Melee In Miami

September 2nd, 2010  / Author: Mark

There are lots of Nats’ fans who think that Nyjer Morgan has a screw loose — but his scrum in Miami last night (perhaps, as one reader writes, “he misses hockey”), makes for exciting baseball. And it shows that the Nats (first in war, first in peace and still last in the NL Least) have a bit of life left in them. Nats’ manager Jim Riggleman defended Morgan, particularly after the Marlins took umbrage with his decision to steal second and third with the Nats down ten runs — a no-no that’s considered a cheapy in baseball’s Book of Unwritten Rules. Of course, not everyone agrees with that, in part because no one has ever actually seen the book — but because the “rule” is a bunch of hooey. “My feeling has always been, if you hit somebody, you did what you set out to do,” Nats skipper Jim Riggleman said after the game. “If he decides to run on you, that’s his business. I have no problem with that at all. We decide when we run. The Florida Marlins don’t decide when we run. Nobody decides when we run.”

The Miami melee began after, having already been hit once (the result of Nyjer’s decking of the Marlins’ catcher on a play at the plate on Tuesday), Florida starter Chris Volstad threw behind the Nats’ center fielder. Morgan charged the mound and in the ensuing one-on-one (Morgan threw a roundhouse left at Volstad, as both benches emptied), Marlins’ first baseman Gaby Sanchez clothes-lined the Curacao native. “When I saw [Morgan] running out, obviously, he’s not coming out there to talk,” Volstad said. “I was just trying to defend myself and not get hurt. Gaby had my back. The whole team had my back. Everyone was there. It’s just part of the game.” The fight (and Morgan’s decking of Marlins catcher Brett Hayes), resulted in six ejections (Jim Riggleman and reliever Doug Slaten were ejected later in the game — after Slaten plunked cheap-shot artist Gaby Sanchez) and will likely result in suspensions and fines for those most involved.

The Marlins say the bad blood between the teams is now behind them (“I know it’s over for me,” Marlins third sacker Wes Helms said. “I hope it is for these other guys”), but there’s bound to be some lingering irritations — the Nats and Marlins play regularly as N.L. East rivals, and neither Morgan nor Sanchez are the forgive-and-forget types. In the wake of the dust-up, Nats’ commentators were quick to criticize Morgan. Mark Zuckerman said we all should have seen this coming, and described Morgan’s behavior over the last two weeks as “sad and predictable.” Ben Goessling, meanwhile, speculates that it’s all but inevitable that the Nats will part with Morgan. Goessling adds, correctly we think, that Morgan brings an energy to the game that the Nats need. FJB says that “Nyjer needs to go” while Dan Steinberg points out that one of Morgan’s less endearing traits is his tendency to jaw with fans.

All of that is undoubtedly true: Nyjer Morgan can’t be allowed to carry on a dialogue with fans and Riggleman was right to bench him for purposely and unnecessarily elbowing the Cards catcher here in D.C. last week. And despite Zuckerman’s correct judgment (that we should have seen this coming — and we did), there’s need for a little perspective: it’s not a given that Morgan’s collision with Hayes was intended to injure (it probably wasn’t) and Nyjer took his medicine when he was hit the first time by Volstad (he had it coming and he knew it — and trotted to first with nary a second thought). But a second attempt to plunk the plucky center fielder is over the line — as Jim Riggleman, holding a single digit and yelling “one time” at the Marlins manager — showed. And Gaby Sanchez’s clotheslining (which brought oohs and ahhs from the Marlins’ clubhouse) of Morgan is not a sign of Sanchez’s fighting prowess, it was a cheap and thuggish blindside shot. Doug Slaten figured that out, and responded. And rightly so.

Washingtonians have short memories. Last year nearly everyone (including MASN’s Bob Carpenter and his dearly departed sidekick) were telling us how crappy a player Alberto Gonzalez was — this year we can’t get enough of him. Austin Kearns was the fair-haired boy when he came here from hog heaven, but lost his fans when he snapped a tendon and tried to play through it. Remember? We couldn’t get enough of Nyjer last year, when he was the best Nats player in September and ignited a team that didn’t look like it cared. And while we can roll our eyes at Morgan’s “Tony Plush” put-on, he is (by all accounts) a tough team player who wants to win. Now we’re all calling for his head. And why? Because he did this last week what Pete Rose did his entire career. So — yeah — the Nats will part ways with Nyjer this winter, but they shouldn’t do it before then and they shouldn’t do it because he bangs into opponents while playing the game. They should do it for the right reason: because Roger Bernadina is a better hitter and a better fielder. Give me a break: teams don’t win because they are filled with good citizens, they win because they have good players.

Zimmermann Gem, But Nats Fall

September 1st, 2010  / Author: Mark

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

August 31st, 2010  / Author: Mark

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

August 30th, 2010  / Author: Mark

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

August 29th, 2010  / Author: Mark

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

August 28th, 2010  / Author: Mark

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

August 27th, 2010  / Author: Mark

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

August 26th, 2010  / Author: Mark

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.”

The Princes of Chavez Ravine

August 25th, 2010  / Author: Mark

Once upon a time there was a pitcher who was nearly as celebrated as Stephen Strasburg — a phenom, a whiz, an over-the-top fastballer whose mid-90s down-in-the-zone pitches defeated even the best hitters. But Dean Chance will not go down in baseball history as Hall of Famer or even as one of baseball’s near greats, but rather as a one-time memorable figure whose talent and savvy brought him from the small Ohio hamlet of Wooster to the hallowed streets of Hollywood. Those were the days: when Hollywood legends packed the stands of the Dodger Stadium (which the expansion Angels shared with the N.L. legends), to oggle the young and brash stalwarts of “the singing cowboy’s” newest entrants into the Yankee-dominated American League. The most celebrated Angel of all was Robert Boris “Bo” Belinsky, the lefty throwing pool hustling playboy-athlete whose 1962 no-hit, no-run feat against Baltimore’s Orioles launched him into the headlines — and into the arms of (among others) Mamie Van Dorn, Connie Stevens and Ann-Margret.

In spite of their attraction to L.A. celebrity-wood, the 1961 expansion Angels were predictably poor. But the 1962 Angels were a fairytale, matching the Yankees in win for win as Hollywood oohed and ahhed and celebrated — prematurely. The Angels went through a late-season swoon and finished third. But with the storied, oh-so-handsome and charismatic Belinsky (a former “street rat” from New York by way of Trenton), on the mound, everyone thought the future was bright. The Angels would conquer both the Yankees and the American League  — and Bo Belinsky (handsome and blessed with a flash-bang smile), would lead the way. It was not to be: after his meteoric rise, Belinsky’s fame undid him, drowning a  promising career in years of dissipation — until (in later life), he became a reformed alcoholic and born again Christian living in Las Vegas (of all places). And as Belinsky fell, so too did the Angels, reverting to their losing ways and finishing 9th in 1963. Thus, Bo Belinsky.

Not Dean Chance. Like Belinsky, Chance was young and handsome. And, like Belinsky, Chance could pitch — could pitch so well, in fact, that he left hitters shaking their heads and walking back to the dugout. But that’s where the similarity ended. Unlike Belinsky, who dreamed of stardom and Hollywood and beautiful women, Chance dreamed of baseball. And unlike Belinsky, street smart and tough, Chance was a small town boy who grew up on a farm. Then too, Chance was dedicated to the game and, while he “ran” with Belinsky (and became his lifelong friend), he was never awed by flashing cameras, beautiful women — or the glitter of Hollywood. While the young Belinsky spent his New York childhood dodging the cops and tossing nickels on street corners, the 6-3 Chance spent his Ohio childhood listening to the Indians on the radio . . . and dreamed of becoming a ballplayer. And when the Indians weren’t playing (when the  midwest winds wickered across Ohio’s cornfields), Chance spent his time dreaming about being a boxer. “When I was growing up I always wanted to be a ballplayer,” Chance recently told a baseball reporter. “But I always loved boxing, too. I grew up listening to and watching Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Boy, were they exciting.”

Chance was a “puncher.” He styled his mound tactics in the same way that ’60s boxers styled their straight-ahead heavyweight tilts — he bored in on hitters, ratcheting up his fastball into the mid-90s, before dropping it (unpredictably) onto the outside corner. In high school Chance was not only unhittable, he became the most talked about young hurler in Ohio baseball history. His high school records remain unequaled: he threw 17 no hitters at Wooster high school — the closest contender is another Ohioan, Tom Engle, who threw six straight back in 1989. In 1962, as Belinsky was making headlines (though he was only 10-11) and dating the stars, Chance began his own career with the Angels, forging a workmanlike 14-10 campaign. In 1963, both of them struggled: Belinsky was 2-9 and Chance was 13-18. But, just as Belinsky was fading, Chance was becoming a premier pitcher. In 1964, as the Angels struggled to finish just two games over .500, Chance compiled a breathtaking 20-9 record and became (at 23) the youngest player to that point to win a Cy Young award. His 1964 campaign remains among the most memorable in A.L. history, in large part because Chance pitched better against the Yankees than he did against any other team: “It’s Chance, not CBS, who owns the Yankees. Lock, stock and barrel,” Angel’s center fielder Albie Pierson said during the season. “When Dean pitched, the Yankees became a bunch of guys in pantyhose . . . they had no chance.”

Belinsky couldn’t keep up. As Chance was making baseball history, Belinsky was struggling with his control (he would go 9-8 in 1964), and with his personal life. Flitting from date-to-date, and being photographed with the glitterati, Belinsky’s lifestyle (his constant fist fights, most notoriously, with an L.A. Times beat reporter) and his interminable scrapes with the Beverly Hills constabulary — was wearing thin with Angel’s owner Gene Autry. After the end of the ’64 campaign, Autry decided he’d had enough and traded Belinsky to the Philadelphia Phillies. But Belinsky’s fame preceded him, as Phillies fans viewed the new duo of Bunning and Belinsky as Philadelphia’s salvation; the two even appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Back in L.A., farmboy Chance continued to labor; and while the Wooster native would never equal the near perfection of his Cy Young year, his ten-year career remains a talisman of consistency — he won 20 games for the Twins in 1967, an astonishing 18 of them were complete. His career nosedived after 1968 (when he was 16-16), and, in 1971, he retired to Wooster, where he became a boxing promoter and manager and formed a respected sanctioning organization — the International Boxing Association.

Now, at age 68, Chance will talk baseball (and boxing) with anyone who will sit and listen. “The greatest defensive player I ever faced was Brooks Robinson,” Chance told one reporter several years ago. “The greatest relief pitcher was Dick Radatz of the Red Sox. The toughest hitters I ever faced were Tony Oliva of the Twins and Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox. They always hit me the other way. If I had a runner on third and no outs, those were the last guys I’d want to see at the plate.” Chance says his biggest thrill as a major leaguer was winning the 1964 Cy Young award. That may well be. But for fans of baseball, the most memorable event in the life of the Ohio farmboy-made-good, came on this date in 1967, when Chance threw the best game of his career — a no hitter against the Cleveland Indians. That in itself might not be historic, except that Chance’s no-hitter was the second he threw that month. The first had come on August 15 — when he no-hit the Red Sox.

(above: Dean Chance as a rookie; below: Bo Belinsky in the Angel’s clubhouse.)

Cubs Stymie Nats Rally

August 25th, 2010  / Author: Mark

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.