Archive for the ‘predictions’ Category

Strasburg and Harper’s “Stuff”

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

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

Unless, of course, they do.

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

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

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

Nats Victims In Frisco, Face Friars

Friday, May 28th, 2010

There are plenty of ways to lose a ballgame — and the Nats used most of them on Thursday. Leading 4-2 against Frisco starter Barry Zito going into the seventh inning (and with the game seemingly in hand), the Nationals committed a costly error, the bullpen failed to close out the game, and Washington’s bats (which had undergone a revival of sorts on Wednesday), failed to rally. The result was a 5-4 loss to the Giants in a classic “if only” game that would have given the Nats a solid on-the-road series win. The bottom of the seventh started with what should have been an out, but a ground ball from Giants’ left fielder John Bowker skipped past first baseman Adam Dunn into the outfield. A passed ball followed. The Nats were still in the game and headed for a win when the usually reliable Sean Burnett gave up a single to Nate Schierholtz, whose single to center scored Bowker. Andres Torres singled to right and Freddy Sanchez — hitting against Tyler Walker — followed with another single. That was all the Giants would need.

Facing The Friars: The Padres are baseball’s surprise team — they lead the NL West by two, are nine games over .500 and have one of the best young pitching rotations in the majors. But let’s get real: the Friars don’t have an outfield, are backing and filling on defense (Chase Headley is scooping up the impossible at third, but that won’t last), and no one excepting Adrian Gonzalez has the power of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham or Ivan Rodriguez. Credit the Padres magnificent start, then, to the pitching of groundball specialist Jon Garland, the always-around-the- strike-zone youngster Matt Latos and Pale Hose trade bait Clayton Richard. And, to be honest, the Little Monks have been helped immeasurably by an early schedule that featured massacres against Arizona, Milwaukee and Seattle.

This should not detract from what San Diego has accomplished. The Friars took three from San Francisco in mid-April, then four of five in May. The McCovey’s were embarrassed, as well they might be. Seven of eight wins against Frisco and dominant series against the three stooges (the Showboats, Brewers and Navigators) have been more than enough to compensate for what San Diego lacks: a line-up that (with two lone exceptions) does something besides stand at the plate and pretend to hit. Too harsh? The Padres rank 25th of 30 in BA, 25th in home runs, 25th in hits, and 22nd in RBIs. As for their pitching — well, they rank 1st in ERA, 1st in shutouts, and have given up fewer runs than any other team in baseball. They rank fifth in strike outs. What is even more impressive is that the San Diego rotation does not have a pitcher equal to the NL elite of Jimenez, Halliday, Wainwright, Lincecum, Carpenter, Haren or Hamels — relying for wins on free agent afterthought Jon Garland (6-2, 2.10 ERA), newcomer lefty Clayton Richard (4-2, 2.73 ERA),  talk-of-the-town speedballer Mat Latos (4-3, 3.09 ERA) and Frisco retread Kevin Correia (4-4, 4.03 ERA). Oh, and Heath Bell — who has an eye-popping 1.29 ERA to go with his 13 saves.

So here’s the question: are the Padres for real? The answer, as given by a Padres fan, is probably “no.” Writing in The Hardball Times, Friars’ partisan Geoff Young opines that the Friars “have gotten where they are by pitching way over their heads.” Which is to say — this isn’t going to last. Not only have the Padres yet to face the league’s stiffest competition, it’s hard to imagine that Garland & Company will match up well against a staff that features Halliday and Hamels, or Carpenter and Wainwright. That . . . and the Padres flat out just can’t hit. Of course the San Diego front office could dangle Adrian Gonzalez for a top-of-the-line bat, except for one thing — Gonzalez is a top-of-the-line bat. All of this is said while tempting the fates: for the Nats are headed into the dog bowl tonight to test the thesis that, sooner or later, the Pads will fold. But until they do, there’s this: if you can’t get to San Diego’s starters you’re not going to win. Because if you go into the 9th behind, you’ll be facing Heath Bell — the best closer in the game.

Dunn, Atilano Clip Dodgers

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Backed by two homers from Adam Dunn, right handed rookie starter Luis Atilano subdued the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, 5-1. It was Atilano’s first start. The rookie threw an effective mix of fastballs, curves and change-ups in notching his first major league victory — earning the praise of both Dodger skipper Joe Torre and Nats’ manager Jim Riggleman. “The youngster really did a good job of throwing strikes and changing speeds,” Torre said. “We had some scouting reports on him and some video, but the fact that he had so many strikes early in the count enabled him to do what he did, which was very impressive. He did a great job.”

While Dunn passed off reporters who questioned whether his 2-3 showing ended his slump, the slugger seemed more comfortable at the plate than he has since the beginning of the season: “It’s just a first game. But it felt good,” Dunn said. “Again, I’ve been feeling good all along. I just haven’t been doing much. Two thoughts went through my head. On the first home run, I went up there, I was going to basically jam myself and stay inside of [the ball]. The other one was to revert back to slow-pitch softball, minus the beer coolers in the dugout.” Dunn’s game vaulted his BA above .200 for the year and eased fears that his slump might be more permanent. His first home run of the night (in the fourth inning) was prodigious — it landed in the upper deck in right field.

Are The Nationals “For Real?” It’s a good question — at least for baseball commentators and “power ranking” gurus. From “Baseball Tonight” to the MLB Network, the Nats are getting a lot of ink. The Nats 9-8 record is nothing to brag about, unless you’re a team with 103 losses in 2009. But the baseball press is taking the Nats seriously, in spite of injuries to Jason Marquis, Ryan Zimmerman’s nasty and nagging hamstring and Adam Dunn’s power outage. Tim Kurkjian (not surprisingly) predicted the Nats’ break out, calling the Nats the “most transformed team in the National League” at the beginning of the season. Baseball’s “power rankings” reflect this new reality: the Nats are listed at 24 (ahead of the White Sox and Mets) by ESPN, but 18th by Fox Sports (ahead of the Red Sox!).

There are some simple truths here: the Nats are better than last year, are better than the Astos, Diamondbacks, Orioles and Royals and deserve credit for their strong and early start. But it’s hard to believe that a staff of Lannan, Stammen, Olsen and Hernandez can out-pitch a staff anchored by the likes of Lester and Beckett. Nats fans know that “power rankings” go out the window once Rizzo and Company have to rely on rookie pitchers to provide stop-gap wins. But the glass is half full: if Chien-Ming Wang can return healthy when he’s supposed to, if Jason Marquis can come back quickly and if Stephan Strasburg is all everyone says he is (and he is), then come June all bets are off. For the first time in five years, the team is tough defensively and has a strong bullpen. It might be hard for some to swallow (like Mets fans for instance, or that team up the road) , but Nats fans don’t need the power rankings to tell you — this team is for real.

No Surprise: The Phillies Will Grab the Flag

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Roy Halladay, Baseball, Philadelphia Phillies

The votes are in and it appears to be unanimous: the Philadelphia Phillies are the New York Yankees of the National League — or rather, the Ponies are so good that the Yanks are the Phillies of the American. It’s not exactly a secret; the Phillies are that good. If there’s any curse on the Phillies it’s simply this: they’re on the front cover of SI, which might mean that their coming campaign will fizzle. But I don’t see how. The core of Halladay, Hamels, Happ, Howard, Utley and Werth (and the addition of an admittedly overpriced Placido Polanco) makes them the odds-on favorites in the NL Least, with the Tomahawks, Fish, Nats and Apples finishing as also-rans. It won’t be close.

What’s interesting about “the Least” is not the fight for first or even second (which will go, almost by default, to Atlanta), but the fight for third. Don’t laugh. The Marlins always seem to play over their heads, as they did for a time last year — when they were all the rage for fans who think that April matters. They’ll come back to reality in 2010 (or, being the Fish, they’ll take a bunch of mugs and win the World Series). Outside of Josh Johnson (as good a pitcher as there is in baseball) and Ricky Nolasco, their front four is shakey. They’ll have to count on Burke Badenhop to step up (how likely is that?), and outfielder Chris Coughlan will have to dodge the sophomore jinx. He won’t. True: the Fish have a power infield, with one of the strongest up-the-middle combos (with Ramirez and Uggla) in the MLB. But the Nats have their own power players, and if Stephen Strasburg arrives fully ready in June (or earlier), the front four of Strasburg, Marquis, Lannan and Stammen (and Hernandez) will regularly outpitch the Fish. So, given a little luck (and a healthy and as-advertised Strasburg), the NL Least will be 1) Philadelphia, 2) Atlanta, 3) Washington, 4) Florida and 5) New York. Or it won’t — and the Nats will suffer through a not-quite-as-bad-as-last-year season, and finish fourth.

So here’s the question: what the hell is wrong with the Mets? Well . . . maybe nothing. If Jose Reyes can resurrect his best years, if Jason Bay can be in New York what he was in Boston, if David Wright can be the bopper he was in ’08, and if the New Yorkers can find someone who scares hitters even half-as-much as Johan Santana — then the “boys of slumber” can finish as high as second. But that’s a lot of “ifs,” and a second act that features Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and a half-dozen question marks does not bode well for a team that, even when healthy, will have trouble winning 9-7 slugfests. This says it quite well: the Mets face “a rather inconvenient truth” — that even if healthy (which they’re not), they’re just not very good. So buckle your seat belts Mets’ fans: these are your daddy’s Mets.

As for the Nats — barring injury (there oughta be a default button for that phrase here somewhere), the Nats will bring the bats, and everything else will depend (as it always does) on pitching and defense. Both are better, but nowhere near where they should be. In our dreams Adam Dunn has a fantasy player year (of close to fifty dingers), Ryan Zimmerman becomes all-world (and finishes as a runner-up in the MVP voting), Adam Kennedy returns to form, Matt Capps becomes Joe Nathan (sans injury), and the platoon in right field is filled by someone like this guy. If that happens then anything is possible . . .

Since this is baseball, and anything is sometimes just not possible, the kind of season the Nats will have will be obvious for all to see within the season’s first twenty games. The bullpen is better, but it’s still iffy, and the team will need to find an early spark. I agree with the SI assessment: the early spark for the Nats will have to be Nyjer Morgan. A fast start for the fleet-footed center fielder will build confidence in a team that (after the 100-plus losses of ’09) sorely needs it. That means the pressure is on; Morgan will be expected to run the Nats into (instead of out of) games, and he’ll be expected to use his speed to make up for a shaky corner outfield defense. Which is simply to say: if Morgan proves to be the spark we expect, then the Nats will not only have a better 162-game outing this year than they did last, they’ll actually be a pleasure to watch. Especially when they play the Mets.

Alberto’s Solid Spring

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

It looks like all-glove-little-lumber Alberto Gonzalez — CFG’s favorite non-starting infielder (we have plumped for him ’til we’re nauseated) — has made the Washington Nationals’ roster cut, and will head north with the team when they break camp. It’s a great decision: putting aside all those weepy Nats fans who rode Gonzalez mercilessly last year, the Venezuelan had a single slump, while otherwise registering a fairly respectable season. He was getting hot again just as the season ended and finished the year off at .265 with nearly 300 at bats. Not bad and, in fact, for a guy who was seeing just his second full year in the majors, it was damned good. It’s likely, barring an injury, that he’ll get the same number of plate appearances this year — and if Adam Kennedy slumps (it’s happened before, and it could happen) we might see him back at second full time. 

Gonzalez picked up in Spring Training where he left off in September — swinging the bat with authority. He had a terrific Grapefruit League campaign, a fact commented on by Nats’s Manager Jim Riggleman, who can now be counted as part of the Alberto Gonzalez fan club (which, probably, makes two of us): “He has great hands. He has a good strong arm, doesn’t make errors and has good at-bats. Unless there is an unforeseen circumstance, we would count on him … this year. He has been very solid this spring and did a nice job for us last year.”

With Gonzalez headed north, the pressure now appears to be on the remaing pitchers — with Olsen, Martin, Bergmann, Chico (and guys like that) on the bubble — as well as a catcher, now that Mike Rizzo has signed Chris Coste. It would be great if Mike Morse could head north: in case there’s a breakdown (like a .220 BA) in right field. The Gonzalez news is news; the much-criticized second sacker (he played short left while he was at shortstop) needed to rethink his mechanics at the plate, which he did with the help of Rick Eckstein. “He knows his strike zone, he is discipline to swinging at strikes in the strike zone,” Eckstein said about Gonzalez. “He is really battling and staying on pitches during his at-bats. He is a very solid player. Since he walked into camp, he’s had a real good focus, real good work ethic and a passion to be the best he can be.”

Those Are The Headlines, Now For The Details: So, which team is the most “transformed” team in the National League? That would be the Nationals — at least according to Tim Kurkjian (who spent a good deal of last season wondering whether Washington should even have a team). But Kurkjian dampens his view by noting that the transformation might not show up in the standings. He’s right about the transformation — our bet is he’s wrong about the standings . . . our fans are getting impatient, urging us to return to our time-worn tradition of making predictions, and so we will. We’ll do that this weekend. My daughter (here’s a childhoood picture) is particularly intent to hear what we have to say about her Chicago Cubs. She’ll have to wait, but here’s a preview — the Cubs are like the little girl with the curl: when they’re good, they’re very, very good. But when they’re bad, they’re horrid. This year? Stay tuned  . . . 

100 Losses

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Just before losing a back-and-forth tussle with the Dodgers at Nationals Park on Thursday (final score: 7-6), the Nats front office apparently decided it was time to start preparing for next year. The things-are-looking-up offensive had the distinct odor of being planned to coincide with the Nats’ 100th in-season loss, a kind of Mendoza line for franchise futility. The “let’s talk up the good news” program included an on-line fan exchange featuring Mike Rizzo, a fan appreciation reception just before the Nats game with the Dodgers, a website feature on Ryan Zimmerman’s amazing season, and select “don’t worry, we’re on the right road” post game quotes from Jim Riggleman and company. “I’m just so proud of these guys,” Riggleman said after the Dodgers loss. “With exception of a ballgame or two — from the All-Star break on — we have been outstanding in terms of effort and attitude. Our fans responded to the energy on the field . . .  The Dodgers are going to popping champagne any day and we [are going to be right there soon].”

Well, maybe. Nats fans continue to show up at the ballpark, but Mike and Company shouldn’t be fooled: the team is on a short leash. Good teams are strong up the middle, but successful franchises are characterized by strong front offices. This 100 loss season can be put down to bad pitching and poor play, but Nats fans know that the most chilling aspect of ’09 didn’t take place on the field. Last January (four months to go before opening day) the Nats’ brain trust had already decided that Joel Hanrahan would be the closer, that its young pitchers were ready to carry the team to respectability, that there was no need to sign a strong glove to anchor a shaky infield, that Dmitri Young would return to provide clubhouse leadership — that Lastings Milledge was on his way to stardom. When Jim Bowden resigned as the team G.M., he predicted “a championship season.”

It’s possible to be wrong about a player, to spend too much money signing a prospect, to make a bad trade, to over value a free agent — that happens to the best teams and it’s forgivable. But to pin your hopes on the bats of Austin Kearns, Lastings Milledge, Dmitri Young and the arms of Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera is beyond strange. It’s nearly perverse. The Washington Nationals ’09 campaign is a “lost season” not simply because the team lost 100 games (though, there’s that) but because the team spent the first three months of the season building what it should have been building for the last five years: a group of development experts and talent assessors who are capable of being honest about what’s on the field. So let’s not mistake what happened yesterday: the front office of the Washington Nationals decided to divert our attention from what has been happening on the field – and for good reason.

Mark DeRosa’s Revenge

Friday, August 28th, 2009

At the outset of the ’09 season, baseball’s prognosticators picked the Cardinals for second place in the NL Central — or even third — behind the Cubbies, who had rejiggered their line-up to be more “balanced.” The Cubs had traded super utilityman Mark DeRosa to the Naps and signed on left handed hitting Milton “Game Board” Bradley, mixing a righthanded heavy line-up that had been swept in the playoffs at the hands of the hated Trolleys. The Cubs — a veritable set of mashers — were on the way up, the Cards (a bunch of sore arms and also-rans) were on the way down. Now, months later, the results of all those moves are in: and the Cardinals are running away with the division crown. While afficiandos focus on the Cubs’ failures, there’s more reason to argue that Cards G.M. John Mozeliak made all the right moves and all of them just at the right time. So what happened?

The Cardinals began their sprint to the top of the NL Central at the end of June: the timing coincided with their trade for Cleveland’s DeRosa. The Cards shipped reliever Chris Perez to Cleveland to land DeRosa to shore up a wobbly infield and undermanned outfield. Just one day later, DeRosa went on the DL, but the deed was done and the Cards were overjoyed with their acquisition. So was DeRosa: his last place ass had landed in a tub of first place butter: “From a selfish standpoint, I get to battle for a division title again and I’m in a good position with a great team.” Then, at the end of July, Mozeliak traded a passel of prospects to the White Elephants for Matt Holliday. It’s not simply that Holliday was a good hitter, he knew NL pitching and could provide protection behind Pujols, who was starting to see more walks than Cards manager Tony La Russa liked. Holliday cashed in a Mozeliak’s trust, setting the league on fire.

Mark DeRosa

But Holliday was just one piece of a make-over that Mozeliak had in mind. Two days before sealing the Holliday deal, the Cards G.M. traded away Chris Duncan to Boston for under appreciated shortstop Julio Lugo, who had worn out his welcome with the Red Sox. With acquisition Khalil Greene (whom Mozeliak had hoped would plug the Cards hole at the position) not working out, the Redbirds were desperate to find a solution. Lugo hasn’t exactly been ripping up the NL, but La Russa has done his usual sleight-of-hand in getting the most from him: he starts at second against left handed pitchers (for left swinging Skip Schumaker) and at short when breakout youngster Brendan Ryan needs a breather. So far so good: such mixing and matching would not have been possible in Boston, where psychologically hobbled Theo Epstein would never have subbed for Dustin Pedroia.  

There’s more. The acquisition of John Smoltz, it is now reported, is the result of a recommendation to La Russa and Mozeliak by the newly acquired DeRosa, who told them that the future hall of famer would fit in nicely in St. Louis. The Cardinals bit: outbidding the Marlins, Dodgers and Rangers for his services. For the Cubs (and the rest of the N.L. Central), DeRosa can be counted as the latest in a series of team curses. He has become a kind of Jason of the N.L. Central — an unforgiving and murderous nightmare, taking retribution on the Baby Bears for not having enough confidence in him to keep him around.

There’s no question. Signing Smoltz was a gamble for the Cardinals, but so far (at least) it seems to have worked out: in Smoltz’s first outing against the Friars, the righty threw five innings of three hit ball. He looked sharp and confident. He looked at home on the mound. He looked like he was back. The outing raised eyebrows around major league baseball: maybe the old guy still has something left. Yeah, maybe. But Smoltz doesn’t have to be the lights-out John Smoltz of old. He just has to pitch well enough to give the Cardinals another arm in their already superb arsenal of arms: Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Joel Pineiro. Smoltz could set the Cards up for a good run in the offseason. He could bring them into the post-season as the team to beat. And wouldn’t it be nice to see St. Louis facing off against that other great team in the league: The Los Angeles Dodgers The Colorado Rockies.

Nats Claw Orphans

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Any team can have a bad century, but the former White Stockings, Colts, Orphans and, now, Chicago Cubs are in line for a major league unprecedented 101st season without a championship. The Washington Nationals may well have put the final nail in the Cubs’ coffin for this season on Tuesday night with a 15-6 clobbering of the little bears at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. The Nats’ onslaught was led by two home runs from Josh Willingham — including a touch-em-all that landed beyond the left field wall on Waveland Avenue — and a grand slam dinger from a struggling Elijah Dukes. After the game, the usually reticent Dukes said that he was “waiting for something that moved” from Cubs reliever Aaron Heilman, a Mets castoff with a suspiciously high ERA. And he got it. Dukes, who has been taking so much batting practice that he had to sit out two games after injuring his thumb in the batting cage, accounted for five RBIs while walking twice. Dukes, whose BA has been see-sawing all season, has a fairly hefty RBI total: it now stands at 51. And it’s true — Dukes has been hitting the ball with more confidence and authority (and to the opposite field), after being recalled from the minors.

Elijah Dukes Accounts for 5 RBIs (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Elijah Dukes Accounts for 5 RBIs (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Washington righthander Garrett Mock pitched 5.2 innings for the win, his third of the season. Mock looked good, if not overpowering, with a snappy fastball, but was lifted by interim manager Jim Riggleman for reliever Tyler Clippard. Clippard and Saul Rivera closed out the game. Riggleman’s habit of pulling starters early was on prominent display at Wrigley — he has a history of pulling the trigger on his starters, a habit he developed when he managed in Chicago, his first managing job. Mock was clearly upset by the decision, showing his irritation on the bench. In fact, there’s no reason why the young righthander couldn’t have gotten the third out in the fifth, particularly with the Nats leading (at that point) 9-1. In all, Mock threw 89 pitches, 59 of them for strikes: hardly an elbow shattering experience.

Down On Half Street: Bill Ladson is reporting that the Nats have signed Livan Hernandez to a major league contract. The team has sent Collin Balester to the minors to make room for Hernandez. On MASN after the conclusion of the Nats-Cubs tilt, Ray Knight described the news as “a potential coup” by Nationals’ General Manager Mike Rizzo. Nationals pitchers can use the steadying influence of a veteran presence like Hernandez, Knight said. He added that the Nats also want to set a standard of winning, with important games coming, and Hernandez knows how to win. Hernandez was a fan favorite when he was with the Nats. The official release from the Nats reads, in part: “He will make his first start on Wednesday at Chicago (NL), while J.D. Martin (2-3, 4.76) will start Thursday’s series finale at Wrigley Field” . . .  Is “ambitioned” a word? In a column in the Washington Post this week, I thought I read Chico Harlan say that a Nats’ pitcher had “ambitioned” to be a pitcher all his life. So is it? Is “ambitioned” a word? I admit, I have efforted to find out, but I’ll be damned if I can find it in the dictionary . . .

The horror; the horror: I have gotten sliced and diced from Chicago Cubs fans, dozens of whom have written (well, okay, three of whom have written) to say that the Cubs are still young and tough and plenty fast and that they don’t need to be totally rebuilt. They point out that the North Side Drama Queens are set at shortstop (with Ryan Theriot), at second (with Jeff Baker), in left field (with Jake Fox), at catcher (with Geovany Soto) and have some new former Ahoy pitchers on the mound that will be the new guns of the future — in Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow. Yeah, okay. Gorzelanny looked particularly effective tonight, giving up only three runs in one inning of work . . . so I’ll stick with my two interlocking predictions, contradictory as they might seem: if the Cubs make the playoffs this year (and I don’t think they will) then they’ll win it all — since this will mark the first year after the end of the Merkle Curse (alright, that’s lame, but you never know) but if they don’t win it all, then the Nationals will win the world series before they do. And frankly, I think the second prediction is a pretty safe bet.

A “Wheezing” Nation . . . And Some Nuggets

Monday, August 24th, 2009

DWilly’s piece yesterday about the Red Sox was right on the money: their age is showing. I’ve been looking for a word that describes their play since the All Star break and I’ve had a difficult time coming up with just the right moniker. Then, this morning, I read a piece in the New York Times on the Sox newest Japanese import Junichi Tazawa and there it was: “wheezing.”  Perfect. Their batting averages show it precisely. The Red Sox top four guys are hitting .297, .300, .292 and .308.  After that the averages fall off, with their eight- and nine-slotted guys (Varitek and Gonzalez) not hitting their weight — at .222 and .210 respectively. Combine that with a two man rotation and you get what you get.

It is a truism that this not the ’04 ball club. There is no “Cowboy Up” talk and no emotional sparkplug. There is no Kevin Millar. The oldest guy in the Sox lineup that year was third baseman Bill Mueller, who was 33.  Today Varitek is 37, third sacker Mike Lowell is 35 (both, shown below, in the ’07 series) and two other guys are 33. Not the geriatric ward but no spring chickens either. But there is one similarity with the ’04 club. Today the Sox are 70 – 52, 6.5 games behind the Yanks. On this day five years ago they were in a similar position: 70 – 53, 6.5 games behind the Empire. The Sox finished the ’04 campaign with 98 wins, which is .700 baseball.  But without a bottom half of the lineup and a beat up pitching staff it’ll be quite a feat to match their ’04 glory.

Varitek and Lowell: old then, older now

Diamond Nuggets: Twins catcher Joe Mauer leads the majors with a .378 batting average. As surprising as it is for a catcher to be a league hitting leader it’s even more surprising to see what he’s done in the heat of August.  Over the last 30 days he’s been on a .427 clip with 10 dingers and 26 RBI. With his four year, $33 million contract up for renewal at the end of the 2010 season he’s a lock for a mid-year trade next year. I hope Theo Epstein is paying attention . . . My dislike of the Nationals TV broadcast team continues to deepen. Messers Dibble and Carpenter should be renamed drivel and . . . and . . . well . . . nothing rhymes with Carpenter — but you get the point. The inane stuff that passes for light banter is incredible. Yesterday it was a discussion of Frank Howard doing his laundry on road trips. Really. I toggled over to the Birds’ broadcast and listened intently while Jim Palmer and Gary Thorne talked about pitch counts and game situations. Music to my ears. Actually it felt like I pulled that stick out of my eye. I encourage you all to repeat my Nats/O’s toggle and listen to the differences in the broadcasts. Today was not the first time I’ve switched away from the pablum that passes for entertaining discussion on the Nats telecasts . . .
2007 was thought to be Prince Fielder’s break out year. He had 50 home runs that season along with 119 RBI, 354 total bases and he hit. 288.  But this year might be the one in which he becomes a more complete player. He won’t reach 50 homers (33 so far is nothing to sneeze at), but he’ll have more RBIs (he leads the majors with 110), his OBP is up 19 points over two seasons ago – and he’s hitting 15 points above his average that year. Plus, he’s much more patient at the plate and will probably have 100 walks this year — pretty good for a guy with a power swing. His fielding has also improved. He’s on pace to cut his errors in half from last year’s total of 17 and his fielding percentage is .995.  No wonder they love this guy in Milwaukee.

J.D., Riggleman, and Dunn’s Dinger

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009


The Milwaukee Brewers came into Nationals’ Park the proud owner of a four game losing streak that had put them ten games behind the St Louis Cardinals in the NL East. The Brewers will not likely catch the Redbirds, but they must have been pleased to escape Friday night’s game at Nationals Park with a decisive 7-3 win. There was much to be proud of in the Nats’ play, except for the final score: J.D. Martin threw 6.2 innings, gave up eight hits and struck out four. Perhaps most important of all, he didn’t walk one Blatzman and gave the Nats’ bullpen a rest. His solid showing placed him firmly in line for future starts — and a potential place in a revamped 2010 rotation. But Martin gave up home runs to Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee, which proved decisive: and Brewers’ starter Braden Looper gave up four hits in six innings of work.

The most memorable moment of the day, of course, was Stephen Strasburg’s appearance at Nationals Park, where he was introduced by the front office and Nats’ All Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Nats’ fans packed the stands along the third base line to get a glimpse of the college phenom. Strasburg appeared genuinely complimented by the lavish attention and modest enough to admit that his journey to the big leagues was dependent on his own success — and the decision of the organization’s baseball people. This is amazing,” Strasburg said of the crowd. “To play at San Diego State, where we didn’t get many fans until this year, this is pretty special.” The Strasburg introduction was well-handled, a down payment on the promise made by the ownership at the all star break that things would get better for Nats fans. The Nats front office must believe the Strasburg investment has already started to pay dividends.

There were two other memorable events of the day, both important. The first was the light stand shot that Adam Dunn launched against the Brewers in the 1st inning. The home run, Dunn’s 32nd,  landed on the concourse just off the second deck in upper right field. My guess is that it was the longest dinger hit in Nationals Park. Ever. Dunn’s OBP is at .420 and after a late-July swoon, his batting average is .288. The second post-Strasburg event of note was interim manager Jim Riggleman’s praise of Nats’ fans in his post game comments after the loss to the Brewers. Riggleman seemed genuinely humbled by the fact that Nats fans are still showing up, night after night, to see major league baseball’s worst team. Riggleman noted that the players appreciate the support. Rigs has it right and it’s about time people noticed. Night after night, between 18,000 to 24,000 fans are showing up to see the Nats play. True: the high end numbers (some 30,000 or more) come to see the Red Sox or Cubs or Cardinals. But that hasn’t been true recently, when the Nats have faced the Rockies and Brewers.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The Yankees-Red Sox tussle is over in Boston, with the final score 20-11. The Empire sealed the victory in the last minute with a field goal by Hideki Matsui. The Yankees drove the ball on the Red Sox with ease, picking apart their secondary. “This shows our character,” a Yankees player said after the game. “This was smash-mouth baseball all night. We were really able to get into their backfield. I just want to thank God for giving me this opportunity . . .” The Back Bay is burning: the Sawx are trailing New York in the NL East by 7.5, and are only one game ahead of the Rays in the wild card . . .

I mean, I can see why the Nats continue to play Ronnie Belliard instead of say, oh, Mike Morse. Can’t you? I mean, really, if we give Morse a chance you never know what might happen. Why, we could even lose some games. We wouldn’t want that to happen. Listen, Ronnie justs needs to get over the nervousness of playing in the big leagues. Like last night for instance: when he got picked off of first base for no damn good reason . . . The Centerfield Gate board of directors (by a very close vote) has instructed me to add three names to my list of underrated MLB Players: Naps’s outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, Belinski’s outfielder Kendry Morales and Ahoys’ outfielder Garrett Jones. So who the hell is Garrett Jones? Jones is the Pirates’ new right fielder, whom the Pirates got from the Twinkies  for ah . . . well, for no one at all. Jones is the guy the Ahoys signed as a free agent after the Twins released him. Will someone please, please, please, wake up the Twins. Garrett Jones has fourteen home runs in 43 games. Every time you turn on the television, there he is, plunking another one into the stands at PNC Park. Then the three people in attendance stand and cheer as one. It’s enough to shake your lack of faith in Neal Huntington . . .

Mets Pirates Baseball

On Baseball Tonight on Friday night, Tim Kurkjian said that the Cubs might be done. What? C’mon, really? There’s forty games left. Are you sure?