Posts Tagged ‘Mike Leake’

Nats Bats (And Lannan) Scuttle Pirates

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

The hitting of Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and the stellas pitching of John Lannan paced the Washington Nationals to a 9-2 victory over the Pirates at PNC Park on Saturday. Rodriguez led the Nats’ fifteen hit attack, with an opposite field home run, while John Lannan pitched seven complete — giving up only five hits. It was his best outing of the year and solidified his place in the rotation for 2011. “Pudge and I did a great job just mixing it up on both sides of the plate,” Lannan said after the game. “I threw some [four-seam fastballs] inside to righties and some [two-seam fastballs] into lefties. I had my changeup working again, and that’s been the pitch I’ve gone to if I was getting behind hitters. It kept them off-balance a little bit. You get a little more comfortable out there when your team puts up that many runs.”

Desmond Makes His Case: Washington Nationals’ rookie shortstop Ian Desmond is making a strong case for being considered as the N.L.’s premier rookie. But two obstacles stand in his way — he makes too many errors (31! — including two last night), and the competition is stiff. The early betting was that Atlanta’s Jason Heyward would win the award, and for a time it looked like he would. Heyward set the baseball world chattering through April and May, but his production fell off through the summer. Still: .282 with 16 home runs (and he’s only 20) could find him shoehorned into the top spot. The betting now seems to be that Buster Posey will get the nod — despite the fact that he started the season late. Tim Dierkes over at MLB Trade Rumors posted a list in April that included all of the good guesses, which included Heyward and Desmond, as well as Florida’s Gaby Sanchez, San Francisco’s Buster Posey, Chicago’s Starlin Castro, Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez, Washington’s Drew Storen (and Stephen Strasburg), and Cincinnati’s Mike Leake. That leaves out Cubbie Tyler Colvin, who’s having a tremendous year — he’s stroked 19 home runs.

You can make a strong case for Desmond, who has raised his batting average over the last month from the so-so mid-.260s to .287 — an unforeseen spike that, if it continues, could see the 24-year-old ending the season near .300. And Desmond has unpredicted power, line-driving nine home runs. That number could easily increase in 2011. Desmond’s long-ball potential is a plus for the Nats, who would gladly take a .280 batting average with a handful of home runs each year — but 20? 25? Desmond says that he patterns his play on the model provided by Empire glove man Derek Jeter and his numbers show it. While Jeter seems to be struggling for homers as he ages, the pinstriper once hit 24, a number well within reach of his younger apprentice. But Jeter’s value is his day-in-and-day-out crusade in the middle of the Yankees infield, his ability to play virtually injury free and his steady glove-work. Ah, and he has a .314 lifetime BA — which Desmond might find difficult to equal. Desmond is right to emulate his hero, but he has a long way to go to reach his level (cutting down on the errors would be the way to start). It’s the fielding stats that will likely doom Desmond in any final voting for the Jackie Robinson Award, which means that Giants workhorse Buster Posey will get the nod. It’s hard to argue with that choice — with a .328 batting average, he deserves it.

“One Long, Losing Slog”

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

The Nats 7-2 loss in Cincinnati on Monday night might have been averted — of only the Nats had hit, pitched and fielded like a major league team. The defeat stretched the Nats losing streak to three games and means that the Nats have now lost six of their last eight. Reaching the .500 mark, which might have been hoped for in April and even in May, now seems a distant and fantastical dream, as the team struggles to find its legs. The losing spiral sparked Washington Post sportswriter Adam Kilgore to describe the Nats season of hope as “one long, losing slog.” That seems about right. So too the team itself seems infected by frustration: “We do have a great lineup. We just can’t get everyone hot at the same time,” Adam Dunn said after he loss. “It seems like we haven’t had two guys hot at the same time. If Guzzie is hot, then me and Zim aren’t hot. And then if Zim is hot, we are not. It’s bad timing, really. I don’t know how else to put it.” Luis Atilano is set to face Cincinnati rookie sensation Mike Leake tonight at The Great American Ballpark.

It’s Not A Motorcycle Baby, It’s A Chopper: On this day in 1958, Tiger’s ace Jim Bunning threw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox, clinching a victory in a 3-0 contest. Bunning seemed to have Boston’s number — he once struck out Ted Williams three times in one game (also in 1958), spurring “The Splendid Splinter” to rip off his jersey (buttons popping) and throw it to the clubhouse floor: “I’ll get you Bunning,” he said and began searching for a schedule to determine when he’d face him again. Baseball legend has it that Williams hated Bunning so much that he would use him as a foil during batting practice, leaning into the ball and swinging as he yelled “here comes Jim Bunning. Jim F — ing Bunning and that little shit slider of his.” Williams little trick didn’t seem to work: Bunning struck out Williams more than any other player.

The key to Bunning’s success was a sidearm slider, a pitch he could control from nearly any angle. It fooled Williams, as it did nearly everyone else. Bunning led the league in strikeouts in 1959 and 1960 (with 201 each year), while gaining a reputation as one of the most durable pitchers around (he was regularly in the top five in the A.L in innings pitched). He never seemed to get injured. The oddest thing about Bunning’s career came after his greatest success: in 1963, the Tigers trades Bunning to the Philadelphia Phillies for veteran outfielder Don Demeter and Jack Hamilton, a fireballing reliever with a lot of promise. It was a forgettable trade, one of the worst in Detroit history. Demeter was just okay, while Hamilton was slowed by arm injuries. While never living up to his promise, Hamilton became a kind of legend: in 1967 he threw a pitch to Boston’s Tony Conigliaro that shattered the upper left side of Conigliaro’s face and ended his career. It also ended Hamilton’s. The fireballer lost his speed after the incident, as well as his willingness to pitch inside. He left baseball and now runs a restaurant in Missouri.

Bunning’s fate was quite different. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1964 as the great new hope — the pitcher who would put the perennial losers at the top of the National League. He damn near did. The Phillies had a great line-up in ’64, led by power hitters Dick Allen and Johnny Callison and a slick defense centered on catcher Clay Dalrymple, second sacker Tony Taylor and slap hitting expert Bobby Wine (another one of those obnoxious little “pepper pots”). Bunning was complemented by starter Chris Short (a pitcher of almost unbelievable promise), Art Mahaffey and Ray Culp. The Tigers might have gotten a hint of the mistake they’d made when Bunning pitched a perfect game against the New York Mets on June 21, and the big righty went on to notch a remarkable 19-8 record.

But if Bunning was a success, his team wasn’t. 1964 was the year of “The Foldin’ Phillies” — as the ponies lost ten in a row and a seven game lead with 17 games to play. Phillies manager Gene Mauch panicked in the midst of this debacle — pitching Bunning in three games in seven days: Bunning lost all of them. Philadelphia dog-paddled its way into second place, while St. Louis passed them at a full sprint. It was the worst fold in major league history, until the Mets eclipsed it in 2007. The Phillies ’64 cataclysm seemed to unhinge the team in the years that followed, haunting Dick Allen’s successors who struggled, and struggled and struggled. But “Big Jim” Bunning continued to thrive, accounting for 70 wins over the next four years. Never mind: the Phils sputtered along, never quite putting it together again until 1980 — when they won a World Series. Their first.

After his stint in Philly, Bunning went on to Pittsburgh and Los Angeles before ending up in the Hall of Fame (it was a vote of the veterans committee that finally confirmed his entry)  and the U.S. Senate, where he now serves as a controversial and conservative voice from Kentucky. He retains the reputation he gained from his years on the mound, as a head hunting foul-mouthed lug whose stock-in-trade was a quickie under the chin — he led the N.L. in hit batters all four of his years in Philadelphia and was widely loathed for his beanball habits. Bunning’s critics say he hasn’t changed: he remains a ramrod straight, if somewhat embarrassing figure. When asked to describe Bunning’s legislative prowess, the late Senator Robert Byrd thought for a minute before issuing his praise: “a great baseball man.” But the people of Kentucky seem to love him, voting him back to his Senate seat every six years. Then too, even if Bunning is as controversial now as he was in Detroit and Philly, there is little doubt that he once threw one of the best, if not the best, slider in the game. At least that’s what Ted Williams thought.

The Nats-Reds “Scrum”

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

In the long history of a full season, Saturday’s loss will go down as just another statistical digit — but the 5-1 struggle that pitted the Washington Nationals against the central division-leading Cincinnati Reds may well mark a turning point in the Nats season. Or, at least, that’s the hope. Following the game (which featured enough oddities to ensure endless entertainment for the 25,000 souls who watched it at Nationals Park), Nats skipper Jim Riggleman seemed oddly upbeat, stressing that the pure gamesmanship of the Anacostia Nine provided convincing evidence that the Nats can play with — and beat — any team in the majors. That wasn’t true last year.

The facts of the game are this: Nats starter Luis Atilano pitched well enough to raise the argument that when “the phenom” arrives, he should stay (seven complete, six hits, one earned), Washington hitters battled hard (seven hits in all and numerous scoring opportunities) against a rising Reds star who seemed oddly masterful on the mound, and the team successfully scrummed through a puzzling interference call on Ian Desmond and a bone-crushing collision between Cincinnati second sacker Brandon Phillips and D.C. backstop Wil Nieves, that left Phillips to fist pump his courageous ability to elbow a player caught flat-footed and undefended. It was the response to that among Nats fans that finally seemed to congeal the kind of loyalty that Riggleman & Company so prize: Miguel Batista got a high sign from Ivan Rodriguez on the bench (a raised eyebrow and then a nod) and plunked the more-than-deserving Phillips with a 89 mph fastball. (We once doubted Miguel’s abilities: now he can do no wrong.) As Phillips slogged to first, Batista walked proudly from the mound — even before he was tossed by the inimitable (and unstable) Joe West.

Nats fans, who awaited the moment with patience, rose to cheer.

Following the game, the back-and-forth between the Nats and Reds (the interference call, the subsequent ejection of Riggleman, the Phillips-Nieves collision and subsequent fist-pumping — and then the Batista retaliation) elicited enough interest to anesthetize an elephant. This was all, well, par for the course. At least in baseball. “I just go out there and play the game of baseball the way I know how,” Phillips said. “I just play with a lot of excitement. I didn’t see anything wrong with what I did. If people think I did something wrong, I apologize to whoever thinks so, but it’s baseball.” Batista shrugged:  “It was just playing baseball,” he said. “Everyone who knows Phillips, you have to go way in and way out.” Perhaps, but Nats fans filing past the Navy Yard Metro could at least salve their 5-1 feelings with this palliative: if Dusty’s talented boys think they can win through intimidation, the likes of Miguel Batista will show them otherwise.

Nats Return After Dropping Five

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

John Lannan held the St. Louis Cardinals to two runs in six innings (one of his most solid outings of the season), but it wasn’t enough as the punchless Nats lost their fifth straight on the road. The Nats return to Washington today to face the Metropolitans in a two game set, which will be followed by the “Battle of the Beltways” — a three game series against the league poorest Baltimore Orioles. Despite the loss, Lannan’s outing against the Redbirds must have brought a sigh of relief to the Nats brain trust, as the young lefty is a mainstay of the Washington rotation. With Jason Marquis down for at least the next several weeks (and with Craig Stammen and Luis Atilano still finding their way in the majors), Livan Hernandez and a revived Scott Olsen would have been the only two absolutely dependable starters in the Nats’ rotation if Lannan had continued to struggle.

In spite of the five game skid, Nationals skipper Jim Riggleman focused on Lannan’s positives. “He pitched good,” Riggleman said. “I’m really encouraged that he was out there and pitched in that 100-pitch range pain-free. He’s kind of had an issue or two. We bumped him a start and all that kind of stuff and that’s one of the better games he has thrown this year for us.” Lannan was also upbeat. “We haven’t hit our stride with hitting or with pitching and we’re still battling,” he said after the Cardinals loss. “We’re in every ballgame, and that’s all you can ask for when we’re kind of struggling. We have to get out there tomorrow and win as many as we can at home.”

Cincinnati Rising: If the Nats call up Stephen Strasburg during anything that even looks like a major skid, the expectations for him will be too high. But if they’re winning, well then Strasburg’s arrival will be seen as a move that can put them over the top. There’s no way for the Nats front office to win this “why not now” battle; which is probably one of the reasons why Mike Rizzo is sticking to his original schedule, despite the young phenom’s spectacular showing in the minors and in spite of what the Nats might be doing on the field. Then too, there’s the model being followed by the rising young starter in Cincinnati — Mike Leake. Leake has powered a surprising Cincinnati (where arms go to die) squad to first place in the Central Division. Due to Leake (whose role at the center of the Reds starting rotation is key) the Reds are giving the Cardinals fits and making the Cubs look mediocre.

So why aren’t the Nats doing the same thing?

Tom Verducci unpacks this issue in a recent SI column. The heart of the Verducci column is a comparison of the way the Reds are handling first round draft pick Mike Leake vs. the way that Rizzo & Co. are handling Strasburg. “What is most interesting about the Strasburg Plan,” Verducci writes, “is that concurrently the Cincinnati Reds are running an entirely different development plan with Mike Leake , their base model of Strasburg. Leake, 22, and Strasburg, who turns 22 in July, both pitched in major college programs, both were drafted last year in the first round, both signed too late to pitch in affiliated pro baseball last year and both went through their first spring training this year. They were born only eight months apart.” And then Verducci goes on to note that Leake’s pitch count this year add up to 691 pitches in nine MLB games as compared to Strasburg’s 469 pitches in the minor leagues. So who’s being smarter — Dusty Baker’s playoff hungry Cincinnati Reds, or Jim Riggleman’s build-for-the-future Nationals?

Verducci notes that Jim Riggleman was the manager of the Cubs in the year that then-phenom Kerry Wood was overpitched and that (as a result), he’ll be extra careful when Strasburg arrives. But the temptation is certainly there. We might imagine a resurgent Nats Nine that, in mid-September, is just two games out of the Wild Card race. With Lannan, Strasburg, Hernandez, Stammen and Olsen as the starting five and Strasburg on the mound against (say) the surging Braves, Riggleman will want to leave him right where he is — despite his pitch count. It’s not everyday you get into the playoffs. But then again, why would you rely on Strasburg in September if you know that your next day’s starter is not Craig Stammen or Scott Olsen, but Roy Oswalt? Which is not only why Jim and Mike will stick with their plan (no matter what), it’s also why it’s likely that come the trade deadline, the Baker Boys of Cincinnati will do the right thing by Mike Leake: they’ll get him some help.