Twenty-two outs into last night’s game, it looked for all the world that the Nationals were barreling towards defeat, unable to do much of anything against Reds starter Bronson Arroyo. Seemingly wanting to flee Nationals Park like Bobby Petrino from a crash-scene, as quickly as each Nationals hitter came to the plate, he found himself slinking back to the dugout with haste. Then the genius of Dusty Baker struck.
Although Arroyo was only at 94 pitches, and had set down seven straight hitters, Dusty pulled him in favor of lefty Bill Bray with one out in the bottom of the eight. Now, I understand that the Nationals had sent up the left-handed hitting Chad Tracy to pinch-hit, so you might be inclined to say Dusty was just going by the book. Problem is (if you are a Reds fan), Dusty reads the Berenstain Bears Play Ball. As soon as Bray came into the game, Davey Johnson pulled Tracy back and replaced him with righty Xavier Nady, who promptly tied the game at 1-1 with a solo shot to left.
Four scoreless innings for both teams followed Nady’s heroics, which set the stage for Jayson Werth to drive in the winning run in the bottom of the 13th. It was interesting, no depressing, to read this morning that Werth’s walk-off hit was his first in a Nats uniform. Good for him. Last season was that rough.
Game ball(s): Werth. He was the only Nat with more than one hit and his second of the night drove in the game-winning run. That’s sort of important.
Goat(s): Thank you Dusty!
Bryce Harper is not as far off: Jordan Zimmermann. He was stellar for seven innings but walked away with a no-decision because Arroyo thoroughly stymied the Nationals for 7 and 1/3 innings. And he is on my fantasy team. Poor guy.
Current Record: 6-2
Last season, the nation’s capital nearly saw something happen it hasn’t witnessed in a long time – someone breakeven. That someone, or something, was the Washington Nationals, who by finishing 3rd in the standings posted their best finish ever in the National League East Division at 80-81 (one rain-postponed game against the Dodgers was never made up). Not since their 81-81 inaugural season in 2005 have the Nationals come so close to a .500 finish, and last year they had Livan Hernandez soaking up 20 percent of the starts. Thus, it was no surprise this off-season that GM Mike Rizzo’s major initiative was to upgrade the starting rotation, while shoring up one of baseball’s best bullpens.
While the consensus is that the Nationals lineup has holes, especially an inability to get men on base (more on that tomorrow), many pundits are still predicting that the Nationals will contend for a playoff spot on the basis of a retooled rotation and strong bullpen. Let’s breakdown the pitching staff and whether it is truly playoff-caliber.
Stephen Strasburg – After making only 5 September starts post-Tommy John surgery, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding how Strasburg 2.0 will fare. Does his velocity reportedly being down a tick matter? How quickly will he recover his pin point control, which usually is a short-term casualty of the surgery? And will he recover his ability to induce ground balls at close to a 50 percent clip (it was near 40 percent last season, albeit in a very small sample). Despite these unknowns, the safe money is still on a sub-3 ERA, even with several bumps along the way.
Jordan Zimmermann – The second member of Washington’s Tommy John club, it is not unreasonable to think that Zimmermann may be the best pitcher on the staff this year. He possesses four plus or near-plus pitches and impeccable control; if he can just bump up the strikeout rate a tad, there doesn’t appear to be much between Zimmermann and elite status.
Gio Gonzalez – While I suspect that the Nationals overpaid for Gio, I think a move to the National League will help to continue to mask some of his warts (cough, walks way too many, cough). And while undoubtedly he represents an upgrade, I expect Gio’s ERA to be closer to 3.8 than 3 this year, which will leave many more sharing my suspicions at the end of the season.
Edwin Jackson – He looks almost every part the front-line ace he was supposed to blossom into all those years ago in LA. But he has settled into who he is, which is a strong #4, decent #3 starter, who eats innings with the promise of a sub-3 ERA but rarely the results because he is a bit too hittable and a bit too generous with the free passes. However, since the Nationals are slotting him in as their fourth starter, at $10 million this season, DC has seen plenty greater wastes of money.
John Lannan/Chien-Ming Wang – The final spot in the rotation ostensibly belongs to Wang, but since Wang’s constitution is about as strong as Carl Pavano’s manhood (I keep my promises), Lannan will start the season in his place. Both are about as exciting as a bologna sandwich, but since two sandwiches are better than one, the only way you can hate on this combo for less than a combined 12 wins is if you hate America.
Drew Storen – There is little doubt that Storen is an elite closer. Drew’s slider makes right-handed hitters buckle and cry like John Kruk ordering cake. But his tender elbow makes me worry that the Washington Tommy John Club Card is going to get another hole punched. And if that happens, the status of the bullpen’s excellence will come very much into question.
Tyler Clippard – At some point, probably this season, Clippard is due for a bit of regression. He’s good, but not quite sub-2 ERA good. Plus, he’s been ridden more than Seattle Slew the past 2 years, which makes me worry (hey, I’m an auditor) about his ability to remain on the mound and effective, which is so vital to the Nationals season this year.
The Rest – One of the best things about the Nationals pitching staff this year is the depth of their bullpen. With the addition of Brad Lidge joining the likes of Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, and Ross Detwiler, the Nationals have a very strong mix of righties and lefties, short and long-men who can bring a lot of peace to a manager’s mind. And there is even bigger upside if we all just close our eyes and click our heels three times…
If (and it is a big one) Rodriguez could ever find a bit more control, he and his triple-digit heat would quickly vault to near-elite status. If Burnett can bump his k rate back up close to 1K/IP, the Nationals could well lock down left-hander batters. And if Detwiler can continue to claw his way back to his first-round draft promise, the Nats would possess the league’s best swing-man and an obvious upgrade to the bologna sandwich combo.
While expecting all or even one of these wishes to come true is foolish, even without the leaps, it is fair to expect this bullpen to be one of the reasons the Nationals have a decent shot at a playoff spot.
To realistically compete for the NL East crown or a wild-card spot, the Nationals will have to make at least an 8 win improvement on last season. And despite all the preseason optimism, that’s not going to be easy. The good thing is that the pitching staff appears to be talented enough, and perhaps more importantly, deep enough, to carry out their end of the bargain. I’m realistic enough to expect that at least one of the arms the Nationals will be counting on will not nearly live up to expectations (Storen and his sore elbow and Gio and his penchant for free passes come to mind). However, strictly on the basis of the pitching staff, the Nationals do appear poised to make a run at the playoffs. Will the rest of the team make that run a successful one? Find out tomorrow as we preview the hitters and make a final prediction for the season.
OMG! Have you heard the latest? Leonardo DiCaprio and Bar Refaeli have called it quits! Those two vowel loving birds, I was sure they were going to make it. Well, at least the Nationals pulled one out in extras last night. Otherwise, I was sure this was going to be a LMN marathon evening. Sniff.
Putting aside the Kleenex for a moment, last night’s 7-3 win in 11 innings over the Braves was a wonderful testament to the resiliency of this year’s Nationals squad. Down two in the top of the ninth, facing flame throwing Craig Kimbrel, and the Nats string together two hits and a walk before Alex Cora’s single plated two, knotting the game up at three apiece.
Then, in the top of the eleventh, the Nationals put on an offensive burst that secured the victory, as Ian Desmond and Jason Werth’s bats both came alive with a two-run double and home run, respectively. Tonight, the Nationals go for the sweep with Jordan Zimmerman squaring off against Derek DUI Lowe. Let’s hope for a little pre-game we are being swept celebration from the Braves.
Game ball(s): Alex Cora. Pinch hit two-run single to tie the game up. Can’t ask anymore from the veteran “scrappy” slap hitter.
Goat(s): Kimbrel. With all due respect to Cora and his veteran scrappiness, you gave up the lead to Alex Cora. I don’t care what Fredi Gonzalez says. Your hold on the Braves closer job is tenuous.
Bryce Harper is a long ways off: Maybe not. Harper went 4 for 5 yesterday with a grand slam. He extend his hitting streak to 15 games and is now slashing a cool .396/.472/.712. It may be Single-A but Harper is going to be mega.
Current Record: 18-18. I shall refrain from celebration. That didn’t work out so well the last time.
Last evening, before the start of the Nationals series opener against the Florida Marlins, I happened to come across this nugget buried at the bottom of Jon Heyman’s latest column:
Perhaps the Nationals ought to consider locking up manager Jim
Riggleman. Washington has stayed afloat without its best pitcher
(Stephen Strasburg) or best position player (Ryan Zimmerman).
Kudos to Riggleman.
As if on cue, the Nationals then went and gutted out a 3-2 extra innings victory over the Marlins, despite whiffing an incredible 15 times.
I’m not going to pretend that it was all pretty to watch. It certainly wasn’t. But coming off a sweep at the hands of the Phillies, the Nationals needed a victory in the worse way, and got it thanks to a dominating relief effort from Tyler Clippard, yeoman’s work to plate the winning run in the top of the tenth, and a little Harry Houdini from Drew Storen and Sean Burnett to close out the game.
Lately, I have wondered how the Nationals can be expected to win games with an offense demonstrably missing its best piece (the Nationals are currently next to last in batting average in baseball, hitting only .226) and other critical pieces either struggling and/or hurt (LaRoche) or just plain struggling (Desmond and Espinosa). Well, we saw how last night, with a scrappy offensive effort and another superlative effort from the Nationals pitching staff.
As Riggleman said after the game, “We kept scratching and clawing.”
Game 32 Natties
Game ball(s): Tyler Clippard. Two innings. Six batters. Six strikeouts. Wow.
Goat(s): John Buck. The Marlins catcher missed a sign while on third in the bottom of the fifth on a non-bunt by Ricky Nolasco, resulting in Buck, and potentially the winning run, getting tagged out in a rundown.
Bryce Harper is a ways off: Jordan Zimmermann. Another sign of life from Zimmermann, whose six strikeouts represented a season high. Still waiting for a breakout performance, but maybe the increasing whiffs are a sign it is near.
Current Record: 15-17
short-lived as a Lindsay Lohan (oh excuse me, Lindsay) rehab stint. For two
games, one could claim the Nationals were playing good defense and the bullpen
was rock solid. Not so much anymore after yesterday’s 11-2 implosion against
Nationals never really threatened much offensively against Tim Hudson, you
could easily argue that going into the top of the seventh only down 3-1, the
Nationals were still in the game. Then Nationals starting pitcher Jordan
Zimmermann left the game and the Lindsay groupies took over. Eight runs and two
innings later, the game, once close, turned to a rout.
That Brian Broderick
(who was making his major league debut) and Chad Gaudin (who has appeared
generally miserable in over 200 games) were less than stellar hardly shocks the
system. But for the Nationals to have a reliable bullpen this year beyond
Burnett, Clippard, and Storen (who should find his way there quickly), the team
can’t have Todd Coffey and their second left-hander Doug Slaten pitching like
they did yesterday.
With a career xFIP*
of 3.93, I don’t worry too much about Coffey. But with a career xFIP of 4.74, I
think Slaten’s 3.10 ERA last year was a bit lucky. If that’s true, the
Nationals may be playing with only one reliable lefty out of their bullpen, a
position that will cost them games down the road.
Game 3 Natties
Game Ball: Tim Hudson. Dominated for seven
innings, as the Nationals could only stand at the plate and eek out soft ground
balls and harmless pop ups.
Goat: The Nationals bullpen. Coffey, Slaten,
Broderick, and Gaudin turned a relatively close game into a rout. Unless you
have a bookie problem, that’s not supposed to happen.
Bryce Harper is a ways off: Jordan Zimmermann. Kept a solid
performance together for six innings without his best stuff.
Current Record: 1-2
Fielding Independent Pitching. It measures what a pitcher’s ERA should have
looked like over a give time period, assuming that performance on balls in
play, timing, and home run rate were league average.