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nats bats crush houston, strasburg on deck

(photo by David J. Phillips)

After having 12 of their last 15 games decided by two runs or less the Washington Nationals finally got to enjoy a blowout, cruising to an easy 14-4 victory over the Houston Astros.

And while D.C. sports fans are salivating at the thought of a certain rookie pitcher being added to the rotation, it was a lesser-known rookie pitcher who earned his team-best fifth win Monday night.

Nats fans are already dreaming of Stephen Strasburg’s debut, which the team announced will be June 8 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but it was Luis Atilano who for the second-straight outing outpitched a top-of-the-rotation ace.

One week after beating San Francisco ace Tim Lincecum, Atilano outdueled Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt (allowing just three earned runs and six hits in 6 2/3 innings) to improve to 5-1. The 25-year-old rookie hasn’t been dominant by any stretch of the imagination (10 hits, two walks, one strikeout and five earned runs in 12 innings pitched), but his last two outings have been good enough to get the job done.

“He threw strikes,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “He changed speeds. He’s got his breaking ball over. He’s composed. I don’t think he’s too worried about who he’s going up against. Our catchers have done a great job with him. He’s been a pleasure to watch.”

With Atilano keeping them in the game, the Nats bats finally came to life – scoring 14 runs in a game for the second time this season. The game was highlighted by the Nationals’ biggest offensive onslaught (a nine-run seventh inning) the team has seen since moving from Montreal.

“As good as we’ve been, we can do a lot better,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who hit a three-run homer in the seventh. “It’s exciting. If we can get rolling and scoring some runs, the way our pitchers have been throwing, we’ll be a good team.”

Backup catcher Carlos Maldonado had just two at-bats this season prior to Monday, but the 31-year-old made the most of his rare appearance, blasting a three-run homer off of the left field foul pole in the seventh.

Those two home runs, coupled with a strong day at the plate for first baseman Adam Dunn, who went two for five with four runs batted in, are the primary reason why the Nationals are back at .500 with a 26-26 record.

“It was kind of a snowball effect,” said outfielder Josh Willingham. “Even some balls we weren’t hitting well were falling, so it was a good day for everybody at the plate. You need a game like that every now and then.”

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nats are suddenly relevant again

(courtesy photo)

As was the case with many folks around town, the Washington Capitals’ early exit hit us like a stomach punch.

Just when we were getting used to one of our local franchises going from pretender to contender, they suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the 16th-best team to make the playoffs.

We’ve never been accused at looking past an opponent, but blowing a three-games-to-one lead against the Montreal Canadiens caught us off guard, to say the least.

Like Ron Burgundy, we resigned ourselves to growing a mountain man beard and drinking copious amounts of milk from the carton to drown away our sorrows.

But a funny thing happened this past weekend. A forgotten friend showed up, fittingly, at our doorstep and swept us away.

The Washington Nationals, who after back-to-back 100-loss seasons have been viewed locally as little more than a doormat, are suddenly interesting again.

On the surface, taking two out of three games from a 14-31 Baltimore Orioles team that is currently dead-last in baseball, isn’t something to write home about. But it’s the manner in which the Nats won those games that is our reason for being suckered back in.

After dropping the series opener to Baltimore 5-3, the Nats were back to an all-too-familiar place – below .500. The following day things went from bad to worse when veteran catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was forced out of the game with a back injury and center fielder Nyjer Morgan allowed an inside-the-park home run after throwing a hissy fit rather than field a ball that bounced off his glove.

And yet, the Nationals somehow managed to rally back and earn a 7-6 victory, thanks to a two-run single by first baseman Adam Dunn. Yesterday, the Nationals gutted out a 4-3 victory over the Orioles when outfielder Josh Willingham delivered a walk-off homer in the 10th inning.

This game was equally noteworthy because closer Matt Capps, who has been an indestructible force all season long, blew his first save of the year.

That’s the thing about these last two wins: for the first time this season (and possibly dating back even longer), the Washington Nationals have an identity. A team that has rarely been able to overcome any adversity has suddenly shown that there is enough depth and desire to battle back if something doesn’t go right.

When’s the last time the Nats could survive a momentary lapse in judgment by Morgan or an off day from their closer and still somehow battle back for a victory? Let’s just say it hasn’t happened very often with this bunch.

This team now heads west for a 10-game road trip, but there is an undeniable truth about these Nats: even without highly-touted rookie Stephen Strasburg on the big-league roster yet, they are now worth the price of admission.

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learning from leonsis

(courtesy photo)

Yesterday Tom Boswell of the Washington Post wrote a column about the state of the D.C. sports scene which he appropriately summarized as “misery loves company.” In it, Boswell addressed the sorry state of the Redskins, Wizards and Nationals.

The article gives reason for cautious optimism with names like Bruce Allen, Mike Shanahan, Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman taking over for failures like Vinny Cerrato, Jim Zorn, Jim Bowden and Manny Acta, although admittingly darker days are ahead for the local basketball team. Noticeably absent from the miserable list is the name of the hockey team. The Capitals, who despite falling asleep at the wheel last night, continue to be the only hope for success in the local sports world.

Led by owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee, the Capitals went from doormat to legitimate championship contender thanks to a lengthy rebuilding plan. Because Leonsis is quite possibly the most fan friendly owner in sports today, he was kind enough to share his plan for that rebuilding phase. We’re posting it here in hopes that it might end up in front of the respective front offices of the Redskins, Wizards and Nationals.

What I have learned about a rebuild to date: A 10 point plan. A Washington Capitals perspective:

1. Ask yourself the big question: “Can this team – as constructed – ever win a championship?” If the answer is yes, stay the course and try to find the right formula. If the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don’t fake it. Really do the analytics and be brutally honest. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to really win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, “We are just one player away.” Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix. It will be a bumpy ride. Have confidence in the plan. Trust and verify: the progress – but don’t deviate from the plan.

2. Once you make the decision to rebuild, be transparent. Articulate the plan and sell it loudly and proudly to all constituencies, the media, the organization, the fans, your partners, family and anyone who will listen. Agree to what makes for a successful rebuild. In our case it is “a great young team with upside that can make the playoffs for a decade and win a Stanley Cup or two.”

3. Once you decide to rebuild bring the house down to the foundation. Be consistent with your plan and with your asks. We always sought to get “a pick and a prospect” in all of our trades. We believed that volume would yield better results than precision. We decided to trade multiple stars at their prime or peak to get a large volume of young players. Young players will get better as they age, so you have built in upside. Youngsters push vets to play better to keep their jobs, and they stay healthier, and they are more fun – less jaded by pro sports.

4. Commit to building around the draft. Invest in scouting, development, and a system. Articulate that system and stay with it so that all players feel comfortable – know the language – know what is expected of them – read the Oriole Way. It worked and it is a great tutorial. Draft players that fit the system, not the best player. Draft the best player for the system. Don’t deviate or get seduced by agents, media demands, or by just stats or hype. Envision how this player will slide into your system.

5. Be patient with young players – throw them in the pool to see if they can swim. Believe in them. Show them loyalty. Re-sign the best young players to long term high priced deals. Show the players you are very loyal to them as compared to free agents who achieved highly for another team. Teach them. Celebrate their successes. Use failures as a way to teach and improve. Coaches must be tough but kind to build confidence.

6. Make sure the GM, coach, owner and business folks are on the exact same page as to deliverables, metrics of success, ultimate goal, process and measured outcomes. Always meet to discuss analytics and don’t be afraid of the truth that the numbers reveal. Manage to outcomes. Manage to let the GM and coach NOT be afraid of taking risks, and make sure there are no surprises. Over communicate. Act like an ethnic family – battle around the dinner table – never in public. Be tight as a team. Protect and enhance each other. Let the right people do their jobs.

7. No jerks allowed. Implement a no jerk policy. Draft and develop and keep high character people. Team chemistry is vital to success. Make sure the best and highest paid players are coachable, show respect to the system, want to be in the city, love to welcome new, young players to the team, have respect for the fan base, show joy in their occupation, get the system, believe in the coaches, have fun in practice, and want to be gym rats. Dump quickly distractions. Life is too short to drink bad wine.

8. Add veterans to the team via shorter term deals as free agents. Signing long-term, expensive deals for vets is very risky. We try to add vets to the mix for two year or three year deals. They fill in around our young core. They are very important for leadership, but they must complement the young core (NOT try to overtake them or be paid more than them). Identify and protect the core. Add veterans to complement them, not visa versa.

9. Measure and improve. Have shared metrics – know what the progress is and where it ranks on the timeline – be honest in all appraisals; don’t be afraid to trade young assets for other draft picks to build back end backlog – know the aging of contracts – protect “optionality” to make trades at deadlines or in off season; never get in cap jail. Having dry powder is very important to make needed moves.

10. Never settle – never rest – keep on improving. Around the edges to the plan, have monthly, quarterly and annual check ups. Refresh the plan when needed but for the right reasons – “how are we doing against our metrics of success and where are we on our path to a championship.” Never listen to bloggers, media, so called experts – to thine own self be true. Enjoy the ride.

This list is especially interesting considering it is widely believed that Leonsis will take over ownership of the Wizards in the not-too-distant future. When we get some time in the next week or so, we’ll try to take a good, hard look at the Wiz and this plan and see what we can come up with. Until then, we should all continue to give thanks for having Leonsis and the Caps in our life.


happy cinco de mayo

(photo by Pat Sullivan)

Even by baseball standards this one was ridiculously long.

On May 5th the Houston Astros (11-15) and the Washington Nationals (7-17) squared off at Nationals Park in a battle of mediocre baseball teams. The Nats won the game 11-10 in 11 innings. Last night. In Houston. No, seriously.

More than two months after starting pitcher Scott Olsen threw the first pitch to Houston outfielder Michael Bourn on a festive Tuesday in Washington D.C., the Nationals picked up a victory more than 1,400 miles away. This is where witty bloggers insert a joke about the lengths these doormat Nats go to in order to pick up a much-needed win.

Put it this way – Olsen, the 25-year-old lefty who started the game and went five innings, went on the disabled list May 19. He then spent more than a month on the shelf getting healthy and returned to the lineup June 29.

Washington relief pitcher Joel Hanrahan earned the win after pitching in the top of the 11th inning for the Nationals – allowing three hits and striking out one batter while throwing 16 pitches. When the game finally ended and Hanrahan had earned his first win of the season he was actually enjoying the night off … in Pennsylvania. You see, Hanrahan was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, along with outfielder Lastings Milledge, for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett, July 1.

Speaking of Morgan, he scored the winning run for Washington last night after a throwing error by shortstop Miguel Tejada on a routine throw to first base. Morgan was technically a pinch runner for outfielder Elijah Dukes, who went two for four with a homer and two RBIs in the win, but had been demoted to the minor leagues by the time the game officially ended.

All of this because of an epic rain delay. But you know what? We’ll take it. Mostly because, anyone who has seen these Nats play their uninspired brand of baseball of late knows that this team hasn’t been on the winning side of an interesting baseball game in quite some time. Some might say it’s been two months.

Does anyone have a Corona?


same old, same old

(photo by Brian Murphy)

Sorry for the lack of updates, folks. But lets be honest – the Nationals are still comically bad. The Wizards are on the hook for nearly $6 million because they’re over the luxury tax limit,and still have a long way to go before being considered a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals, this area’s one consistent winner, are enjoying their summer vacation and the Redskins are a month away from the start of training camp. Simply put, there’s nothing new to report.


nats feast on AL east

(photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Don’t look now, but the Washington Nationals are officially hot.

After winning exactly two out of their first 21 series, the Nats have now won their last two – taking two of three games from the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays.

Coming off the heels of a four-game losing streak (three straight to Tampa Bay and the series opener versus the Yankees) the Nats somehow righted the ship against the AL East, the best division in baseball, and won four straight (before yesterday’s 9-4 loss). For a team still on pace to lose 114 games this season, that’s impressive.

Here’s a quick recap showing just how solid Washington’s starting rotation has been over the last week:

Last Tuesday in the series opener against the Yankees, pitcher Shairon Martis gave up just one earned run over six innings. Sure, the Nats eventually lost the game 5-3, but Martis lasted long enough to throw 106 pitches in an attempt to keep the always shaky bullpen out of the equation.

Starting pitcher John Lannan was great the following night, allowing two runs and four hits in 8 1/3 innings, as the Nats snapped their four-game losing streak and “stole” a victory from the mighty Yankees 3-2.

After a five-and-a-half-hour rain delay Thursday, starting pitcher Craig Stammen earned the first win of his young career, shutting out New York over 6 1/3 innings in a 3-0 win and giving the New York newspaper plenty to write about.

Friday’s game was another epic battle, with starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann giving up one earned run over 5 2/3 innings as the Nats took game one from Toronto 2-1 in 11 innings. Zimmermann might have gotten a no decision, but it wasn’t because of anything he did.

Saturday’s match-up featured more of the same, as the Nats and Blue Jays needed extra innings once again to decide a winner. Ross Detwiler, in just his seventh career start, gave up two runs over seven innings in a 5-3 win that finally ended with a Willie Harris walk-off home run in the 12th inning.

That’s six earned runs allowed by five starting pitchers over the span of 33 2/3 innings (good enough for a sparkling 1.60 earned run average). For a rotation full of youth and inexperience, those are numbers that bring tears of joy in an otherwise dismal season. Sure, things went south yesterday as Martis got roughed up in the first inning and the Nationals lost 9-4, but we’re here to accentuate the positives.

There’s little reason to believe the Nats can sustain this momentum against the defending champion Boston Red Sox, but hey – folks didn’t give Washington much of a chance against the Yankees this time last week and we saw how that turned out.

Chances are the Red Sox will continue to win games while the home team reverts back to mediocrity, but maybe the Nats catch another giant off guard. Crazier things have happened, right?


nats stun yanks

(photo by Frank Franklin II)

Back in the day, you’d hear someone say something outlandish like, “I don’t care if the Redskins lose every other game, just as long as they beat those damned Dallas Cowboys” and you’d wonder if that person actually meant it.

Would this individual really be okay with a 2-14 season as long as Washington’s two victories came at the expense of their biggest rival? Or were they simply saying that if that year’s ‘Skins only won twice, please let both wins be against Dallas?

Whatever the case, we couldn’t help but think of this demented rationalization after the Washington Nationals managed to win two out of three games against the mighty Yankees in New York this week. Last night’s 3-0 win at Yankee Stadium improved the Nats’ record to 18-46 and gave them back-to-back wins for the first time since early May.

To recap, we have one of the league’s elite franchises, those Damned Yankees, with their $200-million payroll lining up against a Washington team so bad that they’re nine and a half games behind Arizona … for 29th place.

Coming into the series the Nationals were just 6-23 on the road this season, and yet, were the better team for much of the three-game series.

In game one, the Yankees needed a late-inning rally to a steal victory from the Nats. Down 3-2 heading into the seventh inning, New York scored two runs in the seventh and one in the eighth to get CC Sabathia his sixth win of the season.

Wednesday night, the Nats were led by New York native John Lannan, who pitched into the ninth inning (preventing the Nationals’ shaky bullpen the opportunity to blow the game). Lannan gave up solo homers to Robinson Cano and Johnny Damon, but was otherwise stellar in his first outing back home in New York. How improbable was this win? Prior to this game, New York had been 23-0 when holding their opponent to three runs or less this season.

Last night was more of the same – Washington got off to an early start (well, after that whole five-hour rain delay) and thanks to a strong outing by a Nationals starting pitcher (this time it was rookie Craig Stammen, who picked up his first career win) the Yankees are now left to face the brutal New York media after their most embarrassing series of the season.

Since the Nationals entered the series with a .262 winning percentage, they are officially the worst team to beat the Yankees in a series in which the Yankees were at home. Ever.

The previous worst was back the St. Louis Browns, who were 38-99, way back in 1939.

Conversely, the Nationals won just their third series of the year and leave New York finally celebrating their first shutout of the 2009 season. Good times.

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