All posts in baseball

07Jun

reds, umps defeat snake-bitten nats

(photo by Brian Murphy)

Since their arrival in 2005, the Montreal Expos have been lovable losers. Nothing more.

You could compare them to kid picked last in gym class or the child most likely to be bullied into giving away lunch money, but any way you spin it, it’s been a rough road for the Washington Nationals.

Thankfully, for every prepubescent boy, there mercifully comes a time in life when that scrawny, bird-chested boy begins to transform into man.

You know the signs. Hair in new places, a desire to spend more time taking long, hot showers or whatever. Once you begin to see those signs, it’s only a matter of time before everything changes.

As D.C. sports fans undoubtedly know by now, this is Washington Nationals week. A team that has avoiding relevancy like it was a sexually-transmitted disease is finally earning national attention for something other than back-to-back 100-loss seasons.

That’s what happens when you add two of the most anticipated rookies in recent baseball history to your roster – starting pitcher/savior Stephen Strasburg and slugger/chosen one Bryce Harper.

People suddenly care. Folks find a few extra dollars in their wallets for memorabilia. Family outings involve a night at the park. Simply put – everything is better when you’re winning. And if you can’t win games, at least have some players people care about.

You add bona fide stars like Strasburg and Harper to your team and you’re suddenly newsworthy for something other than opposing team’s fans taking over your ballpark on opening day. Yeah, they make that much of an impact.

With all of the excitement and anticipation building, we opted to spend this past weekend at Nationals Park. If for no other reason than to enjoy one final moment with the bad-news baseball team we’ve gotten to know and love over the last few years. We considered it one last chance to go see the scrawny kid – no, check that – our scrawny kid get roughed up at recess.

And boy, did we love every minute of it.

Led by savvy veteran Livan Hernandez, the Nationals beat the Cincinnati Reds Friday night, 4-2. While the Nats were more than happy to get the win and snap a three-game losing streak, the game wasn’t without controversy.

Washington shortstop Ian Desmond broke a seventh-inning tie with a single that drove in outfielder Josh Willingham. On the next at-bat, Nats catcher Wil Nieves advanced outfielder Roger Bernadina and Desmond to second and third with a sacrifice bunt.

Pinch-hitter Willie Harris drove in Bernadina with a sacrifice fly and Desmond took off for third base. While Desmond beat the throw, his foot momentarily came off the bag at the end of his slide. The question was – did Desmond’s momentum carry him off the bag or did the third baseman have something to do with it?

Third base umpire Paul Schrieber ruled Desmond safe. Reds skipper Dusty Baker came out to argue the call and crew chief Joe West overturned the call, even though he was working first base.

“To be honest with you, once that call was made, my eyes drifted away from Desmond,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman of Schrieber’s initial safe ruling. “So I didn’t really know what had happened. I just knew that there was a conference over there and I think Dusty came out and said, ‘Can you get help?’ It’s something that happens on a homerun call, fair or foul and that stuff because another umpire might have another view. I’ve never seen it happen on the bases.”

With that in mind, we asked Riggleman for his side of the conversation when he went out to chat with the umpire after Desmond was ruled out and then ejected for arguing.

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02Jun

oswalt welcomes trade to nats

(photo by Jake Nielson)

Sometimes a change of scenery makes all the difference in the world.

It seems like just the other day that Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt was being ejected from a game against the Washington Nationals.

Just two and a third innings into his work day, Oswalt lost his temper after missing on a pitch to Nationals outfielder Josh Willingham and yelled something. Home plate umpire Bill Hohn took umbrage and barked back at the pitcher.

Oswalt responded with a terse: “I ain’t talking to you,” and that was enough to earn him an early exit.

With the 32-year-old ace out of the equation, the proverbial floodgates opened as the Nats went on to pummel Houston 14-4 in a rare showing of Washington’s offensive prowess.

Earlier this season Oswalt had already gone public with his request to be traded from the 18-34 Astros, who are currently dead-last in the National League. And now, being ejected less than three innings into a game because he was so frustrated with himself that Oswalt felt compelled to verbally abuse Oswalt? That’s clearly a cry for help, if ever there was one.

What does this all have to do with the D.C. sports scene, you ask? Simple. Oswalt has let it be known that he’s willing to waive his no-trade clause to come to Washington if the Nats and Astros were to work out a deal.

It should be pointed out that Oswalt is asking for a trade because he’s tired of losing and wants to play for a contender. And he’s willing to play for the Nationals. Which means, Oswalt actually thinks the Nats are contenders.

“They’ve been playing well,” said Oswalt to the Washington Post. “They’ve got a good offensive club. I saw where they have [rookie pitcher Stephen] Strasburg coming up. He should make an immediate impact, especially, because no one’s seen him in the league, early. There’s always a little adjustment period there.”

Oswalt aside, this might qualify as the biggest shocker of 2010 – outsiders are actually starting to view the Washington Nationals as a legitimate baseball team.

Yes, the team that has averaged 96 losses a year over the last four seasons is honestly on the verge of respectability. Talk about a stunning development.

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01Jun

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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24May

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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13Jan

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.

10Jul

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?

08Jul

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.

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