April 17, 2012
Wouldn't you know it, the Washington Nationals are having their best-ever first two weeks of the season since moving to D.C. seven years ago, and I've been too swamped with other duties to properly document it! I definitely have been keeping up with the games, and I really wanted to see a game during their initial home stand, but that will have to wait until May, I'm afraid. But even from a distance, the Nats' superb 9-3 record (as of earlier tonight) is still immensely enjoyable. It is especially satisfying for those of us loyal Nats fans who suffered through the grim years of 2006-2009, when they routinely racked up terrible win-loss records early in the season. (See table below.)
Stephen "The Phenomenon" Strasburg took the mound at Wrigley Field on Opening Day (Thursday, April 5), and pitched splendidly for seven innings, giving up only one run. The Cubs' Ryan Dempster did even better, however, and the Nationals had to scrounge runs in the eighth and ninth innings to win the game, 2-1. In both that game and the next game, on Saturday (which the Nats won), an unknown bench player named Chad Tracy provided clutch hits that made the difference.
Then the "D.C. 9" flew to LaGuardia Airport for a three-game series against the Mets, who have also had a surprisingly good early season. The Nats dropped the first game, 4-3, as relief pitcher Henry Rodriguez made a throwing error that gave the home team the winning run. But the visitors bounced back and won the next two games, as Nats shortstop Ian Desmond hit a home run (his first of the year), continuing his early-season hot streak at the plate. Meanwhile, Jayson Werth's bat finally woke up, as he went four for five in the Nats' 6-2 win on Tuesday. On Wednesday the 11th, Strasburg won his second start as the Nats blanked the Mets 4-0, thus pulling even in the race for the National League Eastern Division. The big downside in that series was the Nats' repeated failure to get hits with runners in scoring position. In Wednesday's game they scored one run each in the final three innings, but two of those were walks with the bases loaded, and one resulted from a groundout. The Nats ended up with a horrendous 14 men left on base. But as they say, "A win's a win."
Thursday April 12 marked the Nationals' home opener, hosting the Cincinatti Reds, and everything was going fine until the top of the ninth inning, when the visitors scored twice to tie the game, 2-2. That was a disappointing debut in Washington for the recently-acquired former Phillie relief pitcher Brad Lidge. (See below.) But it ended on an upbeat note in the tenth inning, as Ryan Zimmerman was hit by a pitch, then advanced to third base, and finally scored the winning run when Reds pitcher Alfredo Simon threw a wild pitch. On Friday the 13th (!) the game was tied 1-1 all the way into the 13th (!) inning, when Jayson Werth batted in the winning run. On Saturday, Nats pitcher Edwin Jackson threw a stupendous nine-inning two-hit game, which the Nats won 4-1. On Sunday, fortune tipped the other direction, as the Reds hit a grand slam in the first inning, and had a 5-0 lead going into the bottom of the fourth, when the Nats bounced back with three runs. By the end of seven, they had tied it 5-5, and for the third time in the four-game series, it went into extra innings. Usually reliable Tyler Clippard came in in the 11th inning, but he wasn't feeling well that day, and Joey Votto sparked a three-run rally by the Reds. In the bottom of the 11th Wilson Ramos came to the plate with runners on second and third, and it looked like another amazing comeback when he crushed a line drive down the first base line, but Joey Votto grabbed the ball and threw it to the pitcher to end the game.
On Monday the Houston Astros came to town, and this time another young unknown player led the way to victory. Steve Lomdardozzi, filling in for Danny Espinosa at second base, went four for five including two RBIs. Ryan Zimmerman batted in another two runs, and the Nats won, 6-3. In tonight's game, Gio Gonzalez, another top-notch pitcher acquired in the off-season (see below) performed masterfully. Over seven innings, he struck out eight batters and only allowed two hits and two walks. The Nats scored only once, in the fourth inning, when a bloop single to left by Adam LaRoche allowed Jayson Werth to make it home from second base. And that was all they needed to win that game.
Since the Mets lost to the Braves tonight, the Nats now have a game-and-a-half lead in the NL East; for the past several days, the Mets were exactly one half game behind. It's the first time the Nats have had the distinction of leading the division outright since July 20, 2005.
Little by little, without many outside people noticing, the Washington Nationals have put together a team that can make a serious run for the postseason. If they can get that far without Prince Fielder, whose salary demands were just too high, it will reflect very favorably on General Manager Mike Rizzo and the Nats' front office. They did acquire the services of two top-notch pitchers over the winter, Edwin Jackson and Brad Lidge.
Right fielder Jayson Werth may finally live up to the sky-high expectations that came with his multi-million dollar contract in December 2010. He currently leads the Nats in batting average, .362 (17 for 47), but has yet to hit a home run this year.
Ryan Zimmerman has not been hitting very well thus far, but his fielding at third base is as superb as ever. For a consistent superstar like him, it's only a matter of time before he starts hitting on a regular basis.
Ever since the Opening Day game in Chicago when he got three hits, Ian Desmond has been performing like a real star in the batter's box. When he was first acquired, he was expected to be more of a slugger than a fielder, but over the past two seasons he has been known primarily for his defensive prowess. Likewise for his partner on the other side of second base, Danny Espinosa.
First baseman Adam LaRoche has been making several clutch hits for the Nats, likewise living up to the expectations of before his injury last summer. Similarly for center fielder Rick Ankiel, who dazzled the crowd in D.C. on Sunday afternoon by catching a long fly ball with the bases loaded and no outs, and then throwing a strike to home plate from 300+ feet away, preventing the runner on third from scoring. That play stifled what could have been a game-changing rally. Here are the position players:
* One of the worst pieces of news for the Nationals this spring is that their big slugging star from last year, Michael Morse, will remain on the disabled list for at least six more weeks. Morse signed a two-year contract with the team earlier this spring, and I wish it had been for a longer term. Mark DeRosa (formerly of the Atlanta Braves, the Richmond Braves, etc.) and Xavier Nady will be filling his shoes in left field. Morse was playing "rehabiliation" games for the Nats' Class A affiliate in Hagerstown, Maryland, but aggravated his strained back muscle in a game on Monday. See MLB.com. Morse switched between first base and left field last year, and now that first baseman Adam LaRoche is healthy once again, Morse will (once he returns) play almost exclusively in the outfield. Get well soon, Michael!!!
The Nationals' pitching is arguably the very best in all the majors this year, with an aggregate ERA of only 1.91. (The next best team, pitching-wise, is the Texas Rangers, with a 2.36 ERA.) Here is the starting rotation, and each pitcher's current ERA:
Gio Gonzalez earned a stellar reputation with the Oakland A's (see Dec. 31), but Edwin Jackson is more of a question mark. Among other potential starters, Chien-Ming Wang, who made a solid comeback late last season but re-injured himself this spring, is expected back in the rotation in the next few weeks. He would presumably displace Ross Detwiler back to the bullpen -- unless Detwiler keeps up his performance, that is.
Meanwhile, it was a sign of the times that former Nationals pitching ace John Lannan did not even make the team's 2012 starting rotation. He pitched all right in spring training, but the competition was just too fierce. He even asked to be traded, but no team expressed interest, so he will remain with the farm system for the time being. With the Syracuse Chiefs thus far, he is 0-2 with a 13.50 ERA. Ouch! I have seen John Pitch before, and I know he capable of doing a lot better, so I hope he returns to the big leagues soon.
The Nats' bullpen is almost as good as their starters, even though their closing pitcher from last year, Drew Storen, is out for at least two months after having surgery on his elbow. See MLB.com.
Back in late January, the Nats signed former Phillie reliever Brad Lidge to a one-year contract worth $1 million. At the ripe old age of 36, he may only have a few years left in his career, but aging pitchers often prove their worth. Lidge will join Drew Storen (once he heals) and Tyler Clippard in making one of the best bullpens in the majors; for the time being, he is serving as substitute closer in most recent games. As noted at MLB.com, "As recently as 2008, Lidge was one of the best closers in baseball, helping the Phillies win their first World Series title since 1980."
For teams that are used to finishing toward the bottom of the heap, it is customary to rationalize early-season disappointments by insisting that the April standings have no real bearing on the year as a whole. This year is quite different. No one can predict what injuries or freakish twists of fate that may take place between now and September, but all indications are that the Nats are real, that they are solid in just about every position, and with plenty of depth to boot. We have all been expecting the Nats to become postseason contenders in the next year or so, and we may get our wish even sooner than we thought. Yes, sports fans, baseball in Washington this October is more than wishful thinking, it is a very strong likelihood!
The following table compares the Nationals' record during the first twelve games for each of their first seven seasons in Washington with their cumulative percentage for the year. It's only a rough correlation, but there is a definite pattern:
|Year||First twelve games (W-L)||Season total (%)|
As the Nats were playing against the Mets up in New York, I updated the Citi Field diagrams. It now has more accurate renderings of the new (shorter) outfield fences and "Party Deck" seating area that were installed prior to this season. Some great fan photos on Baseball Fever show that the fence in front of the new section has a slight bend, so I included that. In addition, the upper decks in left field are set back about 8-10 feet each, and the arched bridge over the bullpens has been moved back a little bit as well. For the time being, I decided to color the section of dining tables in front of that bridge red, but I may make it pale gray again in the future. More and more ballparks these days have such dining sections (such as the "Red Porch" at Nationals Park), so I'll have to come up with a consistent way to represent that. The other changes in the Citi Field diagrams are fairly minor in nature.
Among other diagram updates that are in the works, I am having a hard time figuring out the geometric logic behind the curved perimeter walls at Marlins Park. I'll have something ready by this weekend at the latest, but further updates may be required later on.
There are some very important stadium anniversaries this month, including one in Los Angeles: Dodger Stadium (built in 1962) has officially reached the half century mark! Maybe that has something to do with how well the Dodgers are playing this year; they are 9-2, the best record in the majors. (Just barely!) From one of my Facebook friends, I learned that retired pitcher Orel Hershiser is behind a campaign to renovate Dodger Stadium for the 21st Century. Somebody is proposing to double-deck the right-field pavilion and remove a large part of the upper deck down the third base line. See latimes.com. To me, that sounds like heresy, or maybe it was just an April Fool's joke. The image in that story is obviously a Photoshopped picture of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Finally, big-league thanks are long overdue to Jack Courtney, who has kindly renewed his sponsorship of the U.S. Cellular Field page. I'll be back to hustling for sponsorships and advertising in another three weeks or so, when the spring semester ends.