Posts Tagged ‘Nyjer Morgan’

Tony: Flushed

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Washington Nationals baserunner Nyjer Morgan slides safely into third base with a lead-off triple against the Phildelphia Phillies in the first inning of their MLB National League baseball game in Washington, July 30, 2010.

ESPN is reporting that Major League Baseball has suspended Nyjer Morgan for eight games for three separate incidents: for unnecessarily running into St. Louis catcher Bryan Anderson at home plate during a game in Washington, for directing ” inappropriate comments” towards fans in Florida on August 31 in Florida, and for charging the mound in the top of the 6th inning during that same game. The disciplinary action is in addition to a seven game suspension meted out to Morgan (which he is appealing) for throwing a baseball into the stands during a Nationals’ game at Philadelphia. The Nationals have had no immediate comment on the reported MLB action.

The MLB also reportedly handed down a six game suspension to Marlins’ pitcher Chris Volstad, a five game suspension to pitcher Alex Sanabia, a three game suspension to Gaby Sanchez and has fined Marlins’ pitcher Jose Veras. Nationals’ pitcher Doug Slaten was also suspended (for three games), as was skipper Jim Riggleman (two games, with a fine). Nationals’ third base coach Pat Listach was suspended (and fined) for three games, as was Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez (for three games –with a fine). Jim Riggleman will reportedly begin serving his suspension tonight, when the Nationals face off against the Pirates in Pitttsburgh.

Melee In Miami

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

There are lots of Nats’ fans who think that Nyjer Morgan has a screw loose — but his scrum in Miami last night (perhaps, as one reader writes, “he misses hockey”), makes for exciting baseball. And it shows that the Nats (first in war, first in peace and still last in the NL Least) have a bit of life left in them. Nats’ manager Jim Riggleman defended Morgan, particularly after the Marlins took umbrage with his decision to steal second and third with the Nats down ten runs — a no-no that’s considered a cheapy in baseball’s Book of Unwritten Rules. Of course, not everyone agrees with that, in part because no one has ever actually seen the book — but because the “rule” is a bunch of hooey. “My feeling has always been, if you hit somebody, you did what you set out to do,” Nats skipper Jim Riggleman said after the game. “If he decides to run on you, that’s his business. I have no problem with that at all. We decide when we run. The Florida Marlins don’t decide when we run. Nobody decides when we run.”

The Miami melee began after, having already been hit once (the result of Nyjer’s decking of the Marlins’ catcher on a play at the plate on Tuesday), Florida starter Chris Volstad threw behind the Nats’ center fielder. Morgan charged the mound and in the ensuing one-on-one (Morgan threw a roundhouse left at Volstad, as both benches emptied), Marlins’ first baseman Gaby Sanchez clothes-lined the Curacao native. “When I saw [Morgan] running out, obviously, he’s not coming out there to talk,” Volstad said. “I was just trying to defend myself and not get hurt. Gaby had my back. The whole team had my back. Everyone was there. It’s just part of the game.” The fight (and Morgan’s decking of Marlins catcher Brett Hayes), resulted in six ejections (Jim Riggleman and reliever Doug Slaten were ejected later in the game — after Slaten plunked cheap-shot artist Gaby Sanchez) and will likely result in suspensions and fines for those most involved.

The Marlins say the bad blood between the teams is now behind them (“I know it’s over for me,” Marlins third sacker Wes Helms said. “I hope it is for these other guys”), but there’s bound to be some lingering irritations — the Nats and Marlins play regularly as N.L. East rivals, and neither Morgan nor Sanchez are the forgive-and-forget types. In the wake of the dust-up, Nats’ commentators were quick to criticize Morgan. Mark Zuckerman said we all should have seen this coming, and described Morgan’s behavior over the last two weeks as “sad and predictable.” Ben Goessling, meanwhile, speculates that it’s all but inevitable that the Nats will part with Morgan. Goessling adds, correctly we think, that Morgan brings an energy to the game that the Nats need. FJB says that “Nyjer needs to go” while Dan Steinberg points out that one of Morgan’s less endearing traits is his tendency to jaw with fans.

All of that is undoubtedly true: Nyjer Morgan can’t be allowed to carry on a dialogue with fans and Riggleman was right to bench him for purposely and unnecessarily elbowing the Cards catcher here in D.C. last week. And despite Zuckerman’s correct judgment (that we should have seen this coming — and we did), there’s need for a little perspective: it’s not a given that Morgan’s collision with Hayes was intended to injure (it probably wasn’t) and Nyjer took his medicine when he was hit the first time by Volstad (he had it coming and he knew it — and trotted to first with nary a second thought). But a second attempt to plunk the plucky center fielder is over the line — as Jim Riggleman, holding a single digit and yelling “one time” at the Marlins manager — showed. And Gaby Sanchez’s clotheslining (which brought oohs and ahhs from the Marlins’ clubhouse) of Morgan is not a sign of Sanchez’s fighting prowess, it was a cheap and thuggish blindside shot. Doug Slaten figured that out, and responded. And rightly so.

Washingtonians have short memories. Last year nearly everyone (including MASN’s Bob Carpenter and his dearly departed sidekick) were telling us how crappy a player Alberto Gonzalez was — this year we can’t get enough of him. Austin Kearns was the fair-haired boy when he came here from hog heaven, but lost his fans when he snapped a tendon and tried to play through it. Remember? We couldn’t get enough of Nyjer last year, when he was the best Nats player in September and ignited a team that didn’t look like it cared. And while we can roll our eyes at Morgan’s “Tony Plush” put-on, he is (by all accounts) a tough team player who wants to win. Now we’re all calling for his head. And why? Because he did this last week what Pete Rose did his entire career. So — yeah — the Nats will part ways with Nyjer this winter, but they shouldn’t do it before then and they shouldn’t do it because he bangs into opponents while playing the game. They should do it for the right reason: because Roger Bernadina is a better hitter and a better fielder. Give me a break: teams don’t win because they are filled with good citizens, they win because they have good players.

Lannan Masters St. Louis

Monday, August 30th, 2010

John Lannan has now made it all the way back from exile: in his fifth start after his return from Harrisburg (where he was sent “to work on his command”), Lannan mastered the heavy hitting St. Louis Cardinals — leading the Nationals to a 4-2 victory and a much-needed triumph in three games of a four game series. Lannan pitched deep into the contest, allowing eight hits and only one earned run to up his record to 4-1 since his return. “I want to be confident with each pitch,” Lannan said after the game. “I think I did a pretty good job of that, especially to lefties. I made smarter pitches. I was more careful with the sliders today. I felt comfortable with my changeup, throwing the ball in and my curveball felt pretty good.” Michael Morse provided the lumber, going 2-4 and notching his 10th home run and Adam Dunn was 2-3.  But Lannan struck first, doubling into left field in the second inning off of Cardinals’ starter Adam Wainwright, plating the first two runs of the game.

Bad Blood? Jim Riggleman benched Nyjer Morgan on Sunday, the result of Morgan’s purposeful bump of Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson at home plate on Saturday night. Riggleman apologized to Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa for the incident and called Morgan’s actions “uncharacteristic” but “inexcusable.” Anyone who saw Morgan during Saturday night’s game should not have been surprised — after being bumped from the leadoff to the second to the eighth spot in the batting order, Morgan spent most of the 6th, 7th and 8th innings talking to himself, apparently in disagreement over Riggleman’s decision. Riggleman admitted that Morgan was angered by what he viewed as a demotion. “It was building up all day,” Riggleman said. “I think he thought I was wearing that equipment at home plate.” Morgan denied that he was aiming his anger at Anderson. “It definitely wasn’t intentional,” Morgan said. “. . . It is not my style to play dirty. I don’t play that.”

But that’s apparently not the way the Cardinals viewed the incident: while the Riggleman telephone call to LaRussa should have buried the incident, it clearly didn’t. The Morgan incident rankled the Cardinals, as seen when Drew Storen pitched the last of the eighth inning on Sunday, and lost control of a fastball — which sailed behind Matt Holliday. Cards’ manager LaRussa was immediately out of the dugout: “We were told before the game that [there would be] no funny business because of the cheap shot that Morgan did,” La Russa said. “And here’s a guy [Holliday] that hits a single and a double and they throw the ball behind him. There was going to be no ifs, ands or buts. But in [the umpires’] opinion, the pitch got away [from Storen].” Riggleman denied that Storen was throwing at Holliday: “Clearly there was no intent,” Riggleman said. “It was a terrible pitch. It was 4-1. We certainly don’t want to be hitting anybody or get anybody on base and get a rally started. After what happened last night, you could see where this is coming from.”

Is there bad blood between the Nats and Cardinals, or between Riggleman and LaRussa? That seems very much in doubt. But the same is probably not true for the Nats’ skipper and Nyjer Morgan. Morgan’s irritation at Riggleman might represent some passing anger — and Morgan has had a tough week, having been accused of throwing a baseball at a fan in Philadelphia. All of this might be forgivable, but Morgan’s comment on Riggleman’s decision to bat him eighth in the line-up will probably stay with the Nationals’ manager. “I have to be able to handle what I am able to do,” Morgan told the press. “If (Riggleman) feels like this is what he needs to do, he can go ahead and do it.” Our bet is that Riggleman (and Rizzo) view these kinds of comments dimly. Which means that it’s a pretty good bet that Morgan will eventually (and inevitably) be headed out of town.

Duck Duck Goose

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

I thought it only appropriate that “the loyal opposition” should return at precisely the moment that my first date in Washington (here she is, and take a good look) arrived for our lovely evening. And if by “lovely evening” you mean watching the Washington Nationals and turning their victory into fake reporting then you’re right: but I have no choice but to do this in my current state. This CFG thing, this new-wave-inter-net “we’re down with the twitter blog,” is struggling, really struggling, so I just know that most of this blog’s readership revolves around my pen. And for the benefit of you all, here finally is a picture of me . . .

Tonight Roy Oswalt was out for a stroll with his new team –11 million dollars in tow — when, out of the blue: it’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . no, no, no — it’s the most interesting man in the world. Nyjer Morgan!  Nyjer who? In his first at bat, Morgan hit the ball 400 feet into the center-right gap, flipped off his helmet as he sped around second base, and went totally horizontal, belly first, into third. Nyjer Morgan? It was like watching lightning strike on a clear day. Former Astro Oswalt was so confused by the entire thing he had to pay someone to tell him who it was that just did that to him. “What the hell is going on! Who is that guy on third?” It’s Nyjer Morgan, channeling Ricky Henderson. “Naw, can’t be.”

Morgan wasn’t the only Nats superhero “lifting tall buildings” on Friday night. Adam Kennedy arrived in the clubhouse before the Phillies game to find Cristian Guzman’s assistant sitting (morose and weeping) in the Nationals’ locker room. Kennedy got the message — in the first inning (and with “Rickey” Morgan on third) he hit the ball hard enough to the right side (just as he was instructed) to allow Morgan to lope across the plate: Nats 1, Phillies 0. Oswalt was even more confused — “what the  . . .” But “The Miracle on Half Street” continued. Roger Bernadina began his night by gunning out a sprinting Oswalt at first. Oh, and Craig Stammen was lights out: hitting spots, keeping his pitch count low and quietly sauntering from the mound, as if he was Greg Maddux. Oswalt wasn’t the only one surprised. As I sat watching this team’s Friday night tidal wave I could only repeat Oswalt’s words — “Who the hell are these guys . . .”

Don’t misunderstand: I’ve been watching this team with vigor, knowing that on a good day they’re only mediocre. It’s a self-inflicted baseball passion. They lallygag, throw the ball over the dugout, crash into each other, slam into outfield walls, miss the cutoff man — and their “phenom” pitcher can’t go past the All Star break. It’s fantastic fun. I expected the same on Friday against the Citizens Bank Bullies. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Nats showed up to play and made glue of the Ponies, embarrassing Oswalt and frustrating Rollins and Howard and the rest of them. So . . .  what happened? The answer is obvious: Mike Rizzo is a psycho. The proof is this photo of Rizzo sitting in Jim Riggleman’s office as players arrived for Friday’s game.

More specifically, on Friday afternoon (just hours before Miss Iowa and the Phillies showed up in Washington), Mike Rizzo decided he’d had enough of his team’s mediocre performance, and that it was time to play “duck, duck, goose.” In “Rizzo Land” the game is not as simple as it was when I was a kid, but it’s the same concept: you line up the players (in any old order) and you raise your right hand and go down the line — “in, in, traded . . . in, in, traded . . .” You only change your tune when you get to Morgan: “in, in . . . and if you don’t hit a triple Morgan, I swear to God you’ll be spending August in Oakland.” Message received. The only player not really frightened by this show of Rizzo passion was Ryan Zimmerman . . . and “the kid.” Even Adam Dunn was included. As for the rest of them. Well, we might have seen the fear in Morgan’s eyes: Rizzo’s antics was placing his bobblehead night in jeopardy. Rizzo didn’t care: “do something Nyjer, or I swear we’ll woodchip those things.”

The Mike “Corleone” Rizzo, “Duck, Duck, Goose” is more than just a cute kids’ game — it’s like rendering someone to Burma for “questioning.” It’s more like playing in the Olympics for Iraq. Okay, I admit. It could be that the appearance of Katie Conners helped to spark Friday night’s outbreak of unusual excellence, but I really doubt it. For as this mammoth publication goes to press, the Nationals are fast becoming a new team. And it’s because of their general manager. They’re getting better, a lot better, and they’re doing it quickly.

The word in baseball is that you can always get a closer and Rizzo showed that this week as he dealt Matt Capps to Minnesota. And you can always deal, at the very last minute, a slap-hitting veteran infielder for a handful of prospects, especially if the other team’s All Star second sacker ends up on the DL. As Cristian Guzman learned. Adam Dunn may be next: or maybe not. But the truth it, it doesn’t really matter. Mike Rizzo — the Washington Nationals’ true fearless leader — is playing “duck, duck, goose” in the clubhouse. And he’s made it clear to those who are staying with the team: “play hard and play hard now  – – – or you’ll be shaking your head somewhere else a year from now and wondering where it all went wrong.

Livan Tames Reds

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Backed by a ten hit and seven run attack, Livan Hernandez pitched his second complete game of the season, as the Washington Nationals notched a split of their four game series in Cincinnati. The Nats 7-1 victory compensated, at least in part, for the paucity of hits and runs the team suffered in both Miami and Cincinnati over the last seven games. Adam Dunn and Roger Bernadina homered for the Nats, as Nyjer Morgan and Willie Harris finally seemed poised to break out of their respective slumps. But the story on Thursday was the work of Hernandez, who picked up five strikeouts while holding the Reds to just seven hits. Hernandez was masterful: he threw 102 pitches, 79 of them for strikes. The complete game gave the Nats’ bullpen a needed rest, as the team now heads into Milwaukee for a three game set against the suddenly average Brew Crew.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Ralph Houk, who died on Wednesday, was once one of the giants of the game. It’s not that Houk was that good a player — he appeared in only 91 games over eight seasons, but he managed the New York Yankees in 1961, when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris made home run headlines. Houk steered the Yankees through some of their most successful campaigns. Under Houk’s leadership the Yankees won 109, 94 and 104 games — taking two world series (against the Red in ’61 and the Giants in ’62). He went on to manage the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox before becoming a vice president of the Minnesota Twins. He was renowned for his temper, though former Yankees’ testify that he knew how to handle a team. He had enormous influence on future managers Bobby Cox and Tommy Lasorda. “I remember what a tough guy he was,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said upon hearing of his death. But Houk was also a student of the game, showing up hours before the first pitch to study line-ups and statistics.

Houk’s tough guy demeanor was well earned. He had a fearsome temper and was called “the Major,” an affectionate term that also accurately described his wartime experiences. Houk was a minor league catcher in the South Atlantic League when World War Two began. He put down his mitt and was mustered into the army as a private in February of 1942. He was picked for officers’ candidate school at Fort Knox and was deployed to Europe with the 9th Armored Division. Houk was a better soldier than baseball player: he landed at Omaha Beach, served during the Battle of the Bulge and was one of the first American soldiers to cross the Remagen Bridge into Germany. “I sent him on three missions in April of 1945 and one day he returned with nine prisoners of war,” a senior American officer later recalled.  “His reports invariably had an undetermined number of enemy killed.” Houk earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart during the war. To the last day of his life he kept the helmut he had worn as a young lieutenant when he landed on Omaha Beach. It had a bullet hole in it. He died in Florida at the age of 90.

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.

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.

Nats Struggling At The Break

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Just  two games ago it was possible to think good things about the Nats. They had taken two of three from a very tough San Diego team and grabbed an easy first game in a three game set against the Giants. And the Nats were beginning to hit. The toughest teams of the west seemed suddenly vulnerable to a line-up filled with a hot home run hitter (in Adam Dunn), a suddenly tough pitching staff (headlined by Stephen Strasburg) and a revived bullpen (with solid arms Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps). But successive losses — one in which the bullpen collapsed and another in which steady Livan Hernandez was anything but — have put a cloud over the Nats’ first half and sparked continued speculation about whether the team will make major moves as the trading deadline approaches. Even Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman, ever the optimist, seemed puzzled (we just have to find a way to play better, he said after the second loss to the McCoveys), while Mike Rizzo evinced some disappointment: “I think we have underachieved a little bit, and I don’t think we played as good as I think we can. I’m looking forward to a better second half.”

While successive losses to the Giants ended the symbolic first half of the season on a low note, the team’s improvement has been undeniable: Stephan Strasburg has arrived (and he’s here to stay), Adam Dunn has emerged as a team and fan favorite (with unacknowledged defensive improvements at first base), the team remains relatively healthy (the notable exceptions being Scott Olsen and Jason Marquis), the bullpen has been sure and steady (in spite of the recent setbacks), Ian Desmond has proven he can hit major league pitching (okay, he’ll need to field major league hitting), and (surprise, surprise) Roger Bernadina has shown he can play with the big guys. There are disappointments — Nyjer Morgan has not been the spark plug he was last year, the team remains unaccountably soft on defense and no single starter has emerged to complement Strasburg and Hernandez. Oh, and the team is in last place in the NL East.

Amidst the talk of trades (Dunn for whomever, prospects and a bat for Haren, a pocket of maybes for a middling arm) — and front office prayers for the return of someone, somehow (Marquis in July, Zimmermann in August, Olsen sometime) — it’s hard to know just what would vault the team into contention. Magic wands seem out of reach and blockbusters rarely happen to teams whose farm system is still so-so. Mike Rizzo might be willing to swap three or four of the system’s top prospects, but none of them seem major league ready. They’d be here if they were. And there’s this: while Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham seem a fine 3-4-5 combination and are good friends to boot (and no one but no one wants to see them broken up), it’s hard to defend a combo that, for all it’s power, fails to plant a stake in the heart of an on-the-ropes Jonathan Sanchez or a wet-behind-the-curve newbie like Madison Bumgarner. Mike Rizzo says that he is looking forward to a better second half. So are we. But contending is another major bat and another good starter (and, truth be told, at least another half season) away.

Zim Walks Off (Again)

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Ryan Zimmerman has been on a tear: he is 6-9 over his last two games and, on Tuesday night, he hit a walk off homer against the San Diego Padres to seal a hard-fought 6-5 victory at Nationals Park. The Zimmerman surge has come just at the right time; not only did it provide a nail-biting win over the NL West leading Friars, it may well have boosted Zimmerman’s All Star chances in a last-minute fan vote. Zimmerman is trailing Cincinnati slugger Joey Votto in a close contest for the final All Star spot. Zimmerman’s sudden rediscovery of his swing is good news for Nats fans, who were beginning to worry that Zim’s month-long slump would sink the Nats in the key home match-ups that face the team in the run-up to the All Star break. “I’ve been struggling the last three weeks, four weeks. It’s frustrating,” Zimmerman said after the game. “Nobody wants to do that. I’ve been working with Rick a little bit, and it’s finally starting to get where I want to be, so it’s good.”

Zimmerman’s bottom-of-the-ninth heroics were the talk of the ball club following the needed win over the Padres, as was the stellar outing the team received from Livan Hernandez, who threw seven innings of masterful ball in searching for his seventh win. But the 8th inning proved tough for the Nats, whose relievers have struggled of late: Tyler Clippard came on in relief and gave up two hits, as the Padres knotted the score at five. After wowing opposing hitters, and Nats fans, through the first three months of the season, Clippard has been shaky:  “I’ve been throwing the right pitches — maybe not executing them all the time,” Clippard said. “But tonight, I just felt like I made poor decisions. I felt like I should have thrown some things differently. It wasn’t the case, and I didn’t get the job done.” The Nats improved to 37-47 on the year, and face the Padres again tonight.

The Wisdom of Section 1-2-9: “There something wrong with Stammen,” one of the section’s more well-informed fans said on Sunday. There was silence then, for two innings. “When you get a guy who’s good one outing and bad the next, it’s usually mental.” And then more silence until this — “how do you tweek a guy’s head?” Another fan, a known Stammen partisan, was supportive. “He’s a Maddux in the making,” he said. “You’ll see.” There were furtive looks and not a few eye rolls. “Yeah, but which one? Greg or Mike?” When Stammen walked off the field there was a smattering of applause and the man in the row in front shrugged his shoulders. “Mike. Mike Maddux.”

A successful Nyjer Morgan bunt brought this comment: “He’s been trying to take them down the third base line for three months, now suddenly he’s figured it out — he’s racing the ball to first. About time.” The comment brought nods and then, support, for the struggling center fielder: “Did you see that catch the other day?” Not all has been forgiven when it comes to Morgan, but nearly so. “Maybe he can play short” — which brought guffaws. The remembered circus catch in center has raised Morgan’s value — at least among section commenters. “Riggleman is defending him, on the basis of last year,” another fan said. A fan two seats down was unimpressed. “Yeah, I saw that.” In the eighth inning, as the Nats struggled to come back against the Mets, the talk turned to trades. “We’d have to give up some prime prospects for Dan Haren, but it’d be worth it.” And the response: “Think of it — Strasburg, Haren, Marquis, Hernandez, Zimmermann. That’s a pretty good starting five.” What about Olsen? a fan asked. The answer came, too quickly: “What about him?”

Nats Boot It In Baltimore

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

You can’t make four errors and expect to win a ball game, no matter how much you hit — and no matter how many spectacular plays you make that are  nominated for “Web Gems” on “Baseball Tonight.” The Nats made four errors against Baltimore on Friday night, dropping an extra innings heartbreaker (and the first game of a three game set), to the Orioles, 7-6. This should have been Nyjer Morgan’s game: the Nats’ pesky lead-off hitter went 4-5, scored three runs, drove in one, stole a base and made a spectacular catch on what looked like a sure home run by Oriole Corey Patterson. Morgan climbed the centerfield wall at Camden Yards to snag the deep fly and rob the fleet-footed Patterson, who tipped his cap to Morgan in acknowledgment of his good glove work. Ironically, in an error-filled game, Morgan’s circus catch was one of the best defensive play of the year for the Nats. But Morgan’s good glove and hot bat after a month-long slump could not save his team, who played an embarrassing error-filled game.

After the game, Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman seemed befuddled, and angered, by his team’s loss. “You saw it. I’m not going to say anything specific, but the way we are playing in general — defensively — it isn’t good enough,” Riggleman said to reporters. “We do a lot of talking about it. We are out there working on it. But for some reason … I really can’t explain it. I know we put the work in. I feel bad for the players. It’s an issue for them. They see the number of errors. They see the games get away from us, because we are not making plays. We have to find a way to change that.” To compound the errors, righty reliever Tyler Clippard pitched poorly, in what has to account for his worst relief outing of the year. Clippard, who has been so consistent that Nats fans take his excellent relief appearance for granted, gave up four hits and four runs (three of them earned) in just 1.1 inning of work. While the Nats left Camden Yards disappointed, the O’s were ecstatic — registering a rare come-from-behind win on what should have been a double play ball that would have sent the game into extra innings. The O’s scored when Cristian Guzman’s flip to first eluded first sacker Adam Dunn. Guzman and shortstop Ian Desmond each had two errors in the game.

Unfortunately, while the Orioles will focus on the win and the Nats will focus on the errors, Nyjer Morgan’s play vindicated Riggleman who, prior to the game, said that he was undisturbed by the center fielder’s lack of production. Riggleman’s comments were a vote of confidence for Morgan, who has been the subject of fan criticism, and speculation that he might be benched in favor of Roger Bernadina. Riggleman has been trying to find a way to give Mike Morse more at bats — and benching Morgan and moving Bernadina into his spot would solve that problem. Morse would then play right field. But Riggleman said he’s sticking with Morgan. “I have a lot of patience with Nyjer,” Riggleman said. “One thing we kind of hang our hats on is last year when we got Nyjer at this time of the year, he had been doing OK in Pittsburgh, not having a great start, just treading water. Then he took off.” Riggleman seemed more than satisfied that his vote of confidence in Morgan worked out: after the loss to the Orioles the Nats skipper pointedly referred to the Morgan catch. “It may have been the greatest play of the year,” he said.