Saturday, April 24, 2010

Altered expectations

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Adam Dunn doubled in the fifth but struck out three times after that.
Holding court in front of his locker following a gut-wrenching, 4-3 loss to the Dodgers in 13 innings, Willie Harris had a somewhat surprising take on the events of the previous 4 hours and 20 minutes.

"That game, I think it shows you who we are," Harris said. "We're never going to give up. We're right there."

This upbeat take, remember, came after the Nationals lost a game they very easily could have won. They stranded 15 men on base. They had three more called out on the bases, two at the plate. If they did just one or two little things better, they'd have been celebrating a hard-earned victory over the two-time NL West champs.

But a Nationals club accustomed to losing and losing and losing over the last four years is starting to look at its situation in a new light. This wasn't a moral victory by any means. But the attitude inside the home clubhouse following a game like this would have been far different in 2008 or 2009.

"As far as the way we feel in here, it's aggravating, because we expect to win," Harris said. "We're not in rebuild-mode in our mind. We expect to win now."

Sometimes, blowout losses when your starting pitcher can't get out of the first inning are easier to swallow. What can you do? Nip-and-tuck losses like this, boasting all sorts of defensive wizardry, quality pitching and aggressive baserunning are harder to accept.

"Oh yeah, most definitely it's a little aggravating," Nyjer Morgan said.

Morgan was front-and-center for several of the afternoon's key moments, some positive, some negative. His RBI single in the eighth off Dodgers closer Jonathan Bronxton tied the game, and his double to right off Carlos Monasterios in the 13th nearly tied it again.

But this game will be remembered more for Morgan's questionable baserunning in the sixth, when he attempted to stretch a double into a triple but in the process wiped out a run by Craig Stammen.

Because Morgan was tagged out at third before Stammen crossed the plate, the run didn't count, and the Nationals failed to take a 3-2 lead they might have held to win the game in regulation.

"I was being aggressive, but not intelligent," Morgan said. "My thought was, they were going to try to shoot Stammen out. I should've stopped about halfway, but I was locked in. I had tunnel vision, and not understanding the situation there. I have to be a little bit smarter there in that situation."

Members of the Nationals coaching staff agreed. If Morgan was going to try to draw a throw to third, he should have pulled up and gotten himself into a rundown, buying time for Stammen to cross the plate.

"I don't know what he's thinking, but if they throw the ball home, he walks into third," third base coach Pat Listach said. "If they throw the ball to third, he's got to stop, let him cross the plate first."

Morgan was only one of three Nationals players who made outs either at third base or at the plate in this game. Ian Desmond got caught in his own rundown in the seventh, costing his team a run. And Ivan Rodriguez was thrown out by the width of a gnat's eyelash at the plate on Desmond's grounder in the 13th.

It's nitpicking, perhaps, to harp on those plays. Any of them could have gone either way, and if any slide in safely, they're applauded for their aggressiveness. But if the Nationals truly believe they're ready to compete with the best MLB has to offer, they can't afford to have three runners thrown out like that in a game like this.

There's a small margin for error for this team. Look at how many things they did well today, yet they still lost.

"If you play like that -- if you play the way we played there, and we've
played like that a lot -- you're going to win your share of ballgames," manager Jim Riggleman said.

Unlike their predecessors, these Nationals actually believe they can (and should) win games like this.

14 comments:

K.D. said...

Mark, Thanks for the insight. I wasn't able to watch the game today, appreciate the imput. Will have to catch up on MLB.com

Anonymous said...

I was at the game, and didn't think you could fault Desmond or Pudge on the plays where they were out trying to score. (Desmond maybe, but off the bat I thought that ball could've been a DP if he hadn't gone.) Nyjer's play was the more egregious one.

They did play a very good game today -- excellent defense, and Stammen and the bullpen were solid. There were precious few games last year when they played that well.

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me said...

Great analysis, Mark. I couldn't make it to the game, couldn't watch it on TV, caught a bit on the radio in and out, but your account makes me feel I was right there for all the action. Keep up the great work. You're a pro.

Doc said...

Great article MarkMeister! Critical, yet lots of heart. The teams that win, have players that 'think out' what they are executing. Some of it's experience. Hope the coaching staff is helping them in the process. As Yogi would say, if you do what's right, you can't go wrong--you can look it up!

natsfan1a said...

Certainly a frustrating loss. Perhaps more so because of the feeling of potential now.

dale said...

Among the many frustrating things about this game were the number of times we had runners on third base with zero or one out and failed to score. There were so many ways to win this game and so many failures to do so.

I enjoyed watching a very well pitched game with lots of defensive plays made. Desmond is proving again and again that he is saving outs at his position with his range and arm. Gonzales played a flawless third base.

Aeoliano said...

Improvements start at the top and they do seem to be propagating down into the minor league farm system at this point. Pitchers down in AAA and AA have to be pushing at pitchers up in the majors. Left hander Aaron Thompson was promoted to Syracuse to replace Atilano and had a good performance. Guys like Wilkie and Erik Arneson have been pretty awesome so far. Its not just Strasburg and Storen. You can't help but think something good is happening right now before your eyes.

natsfan1a said...

On the defense front, I also liked Willie Harris' catch at the wall in the 11th, and his diving catch in the 13th.

Richard said...

I think Willie has proven to the Nats he CAN play RF. And how about the great job at 3rd that Gonzo is doing in Zims absence!!

Anonymous said...

Need another non-slumping bat or two in that lineup. That and four more starting pitchers and we've got a team.

Bote Man said...

I saw a man named David Ward skulking around Nats Park with a film crew. Something about a project named Major League.

I don't know.

Knoxville Nat said...

"That and FOUR more starting pitchers and we've got a team."

Hey there Anonymous, your post would indicate that we currently only have one pitcher in the rotation worthy of his position. Would you care to identify him for the rest of us as I believe both Livo and Stannen have pitched well this year and based on past performance would want to keep Lannen in there as well. Who are you throwing under the bus?

Positively Half St. said...

Mark-

The story on Thompson and the first success of Atilano get me thinking of C-M Wang again. We have heard little about him since the initial splash of having the Chinese media coalesce around him. If he is to come back around June 3, that would mean that he should be a couple of weeks away from pitching minor-league rehab games.

Any updates on Wang, Mark?

Mark Zuckerman said...

Postively Half St. -- As I've written before, Wang is getting ready to face live hitters in Viera. He should start a rehab assignment in early-to-mid May, then hope to come off the DL sometime in June.

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