September 27, 2006

Spoiling for a Phight

This is what's left. Symbolic victories and keeping a division rival out of the playoffs. 70 wins ain't much, but it's something. In the wake of last night's 4-3 win over Philadelphia the Nats have 5 games left in the season, including two more against the Phillies. Sweeping the series, or even taking two out of three, would put a serious dent in the Phills wild card ambitions. Doing it the way they did it last night would suck the life out of the the City of Brotherly Love. These are all noble, worthy goals for a team trying to build for the future.

Let me take you to Section 313 at RFK with Nate, Dave and Watson on Tuesday night. Bottom of the 9th, two out, Chad Cordero on the mound. Chase Utley has just scored Chris Coste from second with an RBI single, reducing the Nats lead to one run, and bringing the winning run to the plate in the person of Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. Howard is a near-mortal lock to win the homerun title and he's been on a monsterous tear lately, including a 2-4 night against the Nats.

The stadium echos and bounces like a minature summer of '05 as Frank Robinson shuffles to the mound to consult with his closer. No one would blame Frank for ordering Cordero to walk the imposing slugger and pitch to whoever comes next. Sure, the Phillies fans would whine that the Nats cheated by refusing to pitch to their best hitter, but they'd be howling for blood if Phillies manager Charlie Manuel didn't walk Soriano in a similar situation. But Frank issues no such order. He simply says to Cordero, "You created the situation, get yourself out of it."

A collective roar goes up from the crowd. This is the way baseball is meant to be played, ace against ace, strength on strength. And when The Chief jams Howard and induces a lazy pop-up to left-center the Phillies fans go quietly into that very good Washington, DC night. Later they complain, with some justification, about the Chase Utley 3-run homer that wasn't, but no one says anything during the game. Charlie Manuel called the missed call "terrible" and "unreal," but neither he, his first base coach nor Utley himself argued it. And as Frank Robinson can tell you, homeruns are in the eye of the beholder.

So the Nats find themselves playing meaningful games in September in spite of themselves, and winning them to boot. If the Phillies miss the playoffs by one game, or should the Mets find that you can't just flip the switch back to "Win" in the postseason, that should be a small measure of consolation to a team that never quit on a thoroughly snakebitten year.

September 26, 2006

Train Kept A Rollin'

The Nats season has certainly been tough, both on and off the field but this is ridiculous. On the way home from New York, the Nationals train derailed. What are the chances of that??? Thankfully it was a minor incident and no one was hurt.

We're at home through the rest of the year so no worries there. Rumor has it that the team is exploring other options for travel next year.

Props to Adogg for sending along this gem along.

September 23, 2006

Get Well Soon

Our thoughts and prayers for a full and speedy recovery go out to Nick Johnson, who broke his leg during a collision with Austin Kearns. The injury was an absolute fluke, two players going hard after a bloop hit, and Nick just got the worst of it.

Nick the Stick had managed to avoid any serious injuries en route to the best season of his career, so it's both sad and ironic that things ended this way. Many of us thought Nick dodged a bullet when he emerged only shaken and sore from a collision with Braves thug OF Jeff Francouer early this year, but I guess a full season just wasn't in the cards.

A tip of the cap to the Shea Stadium crowd who gave Nicky a standing ovation as he was lifted on to the cart and driven from the field. The genuinely classy gesture is much appreciated. Thanks for a great season Nick. We'll see you next spring. In the meantime, rest easy, you've earned the time off.

Just Call Him ROY Zimmerman

Ryan Zimmerman drives in 100 runs, is on pace for 20 HR and pulls foul balls out from 3 rows deep in the stands. All in his first full season of professional baseball. Just give him the damn Rookie of the Year award already.

September 22, 2006

WaPost props

Apparently, Barry reads some blogs.

According to yesterday's chat, he referred some readers to our recently more quiet friend Ball Wonk, and commented that he thought some of the blogs are really, really funny.

If Barry reads this, it's Nate that is funny. I'm the ass and Watson watches movies. Just to get our positions straight on the team. Nate's kinda s-m-r-t too.

September 20, 2006

Nick's Birthday Bash

Many thanks to Dave for "dragging" me out to the ballpark last night. I was kind of curious to see Beltran Perez's debut as a starting pitcher (what with B.P. passing for a hot, young pitching prospect in the Nats system these days.) We were hoping for a respectable performance that might provide some hope for next season. We got that and a whole lot more.

Perez was nearly untouchable, pitching 6 innings of 1-hit, no walk ball and he got levels of offensive support unseen in the canyons of RFK for quite some time. Birthday boy Nick Johnson got things started with a bang, leading off the second inning with a solo homer. Nick took the first pitch he saw from heralded Braves rookie SP Chuck James deep to right center. Though that was the only score of the inning, it was a sign of things to come. Nick would celebrate his nativity with a 2-4, 1 RBI, 3 run performance.

James struggled all night, and certainly didn't look anything like a potential ROY candidate. The Nats batters consistently worked themselves into good counts and drove up the Atlanta pitch count, tacking on two runs in the third inning and two more in the fifth. Those two runs, on Jose Vidro's annual second half homer, chased James, who threw 105 pitches in 4 and 1/3 innings.

Meanwhile, Perez cruised right along, retiring 16 consecutive Braves and tossing just 70 pitches through six innings. It's silly to read too much into one start. Teams often have trouble with pitchers they've never faced before. The Nats themselves have something of a habit of making mediocre rookies look like Cy Young. But in a season largely devoid of memorable pitching performances, it was exceptionally fun to watch a young pitcher come in, work quickly and throw strikes.

In a Minor Key

The Nats are reshuffling their minor league system. One day after announcing an agreement that will keep the High-A level Potomac Nationals in the fold for 4 more years, the Nats severed ties with the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs and the Low-A Savannah Sand Gnats. Replacing these two teams will be the Triple-A Columbus (OH) Clippers and the Low-A Hagerstown (MD) Suns. The two new affiliation agreements will run for two years. The status of the NY-Penn League Vermont Lake Monsters is still undetermined. As usual, Nationals Farm Authority has in-depth coverage.

From a player development perspective it makes sense to consolidate your farm teams geographically. It's easier to keep an eye on players, centralize control of the system, and move people back and forth between teams. As MLB orphans the ExpoNats ended up with many of their affiliates virtually by default, and had probably the most dispersed farm system in the league.

But they also had one of the most cosmopolitan systems, encompassing cities as diverse as Burlington, Vermont; Savannah, Georgia; and New Orleans, Louisiana. So even though I never got to see Mike Daniel swat a double in Vermont, watch Marco Estrada struggle through a start in Savannah, or cheer a resurgent farm system (and a resurgent city) in New Orleans, part of me will miss them all.

September 19, 2006

Two weeks left

Two weeks left.

I'm so bummed on so many levels. The end of summer, the coming of fall, the mindless attention to football....

Despite the mess, I'm sorry to see the baseball season go. September has been an awful lot of fun.

Starting with the labor day fun, the September games have been a blast. Soriano chasing 40/40. Say what you will (Nate) about it being a meaningless/arbitrary race, but it's such an accomplishment there is a night club named after it. According to their website.. ."“When we were thinking of a name, we wanted 
something exclusive -- the 40/40 Club in baseball is 
as exclusive as it gets,” said Jay-Z."

It's exciting watching a guy chase something that is so rare. Sometimes you have to have achievements like this to recognize special levels of play

Bos is having the same fun, pointing out Nick Johnson's great year. Soriano is, of course, also having a ground breaking year. We apparently have 5 patient guys who wait for their chance...

On top of all that, Chris Schroder strikes out all six batters he saw in relief on Saturday. For a pitching staff we all agree is a mess, we still have been seeing some great individual performances.

In September the boys are 9-8, including the Monday night game.

These may be games that don't count (as we have, in fact, been mathematically eliminated), but they are turning out to be a lot of fun. I'm dragging Watson and Nate out to the game Tuesday night.

September 18, 2006

Lazy Sunday

I caught Sunday's game with my folks and girlfriend. I figured the great weather would bring out more fans but I guess most people are in full football mode. The Nats looked pretty good, especially on the bases. Bernie Castro can flat out fly. It's amazing what a little speed can mean. When's the last time we had a bases-loaded single go for three rbis? At any rate the product on the field was stellar yesterday. Hopefully it's a sign of good things for next year.

It was also nice to see Fonzi get a standing O for joining the 40/40 club.

September 17, 2006

40/40 Vision

Congratulations to Alfonso Soriano for becoming the fourth member of baseball's 40 homerun, 40 steal club, courtesy of his theft of second base during Saturday night's win over the Milwaukee Brewers. Statistically Alf joins elite company, though these multi-category numerical landmarks are by nature fairly arbitrary. Had Mickey Mantle known that the 40/40 Club was going to be such a big deal, he might have stolen a few more bases during his four 40+ homer seasons.

I'll leave it to the sensibilities of the individual to determine whether a club whose membership consists of Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez is a group one should aspire to join, but none of that makes Soriano's achievement any less remarkable. What is depressing is that the most notable season in ExpoNats franchise history was put together by a player who looks for all the world like a one year rental. I doubt that Soriano's milestone makes it more likely that the Nats will go above and beyond to resign him. I don't know if the warm fuzzy he got from the achievement will make him more likely to resign. What seems almost certain is that the public pressure to bring him back will intensify tremendously.

Like it or not Soriano's dazzling season has made him the face of an otherwise moribund franchise. Devoted baseball fans can catalog Fonzie's shortcomings: his hack-happiness, his inability to hit in the middle of the lineup, his misadventures in the field. But casual fans see moonshots to RFK's distant upper decks and quick-as-a-wink moves from first to second. Ryan Zimmerman may be the future of the team, but Alfonso, for better or worse, is its present. It would be a serious mistake to mortgage the future to bring him back. But letting him go without making a genuine good-faith effort to resign him could be just as crippling. I don't envy Jim Bowden, Stan Kasten and Mark Lerner the difficult decisions that lie ahead.

Spare Parts

Speaking of offseason decisions, we are now more than two weeks into the September call-ups, the time when bad teams (like the Nationals) evaluate rookies and role players to determine who might compete for a spot with the club in 2007. The Nats have no heralded rookies above the A-ball level. (Apologies to Kory Casto, but see Federal Baseball's excellent analysis of his 2006 campaign in Harrisburg.) So this September is more about evaluating young veterans like Bernie Castro and Nook Logan, and scavenging for cheap bullpen arms.

On the position player front, the results are uninspiring at best. Bernie Castro has put up a frightening .239/.280/.310 line as the latest contestant in the "Please God, Anyone But Vidro At 2B" Sweepstakes, and his fielding around the bag has been equally "Meh." The one thing Bernie can undeniably do is run, swiping 5 of 6 bases on the season, 11 of 14 for his brief big league career. His speed and range make him an adequate backup second baseman, but his deficiencies as an everyday player and his inability to play any other positions make him a fringe bench player at best.

Exavier Prente Logan (which, if you ask me, is even better than Nook) is a slightly different story. All the usual small sample size disclaimers apply, but the guy has done alright. Compare Nook's 2006 line (16 games, 51 ABs) to Brandon Watson's career (35 games, 68 ABs)numbers:
  • Logan: .294/.339/.412
  • Watson: .176/.233/.265
Alright, so being a better hitter than B-Dub is a distinction on par with having the shortest rap sheet in the Cincinnati Bengals locker room. For a more interesting comparison, let's put Exavier's career stats up against ex-Nat Endy Chavez:
  • Logan: .267/.318/.346
  • Chavez: .270/.310/.376

Endy is having a much publicized breakout season as the Mets 4th OF, but his career line is decidedly Loganesque. There's no question that Nook's speed and range make him an asset patrolling the vast outfield expanses at RFK, and he has a few highlight reel catches to his credit already. If the Nats can resist the urge to try and turn Logan into Juan Pierre, Jr., Nook could be a serviceable youngish, cheap, slap-and-run #8 hitter.

And if the Nats are going to be the team to give Fonzie the 12-year, $436M contract he so obviously deserves, young and cheap are going to be key words for the next few years.

September 9, 2006

The Natosphere Has Ruined My Life

The less said about the opening games of the Rockies series the better. Don't believe me? Fine, go read these game recaps. But don't blame me if your eyes melt out of your skull like some sadistic Nazi henchman confronted with the awesome power of early 80s CGI.

Now that we've both got that out of our system, I want to direct your attention to the problem
du jour. And hard though it may be to believe, it isn't team defense. It's the Natosphere, that wacky, wonderful, ocassionally inspired collection of Nats blogs, citizen journals and message boards that make up our bitter yet resigned corner of teh interweb.

"But how can that be?" you cry. The Nats blogs (including the increasingly late, lamented
The Nats Blog,) are perpetual fonts of wit and wisdom, snark and substance, perspective and photos! Surely, no evil can come of their obsessive cataloging and analysis of all things Good and Natty!?!

Well, gentle reader, I'll tell ye. Consider, if you will, the representative case of Tom Boswell's latest
e-mail column, a spirited defense of chronically-abused OF Ryan Church. It is Boz at his 21st-century best, as fine a piece of baseball op-ed as you're likely to read in our fallen, Shirley Povich-less age. But here's the problem: it's old news.

OMG touches briefly on the problem. Tom said nothing any right-thinking Nats fan could disagree with, but he also didn't say anything that hasn't been written, repeated and assented to many times over here in Nats Nation, (not to be confused with Nationals Nation.) We've all been there, done that. Hell, we even bought the proverbial t-shirt.

"The Curious Case of Ryan Church" has been beat to death. His
stats have been scrutinized. Official pronouncements have been deconstructed and analyzed with Delphic fervor. Rumors have been mongered; if urine samples were readily available, someone whould have tested them. So it's an understatement to say that Boz comes a little late to the party.

And this is no isolated incident. Prior Boswellian pronouncements have included: "The starting pitching is terrible, and must be improved if the Nationals hope to be competitive." and "Golly, those stadium parking garages sure are controversial." Cutting edge stuff, right? It sounds like I'm picking on Boz, and that's not the point. The problem is much larger. In the face of relentless, compulsive blogging, the mainstream sports media has been measured and found wanting.

Now, before
Will Carroll calls to congratulate me on my conversion to the cause, let me clarify. I'm not suggesting that the blogosphere can or should replace newspaper, radio, TV and internet coverage of American sports. Blogs and their ilk are at best news aggregators with a heavy dose of personal opinion thrown in. But sports bloggers have the advantage of having the same raw material as sports journalists. When everyone can see the action on the field, interpretation is the ballgame, no pun intended.

Think about it. If you saw the game last night, and have only a limited amount of your bosses' time to waste, are you reading
Barry Svrluga, Mark Zuckerman, or Chris Needham? If you need a quick synopsis of a Nats prospect, are you digging through, searching for the Harrisburg Senators website or clicking over to the Farm Authority? When a big trade goes down, are you waiting for Dave Shenin's weekly chat, or do you turn to Federal Baseball for instant analysis?

So, the sports blogosphere is proliferating, and to my eyes at least, it's doing so at the expense of some tarditional, even venerated, media outlets. Is this a bad thing? Why are you asking me, isn't it fairly obvious I'm biased? But good or bad, it's definitely a thing worth mentioning. And that's more than you can say for the Nats these days.

September 3, 2006

A Labor (Day Weekend) of Love

Labor Day is, as Watson puts it, a "made up holiday". As such, I haven't really had all that much going on. My wife was sick Thursday and Friday, and worked Saturday and Sunday. Watson had plans, Nate a wedding, and many of my other friends were on the road. This left me with very little to, in general.

So I entered the weekend with two plans. The first was to be productive and catch up on the things that I hadn't gotten done in the past couple of weeks... this included several bits of paperwork, some email, etc. I haven't made much progress on this one.

The second plan was to watch a hell of a lot of baseball. I *have* managed to be pretty productive on this front.

Nate and I caught Thursday's game at RFK. A last minute lark, we actually were planning to sit in the stands and drink beer if the rains started. Instead, we watched the fantastic comeback that just made the night. Our buddy Carl from the row behind Nate and I joined in the fun. A comeback, 6-5.

Friday was the rainout, so I went into Saturday planning to watch baseball and work. Seems I mostly watched baseball. I watched 800 people watch a game on the grey afternoon, and a huge rally in the 9th. Comeback, 7-6.

In the evening, I watched more baseball. The weather was nicer, and I watched as the city saluted Livan one last time. He deserved it -- despite his 8th inning meltdown (which, this time, was in our favor), the guy was our first ace in this new chapter of DC baseball. Comeback, 4-3.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon, Watson and I caught the game at RFK this time. A much more full stadium, a much nicer day, but the story seemed the same. A 4 run rally in the bottom of the 8th. Comeback, 5-3.

What can I say? It's been a great weekend. I'm going to put Monday's game on the TV, and be at Tuesdays. For those of you feeling bitter, remember weekends like this. This kind of weekend is exactly the kind of great baseball weekend that makes you feel good to be a fan.

Watson and I also had the pleasure of meeting Miss Chatter on the way out of the game. Who could miss the Gary Bennett jersey? It was nice to meet you and Mr. Chatter, and Princess Chatter.