Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Go for the jugular

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Luis Atilano earned his sixth win with 5 1/3 strong innings.
Opportunities to sweep an opposing team shouldn't be wasted. Opportunities to sweep an opposing team behind the greatest pitching prospect in a generation simply can't be wasted.

The Nationals will take the field at steamy Nationals Park tomorrow afternoon riding a two-game winning streak, having twice beaten the Royals by a single run. Make no mistake: This will be as much of a must-win game for this team as any other this season.

Forget about trying to snap losing streaks or finishing a road trip on a high note. The Nats have the most-dominant pitcher in baseball outside of Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound tomorrow against one of the weakest opponents in the majors. This is where a good team goes for the jugular and puts the Royals out of their misery without ever giving them a chance.

The Nationals have tried their best the last two nights to give games away. Matt Capps pitched himself into a ninth-inning jam Monday night and he did it again tonight, somehow escaping without surrendering the tying run.

"It got a little hairy there at the end," Jim Riggleman said after a 4-1 lead turned into a 4-3 escape act. "But we'll take that."

Capps has danced with the devil often this season. But aside from one rough stretch three weeks ago, he's found a way to get the job done. Monday night, he put the tying and go-ahead runners on, then proceeded to strike out Yuniesky Betancourt and Mitch Maier in succession to preserve a 2-1 victory.

Tonight, he was summoned with a three-run lead in hand, allowed four hits that brought home two runs, then got Jason Kendall to pop out to end the game and secure league-leading save No. 22.

Go ahead and exhale, everyone. It's OK.

"I don't worry about the runs," Capps said. "It's nice not to have them score, but at this level, you're going to give up runs every now and then. I try to minimize the damage. Fortunately it came on a night where I had some runs to work with. ...

"The biggest thing to worry about is getting the third out before they get the third run."

Capps may not perform these closing duties the conventional way, but he does have the ... well, as Bill Raftery would describe it, the "onions" to come up big with the game on the line.

A blown save tonight would have been crushing, for several reasons. It would have squandered a couple of towering home runs by Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn, the latter of which ricocheted off the side wall of the batter's eye in center field, some 440 feet from the plate. It also would have squandered a fine outing by rookie Luis Atilano, who seems to perform admirably every time you're ready to think he's about to fall back to earth.

Don't look now, but Atilano is tied with Livan Hernandez for the lead among Nationals starters with six wins. Tonight, he managed to hold the Royals to one run over 5 1/3 innings, striking out five without issuing a walk. He also managed to overcome a vicious thunderstorm that came out of nowhere in the bottom of the fourth, sent fans and players alike scurrying for cover and forced Atilano to return to the mound after a 49-minute layoff.

He wasn't the same pitcher after the delay, but he was effective enough.

"I was pissed off when the rain started to come, because I was doing good," Atilano said. "But it happens."

Up three runs late, Riggleman tried to avoid using setup man Tyler Clippard, hoping Drew Storen could author two scoreless innings. But the rookie reliever got into trouble in the eighth and needed Clippard to bail him out.

Now, all of a sudden, the Nats may not have their full complement of late-inning relievers available for tomorrow's finale. Clippard and Capps have each pitched in high-stress situations the last two nights, and Storen threw 21 pitches in his inning-plus tonight.

"I was hoping to not use Clippard tonight," Riggleman said. "And if I finish that two with Storen, then I would not use him tomorrow. That was the plan, but it just didn't happen."

The best way the Nationals could ensure another escape act from a tired bullpen isn't required is to blow out the Royals tomorrow. With Strasburg on the mound against a weak-hitting lineup that has scored four runs in two days, they have to like their chances.

More importantly, a Nats lineup that pounded out 11 hits tonight but only pushed across four runs needs to put together a more-efficient performance against right-hander Brian Bannister (owner of a 5.70 ERA).

"[Strasburg] is going to give us a great chance to win tomorrow," Dunn said. "But if we don't score any runs for him, like his last start, it's all for nothing."

You said it, Adam. The pressure isn't on the Royals tomorrow. No one will expect them to make a dent into Strasburg's bullet-proof armor.

No, the pressure is on the Nationals to take this golden opportunity and seize it. Finish off a wounded opponent. Show no mercy. Complete a three-game sweep, then go up the road to Baltimore this weekend and take it to an equally inept Orioles club.

That's what good ballclubs do. The Nats insist they can be one. Let's find out if they mean it.

26 comments:

MurrayTheRed said...

Loving it!

Anonymous said...

Capps with a textbook Dirty Fuentes last night.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't put a whole lot of blame on Capps for those two runs last night. All of those four hits were either flukes or bloops. One of them just off Guzman's glove, another one the "swinging bunt". And Dibble may have a point about the outfielders playing deep in the no-doubles defense when they don't need to be, thereby leaving them vulnerable to bloop hits in front of them. It's not like Capps was missing his pitches and walking guys or leaving balls hanging last night. He did his job, but a few hits fell in. It happens.

Cardiac inducing? Sure. But so was Chad Cordero getting a one run save by getting three fly ball outs deep on the warning track. Successful closers walk the tightrope, always. They just somehow manage not to fall off way more often than not.

Big Cat said...

Thought Riggs did a good job. He took the bull by the horns in the 6th inning and wrestled him to the ground for the Curly. It got a little dicey.....but a W goes in the book. Manny would of left Atilano in until he gave up the lead, then he would of went to the pen.

Bowdenball said...

Really a great show from Atilano, especially coming out of the rain delay and getting into a bit of trouble, then working out of it wonderfully. I've been one of his biggest doubters since day one, basically waiting for the hammer to drop and for his peripherals to catch up with him. You have my word, I will shut up now.

Mark ... any chance you could get us an answer re: Peaches? Inquiring minds want to know. Or is that more of a Dan Steinberg thing?

N. Cognito said...

Anonymous @ 8:17 AM said...
"And Dibble may have a point about the outfielders playing deep in the no-doubles defense when they don't need to be, thereby leaving them vulnerable to bloop hits in front of them."

But it's Dribble. If the outfielders were playing at normal depth and someone hit one over their heads for a double, he'd have said the outfielders wre playing too shallow.

Slidell said...

Prescription for a Nats starter to get a win--- only give up one run. Let's hope Stras does that this afternoon.

Anonymous said...

But it's Dribble. If the outfielders were playing at normal depth and someone hit one over their heads for a double, he'd have said the outfielders wre playing too shallow.

Just because he changes his tune after the fact to cover his ass doesn't mean his original point was wrong. Whatever you do there, it's a gamble. But against light hitting, low power teams like KC there's a much bigger chance they'll bloop one in than bounce one off the outfield wall. Why isn't Riggleman positioning his outfielders to defend against the higher-probability play?

NatsJack in Florida said...

Atilano threw the ball better than any starter not named Strasburg since the season started. The 3/4 arm delivery allowed for a little more speed, alittle more movement and alot more command.

Here's hoping it wasn't a one night thing.

His mental make up has always appeared tough but his physical mechanics have been inconsitant until last night.

Like I said... here's hoping.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Clippard just chose Peaches because he likes the song.

Richard said...

Yeah, most of the hits of Capps were dinks and bloops, but the one off Guzman's glove was a bullet. Anyway, Capps deserved better the way he was pitching, as Riggs noted afterwards. BTW, Kilgore in today's WashPost has his usual snide comment about the Nats, this time it's about Capps: "Capps ... could show up at a dance recital and find a way to get the tying run to the plate." Is it just me that thinks Kilgore shouldn't be a sports writer for adults, that maybe twittering to teenagers would be a better fit for him?

Big Cat said...

Come on guys, the Royals are a major league team with guys that can hit the ball over the fence. They aren't playing a mid school team. I heard Dibble popping off and he was wrong. You have to play you outfield back.

One strategy I don't like however is putting your 3rd and 1st baseman right on the foul line to guard against the extra base hit in late innings. Leaving those gaps in your defense will hurt you more than it will help you.....in my opinion

Bonnie Jo said...

1. Is Ubaldo Jimenez really BETTER than Strasburg, or just more experienced?
2. Anyone else hoping against hope Stras can get through 9 (okay, 8 more realistically) with his +/- 90 pitches this afternoon? We saw him go 7...

The Joker: Ever dance with the devil in the pale moon light?
Matt Capps: Well, now that you mention it, yes!

Jaxpo Nat said...

Dibbles complained that we were playing so deep against the "light hitting" Royals, citing that they hadn't hit many balls over our heads all series (to which Carp chimed in "None!"). Well hmmm... why might that be? Why haven't they hit a ball over our heads? BECAUSE WE ARE PLAYING DEEP! There have been several in the series where Morgan and even Willingham caught balls running full speed backwards. The point is they caught them. The point is they caught them only because they were playing deep. Sometimes Dibble needs to bite his tongue. He doesn't need to fill every second of dead air with the first thing that pops in his head.

A DC Wonk said...

Three comments:

1. Successful closers walk the tightrope, always. -- is that true? Just because Chad Cordero also did it too, I'm not so sure. Clippard certainly seems to completely shut down the bats he faces. (Does Mariano Rivera walk a tightrope?)

2. Atilano -- one of the things I like the most: in his last four starts he has 14 K's and 4 BB's.

3. And Dibble may have a point about the outfielders playing deep in the no-doubles defense when they don't need to be -- but I thought they *did* need to be! Bases were loaded and it was a three run lead. A double ties the game up. When you play your fielders back, it takes two singles to tie. When you play your fielders regular, it just takes one double to tie.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Bowdenball: "Peaches" started out as a joke when Clippard was in the minors. But he realized he actually liked the song, and teammates and fans agreed, so he kept it. Definitely one of the most distinct entry songs in the majors.

Anonymous said...

Is it just me that thinks Kilgore shouldn't be a sports writer for adults, that maybe twittering to teenagers would be a better fit for him?

But if he did that then how could he play to his only strengths, spelling and grammar? Teenagers don't get writers who are so punctilious about such things.

A DC Wonk said...

Is Ubaldo Jimenez really BETTER than Strasburg, or just more experienced?

This season:

Jimenez is 13-1 with a 1.15 ERA, BA-against .185, WHIP of 1.00 -- he has a no-hitter, and his "worst" game is one where he pitched 6 innings and allowed 3 ER. He's pitched 7 innings or more 10 times out of 14 starts.

Stras is 2-0, 1.86 ERA, BAA .155, WHIP 0.78

Certainly, Jimenez is more accomplished this season. He's started 14 times without any bad games.

And, just as certainly, Strasburg has compiled a better record, but a fairly small sample size, and we don't know, e.g., if he can go 14 straight starts without a single bad game.

OTOH, if we look at the bigger picture: to even compare Strasburg, a 21 yo rookie with 3 starts, to Jimenez, is pretty heady stuff for a Nats fan! I'm not going to complain if Strasburg is only the "second best" pitcher in the league in his rookie year!

Steve M. said...

I am concerned that Storen is a one inning guy. That game could have gotten ugly. Gutsy outing by all the relievers and that new guy Peralta.

I agree that the Mad Capper ran into some 9th inning bad luck. Capps I think hit 95 on the radar gun and the accoustics in the stadium were crazy last night. It sounded like 105. Pudge's glove popped.

Also, Adam Dunn's HR to centerfield was so loud off of the bat that you could hear the HR.

The scariest moment of the game I thought was Billy Butlers blast off of Clip to dead center that Nyjer caught at the wall.

HHover said...

Steve M - Two things to remember about Storen:

1. Storen has been in the majors for a month. Let's not jump to any conclusions.

2. If his future role is indeed as a closer, then being a 1-inning guy is pretty much what he's supposed to be.

Bowdenball said...

Thanks, Mark. Pretty funny.

rogieshan said...

Riggleman could've saved Clippard last night if he hadn't been so quick to take Peralta out of the game after the latter faced only one batter and induced an inning-ending double play. By bringing Storen in early he only increased the likelihood of needing Clippard.

A DC Wonk said...

Riggleman could've saved Clippard last night if he hadn't been so quick to take Peralta out of the game after the latter faced only one batter

A fair point -- although Peralta was due up in the 6th -- there was a runner on base -- and so Gonzalez pinch hit for him. So, Riggs would have had to either let Peralta hit, or used the double-switch when he brought Peralta in, but 6th inning is kinda early for that. (Just thinking out loud here . . . )

Thoughts?

Ones and Fours said...

Does anyone know what happened with Jesse English? He seemed to be playing well before they sent him down.

Dryw said...

Ones and Fours, I've been wondering EXCACTLY the same thing. I was impressed with him, and even though I understood the reasoning for sending him down, I kind of wonder when we're going to see some more of him!

alexva said...

@Dryw &Ones and Fours - you'll see more of him if they lose confidence in Burnett or Slaten. For the time being however, he is on a rehab assigment in the GCL

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