss notched a St. Louis sweep of the Nationals in the three game set and put the Cardinals a single game from winning the N.L. Central crown.

The loss also ensured that Washington righty Jordan Zimmermann will not reach twenty wins on the season, his 2013 campaign finishing at 19-9. The Cardinals were led by rookie pitcher Shelby Miller, who stifled Nats’ hitters through six innings, giving up just four hits and one earned run.

The St. Louis offense was not overwhelming, but it was enough to seal the win: St. Louis got its first run on a Matt Carpenter ground out that scored Daniel Descalso in the 3rd, a Yadier Molina single that scored two runs in fourth and a Matt Adams home run in the bottom of the 6th.

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The Cardinals have dominated the Nationals following their victory against them in the playoffs in 2012. The Nationals have faced the Cards six times this year and lost every game; they were swept in Washington in April (in three close games) and, now, in St. Louis in September.

“I’ll tell you: They kicked our butt in just about every aspect of the game,” Washington manager Davey Johnson said in the clubhouse after this team was swept yesterday. “I tip my hat to them. Matheny has done a good over there, I wish them luck. They had their way with us.”

In each of the two series this year, the Nationals have had trouble scoring runs off the Cardinals pitching staff. The key in the most recent series has been the St. Louis relief corps, and on Wednesday four Cardinal relievers (Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal) combined to hold the Nationals to a single hit and no runs.

“The Cardinals have done a good job with their pitching staff. They have good starters, but I think what sets them apart is their bullpen,” right fielder Jayson Werth acknowledged after Wednesday’s loss. “The bullpen is good. They have a lot of velocity and they have a lot of depth.”

MLB relief statistics show just how effective Cardinal relievers have been — they’ve given up just 3.74 runs per game, good enough for fifth best in baseball and are particularly good when holding a lead (fourth best in the National League). More impressive still is that the Cardinals relief corps is young: each of the four relievers on Wednesday were rookies.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The media powers that be are yakking about the “unbalanced schedule” in baseball, the topic providing running commentaries yesterday on both Mike & Mike on ESPN and then, later in the evening, on the MLB Network . . .

“The schedule is designed with the division races in mind,” Jayson Stark noted on ESPN. “For the first time every team in a division plays essentially the same schedule.” The problem (Stark noted) is that while baseball’s schedule emphasizes division rivalries (with each team in a division playing other division rivals up to nineteen times) that unbalance has a significant impact on the Wild Card races . . .


“A Win Is A Win” — Nats Outlast The Cubs

Friday, August 23rd, 2013


“A win is a win,” Nationals’ skipper Davey Johnson explained on Thursday evening following Washington’s 13 inning 5-4 victory against the Cubs in Chicago. What Johnson meant to say was that it’s easier to overlook an embarrassment, so long as (in the end), your team puts one in the win column.

The embarrassment, and that’s what it was, came in the bottom of the 9th inning, when an otherwise brilliant start from Washington righty Stephen Strasburg was squandered when the young ace inexplicably gave up a game tying home run to Cubs third sacker Donnie Murphy.

Strasburg squatted on the pitchers’ mound as Murphy circled the bases, and continued to shake his head in the dugout after, disbelieving that what should have gone into the books as his seventh victory (and into the Nationals’ win column), turned out to be a no decision.

Strasburg’s 9th inning was a breathtaking collapse: “I had my way with him all day,” Strasburg said of Murphy’s at bat. “And then he runs into that curveball. Obviously it’s the location that was the problem. A curveball, once it leaves your hands you really have no control over it. It just didn’t have the same kind of bite as it had early on in the game.”

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But Strasburg wasn’t the sole author of the Nats’ collapse. A throwing error from Anthony Rendon (subbing at shortstop for Ian Desmond), put Chicago’s second run across the plate in the 9th, when a good throw might have ended the game. Rendon’s errant throw brought Murphy to the plate.

Rendon’s 9th inning slip came on a tough play, but the young infielder admitted that his misstep added to the Nationals’ 9th inning troubles.  “You feel terrible,” Rendon explained to reporters after the game. “Obviously I had a little slip over there, but that’s no excuse. I still should have made that play.”

But deflating as the 9th inning was, credit the Nationals (and their bullpen), for hanging in and eventually notching the victory. Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen and Drew Storen kept the Cubs at bay over the next four innings, holding the North Siders hitless while striking out four.


Nats Late Rally Stuns The Mets

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

The Washington Nationals waited for New York’s Matt Harvey to exit the game — then rallied late against the Mets’ bullpen and pulled out a stunning 6-4 victory at Citi Field on Friday night. Washington skipper Davey Johnson said the victory might be the biggest one of the season for Washington.

As expected, the talented Harvey provided a solid outing for the New Yorkers: he gave up just three hits in seven innings of work, while striking out eleven. His only mistake came in the fourth inning, when he gave up a home run to Washington shortstop Ian Desmond.

Harvey showed why he’s considered the best pitcher in the National League. He struck out Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth three times, more than half his strikeout total. “He’s always got no-hit stuff. He throws 97 miles per hour with a breaking ball, cutter, slider, changeup, everything else you got. He has it,” Ian Desmond said of Harvey.

Washington rallied after Harvey’s departure, scoring three runs with two outs in the eighth inning. The Nationals’ runs came off of reliever Brandon Lyon, who entered the game with Denard Span and Roger Bernadina on second and third. Lyon then walked Anthony Rendon and gave up a clutch double to Ryan Zimmerman, who cleared the bases and tied the score.

Reliever Tyler Clippard entered the game to pitch the bottom on the 8th, and kept New York off of the board. Washington then put the game away by scoring two in the top of the final frame: Ian Desmond doubled scoring Jayson Werth and Kurt Suzuki hit a sacrifice fly to score Desmond. Drew Storen picked up his second save of the season by pitching a perfect, lights-out ninth.

“The beginning of the year, we had no comeback wins, no runs scored late,” Ryan Zimmerman said following the victory. “The past couple of weeks, we have been getting a lot better at that. That’s the team we were last year. Hopefully we can continue to do that, because we are not going to get to the starter every day. Sometimes you have to come from behind. It’s not easy, but good teams do that.”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: It was another night of entertaining Left Coast baseball, especially in Oakland — where the St. Louis Cardinals, the National League’s best team, got a whiff of A’s ace Bartolo Colon. Colon made it look effortless: he threw eight innings of six hit baseball in notching his eleventh win as the Elephants stomped the Redbirds, 6-1 . . .

Colon is 40-years-old (but who knows, really), stands 5-11 and weighs 267 (but who knows, really) and (as you might recall), won the the Cy Young while pitching in Anaheim in 2005 (he was an eye-blinking 21-8). This year, at 11-2, he might actually be better . . .


Praising Arizona

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

We tend to forget, but it wasn’t so long ago that the Arizona Diamondbacks ruled the National League West. Back in 2011 (when the Nationals finished a single game under .500), the D-Backs won 94 games and finished eight games in front of the Giants. They seemed set for the future: an N.L. West powerhouse that could only get better.

But Arizona’s dominance was short-lived: they struggled mightily in 2012, and ended the season at .500, thirteen back of the eventual world champions. Most other G.M.s would have left well enough alone, hoping that the crew that had played so well in 2011 would regain its form in 2013. But not G.M. Kevin Towers: he spent the winter of 2012 retooling — eliciting howls from baseball pundits.

The first to go in the purge was outfielder Chris Young, dealt to Oakland in October for shortstops Cliff Pennington and Yordy Cabrera. Towers then flipped Cabrera to Miami for closer Heath Bell and then, one month later, traded reliever Ryan Wheeler to Colorado for relief specialist Matt Reynolds.

So far this looked like going-through-the-motions. But then, Towers pulled off two swaps that staggered Arizona’s fanbase: in December he let three pitchers (including prospect Trevor Bauer), go to Cleveland for shortstop Didi Gregorius, lefty Tony Sipp and first baseman Lars Anderson.

Several weeks later, Towers moved Justin “boo’d by the fans” Upton (as well as Chris Johnson) to Atlanta in a blockbuster that brought in third sacker/outfielder Martin Prado, in addition to pitchers Randall Delgado and Zeke Spruill and infielders Nick Ahmed and Brandon Drury.

The trades received almost universally bad reviews. “If that sounds like a good deal to you,” Keith Law said in reaction to the Upton trade, “I have some beachfront property in Phoenix to sell you.” Less harsh, but as pointed, Rob Neyer said that Towers was “playing the long game, and doesn’t have any real intention of competing with the Giants and Dodgers in 2013.”

Well, not exactly. Seven months after Towers transformed the D-Backs line-up, Arizona is three games in front in the N.L. West, while the Giants and Dodgers are 3.5 and eight games back, respectively. As is now apparent, there was a method in Towers’ madness, which included trading away players who wanted to be elsewhere — and finding a shortstop.


Desmond Pounds The Cubs: Streak Now At Five

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

Ian Desmond went 3-4, which included a home run and an RBI double, and the Nationals won their fifth in a row in downing the Chicago Cubs, 7-3 at Nationals Park. Desmond’s hitting came at just the right time: Jayson Werth is poised to go on the D.L. and Bryce Harper sat out with an ingrown toenail.

While the Cubs pounded out more hits than the Nationals (10 vs. 9), Washington made their at-bats count: the Nationals left only eight men on base during the game, while the Cubs stranded 15.

“I go out there and try to play to win,” Desmond said after the victory. “It seems like every year that I’ve been here, we have gotten a little bit better. That’s all you could really ask for as a player”

The Nationals feasted off the fastball pitching of Chicago Cubs’ ace Jeff Samardzija, who gave up five earned runs in five innings. “I needed to make a couple better pitches and get out of those innings with no damage and get your offense back in the dugout to score some runs,” Samardzija said.

Washington lefty Ross Detwiler, meanwhile, was able to scatter eight Chicago hits over 6.2 innings of work, with steady Craig Stammen throwing 2.1 innings in solid relief. The victory marked Detwiler’s second win of the season, while Stammen sports an impressive 2.65 ERA in 17 innings of work.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Angel Hernandez was behind the plate for last night’s Nationals-Cubs match-up, and his strike zone was as wiggy as it’s always been. Hernandez is at the center of the storm over a blown call in Cleveland on Thursday. Given Hernandez’s reputation, that’s hardly a surprise . . .

The Hernandez home run controversy is now legion: with two outs in the top of the 9th, the A’s Adam Rosales launched a shot into the stands at Progressive Field which bounced off a railing above the fence and back onto the field. The umpiring crew called it a double, then retreated to the clubhouse to review the videotape . . .


Baltimore’s Chops

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

How ’bout them O’s? The Orioles powered past the Oakland A’s 7-3 yesterday off of home runs from Nick Markakis, Adam Jones (which were back-to-back) and Nate McLouth. This was the Birds’ eighth victory in their last ten games, and assured them of a series win over the reeling White Elephants.

The Orioles are 15-9 on the season and are currently in second place in the tough A.L. East. There are all kinds of reasons for the O’s early season success, but none of them has to do with good starting pitching. While Chris Tillman gave them a solid outing yesterday (six innings, seven strikeouts), it’s the O’s bats that have made the difference.

The Orioles are third in runs scored in the A.L., third in home runs, fifth in team average and fourth in hits. In the opinion of CFG’s crack research team (here we are, in case you’ve forgotten), the O’s two through five hitters are among the most formidable in baseball: Manny Machado, Markakis, Jones and Chris Davis.

It’s possible to date the “arrival” of the O’s from the day that Manny Machado (their first pick in the 2010 draft) showed up at third base, which was on August 9 of last year. The O’s worried, worried, worried that Machado wasn’t quite ready, (he was just 20, and just three years out of high school), but he hit a respectable .262 last year and is at .277 this year.

Machado immediately showed he belonged; he singled and tripled in his debut, then hit two homers in his second game. At the end of the season, Machado’s .445 slugging percentage was the fourth highest by a third sacker his age, behind Jimmie Foxx, Bob Horner and Eddie Matthews. O’s fans took notice: the team went 33-18 after he arrived.