Posts Tagged ‘philadelphia phillies’

Doc Outduels Jason

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Calling his five inning outing against the Phillies “a step in the right direction,” Jason Marquis appeared nearly all the way back from elbow surgery in his outing in Philadelphia on Friday night. While the Nats dropped the contest to the Ashburns and Roy “Doc” Halladay by a score of 1-0, there had to be a huge sigh of relief by the Nats front office that Marquis looked almost (almost) like the pitcher that was once the ace of the Colorado Rockies staff. If Marquis continues to pitch the way he did on Friday (and better — considering that the Nats need someone, somehow, to pitch out of the 5th, 6th or 7th innings), then Mike Rizzo’s $15 million two-year gamble on Marquis will begin to pay off. “I’ve been working hard to get back to where I need to be,” Marquis said after the loss. “I was sick and tired of embarrassing myself out there. It’s a step in the right direction. We’ll keep working to get better. We’ll see what happens in five days.”

All of that is good news; the bad news is that Halladay remains one of the elite pitchers of the National League (and all of baseball, for that matter) — and it showed in his steady if unspectacular strike-after-strike start on Friday. Halladay gave up eight hits to the Nats line-up, but the front nine were not able to bring the baserunners home. The Nationals left an almost astonishing 22 men on base, a signal that while many of the Anacostia Nine can hit the long ball, the station-to-station game played by nearly all successful teams remains elusive. Halladay took advantage of the Nats’ RISP weakness, throwing 116 pitches, 75 of them for strikes. “I battled myself early,” Halladay said after the game “It was one of those games where I was always working to make pitches. I had a little bit of luck on my side. But I’ll definitely take it.” The Nationals continue their visit to the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday, sending Stephen Strasburg to the mound against Kyle Kendrick.

Zim Corrals Ponies

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

After enduring the adventures of a shakey bullpen — which squandered a workmanlike outing from Nats starter Ross Detwiler — a Ryan Zimmerman blast in the bottom on the ninth inning propelled the Anacostia Nine to a nail-biting 7-5 walk-off win against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Zimmerman walk-off marked the seventh time “the face of the franchise” had provided the necessary difference in a key win, a major league leading mark that has baseball abuzz with talk of just how important the former Cavalier is to his team. The victim this time was Phillies’ reliever Brad Lidge, who entered the ninth inning at Nationals Park with a 5-4 lead and the game apparently well in-hand. “He has his moments,” Philllies’ manager Charlie Manuel said of Lidge in the wake of Zimmerman’s blast. That seemed an understatement: the legendary late-innings strikeout king (more than one per inning, on average) Lidge sports a 5.57 ERA and has given up 21 hits in 21 innings — never a good sign.

The blown save highlighted the challenge the Phillies face in their race to catch the Chops for the N.L. East crown. While Phillies’ fans (and the national media) are oohing and ahhing about the addition of Roy Oswalt, the Phillies are struggling to find some stability in the back of their bullpen. The search has become nearly interminable. The Pony bullpen is ranked 10th in the National League with a spiraling ERA and no, ah . . . relief in sight. Phils’ skipper Manuel is feeling the pressure, as evidenced by his testy answers to reporters’ questions about whether choosing to pitch Lidge over, say, Ryan Madson remains the team’s best option. “I hear you guys say that for two years,” Manuel said. “I hear this and that, this and that. What the hell? We try this guy. We try that guy. We try this guy. Then I hear you [complain] to me sometimes about their roles. ‘Guys don’t know their roles.’ I can go on all night now. Let’s just drop it right there.”

The Guzman Swap: Less than twenty-four hours after baseball’s July 31 trading deadline, the game’s pundits are weighing in on the deadline’s “winners” and “losers.” In this, at least, there seems to be a growing consensus. The Yankees (with the addition of Lance Berkman and Kerry Wood), Padres (who signed up a needed bat in Ryan Ludwick) and Rangers (who snagged Cliff Lee, Jorge Cantu and Cristian Guzman) were the winners, while the Red Sox, Tigers and Giants (who did little — or nothing) were the losers. The judgments sound about right, but only if you are attempting to calculate what moves would put a team into the post-season. Garnering less attention are those teams (like the Nats) that traded over-welcome veterans to pursue longer term strategies. In fact, it’s possible to argue that in terms of value-for-value (and in terms of strengthening a franchise), the Nats can claim to be one of baseball’s trade deadline winners. Not only did the Nationals hang onto fan favorite Adam Dunn (true: it remains to be seen whether he can be signed long-term), they obtained a needed catcher of the future in Twinkie catching phenom Wilson Ramos.

An even stronger case for a Nats “win” can be made in a cursory study of Mike “the Don” Rizzo’s decision to swap team holdover Cristian Guzman for two minor league Texas Rangers’ pitchers. While Baseball Tonight and MLBN’s late night pundits cite Guzman’s incontestable value for a surging Rangers’ squad (Guzzie made a nearly spectacular play in last night’s Rangers’ triumph over the limping Belinskys), the acquisition of Ryan Tatusko and Tanner Roark, two semi-spectacular speedballers from the Rangers AA affiliate in Frisco of the AA Texas League, can be counted as solid additions. Tatusko and Roark are keepers and, if their current arc is any indication, could be stalwarts in a Nats starting rotation in 2012 — or even earlier. Both Tatusko and Roark are rough cuts (young, but built for baseball), who were drafted by the Nolan Ryan-driven Rangers vision, which rewards fastballs, control and endurance. Ryan Tatusko’s fastball is 91-95 on the gun, while Tanner Roark is a strike-em-out fastballer who rarely gives up walks. Tatusko has been back-and-forth between the rotation and the bullpen at Frisco, but he could go either way, while Tanner is a straight starter, albeit with a history of posting higher-than-we-would-like ERAs.

There’s a growing handful of commentators who pooh-pooh the acquisitions. The genetically anti-Nats blog Bleacher Report views the two as “fringe” pitchers, plowing away through the minors, while the predictably smug SB Nation mouthes a “me too, me too” judgment. Call to the Pen’s views are far more credible. CTTB projects both Tatusko and Roark as likely to get good looks at Triple-A before any possible stint in the majors (perhaps a year away), and opines that both have plus (but not plus-plus) upsides: “The Nationals made a solid trade here.” Then too, both Tatusko and Roark have stellar records, even for the Texas League. Tatusko is 9-2 with a 2.97 ERA at Frisco while Roark is10-5 with 75 strikeouts. It’s hard to imagine the Ryan-led Rangers would draft just anybody to make a walk to the mound, or that Mike Rizzo would swap-and-pay Cristian Guzman to travel to Dallas in exchange for anyone he believes is a “fringe” prospect. And we all know: if past performance is the best guide to future production, David Clyde would be in the Hall of Fame and Gregory Alan Maddux would be coaching the junior varsity baseball squad in San Angelo, Texas.

tatuskor08.jpg Ryan Tatusko image slucas66

“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.

Nats Take Series From Braves

Friday, May 7th, 2010

The Nationals, inexperienced enough to have trouble winning one-run and extra-inning games, triumphed in a bottom-of-the-ninth, walk-off win on Thursday, downing the Atlanta Braves 3-2. Willie Harris knocked in the winning run with the bases loaded, putting a Peter Moylan offering past Braves’ second baseman Martin Prado. Harris felt vindicated after the win, getting back at a team that had non-tendered him in 2007. But the story of the night was the near no-hitter from Nats starter Scott Olsen, whose electric stuff baffled Tomahawk hitters until the top of the eighth. “I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t thinking about it,” Olsen said of his chance for a no-no. “I was thinking about it early. I thought about it in the fourth and fifth innings. It’s one of those things where it’s real hard to do. I wasn’t positive I was going to do it, but I was thinking about it.”

The Nats victory gave the Anacostia Nine the series win against the Braves — with the team now standing at 15-13 for the season. That’s good enough for second place in the NL East, just two games back of the Phillies. The Braves head to Philadephia, where the Phillies’ powerhouse is well aware of Atlanta’s troubles on the road. The Braves are having trouble scoring, with nearly everyone in the line-up in an early season slump, with second sacker Martin Prado the exception. Outside of Wednesday’s 7-6 win at Nats Park, the Braves had trouble with Nats’ pitching, scoring just four runs in the other two outings. The Nats will face their NL East nemesis, the Florida Marlins, starting tonight at Nationals Park. Craig Stammen is set to pitch for the Nats; he will be facing Marlins’ hurler Chris Volstad, who shut down the Nationals in Florida just last week.

Remembering Robin Roberts: Philadelphia Phillies’ ace and Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts died yesterday in Florida at the age of 83. Roberts put together a string of six 20-win seasons in his career, and pitched for the Phillies’ ‘Whiz Kids” pennant winning team of 1950. He was the NL’s premier pitcher in the first half of the 1950s. He compiled a 286-245 record with 2,357 strikeouts, a 3.41 ERA and 45 shutouts. He pitched an amazing 305 complete games.The Phillies will be wearing a #36 patch on their uniforms for the rest of the season commemorating Roberts’ career.

Lidge On “The Phenom”

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Harrisburg Senators pitches against the Altoona Curve in his minor league debut during the game on April 11, 2010 at Blair County Ballpark in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Brad Lidge, he of the 1.95 ERA in 69 innings of relief in 2008, said last night that “it’s not very often you see a guy being able to throw that hard with that kind of command.” He was talking about one Stephen James Strasburg (of course) — the youngster upon whom the hopes of Natstown rests.

They both pitched in Reading, PA — Lidge on a rehab assignment for the Philllies and Strasburg for a light work out as he flies through AA ball. Lidge noted that Strasburg “was doing pretty much everything right”: which is exactly what you want to hear from a guy who has had his share of play-off appearances. Strasburg was his usual self last night, pitching five scoreless, hitless innings. He was pulled after reaching his five inning limit despite the no-hitter. He’ll have plenty of chances for one of those in the bigs no doubt.

Strasburg may be as excited to join the team as they are to have him. The Nats are performing at a level that was unimaginable last season when the BB thrower from San Diego signed up. The Nats have actually impressed on occasion. Last night’s performance against the Cubs by Livan Hernandez is a case in point. He scattered  six hits over seven innings and gave up just one run while keeping his ERA at 0.87. Sunday’s 1 – 0 victory over the Dodgers (who were hitting .293) should turn some heads as well. These guys aren’t only winning some games, they seem to have a bit of spit and vinegar in them. It’ll serve them well during the long campaign.

Jimenez Outduels Livan

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Ubaldo Jimenez and Livan Hernandez held a master class in pitching on Thursday with Jimenez coming out on top — at least in terms of the score. Supported by two solo home runs (one each from catcher Miguel Olivo and third baseman Ian Stewart), Jimenez shut down the Nationals when it counted, wracking up his fourth win of the season in an itchy-close pitchers’ duel at Nationals Park. In spite of the score, Hernandez was (arguably), the more impressive pitcher, mixing a fastball (which topped out at 87 mph), with a slider and change-up. Hernandez changed speeds so effectively that he most often fooled Colorado’s heavy hitting lineup. Jimenez, on the other hand, relied on an overpowering fastball that topped out at 97 mph — his slowest offering was Livan’s fastest. So while the Rockies won, the result of the duel between speed and finesse was clear: Livan was the more cerebral pitcher, Jimenez the rocket.

In the end, the brilliantly pitched 2-0 contest came down to this: the Rockies could hit a hanging slider (which is what  Hernandez threw to Ian Stewart), while the Nationals most often could not catch-up to the Jimenez fastball. The contrast between Hernandez and Jimenez was most marked in the first inning. Behind in the count 3-1 against Willie Harris, Jimenez attempted to play catch-up by throwing Harris his best pitch — a 97 mph fastball in the upper part of the zone. The pitch was predictable and, in most cases, would be unhittable. But Willie was ready and put the offering over the head of the centerfielder. “The guy throws a million miles an hour,” Harris said, talking about the at bat. “He has really good offspeed pitches as well. He keeps you off balance. You get in an 2-0 count, you are definitely thinking the fastball. He drops in a changeup or a slider on you. That’s what the good pitchers do now.” It was one of the few mistakes that Jimenez made.

There are enough good third basemen in the NL to stock a separate league: David Wright, Ian Stewart, Placido Polanco, the fading Chipper Jones, Aramis Ramirez, Arizona’s wiff-or-wack Mark Reynolds and, of course, “our very own” Ryan Zimmerman. Among others. Cincinnati fans would clamor that new Reds third sacker Scott Rolen should be added to the list of the elite: and they have a point. Rolen, who once crossed swords with Tony La Russa,  is leading a Cincinnati team that could be the surprise champ in the NL Central, despite their early 7-9 record. Rolen is playing like he did in 2002, when he came over to the Redbirds from the Ponies and won a Silver Slugger Award. The often hobbled Rolen is hitting .289 with four homers and Cincinnati (where arms go to die) is responding. They took two of three in Los Angeles, notching an impressive 8-5 victory yesterday against the Trolleys that was sparked by Rolen’s cannon-shot double in the bottom of the seventh. Dusty’s Baker Boys were ecstatic. This is the way that Baker and the Cincinnati front office had planned things at the start of the season.

Rolen, who has a problem with authority figures, fits well in Cincinnati — where (very often), no one seems to be in charge. The slick-leather-big-bat third baseman was a 2nd round draft pick for Philadelphia back in 1993, but took four years to get to the majors. It was worth the wait. Beginning in 1997, Rolen began a five year run that had Phillies fans comparing him with Philadelphia legend Mike Schmidt: Rolen hit 21, 31, 26, 26 and 25 dingers before being shipped (via Toronto), to St. Louis where he battled injuries and fought with the manager. St. Louis cut him loose, shipping Rolen to Toronto (which, believe it or not, actually has a baseball team) for Rolen clone Troy Glaus, who had once hit 47 home runs for the Angels. The trade seemed an even-up; Rolen and Glaus sported big bats and tweeky shoulders — Rolen had shoulder surgery in May of 2005 (after a collision at first with Dodger fill-in and former North Side Drama Queen draft pick Hee Seop Choi), while the suddenly under-performing Glaus had shoulder surgery in January of 2009.

By the end of last year, both Rolen and Glaus not only needed to get healthy, they needed a new start. Glaus got his when he signed this last off season with the Atlanta Braves, while Rolen was traded from Toronto to Cincinnati in a move that had Reds’ fans scratching their heads: the swap seemed an expensive and questionable last-gasp effort to fill a hole at third, while the Cincy front office searched for a more permanent replacement. But Rolen has been a surprise: a solid citizen in the clubhouse (that’s the surprise) and a formidable bat in Cincinnati’s fifth hole (which, frankly, is not) Rolen is now teamed with veteran Brandon Phillips and big lumber youngsters Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to provide mashers in the middle of the Cincy order. Once Bruce and Phillips get past their early season slumps (and they will), the Reds are likely to surge past the Cubs and Brewers, giving St. Louis a run for the division title. It’s too bad Rolen can’t pitch — it took Cincinnati starters sixteen games to notch their first victory, which came yesterday against Los Angeles.

Rolen would agree — Aroldis Chapman can’t arrive soon enough.

Phils Stampede Nats, 11-1

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

One game a season does not make: and that’s a damn good thing. If the Nats loss at home during their opener is any indication, then fans of the Anacostia Nine are in for a long season. Starter John Lannan was shakey, the bullpen (with the lone exception of Jesse English) seemed to revert to last year’s form, and Nats’ batters just couldn’t get around on Roy “Doc” Halladay. At least in the case of Halladay that’s no surprise. The former Blue Jay was masterful in seven complete innings of work, while Lannan lasted just three-and-two-thirds.”Philly is a tough team to stop once they get the momentum,” Lannan said after the game. “The momentum kept on going, and I couldn’t stop it. I felt good at first, it’s just that the fourth inning got me. I felt good the first three innings. I wanted to have a different story for Opening Day. It’s the first game of many, and I’m not going to let it tell the story for this whole season.”

Aside from the stadium-bulging and excited home town crowd (with Phillies’ fans sprinkled liberally throughout) — and the ceremonies surrounding the actual game — the day was only marginally memorable. It actually began the night before with Washington’s obsession (and the trade of a major player from that other game), and continued into the early afternoon, with the sports media’s focus on America’s current sports megalomaniac. In Boston and New York (and Chicago, Anaheim and Atlanta), those kinds of stories would be footnotes: a sure sign that Washington will need a winner to command the kind of loyalties enjoyed by the “Nation,” the “Empire” and the “Halos.” We’ll get there, but if Monday is any indication, it probably won’t be this year.

The good news is that with the opener out of the way, Nats’ fans can now focus on the real story: whether the bullpen will show appreciable improvement over ’09 (at least Jesse English looks good), whether the platoon in right field will really work (it won’t), whether Ian Desmond is “the answer” at short (we won’t know for awhile), and whether the starting five (sans Strasburg, at least for now), can reel off some wins.

Those Are The Headlines, Now For The Details: Bad news for Cubs fans — Carlos Zambrano is still Carlos Zambrano. The Venezuelan rolling pin made Lannan look like an ace. The “Big Z” gave up two homers, hit a batter and made a throwing error as the Sluggies fell to the Chops 16-5. At least he didn’t destroy the water cooler. Lou said that he never imagined that Chicago would give up 16 runs on Opening Day. It was God-awful. Atlanta’s version of “the real deal” hit a dinger in his first at bat and the boys over at “Baseball Tonight” just couldn’t stop talking about it. They said (as ESPN rolled video) that Henry Aaron has “passed the mantle” to a new slugger — new Atlanta outfielder Jason Heyward. Well, maybe. But it might be a little early . . .

John Kruk on Placido Polanco: “He’s the best number two hitter in baseball,” he said, “with the exception of Derek Jeter, who bats first” . . . Peter Gammons is fitting in nicely in his new gig, as an on-air commentator for the MLB Network, but he’s still a homer for his favorite team — and player. That said, he still issues some thoughtful insights. Last night Gammons described Frank Robinson as “the most underrated great player” of his era; that’s a new and interesting baseball category that demands some thinking. Gammons’ new category might, for instance, include the overlooked Mickey Vernon — who’s hardly rated at all. Gammons added that Robinson was overawed by the attention given to Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Yeah, that’s right. And Mickey Mantle.

Lannan Vs. Halladay

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

John Lannan #31 of the Washington Nationals deals a pitch against the New York Yankees on June 17, 2009 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.

John Lannan says he’s ready for Opening Day and he better be: he faces new Phillies’ ace Roy Halladay. “As a pitcher, you would like to face the best, and I want to face the Phillies,” Lannan says. “I want to go against the toughest guys and really compete. It’s going to be exciting. Either way, I wanted that [Opening Day] game so I can make up for last year, and I definitely want to do better than last year.” Lannan opened for the Nats last year, in Florida, and struggled: he pitched three innings and gave up six runs. You might recall that game — it was an Emilio Bonifacio runfest. It looked then that Bonifacio would be the bane of the Nationals for the year, and proof positive that the trade that had sent him to Florida (for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham) was a bust.

It was anything but. After a quick start, Bonifacio tailspinned, ending the year with a .252 BA and one home run. Willingham, meanwhile, sat the bench and Scott Olsen struggled, eventually going down with arm trouble. By the end of May the trade seemed a wash, at best – the swap of a still-developing kid (with minor leaguers Jake Smolinski and P.J. Dean) for two mediocre piece players who just couldn’t get going. But as it turned out, it was only a matter of time before Austin Kearns played himself out of a job (earning a well-deserved ticket to Cleveland), while Willingham became a fixture in left field. Olsen, meanwhile, showed flashes of brilliance and is now, albeit tentatively, penciled in as a candidate to be DC’s fifth starter.

Willingham’s the story here, not Lannan. The Marlins’ 17th round draft pick is starting his seventh major league season, and is likely just starting to peak. When Kearns did his “oh the humanity“ routine in late May of last year, Willingham was ready — hitting a very average, but very respectable, .260 in 133 games, with 24 dingers and 61 RBIs. You have to wonder what he might have done with an earlier start, and a more workmanlike September (when he tanked). Dunn, Zimmerman and Willingham became the heart of the Nats order for 2009 and you have to believe that, with just a little more oomph, the trio might have transformed itself into a Half Street version of Murders’ Row. Which is only to say that, one year later, the trade that sent the young speedster to Florida for Willingham and Olsen looks pretty good: if Josh can pick up where he was last August — and if Olsen can be the pitcher the Nats supposed when they brought him north.

No Surprise: The Phillies Will Grab the Flag

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Roy Halladay, Baseball, Philadelphia Phillies

The votes are in and it appears to be unanimous: the Philadelphia Phillies are the New York Yankees of the National League — or rather, the Ponies are so good that the Yanks are the Phillies of the American. It’s not exactly a secret; the Phillies are that good. If there’s any curse on the Phillies it’s simply this: they’re on the front cover of SI, which might mean that their coming campaign will fizzle. But I don’t see how. The core of Halladay, Hamels, Happ, Howard, Utley and Werth (and the addition of an admittedly overpriced Placido Polanco) makes them the odds-on favorites in the NL Least, with the Tomahawks, Fish, Nats and Apples finishing as also-rans. It won’t be close.

What’s interesting about “the Least” is not the fight for first or even second (which will go, almost by default, to Atlanta), but the fight for third. Don’t laugh. The Marlins always seem to play over their heads, as they did for a time last year — when they were all the rage for fans who think that April matters. They’ll come back to reality in 2010 (or, being the Fish, they’ll take a bunch of mugs and win the World Series). Outside of Josh Johnson (as good a pitcher as there is in baseball) and Ricky Nolasco, their front four is shakey. They’ll have to count on Burke Badenhop to step up (how likely is that?), and outfielder Chris Coughlan will have to dodge the sophomore jinx. He won’t. True: the Fish have a power infield, with one of the strongest up-the-middle combos (with Ramirez and Uggla) in the MLB. But the Nats have their own power players, and if Stephen Strasburg arrives fully ready in June (or earlier), the front four of Strasburg, Marquis, Lannan and Stammen (and Hernandez) will regularly outpitch the Fish. So, given a little luck (and a healthy and as-advertised Strasburg), the NL Least will be 1) Philadelphia, 2) Atlanta, 3) Washington, 4) Florida and 5) New York. Or it won’t — and the Nats will suffer through a not-quite-as-bad-as-last-year season, and finish fourth.

So here’s the question: what the hell is wrong with the Mets? Well . . . maybe nothing. If Jose Reyes can resurrect his best years, if Jason Bay can be in New York what he was in Boston, if David Wright can be the bopper he was in ’08, and if the New Yorkers can find someone who scares hitters even half-as-much as Johan Santana — then the “boys of slumber” can finish as high as second. But that’s a lot of “ifs,” and a second act that features Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and a half-dozen question marks does not bode well for a team that, even when healthy, will have trouble winning 9-7 slugfests. This says it quite well: the Mets face “a rather inconvenient truth” — that even if healthy (which they’re not), they’re just not very good. So buckle your seat belts Mets’ fans: these are your daddy’s Mets.

As for the Nats — barring injury (there oughta be a default button for that phrase here somewhere), the Nats will bring the bats, and everything else will depend (as it always does) on pitching and defense. Both are better, but nowhere near where they should be. In our dreams Adam Dunn has a fantasy player year (of close to fifty dingers), Ryan Zimmerman becomes all-world (and finishes as a runner-up in the MVP voting), Adam Kennedy returns to form, Matt Capps becomes Joe Nathan (sans injury), and the platoon in right field is filled by someone like this guy. If that happens then anything is possible . . .

Since this is baseball, and anything is sometimes just not possible, the kind of season the Nats will have will be obvious for all to see within the season’s first twenty games. The bullpen is better, but it’s still iffy, and the team will need to find an early spark. I agree with the SI assessment: the early spark for the Nats will have to be Nyjer Morgan. A fast start for the fleet-footed center fielder will build confidence in a team that (after the 100-plus losses of ’09) sorely needs it. That means the pressure is on; Morgan will be expected to run the Nats into (instead of out of) games, and he’ll be expected to use his speed to make up for a shaky corner outfield defense. Which is simply to say: if Morgan proves to be the spark we expect, then the Nats will not only have a better 162-game outing this year than they did last, they’ll actually be a pleasure to watch. Especially when they play the Mets.

Another Bullpen Arm: Capps Signs With Nats

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

Nationals fans will be forgiven if they now view Pittsburgh as part of the Washington franchise feeder system — a kind of waiting room for Nats-to-be. With the signing of reliever Matt Capps on early Thursday morning, Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo has added a third Ahoy to the rebuilding Nats: a trio that also includes fleet centerfielder Nyjer Morgan and lefty set-up whiz Sean Burnett. The new Nats relief corps is also expected to include aging former star Eddie “Everyday Eddie” Guardado, who once notched 45 saves with the always surprising Twinkies. While the Guardado signing is not final, it is expected soon. Capps, team officials say, is expected to compete for the job of closer with Bruney in Spring Training.

With the signing of Capps, Nats fans will go into the Christmas holidays knowing that (while everything else might collapse), the ballclub’s end-of-game options will include a set of potential closers that includes a young Yankee, a steady Bucco and (perhaps) an ageless wonder. Coupled with Burnett and Clippard, the Nats’ bullpen seems stronger now than it has since the departure of sore-armed closer Chad Cordero, felled by a labrum tear back in 2007. The signing of Capps probably ends Mike Rizzo’s off-season efforts to shore-up the Nats bullpen (barring a bit of tweaking here and there), leaving the Anacostia Nine with several more holes to plug: the addition of a middle-of-the-infield glove (the Nats are still interested in signing second sacker Orlando Hudson), an add-on in the starting rotation (Jon Garland is still an option — albeit one that seems to be fading) and (as we hope) the signing of a versatile bat-and-glove man that could play second, left, short and (under a worst case scenario) third. The Nats could (could!) go into Spring Training with a rotation of Jason Marquis, Jon Garland, John Lannan and Craig Stammen (or maybe what’s-his-name) and an infield that includes Mark DeRosa or Orlando Hudson — and (will wonders never cease) two steady catchers. It’s certainly not out of the question that the signing of either Hudson or DeRosa would include a trade (and salary dump) of Cristian Guzman, who has been making noises about not wanting to switch to second.

Don’t Let It Go To Your Head: Remember all the yacking about how this year’s free agent class was weak with few marquee (ahem) players? Well, maybe. But don’t tell the Phillies — who have solidified their reputation as the Yankees of the National League. While Mike Rizzo has been busy deftly filling holes in the bullpen, starting rotation and behind the plate (and others have been sucking their thumbs about the eventual destination of Jason Bay and Matt Holliday), the Ashburns have been busy getting stronger — adding Placido Polanco as their new third baseman and engineering a blockbuster trade for Roy Halladay. While a gaggle of analysts say that the Mariners were “the big winners” in the Halladay sweepstakes (nailing down Cliff Lee), that’s not the way it looks from our perch outside a snowed-in Nats Park, where the spectre of a Halladay-Hamels-Happ-Blanton front four makes the Phillies (with a Polanco-Rollins-Utley-Howard infield) the class of the National League. And the Phuzzies aren’t done . . .

But The Mets Might Be: Whatever happened to the Mets front office? While the silence in New York has Mets fans upset, our friends over at TRDMB cite Newsday reporter David Lennon’s claim that Mets’ fans should learn to appreciate Omar Minaya’s patience in going after the likes of Bay and Holliday. After all, Omar says, the Mets are not as attractive a destination as Philadelphia and these things take time. “It’s not that they [free agents] don’t want to come here,” Omar says, it’s that the timing didn’t work out. As for Halladay and Lackey — well, the Mets were never really in the running on Halladay and Lackey – and Lackey “blindsided” the Mets when he signed with the Red Sox. That son-of-a-bitch, what was he thinking? Don’t worry, Omar says. All of this can be explained, Omar says. “Players like going to situations where they can win,” Omar says. Never fear, Omar says, the Mets have a plan. “I like our plan,” Omar says.

Yikes.