Archive for the ‘pitching’ Category

Maya Steady, Gee Whiz

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

ASSOCIATED PRESS Washington Nationals starting pitcher Yunesky Maya throws his first pitch in his debut in the majors, during a baseball game against the New York Mets on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010, in Washington.

Yunesky Maya is an acquired taste: after a rocky first inning (in which Mets’ first baseman Ike Davis hit one of the longest home runs in the short history of Nationals’ Park), the highly touted Cuban righthander settled down and pitched steadily through the 5th. But (as nearly every print journalist — and Jim Riggleman), said after the Nats lost 4-1 to the Mets, it was too late. Maya gave up three runs in the first and one in the second, and Mets rookie righty Dillon Gee shut down the Nats, pitching a no-hitter until Willie Harris put a dinger into the right field seats. “I gave up four runs. I just wanted to hold them there to give the team a chance to win the game,” Maya said after his first outing in a Nats’ uniform. “I didn’t want them to score any more runs on me. I just felt more comfortable [after] that first inning. I was hitting my spots. When I do well, that’s what I do. I’m ahead of the hitters, and I can do what I want after that.”

Despite the shaky start (Maya admitted that he was nervous), Maya’s curve and smarts make him a contender for a spot in the Nats’ starting rotation in 2011. This is good news for Washington G.M. Mike Rizzo, who signed the Cuban veteran to a four year $6 million contract in July. The “book” on Maya is that, while he does not have overwhelming stuff, he is a smart veteran pitcher with enough experience to make an impact on the club — adding a much-needed savvy arm (to go with that of Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis) to a group of youngsters. And despite the early shakiness, Maya’s Nats’ teammates were impressed with what they saw. Maya’s steady start was the talk of the Nationals’ club house following the game — but the new Cuban finesse artist took a distinct second spot in the headlines to Mets’ rookie Dillon Gee.

Gee, a 27th round draft pick of the Mets in 2007, shut down the Nats — even though, like Maya, he did not have overpowering stuff. But Gee’s mix of pitches was enough to impress Nats’ reserve Willie Harris, whose command of Gee provided the modest Washington crowd with a sigh of relief. “The one thing I noticed was that he was pretty aggressive in the strike zone early,” Harris said following the game. “He was going fastball early, and then he was going to his breaking pitch. Once he started guys off with breaking pitches and got behind in the count, he would come after them with fastballs.” Gee’s arrival is good news for the Mets, who are in desperate need of starting pitching as they attempt to salvage something from a disappointing season. The addition of Gee could be just what the Mets front office ordered — the New Yorkers have few top-notch pitching prospects in their minor league system and have made puzzling mistakes in judging their mound talent (Oliver Perez) over the last several years. Gee, as he showed on Tuesday, is the welcome exception.

(above: AP photo of Yuniesky Maya; below, Dillon Gee,  AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Two Of Three From The Ahoys

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Ryan Zimmerman accounted for four of the Nats runs with four RBIs, righty Jason Marquis pitched a solid six innings and slugger Adam Dunn hit a long home run into the left field seats as the Washington Nationals beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-1 on Sunday. The win marked the first time that the Nats had won a road series since May, as the Anacostia Nine took two of three on the road against the Ahoys. “Start-by-start I feel like I’m getting to where I need to be,” Marquis sai following his outing. “Obviously early on I was hurting, and since the surgery I feel like Jason Marquis more day-by-day. The last four starts have been right where I want to be, although I’d like to go a little deeper into games, but I’ve just got to minimize my pitch count and that will happen.”

Fear And Trembling In San Diego: You don’t have to listen too closely to hear the concern in the voices of the radio announcers for the San Diego Padres. It was obvious in the bottom of the 9th inning on Sunday, with the Colorado Rockies about to sweep their three game series with the Friars — sending the Pads to their tenth loss in a row. “Well,” color analyst Jerry Coleman said, “the Padres have three outs to turn this thing around. You have to wonder.” The frustration of the broadcast team of “double X 1090” had been growing throughout the game, ever since the Padres had tied the Rockies in the 6th, only to see the Heltons climb back by scoring two in the top of the seventh. “It’s like we’re snake bit,” Coleman said. The Padres skid is their worst since May of 1994 and the worst for a first place team since the 1932 Pirates. “We’re in games,” Padres manger Bud Black explained after Sunday’s loss. “We’re just not generating the big hit, we’re not generating the offense to get us over the top. We’re just not executing the pitch, making the play that changes the course of a game.”

If San Diego doesn’t do something soon, they’re in danger of drawing comparisons with the 1969 Cubs, who were in first place in August, but then let the Mets catch them, or the 1964 Phillies — whose late-season collapse remains legion. It’s hard to determine what ails the Pads: there haven’t been any blow-outs during the skid, but the team seems incapable of winning the close ones. In many ways, the Sunday tilt against the Rockies was typical: the pitching was solid (but not solid enough) and the Padres hit (but not exactly when they need to), and the team took the early lead — but couldn’t hold it. With the exception of a 5-0 skunking at the hands of the Phillies back on August 29 and an 11-5 disaster against the Diamondbacks (that started the meltdown) the Friars have been in nearly every game.

The Padres’ problem is what we always thought it would be — hitting. The Friars have scored just 23 runs in their ten game skid and have found it nearly impossible to hit with runners in scoring position, plating one run for every five chances. Ryan Ludwick was supposed to help solve the team’s RBI production problems but, after a solid start in his new digs, he just hasn’t done it. The right fielder, who the Padres picked up in a three-way swap with the Cardinals and Indians at the trade deadline, is known for his nose-in-the-dirt play and ability to compete in close games, but he’s hit .194 over the losing streak — a fall-off in production as sudden as it is unexplained. And don’t look now, but young hurler Wade LeBlanc (a solid starter to go with the likes of Mat Latos, Clayton Richard, Jon Garland and Kevin Correia) is in a free-fall. In ten starts since mid-July, LeBlanc has seen his ERA fall from 3.30 to 4.15. Ugh.

There’s a bright side, of course. The Padres are still in first place, the team’s starters are still “the best in the West” (and maybe in the entire National League), Bud Black is one of the savviest managers in the majors — and it ain’t over until it’s over. But the Padres have to be worried: they face the surging McCoveys seven times over the next four weeks (including a four game set this coming weekend) and the Rockies seem to have their number, having won 11 of 15 in their last meetings. The Padres face Colorado in a three game set in Denver starting next Monday — having just been swept by them in San Diego. “We’ll be fine — trust me,” Padres’ second sacker David Eckstein said in the midst of this most recent skid. And, you know, maybe he’s right. But in the sprint to the poll, and with the Giants and Rockies in their rear view mirror, the Padres need to start hitting.

(above: Ryan Zimmerman, AP Photo/Keith Srakocic. Below: David Eckstein in San Diego AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Zimmermann Gem, But Nats Fall

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

The Washington Nationals might not have found their replacement for Stephen Strasburg — but nearly so. The newly healed Jordan Zimmermann pitched a gem against the Florida Marlins on Tuesday night in Miami (giving up one hit and no runs through six complete innings), though the Fish won in the 10th inning, 1-0. Zimmermann was in complete control in only his second outing since returning to Washington — one year after having Tommy John surgery. He struck out nine and walked none in throwing just 86 pitches, 55 of them for strikes. “It’s probably the best I’ve felt in a long time,” Zimmermann said after the game. “I kept the ball down and actually got some fastballs inside, which I didn’t do in my first start.” The Marlins’ winning run came in the bottom of the 10th inning off of Drew Storen, as Hanley Ramirez slid under the tag of Nats’ catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

The game featured yet another Nyjer Morgan controversy, and one likely to seed the kind of bad blood that was present during the Nats-Cardinals series in Washington. In the top of the 9th, Morgan headed home for what would be the go-ahead run, attempting to beat a throw to the plate from infielder Ramirez. Morgan might have slid into home, but decided instead to move Marlins’ catcher Brett Hayes. The resulting collision (in which Morgan was called out) ended with Hayes on the ground, who left the game with an aching left shoulder. “Somebody who does that is looking to hurt somebody,” Hayes claimed after the game. But the Nats are contending that the Morgan-Hayes collision was a clean play: Morgan rarely slides feet-first into a base (and certainly not into home) and would not slide feet first with a catcher retrieving a ball thrown high. “I don’t have any problem with his decision,” Jim Riggleman said.

But in the wake of Morgan’s bump at home against the Cardinals during the last game of the last home stand (a bump for which Riggleman apologized), the collision on Tuesday night leaves lingering questions about Morgan’s intentions — and the Nats’ center fielder has been under pressure recently to produce at the same level that he did in ’09. Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider told the folks at ESPN 980 this afternoon that he thought the play, which has already generated controversy, was clean — a view that he articulated in his column on the game at Nats Insider: “Across the Nationals’ clubhouse, the prevailing sentiment was that Nyjer did the right thing. That came from players, from coaches and from front-office execs. All felt it was a clean play, and the right play.” But, during his radio interview, Zuckerman said that he doubted that Morgan would be with the Nats in center field next year. That may have little to do, however, with his play against either the Cardinals or his collision with Hayes. He is simply not the player now that he was for the Nats in ’10. And, in reflecting on tonight’s tilt in Miami, Zuckerman adds this: “If Morgan is in the Nationals lineup — and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be — don’t be surprised if he gets a fastball in the ribs.”

(above: Nyjer Morgan with Marlins catcher Brett Hayes — AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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.

Tommy John . . . And Stephen Strasburg

Friday, August 27th, 2010

The player for whom Tommy John surgery is named was one of the smartest and tenacious pitchers to ever throw from a major league mound. Check the record: John pitched for 26 years, compiling a 288-231 record with a career 3.34 ERA and 162 complete games. He threw well (he led his league twice in winning percentage and three times in shutouts) and often brilliantly for four good teams: the White Sox, Dodgers, Angels and Yankees. It’s a shame, truly, that Tommy John is remembered best for the surgery that was performed, first, on him — after he “blew out his arm.” For while we credit medicine with inventing “Tommy John Surgery,” the procedure that repaired his arm was really his idea and was performed at his insistence by Dr. Frank Jobe. That fact is important, because most (and damn near all) pitchers before Tommy John who suffered from “forearm stiffness” or “a dead arm” (the names then given to symptoms that pointed to elbow ligament damage) simply left the game. Tommy John didn’t.

Baseball commentators (Peter Gammons, Steve Kurkjian and others), sports talk junkies (ESPN  980’s Tom Loverro and Rick “Doc” Walker) and Nationals’ fanatics (me and you and God knows who else) seem to have come to three conclusions about the news that Stephen Strasburg will have to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. The first is that the Strasburg injury is “devastating” and potentially career ending, that the injury derails Nationals’ plans to contend in 2011 (or even 2012), and that the news reflects the fragility of modern pitchers — whose susceptibility to blowing out their pitching arm shows they aren’t as tough as “old school pitchers.” All three conclusions are false. And here’s why.

Okay, okay: the Strasburg news is “devastating” for Strasburg because it will keep him off the mound for 12 to 15 months; but the news is not fatal either to his career or to the long-term prospects of the Washington franchise. Others have had the surgery, many others, and have come back as good as new — or better. After having “Tommy John surgery,” Tommy John went on to win 164 games. A.J. Burnett, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Arthur Rhodes, Carl Pavano and Billy Wagner have all had the procedure and have come back — in some cases they actually pitched better after the surgery than before. Tommy John surgery does not simply repair a damaged ligament, it replaces it. The goal of the procedure is to make the arm stronger than it was before the surgery. And isn’t it an irony (or, if you prefer, isn’t it nauseating) that the Nationals got the news on Strasburg on the same day that Jordan Zimmermann returned to the mound 12 months after having his own Tommy John procedure — and was able to throw well and without pain.

Is the news “devastating” for the Nats? It would be crazy to argue that the Strasburg news will have no impact on the club. It will. There’s little doubt that the 2011 rotation will suffer without his presence. But to believe that Stan Kasten or Mike Rizzo (or Jim Riggleman), have stated that they are “stockpiling pitchers” because they just happen to love pitchers is perverse. They know. They know that a certain percentage of pitchers will blow a ligament, tear a cuff or strain an elbow — and somebody will have to come in to take their place. The Nats have plenty of young pitchers who want to be in the show, and while none of them have the talent of the phenom, the team is not without hope. Then too, the era of free agency ensures that, should a team lose its best talent to the D.L, it’s possible to sign a savvy and healthy veteran (like, well . . . Tommy John) who can revive a franchise’s fortune. In 1974, while Tommy John was rehabbing from the first-ever Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers finished in second place in the N.L West. But two years later (in 1977) the Dodgers won the pennant — because of Tommy John, who had his best year ever (20-7, 220 innings, 2.78 ERA). Tommy John’s injury was “devastating” for Tommy John, but not for the Dodgers — who did just fine without him. They did what all ball clubs do: they compensated.

Is the kind of injury that sidelined Tommy John — and that is now sidelining Stephen Strasburg — a new development? Does it somehow signal some kind of systemic problem with developing major league pitchers? Weren’t pitchers just “tougher” in past years, and aren’t “these kids” being coddled just a bit too much? This is complete nonsense. The reason that Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal (the two examples most prominently cited, because of the Spahn-Marichal marathon) were able to pitch as effectively as they did for as long as they did is not because they “sucked it up,” but because they never suffered career ending ligament damage. If they had (in the era before Tommy John surgery) their careers would have been over. They weren’t tough, they didn’t “suck it up” — they were lucky. High school baseball, football and basketball squads of the 1960s were littered with coaches whose damaged arms ended their careers. They didn’t refuse to tough it out: they were out of baseball because their arm was “dead.” The difference between then and now is not a difference in “character,” it’s that now we have Tommy John surgery — back then we didn’t.

The news on Strasburg is bad news. It’s very bad news. But Tommy John surgery is not a death sentence. Not even close. It’s an injury — and it will take time to heal. There will be months and months of rest, even before rehab. “The kid” is in for a long journey. But my bet is that he’ll return. Wouldn’t be nice for him to know that when he does — we’ll be there, cheering him on. It’s not time for Stephen Strasburg to suck it up, it’s time for Nats fans to suck it up.

Nats Embarrassed By Cubs, 9-1

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Nets Fan with Bag Over Head

Washington Nationals’ skipper Jim Riggleman was so angry after Monday night’s 9-1 loss to the Cubs that he gave the club a post game tongue lashing that focused on their lack of effort. “Tonight, I felt like we allowed the game situation, the long innings and stuff, just our body language on the field, it allowed us to just have an aura hanging over us that it’s just not happening for us tonight,” Riggleman told the press after the loss. “I guess it’s going to happen a time or two here, but when it happens, it gets addressed.” Riggleman’s views were understated: “We played terrible baseball and we heard [about] it,” outfielder Willie Harris said. “We got embarrassed. Everybody was dead, it seemed like.” The Nats weren’t the only ones embarrassed — the crowd of 17,000-plus provide a Bronx cheer to Livan Hernandez after he started what turned into a double play and clapped wildly when the Anancostia Nine finally mustered their second hit against Cubs rookie hurler Casey Coleman. The Nats are now mired in last place in the N.L. East, 9.5 games behind the Florida Marlins. “We’ve got to find a way,” Riggleman said. “We’ve just got to turn it up a notch.”

The Wisdom of Section 1-2-9: Jim Riggleman lectured his team on lack of effort following the 9-1 pasting, but Riggleman was the target of unusual criticism in the section during the Nats implosion. It started early. “Hey, I have an idea,” a fan said prior to the announcement of the starting line-up, “let’s start Willie Harris in the outfield. By the end of the season he’ll be hitting his weight . . .”  The criticisms reached a crescendo in the 4th inning, when Hernandez had thrown well over 100 pitches: “Let’s see if I have this right,” a grumbling partisan noted. “Livan [Hernandez] can’t throw a strike and is pitching batting practice — and Rigs is leaving him in. Is that right? But Strasburg, just two games ago, was pitching lights out and Mr. Hook sits him down. Doesn’t make sense . . .” There was a mild defense, followed by a a response that has been — through all of “the kid’s” troubles — barely concealed. “Well, we have to protect the guy’s arm,” a fan said, defending the team — and then a series of shaking heads, and this response: “From what? Pitching?”

Riggleman was not the only one in the cross hairs. CFG was the victim of pushy irony, comments that were as blunt as any we’ve received — and all focused on the CFG blog on the weakness of the Cubs. “Crippled sparrows, right? Isn’t that what you said? Crippled sparrows, not birds of prey,” a fellow seat-mate opined. Others chimed in. “Yeah, I thought you said this guy Coleman was no good. He looks pretty good to me.” Fans thought about leaving when Riggleman pinch hit Jason Marquis for Hernandez, in the fifth. “What the hell is Riggleman thinking? This is ridiculous.” Pointed comments were also aimed at Hernandez, usually a fan favorite: “He looks like he doesn’t give a damn.” There were also some well-aimed criticisms flung at the Cubs, and the decision by Lou Piniella to call it quits. “I know the guy’s a legend,” a Nats regular noted, “but he walked away from his ball club. He just walked away. I don’t care what Baseball Tonight says, the guy just left the team. I know his mother’ sick, but c’mon. We all know — he wanted out. He was sick of it.”

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)

Doc Outduels Jason

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Calling his five inning outing against the Phillies “a step in the right direction,” Jason Marquis appeared nearly all the way back from elbow surgery in his outing in Philadelphia on Friday night. While the Nats dropped the contest to the Ashburns and Roy “Doc” Halladay by a score of 1-0, there had to be a huge sigh of relief by the Nats front office that Marquis looked almost (almost) like the pitcher that was once the ace of the Colorado Rockies staff. If Marquis continues to pitch the way he did on Friday (and better — considering that the Nats need someone, somehow, to pitch out of the 5th, 6th or 7th innings), then Mike Rizzo’s $15 million two-year gamble on Marquis will begin to pay off. “I’ve been working hard to get back to where I need to be,” Marquis said after the loss. “I was sick and tired of embarrassing myself out there. It’s a step in the right direction. We’ll keep working to get better. We’ll see what happens in five days.”

All of that is good news; the bad news is that Halladay remains one of the elite pitchers of the National League (and all of baseball, for that matter) — and it showed in his steady if unspectacular strike-after-strike start on Friday. Halladay gave up eight hits to the Nats line-up, but the front nine were not able to bring the baserunners home. The Nationals left an almost astonishing 22 men on base, a signal that while many of the Anacostia Nine can hit the long ball, the station-to-station game played by nearly all successful teams remains elusive. Halladay took advantage of the Nats’ RISP weakness, throwing 116 pitches, 75 of them for strikes. “I battled myself early,” Halladay said after the game “It was one of those games where I was always working to make pitches. I had a little bit of luck on my side. But I’ll definitely take it.” The Nationals continue their visit to the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday, sending Stephen Strasburg to the mound against Kyle Kendrick.

Atlanta Burns Nats

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

There were two pieces of bad news on Tuesday: the first was the Nats lefty Scott Olsen couldn’t make it out of the 6th inning against the Braves in Atlanta, the second was that Josh Willingham may be out for the season. While the second piece of news was assuredly worse than the first (Willingham will almost certainly undergo surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee), Olsen’s failure to tame the Braves (the Nats lost ugly — 10-2) emphasized again the pitching woes that have faced the Anacostia Nine throughout the 2010 campaign. Little relief seems in sight: Jordan Zimmermann may not start for Washington until September, Jason Marquis continues to struggle and the combo of Livan and “the kid” has yet to result in serial wins.

But the most recent reward for frustration goes to Olsen, who was angered by Jim Riggleman’s decision to send him to the bench. While Riggleman retained his reputation for wielding an early hook, Olsen glared at him, stalked off the mound, yelled into his glove on the way to the dugout and then threw his leather angrily when he arrived. Olsen had no comment on Riggleman’s liberal hook, but the Nats skipper didn’t hesitate to defend his decision: “It was 2-0 and now it’s a homer, triple, walk with nobody out,” Riggleman said after the game. “Ole had done a great job. But as great as he was, he lost it that quickly. When you get a couple of runs, you have to minimize the damage. I just felt that our bullpen has a done great job. With the right-hander facing the right-handed hitters, maybe we could get a zero from that point on or maybe just one run. It just appeared to me that [Olsen] wasn’t pitching the same he was in the first few innings.”

The Nats will face the Braves again tonight, with innings eater and starting ace Livan Hernandez scheduled to face off against the normally lights-out Tim Hudson.

Nats Win Snakes’ Series

Monday, August 16th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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