Posts Tagged ‘Kerry Wood’

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.

Mickey’s Nemesis

Friday, June 25th, 2010

It’s a well-known story, but bears repeating — particularly now that Nats’ ace Stephen Strasburg’s name is being mentioned in the same sentence as Herb Score’s. On Wednesday versus Kansas City, Strasburg eclipsed Score’s MLB record for strikeouts in a pitcher’s first four MLB starts. Strasburg has 41 strikeouts in his first four starts — Score had 40. But it will take some time for Strasburg to equal Score’s considerable achivements, even if the former Cleveland hurler (he passed on in 2008), battled injuries nearly his entire career. Like Strasburg, Score made his mark  as a rookie phenom; he came up with Cleveland in 1955 and set the American League on fire, going 16-10 with a 2.85 ERA. But unlike Strasburg, Score was surrounded by a team of All Star hitters and pitchers — Bob Feller and Bob Lemon had already made their mark on baseball, and Feller was a legend. The Tribe of ’55 were a powerful mix of slap hungry hitters and long-ballers: Vic Wertz, Bobby Avila, Ralph Kiner, Larry Doby. Score struck out 245 hitters that first year, a mark that stood until it was broken by Dwight Gooden in 1984.

In one of baseball’s well-known in-game incidents, in May of 1957, Score was hit by a Gil McDougald line drive that broke his cheekbone and sent him to the DL. It was said that Score never recovered his pitching motion and remained intimidated by the batted ball — the reason for his fall-off in production. But Score set the record straight in an interview with a baseball writer in 1987, saying that his career was cut short not by McDougald, but by a torn tendon in his pitching arm. “The McDougald line drive had nothing to do with my career ending prematurely,” he said. Score took a year to recover, but when facing the Senators in a game in 1958 a tendon in his arm snapped. Score visited a specialist in Baltimore and took three weeks off, then came back — again against the Senators. “I went in as a reliever, struck out five or six and ended the game on a popup to the outfield,” Score recalled. “But I hurt my arm again on that pitch. After that pitch, I was never the same again. My pitches never had the same movement on them. I had no snap.” Score was out of baseball after 1962. He spent 35 years as a Cleveland Indians radio announcer, before dying in his home town in Ohio in 2008.

Score had two good seasons — his rookie year in 1955 and his sophomore campaign of 1956, when he was 20-9. Mickey Mantle said that he was the toughest left hander he ever faced. It is said that Mantle tried everything against Score, alternating batting righty and lefty against him, but nothing worked. He could never touch his fastball, even after the McDougald incident. Score’s amazing rookie season (227 innings, 245 strikeouts) is a kind of touchstone for baseball statisticians, a model of what it means to be a phenom. But Score was not the only rookie pitcher to have set a league on fire. Dwight Gooden’s 276 strikeouts in 1984 (in just 218 innings) blasted past Score’s mark and Gooden was (arguably) even better the next year, when he fanned 268. Gooden matched this with a head-spinning 1.53 ERA. No one has equaled Gooden’s rookie strikeout record, though Kerry Wood came close, striking out 233 in 1998. Score, Gooden, Wood, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Don Sutton, Gary Nolan, Mark Langston and Hideo Nomo are the only rookie pitchers of the 20th century to strike out over 200 batters in their rookie campaigns.

It’s going to be virtually impossible for Stephen Strasburg to match Gooden’s feat, but only because it’s doubtful he will have a chance to pitch as many innings. St. Stephen is due to pitch every fifth day (not every fifth game) and will likely be shut down in mid-September. Plus, he’s on a strict under-100 pitch-per-game count, monitored by Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman. Then too, it’s unlikely Strasburg will pitch much over 170 innings in his rookie campaign– if that. This ought to be simple arithmetic (ought to be), but it really isn’t. The Nats know what every Nats fan knows: that if Rizzo and Riggleman had their druthers, Strasburg would pitch fewer strikeouts (and not more) because, arguably, fewer strikeouts mean fewer pitches. Which is to say: Rizzo and Rigs are not so worried about a “McDougald moment” (there’s nothing anything can do about that), they’re worried about a “Score moment” — when a young pitcher throws that one pitch that (cumulatively) snaps that tendon and sends a good arm into early retirement.

Still, Strasburg’s first three outings are not only historic, they’re in the Herb Score/Dwight Gooden range. And better. Strasburg has 41 strikeouts in just 25.1 innings and sports a 1.78 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. He’s averaging 14 strikeouts per nine. That’s better than Score (9.7 per nine) or Gooden (11.4 per nine) or Wood (12.6 per nine). In fact, it’s unheard of. So logically (arithmetically), Strasburg could slap aside Gooden’s ’84 record if he could pitch as many innings (Gooden pitched 218). He won’t. St. Stephen would likely shrug all of this off (as he has, and consistently), by saying that baseball is about winning, not personal records. That’s refreshing (and true), but baseball fans are nuts about statistics not simply because records are there to be broken, but because numbers tell us important things about players. And Strasburg’s statistics tell us that, at least to this point, St. Stephen is a Score/Gooden/Wood once-in-a-generation pitcher.

Olsen Dominates, Nats Head To Chicago

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Scott Olsen’s seven inning gem against the Dodgers has Nats fans (and the Washington Post) oohing and ahhing about the team’s new attitude. “Instead of saying ‘Get ’em tomorrow,’ the Nats have finally assembled a tougher, more irritable group that actually does it,” Post columnist and leading baseball pundit Thomas Boswell writes. Boswell goes on to note: “It’s not just the Nats’ record that is different this spring. The Nats themselves are. They’re starting to resemble the first gritty crew that brought baseball back to D.C. after a 33 year wait.” Tougher? More irritable? Gritty? My first reaction was to scoff: forget irritable and gritty — we need front line guys who can throw strikes. Please, please, please Tom (I know you’re the best, or close to it), but you know (and I know, and it’s no secret) that a rotation of Lannan, Stammen, Olsen and Hernandez are not going to get it done.

But in studying yesterday’s box score, I began to question by own cynicism. The difference in the Nats 1-0 win yesterday (a beautifully pitched game, if ever there was one) from any of their wins last year was obvious. For right there, in the middle of the line-up, were two players the Nats needed, but didn’t have, in the ’09 campaign. When Mike Rizzo signed Ivan Rodriguez and Adam Kennedy in the offseason, he not only filled two special needs, he added two gamers to the clubhouse — players who not only know how to win, but want to. While Rodriguez and Kennedy went a combined 0-6 yesterday, their role on the team has been indispensible, providing much needed leadership to a crew of talented, but young, players. Mike Rizzo added a caveat: “We’re a long ways from where we want to be.” Yeah, true. But you’re also a long ways from where you were.

The difference between the ’09 and 2010 Nats becomes more obvious when you go through the line-up of the Chicago Cubs, whom the Nats face in Chicago starting tonight. The North Side Drama Queens are a team of head cases and disasters-waiting-to-happen: Alfonso Soriano’s penchant to drop flies in left field is damn near agonizing, the perpetually petulant Carlos Zambrano has been demoted to the bullpen, the perennially injured Aramis Ramirez is a fracture away from putting the Cubs in the cellar and Kosuke Fukudome is overpaid and (undoubtedly) on the trading block. I know, I know — the Cubs just swept the Brewers and can hit the hell out of the ball. But the name of this game is pitching, and the Cubs don’t have it. Forget the starters (or don’t — if you really believe that Carlos Silva is the answer), and focus on the bullpen. The line-up of Berg, Grabow, Gray, Russell and Marmol is a patched together crew of rookies and semi-veterans (like Marmol) who have yet to prove they can hit the strike zone. Put another way, we would be justified in saying that the Cubs bullpen collapsed in the first two weeks of the season, but we’d be wrong. It had nothing to collapse from.

Cubs fans are on a death watch. Nats 320 has an outstanding interview with Cubs blogger Joe Aeillo of View From The Bleachers, and while Joe sounds positive enough, you can almost hear the ‘Oh-God-wadda-we-gonna-do’ tension in his voice. Joe talks about Uncle Lou’s bullpen problems and notes that Zambrano has been “the weak link” in the rotation so far this year, but the icing comes when Nats 320 asks about Soriano. “I’ll give you $20 right now, straight cash homie, if you convince the Nationals to take him back,” Joe says. That’s a deal we can pass up: we’ll keep Willingham. Soriano, the bullpen — they’re all problems. But the real problem facing the Cubs is down the road in St. Louis. The Cubs don’t have anyone who matches up with Chris Carpenter, Brad Penny or Adam Wainwright. I can’t stand Penny (he should just rob a 7-Eleven and get it out of his system), but the former Dodger bad boy is pitching brilliantly — with three wins and a 0.94 ERA. That’s a record that Zambrano can only dream about.

The Cubs haven’t had a team since Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were five outs away from the World Series. Remember? Prior was a USC power pitcher with Cy Young stuff and Woods struck out 20 in his rookie season. And then . . . and then, in the 8th inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS a little pop foul that should have been caught did them in. It was their last shot. Neither Prior nor Wood have been the same since; Prior became a surgeon’s dream and is now out of baseball and Wood is in Cleveland, dealing with a cranky back. Looking at Prior (a shoulder, an achilles tendon, a hamstring, another shoulder), you can understand why Mike Rizzo wants Stephen Strasburg in the minors — and why he insists that any member of the Washington club have a winning attitude. Put another way, the problem with Cubs comes down to this: Carlos Zambrano throws the ball in the mid-90s and is capable of a 20-win Cy Young season. But wouldn’t you rather have Livan Hernandez?