#2, Derek Jeter . . . Jeter

September 25th, 2014  / Author: Mark

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The simple truth is this: if you write a story on your blog about the New York Yankees (even on a blog that is focused on the Washington Nationals), people will read it. Not just some people, a lot of people. Put simply: a lot more people are willing to read about the Yankees than about the Nationals.

How do we know that? Because we tried it. Earlier this season we posted a pic of a baseball card of Joe DiMaggio on CFG’s “Facebook” page and received five times as many views as a normal posting. Yes, it’s a “single data point” (as they say in Washington), but it’s compelling. But why?

“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” General George Patton told his troops during World War Two. “Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in Hell for a man who lost and laughed.” Patton’s right of course, which explains the appeal of the Gothams — and why people are paying so much attention, just now, to Jeter.

There’s no way to prove this, but we believe it’s true: if the Yankees had spent the last twenty years in last place, Jeter wouldn’t be getting the kind of attention he is now. And if the Yankees weren’t the Yankees (if, say, they were the Mets), they wouldn’t be America’s teams. The Yankee are the Yankees because they’re winners.

Yes, yes, yes. Of course. Jeter’s retiring and he’s had a great career, but we doubt if as many people would be paying attention to Jeter if he’d spent twenty years with the Astros, or even the Cubs. Face it: the Braves, Cubs and Dodgers (or anyone else, for that matter) aren’t America’s team, the Yankees are. And there are statistics to prove it.

Then too, it’s not as if Jeter didn’t have something to do with those five World Series rings he owns. We would even claim that while it’s likely that many, many baseball fans agree with what Keith Olbermann said the other day, people remain fascinated by him (and his Yankees) because . . . well, he’s a Yankee.

And, for the record here, in part, is what Olbermann said: “Contrary to what you have heard, Derek Jeter is not the greatest person in human history. He did not invent baseball, he did not discover electricity, he is not the greatest shortstop who ever lived.”

We agree with the gist of this, while noting that extolling the greatness of people is a current media fixation, a kind of art form. Talk show host Larry King once said that he thought there was no musician who ever lived who was better than Michael Jackson. One of the guests on his program furrowed his brow, shook his head — and offered this: “Well, there’s Mozart.”

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Nats Sweep In Miami, Return For Final Homestand

September 22nd, 2014  / Author: Mark

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The Nationals completed an impressive four game sweep of the Marlins on Sunday afternoon in Miami 2-1, behind a strong seven inning outing from righty Stephen Strasburg. The Nats righty struck out five while giving up three hits and no runs, keeping Washington ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the race for the best record in the National League.

“Really important, a good road trip for us against some teams that has been playing well especially here in a place where they play very good at home,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said, following the victory. “We won some close ones and pitching was good, that certainly will keep you in any ballgame.

This was Strasburg’s 13th win of the year and, with just seven games left in the season (three against the Mets, four against Miami), the Washington ace seems to be peaking at just the right time. Strasburg threw 84 pitches, 55 of them for strikes. “Just have to keep the train rolling,” Strasburg said following his strong outing.

With Strasburg on his game, the Nats needed just two runs to subdue the Marlins, and got both of them in the top of the 5th inning on a lead-off double from Jose Lobaton, an RBI triple from Nate Schierholtz and an Anthony Rendon double to left. Washington victimized Miami starter Nathan Eovaldi, who gave up seven hits in six innings.

Washington’s bullpen once against provided a solid performance. Craig Stammen provided a no hit, no run 8th inning, while Rafael Soriano (making a rare appearance in a save situation), gave up a single run in preserving the Nationals victory.

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: With less than a week to go in the regular season, now might be a good time to check this year’s attendance figures — which are down from last year. Baseball has drawn 155,000 fewer fans to this point this year than to a similar point in 2013, a relatively insignificant per game decline. Still . . .

Washington has contributed to this, with a fall-off of 1,065 fans per game. That’s a marginal difference and well in line with the standard in baseball, where attendance figures lag performance by a year. Given the Nationals run to the playoffs in the 2014 campaign, we can expect the team’s attendance to go back up in 2015 . . .

Not to worry. It was going to be difficult for the franchise to outdraw last year’s totals, which were the best since 2005, the Nationals first year in D.C. Then too, the franchise’s attendance figures continue to be solid, putting them just ahead of the middle of the pack in the MLB. They currently rank 12th in attendance per game . . .

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Nats Keep Rolling, Edge Miami 3-2

September 21st, 2014  / Author: Mark

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Sloppy play and a slow start weren’t enough to deny the Nationals their 90th win of the season, or starter Jordan Zimmermann his 13th, as Washington rallied to edge the Marlins in Miami on Saturday night, 3-2. The win, coupled with a Dodgers loss against the Cubs, lifted the Nats 2.5 games ahead of Los Angeles for the best record in the National League.

Starter Zimmermann was once again the ace of the game, throwing six innings of five hit baseball while striking out four. The victory for Zimmermann marked the Nationals tenth consecutive win with “the Ace of Auburndale” on the mound. Zimmermann soldiered on after taking a pitch off his shoulder in the sixth inning — a dangerous line drive that threw ripples of fear through the Nats dugout.

“It happened so fast,” Zimmermann said, after the Nationals victory. “I saw the ball coming and thought that it was stopped. I just tried turning and lift my shoulder. I was lucky enough that it hit my shoulder and not my face. It’s a little sore, pretty tight right now but it will be fine. It’s not going to affect me.”

The victory also marked the return of third sacker (and, now, left fielder) Ryan Zimmerman, who had missed 55 games, to the line-up. Zimmerman’s contribution was immediate. The “face of the franchise” was 2-3 on the night, with a single (in his first at bat in the second inning), and a triple in the 7th that scored Ian Desmond. “It was fun to be out there and be part of the team and be out with the guys in a really good win,” Zimmerman said.

Miami scored a single run in the first inning on four hits, including an RBI single from rookie Justin Bour. The Marlins scored their second run in the fourth, after Reed Johnson led off with a double to center field. Denard Span retrieved the ball off the wall, but overthrew cutoff man Asdrubal Cabrera. Backing up the play, Jordan Zimmermann overthrew Anthony Rendon at third, which allowed Johnson to score.

“I knew I overthrew the first cutoff guy, but I thought the ball was gonna get caught,” Denard Span said of the unusual two error play. “I turned my head and all of a sudden I heard the crowd roaring. I was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ Next thing you know, he was rounding third.”

All of Washington’s runs were scored during a 7th inning rally that began with an Ian Desmond single. Desmond then scored on a Ryan Zimmerman triple, with Zimmerman then ruled out at home on a Wilson Ramos fielder’s choice. But second sacker Asdrubal Cabrera kept the inning going with a triple that scored Ramos. Cabrera, in turn, scored on a Denard Span single.

The three run 7th inning held up, with the Nationals bullpen closing out the game. Aaron Barrett and Tyler Clippard closed down Miami in the 7th and 8th innings, with Drew Storen keeping the Marlins off the board in the 9th (with the help of a game ending double play), notching his ninth save.

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The Braves season was still alive last week, but their skid just goes on and on. Last night the Braves were upended in Atlanta by the suddenly dangerous Metropolitans, who shut out the Tomahawks, 2-0. Atlanta is 4-13 in the month of September. Which means that the Braves “tragic number” is two: if they lose today, and the Pirates win, the Braves will be out of the post-season . . .

“I thought we had good at-bats up and down the lineup,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, after last night’s loss. Really? The Braves were 2-10 with runners in scoring position. And. And don’t look now, but the Mets and Marlins have an outside chance of catching the Braves for second place in the National League East, which would just about do-in the Cobb County faithful . . .

And, ah, wouldn’t that be a shame . . .

Meanwhile, the Braves of the West (otherwise known as the Oakland Athletics) continue their imitation of a demolition derby. It’s getting really ugly, which means that it’s nearly impossible to avert your eyes. We tune in every night to watch the A’s, just so we can see how they’ll screw up this time. The A’s are 6-12 in September, and continue to find new ways to lose . . .

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Nats Hook The Fish Behind Gio, Harper

September 19th, 2014  / Author: Mark

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The pitching of southpaw Gio Gonzalez, timely hitting from left fielder Bryce Harper, shortstop Ian Desmond and second sacker Asdrubal Cabrera and a five run fourth inning propelled the Nationals past the Miami Marlins on Thursday night, 6-2 — as Washington continued their late-in-the-season dominance of the N.L. East.

Gonzalez notched his ninth win of the season, providing his sixth successive quality start in a row. The Washington southpaw dominated Miami hitting with a snappy fastball, while allowing six hits over seven innings  and striking out five. This was the lefty’s third win in his last four starts.

“I just think he’s got a better feel,” Nats skipper Matt Williams said of Gonzalez’s recent success. “You look back to not too long ago, where his slot was a little bit off and he was losing control of the fastball up and away to righties. He didn’t have a feel for his curveball. But he’s got that back, which is important for him. If he can do that, he can roll through the lineup.”

The Nationals scored five of their six runs in the fourth inning off of Miami starter Brad Hand. The D.C. rally began with a Anthony Rendon single, who then stole second. With two outs, Wilson Ramos doubled, and Washington stroked four successive singles: from Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper, Asdrubal Cabrera and Kevin Frandsen.

“That’s the way we play the game,” Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond noted after the victory. “Why change now? I think it’s kind of ingrained in our minds now the way that we’re supposed to go out there and go about our business.” Rendon and Harper were the sparks for the Nats offense, with Rendon notching a two hit night, while Harper was 3-4.

“We had a big inning and Gio pitched well, kept them at bay, bullpen came in and shut it down, and it was an all-around team effort,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said. “A good win for us.” Craig Stammen and Rafael Soriano came on in relief of Gonzalez and shut down the Miami offense in the eighth and ninth innings.

“With this team that we’re playing, these guys are going to the playoffs, we’ve got to play perfect baseball,” Miami manager Mike Redmond said after his team’s defeat. “We can’t give extra outs. We’ve got to take advantage and we’ve got to score runs when we can, and we weren’t able to do that.”

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We yak and yak about how great the Pittsburgh outfield is (with Marte, McCutchen and Polanco), but it might be that Miami’s is every bit as good — so long as Giancarlo Stanton is healthy and not recovering from an HBP in some Miami hospital . . .

Stanton is good enough to overawe everyone else in the game, not simply because he can hit (his final numbers on the season will be .288 with 37 home runs to go along with a .950 OPS, which leads all of baseball), but because he has a howitzer for an arm . . .

Because baseball is Stanton obsessed (prior to his injury, the hottest debate was whether he should be the MVP), we tend to overlook left fielder Christian Yelich and center fielder Marcell Ozuna. Yelich has been on fire since the All Star break, with a .316/.398/.394 slash line over 231 second-half at-bats. Yelich has had a solid year, with nine home runs, 54 RBIs and 89 runs . . .

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Baltimore Ends Its Drought, Wins A.L. East

September 17th, 2014  / Author: Mark

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The Baltimore Orioles defied the odds-makers, pundits and baseball analysts, sweeping to their first American League East title since 1997, with an 8-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Tuesday night. The victory gave the O’s a 91-60 record on the year, second best in all of baseball.

This is not where the O’s were supposed to be. As the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays retooled in the off-season (with the Yankees spending wildly to rebuild their outfield and pitching staff), the Orioles made do with a late signing of outfielder Nelson Cruz, a decision that brought nearly unanimous hoots of derision from baseball experts.

But the Orioles, who suffered in-season injuries to catcher Matt Wieters and All-World third baseman Manny Machado (as well as the suspension of home run powerhouse Chris Davis), mixed and matched and scratched their way to victory after victory, matching the third best ERA in the American League to the best long-ball hitting team in the majors.

But Baltimore’s pitching and hitting tell only a part of the story. The unsung hero of the O’s 2014 campaign might well be G.M. Dan Duquette, whose mid-summer moves kept the O’s alive when they should have been fading. Duquette shuffled players back and forth to Triple-A Norfolk, getting key starts from journeyman infielder Jimmy Paredes, trading for Bosox reliever Andrew Miller and then swapping two minor leaguers for Alejandro De Aza and Kelly Johnson.

Nearly all of this handiwork was on display in Baltimore last night. Paredes was 2-3 with an RBI while playing third, De Aza stroked a triple and notched three RBIs, Miller provided a two-batter bridge to Tommy Hunter who pitched the 9th, Steve Pierce (released, then re-signed by Duquette back in April) hit his 18th home run of the season — and the O’s laughed their way to an 8-2 victory.

But this is hardly the trash heap O’s. Baltimore boasts perhaps the best outfield in baseball, as well as one of the American League’s favorites for MVP. Cruz, De Aza and Pierce hold down left field, steady veteran Nick Markakis is in right and potent and potential MVP Adam Jones mans center. Nelson Cruz is the DH, and he has 39 home runs on the year — best in the junior circuit.

And then there’s Buck Showalter, now the favorite to win the Manager of the Year Award, not least for shaping (with Duquette) the almost famous “Baltimore Shuffle” — the up-to-the-majors, down-to-Triple-A moves that have characterized the team’s handling of the pitching staff all year. Somehow, it’s all worked out.

And here’s how: Wai-Yin Chen (the underrated Japanese import) is 16-4, Miguel Gonzalez has won seven of his last ten outings, Chris Tillman has been brilliant (a 3.29 ERA and 1.22 WHIP), and the Baltimore bullpen has the fourth best ERA in the American League.

And last night Buck Showalter handed the ball to the up-and-down Ubaldo Jimenez, an unusual act of confidence in a starter who’s been inconsistent — at best. And how did Jimenez react? He threw an improbable five innings of two hit baseball.

“You get older, you want to get a good angle and a good seat and see good people get a return for what they put into it and what they’re trying to achieve,” Showalter told the press after last night’s clincher. “And this is a huge step, to get a chance now. We’ve got to figure out a way to win 11 games.”

Which is to say: in our opinion, the always-underrated O’s are not simply the best team in the fast eroding American League Least, they’re the class of the American League — and our pick as the team to beat in the post-season.

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The Nationals Win The N.L. East

September 17th, 2014  / Author: Mark

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The Washington Nationals defeated the Atlanta Braves 3-0 on Tuesday, clinching their second National League East division championship in three years. The Nationals victory doomed the hopes of Atlanta fans for a miracle finish from their hometown Braves.

The Braves hopes for an off-season birth almost certainly died last night in Atlanta. The Tomahawks are now 75-76 on the season and 5.5 games behind Pittsburgh for the last Wild Card spot. “You’ve got to congratulate them on winning the division,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “You’ve got to tip your hat, they’ve had a solid year.”

The Nats sprinted to victory in Atlanta behind a brilliant seven inning outing from righty starter Tanner Roark and Ian Desmond’s 23rd home run of the season in the sixth inning. The Nationals were nearly flawless in shutting down the Braves, their second win in a row against last year’s N.L. East champion.

As Drew Storen registered the last out of the 9th inning (picking up his seventh save of the season), Nats players streamed onto the field in celebration, then took their celebration into Turner Field’s visitor’s clubhouse. Later in the evening, Ted Lerner, the team’s Managing Principle Owner released a statement thanking Washington fans for their support.

“We are so proud of this organization,” Lerner said.  “Watching them clinch their second NL East Division Championship in three years means so much to our fans, our city and our family. Mike Rizzo and Matt Williams should be commended for building and leading a championship club.”

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Asked in the clubhouse about the turning point in the 2014 campaign, Nats skipper Matt Williams identified the team’s ten game winning streak, and its consecutive walk-off wins, as the key to Washington’s success during the season. The Nationals enter tonight’s fine game with the Braves the owner of a 87-63 record, the best in the National League.

Nearby, wearing a fire helmet and goggles, Bryce Harper celebrated the championship while, in the background, pitching coach Steve McCatty posed for photographs with Washington’s beer-drenched starting rotation. “We want to keep going, keep winning ballgames,” Harper said.

Last night’s winner, Tanner Roark, said that he knew exactly what was at stake in the Atlanta game, so worked extra hard for the win. “It’s has been amazing road, and now we are the NL East champs,” he said. “It’s nothing I have ever fathomed. We played hard and we won. That’s the type of team that we have.” Roark’s win on Tuesday night was his 14th of the season.

While skipper Matt Williams joined in the celebration, along with the team coaching staff, the manager reminded his team that winning the N.L. East crown in accomplished their goal for the season. “Tonight, we celebrate this milestone but realize that there is still work to do and goals to accomplish,” he said. “We are looking forward to the possibilities that lie ahead.”

“It’s just one step. There’s a long, hard road ahead of us,” Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth confirmed. “But we’re going to enjoy the moment for now.”

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It’s All Strasburg In Atlanta

September 16th, 2014  / Author: Mark

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The Nationals edged closer to playing in October Monday night, downing the Braves at Atlanta’s Turner Field behind the shut-down seven inning pitching of righty ace Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg stymied the Braves, 4-2, leaving the Nationals on the verge of their second National League East championship in three years.

Strasburg has always had difficulty pitching against the Braves at Turner Field and entered the game with a stiff neck, but none of these problems were much in evidence on Monday. The righty gave up five hits while striking out seven and walking none in a 90 pitch outing. The win gave the Nats their league leading 86th win on the season.

“I’ve never seen him pitch bad against us,” Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez said after the Nats win. “You see the numbers, the seven-plus ERA his last four starts here. He’s a pretty darn good pitcher every time we face him. I know those numbers don’t bare that. But he’s a guy that we respect. He’s a guy who has been a big pitcher for them.”

Strasburg’s win was also the result of timely Nationals hitting, which began with a Denard Span double off of Atlanta starter Ervin Santana in the third inning. Span’s double plated Wilson Ramos for Washington’s first score. Ramos then homered in the top of the 5th inning for the Nats second score. The Nats added their third run on a Strasburg single in the 7th and a Nate Schierholtz RBI in the 8th.

The Braves mounted a comeback in the 9th inning, with Rafael Soriano taking the mound to protect a 4-0 lead. Andrelton Simmons greeted Soriano with a double and then scored on a Justin Upton double to left. When Soriano walked Chris Johnson with two outs, Nats manager Matt Williams brought in Drew Storen to get the third out — a B.J. Upton grounder that ended the game.

The Braves frustration at falling out of both the race for the N.L. East crown and a spot as a Wild Card team was evidenced in the 6th inning when first sacker Freddie Freeman was called out on strikes by home plate umpire Tim Timmons. Freeman slammed his bat in disgust and was ejected from the game; when Gonzalez defended his player, he was also tossed.

We all collectively, from the front office to our coaches to our fans, we want to win,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez. “Anything short of us getting into some playoff game or play-in game is not acceptable. You see guys fighting.”

The loss symbolized the demise of the Braves who, despite their early season woes with a rash of pitching injuries, were supposed to contend with the Nationals for the N.L East title. That’s not what happened: Atlanta played well against the Nats, but poorly against the rest of the league. Last night’s loss put them at a so-so 75-75 for the year. A disappointment . . .

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Baltimore’s Orioles are a single win away from clinching their first American League East title since 1997. Last night, against the Toronto Blue Jays, they continued their dominance of their division, finishing off the struggling Jays, 5-2. If they win again tonight, they’ll win the A.L. East crown . . .

It seemed only right that Wei-Yin Chen would be the pitcher to lead the O’s in Toronto. After last night’s performance (the underrated southpaw scattered nine hits in 5.2 innings of work), Chen is 16-4 on the season, the first time a Baltimore lefty had 16 or more wins in a season since Jimmy Key did it way back when . . .

“I allowed quite a few hits out there, but I was trying to battle,” Chen said of his performance after his team’s victory. “I was trying to keep the ball down without allowing too many runs. Fortunately I can do that with the help of my teammates . . .”

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