Posts Tagged ‘Arizona Diamondbacks’

Nats Win Snakes’ Series

Monday, August 16th, 2010

The Nationals defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-3 at Nationals Park on Sunday, taking two games of a three game series. The game marked the second return of Stephen Strasburg following his stint on the D.L., and “the kid” pitched well, despite giving up a home run to Adam LaRoche and making an errant throw to first baseman Adam Dunn. “I was talking to Stephen a little bit ago. He said that it is the best he felt,” Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman said, following the victory. “The ball was coming out of his hand good. Stras did a great job and gave us a chance to win.” The Nats trailed the D-Backs 3-1 into the bottom of the fourth, when slumping Josh Willingham shook loose from his doldrums and launched a pitch off of D-Backs starter Barry Enright to tie the game. The Nats won the game on a single by Ian Desmond, with Ryan Zimmerman providing an insurance homer. Typically, the Nats’ bullpen closed out their opponents, with Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen shutting down the Arizona order.

The Ghost of Kerry Wood: Nats’ fans at the ballpark on Sunday probably didn’t get a chance to see Strasburg’s frustration with being lifted after pitching just five innings, but “the kid” was clearly angered by the move. Strasburg, mouth set and eyes flashing, sat the bench after the end of the fifth inning fuming. At least that’s what the fans at home saw, with Strasburg’s irritation coming in waves through the camera lens. Nats pitching czar Steve McCatty intervened with an explanation, speaking with animation as Strasburg shook his head on the bench. This isn’t the first time that Strasburg has been angered, though he never mentions it in any post game interview. But if Strasburg is angry it’s only because he has a right to be. And he’s not the only one. Jim Riggleman’s reputation as a manager with an early hook is well-earned. He’s got a shepard’s staff as big as Little Bo Peep (oops … well, let’s go with this version) — the result of his time as the manager of the North Side Drama Queens, when he oversaw the 1998 rookie campaign of strikeout king Kerry Wood.

The ghost of Kerry Wood seems ever-present with Riggleman, who coached the Slugs when they were going somewhere and the young Wood was the talk of baseball. The problem was that Wood had a raw elbow, with his ligaments tearing and bleeding everytime he threw. And in 1998, after a stint in the minors when he rarely threw even close to 100 pitches, Wood was carrying the load for a contending team — and throwing 115 to 120 pitches per game. Eventually (after sitting out the ’99 season with surgery, and pitching just so-so over the next three years), the elbow blew itself out for good and Wood, with successive stints in rehab, became a reliever. It was a loss, for Kerry Wood might have been, perhaps could have been (and maybe even should have been), one of the best starters in the game.

Riggleman, Wood’s skipper, blames himself. “If I had it to do over, I would do it differently,” he told the Washington Post back in March. “And we probably wouldn’t have gotten to the playoffs. If I had known what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have pitched him that much, period. But I would have caught a lot of grief. I caught a lot of grief as it was. We lost a lot of games where [Wood] came out after five or six innings. I was getting comments like, ‘C’mon, Riggs, leave him in.'” Wood disagrees: the ripping in his elbow had been happening for several years (he says) and it was bound to explode at some point. It was inevitable. “My elbow was going to go,” Wood told the Post. “If it didn’t go with [Riggleman] it would’ve gone with someone else. It was the way I was throwing, the stuff I had, the torque I was generating. It was a matter of time.”

Which is only to say that there’s a good reason why Jim Riggleman is as careful with Stephen Strasburg as he is. But Riggleman’s decision today — to sit Strasburg after the 5th — struck many fans as overly careful. After all, pitchers strain their arm, or throw out their shoulder, all the time. And not simply because they throw a lot of baseballs, or have a predisposition, or because they’re not on a pitch count. Pitchers blow out their arms because they’re pitchers. Wood understood this: in the end it didn’t matter how many pitches he threw, his “elbow was going to go” anyway. “It was a matter of time.” This is not an argument for having Rizzo, Riggleman & Company allow Strasburg to throw 110 to 120 pitches each and every game. It’s an argument for perspective and practicality — Stephen Strasburg is a pitcher, not a piece of fine China.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s a recognition that Washington Nationals fans aren’t going to show up at the park on Half Street to watch “the kid” throw 70 pitches over five innings — especially when it’s clear that (as happened on Sunday), he’s just starting to hit his stride.

Back In The Win Column

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

Nationals’ starter John Lannan and relief specialist Sean Burnett combined to shut down the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night 4-2, to put the team back in the win column. The badly needed victory followed a disheartening three game set against the Florida Marlins, in which the team was outscored 22-7 and failed to get the pitching necessary to catch the hit heavy Fish in the N.L. East. The 4-2 victory had to be one of the most satisfying of the year, marking the continued comeback of Lannan and an exclamation point to Burnett’s continued mastery (2.72 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 43 innings). “I just feel good out there,” Lannan said after the win. “I feel confident with my stuff. I spent time down [in Double-A] trying to get my two-seam [fastball] back, getting in good position to hide my ball more and being more deceptive. It still is going to get better.” The Nats continue their series against the Showboats on Saturday night, when a struggling Jason Marquis will go to the mound.

The Wisdom of Section 1-2-9: The last Stephen Strasburg outing against the Marlins was unusual in at least three respects. The first is that the stands weren’t full — as they usually are when “the kid” pitches. And it was noticed. “Where the hell is everyone?” There was no answer, but at least one grumpy sigh. “Maybe that other team is playing tonight.” The point was rhetorical — they weren’t . . . The second is that Strasburg did poorly, a disappointment and a distinct surprise for the 25,000-plus who did show. “Amazing,” a Strasburg partisan noted . . . The third seems almost immoral (or perhaps simply disloyal): Strasburg’s early exit against the Marlins spurred an early exit for Nats fans. “It’s not that Strasburg is done,” a Section 1-2-9 loyalist announced while getting up from his seat and averting his eyes, “it’s just that I’ve been here before — I’ve seen him” — and there was a quick nod to Miguel Batista, warming up on the mound . . .

In fact, Batista has been exactly what skipper Riggleman said he would be: an innings eater who can pitch more than three frames per stint. That is to say, his heroism in subbing for “the kid” against Atlanta at the end of July has been quickly forgotten. “Yeah, I loved that,” a season holder noted, “but that was then and this is now. And right now I’m thinking that we need something longer term than ‘Miss Iowa'” . . . “Geeeez,” another said, in referring to Strasburg’s inability to control his breaking stuff, “what the hell do you suppose is wrong?” There was silence for only a heartbeat. “There isn’t anything wrong, it’s just a bad outing. We need to be patient. A career is a long time. There’s going to be bad outings.” The same might be said of the entire team. When the Nats failed to get to Ricky Nolasco (with Livan pitching), there was a palpable discomfort among the section’s more vocal partisans. “So much for 3-4-5,” a fan said, referring to the Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham combination. “This guy [Nolasco] isn’t exactly Cy Young.”

Adam Dunn’s “Approach”

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Adam Dunn may well be the most guileless player in a Nationals uniform. In the wake of his two home run, four RBIs onslaught of the Arizona Diamondbacks last night at Chase Field, Dunn stood in front of his locker answering reporters’ questions. What’s your secret? he was asked. He blinked and looked away, a small smile creasing the corners of his mouth, then faced the questioner. “I just try to get a good pitch to hit and put my bat on the ball,” he said. The gathering seemed somehow unsatisfied with his answer. “On that second home run,” he was asked, “you had a 1-2 count. Were you expecting a fastball? It was a fastball, right?” He reflected for a moment, trying to be helpful. “That second at bat? Yeah, I guess so. Let me think. I’m trying to remember. Yeah, it was a fastball, right? Yeah, I think it was.” And he waited for the follow-up question, but there was none. Another reporter tried a different tack. “So what’s the secret to your recent success?” he asked and added: “You seem to be really hitting the long ball lately.” Dunn nodded. “Well, I just try to get my pitch and then I try to get my bat on it. You know, just hit it hard.”

Dunn is not exactly an apostle of Crash Davis (giving “I’m-just-happy-to-help-the-team” canned answers to the same-old-questions), but that’s hardly a reason to think that the Nats’ big first baseman and batting order centerpiece is a can shy of a six pack. Rather, you get the impression that Dunn dismisses the pseudo-science of hitting, the kind of thing made famous by now discredited BT analyst and former Mets G.M. Steve Phillips. Phillips, and his ilk, are forever windging on about “opening your hips” and “making certain that you keep your head steady” and putting your bat head “through the hitting zone” and “drawing that perfect triangle stance” and blah, blah, blah. All the great hitters follow the Phillips’ mantra except of course for Babe Ruth (and counterless others), who could have cared less about hips and triangles. In fact, the Sultan of Swat damn near had his right foot planted firmly on his left in the box every time he came to the plate. Ruth was sometimes so anxious to hit the ball that he did a mini-Fred Astaire routine, dancing in the box before rearing back and turning himself into a corksrew. He could have cared less about style. Dunn is that way: see the ball, hit the ball. The simpler the better. He was once asked whether he had adjusted his “approach” to compensate for the way pitchers were throwing to him. He smiled: I’m not sure I have an approach to adjust, he said.

We should expect this kind of thing from Dunn who, unlike the rest of us, is more interested in playing baseball than in talking about it. If that is his belief, it’s well-founded. Youth baseball coaches live in fear that their ace 15-year-old pitcher will one day wake up in the 5th inning and realize what he’s doing. This “don’t think just throw” (or, in Dunn’s case, “just swing the bat”) philosophy makes a hell of a lot more sense than demanding that your stellar starter “paint the corners” or that your top drawer banger “open his hips.” (“Hey Babe, I think you should open your hips more.”) Since the passing of the trade deadline (and even before), Dunn is hitting the ball on the screws, launching mammoth blasts against careful opponents — and hence vaulting himself back into the home run lead in the National League. His prodigous hitting has not only produced needed wins (as it did last night in Arizona), it has made him the unacknowledged leader in the Nats’ clubhouse. Granted, Dunn’s mammoth blasts will make it difficult for Mike Rizzo & Company to part with him, either now or after the season, but that’s a problem we can live with. “I really, to be honest, never scratched out a lineup on a napkin without Dunn in there,” Jim Riggleman said on Wednesday night after the Nats victory. Right. So let’s keep it that way.

Is Buck For The Birds?

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

If it weren’t so obviously cruel, we’d take this space to re-baptize the Baltimore Birds the “Showalters” — in the belief that the Orioles of the last twenty years would soon reflect the go-get-’em attitude of their new manager. But even Showalter (a veteran of turnarounds in Arizona, New York and Texas), is willing to admit that it will take more than a new manager to turn around the ailing Orioles: it will take good starting pitching, a revamped bullpen, eight fielders who know their business (and can swing a bat) — and a change in attitude that has been sorely lacking in Baltimore for the last two decades. It will take, as Showalter says, little “golden nuggets” that Showalter will sift out of the detritus that has become Baltimore’s soiled nest. “There isn’t anything too complicated about this,” Showalter said at his introductory news conference. Well, he oughta know.

Showalter comes with a reputation for being a “the ultimate baseball perfectionist” with “a militaristic attention to detail.” Not surprisingly, he’s made some enemies. In his first managing job in New York, Showalter did things his way, to the great irritation of owner George Steinbrenner. Worse yet, back in 1995 — when Steinbrenner put enormous pressure on Showalter to win, he did: but not enough for George. Then too, Showalter was getting more attention than “the Boss,” a line that Yankee managers knew they should never cross. And so it was that eventually Showalter resigned — after refusing Steinbrenner’s orders to dismiss two of his coaches. But Buck he didn’t go quietly. In the wake of his resignation, Showalter called Steinbrenner “Fidel” and said that sitting next to him on a team charter was “the worst flight I ever had.” The quotes ended up in the New York Times. Steinbrenner was enraged, though not because Showalter compared him to Castro (he probably liked that), but because he’d gotten the last word. Steinbrenner didn’t know the half of it. When “the boss” died earlier this summer, Showalter praised him, called him a friend, and then paid a compliment — to himself: “I was one of the managers he never fired. I resigned because he wanted to get rid of my coaches. He knew where people’s buttons were, and mine were loyalty to my coaches.” Rest In Peace, George.

The Steinbrenner-Showalter saga is certainly known to Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos (whom Birdland fans blame for the demise of their “once proud franchise”), so it might be considered a testament to Angelos that he would hire Showalter anyway. But Showalter’s enemy’s list (“He never even smelled a jock in the big leagues,” current Pale Hose manager Ozzie Guillen once said. “Mr. Baseball never even got a hit in Triple-A. I was a better player than him, I have more money than him and I’m better looking than him”), is complemented by more than a handful of detractors who claim that “the smartest man in the room” is overrated. These detractors point out that while Showalter is given credit for turning around the last place Arizona Diamondbacks, the real credit (they say), should actually go to D-Backs owner Jerry Colangelo. Colangelo signed Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre and Steve Finley to lead the team into 1999 — and into first place in the N.L. West. But this isn’t damning with faint praise, it’s faint damning with just the right praise: Showalter knew his team wasn’t going to win with Andy Benes, Alan Embree and Devon White and he made that clear to Colangelo in the off-season. The lesson is now clear; not only will Bucky get the last word, he’ll insist that you spend some money. There are worse things.

So all of this is good news, right? Well, not exactly. While Showalter was the choice of Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos, it’s not a secret that team president Andy MacPhail preferred the lower key Eric Wedge. MacPhail might have had a point — one of the reasons that former Texas Rangers’ owner Tom Hicks had problems with Showalter is because of constant complaints that Buck kept the Rangers’ clubhouse in turmoil. As soon as Showalter’s hiring was announced, the inimitable Camden Chat ran a long piece by Rangers’ blogger Adam Morse (of Lone Star Ball), who commented that “Rangers players never knew exactly where they stood with Showalter, and that he preferred it that way . . . he either wanted guys on edge, or just simply wasn’t comfortable communicating directly with the players.” MacPhail wasn’t the only one questioning Angelos’ choice. Just this morning, Orioles icon Rick Dempsey took on both Angelos and Showalter, calling the hiring “the biggest mistake made here in a long time, and I’m not talking just today, I mean over the years.” Roughly translated, what Dempsey means to say is that Angelos should have hired a manager from within. Showalter is an “outsider” — he doesn’t understand Baltimore.

So there they are, the legion of critics who think that Buck Showalter is not the second coming: George Steinbrenner, Tom Hicks, Rick Dempsey and a huge crowd of Baltimore naysayers and former players who think that a manager with “a militaristic attention to detail” and a huge ego will be bad for the Birds. As opposed to? Well, as opposed to Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove, Phil Regan, Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo and Dave Trembley, men who presumably had no egos and could care less about details — and who led the Baltimore Orioles to precisely two postseason appearances in 27 years. These naysayers ought to listen to Orioles’ commentator Drew Forrester, one of a legion of sports gabbers that we (we here at CFG) never pay attention to. Except in this case: “This is the Orioles,” Forrester writes. “And we have about 4 players who can play. And maybe two pitchers. And a couple of other live arms that need some tutoring. Of the 25 guys on the roster right now, I can think of six I’d take on my team. I hope Showalter comes in, stomps his feet and demands better players from Angelos and MacPhail. I hope he’s a prick to deal with in the Warehouse and I hope he threatens to fight people if the roster isn’t improved and quality free agents aren’t pursued.”

Yeah, that’s right. So while Showalter has a controversial background and knows how to make enemies, he also has a history of winning. Which is hell of a lot more than you can say for either Peter Angelos or Andy MacPhail.

Snakes: Bitten

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

On Monday night in Phoenix, Livan Hernandez showed once again why he remains the acknowledged ace of the Washington Nationals staff. In  7.1 innings of solid in-and-out and up-and-down pitching, Hernandez surrendered just five hits to his former teammates in Arizona and the Nationals notched a much-needed road win 3-1. “[Hernandez] was outstanding,” Nats skipper Jim Riggleman said after the win. “I hated that last walk he had, because I was going to let him finish that inning and maybe finish the ballgame. When he’s throwing like that, hitting spots and keeping hitters off balance, it is one of those nights where he can go nine [innings].” Livan’s performance was matched by Nats’ catcher Ivan Rodriguez, whose second inning dinger was his 300th as a catcher. Sean Burnett closed the game, striking out two of the D-Backs last five hitters.

The Wisdom of Section 1-2-9: Sunday’s loss to the Phillies, a contest in which the Nats might have notched a sweep against their I-95 competitors, was emotionally churning, in large part because of the flood of Phillies fans — in town to cheer on their favorites. The tide of Pony partisans left Nats’ fans as embittered on Sunday as they had been at the end of Opening Day. “These people ought to stay the f — home,” a Curly W supporter muttered in the 6th inning. “This is sickening, not necessary,” another said. “Are we required to sell these people tickets?” But unlike Opening Day, the Nats apparently had it all figured out: MASN broadcaster Bob Carpenter kept talking about the “growing rivalry” between the clubs, as if to protect that Nats front office from the decision to fill the seats — no matter what.”It’ll be a rivalry when we put 20,000 fans in PNC Park,” a Nats fan growled, “and not until.” Cooler heads did not prevail: “It’ll turn around,” a Nats fan opined, and was answered by a glum rooter in one of the forward rows. “Yeah, it’ll turn around,” he said, “when the Nats get into the post-season.” There were also mutterings when a fan arrived late, proudly sporting a new Donovan McNabb jersey: “Wrong jersey, wrong ballpark, wrong team, wrong sport . . .”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The exchange on the health of “the kid” between CFG and one of our readers has become a torrent. Here’s the latest: “Dear editor: Thanks for your prompt and thoughtful response. Since that give-and-take worked so well, one further suggestion if I might: as the days pass with Saint Stephen on the sideline (now hopefully on the mend), could CFG please regularly update his physical and mental condition as warranted — including any medical info/predictions and gossip picked up from the various sources/websites perused constantly by CFG’s staff.  Many of your readers don’t always have the time to collect this valuable information — and rely on you to provide it. Please don’t lose track of the essential truth of this situation:  the fate of his sore arm is the big story of this franchise . . . Sincerely, An appreciative reader . . .”

Well, well, well. This is right in our wheelhouse. And yet the head of our research staff (here he is, with a group of CFG interns) is feeling the pressure. “Yes, big boss, I jumps in it,” he said. “I leave no stone on ground.” Several hours later we had our answer: “I think Mister Stephen in Arizona, mmmmm … chance maybe not so good,” he said. “Maybe boy in L.A. pitch good. Maybe, maybe not. I dunno.” And then he puckered his lips and kissed his miniature giraffe . . .

The pride of the N.L. Central, the Phillies of the Midwest, the North Side Drama Queens are “sinking like a stone,” have “bought the baseball farm,” have “reached the bottom of the barrel.” There is no cliche perfect enough to describe the extinction level event that has become your Chicago Cubs. Think it can’t get worse? It can, because it has. The Wrigley’s have now lost six in a row, and it hasn’t been pretty. The North Siders dropped what might have passed for a softball exhibition game to the Brew Crew last night by a score of 18-1. Repeat after me: 18-1. You can expect some of those kinds of games (where nothing in the world goes right), but the Cubs play them regularly, with aplomb and with no apparent loss of sleep. Over the last six games, the Cubs have been outscored 63-17.

The cataclysm has Cubs’ fans in an uproar. And the promised makeover might be years, not months, away — the Baby Bears are stuck with huge contracts to a number of perennial head cases (Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano) and, as of July 31, were only able to rid themselves of their two best players. Way to go Jim, nice job. When in doubt, get rid of those keeping you afloat. This just in: after thinking about it for less than a milisecond, Ryan Theriot told a reporter (stop the presses) that he likes being in L.A. Really? No kidding. Worse yet: this team went nova entirely on its own; this has nothing to do with fan interference in foul ground. It’s their own damn fault, as even the most diehard Wrigleyville partisans will now admit. It’s a sad and sorry story, but (like a car wreck) you can’t avert your eyes. In a strange (and sick) kind of way, it’s almost fun to watch. Unless you’re Lou.

Praising Arizona

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Once upon a time, and not so terribly long ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks were the class of the National League. And for good reason — the Snakes had the best pitching staff in baseball (anchored by Brandon Webb and Dan Haren), a quality innings eater with a history of winning (former Fish Livan Hernandez) a group of fast, punch-and-judy hitters (Orlando Hudson and Stephen Drew), a classic high strikeouts player with punch and panache (Mark Reynolds) and a faster-than-spit closer (Jose Valverde) who was the envy of major league baseball. Plus (plus!), the D-Backs had a solid philosophy of winning, based on the foundation that had brought them a World Series Championship in 2001: the club would focus on pitching, pitching, pitching (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling anchored the staff in ’01), and build a strong farm system based on development and scouting. But those days are gone. The Diamondbacks of 2010 are 23 games back of the Friars and the face of the franchise, savvy righty Dan Haren, is living in Los Angeles. So what happened?

Injuries happened — and overspending. Brandon Webb hasn’t pitched in forever and is still attempting to recover from shoulder surgery (his arm still hurts, but he’s agreed to pitch out of the bullpen), Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton have been on-and-off the DL with a series of nagging everyday bumps and bruises, D-Backs President Derrick Hall and Interim General Manager Jerry DiPoto are still living with the effects of their predecessors’ decision to hand Showboat Eric Byrnes a three year $30 million paycheck — one of the worst contract decisions made in D-Backs history — and the farm system was plundered for short term satisfaction and is devoid of any perceivable talent. Worse yet, the once can’t-get-enough-of-baseball Phoenix fanbase has been dribbling away, making a $75 million player payroll untenable. The result has been a classic baseball fire sale, albeit one that began long before the trading deadline, and had nothing to do with players. Manager A.J. Hinch was tossed on the scrapheap on the night of July 1 and G.M. Josh Byrnes was disposed of 24 hours later. The firings signaled the beginning of a trend: the Diamondbacks wouldn’t just be sellers at the trading deadline (and before), they were dedicated to taking the team apart and starting over.

You can hardly blame Arizona fans for being skeptical. The current DiPoto salary dump looks as desperate as Byrnes’s decision to denude the D-Backs farm system two years ago — when Scott Hairston and Alberto Callaspo were shipped off for relief pitcher no-accounts (and Valverde’s salary was embarrassingly dumped) and Brett Anderson and Carlos Gonzalez (a curse, now, on Arizona pitching — in Colorado) were shipped to Oakland to land Haren. Earlier this year Byrnes attempted to compensate for these sins by sending Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy (a good swap by any standard), but the trade came way too late to silence the rising chorus of critics who noted that dumping young talent almost never works.

While skepticism about the Rattlers’ future is in order, Arizona fans can be thankful that their franchise’s tradition of trading for and developing young pitching seems to be intact. While DiPoto received good value for Haren (Joe Saunders is no slouch) and simply cast off catcher Chris Snyder for three below average players (one of whom, Ryan Church, I wouldn’t let in my outfield), his decision to buy Edwin Jackson a ticket to Chicago for Daniel Hudson (below, pitching against “the Kings of Queens”) is paying immediate dividends: the young righty (nearly a Nationals’ property, in a proposed trade for Adam Dunn), threw a gem against the Amazins, whose death spiral (“trades? sorry — we’ll play these”) is now nearly an established fact. Hudson looks like he’s in the Diamondbacks’ rotation to stay after throwing eight innings of three hit ball — a game that, by itself, is far better than any that Danny Haren threw all year. Sure, the Diamondbacks look like a mess and, yes, there’s likely to be more moves in Arizona in the offseason. But the arrival of Hudson, when coupled with the promise of a developing Ian Kennedy, holds hope for the future. In truth, the Diamondbacks of 2010 look now like the D-Backs of 1999. That team, an embarrassing but young mess, was just two years from a world championship.

Sad But True . . .

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The biggest Nats news on Thursday was not the welcome pitching performance of Nats starter Scott Olsen, but the departure of Nats closer Matt Capps — who packed his bags for Minneapolis, where he will join the perennially in-the-hunt Twinkies. The sad-but-true baseball news cycle is likely to remain that way for at least the next 24 hours, as teams jockey to land needed pitching and hitting help before the coming of the trade deadline. Poor Scott: his more than modest triumph over the Braves (giving the Nats a series win, and a boost in confidence) was shoved down the Nats’ homepage after the announcement that Capps was no longer the Nats closer — and shoved further down the page by the appearance of an article extolling the virtues of Wilson Ramos, a Twins catching prospect with “a positive upside.” Capps was not surprised by the trade and praised the Nationals’ organization. “The Washington Nationals and everyone involved have been absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “It’s something that I will remember for a long time. I certainly enjoyed my time. Now, I have to focus on moving forward and helping the Minnesota Twins.”

Scott Olsen is not likely to be the last Nats shoved down the page by bigger news — the Nats are reported to be interested in acquiring D-Backs starter Edwin Jackson, which would necessitate a trade of Nats power hitter Adam Dunn to the White Sox, who are willing to deal prospects to Arizona to make Jackson available. In truth, that deal may be finalized by the end of the day, as it was just reported that the Pale Hose have finalized their trade for Jackson. Which could mean, of course, that Nats starter Craig Stammen, and his appearance opposite newly acquired pony starter Roy Oswalt, would be today’s second story. The line-up for the Stammen-Oswalt tilt would give Nats fans something to talk about besides who will replace Capps (it’s going to be a committee or relievers, apparently), as Jim Riggleman would begin to shift players (like Michael Morse) into positions that would reflect how the team views its last 62 games. Bottom line? The sad-but-true events of Thursday are now likely to be followed by the even sadder departure of fan favorite Dunn — and the break-up of the 3-4-5 slots in a formidable Nats batting order.

Strasburg Getting Better, Nats Not

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Stan Kasten was pretty adamant in talking about Stephen Strasburg on Sunday, telling Nats beat report Bill Ladson that, as good as Stephen Strasburg is now, he’ll get even better. That’s good news for Nats fans, because the team itself seems to be getting worse. On Sunday, the Nationals lost their fourth in a row and their third in a row to the league worst Baltimore Orioles, 4-3. It was the third consecutive game in which the Nationals dropped a contest in which they led, and should have won. The team is now ten games under .500 — and sinking fast. But for skipper Jim Riggleman, at least, the glass is (as he is fond of repeating, and repeating) half full: “I like the fact that we scored runs early,” Riggleman said. “We had a chance to win the ballgame, and we didn’t get blown out. It’s a small consolation. We had runners out there to be driven in. We got some of them in. We are going to have to get more in. We have to get [good] pitching performances. There are a lot of good things to draw from.” We love Jim, really we do. But what glass is he talking about? Because the one that is half empty is filled with errors.

Kasten’s comments were fairly predictable, while signaling that the Nats will continue the Kasten-Rizzo philosophy of focusing on pitching — and building from within: “His [Strasburg’s] role as a symbol is very important,” Kasten told Ladson. “When we came in four years ago, we talked about wanting to build through scouting/development with an emphasis on pitching. Continuing with the fulfillment of that commitment, I think it’s very important that fans could see that we are close to turning the corner. We are close to having a really terrific, good, stable young rotation as some of our guys come up from the Minor Leagues and come back from rehab. But clearly the symbol of that movement is Stephen.”

Kasten could not have been more explicit; rather than depending on a big free agent signing, or making a blockbuster trade, the Nats will sink or swim with their young arms, and likely await the arrival (and return) of Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Jason Marquis and Chien-Ming Wang. Nats fans would be pleased if any of those four (but particularly Marquis and Wang) returned to form — filling in a now shaky rotation that is having trouble pitching into the seventh inning. Sadly, as the Nats triumverate of Kasten, Rizzo and Riggleman would undoubtedly agree, if Desmond, Kennedy, Guzman and Gonzalez could field as well as Strasburg pitches, the Nats would have emerged from Baltimore as winners, instead of also-rans.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The CFG Board of Directors (here they are, remember?) has directed our editorial staff to conduct a reset of some earlier predictions. We have refused. While the “Amazins” are contending for the division title, we stand by our claim: the Nats will finish ahead of the Apples in the NL Least. There’s a long way to go. And this we say — while everyone is focusing on “The Rise of Ike Davis” and the expertise of some guy named Pelfrey (oh, and R.A. Dickey, whoever that is), we know the truth. The truth is that the key to the New York Metropolitans is Jose Reyes. Always has been, always will be. Without him, they’re lost . . .

But in at least another instance we are inclined to offer a “redo” on our too outspoken view that the Pale Hose, which was sinking like a rock when we (arrogantly, and filled with confidence) wrote that the South Siders would be sellers and would eventually be forced to shop Jake Peavy. The day after we wrote that, the White Sox launched a breathtaking winning streak, with Peavy in the lead. They have now recouped their season and their team and the confidence of their manager. Their win streak ended at 11 yesterday, in a loss to the North Side Drama Queens. Our bet now is that, barring the resurrection of Joe DiMaggio (and his agreement on a trade to the City of Big Shoulders), Jumpin’ Jake ain’t goin anywhere . . .

And we note with interest that in spite of Stanley’s talk of focusing on development and arms in the minors, the Nats are scouting D-Backs ace Dan Haren. Here’s our question: what’s to scout? Long into the night (and we’re deadly serious), we dream of that delivery, the same delivery every single time, like the mechanism of a finely tuned watch: head down, right leg up (then, the hesitation), the head snaps to the plate, the glove is thrown out (into the face of the batter) and the arm coming perfectly over the top. It’s a thing of beauty. I swear. It’s enough to send you back to church. Go get ’em Stan, go get ’em Mike . . .


Friday, June 18th, 2010

The Washington Nationals finished an American League road trip in Detroit with a loss (an 8-3 drubbing at the hands of Kaline pitcher Jeremy Bonderman), failing to win all but one game in two three-game series against the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers. The loss brought the Nats to 1-5 on the swing west but (more importantly) continued the skid of a team that was once five games over .500. The team is now officially in a tailspin, leaving puzzled Nats fans to wonder whether their Anacostia Nine are reverting to their bad habits of 2009. The final loss in Detroit pointed up the Nats’ problems: too many strike outs, poor pitching and lousy defense. “We’re not playing tight baseball right now defensively,” Nats manager Jim Riggleman admitted in the wake of the last Detroit loss. “We need to pay more attention to details.”

In many respects, the Nats 8-3 loss was typical of their recent woes. While the team put runners on base (eight hits, including an Adam Dunn dinger), they weren’t able to push across runs in tight situations — leaving 15 men stranded. Then too, while Detroit pitcher Jeremy Bonderman is a good hurler, he’s hardly a wizard. Yet, the righty regularly retired Nats hitters in situations that might have led to runs — pitching well when he had to. Bonderman mastered Nats’ hitters with a down-and-in slider that stymied the Nats line up, throwing 95 pitches over seven complete: 65 of them for strikes. Washington starter Luis Atilano was not nearly so good, giving up nine hits in just 4.1 innings — his second poor outing. For Nats’ obsessives, the game was unwatchable after the fourth. The only good news is that Adam Dunn continues his torrid pace, lofting his 16th round-tripper in the seventh, slotting two more RBIs and raising his average to .288 on the year.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: CFG’s speculations about trading for a second pitcher occasioned more than a few comments from readers. A writer from Seattle was horrified that we believe that fireball southpaw Cliff Lee “could be had for a song.” That’s not what we said. Lee can’t be had for a song, but a longer melody might do. We’ll stick by our stand: the Navigators are looking for prospects and are sellers. Lee is looking for a long term deal and would be more comfortable in the National League. The Seattle fan begs to differ: “We’ll part with Lee,” he writes, “but we’ll need Ryan Zimmerman in return.” Yeah sure. Keep dreaming.

Others wrote more creatively, noting that the Lee-Oswalt-Peavy speculations that we launched “aimed too high” (as one responder noted), saying that it seemed more likely that Washington would fish for pitchers “more reachable.” A  reader, from Atlanta, was adamant: “Houston, Seattle, Chicago — they’ll all want one of your big hitters, and Rizzo won’t give any of them up.” Well, maybe. Our regular reader from Brazil (no kidding) mentioned Chicago hurler Ted Lilly (Ken Rosenthal thinks he might be available), Frisco fireballer Jonathan Sanchez and Showboat righty Dan Haren as likely targets. We’ve been mulling these possibilities and they all sound good. But Lilly is a finesse pitcher who will soon be looking for a big payday and we can’t imagine that San Francisco would part with Sanchez (a little different than last year at this time).

There’s always Cleveland’s Jake Westbrook, who has struggled this year (except against the Nats) and is rumored to be on the block. Westbrook is an intriguing possibility, particularly now that he looked so terrible against the Mets. The Cleveland front office is running out of patience with its pitching staff, and Westbrook is playing for a guy who knows the Nats system — and particularly its younger pitchers and developing hitters. Then too, Cleveland needs to retool: getting younger hurlers to go with Masterson and Huff. Mike Rizzo wouldn’t want to do that. But for Westbrook? Westbrook is not Lilly, or Sanchez (let alone Haren), but he’s affordable and would provide a veteran presence behind Strasburg. He’s had his Tommy John surgery, has a wicked cut fastball (well . . . it’s wicked often enough to spark interest among shoppers), is in the last year of his contract and has worn out his welcome in Cleveland.

Haren is different. The D-Backs are rumored to be at the beginning of a sell-off, which has their dugout talking, though they probably don’t need a top-to-bottom rebuilding. Haren himself has said that the team has a stockpile of talent — though SI’s Jon Heyman speculates that Arizona’s front office will listen to offers on the impressive righty. Heyman’s article on the D-Backs is thorough and authoritative, which can mean only one thing: the Rattlers are open for business. The only players who are off the table (Heyman says) are outfield bopper Justin Upton and young ace-to-be Ian Kennedy. So Heyman is right — Arizona shopaholic Josh Byrnes (he just shipped Conor Jackson to Oakland) will “listen,” but will the Nats make an offer? Haren hasn’t been his perennial lights-out ace this year, but he’s been one of the most consistent performers in the NL over the last three years. So he won’t come cheap. Which is too bad, because it probably means he won’t come at all. So we’ll look in the mirror and tell ourselves what we told our Seattle reader: Keep dreaming.

Nats Can’t Solve Phils … and Joe Torre’s Night

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

The Washington Nationals just can’t seem to solve the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phuzzies’ 6-5 victory was a near thing for the Nats, who threatened all the way to the end — but could never get the timely hits they needed to win. Nor could the Nats rely on the normally dependable Tyler Clippard, who gave up back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning after the Nats had tied the game at four. “Clippard wasn’t locating his fastball,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “He has taken the ball and has done a good job, but the last couple of nights, he hasn’t been able to locate the fastball and has paid for it.”

Big innings made the difference: starter Garrett Mock suffered through an insufferable second frame, giving up a double, single, single, walk and single before pitching two ground-outs and a fly ball. The Phillies scored three: but the Nats were lucky it wasn’t more. Once again, the playoff bound Phillies relied on the long ball, with home runs by Jason Werth and Pedro Feliz. Phillies’ pitcher Cliff Lee wandered through an unsteady performance, yet somehow survived seven innings of 10 hit baseball to take the win. The big news of the night (for Phillies fans) was the dog that didn’t bark: Brad Lidge remained seated in the Phillies bullpen as Ryan Madson closed the door on the Nats in the 9th: a sign, perhaps, of things to come for the A.L. East leaders.

Phillies Nationals Baseball

Down On Half Street: Call it the reverse curse. Twenty-four hours after he was scoured by television commentators Rob Dibble and Bob Carpenter, Alberto Gonzalez lit up Nationals Park with a three-for-three outing — all of them doubles. Gonzalez amazing rehabilitation wasn’t enough to boost the sinking Nats past the Phuzzies on Wednesday, but it raised his average to .259 — two points better than Trolley third baseman (yes, you heard me right) Ronnie Belliard, described by the MASN on-air crew as a “very good hitter” (this is my soapbox, and I’ll be damned if I’ll get down from it) . . . Gonzalez’s doubles weren’t cheap: a second inning rope down the first base line, a fifth inning shot off the centerfield wall and a seventh inning scorcher to left-center . . .

It’s never too late to watch baseball. If you live in the near-suburbs of either Maryland or Virginia a quick car ride home from Nationals Park puts you in front of the television in about the fourth inning of the west coast games. Last night’s featured match-up was the ESPN Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Arizona Diamondbacks tussle in Phoenix. A Trolleys-Showboats match-up is always entertaining. But last night was especially so: outside of the pure enjoyment of watching righty wizard Dan Haren pitch, the game included some interesting in-dugout politics. Haren pitched his usual clever hit-the-strikezone-with-every-pitch game (it really is something to see) before the 7th, but in the seventh he put two men on with one gone. Sure enough out trotted Showboat manager A.J. Hinch. Haren gave him a glance coming out of the dugout and then looked away. It looked like he was going to vomit. Later, when Haren was sitting on the bench, Hinch went over to explain, but Haren just shook his head: he wouldn’t even look at him. Surprise, surprise: Hinch made the right call. Reliever Juan Gutierrez pitched the Dbacks out of the jam and Hinch looked like a genius. Proof positive of that old adage: even a blind dog finds a bone sometimes.

Joe Torre pulled out all of the stops in trying to win the game, including getting through a jam in the 9th. George Sherrill had pitched an effective eighth, but was relieved by Ramon Troncoso. Troncoso opened the ninth, and immediately threw an infield chopper hit by Gerardo Parra past the right ear of Dodger first baseman James Loney. Parra ended up on second. Torre was not amused. The next hitter, Ryan Roberts, sacrificed pinch runner Trent Oeltjen to third. So man on third, one out, with Showboat hitter and Dodger-slayer Stephen Drew coming to the plate. Torre, leaning on the dugout fence, smiled to himself and turned to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who was studying the stats book: “Put him on?” Torre asked. Honeycutt didn’t really answer, he just nodded. “You sure?” Honeycutt nodded again.

So, man on first and third, one out, with no-joke Justin Upton walking to the batter’s box. “Again?” Torre asked. This time he wasn’t smiling. And Honeycutt, still eyeing the stats book, nodded again. And so Torre held up four fingers. But this time Troncoso looked in at Torre, his jaw slack, so out Joe trotted to give his pitcher some calcium. We might guess at what he had to say: “Now listen, kid, we’re setting up the double play here and giving you someone to pitch to. Reynolds follows Upton and he’s got more strikeouts than a middle aged man at a high school prom. So put this guy on and then throw strikes.” Troncoso didn’t like it, but what was he going to say? He shuffled a bit, threw four balls to Upton and turned to face Mark Reynolds. It was a near thing. Torre watched every pitch while Honeycutt continued staring at his stats book — and Troncoso walked in the winning run.

Dodgers Diamondbacks Baseball