Posts Tagged ‘Matt Cain’

Assessing The Second Half

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Just one year ago, in 2009, the Washington Nationals opened the second half of their season not only in last place in the NL East, but as the worst team in baseball. The problems then were obvious: the bullpen had imploded, regular outfielder Austin Kearns was slumping, there was no starting pitching and the team seemed uninvolved and detached. The challenge then was different than it is now: to change what was happening on the field, the Nats needed to change what was happening in the front office — a view reflected in ownership’s mid season open letter to fans that contained an embarrassing, but necessary apology. No such apology is needed now. While the Nats are yet again in last place in their division, the rebuilt bullpen is solid, Austin Kearns (DHL’d to Cleveland) has been replaced in the outfield by slugger Josh Willingham, the team’s starting rotation is filled with promise and the clubhouse is tight and optimistic. But perhaps the biggest revolution has been where the fans can’t see it: the front office is retooled — with an engaged general manager and a core of scouts and development experts who are competing with the best in baseball.

The challenges facing the 2009 Nats were obvious, the needed changes reflected in the standings. That’s less true now, particularly considering that the franchise controls one of the game’s premier young pitchers (Stephen Strasburg), has one of the most formidable 3-4-5 line-up combinations in the National League (Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham), is steadied by a future hall of famer behind the plate (“Pudge” Rodriguez), and has — waiting in the wings — a crowd of injured starting pitchers that could energize a second half surge (Jason Marquis, Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Olsen and Chien-Ming Wang). Which is not to say that there aren’t problems. There are. The Nats defense is weak, the team’s set-up men are struggling, their center fielder is having problems on the base paths (and at the plate) and (pending the uncertain return of a quartet of tweeky arms) their starting pitching is shaky.

In 2009, these same problems (and their hypothetical resolution) spurred overly optimistic talk; that the Nationals were actually “only a player or two” from being good. That wasn’t true in 2009 — not even close, but it’s true now. The question for Mike Rizzo is whether he busts up a good thing to continue building, or whether he tweaks the team at the edges, hoping that the return of the Marquis-Zimmermann-Olsen-Wang quartet will provide the necessary spur to vault the team out of last place. It’s not an easy decision: busting up the team means trading popular and productive players (Dunn or Willingham, or both), while tweaking it at the edges probably (probably) means accepting that the Nats future is not now, but sometime next year. If there’s good news here, it’s this: Nats fans won’t have to wait until August or September to determine the team’s fate — that tale will be told before the July 31 trading deadline.

The Wisdom Of Secton 1-2-9: The CFG contingent arrived at the first game of the McCovey series with a new set of fans seated firmly in the row behind the regulars. That the two (I swear) looked like the spitting image of Omar Little and Stringer Bell was tempting: “hey, you two were great in The Wire.” The moment, thankfully, passed. The two turned out to be charter members of the Nyjer Morgan fan club, pumping their fists at every Nyjer moment: “My man,” one said, when Nyjer came to the plate. A row mate was not impressed, mimicking Casey At The Bat — “strike two said the umpire” and then the smile “not my style said Nyjer.” There were titters. When Morgan flipped his bat in disgust at a strike out served up by Matt Cain, the potential for a debate seemed electric, but one of the Morgan partisans smiled:  “You’ll see,” he said, to no one in particular. And he was right: Morgan was 2-5 and knocked in a run. “Hey man,” one of the Morgan fans said, but so we could hear it, “some of these fans don’t remember what Nyjer did for us last year.” His row mate nodded in agreement. “Yeah man, I know. Short memories.” This was greeted by silence. And chagrin. They were relentless, boring in for the kill. One of them tapped me on the shoulder: “That was a rope,” he said, after Morgan put a streaking line drive down the right field line. Okay, okay, okay . . .

“The problem with Clippard is that his curve just isn’t working,” one of the section’s middle relief experts opined in the second game of the San Francisco series. He didn’t need to keep making the point, Clippard was making it for him — “see, look at that.” Clippard looked terrible and shook his head as he came off the field. “He feels it,” and then there was just a tick before this, from a fan down the row: “Yeah, well, he should.” But the section remained optimistic (“he’ll get it back”), even as the Nats squandered a seemingly insurmountable lead (“yeah, but not this inning”). There were some few Giants fans in the seats, complete with newly minted, black and orange, Buster Posey jerseys. One Frisco fan (“San Francisco natives never use that term,” I was told) was tweeting with a family member, even as the Nats compiled a five runs lead. The message was pointed: “My boy Posey will regulate!” He did: 4-5 with 3 RBIs.

San Francisco’s Weighty Revival

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Pablo Sandoval is still all the rage in San Francisco — “Kung Fu Panda” as Giants fans call him (or, more properly “The Round Mound of Pound“) is the life of the McCovey clubhouse, devising a handshake for every player and starring in self-directed Youtube videos that extol the virtues of playing in the Bay. But after a stellar ’09 season that featured a .330 BA and 25 home runs, the rotund sometime-third-baseman (he now plays mostly at first), has cooled off. He’s hitting just.270 with six dingers in 2010, a far cry from his all star-like assault on NL pitchers last year. Frisco fans know the problem — “the panda” is so impatient at the plate that the Giants’ in-dugout brain trust has to regularly remind him to wait on pitches. And his weight is ballooning. The official stats show him at 245 pounds, but that’s probably more of a wish. When the season started, Sandoval (“with a heart full of napalm“) predicted he would hit .350 with 30 home runs.

Not hardly.

The Panda has struggled — and Giants fans noticed, criticizing his “quirky ways,” lack of mental preparation and “top heavy” swing. They weren’t alone. Bay manager Bruce Bochy raised a hue and cry when he pinch hit for Sandoval at the end of June, a hint that Giants’ management was less than enamored of his free swinging habits and lack of production. But that’s not all: Sandoval’s mental mistakes were (and continue to be) exasperating for his teammates who, after one gaffe (he overran second, and was picked off), isolated him on the Giants’ bench. He shrugged: “Yesterday is yesterday,” he said in Spanish. “Today is another day.” Maybe. But the Panda’s early season struggles, and the eclipse of a whole set of Giants hitters, sent San Francisco G.M. Brian Sabean in search of hitting.

The most recent and important addition was the signing of Pat Burrell, whose free agent stint with the Rays was less than what Tampa had wanted. San Francisco welcomed the former Phillies’ slugger with open arms — and an apparently open wallet. Burrell has responded, adding pop to the anemic line-up. The front office made other changes: dealing fan favorite Bengie Molina to Texas for reliever Chris Ray and (not incidentally), freeing up the space behind the plate for waiting-in-the-wings Buster Posey. Posey is a kind of anti-Sandoval, a no-nonsense mature-beyond-his-years sleek piece of clay. Posey is a trimmed down version of Sandoval, a star in the making, a team tiger to Sandoval’s weighty bear.  The Molina-for-Ray trade not only shed a veteran presence, it lopped about 45 pounds (or more!) off the team’s collective weight. Sabean’s Molina message was clear: if you want to stay in San Francisco you have to produce. Bruce Bochy is with this program — he has benched slumping Aaron Rowand and built a new, younger and faster outfield that is anchored by a revived Aubrey Huff.

The result? Ask the Milwaukee Brewers. The Giants breezed into Milwaukee for a four game series against The Crew on July 5 and dunked the guzzlers in four straight. This was not your normal sweep, but a San Francisco blitzkrieg: the Giants outscored Milwaukee 36-7, notching 50 hits in four games while showing off one of the major league’s best pitching staffs: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito and “oh-my-god-he’s-finally-arrived” rookie Madison Bumgarner. Which is not to mention that “other” Frisco arm, Jonathan Sanchez who, since his no-hitter last year, has turned into a top-of-the-rotation (in San Francisco that term means “behind Lincecum and Cain”) starter. Sanchez (once viewed as trade bait to, among others, the Washington Nationals), is now a mere 7-6 with a 3.50 ERA. For most teams, those kinds of numbers would have a G.M. salivating, in San Francisco they’re only passable. Now, as a part of their midwest and east coast road swing, the once punchless Giants are headed into Nationals Park. The match-up starts tonight, as “The Kid” faces off against the savvy and relentless Matt Cain.