Archive for the ‘san francisco giants’ Category

Zim, Bats Fell Giants

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Jordan Zimmermann finally got the help he needed, as the Washington Nationals rapped out ten hits at Nationals Park yesterday — and the Nats went on to beat the San Francisco Giants, 5-2. The win brought the Anacostia Nine to within one game of .500, with a final game against the Giants coming this evening.

Zimmermann scattered six hits over six innings, striking out four and walking only two. Zimmermann was followed by Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen, all of whom held the Giants scoreless. The big hits of the day were registered by Jayson Werth (who went 3-4) and Pudge Rodriguez, who stroked a clutch two run single in the 8th inning to give the Nationals some late-inning extra runs. Zimmermann registered his second win against four hard-luck losses, throwing 107 pitches, 69 of them for strikes.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: sometimes a slump isn’t just a slump — it’s just the way things are. While Jayson Werth finally seems to be getting on track (and has raised his average to .242), the rest of the Nine continue to struggle. In fact, some of those other sluggers in “The Valley of the Lost Bats” seem to be going the other way.

Adam LaRoche always has a slow April, but it’s now May. He’s hitting .189. Rick Ankiel has shown some life, but he might be right where he’s going to stay — at .230. Plus: those young bucks, Desmond and Espinosa, are lucky to be hitting better than their weight. The real sluggers on the team: Wilson Ramos . . . and . . . and Laynce Nix.

Nats Bats (And Lannan) Scuttle Pirates

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

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

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

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

Assessing The Second Half

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Just one year ago, in 2009, the Washington Nationals opened the second half of their season not only in last place in the NL East, but as the worst team in baseball. The problems then were obvious: the bullpen had imploded, regular outfielder Austin Kearns was slumping, there was no starting pitching and the team seemed uninvolved and detached. The challenge then was different than it is now: to change what was happening on the field, the Nats needed to change what was happening in the front office — a view reflected in ownership’s mid season open letter to fans that contained an embarrassing, but necessary apology. No such apology is needed now. While the Nats are yet again in last place in their division, the rebuilt bullpen is solid, Austin Kearns (DHL’d to Cleveland) has been replaced in the outfield by slugger Josh Willingham, the team’s starting rotation is filled with promise and the clubhouse is tight and optimistic. But perhaps the biggest revolution has been where the fans can’t see it: the front office is retooled — with an engaged general manager and a core of scouts and development experts who are competing with the best in baseball.

The challenges facing the 2009 Nats were obvious, the needed changes reflected in the standings. That’s less true now, particularly considering that the franchise controls one of the game’s premier young pitchers (Stephen Strasburg), has one of the most formidable 3-4-5 line-up combinations in the National League (Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham), is steadied by a future hall of famer behind the plate (“Pudge” Rodriguez), and has — waiting in the wings — a crowd of injured starting pitchers that could energize a second half surge (Jason Marquis, Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Olsen and Chien-Ming Wang). Which is not to say that there aren’t problems. There are. The Nats defense is weak, the team’s set-up men are struggling, their center fielder is having problems on the base paths (and at the plate) and (pending the uncertain return of a quartet of tweeky arms) their starting pitching is shaky.

In 2009, these same problems (and their hypothetical resolution) spurred overly optimistic talk; that the Nationals were actually “only a player or two” from being good. That wasn’t true in 2009 — not even close, but it’s true now. The question for Mike Rizzo is whether he busts up a good thing to continue building, or whether he tweaks the team at the edges, hoping that the return of the Marquis-Zimmermann-Olsen-Wang quartet will provide the necessary spur to vault the team out of last place. It’s not an easy decision: busting up the team means trading popular and productive players (Dunn or Willingham, or both), while tweaking it at the edges probably (probably) means accepting that the Nats future is not now, but sometime next year. If there’s good news here, it’s this: Nats fans won’t have to wait until August or September to determine the team’s fate — that tale will be told before the July 31 trading deadline.

The Wisdom Of Secton 1-2-9: The CFG contingent arrived at the first game of the McCovey series with a new set of fans seated firmly in the row behind the regulars. That the two (I swear) looked like the spitting image of Omar Little and Stringer Bell was tempting: “hey, you two were great in The Wire.” The moment, thankfully, passed. The two turned out to be charter members of the Nyjer Morgan fan club, pumping their fists at every Nyjer moment: “My man,” one said, when Nyjer came to the plate. A row mate was not impressed, mimicking Casey At The Bat — “strike two said the umpire” and then the smile “not my style said Nyjer.” There were titters. When Morgan flipped his bat in disgust at a strike out served up by Matt Cain, the potential for a debate seemed electric, but one of the Morgan partisans smiled:  “You’ll see,” he said, to no one in particular. And he was right: Morgan was 2-5 and knocked in a run. “Hey man,” one of the Morgan fans said, but so we could hear it, “some of these fans don’t remember what Nyjer did for us last year.” His row mate nodded in agreement. “Yeah man, I know. Short memories.” This was greeted by silence. And chagrin. They were relentless, boring in for the kill. One of them tapped me on the shoulder: “That was a rope,” he said, after Morgan put a streaking line drive down the right field line. Okay, okay, okay . . .

“The problem with Clippard is that his curve just isn’t working,” one of the section’s middle relief experts opined in the second game of the San Francisco series. He didn’t need to keep making the point, Clippard was making it for him — “see, look at that.” Clippard looked terrible and shook his head as he came off the field. “He feels it,” and then there was just a tick before this, from a fan down the row: “Yeah, well, he should.” But the section remained optimistic (“he’ll get it back”), even as the Nats squandered a seemingly insurmountable lead (“yeah, but not this inning”). There were some few Giants fans in the seats, complete with newly minted, black and orange, Buster Posey jerseys. One Frisco fan (“San Francisco natives never use that term,” I was told) was tweeting with a family member, even as the Nats compiled a five runs lead. The message was pointed: “My boy Posey will regulate!” He did: 4-5 with 3 RBIs.

Nats Struggling At The Break

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Just  two games ago it was possible to think good things about the Nats. They had taken two of three from a very tough San Diego team and grabbed an easy first game in a three game set against the Giants. And the Nats were beginning to hit. The toughest teams of the west seemed suddenly vulnerable to a line-up filled with a hot home run hitter (in Adam Dunn), a suddenly tough pitching staff (headlined by Stephen Strasburg) and a revived bullpen (with solid arms Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps). But successive losses — one in which the bullpen collapsed and another in which steady Livan Hernandez was anything but — have put a cloud over the Nats’ first half and sparked continued speculation about whether the team will make major moves as the trading deadline approaches. Even Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman, ever the optimist, seemed puzzled (we just have to find a way to play better, he said after the second loss to the McCoveys), while Mike Rizzo evinced some disappointment: “I think we have underachieved a little bit, and I don’t think we played as good as I think we can. I’m looking forward to a better second half.”

While successive losses to the Giants ended the symbolic first half of the season on a low note, the team’s improvement has been undeniable: Stephan Strasburg has arrived (and he’s here to stay), Adam Dunn has emerged as a team and fan favorite (with unacknowledged defensive improvements at first base), the team remains relatively healthy (the notable exceptions being Scott Olsen and Jason Marquis), the bullpen has been sure and steady (in spite of the recent setbacks), Ian Desmond has proven he can hit major league pitching (okay, he’ll need to field major league hitting), and (surprise, surprise) Roger Bernadina has shown he can play with the big guys. There are disappointments — Nyjer Morgan has not been the spark plug he was last year, the team remains unaccountably soft on defense and no single starter has emerged to complement Strasburg and Hernandez. Oh, and the team is in last place in the NL East.

Amidst the talk of trades (Dunn for whomever, prospects and a bat for Haren, a pocket of maybes for a middling arm) — and front office prayers for the return of someone, somehow (Marquis in July, Zimmermann in August, Olsen sometime) — it’s hard to know just what would vault the team into contention. Magic wands seem out of reach and blockbusters rarely happen to teams whose farm system is still so-so. Mike Rizzo might be willing to swap three or four of the system’s top prospects, but none of them seem major league ready. They’d be here if they were. And there’s this: while Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham seem a fine 3-4-5 combination and are good friends to boot (and no one but no one wants to see them broken up), it’s hard to defend a combo that, for all it’s power, fails to plant a stake in the heart of an on-the-ropes Jonathan Sanchez or a wet-behind-the-curve newbie like Madison Bumgarner. Mike Rizzo says that he is looking forward to a better second half. So are we. But contending is another major bat and another good starter (and, truth be told, at least another half season) away.

Adam Dunn: Giant Killer

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

Adam Dunn #44 of the Washington Nationals is congratulated by teammate Cristian Guzman #15 after hitting a home run in the fourth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park on July 9, 2010 in Washington, DC.

Stephen Strasburg finally received the run support he needed, as Adam Dunn stroked two home runs and the Washington Nationals subdued the red hot San Francisco Giants 8-1 at Nationals Park. Dunn’s surge against the McCovey’s brought “the kid” his third win of the season — a workmanlike six inning three hit outing that solidified his status as “the next big thing” in Washington. While Strasburg’s solid outing dominated the morning after headlines, Dunn’s barrage vaulted the slugger into the home run lead in the National League, with 22. Dunn was 3-4 on the night, scored three and drove in three — one of his best games of the season.  “When I get the pitch that earlier in the year I’ve been fouling off, I’m getting the barrel to it,” Dunn said after the game. “I’ve hit a lot of mistakes — a lot of balls where the pitcher didn’t intend it to be. Usually you get one of those an at-bat, and you still have to capitalize on them. That’s kind of what’s happening right now.”

Dunn’s outing backed a stellar pitching performance from Strasburg, who scattered three hits and struck out eight — lowering his ERA to 2.32 on the season. If there was a negative from the game, it was that Strasburg and catcher Wil Nieves did not seem to be on the same page, at least early on. And a dugout look-in during the third inning seemed to confirm that view, with Nieves and Strasburg exchanging pleasantries about pitch selection. That Strasburg was frustrated by the decision making seemed to be confirmed in the way that Nats themselves described their respective roles — “catcher Wil Nieves was behind the plate making suggestions” — and by Strasburg’s post game focus on what he wanted to accomplish: “I think today was really the first time where I really went out there and wanted to call my own game and do what I wanted to throw on any count,” he said.

Despite the mini controversy (though you have to wonder: would the Nats describe Pudge Rodriguez’s sign flashing as “making suggestions?”), it was hard to argue with Strasburg’s success. “The Kid” threw 31 curveballs (the most of any of his starts), offered 13 change-ups, didn’t allow a hit on pitches on the inside half of the plate and held the Giants to 0-4 with two strikeouts with runners in scoring position. The only blemish on Strasburg’s night was an Andres Torres lead-off scorcher that ducked into the lower right field stands. Thereafter, Strasburg made the adjustment: shifting his focus from fastballs to curves and change-ups, and baffling San Francisco hitters. He walked only one batter and the Nats played solid behind him — giving up no errors. Strasburg seemed to own Pablo Sandoval, striking out the swing-for-the-fences behemoth three times.

San Francisco’s Weighty Revival

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Pablo Sandoval is still all the rage in San Francisco — “Kung Fu Panda” as Giants fans call him (or, more properly “The Round Mound of Pound“) is the life of the McCovey clubhouse, devising a handshake for every player and starring in self-directed Youtube videos that extol the virtues of playing in the Bay. But after a stellar ’09 season that featured a .330 BA and 25 home runs, the rotund sometime-third-baseman (he now plays mostly at first), has cooled off. He’s hitting just.270 with six dingers in 2010, a far cry from his all star-like assault on NL pitchers last year. Frisco fans know the problem — “the panda” is so impatient at the plate that the Giants’ in-dugout brain trust has to regularly remind him to wait on pitches. And his weight is ballooning. The official stats show him at 245 pounds, but that’s probably more of a wish. When the season started, Sandoval (“with a heart full of napalm“) predicted he would hit .350 with 30 home runs.

Not hardly.

The Panda has struggled — and Giants fans noticed, criticizing his “quirky ways,” lack of mental preparation and “top heavy” swing. They weren’t alone. Bay manager Bruce Bochy raised a hue and cry when he pinch hit for Sandoval at the end of June, a hint that Giants’ management was less than enamored of his free swinging habits and lack of production. But that’s not all: Sandoval’s mental mistakes were (and continue to be) exasperating for his teammates who, after one gaffe (he overran second, and was picked off), isolated him on the Giants’ bench. He shrugged: “Yesterday is yesterday,” he said in Spanish. “Today is another day.” Maybe. But the Panda’s early season struggles, and the eclipse of a whole set of Giants hitters, sent San Francisco G.M. Brian Sabean in search of hitting.

The most recent and important addition was the signing of Pat Burrell, whose free agent stint with the Rays was less than what Tampa had wanted. San Francisco welcomed the former Phillies’ slugger with open arms — and an apparently open wallet. Burrell has responded, adding pop to the anemic line-up. The front office made other changes: dealing fan favorite Bengie Molina to Texas for reliever Chris Ray and (not incidentally), freeing up the space behind the plate for waiting-in-the-wings Buster Posey. Posey is a kind of anti-Sandoval, a no-nonsense mature-beyond-his-years sleek piece of clay. Posey is a trimmed down version of Sandoval, a star in the making, a team tiger to Sandoval’s weighty bear.  The Molina-for-Ray trade not only shed a veteran presence, it lopped about 45 pounds (or more!) off the team’s collective weight. Sabean’s Molina message was clear: if you want to stay in San Francisco you have to produce. Bruce Bochy is with this program — he has benched slumping Aaron Rowand and built a new, younger and faster outfield that is anchored by a revived Aubrey Huff.

The result? Ask the Milwaukee Brewers. The Giants breezed into Milwaukee for a four game series against The Crew on July 5 and dunked the guzzlers in four straight. This was not your normal sweep, but a San Francisco blitzkrieg: the Giants outscored Milwaukee 36-7, notching 50 hits in four games while showing off one of the major league’s best pitching staffs: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito and “oh-my-god-he’s-finally-arrived” rookie Madison Bumgarner. Which is not to mention that “other” Frisco arm, Jonathan Sanchez who, since his no-hitter last year, has turned into a top-of-the-rotation (in San Francisco that term means “behind Lincecum and Cain”) starter. Sanchez (once viewed as trade bait to, among others, the Washington Nationals), is now a mere 7-6 with a 3.50 ERA. For most teams, those kinds of numbers would have a G.M. salivating, in San Francisco they’re only passable. Now, as a part of their midwest and east coast road swing, the once punchless Giants are headed into Nationals Park. The match-up starts tonight, as “The Kid” faces off against the savvy and relentless Matt Cain.

Pudge Walkoff Slices Apples

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

There are games you deserve to win, but lose — and then there are games you deserve to lose, but somehow win. The Washington Nationals, struggling on the mound and at the plate (and looking listless against New York’s very hot Mets) came back from a 5-3 deficit on Saturday to register an unlikely 6-5 victory at Nationals Park. “The win was special because it was against a very good ballclub and against their closer, who is outstanding,” Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman told the press after the come-from-behind surprise. “I’m very proud of our ballclub.” The win came in an exciting bottom of the ninth and was capped by Pudge Rodriguez’s single to right field that scored Ryan Zimmerman with the winning walkoff run. The Nats didn’t look like they were in the game from the first pitch: starter Stephen Strasburg had trouble finding the plate in pitching five complete innings, Nats hitters were downright somnolent against R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, and Mets hitters roughed up the Nats bullpen (more specifically, Tyler Clippard), seemingly putting the game beyond reach in the 8th. But the Nats found a way to win, loading the bases in the ninth, then tying the game on a towering near-home run by Mets basher Adam Dunn.

The Nats 9th inning rally could be just the spark the Anacostia Nine needs in heading into tomorrow’s Independence Day tilt against the out-for-revenge New Yorkers. In what Nats’ fans want to believe is a sign of things to come, the team came alive at the plate, pummeling eleven hits, with Dunn and Rodriguez accounting for six. While Ryan Zimmerman continues to struggle at the plate, the latest fall-off in Pudge Rodriguez’s production seems to have been reversed, even though the bound-for-the-hall catcher left four men stranded on Saturday. And Adam Dunn is continuing his hot streak, which could put him in the All Star Game. The victim was Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez, whom Dunn took deep. “That’s it. That’s the  worst performance I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Rodriguez said after the game. “I should be ashamed of myself. I’m so embarrassed. I just want to apologize to the fans who were watching that. I know better than that.”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: “The Kid” isn’t the only one who struggled on Saturday. Colorado’s all-league righty, Ubaldo Jimenez gave up seven runs in one inning versus the Giants, which raised his ERA to 2.27 . . . During the O’s sweep of the Nats in Baltimore (it’s hard to forget), Baltimore army of bloggers trumpeted Washington’s futility. “They’re worse than we are,” one Bird Land blogger puffed. But since that series the O’s have retreated to their losing ways. With tonight’s 9-3 loss at Fenway, the O’s are 25-56. The Birds would need to win 12 in a row to equal the Nats record of 36-46. They are now 25 games out of first place. If they go on a 31 game winning streak, they’ll reach .500 . . . It’s a good thing that columnist Henry Shulman of the San Francisco Chronicle isn’t the Giants’ GM — he thinks getting Cubs’ bad boy Carlos Zambrano in exchange for McCovey outfielder Aaron Rowand would be just a grand idea. Somewhere, Jim Hendry agrees . . .

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.

Nats Beat “The Freak”

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Tim Lincecum struggled on Wednesdayleaving his fastball up in the zone and failing to throw strikes with his curve — allowing the Nationals to score six runs and pound out six hits in taking the second game of a three game stint in San Francisco. Luis Atilano, meanwhile, dominated Giants’ hitters through the first four innings, before San Franciso put together a mini-rally in the fifth. Even with that, San Francisco (which is struggling at the plate) was unable to connect against Atilano, or Washington’s relievers. “Everything was working good,” Atilano said of his performance. “Finally, I was able to command my sinker. I was just throwing sinkers and changeups the first couple of innings. Everything was good. I was happy I finally got back to the point where I was on top of my game. Hopefully, it will keep going like that.” Atilano is now 4-1 on the season — and a surprise for the Nats — while Lincecum lost his first.

There’s no question the Nats need to start hitting. While the Anacostia Nine aren’t having the same problems at the dish as the Giants — who are scrambling to find their rhythm — the team’s anemic performance on Tuesday (two runs on just four hits in a 4-2 loss in San Francisco), serves as a cautionary note for a squad that should be among the NL’s leaders in scoring runs and hitting for average. They’re not. The Nats are in the middle of the pack in the NL in batting average (7th of 16), tenth in RBIs, tenth in hitting the long ball, ninth in walks and 11th in scoring runs. With Ivan Rodriguez on the DL, the team will need to have Wil Nieves step into his shoes not only behind the plate, but in the batter’s box. That doesn’t seem likely. Worse yet, the Nats are near the bottom in fielding (12th of 16), having committed more errors than any team but the Marlins. The good news? Surprise. Surprise. It’s the bullpen. The team leads the league in saves and has been solid in the middle innings. It’s a good thing, with a team ERA at 4.45, the Nats remain desperate for arms that can keep their opponents off the board.

Soylent Green Is People: There was an animated dugout conversation between Tim Lincecum and McCovey manager Bruce Bochy last night after Lincecum was removed from the game. Odds are that Bochy was zinging his ace for his inability to keep runners close at first. The Nats stole four bases on Lincecum, three of them in the top of the 5th and two of them on no-throws from catcher Benjie Molina . . . Rob Dibble’s “intestinal fortitude” speech came in inning 5 last night. This time Dibble’s victim was Luis Atilano. Dibble deemed Atilano’s performance “disappointing.” Really? Atilano gave up two earned and four hits in 5.1 and he might well have pitched a complete 6th if it hadn’t been for a Roger Bernadina misplay in right field. Then too, Atilano was coming off two previous rocky starts and was facing baseball’s best pitcher. What the hell is Dibble talking about? “These kids have to learn, there’s competition up here — they should be pitching like their hair is on fire.” Oh come on: two earned and four hits in 5.1? We’ll take it . . .

Speculation about just when Stephen Strasburg will make his debut is the focus of MLB baseball talk — and the Nats blogosphere. Nats Triple Play says that the Nats front office has been manipulating Strasburg’s debut for contract purposes (check) and to sell out a June 4 Friday night game (check). The Nationals Enquirer (meanwhile) gives the Nats a pass, noting that Mike Rizzo had never said when Strasburg would appear: “Heck, about the only thing the Nationals are guilty of is not stepping in sooner to squash the speculation around June 4th. And really: why should they have? It was only last night that anyone from the Nationals even mentioned June 4 as a possibility; and it was Rizzo denying that this date was written in stone.” Still, there’s a lot of anger on fan forums about the June 4 date. So here’s the deal: don’t listen to the Nats, listen to the pundits. About a month ago, baseball guru Tim Kurkjian had Strasburg starting against the Ahoys on June 10. That sounded about right, but Kurkjian might have been off by about two days. My bet is Strasburg will be on the mound on the 8th . . . so here’s a question: what happens if “the next big thing” gets hit around and Rigs has to pull him in the 4th? Let’s not kid ourselves — there are no guarantees . . .

Bay Watch

Monday, May 24th, 2010

How odd is it that, just over forty games into the season, the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants — teams so different in outlook, history and raw talent — would have almost identical records? And yet there it is: after suffering through a gut-wrenching five game losing streak, the Giants (predicted in the pre-season as one of the elite teams of the NL West), are one game over .500, as are the Nats (at 23-22). If the Giants are so much better than the Nats (as baseball analysts would have once claimed), then why are they playing so poorly?

At least a part of the answer became obvious on Sunday, as the McCoveys struggled through yet another punchless contest — registering a terminally fatal 0-18 with runners in scoring position and suffering their second consecutive shutout. The loss was particularly hard to swallow, as it came against their White Elephant rivals across the Bay, who not only swept the interleague series, but made the Giants look downright silly. Here’s the key, at least according to San Francisco skipper Bruce Bochy: the Giants can hit, but only sometimes and even when they do, it’s not when runners are in a position to score.

Giants fans are becoming impatient: with one of the most formidable starting rotations in all of baseball, the Giants should be winning decisively. They’re not. Bochy has responded to the team’s hitting drought by shaking up the McCovey’s batting order: dropping outfielder Aaron Rowand into the sixth spot and moving speedster Andres Torres to the head of the line-up. But even Bochy has doubts this will work — San Francisco’s problem is that it lacks hitters who can hit for power and average. Pablo Sandoval is San Francisco’s premier (and popular) young power hitter, but his batting average stands at .282 — hardly something to brag about. Aaron Rowand, signed as a free agent to anchor the outfield and drive in runs, is hitting just .242 while import Freddy Sanchez is struggling to remain above the Mendoza line.

A comparison between a line-up struggling to generate runs and one that knows how to put them on the board is sobering. The Giants have put 33 dingers into the seats, the Nats 39; the Giants are hitting an anemic .257, the Nats are chugging along at .265 — the Giants have driven in 160 runs, the Nats 191. Which is to say: a San Francisco front office that boasts a starting rotation of Lincecum, Cain, Zito and Sanchez (truly, the Nats have no one to compare), is now having to scramble to find someone comparable to Willingham, Dunn, Zimmerman and Guzman — anyone of whom would add more power and average to the Giants line-up than anyone they currently have. Which is why, in the weeks ahead, the Giants will begin to search for the hitting they will so desperately need to catch the Friars and Trolleys for the NL West flag. They must know — the price will be high.