Posts Tagged ‘Alberto Gonzalez’

Willingham’s Gapper Lands Fish

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

Josh Willingham’s sixth inning double into the gap in right center field scored three and the Washington Nationals went on to shut out the Florida Marlins, 4-0 on Saturday night in Miami. Starter Stephen Strasburg notched the win with six complete innings of four hit ball. Strasburg struggled in the first two innings of the game (attempting to pinpoint his uncooperative fastball) before settling down and registering seven strikeouts. Willingham’s gapper scored Nyjer Morgan, Cristian Guzman and Adam Dunn — accounting for three of the Nats’ four runs. Dunn just barely beat the throw home to account for the Nats third run. Nats reliever Drew Storen kept the Marlins at bay in the 7th and 8th innings, while Matt Capps closed out the game in the 9th. This was the team’s first shutout since the Nats subdued the Dodgers on April 25, 1-0.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We must be getting close to the trading deadline. Ray Knight subbed for Rob Dibble in the MASN booth and immediately focused his attention on the top of the Nats’ order — noting the poor on base percentages of Nats leadoff man Nyjer Morgan (.313) and number two hitter Cristian Guzman (.342). Knight mentioned the lack of production in the number one and two spots no less than four times during the game; at one point Knight went on at length about the poor OBP performance of the Morgan-Guzman tandem while a MASN camera lingered on the two in the dugout. In the 9th, when Alberto Gonzalez replaced Guzman at second, Knight pointedly gave his opinion of the shift: “Gonzalez is the best defensive infielder on the team after Zimmerman,” he said. As if to celebrate this notice, Gonzalez registered the third out with a circus snag of a hot up-the-middle grounder to end the game . . .

Jim Riggleman was in a semi-permanent snit during the Nats 4-0 win against the Marlins, the apparent result of missed signs, missed bunts and indifferent fielding. His patience might be running out — a sure sign that changes are in the offing. But what kind of changes? Moving Guzman will be difficult (he’s a 10-5 player, so can veto a trade) and he’s owed a chunk of money. And it’s not clear that the Nats are sold on Gonzalez at second — Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson sure isn’t: “I will tell you that Gonzalez is not the answer,” he wrote in a recent column. “He was given a chance last year and didn’t do a good job. He stopped hitting and wasn’t very good defensively. I think he is a very good utility player. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I feel about Gonzalez.”

The CFG team doesn’t agree even a little bit with Ladson, but there are a lot of people who do: Gonzalez was the target of widespread fan grumbling during the ’09 campaign and only really started to hit in September, when it was too late. And while Gonzalez is good defensively (or even very good), he’s not a top-of-the-order guy (his OBP stands at .333, about the same as Guzman’s). Of course, none of that may matter now: the Nats are the poorest defensive team in the NL and the front office is desperate to find a way to stop the bleeding. Guzman is popular and when he could have sulked in April (when Ian Desmond replaced him at short), he sucked it up and dedicated himself to team play. Even so, Rizzo-Riggleman & Company have to do something and, since they’re not going to sit Desmond (and why should they?), Alberto’s time may have come. It’s overdue.

Alberto Gonzalez #12 of the Washington Nationals hits a two run RBI against the Florida Marlins during their MLB game on August 6, 2009 at Nationals Park in Washington, DC.

Stammen Buries The Hatchets

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Craig Stammen, just recalled from the Nats Syracuse Triple-A farm club, threw seven innings of brilliant baseball and super sub Alberto Gonzalez went 4-4 as the skidding Nats ended their five game losing streak with a 7-2 win in Atlanta. Stammen finally mastered what had been bothering him in successive starts prior to his demotion — he kept the ball down in the zone and threw strikes, keeping the Bravos hitters off balance. Stammen threw 99 pitches, 57 of them for strikes, before giving way to Sean Burnett in the 8th inning. “Craig was just outstanding,” skipper Jim Riggleman said after the win. And the skipper praised Alberto Gonzalez, who looked rusty at the plate on Monday. “He’s a great fielder,” Riggleman said, “and he can hit a little too.” This marked the second successive start for Gonzalez, who has done some spot pinch hitting. But Riggleman was uncertain whether the Gonzalez start was the beginning of a new trend. “He’s kind of the fourth guy among four guys, so it’s tough for him to get playing time,” Riggleman said.

In breaking loose for seven runs, the Nats end a despairing streak of one, two and three run games that saw them sink further into last place in the NL East. Relief seems to be in sight: Nyjer Morgan’s bat is finally heating up (he was 2-5 on Tuesday), Josh Willingham put one into the seats at Turner Field (his 14th), Ryan Zimmerman plated two RBIs — and then there was Alberto Gonzalez, whose 4-4 stint brought his BA to .292: oh, and he can field a little bit too. To cap it all off, Roger Bernadina is starting to look like a keeper (slapping balls to left field) and Tyler Clippard pitched a nifty clean 9th. The news gets even better from there. The Nats went errorless in nine innings, which must be some kind of record.

Today I Settle All Family Business, So Don’t Tell Me You’re Innocent: If you google “The Kid,” you get sites for a Charlie Chaplan movie, news that Angelina Jolie’s little girl wants to be a boy (“she likes to wear boy’s everything,” Angelina poofed), and a reach on Ted Williams who, it seems, was called “the kid” until someone thought of something better — like “The Splendid Splinter.” (Which reminds me: wasn’t Gaylord Perry once referred to as “The Splendid Spitter?” No? Okay, maybe not). But nowhere on the internet does anyone talk about our Anacostia Nine who, it is reported, are calling Stephen Strasburg “the kid” in the privacy of the Nats’ clubhouse. We’re betting the name will stick, confirming Angelina’s little pout about “Shiloh,” who “thinks she’s one of the brothers.”

Stephen’s nickname confirms that he too (and for sure) is now one of the Nats brothers (that’s what being given a nickname means) — albeit without the apparent transgender issues of Shiloh Vomit Pitt. And it’s a good thing. Strasburg took the heat after his Monday outing, as Braves fans everywhere (there aren’t as many as there once were for “America’s Team“) laid into “the kid” for giving up five runs (er, three earned) in the 7th inning of Monday night. Even some Nats fans were disappointed. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God — what happened? So here’s the deal: we here at CFG have taken a poll of our staff (final vote? 3-0) and determined that we would take, any day, an outing from any pitcher on our staff who could throw 6.1 (!), give up three earned runs (!), and strike out seven. You never know, if we have outings like that every game, we could actually win the division. Yeah, there’s no question about it, Monday’s performance shows that we need to send “the kid” to the minors to “straighten out his stuff” and “build his self confidence.”

Say It Ain’t So Mike: The Nats are apparently “entertaining offers” . . . no, that’s not the right phrase. Damn. Let’s start over. The Nats are “actively considering” … no, that’s not right either. Okay. Here it is. The Nats are talking to at least two teams about a trade that would involve Nats first sacker and potential All Star Adam Dunn, the heart and soul of your Washington Nationals (if you don’t count Ryan Zimmerman, Pudge Rodriguez, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Josh Willingham, Livan Hernandez . . .). The report must be true: MLB Trade Rumors has it by way of Ken Rosenthal, who has it from the Chicago Sun Times, who has it from the White Sox.

The Angels are already interested, Rosenthal says, and Joe Cowley of the Greatest Newspaper in the Greatest City in America (it’s ahead of the Trib, dontchaknow), says that the Nats and Pale Hose are exchanging names, though the Sox don’t have much to give in the way of pitching prospects — they were all traded to the Little Monks from San Diego for Jumpin’ Jake Peavy. No one likes this kind of talk, least of all Adam Dunn, who doesn’t want to be a DH and likes it just fine here in D.C.  We like him here too, Mike — as he is headed for another season of 40 home runs (oops, he had only 39 last year) and is one of the surprises, perhaps the surprise on the team: unlike the other nine we slap together to play the Baltimore Pathetics, he’s fielding his position like a pro. And who would have guessed that? Then too, don’t we have enough pitching prospects? I know, let’s try Danny Cabrera. In fact, the only positive thing we could really gain from such a trade is an end to that obnoxious public address announcer and his “now batting for your Washington Nationals …. Adaaaam Dunnnnnn.” Hey, on second thought . . .

Kearns Haunts Nats

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

The Austin Kearns revival continues in Cleveland, as the former Nat and sometime slugger belted out two home runs in leading the Indians to a 7-2 victory over the Washington Nine at Progressive Field. Kearns, who was hobbled by injuries during his time in Washington, is now leading the Naps in BA — and anchoring an otherwise punchless front nine that is having difficulty competing in the AL Central. Kearns’ success is one of the bright spots for first year Tribe manager Manny Acta, who helped bring Kearns to Cleveland and then watched him win a spot in the regular line-up. “Austin is the ultimate pro, a throwback,” Acta said after the Cleveland win. “He’s a professional who never gives away an at-bat. He went into Spring Training fighting for a spot, waited for his opportunity and has taken advantage of it.  He’s a coach’s dream.”

Kearns’ victim was Washington rookie pitcher Luis Atilano, who allowed three runs in the first, and never seemed to settle down. Atilano threw five innings of seven hit ball, but never mastered the Naps front nine. “I wasn’t commanding my sinker to the righties,” Atilano said of his outing. “I was more outside — middle in a little bit.” Tyler Walker was also shaky in pitching two complete innings of relief, giving up two hits and a run in facing nine batters. Doug Slaten finished the game for the Nats. The indifferent mound work and the inability of the Nats to feed off of their long-ball heroics against the Pirates, ended the Anacostia Nine’s three game winning streak, sending the team to two games under .500. The Nats face off against the Indians on Saturday, with Washington youngster J.D. Martin set to start against Cleveland’s Fausto Carmona.

The Riggleman Order: Nats skipper Jim Riggleman shook up the batting order for the first game against the Tribe, hitting Ivan Rodriguez in the second spot, starting Willie Harris in left and slotting Josh Willingham as the DH. There were apparently good reasons for this; then too, Riggleman constantly massages his batting order — this isn’t the first time that Pudge has batted second. And the 38-year-old continues to hit, no matter where he bats. That’s not true for Willie Harris, whose time on the roster is increasingly cause for concern (he hitting a whopping .168) — but Rigs keeps running him out there. Maybe he’s a long lost cousin or something . . . There must be a good reason why Alberto Gonzalez continues to wear a hole in the bench. With Kennedy and Guzman switching off at second and Ryan Zimmerman healthy, there isn’t much room to play Gonzo, but running him out to the on-deck circle as a PH and then pulling him back — to be replaced by Harris — is puzzling. Is Willie Harris really a better hitter? . . .

Some of the glitter has worn off Adam Kennedy, who booted a ball against the Tribe. Rigs says that that’s the result of not having steady playing time, a good enough (and probably accurate) explanation. Kennedy was a steady-as-she-goes fielder in both Anaheim and St. Louis, though no one would ever confuse him with a gold glover. We suspect that this leaves Riggleman in a kind of quandry: the team needs Guzman’s bat, but he’s a deficit at both second and (even more so) in right, while Kennedy has yet to hit his stride in the batter’s box . . .I keep coming back to Harris. While it’s true that Harris will never “find his stroke” by sitting the bench, how likely is it that (after 52 games and 95 at bats) Willie will suddenly become Lou Gehrig? Or Alberto Gonzalez? Or even Mario Mendoza? Harris has never hit over .270 in a season, and that was three years ago in Atlanta. Maybe it’s time for Rigs to rethink his role . . .

Kennedy Slap Shot Sinks Brewers

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

The Washington Nationals rallied for their second game in a row, beating the Milwaukee Brewers 5-3, behind Adam Kennedy’s eighth inning single. Kennedy’s hit went just under the outstretched glove of Brewer Prince Fielder, chasing across two runs and sealing the game. Matt Capps came on in the ninth for his fifth save in five attempts. The Nats are now an unlikely 5-5 on the season. “It’s coming together a little bit, slowly,” Riggleman said. “Piece by piece, it’s coming together. But I really feel that certainly we’re not playing at the top of our games by any means. I’m just really glad the way they’re scrapping and getting after it.”

Kennedy’s clutch at-bat came in a game where the Nats were missing two of their key pieces: Adam Dunn was ejected in the first inning for throwing his helmut on a called third strike by the third base ump, and Ryan Zimmerman remained sidelined by a sore hamstring. But the Nats, using their new-found team speed and their hitting-for-singles approach, were able to squeeze out the victory.”When you can win games and you haven’t played great, it’s a really good sign,” Kennedy said. “It should be a fun year.” Kennedy, who’s been struggling at the plate in the early going, raised his average to .214, providing needed defense at third and first. When Dunn was ejected, Riggleman shuffled his defense, putting the Nats’ newest super utilityman Alberto Gonzalez at third.

While starter John Lannan did not register the win, he was effective for the first time in three season outings. Lannan pitched a full seven innings, scattering seven hits while striking out five. The lefty was able to work through the middle of the Brewers’ order, feasting off the light-hitting lumber at the bottom of Milwaukee’s line-up. Milwaukee’s sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth hitters went a combined 0-12 against the lefty. “It shows we have a lot of depth,” Lannan said. “We’ve been able to win games. I don’t think we’ve hit our stride. We’re just building off each win.” Washington’s victim was Brewers’ reliever LeTroy Hawkins, who appeared in his second consecutive poor outing. Hawkins signed a two-year $7.5 million deal in the off-season, but has been a disappointment.

The Worst Free Agent Contract In The Majors? There are rumors that the Chicago Cubs are actually considering unloading the atmospheric contract of left fielder Alfonso Soriano — by releasing him. The rumors apparently began when baseball beat reporter David Brown circulated an update on the Cubs’ frustrations over Soriano’s lack of defense — and detailed the options the Cubs might have in dealing with their flighty star. Rob Neyer repeated and expanded on these concerns, highlighting Cubs’ manager Lou Piniella’s growing anger at Soriano’s inability to play an even average left field: Soriano dropped a fly ball against the Reds last Sunday and misplayed two others against the Brewers. Soriano’s free agent contract is among the most bloated in baseball: he’s due to get paid $18 million a season until 2014.

Reporter David Horowitz is one of Soriano’s most outspoken critics, channeling (in Bleacher Report), what has to be considered an authoritative inside-the-clubhouse judgment: “What does this guy do? If he can’t hit, he’s worthless. And he’s not hitting. Even when he does hit, at least in the past, he would get in streaks where you couldn’t get him out and he could carry a team. That’s why he got that contract,” Horowitz wrote last week. “But when he wasn’t hot, you would be better off with that little leaguer at the plate, because he’s a sure out. He has no plate discipline and he tries to pull everything. He has no plan when he steps up to the plate other than praying that the pitcher will throw him a fastball in his zone.” The Arlington Heights Daily Herald, a sometime-source on the North Side Drama Queens, headlined the Soriano reports — “Break out or you sit out!”

But could the Cubs actually release Soriano? It’s not as if they don’t have options: Xavier Nady is better defensively and is starting to hit, and the Sluggies have what some observers dub a Joe Dimaggio-in-waiting — future superstar Tyler Colvin, who’s hot Spring bat won him a place on the club and the support of the legion of Cubs’ rooters nationwide. The Cubs brain trust, meanwhile, is carefully adding wood to the bonfire — perhaps as a way of sending the tone deaf Soriano a message. Lou Piniella expressed confidence in Soriano, but he then replaced him in the outfield with Colvin on the day following Soriano’s embarrassing left field gaffe. Cubs GM Jim Hendry was not nearly so careful: he denied that the Cubs were thinking about releasing Soriano, but only after pointedly saying that playing time “will not be determined by salary.” Hendry’s got it right, of course: the Ricketts’ family might be rich — but they’re not that rich.

Alfonso Soriano

Alberto’s Solid Spring

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

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

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

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

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

Alberto vs. Orlando

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Now that the Phuzzies have become the former world champions — dropping the World Series to New York’s Jedi Knights – we can return to baseball’s second season: as ultimate a test for GMs and owners as the on-the-field play of their counterparts during the regular season. So it is that the Nats’ off season rumor mill is finally in full swing, with reports circulating that the Nats are once again eyeing second sacker Orlando Hudson as the solution to the team’s problems in the middle infield. Jon Heyman over at SI says that Hudson is looking for other opportunities — as Trolley manager Joe Torre “employed Ronnie Belliard over him” through much of September and into the playoffs. In fact, it was downright weird watching Belliard shine in the L.A. post-season, particularly considering his embarrassing swing-from-the-heels style of play for the Nats through nearly 120 games. Can it be? Would L.A. really pick Belliard as their second sacker over Hudson?

Ah . . . well, not really. L.A. is all a-glitter over the prospect of signing free agent Adrian Beltre to play third base, with Casey Blake moving over to second — an experiment that keeps Blake’s bat in the line-up while adding a power hitter at the corner. Beltre could, in fact, pump about 20 dingers into the left field seats in Dodger Stadium, giving the kind of power to the Trolley line-up that Raul Ibanez provided in Philadelphia this last year. And L.A.’s his home town. That puts Belliard on the Dodger bench (which is where he, ah, belongs): and makes Hudson expendable. There’s no doubt there’s been an on-again off-again flirtation between the Nats and Hudson which dates back to late 2008 — when the Nats seemingly pursued the glove man, hoping he could fill the infield hole next to Cristian Guzman. In any event, the Hudson-to-the-Nats never quite happened and the “O-Dog” ended up in Hollywood. Now, it seems, there is revived interest in Hudson: the flirtation continues.

But is Hudson the right fit for D.C.?

Right here (in this paragraph), we might take a look at Hudson’s stats, which are more than presentable (.283, 9 HRs, 62 RBIs — and, more importantly, a good glove), and then follow that with talk about how Hudson would add some badly needed punch to an anemic middle infield. But all of that would beg the question: the problem up the middle for the Nats is not at second base, it’s at shortstop — and bringing Hudson in not only doesn’t solve that problem, it short-circuits the end-of-season discussion about moving Cristian Guzman to second and finding someone (like Ian Desmond) to play Guzman’s position. I’ve argued before that moving Guzman to second doesn’t solve anything. And it doesn’t. In fact, signing Hudson only creates an additional problem: for if Guzman can’t play second any better than he played short and if Ian Desmond doesn’t work out (and he might not) then you don’t have one problem, you have two.

Even so, the “we want Orlando” bandwagon is entering its first stage, in large part because no one is sold on Alberto Gonzalez — including outspoken MASN announcers Bob Carpenter and Rob Dibble and regular Nats commentator Bill Ladson. Ladson pegs Gonzalez as no more than a sometimes substitute. “I think it’s pretty clear that he is no more than a backup,” Ladson said in a recent column. “I was shocked with the way he played after interim manager Jim Riggleman made him the everyday second baseman. There were times I thought he wasn’t fundamentally sound with the bat and glove.” Really? Gonzalez hit .265 in 105 games, and while he wasn’t exactly a whiz kid at second, he wasn’t a disaster. While Gonzalez ended the season with an admittedly paltry OBP of .299, he finished the season strong, hitting .344 in his last ten games. Gonzalez is young, has a good attitude and he’ll only get better. In fact, he might get a lot better.  

Hudson, on the other hand, will make somewhere in the range of $5 million to $7 million per year (and he’s not about to sign a single year contract) and his rumored wrist problem is worrisome. He will be 32, on the down side of his prime years. Gonzalez will only get better: Hudson can only get worse. Why spend $5-$7 million a year (over three years, I’ll bet you) for a guy who might have a problem staying in the line-up. Of course, Hudson hits a hellava lot better than Gonzalez (no question) and has a stellar glove (he’s one of the best fielding second sacker in the majors), but he’s iffy in a way that Felipe Lopez was iffy. Then too (we might remember) Joe Torre thought that, when the chips were down, Ronnie Belliard was the better player. That oughta tell us something. So what should the Nats do? At least one of the options they should consider would be to take the money they would save on signing the “O-Dog” — let’s call it “Hudson Money” — and spend it on buying a solid front rank free agent pitcher. It comes down to this: who would you rather have? Orlando Hudson — or Jon Garland? Or Joel Pineiro? Or even Jason Marquis?

Season Ends With Win In 15

Monday, October 5th, 2009

The Washington Nationals finished the 2009 season on a high note, winning their seventh in a row, 2-1, in fifteen innings in Atlanta. The game winning RBI was plated on a line drive by Alberto Gonzalez , whose single in the 15th inning drove in Elijah Dukes with what turned out to be the winning run. The win could not save the Nats from the worst record in franchise history — as well as the worst record in baseball for the 2009 season: 59-103. Gonzalez was 2-6 in his last outing, raising his BA for the season to .265. Logan Kensing, who pitched two innings of three hit ball in relief, got the win. Starter J.D. Martin pitched six solid innings of six hit baseball, giving up a single earned run. But the pitching of the bullpen was the key story in the team’s last game of 2009 — Tyler Clippard, Ron Villone, Jason Bergmann, Saul Rivera and Kensing pitched nine innings in relief, giving up no runs.

While the Nats left Atlanta with their seventh consecutive win, the front office isn’t underestimating the work that needs to be done in the off season — the naming of a manager, the acquistion of two veteran pitchers, a reconstruction of the league’s worst bullpen and moves that will solidify the defense, especially up the middle. If there was a highpoint in the season (at least according to the Nats’ front office) it was the acquisition of centerfielder Nyjer Morgan and lefty reliever Sean Burnett from Pittsburgh. “I’m not saying we are where we want to be, certainly not,” Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo said after the Atlanta win. “We know the targets we have to hit.” But many of the positive moves were actually negatives — additions by subtraction: the cutting of failed starter Daniel Cabrera, the exile of outfielder Lastings Milledge and the abandonment of the Joel Hanrahan experiment . . .

But the real high point of the season occurred before it even began — with the firing of Jim Bowden. The move was long overdue. The appointment of Mike Rizzo to take his place, first as “acting G.M” and then permanently, reshuffled the weak front office. Rizzo recast the Nats’ development program in the Dominican Republic, engineered the Milledge-Morgan swap, signed pitching phenom and first overall pick Stephen Strasburg, and rejiggered an embarrassing bullpen. His May signing of Mike MacDougal to a minor league deal — often overlooked — provided Washington with a closer. Rizzo’s mid-summer moves stabilized the franchise and gave the Nats immediate credibility. In a otherwise lost season, Rizzo’s promotion provided the one key bright spot  . . .

It’s not clear whether interim manager Jim Riggleman will return, though there’s no doubt that his handling of the club after the firing of Manny Acta focused the defense and provided needed wins. The club was sluggish under Acta and played with more intensity under Riggleman. “I think Riggleman really did a good job handling the ballclub after the All-Star break,” Rizzo said after the end of the season. “I think he put us on pace to really focus and bear down on the fundamentals of the game — to play cleaner and more efficient ballgames. He had the players playing at a high level. I think he has done the best job he could with the ability level that he has.” It’s clear that many Nats’ players would like to see Riggleman return . . .

Maxwell’s Silver Hammer

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

 

The most dramatic moment of the Washington Nationals 2009 season came during the last at bat of the last inning of the last game the team played in front of their home fans: with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning — and Nats fans on their feet and screaming — rookie Justin Maxwell put a heart-of-the-plate fastball (thrown by one of the game’s best relief pitchers), into the first row in left field, sealing a stunning 7-4 come from behind victory. Maxwell’s hammer came on the ninth pitch from Mets’ reliever Francisco Rodriguez who came into the game in the last inning to nail down the victory for the New York Nine. But Rodriguez — the strikeout king of relief pitchers — struggled with his control, ever as much as Mets’ defenders struggled to get outs.

The stunning victory in the home half began with an Alberto Gonzalez single to the left of scrambling Mets’ shortstop Wilson Valdez, who threw wide of first. Gonzalez — head first into the bag — was safe. With the score 4-2, Nats fans seemed fated to take their punishment, but when Mike Morse singled to center (two on, no one out), the crowd of some 23,900-plus began to take an interest. Willie Harris then laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt, moving Gonzalez to third and Morse to second. With men on second and third and one out, Elijah Dukes (whose first swinging strike was intended to win the game) had one of his most patient at bats — and Rodriguez walked him. Bases loaded.

Ryan Zimmerman came to the plate — and Nats’ fans were on their feet. Zimmerman had already put one into straightaway centerfield (in the eighth), and Nats fans supposed he might do it again. But Rodriguez fanned him on three straight pitches, the last a nasty cutting fastball that Zim couldn’t touch. Adam Dunn came to the plate. The Nats’ most important long ball hitter (38 home runs), had struggled in his last 30 at bats — and through most of the night. But as deftly as Rodriguez had handled Zimmerman, he seemed to wilt before Dunn’s big-bat threat, walking him on a 3 and 2 pitch that wasn’t even close.

Rodriguez was non-plussed: he called for the ball as Dunn walked to first, forcing a run in from third. Dunn’s base-on-balls trot put the Nats one run away from a tie. But it was still 4-3 Mets. Dunn’s walk brought Justin Maxwell to the plate — a rookie with no big game history. As with Zimmerman, K-Rod went after Maxwell, just missing on his first pitch before registering two strikes (looking). But then, oddly, Rodriguez grew cautious (he threw a ball wide), just as Maxwell began to battle. Rodriguez threw another ball and the count was full. Maxwell fouled off the next two pitches, including a high-in-the-zone might-have-been that hooked harmlessly into the left field seats. Rodriguez had taken something off the pitch and it wasn’t hit very hard. So Frankie made his calculation. Impatient, and knowing he was facing a rookie, he put his best fastball over the plate — something that a kid from Olney, Maryland would never be expected to touch.

And Maxwell put it over the left field fence.

Detwiler’s Curly W

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Ross Detwiler notched his first win of the season on Monday, with a 2-1 win over the Mets. The victory against the Chokes was a distinct improvement over the previous three games: the Nats’ starter was effective, the bullpen held the opposition to zero hits in three scoreless innings, and the Nats scored when they needed to. “It feels great,” Detwiler said of his victory. “It kind of feels like I got the pressure off myself to get that first victory. It’s one for the records.” The starter’s success came because he threw strikes: 65 of them in 99 pitches — with three strikeouts, nine groundouts and seven fly balls. Detwiler gave up seven hits and lowered his ERA to 5.35. Mike MacDougal, whose confidence took a hit during the series with the Braves, came on to pitch the ninth — and retired the side. Surprisingly, the Nats hitting was provided by three newcomers. Justin Maxwell went 2-4, Ian Desmond 2-3 and Mike Morse 3-4. Morse, who’s been hitting the hide off the ball, hit his third homer of the season in the sixth inning with no one on.

The Case For The Kids: Nats fans are getting a taste of what they’ll be seeing next year. Monday’s lineup included Justin Maxwell, Ian Desmond, Mike Morse and Alberto Gonzalez. While interim manager Jim Riggleman says that he will continue to play his veterans, the end of the season is turning into a kind of advanced spring training. The August 27 injury to Nyjer Morgan (and Cristian Guzman’s bum foot) has allowed Riggleman to test Mike Morse’s staying power in the bigs and so far he has to like what he’s seen. Chico Harlan quotes Riggleman as calling Morse “a professional hitter,” and the numbers bear him out: Morse is hitting .306 and seems to have shaken off the injury bug that has been such a big part of his career. Riggleman doesn’t quite know where to put Morse, but he started him in right field on Monday, in place of Elijah Dukes. Dukes has been hitting better since his mid-season return from the minors, but he’s the first to admit he has trouble hitting a curve. Then too, while Dukes’ on base numbers are getting better by the game, his power stroke has disappeared. That’s not true for Morse, who’s season total of three home runs was notched in the last three games.

The rise of Morse — and Justin Maxwell’s apparent new found ability to hit major league pitching — creates one of those happy, and rare, problems: a crowded outfield. Barring a trade (and given that Nyjer Morgan has centerfield locked up, with Willingham in left), the Nats are now set to go to Florida with at least four outfielders contending for the remaining outfield slot: Morse, Dukes, Maxwell and Roger Bernadina. While it’s too soon to tell (and a lot can happen in the off-season), if spring training were to start today, the competition for right field would likely come down to a tussle between Morse and Dukes. Dukes has helped his cause by being a good citizen and consistent nose-in-the-dirt player, but his BA continues to hover between .250 and .260. Right now, albeit in far fewer games, Morse is shaping up to be the better hitter.  

Of course, it’s possible that Riggleman (if he loses his “interim” tag) will write Morse’s name in at second base: but Alberto Gonzalez’s recent post-slump production (seven for 17 in the last five games and ten points on his BA over the last ten) and improved defense make him a contender for a starting spot up the middle. Gonzalez is no Chase Utley (who is), but there are plenty of teams out there who would love to have a second baseman who can hit .270. Over at Nationals Pride, Jeff wonders whether the Nats should sign free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson. Maybe they should. But the Nats’ weakness up the middle is not at second (Gonzalez has — count ’em — one error at second in 51 games), it’s at short — and getting Hudson doesn’t solve that problem. I’ve never understood the knock on Gonzalez: he hits better than Kaz Matsui (a lot better), fields better than Felipe Lopez (remember him?) and doesn’t have a surgically repaired and naggingly bum left wrist, like Hudson. Putting Gonzalez permanently at second (just ignor what these guys have to say about him) makes for one less thing: and frees up money to sign a top flight starter (or even a couple) and a top notch closer (if they can find one). After all, it’s possible for a team to win, or even contend, with a steady-but-not-great second baseman, but it’s impossible for them to win without a starting staff or a bullpen. If 2009 showed the Nats anything, it showed them that.

Nats Leave Chad Hanging

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

A heads-up Justin Maxwell stolen base followed by a Pete Orr fly ball to right field in the bottom of the ninth inning gave the Nats a 5-4 walk off win against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park on Wednesday night. The Nats’ comeback win was sparked by a Ryan Zimmerman three run home run, a shot into the centerfield bullpen off Trolley righthander Chad Billingsley that tied the score at three. Billingsley was into the sixth and pitching a no-hitter until Zimmerman’s blast. It was Zimmerman’s 31st home run and 100th RBI of the season. The Nats went ahead 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth, but couldn’t keep the lead — as a shaky outing by closer Mike MacDougal and two Cristian Guzman throwing errors allowed the Dodgers to tie the game in the top of the 9th.

The Nats looked like they were headed for yet another anemic night at the plate, as Billingsley mastered the Anacostia line up with six innings of no hit baseball. But with runners on first and second in the sixth, the suddenly tiring Billingsley was visited by Dodger pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. On the very next pitch — with Zimmerman at the plate – the Dodger righty threw a ball that hung up-and-in on Zimmerman, and ended up over the fence. In all, Billingsley threw six innings, giving up only one hit. It was a masterful if vain performance by the 12-10 Dodger. Nats fans were pleased to discover that they’re not the only ones frustrated by poor defense. An eighth inning fly ball off the bat of Adam Dunn dropped between confused left fielder Manny Ramirez and centerfielder Matt Kemp, while a sure double play bouncer up the middle was thrown wide at first. The miscues sent the Nats into the top of the ninth with a one run lead and a chance to close out the game.

The Nats were actually lucky in the 9th, despite MacDougal’s keep-em-in-the-game pitching and their two errors: two line shots ended the inning with the bases jammed. The Dodgers were only able to score once in the top of the ninth, leaving the score tied at four. In the bottom of the final frame, Justin Maxwell hit a single past a diving Ronnie Belliard into left, was sacrificed to second by Alberto Gonzalez and then stole third. A surprised Trolley catcher Russell Martin threw wide of the bag at third to put Maxwell 90 feet from home. That brought journeyman Pete Orr to the plate. His long fly ball to right — dropped by the usually sure-handed Andre Ethier — won the game.