Archive for the ‘washington nationals’ Category

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)

A Laugher In Miami

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn homered, and Jason Marquis pitched 5.2 solid innings to lead the Nationals to a 9-3 victory over the Florida Marlins in Miami on Monday night. The win was the third in a row for the Nationals — a “laugher” — who have energized their sudden surge by scoring 40 runs in the last five games. On Monday, the Zimmerman-Dunn combination accounted for seven of the nine runs, as Zimmerman hit his 25th and Dunn hit his 33rd home runs. Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse also continued their offensive assault, with both accounting for two hits. The sudden plate production stands in stark contrast to the Nats of just a week ago — when the Anacostia Nine had difficulty scoring against the Braves, Phillies and Cubs, and dropped seven of nine games.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains: It was a bad night for Florida baseball. The official attendance for the Nats-Marlins tilt was given as 18,326, but after a nearly three hour rain delay the Marlins were playing in front of hundreds — not thousands. In the seventh inning, a ballgirl snagged a ground foul along the first base line and trotted towards the seats to hand it to a fan: there was no one there. Then too, it’s an open debate whether anyone scrambled for Adam Dunn’s home run into the right field seats — no fan was even close. If you head to see the Marlins tonight, you might want to look under your seat. When the game finished at 1 a.m this morning, there were more people in Dupont Circle than at the Marlins game. The Marlins are counting on a new stadium to solve their attendance woes, but you have to wonder whether that’s really going to work. There’s a beautiful stadium in Toronto and a good, young team — and they don’t draw a lick . . .

Over in Tampa, where the Rays were taking on the Jays, precisely 11,968 patrons showed up at “The Trop” — an embarrassing non-anomaly for a team that now ranks 23rd in MLB attendance (just behind the last place Nats). The Nationals ranked as high as 19th in attendance this year, but the Rays have never been a notch over where they are right now. Bleacher Report’s J.C. De La Torre says there’s a reason for this: 70 percent of the fans live nearly an hour from the stadium (which is true) and Tampa has the second highest jobless rate in the state. And De La Torre notes that Cincinnati, San Diego and Texas also have attendance problems. They are all first place teams with 62 percent or less in capacity this season.

No matter what the issue, the Rays’ problems are long term and not likely to be resolved anytime soon — and they will have an impact on the franchise, which will see star left fielder Carl Crawford headed out of town (wouldn’t it be nice if he came to Washington, instead of New York) come October. “It was a big letdown,” Crawford said of the sparse crowd. “We came out all fired up and you see that, it’s really depressing.” The Rays desperately need a new stadium, but are locked in a head-to-head battle over whether the team will play in St. Petersburg (where they are now, officially, located) or Tampa — which could be the site of a new stadium in the waterfront area. The battle won’t be joined until after the season, which means that a new stadium (if there is one) won’t be started for at least another year. And no one has yet figured out how a new ballpark will be funded.

CarlCrawford.jpg image by BEEZEWAX34

(above: Jason Marquis AP Photo/Wildredo Lee; below: Carl Crawford against the Red Sox in Tampa)


				

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.

Dunn, Nats Clobber Cards

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

So here’s the question: how can the Washington Nationals — so toothless against an also-ran and struggling team like the Chicago Cubs — play so well against the St. Louis doom-machine Cardinals? It could be (of course) that the Nats simply play better against stiffer competition (a notion belied by their record against good teams), or it could be (as it seemed on Saturday night) that the team was just due. Whatever the reason, the Washington Nationals finally broke loose against the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, plating fourteen runs on sixteen hits, to clobber the Cardinals, who seem suddenly mediocre against struggling teams. The difference on Saturday was Adam Dunn. The left handed swinging behemoth, mired in a month-long slump, provided the impetus for the Nats to break out of their doldrums: Dunn was 2-3 with five RBIs, hitting a towering fly in the 5th for his 32nd home run. “I hit the home run really good,” Dunn said after the win. “I just knew the ball was really high. At this park, you really never know.”

But Dunn was not the only one on fire on Saturday. Michael Morse also had a hot hand, going 4-4 and scoring two runs, while Adam Kennedy, Roger Bernadina, Ryan Zimmerman and Ivan Rodriguez had two hits each. Over the last two games, the Nationals (whose offense has been positively anemic through much of August) have scored 25 runs on 25 hits, a symmetry rarely equaled through the last five months. While the Nationals might seem to have little to play for (they are nearly 20 games out in the race for the N.L. East Division crown), the same cannot be said of the Cardinals — who need every win they can get to keep pace with the surging Cincinnati Reds, who retain a four game lead over the Cardinals in the N.L. Central. The Cardinals are now faced with a chilling end-of-August reality: unless they start playing better against teams like the Nationals, they will cap a very good season without a shot at the playoffs. For the final game of this four game series, the Nationals will send John Lannan against Albert Pujols & Company on Sunday at Nationals Park.

Scoring The Nationals: Each game — and every year — provides its own scoring rarities. Two occurred on Saturday night that I have never seen before, or scored before. While “keeping a book” is always a challenge, the application of little-known rules to in-game situations can be discomforting. When Ian Desmond was called out for running outside the baseline in the third inning (how often, really, do you see that?) MASN play-by-play host Bob Carpenter helped me along: “That’s scored 3u,” he said — first base putout, unassisted. But the play demanded an asterisk — an outside-the-tradition personal tic that I use to note a rarity (some scorers use an asterisk to denoted a stellar defensive play, I prefer an exclamation point). There was a second asterisk (it’s important to limit their use) that I used in Saturday’s game. It came in the 8th inning, when Nyjer Morgan was called out at home plate (or, more pertinently, behind it), after being touched by a Nationals’ player. Once again Carpenter helped: “That scored 2u,” he said.

The problem with using an asterisk is that it always demands an explanation: which I give in a sentence at the bottom of my score sheet. The July 9 Strasburg beauty against the Giants (6 innings, 3 hits, 1 ER), for instance, included this asterisk in the first inning: “Cain throws it into the ground.” The asterisk was enough for me to recall a memorable moment in the 2010 season — when Giants’ pitcher Matt Cain lost his grip on the ball, which led to Roger Bernadina scoring the Nationals’ first run from second base. The official scoring, I claim, provided only a limited (and even puzzling) explanation that doesn’t really tell the story: “E: Cain (1, pickoff).” There are some events, however, that drive me back to paging through the best best resource on scoring, Paul Dickson’s “The Joy of Keeping Score” (it ought to be called “The Agony of Keeping Score”) which includes one scorer’s “WW” notation — “wasn’t watching.” That happens.

Of course, and as Dickson himself will readily admit, there are some events that happen on the field that simply can’t be scored — though they are fascinating. For instance: I was mightily confused with an event in Philadelphia, when Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz was stopped by umpires from visiting the mound after heading into the clubhouse for a new glove. Why was he stopped and sent back behind the plate? Why, why, why, why, why? I didn’t get it, and the announcers seemed as puzzled — finally just dropping the subject. The puzzle was finally answered (after much thought) by a family member (here he is) who provided this explanation: “If the catcher goes into the clubhouse and then emerges from the dugout to go to the mound, it constitutes a visit,” he said. “The umpires told him — and he decided against it.” Fascinating — and correct. But it has to be remembered; it can’t be scored.

(above: Adam Dunn photo by AP/Susan Walsh; below: Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack used his scorecard to give signals)

Watching Prince Albert

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

It’s possible to pitch to Albert Pujols — but you do so at your peril. Scott Olsen knew this of course (every major league pitcher knows it), but that didn’t keep him from missing an up-and-in pitch to the St. Louis powerhouse, who promptly deposited it in the left field seats. That was home run number 35 in the slugger’s season, a plus-30 total that he has now reached in each of the last ten seasons. The Pujols’ dinger (number 401 of his career, after he hit number 400 on Thursday) was not the difference in the Cardinals’ 4-2 victory on Friday night, but on a day that saw Washington’s top pitching prospect announce that he would undergo Tommy John surgery, the appearance of Prince Albert at Nationals Park might prove reason enough for Nats fans to make the trek to Half Street.

How good is Pujols? A 2008 manager’s survey named him as the most feared hitter in baseball — and for good reason. The slugger’s numbers draw comparisons to Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Babe Ruth — and Lou Gehrig. The Gehrig comparison seems appropriate: both Pujols and Gehrig won one batting title when they were under 30, and Gehrig stroked thirty home runs and hit over .300 for nine consecutive seasons — a mark broken by Pujols last year. In truth, Prince Albert has already matched Gehrig’s greatness (a claim that is heresy in New York), for while Gehrig was an RBI machine (175 in 1927, 184 in 1931), Pujols is arguably the better slugger: Gehrig stroked over 40 home runs five times in his 17 year career, while Pujols has hit over 40 six times in ten years. If Pujols stays health, he’ll add to that record next year and quite possibly for many years after. Additionally, Pujols’ slugging numbers are breathtaking: he has led the league four times in ten seasons, Gehrig did it twice.

Stan “The Man” Musial remains the most iconic Cardinal (as Pujols readily admits), but he never had Pujols’ power (Musial stroked 475 home runs in 22 seasons, Pujols has hit 401 in ten), or his RBI potential — Musial had ten seasons of plus-100 RBIs, which Pujols has already equaled. But what Musial lacked in power he made up for in hits: he led the N.L. in hits in six seasons, Pujols has led his league once. Pujols’ power is Willie Mays’ power: Mays hit 40-plus home runs six times in 22 years, Pujols has done it five times in ten. Pujols’ strike out rate compares favorably with Henry Aaron’s and his power is similar. Aaron hit 30-plus home runs in 15 of his 22 seasons, a mark that Pujols could equal (with that important caveat — if he stays healthy) in five years. And Pujols hits for a higher average.

While feeding a comparison compulsion is a pastime for baseball fanatics, it has its rewards — it compels us to understand just how great the truly great were: Ted Williams led the majors in walks six times, Pujols has never done it once, though Pujols will undoubtedly eclipse Williams’ RBI totals. Then too, while pitchers fear Pujols, they were petrified by Williams (who led the A.L in walks eight times); that, or Williams had the better eye (or both). But Pujols (on the other hand) has a much better eye than Frank Robinson, who sported high OBPs — but absolutely hated to walk. Robinson won the MVP twice, Pujols has done it three times. Mel Ott (underrated and below-the-radar Mel Ott) was a horse, playing and playing and playing without injury year after year. Pujols will outhit Ott, but he’ll have to stay healthy to equal his total games mark. Oh, and Ott knew how to walk and (arguably) had a better eye at the plate. But just barely. And while Pujols does not have the power of Barry Bonds, he could add something (and this year) that Bonds never had — a Triple Crown.

So while Nats fans justly mourn the loss of a potentially great pitcher (and a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, no less), they might take modest solace that — at least when the St. Louis Cardinals visit D.C. — they can watch one of the very greatest players who ever played the game. Pujols is so good that he is not only drawing comparisons to Ruth and Gehrig and Musial and Williams (and maybe half-a-dozen others), he has already equaled or surpassed many of their more celebrated stats. Albert Pujols is already the Lou Gehrig of St. Louis and he already has Hall of Fame numbers — and he’s only getting started.

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.

Marquis Is Back, Nats Fall

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Nats starter Jason Marquis appears to be all the way back from surgery to remove “foreign bodies” in his elbow, pitching masterfully in 7.1 innings against the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park on Wednesday. But the New Yorker’s outing did not result in a win, as the Cubs victimized the Nationals’ bullpen and went on to register a win, 4-0. The victory sealed a Cubs’ sweep of the three game series. Marquis, who the Nationals signed as a free agent in the off season, received a standing ovation as he walked from the mound in the 8th. “I was attacking the strike zone,” Marquis said. “The more I’ve been throwing, I’m creating better habits and allowing myself to make those pitches in the bottom of the zone. I let my defense do the work, which I have done the last few years. It’s definitely exciting to be back.”

After successive games in which the bullpen shut down the Cubs, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett pitched poorly — with Clippard yielding a double to Cubs rookie shortstop Starlin Castro, scoring Tyler Colvin from first base. That was all the Cubs would need. After the loss, Nationals skipper Jim Riggleman seemed to respond to rising complaints about the Nationals losing streak — and rising criticism of his decision making: “I’m certainly disappointed in our record,”  Riggleman said after the game. “I know our guys are playing hard, they are giving effort. The intensity is there, the hurt is there. We are suffering. We’re getting beat. I don’t like getting beat. I’m sick of it. I know our players are. It’s a game of character. Our character is being tested. We have to pass that character test.”

The Wisdom Of Section 1-2-9: You know that fans are losing heart when they begin to give away their tickets. This is what’s happening in Section 129, as an entirely new cohort of “fans” showed up for the Zambrano game, including a New Yorker who was (I swear) the spitting image of actor Chazz Palminteri — the tough talking “Agent Kujan” of “The Usual Suspects.” He and his friend (a separated at birth twin for New York cop — and Kujan sidekick — Sgt. Jeff Rabin) elbowed their way into my row in the top of the 3rd inning, pushing aside the regulars. “Hey buddy, you’re in our seats,” the Kujan look-alike said. I shook my head. Kujan held out his tickets: “Oh yeah?” The tickets said he and his friend were actually in Section 130. “You’re over there.” He eyed me for a minute: “We’ll sit here.” Okay, fine. But I had an overwhelming urge to ask him whether he’d ever heard of Keyser Soze. I tried to remember the line, but couldn’t — and then, suddenly, it was there: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I thought about it for a minute, but let it go.

“Agent Kujan” ignored me, but then started chatting in the 5th — I was keeping score and he looked at my book. “Hey buddy, you’re really into this.” I nodded: “It’s my diversion.” He gave me a crooked smile. “What the hell’s that mean?” I thought for a moment. “A hobby.” This seemed to satisfy him, but in the 6th he began peppering me with questions. “So they got nothin’, I mean the Nats — they got nothin‘.” Well, I said, they’ve got Zimmerman. He nodded: “The third baseman, yeah — sure. But that’s it.” And Dunn, I added. “Yeah,” he said, “but outside of that, they got nothin’.” I shrugged: well, and they’ve got “the kid at shortstop” and “the new pitcher — Strasburg — and . . .” He didn’t like it: “Listen buddy, I’m tellin’ ya, they got nothin’. Believe me.” Half an inning later he took it up again. “If they’re so good, why ain’t they in first place?” Good point, actually. “They don’t have any pitching,” I said, nodding. His buddy leaned across Kujan, his eyebrows up. He wagged his finger. “First thing you said — first thing you said.”

Kujan tried again in the 7th. “Hey buddy,” he said. “Who’s that shortstop up in New York? You know — the good one.” You mean Derek Jeter, I responded. “No, no. The other one.” Verbil Kint? Dean Keaton? Kobayashi? “Jose Reyes,” I said. “Yeah, that the one. Now there’s a heck of a ballplayer.” His buddy nodded vigorously. “Too true. When you’re right, you’re right.” Ah, Mets fans. That explained everything. But Kujan was just getting started. “You know, the Cubs are going to have a new manager next year. Could be anyone.” I nodded, and mentioned that I heard that Joe Girardi or Joe Torre might be interested in the job. He was insulted, shaking his head — Palminteri like. “You kiddin’ me? No way. Let’s me tell you something buddy,” he said. “Joe Torre ain’t gonna take it. No way. He loves it out there in L.A. And who wouldn’t, that what I say. And Girardi? You think a guy’s gonna move outa New York to go to Chicago?” I guess you’re right, I said. His buddy chimed in: “When you’re right, you’re right. That’s what I always say. When you’re right, you’re right.” By the 8th inning, with the Cubs ahead by five, Kujan had had enough, elbowing past me. “Good talkin to ya,” he said.

And like that — poof. He was gone.”

Cubs Stymie Nats Rally

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Adam Kennedy’s bases clearing double in the ninth inning wasn’t enough to bring the Nats back from a 5-1 deficit, as the Chicago Cubs, behind the strong pitching of starter Carlos Zambrano, stymied a Nationals’ rally to win at Nationals Park on Tuesday night, 5-4. Kennedy’s clutch hit preceded a long drive off the bat of Ryan Zimmerman to account for the third out and end the game. Zimmerman’s long fly (on an outside corner fastball from Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol) brought the crowd to their feet, with visions of another Zimmerman miracle, but right fielder Kosuke Fukudome reached up at the last moment to snag the headed-for-the wall game tying drive. “I thought it had a shot to get over Fukudome’s head. It was a good at-bat against a tough pitcher,” Zimmerman said after the almost-but-not-quite hit. “He is not an easy guy to get hits off of. He [Marmol] strikes out everyone pretty much. It was a good job to battle back and have a chance to win.” The loss brought the Nationals to twenty games under .500 — their worst record of the year.

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)