Batter UP!!! Opening Day 2011 is here!
Along the Tidal Basin in Our Nation's Capital, the birds are singing and the cherry trees are in full bloom, just as the Washington Nationals prepare to play their first game of the season, at home. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, baseball has returned at last! Starting pitcher Livan Hernandez will face the Braves' Derek Lowe early this afternoon, with chilly weather in the forecast. Oh, how I wish I could be there... (Maybe this weekend?)
Unfortunately, President Barack Obama decided not to attend the Opening Day game as he did last year.
UPDATE: Livan Hernandez had a quality outing, pitching six plus innings while only giving up two runs, but Derek Lowe did even better, as the Braves prevailed, 2-0. (At least it wasn't as bad as last year's crushing 11-1 loss at home to the Phillies!) Both teams hit safely exactly five times, and for the second year in a row, Jason Heyward hit a home run on his very first at-bat of the season. This game was the first time since 1990 that Bobby Cox was not managing the Braves; his replacement, Fredi Gonzalez, got off to a fine start.
Hopes rise for the Nationals
We fans of the Washington Nationals have gotten used to the annual ritual of fleeting hopes for modest improvement, followed by crushing disappointment. I always say, a bad season in Washington is better than no baseball at all. But how long can such forgiving sentiments prevail until the franchise starts to lose money, in which case ... Well, let's not go there.
The good news is that there really is a lot of good news this spring, and the Nationals have good reason to finish much better than in the last couple years. After a very promising start to the 2011 pre-season, the Washington Nationals fell into a seven-game losing streak, and then they rebounded, finishing with a 15-14 record. See MLB.com.
One Adam (Dunn) has been replaced at first base by another Adam (LaRoche), who presumably will perform better defensively, while getting a fair number of hits at the plate. LaRoche had an MRI exam on his shoulder, where there is a slight tear in his rotator cuff; that may cause him to miss some games. (MLB.com) The Nats are looking better all the time in this category.
- First Base -- Adam LaRoche: skilled veteran of uncertain value.
- Second Base -- Danny Espinosa: high hopes for this young hustler.
- Shortstop -- Ian Desmond: fine hitter, gradually improving defensively.
- Third Base -- Ryan Zimmerman: near perfect in almost every category.
- Catcher -- Ivan Rodriguez: future Hall of Famer still has the "fire."
Ryan Zimmerman missed several games because of a strained groin, but he should be OK by now. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez had a sore calf, and was ably backed up by Wilson Ramos. I was sad to see that they "reassigned" Jesus Flores, because of nagging shoulder problems. That's not a good sign at all. He was a very promising rookie two years ago, and then suffered a shoulder injury from a foul ball that practically ruined his career. The Nationals recently traded their solid infielder Alberto Gonzalez to the San Diego Padres for a minor league pitcher named Erik Davis.
The outfield may be even more promising this year, with two former All-Stars joining the team. The big news this month was that Rick Ankiel beat Nyjer Morgan for the starting center fielder position. After that decision was made, Morgan was traded to the Brewers for Cutter Dykstra, a young infielder. Michael Morse fell into an 0-for-16 slump, but still managed to hit eight home runs during spring training, a good sign that he will continue his 2010 upsurge.
- Left Field -- Michael Morse: this guy was very impressive last year.
- Center Field -- Rick Ankiel: another solid veteran who recently joined the Nats.
- Right Field -- Jayson Werth: the Nats' prize acquisition, a superstar slugger
Fans were disappointed that the Nationals front office was not able to get a top-of-the-line starting pitcher during the offseason (Matt Garza was their main target, evidently), but there is a good deal of potential in their current staff. True, they did get former Cub Tom Gorzelanny, but his performance in recent years has been quite shaky. Pitchers who suffered injuries last year -- Jason Marquis and Jordan Zimmermann -- seem to have recovered, but not Chien-Ming Wang, apparently. Marquis had a rough outing against the Mets recently. Here is the projected starting rotation:
- Livan Hernandez: the always-reliable workhouse is back for more.
- John Lannan: had a nice comeback last year.
- Jordan Zimmermann: recovering from Tommy John surgery.
- Jason Marquis: recovering from a bone chip in his shoulder.
- Tom Gorzelanny: newly acquired from the Cubs; ????
Overall, the bullpen situation remains "fluid." Drew Storen is slated to be the closing pitcher, but he may trade off in that role with Sean Burnett. Tyler Clippard was the Nats' best relief pitcher last year, and much is expected of him again.
The future: bright!
Of course, everyone hopes that Stephen Strasburg will be ready to pitch by the end of this season, but the Nationals have no choice but to proceed very cautiously with him. Another (presumed) future superstar, Bryce Harper, was ranked #1 among baseball's Top 100 Prospects, according to baseballamerica.com. Home run expert and loyal associate Bruce Orser has very high hopes for Harper, and he is not alone.
The Nationals drafted a pitcher named Brian Broderick via "Rule 5" provisions (don't ask me), after the St. Louis Cardinals in effect released him during the winter. He had a great outing against his former teammates, and will be contending against Craig Stammen and others for a spot in the bullpen. His specialty is the sinking fastball. See the Washington Post.
Finally, two youngsters hit home runs for the Nationals in Florida last week: Jeff Frazier and Brian Bixler. Who knows where their future may lie?
Chase Field update: at last!?
This is not exactly new news, but the Chase Field diagrams are now up to par, with several significant corrections to the perimeter of the field as well as the exterior structure and the profile. Actually, I had released this diagram update nearly two weeks ago, but what with teaching duties and analyzing the legislative redistricting in Virginia and all, I just didn't manage to announce it. That leaves only one more current major league stadium in need of major revisions: Safeco Field. Fortunately, I've made great progress on that one.
Many thanks to Jack Courtney for renewing his sponsorship of U.S. Cellular Field, where former National (and Red) Adam Dunn will soon be swatting balls out of the park for the Chicago White Sox.
Strike Three review
Rough crowds out there
Thanks to Facebook friend Bruce Bartlett, I came across an interesting (and opinionated!) piece on "The Meanest Fans in America," at GQ.com. You want to guess which city's fans have the roughest reputation? Triple click over the next line:
The Philadelphia Eagles and the Philadelphia Phillies.