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Sunday, June 7, 2009

End of May/Beginning of June update - lots of rain, lots of losses, few bright spots

So it's been almost two weeks since I last blogged about the Nats. Truth be told, I just didn't feel like doing it. Miserable weather and even more miserable losses by a team in search of itself. Just very uninspiring for me.

The Nationals finished the month of May with an 0-6 roadtrip, losing three straight to the New York Mets and then three straight to the Philadelphia Phillies.

They came home and began the month of June with a victory, beating the San Francisco Giants 10-6, then had another rain postponement and played their first day/night true doubleheader on Thursday, June 4th, which also had it's share of rain and delays.

The Nats fired their longtime pitching coach, randy St. Claire, who had been with the club since the beginning (and before, having worked for the Montreal Expos) and replaced him by promoting their AAA Syracuse pitching coach Steve McCatty.

San Francisco Giants pitcher Randy Johnson celebrated his milestone 300th career victory by beating the Nats on June 4th, during the afternoon game of the double-header. At least the Nationals didn't have to endure the ignominy of experiencing this in San Francisco, as they did when Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's career home run record. Then the Nats lost the night game as well.

So the Nats took 1 of 3 from the Giants, and then 1 of three from the visiting New York Mets.
They won the Saturday night game, 7-1. June 6th, 2009 will be remembered by most as the 65th anniversary of D-Day, but Nationals fans will remember it as Nats starter John Lannan's first career complete game, throwing only 96 pitches over 9 innings. The Nats won 7-1 and had home runs from Nick Johnson, Adam Dunn, and Elijah Dukes. That's a game that I would have loved to attended but, alas, my ticket plan didn't include that night. The weather was pretty sweet, too. Not to take away anything from the Nats, but Mets starter John Maine had something of an off night, which helped.

The next day, however, the Mets struck right back and took advantage of Nats starter Craig Stammen's horrible first inning. Stammen did his best Cabrera imitation, throwing wild pitches, and the Mets took immediate advantage, going up 5-0 before the Nationals even got to the plate. The Nats lost 7-0, and instrumental in their defeat was the starting pitching of former-National Livan Hernandez, and former National (and one of my favorite Nationals of their short history) Ryan Church. Former National catcher Brian Schneider also did his part to hurt the Nats. It sure still hurts to see the three of them wearing New York Mets uniforms.

I did have tickets for the Sunday game, and the weather was okay, but I was seriously achy from a long workday on Saturday, and I just had a bad feeling about how the game would play out. Little did I know how right I'd be.

I've said all along that I'm not a "fair weather" Nationals fan, and I'm not (hey, I still ahve season tickets, don't I?), but I go to the games to have fun and enjoy myself. I don't relish long rain delays, especially on a work night, and I don't relish being outnumbered by Philly fans or Mets fans all the time when those teams come to visit. The Nationals are on pace to lose 118 games right now, and it's just painful to see, especially after last season's 102 loss campaign.

I'll go to at least one of the Cincinnati games this week, provided the weather isn't completely awful.

I just hope that the college draft on Tuesday turns out to be a great one for the Nats, a red-letter day in their history. We shall see.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pirates/Orioles week summary

A tough week for the Nationals, and a dismal homestand which ended on a nice note.

Nationals vs. Pirates

The Nats only took one of four games, avoiding a sweep but they missed some chances.

Monday, May 18th: Pirates 12, Nationals 7

The Nats 2007 first-round pick Ross Detweiler's debut was a good one, striking out six batters and having no walks. After the game, there was a question as to whether or not Detweiler would go back to the minors or have another start. Fortunately, the club decided to keep him around.

Nick Johnson had a 3 RBI night and was walked three times. Both he and Ryan Zimmerman had homers.

The Nats were down 3-0, then went up 5-3 in the 5th, only to allow five runs in the 6th. They had a chance to stay with the Pirates, being down 9-6 going into the 9th inning, but then they fell further behind, allowing three runs.

Garrett Mock got the blown save and was awarded the loss.

Tuesday, May 19th: Pirates 8 Nationals 5

Shairon Martis had a shaky outing, but the Nats stuck with the Pirates and tied things up 5-5 in the 9th on Adam Dunn's 12th home run of the season. Sadly, they lost in the 10th inning when reliever Joe Beimel walked three batters and allowed three runs. Beimel just hasn't been the same since he returned from the disabled list. I hope that he gets it together soon.

Wednesday, May 20th: Pirates 2, Nationals 1 (THE 100th GAME AT NATIONALS PARK)

I went to this game with high hopes. The weather was flat-out GORGEOUS for baseball, clear blue sky, 75 mild degrees and low humidity. Honest-to-goodness, this is the sort of night that you just pine for over the winter, dreaming of.

Hard to believe that they've already played 100 games here at Nationals Park. I guess 100 games isn't so many, but it seems like the park just opened yesterday to me.

John Lannan pitched another good game, allowing only one run, striking out five and only walking two.

The game was tied, 1-1, going into the 9th inning, and the Nats brought in Joel Hanrahan, who has struggled mightily all spring, and he threw an astounding 35 pitches in the 9th inning, 23 for strikes, but the one fateful pitch that he threw went wild and allowed the Pirates the go-ahead run from third.

At least the weather was nice.

Thursday, May 21st: Nationals 5, Pirates 4

Finally, the Nats notch a victory and avoid a second, consecutive sweep.

25 year-old rookie Craig Stammen had a good start, and the Nats may have found their fifth starter for the rest of the season, since Scott Olsen is on the D/L and Daniel Cabrera is banished to the bullpen.

The Nats briefly lost the lead in the 7th inning, but regained it in the 8th for good. Joel Hanrahan had a pleasingly uninteresting top of the 9th to nail down the victory.

Nationals vs. Orioles - "The Battle of the Beltways"

The Nationals have a pretty even record in Interleague play, and last year they split their two series with the Baltimore Orioles. The Nationals are trying to turn the Orioles series into a big, regional rivalry, but as former Orioles and Nationals Manager Frank Robinson remarked a couple of years ago, unless both clubs are winning, then there really can't be much of a rivalry. Still, Nats fans get appropriately irritated at Orioles fans who disrespect the National Anthem when performed in our park, but at least they come and spend a lot of money there.

Friday, May 22nd: Orioles 4, Nationals 2

Jordan Zimmermann pitched another beauty, striking out seven, walking one, and only allowing two runs. The Nats were tied 2-2 and took that situation all the way to 12 innings (in almost regulation time, though). Jason Bergman, Ron Villone and Joe Beimel all performed well out of the bullpen, but the Orioles managed to get to Kip Wells in the 12th, scoring two runs.

Ryan Zimmerman's 2-run homer was pretty much the highlight of the game for the Nats.

Saturday, May 23rd: Orioles 2, Nationals 1

Ross Detweiler got his second start and he performed well, striking out four and only allowing one run, though he did walk four batters. With the exception of Cristian Guzman's solo homer, there just wasn't much Nats firepower, though they did have seven hits.

The one, great Nationals highlight of the game will be Centerfielder Justin Maxwell's leaping snag of a long fly ball by Oriole Adam Jones to rob him of a certain home run. "J-Max" used all of his 6'5" body and long arms to time his leap to the centerfield wall and reach over the wall to snag the ball at the precise moment. A great moment for him, and one of the Nats defensive plays of the year.

I went to this game, and a personal highlight for me was simply getting to run into so many friends, including beer vendors Neal and Howard. Anyone who has followed this blog for more than one season knows who they are, but in short, they are two of my favorite ballpark people. I've run into Howard at Orioles Park and Raven Stadium, and I've encountered Neal at FedEx Field. They are just great guys who I always enjoy talking to. Along with Coach Ron Simms, Ellie and Roy, Susan, Mr. Charles, James, Ed, and so many others, they make my games a lot more fun.

You know, I still haven't attended a Nats win this season. I think that they've lost every game that I've gone to. Maybe I'm short-term-memory-impaired, but I just can't remember one.

Sunday, May 24: Nationals 8 Orioles 5

The Nats avoided the sweep with a big game by Adam Dunn, who had the first 6 R.B.I. game of his career, and despite a shaky start from Shairon Martis, who allowed seven hits, five runs, and walked two. He also allowed one home run and only struck out two.

The Bullpen of Ron Villone, Joe Beimel and Joel Hanrahan was essentially perfect, allowing no hits no walks and therefore no runs.

Adam Dunn had two home runs, the second being a Grand Slam thanks, in part, to some clever managing by Nats Manager Manny Acts, who with men on first and second, decided to have Cristian Guzman sacrifice to move the runners and then gambled that the Orioles would walk Ryan Zimmerman to get to Dunn. Dunn responded just as every Nats fan hoped that he would. Considering that both Guzman and Zimmerman were both hitting over .300 and Dunn was hitting in the .260's (I believe) this was a particularly gutsy move which paid off.

The Nats are 13-30 and are done at home for the month of May. Now they're off to New York to take on the Mets

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday sweep and weep: Phillies complete weekend series, take 4 of 4 over Nats 8-6.

Lackluster. Just lackluster.

Today the Nationals lost their 4th in a row to the Philadelphia Phillies, 8-6. The Nationals led the game from the second inning through the 7th, but a bizarre error in the 8th inning led to three Phillies runs and their victory.

Despite the Phillies starter, Chan Ho Park, exiting the game in the second inning (having thrown an absurdly high 63 pitches). He was charged with five runs and had four walks. I thought that this was good news for the Nats, knock out the opposing teams starter and work on their weakened bullpen. Sadly, it didn't work out that way.

The Nats starter, Jordan Zimmermann, had another shakey start, allowing five runs and 3 walks, but composed himself and struck out 6.

The Nats just cannot seem to hold a lead. Today's was another 8th inning collapse. I won't even go into Jésus Colomes bizarre throwing error which cost the Nats the lead. It's just too depressing to discuss.

In the bottom of the 4th inning, Bob Carpenter and Rob Dibble on MASN were discussing the President's Race, and "Teddy"'s continued woes in that department. Carpenter said something to the effect of, "It gets harder to watch every day".

He could have been speaking of the Nationals continued losing.

Well, so long to the Philadelphia Phillies (and their fans...) for a while, and hello to the team from the other end of Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose record isn't nearly as good as their friends from across the state. Ross Detweiler will take the mound for the Nationals. It should be a good game.

My "Sunday Sermon" on rivalries

There really ought to be more of a sense of rivalry between the Nats and the Phillies. After all, they are our closest National League rivals, and their record against the Nats over the past five seasons is seriously dominating. The Nats have been able to play spoiler to the Phillies in some recent years September games, but I suppose a real rivalry, such as the Phillies have with the New York Mets, won't happen until the Nationals are much more competative. It is certainly a much more natural rivalry than the Nationals have with the Baltimore Orioles. That "rivalry" is a tad contrived, as it is really more of a battle for the hearts and minds of regional baseball fans. It made more sense when the American League Washington Senators played Baltimore frequently each season. The Orioles have a longer and more storied history than the Nationals, they play in what is widely regarded as one of the premier ballparks in baseball, and they get frequent visits from the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two of the oldest and most popular sports franchises in the world, which guarantees them some sellouts and lots of interest from the D.C. area. I would hope that the Nationals presence in Washington, D.C. allows fans of other popular and storied National League franchises, such as the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, who happen to live in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia or elsewhere within a two hour or so drive, the chance to see their teams in person.

So the Philadelphia Phillies, who are already 6-2 versus the Nats this season (as I type this, the Nats are leading the Phillies 6-5 in the bottom of the 7th) are the most natural choice for a rivalry. Once the Nationals start winning, and start selling more season tickets, that will help to keep Nationals Park from feeling like "Citizen's Bank South".

(Incidentally, Bob Carpenter on MASN just showed a graphic which demonstrated that in terms of average, runs per game, home runs, and extra base hits so far between these two clubs in 9 games this season, the Nationals stack up very well against the Phillies. Yet the lopsided disparity continues.)

It isn't any wonder that the Phillies fans overrun our ballpark. Team President Stan Kasten is savvy enough to know that a ticket in Philadelphia is hard to come by, especially since the Phillies are the defending World Series Champions, so he's encouraged Phillies fans (and fans of other teams) to come to Nationals Park and spend their money there and fill some seats. Kasten took some criticism for that but, really, it's a smart business move. Our NBA Washington Wizards (née Bullets) were marketed that way for years - "Come see Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers", or "See Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls", or "Watch Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics". The appeal of the other teams was greater than that of the home team.

Everybody loves a winner, especially in this, the most highly politicized town in the country, so until the Nationals lead the National League East, we can expect more of the same.

How will the Nationals achieve this? Primarily through pitching. Pitching, pitching, pitching. They have some good young arms in their system, and are bringing up more. They are bringing one of their best young prospects, Ross Detweiler, up to begin the Pirates series tomorrow evening. I hope that he earns a rotation spot.

I didn't intend this to be a roundabout way to bring up presumptive #1 college draftee Stephen Strasberg, but it's as good a time for me to weigh in on the Nationals expected decision to draft him as any.

I am 100% in favor of them drafting Strasberg. They need to draft him, offer him whatever Strasberg's agent, Scott Boras, asks for (supposedly 6 years, 50 million dollars) and get him signed. He could be up with the Nationals for a game or two in September, far too late to really help them but enough time to spark fan interest in off-season ticket sales.

Top pitchers put fans in the seats. I still regret not trying harder to see the Nationals/Astros game at R.F.K. a couple of years ago when Roger Clemens was here. Sure, they beat us, but Clemens would have been worth the agony of the defeat just to see him pitch.

Strasberg has had an amazing college career and Olympic stint. He won't need years in AA or AAA to prepare for the majors. If his signing could increase fan attendance at home every five days or so by even 10%, wouldn't that be worth the cost?

I know that better baseball minds than mine have cautioned against drafting Strasberg. It has been pointed out that no college pitcher drafted #1 has gone to the Hall of Fame. But things change. Exceptions are made. Chances are taken, gambles are done. I think that Strasberg is worth the risk, if for no other reason than the Lerner family and their partners have to demonstrate to the fans their willingness to spend money on quality players. They cannot risk getting the reputation of being "cheap" owners. They are building conservatively and cautiously (perhaps too cautiously for some) but they are in the business of building and when something is being built for permenance, it pays to be careful and cautious. It's cheaper and better to do things right the first time. I would much rather have a champion built well, which is competative for years and years than one which is bought and built through pricey free agents, which might collapse soon after (i.e. Florida Marlins model in the '90's).

Then we can really take it to those pesky Phillies and let the rivalry truly begin.

Nats rally hopes washed out in 6th as game called due to rain. Phillies 7, Nats 5

I was looking forward to returning to the ballpark tonight. You heard me correctly. Despite the losses, there's still magic for me in attending baseball games. It was Saturday night, I was meeting up with a friend, and it was "Jackie Robinson Day", with every player wearing Robinson's #42 and fans wearing #42 white and blue buttons.

The forecast had been for rain at various times of the day, and it had rained briefly after the 1:05 game and before 6:00. I was starting to think that team president Stan Kasten was working his meteorological mojo again, but his magic wore off around 9:20 in the top of the 6th inning as what seemed like a monsoon arrived and halted play for the night.

I found my buddy Myron over at The Bullpen across the street. There was live music there, but the rain was coming down, so the tent was completely packed, Despite that, there were plenty of people who looked as though they were having fun. Sadly, most of them looked like rowdy Phillies fans. I guess I can't blame them for being cocky - their team is the reigning World Series Champions, and they'd just beaten the Nats earlier in the day, and the previous night, but I cannot use the word "gracious" to describe them.

We entered the ballpark through the Centerfield Plaza and went to find people we knew. Our friend Neal, a beer vendor, wouldn't be there as he was working the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico racetrack in Maryland earlier. We found our friend Ellie, and spent some nice moments catching up with her (and drying off in the process) Ellie is a complete sweetheart and she always tells me the nicest things about the people she works with. She really loves her job, and whatever else anyone criticizes the Nationals organization for, they cannot convince me that the club isn't stocked with decent, kind, hard-working folks. For some time now, Ellie has labored without the benefit of knowing what was going on during the game unless she heard the crowd roar or something like that. Back at R.F.K. stadium, she had T.V's around her to keep track, but she hasn't had one at the new ballpark. That finally changed, and she has a nice flatscreen T.V. to keep up with what's going on. Very kind of the powers-that-be to provide that for her, she deserves it.

We ran into some other friends and chatted with them as well. I looked for our old buddy Howard, beer vendor extraoirdinaire, and eventually I saw him, but wasn't able to go and chat with him. He left when the rain hit.

The game itself was pretty good through five innings, with the Nationals trailing 7-5, they'd rallied to put a scare into the Phillies and their fans. In the top of the 6th inning, though, the Phillies looked as though they might break the game wide open, as they had the bases loaded and no outs when the rain storm arrived around 9:20. Myron and I hung around until about 10:15 when we decided to leave and I was going to drive him home. The game was called at 10:52, so we made the right decision to leave. One always worries that such decisions are premature and hasty. I'd have been mortified (though elated) if play had resumed and the Nationals continued to rally and win.

Starter Daniel Cabrera has had an awful spring. He's started eight games, and is 0-5. Manager Manny Acta believes that Cabrera is improving, but he's still had problems with his control (I think he still leads the National League in wild pitches so far this season, but perhaps not any longer).

I realize that I haven't been saying much (if anything) about the opposing players, and that is an oversight, but really, most of them I don't know enough about to comment on them intelligently, but I can say this: The Phillies Raul Ibañez is this season's Nats-killer. His teammate Ryan Howard is bad enough, with all of the homers that he hits against the Nats, but Ibañez is the Nats reigning nemesis.

Thanks to my friends and "summer family", even when the Nats lose, my Saturday nights can still be special.

"Tax-Day" postponement brings bad news to Nats: Phillies 8, Nats 5

I had tickets for this game, a 1:05 makeup game of the April 15th rain game, but as usual, I had to work. I gave my tickets to a friend, though.

I didn't miss much, except a late Ryan Zimmerman homer and an 8th inning three-run rally.

Starter Scott Olsen allowed six runs (five earned) and it turns out he was pitching injured, with shoulder and ankle problems. I have to respect Olsen's work ethic and dedication. He knew that he had to pitch as long as he could to spare the bullpen, which had been depleted the previous night, and there was still a night game to be played. Sadly for Olsen, he is now on the D/L.

Friday Night frights: Phillies 10, Nats 6 in late innings

This was a nice little battle as the Nats and Phillies traded the lead, and it looked as though the game would come down to the bottom of the 9th as the Nats, trailing by two, tied the game 6-6 on a Willie Harris slicer down into the right-field corner, forccing extra innings.

Unfortunately, this is where the weakness of the Nats bullpen became apparent. They managed to hold the Phillies scoreless in the 10th and 11th, but the wheels came off of the bus in the 12th as the Phillies scored 4 runs and the Nats couldn't score.

Starter John Lannan only allowed three runs, and one walk, and struck out two. He pitched well enough to win, though.

*Sigh* Welcome home.

Song of the moment - Celebrating the longest homestand of the season

Survey of the Moment