A fan's observations on the Washington Nationals, from across the virtual divide.

Has The Ship Been Righted?

The opening game of our series with Arizona is in the books, and perhaps for the first time this season, the Nationals won with sound baseball.

In all of the previous wins, we’ve seen the extreme ways a team can win: flawless pitching, hitting barrages, improbable  comebacks – and don’t get me wrong, those wins were fun to watch and demonstrated some of the important characteristics that a team has to have.

What we hadn’t seen this year was a game where we took the lead early, held it all game, and protected a one-run lead in the ninth inning. Until last night.

This game was precisely the sort of game I’ve been waiting to see from the Nats – an unremarkable, fundamentally sound game. The reason is, almost all of baseball is comprised of games like this. You don’t often go down six runs in the first inning, and then come back to win 11-9… or get complete games from a 23 year-old starter… or hit four home runs in a game. The Nats wins this season  have been precisely this type, and while they’re fun to watch, they’re not the thing that a successful season is made of. Last night’s win was different.

Also important was the fact that the Diamondbacks are a team we should beat. They’re suffering from internal turmoil, having just let Bob Melvin go as their manager. They’re also a team of Nationals cast-offs – many of whom we’d like to see do well, and the occasional slacker-malcontent.

The Nats made giant-killers of every team in the National League East in the month of April, as they stumbled out of the gate. But just as the Nats played the rest of the division, they played each other, too… and now that we’ve bothered to look up and see where we are twenty-seven games into the season, we see that the rest of the division has been in a four-way bar fight with each other, and they haven’t put any distance between them and us. As we wake up on Saturday morning, we find the Nats six games out of first with most of the season ahead of us. The Nats are 5-5 over the last ten games, and 4-1 over the last five… and we have a runner on first with one out in the 11th inning against the Astros… and as the home team, I like our chances.

Am I suggesting that all is well with the Nats? Absolutely not! The Nats lead the majors in errors, and they continue to make plenty of miscues in the field. The bullpen is struggling, though recent moves to bring more veteran arms into the ‘pen seem to be helping… and of course it helps to have Joe Beimel back.

There’s a lot to be happy about with the Nats right now. They’re hitting a ton, their young starters are doing well (for the most part), and the bullpen seems to be settling down a little bit. They’re sure fun to watch – it is just a shame for most of you on the east coast that they are playing out here on the left coast. They make for entertaining viewing during dinner here in Alaska.

… and then there’s this: Ryan Zimmerman extends his hitting streak to twenty-six games, and probable future Nationals player Stephen Strasburg threw a no-hitter for the San Diego State Aztecs last night.

Glass Half Empty Department Speaks…

Filed under: Games,Players — Tags: , — Wigi @ 3:39 pm May 2, 2009

There was something particularly compelling about today’s complete game win by Shairon Martis. Not only did he only give up a run and five hits in nine innings, the defense was there for him more than once, and the offense provided a winning margin in two different innings.

All of this bothers me. It was too easy.

Mike Henderson at NationalsPride.com correctly points out that Martis and the Nats were lucky today – lucky that Pujols had the day off, lucky that the Cardinals hit balls sharply right at people, lucky that Martis was having a career day.

… but we didn’t see the bullpen today. Any day that the bullpen gets a rest is a good day, I’ll agree. But the Nats have already won the six games this season where pretty much everything goes as you need it to. What they need to start doing is winning the games where they can overcome their shortcomings.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a spectacular win. Now show me some ordinary wins.

One Pitch

Filed under: Games,Players — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 7:47 pm May 1, 2009

There were two outs in the top of the first inning. Jordan Zimmerman had made quick work of the first two batters, and now faced Albert Pujols. Zimmermann fell behind 3-1. He released the pitch, and a moment later, the baseball was rattling around blue seats just below the MASN “Nats Extra” studio in left field.

Now I know that a lot of my impression of what was going on in the game has to do with what the commentators are saying. But I swear, the impression I got from that pitch was Jordan Zimmermann’s way of introducing himself to Pujols.

“Hey, I’m Jordan Zimmermann… I’m not afraid of you.”

“Hey, I’m Albert Pujols.”

Last night’s game was different from a lot of the Nats games this season, because the Nats just plain got beat. The better team won.

And you know, I can live with that. As rocky as the start was for Zimmermann, he had his moments, too. Chico Harlan quotes Manny Acta in his late Nationals Journal post about how the metric by which one should judge this start for Zimmermann is how he reacted to the adversity.

I think he did fine.

The Cardinals are leading the National League for a reason. The Nats are in last place for a reason. Last night’s game is about the outcome you’d expect.

Other notes:

  • Ryan Zimmerman extends his hitting streak to 20 games.
  • Three baserunning gaffes in four games for Elijah Dukes. I am concerned.

Fantasy Baseball

I am going to take you back in time a few weeks… in an alternate universe. The date: April 18, 2009.

In this alternate universe, the Nationals played the Marlins at Nationals Park. The Nats won, 6-2. Scott Olsen went eight innings, giving up two runs and six hits. The Nats had a five-run first inning, including a grand slam by Austin Kearns. Joe Beimel came in and pitched the ninth, giving up a hit.

What is the difference between this universe and the universe that we live in? In this alternative universe, the Nats had no errors in this game, and in our “real” universe, the Nats had three.

Here’s the thing: Even in the universe where there were only two errors in the game instead of three, if the error that is missing is Nick Johnson’s dropped popup in the fifth inning, the Nats still win, 6-5, with Joel Hanrahan getting the save.

I bring this up because there are a lot of people who are only too happy to pile onto the bullpen problems as the cause for the Nationals woes. I am among the first to point out that the bullpen has not been a stellar part of the mix. But in their defense, the bullpen has been asked to come into games and pitch in situations where they never should have. And when you’re a pitcher, and you’re worried that your shortstop is going to boot a ball (or two) in a game, you start pitching for strikeouts. You start pitching not to make a mistake. You start pitching not to lose.

Which, by the way, is different than pitching to win.

I know that my example is both not statistically valid and an exaggeration. But my point is, you can’t give teams – especially National League East teams – extra outs, extra bases, extra runs, and then be upset with the bullpen about giving up a lead… if you’re not first upset with your defense about not protecting the lead you’ve built in the first place.

I suspect that the problem is not one that is solved by changing personnel, including the manager. I believe it is one where each player needs to be focused and accountable for their outcomes. That is more a leadership issue.

Errors happen, and teams win games where they make errors. In last night’s game, Anderson Hernandez made an error on the second half of a double play, throwing the ball away and allowing the batter to advance to second. But the Nats won, and while Hernandez probably should have swallowed the throw, he made the throw trying to be aggressive and get the second out. A mistake of youth. The Nats survived the inning, and the game.

If the Nats can reduce their erros, if the pitchers – both starters and the bullpen – can start to relax and trust their defense, if the whole team can start playing the way they know they can… this will be an interesting season.

If they can’t… well, my head hurts already. It will be a long, hot summer.

… and a thanks to Jeff Bergin at NationalsPride.com for the seed of this idea.

… and one other thing – the picture at the top of this page was from that game.

Turn Back the Clock

Frank Robinson’s appointment to a position in the Commissioner’s Office has opened the door to a lot of reminiscing about the good old days… you know, the ones with the bouncing RFK Stadium and the 51-30 start… and this Opening Night:

First Pitch at RFK Stadium, 2005

First Pitch at RFK Stadium, 2005

That season was magical… especially the first half. And it begs the comparison between that .500 team, and our lovable Nats of 2009.

I am sure that nobody would want the old 2005 team back. The ride was exquisite, but our current team is much more talented.

The thing is, the 2005 team played excellent fundamental baseball. And last night’s game was a perfect example of both how much more talented this year’s team is, and how much better they need to play.

Despite giving away five bases on miscues and errors, and a bases-loaded walk, the Nats brought the tying run to the plate twice in the ninth inning… against Johan Santana, the NL leader in ERA, and the Mets bullpen, including Francisco Rodriguez.

The 2005 team doesn’t give away those five bases or walk in the winning run. Now I am not necessarily saying that the 2005 fundamentals and the 2009 talent beats Johan Santana… But it beats the Marlins three times last week.

Lets see if it can beat Mike Pelfrey today.

Step Back a Moment

Filed under: Games,Players — Tags: , , — Wigi @ 5:16 am April 19, 2009

It would be really easy to spread a lot of the blame for yesterday’s loss on Joel Hanrahan. His teammates didn’t. Chico Harlan reports in Nationals Journal from last night:

Two of the vets I spoke with after this game were both able to talk for three or so minutes without once casting blame on Hanrahan. In fact, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn found every way to find blame with their own effort — despite the fact that the lineup scored six runs in the first two innings against Josh Johnson, the erstwhile NL ERA leader. Said Zim: “When we get ahead 6-0, 5-0, we need to kind of step on their throat rather than saying, OK, we’re ahead, blah-blah-blah and just kind of try and coast. It’s not like we’re trying to do that, but we need that killer instinct, I guess.”

And while we can’t know for sure, if Nick Johnson doesn’t drop the popup that allowed a run to score, the game ends 6-5. Add to that the throwing errors and that the Nats had no offense after the second inning, and you quickly see that blaming Hanrahan for the loss is a bit like blaming the firemen for letting your house burn down when you’ve been deep-frying frozen turkeys in your garage.

It is tempting to go along thinking that everything is fine when you’re playing with a lead. That Hanrahan had to pitch at all yesterday given how the first two innings went should tell you that logic chain has a number of rusty links.

The Pictures Say it All

Filed under: Games — Tags: , , , , , — Wigi @ 9:44 pm April 16, 2009

One couldn’t ask for a better night at Nationals Park than this past evening. I wandered around with my camera and took some action shots from the game. When I got home, I was surprised to find that Tom Boswell had written a post on Nationals Journal that is in some respects complementary to my posting yesterday.

So I’ve given the liks to Boz’s NJ posting, and below are some pics I took at the game.

As for the Magic 8-Ball, the murky blue liquid seems to be clearing a bit. I bet we have an answer by Sunday.

Here are some pictures:

Unanswered Question of the Day

Nothing in sports is sure… but there are some things that you can almost always count on:

  • When you fire a head coach or a manager, the team almost always wins the next game.
  • When the pitching coach comes to the mound to talk to the pitcher, the next pitch is almost always a strike (unless the pitcher is Daniel Cabrera)

So where does sending Lastings Milledge to Syracuse fit among the list of almost “sure things?”

It is hard to say. It isn’t as if Milledge was single-handedly costing the Nats games, so the “addition by substraction” thing doesn’t work here by itself.

Communication guys like me are always ready to point to some sort of synergy issue when it comes to analyzing how a team performs (or in this case, under-performs), and it is a tempting conclusion to jump to here. Sending Millege down could be an attempt to send a message that working “hard enough” is not “hard enough”. It could also be the message that no matter how secure you are in your station on the team, you have to perform to stay there.

It could also be about getting Milledge some reps in a situation where his presence on the field isn’t quite so expensive.

Winning tonight won’t answer this question. The Nats are close enough that they’ll luck into a win eventually, and making a connection between a win and Milledge’s departure would be meaningless. And a loss wouldn’t necessarily mean that the Nats are sleeping through their alarm clock, either. We still don’t know if Cristian Guzman will play tonight, and the injuries to Belliard and Harris and the tentative play of Alberto Gonzalez and Anderson Hernandez make for a shaky middle infield.

Being the optimist that I am, I think the Nats are finally set up with their best shot to get off the schnide. But there are no sure things… If the Nats finish the homestand 4-4, come ask me then.

So this morning, in order to get some reassurance, I went to the one place I go when I need the defintive answer: The Magic 8-Ball. It said:

Answer uncertain. Ask again tomorrow.

And with that, I will see you at Nats Park tonight.

Wishful Thinking

Filed under: Fan Experience,Games,Personnel,Players — Tags: , , — Wigi @ 10:43 pm April 10, 2009

Wil Nieves takes ball four, and the Nats win.

You’re right, they should never be in a position where that situation costs them a game… in a game where they load the bases three times with one out… and squeeze out only a single run.

But on the other hand, the Nats are loading the bases three times in a game… and battled back twice to tie the game.

This year is not last year. Some experience and poise are going to right this team.

One other thing… I have heard others say it… but I thought I would chime in. Rob Dibble is really growing on me. I liked Sutton, but listening to him (Sutton) was like listening to your favorite professor lecture. Dibble has the knowledge, roots for the team, criticizes freely… and the careful listener tonight heard him tease Carpenter about declaring a hit before the ball hit the ground. He would be fun to watch a game with. With Sutton, you were embarrassed if you weren’t taking notes.

Maybe he’ll keep Carpy honest.

One other other thing… Elijah Dukes is making a case for himself, don’t you think?

2009 Season Preview

Filed under: Fan Experience,Games,Organization,Players,Teams — Tags: , , , , , — Wigi @ 2:00 pm April 4, 2009

When I was a kid, I always looked forward to getting out to play baseball. I played on a neighborhood team, so the games were scheduled. Some days you’d wake up on the morning of a big game, and clouds would fill the sky, and a tune of the transistor radio hinted at a day of rain. Would it clear up in time to play? It was hard to say. But the difference between a great day and disappointment was mostly left up to fate.

That sums the upcoming 2009 Nats season. We’re sitting here on the weekend before the start of the season, and as we mull over how the season will unfold over our metaphorical bowl of Cheerios (in my house, it would have been Cap’n Crunch) the sky is indeed full of clouds.

But we’ve all been here before, too. For as many days that started out cloudy and rainy, some ended up in bright sunshine with the smell of leather gloves and the sounds of bats on balls, and others staring out the window at falling rain as the sun set. The difference between them had little to do with what we did, though I must say that a couple of hearty chants often did the trick:

Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day…

The problem for the fans is that the cloudy day we face today is just one in a string of cloudy and rainy days, all of which have ended predictably: maybe  tomorrow… maybe next year. We’re wondering if we’re ever going to see the sun again.

There is some reason to he hopeful. The one that has surprised me the most is the departure of Jim Bowden. While I am not surprised that he is gone (I predicted it last summer, though I can hardly call it prescient – it wasn’t the circumstance I imagined at all), what has surprised me how toxic an influence Bowden turned out to be on the organization. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but as an organizational communication consultant, I couldn’t know that – I could only suspect it. So now that Bowden is gone, the twenty-four teams that wouldn’t answer the phone when their caller ID displayed a call with a 202 area code… have suddenly started answering their phones.

I see some blue sky between those clouds.

And we have an outfield! In fact, we have two outfields! Unfortunately, only one can play at a time. This will be the first and most immediate test of Mike Rizzo, the de-facto General Manager. A good trade here is worth three hearty sun-dances. But there’s no clear-cut answer here, either.

Three catchers, too… the worst part of that situation is that the Nats are going to have to make the choice between Wil Nieves and Josh Bard.  Wil Nieves did a great job at backup last year, and Bard is no slouch, either. We’ve improved at a position that we didn’t realize we needed to improve.

On the pitching front, we have three home-grown starters, all of whom have been outstanding this spring training… and it is Olsen and Cabrera (acquired by trade and free agency, respectively) who raise the biggest question marks in our heads. As for the bullpen, I think we’re all pleasantly surprised that what started out looking like a weakness is at least passable.

In fact, it is hard to look at the team and see where the Nats aren’t just flat out better than they were last year – at just about every position.

But day after day of rain has taken its toll on the collective psyche of Nats Town. Add to it the stresses of our poor economy, and the days of our irrational exuberance that comes – in fact, that we expect - as the season starts… they seem so far away, don’t they?

There are lots of reasons to look out the window and know that the feel of the bat in our hands and the pop of balls hitting leather are about to be ours. But we’ve gotten our hopes up in the past, only to have the rain fall, and then get harder, and turn expectation into disappointment. What’s worse, as we’ve all sat and hoped for a break in the weather, we’ve lost sight of game, and instead obsessed about the rain. It is almost as if our obsession becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is the saddest part of this season to me: The magic of baseball is that the slate is wiped clean each year. We as a community start from zero, and live the daily soap opera that is baseball for the next six months. We can’t imagine the joys and sorrows, the dramas and comedies that will be our team’s season this year. But many of the citizens of Nats Town can’t seem to get past all the rain to realize that we’re about to take the field once again. That thing we’ve waited for – for the slate to be wiped clean – is upon us once again. And just as we’re about to accept the sunshine and take the field, we get a memo from the “Glass-Half-Empty Department”:

Looks like rain.

I am not going to predict a record, or a position in the division, or go out on some limb and start jumping up and down. I will say this – the Nats are a better team – by light-years – than they were last year. They can only be healthier, both in a physical sense, and in an organizational sense, than they were in 2008. Our young men are a year older, and our old men are playing golf. There is a lot to be thankful for and a lot to be optimistic about.

The ritual starts again Monday in Miami, and a week later, it will be renewed again in Washington. The grass will be green, the sun will shine. The slate will be wiped clean. I will dream of baseball in October… no matter how implausible that might be.

And to the “Glass-Half-Empty Department”: Enough with the memos.

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