Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Just one loss, but a recurring theme

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Livan Hernandez's uncharacteristic wildness cost the Nationals tonight.
DETROIT -- The veteran right-hander couldn't find the strike zone during one laborious inning that did him in. The lineup could only muster two good swings against the opposing ace, and unfortunately both came with the bases empty.

There wasn't much else to tonight's 8-3 loss to the Tigers. This one boiled down to Livan Hernandez's uncharacteristic wildness and Justin Verlander's dominance against a lineup that was mostly overmatched (aside from Adam Dunn and Roger Bernadina's solo homers).

And there's no shame in that. Justin Verlander is supposed to beat Livan Hernandez most times they face each other.

But it becomes a bit more disturbing when this happens in the middle of a growing stretch of poor games by a Nationals squad that not long ago was being touted as one of baseball's biggest surprises but suddenly is playing like a last-place team.

Did you know the Nats have now lost 20 of their last 31 games? Yep, since reaching the high-water mark of 20-15 back on May 13 in Colorado, they've played at a .355 clip. They've been stuck in last place in the NL East for the better part of two weeks.

"Earlier, I thought we had run into some bad luck. Things weren't going our way," Jim Riggleman said. "But we've played about the way our record indicates. That's about what we are right now. Our record says it."

No one's debating that point. The Nationals are a team capable of playing good baseball on any given night. They just don't seem to play good baseball more than a few times a week, especially when Stephen Strasburg isn't on the mound.

Hernandez had been a model of consistency all season, truly giving his team a chance to win every time he took the mound. So tonight's performance might well have been a one-time occurrence. Still, it was frustrating to watch. A guy who usually has little trouble finding the strike zone issued six walks, his most in more than three years.

Worse, three of the free passes came in the second inning alone, leading to a four-run rally that put the Tigers ahead for good.

"I was a little surprised how it happened in the second," Riggleman said. "If they hit him, they hit him. But for him to walk people, that's very uncharacteristic."

Hernandez was at a loss when trying to explain what happened.

"In that inning, I tried to throw a strike," he said. "The slider goes outside. The curveball goes inside to a right-hander. The sinker goes down. I tried to figure it out, and it wasn't happening. This happens sometimes to a lot of pitchers, and today it happened to me."

Somehow, the Nationals still were in the ballgame in the seventh inning, trailing 5-3. And they had hit a couple of bombs off Verlander early, with Dunn crushing a 95 mph fastball 427 feet to center field and Roger Bernadina belting another 95 mph heater well over the right-field fence. But both of those homers were solo shots, adding to the frustration.

"He's not going to give me a pitch like that with runners on base," said Dunn, who has 15 homers this season, 11 of them solo homers. "That's what people don't realize. I can't pick and choose when I hit a home run. And if I could, I would have zero solos every year. Pitchers, they want to get quick outs and sometimes they mess up. You usually don't get the same pitches with runners on. And it's even harder when you get runners in scoring position."

Perhaps that explains why Dunn is 0-for-26 with two outs and runners in scoring position this season. Then again, Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .348 (8-for-23) with two doubles and two homers in similar situations.

Zimmerman only came up once with a man on base tonight: in the sixth with Cristian Guzman on second and one out. He proceeded to strike out on a high fastball from Verlander that registered 101 mph. Eat your heart out, Strasburg.

Zimmerman has known the Detroit right-hander for years. They both grew up in Virginia and once faced each other in college, when Verlander was at Old Dominion and Zimmerman was at UVA.

"He always pitched on the weekend, but when Virginia went down to play Old Dominion, he pitched on a weekday because I guess it was their whole season to beat us," Zimmerman recalled. "That was his junior year, and he was throwing 100 then."

So chalk this one up as a predictable loss to one of the sport's best pitchers. But the Nats haven't been beaten by aces every night.

"We're definitely not playing as good as we were," Zimmerman said. "We've been battling. But for as bad as we've played, we're four games under .500. Win tomorrow, go back home three games under .500 and go from there. The goal is to be within striking distance in July and August, and then anything can happen."

Fair enough. But if the Nationals are going to get back to within striking distance, they're going to need to start getting some more consistent performances from everyone on the roster.

For the season's first six weeks, this club played good baseball on a fairly regular basis. Over the last four weeks, it has played sub-par baseball on a fairly regular basis.

It's up to these guys to prove this recent stretch is not a true indicator of this team's true ability.

33 comments:

Cwj said...

Well, at least they aren't the Orioles :)

Kenz aFan said...

After going 20 and 15 in their first 35 games, the Nats have a record of 11 wins and 20 losses in their last 31 games.

Rizzo and company's lack of action is bordering on unbearable. They don't even look like they're even trying to work on fixing any of the Nats starting pitching problems.

No more, in Rizzo we trust, because it's closer to Rizzo is a bust.

I doubt the Nats will have 100 losses this year, but any good feelings I had that they would be closer to 80 than 90 losses is going out the window.

Anonymous said...

Whoah, hold up. Right now they're in a bit of slump, they'll probably get better, let's not judge too soon. In addition, I think by any measure, compared to the team of last year this one has been a resounding sucess, so far. It is almost unheard of for a team to improve from the nationals position last year, to .500 or above. They've made great strides this year, and it seems as if Rizzo has been doing his job well. It looks like they have a bright future ahead. Just relax and watch some baseball :).

Dryw said...

Thinking back to yesterday's post about the exact nature of this team's problem, I think it's not so much that they're an average team as that they're an inconsistent one. I feel pretty safe in saying that Zim, Dunn, Pudge, Willingham, and Strasburg are above average players. Other than last night, Livan has been above average. Before he got hurt, Olsen was above average. With an extremely limited sample size, Morse has been above average. Desmond is still young, still improving, but I'm willing to (anecdotally, without crunching stats) put him on the above average list. That's a sizable number of above average players.

But what's been lacking is just the consistence. Starting line-up has changed regularly, as has the pitching rotation (well, mostly just guys getting hurt there). Both Zim and Dunn have had some definite hot and cold streaks, and Zim and Pudge have both missed some playing time. At the beginning of the year, we got some things to align better (if Dunn was cold, Zim was hot, and Livan was pitching), whereas now we're not (in a typical Livo start this year, three runs would have been enough).

Average or not, this team is still miles ahead of last year, and if they can just get things falling back into place, maybe the record will show that.

Big Cat said...

You can only whip a race horse for so long before he eventually gives out and stops running. The Nats had been running on fumes for a long time and now the talent level has come home to roost. In a loooong 162 game season, the starting pitching, or lack of should I say, will show. We had a little hot streak where we played above our heads but the cream is rising to the top and the sludge is settling to the bottom......again

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me said...

I think it's time to put the flush to Tony Plush. He seems lost at the plate, and increasingly is just average in center field. Move Bernie to center, insert Morse in right (platoon him with Willie Harris at times if you must, Riggs) and bat Goozie first and maybe move Bernie up to the second spot. This 11-and-20 mark lately is more than a slump. This is reality. We're fortunate the Phils and Braves are treading water, or we'd be 10 or 12 games back.

Kevin Trainor said...

Linked at Beltway Baseball.

Big Cat said...

But its major league baseball in the nations capital and I will root for the home team. If only we could call back Dick Bosman and Camilo Pascual for one last summer. Maybe bring back Streak Stroud and little Timmy Cullen for a couple weeks to pump life into this listless team.

Anonymous said...

It's been a painful stretch of games... the starters were keeping us in every game for awhile, but now that's not happenin'. We're finding ways to lose (like the ole' days).

As far as Rizzo not doing anything to bolster the starters, he already has... they're in rehab: Zimmermann, Wang, Olsen, Marquis. I'm not sure Lannan even makes the starting rotation when everyone is healthy (IF everyone is healthy).

A DC Wonk said...

... as the man says: you're never as good as it looks like when you're on a hot streak, and you're never as bad as it seems when you're on a cold streak.

Another way to look at it: when you go from two-time worst team in baseball to making the postseason, you have to pass through "average" and "inconsistent".

As for the complaining about Rizzo, I have two comments:

1. Rizzo had a complete mess on his plate when he took over. In short order he cleaned up the Dominican Republic mess, successfully negotiated with Boras over Strasburg's contract, revamped the _entire_ bullpen, acquired Pudge. Folks -- he can't do _everything_ in one year. The Nats don't have a lot to offer other team except prospects, and their philosophy at this time (and I agree) is not to give up prospects.

2. We have a strong nucleus, most of which are age 25 or less: (Zim, Dunn, Hammer, Desmond, Strasburg, Storen, Clippard) and a bunch of _potential_ pitchers, only a few of which have to pan out in order to make some significant improvements on the team (Zimm, Wang, Olson, Detwiler, Marquis, etc.) Rizzo deserves credit for many of those pitchers, too.

As for the running on fumes comment -- I think that's exactly why Riggs is trying to give playing time all around . . . so that when August/Sept roll around, we'll be fresher than other teams.

Yes, yes, it's frustrating . . . but we're nowhere near the Orioles in terms of suckitude this year (as we were last year, and the year before). And I strongly suspect that we'll shake out of these doldrums soon.

320R2S15 said...

Nice post ADCW. Total agreement. I have a question though and it might seem trite, but why are several of our hitters setting up so far off the plate? Zimm and Desmond in particular, I realize that we have a great hitting coach and all, but ALL pitchers go outside to Zimm, and he can't reach the black from where he sets up....It frustrates me, but then again I'm just a fan.

Doc said...

There's lots to believe in with this team. They've lost starting pitching to the DL, which they counldn't afford to do. Once Jimmy Riggs figures out that Morgan isn't the CF/basestealer/hitter that we all hoped that he would be we can get a competitve lineup out there, with RB in CF and Morse in RF.

It's also time that we gave Gonzo another chance at 2nd base--neither Guzman, nor Kennedy are his fielding equal there. Guzman's hitting, while that's debatable, from many different statistical angles.

Managers that don't adapt to on-going changes on the field, are usually managers that get fired. Rizzo, is doing/has done a very credible job in most areas.

LoveDaNats said...

Actually I don't know if it's my imagination, but Zim looks different at the plate this year....even the way he's holding his bat. Anyone else think so?

Anonymous said...

Right now, Desmond, Bernadina, Morse and Strasburg are gaining valuable experience. Nyjer has got to improve in all aspects, we hope he has it in him. Pudge, Zimmerman are great on defense & holding their own on offense. Dunn and Willingham have improved on defense & streaky to good on offense. Bench is adequate. Pitching is where we can and should improve with people getting healthy. No, jumping ship is not an option for me.

Pauloyd said...

I agree Riggleman needs to make some positive adjustments. That is his primary role as manager.

Rizzo has been great so far but he hasn't made a trade in an extremely long time despite all the chatter. One good move could be huge. For example, back when the Mets traded mid-season for Mike Piazza they were an improving, but average meddling team. By the next year, contenders.

Also, Rizzo should read the SI article about pitchers and luck and realize the Craig Stammen should probably still be in the rotation.

Anonymous said...

Possiby if they shifted from aiming to "play good" to aiming to "play well" the improvement in grammer might make them feel smarter and play even "gooder"!

Bowdenball said...

What we need now is a bunch of Willie Harris jokes to lighten the mood.


My neighbor needs to curb his dog. Our block is covered with piles of Willie Harris at-bats.

What do Willie Harris at the plate and Albert Haynesworth have in common? They both have an inexplicable love for the 4-3.

Speaking of Albert, any chance he can give Willie Harris career advice?

What's the difference between a Willie Harris at-bat and a bucket of manure? The bucket!

What do a Willie Harris at-bat and the sitcom Ellen have in common? They both guarantee outs.


Thank you, thank you. I'll be here all week. Don't forget to tip your waitresses.

Arlington Big Fish said...

And once they improve their grammer (sic), maybe they could improve their spelling ;-)

hleeo3 said...

No way I am blaming Rizzo. He has done far more good for this franchise than bad. I am surprised we made this much progress. We are playing for next year and that is fine.

This year the Nationals are getting good reviews for the draft and we are relatively competitive, when not slumping.
In Rizzo we trust.

greg said...

"and bat Goozie first and maybe move Bernie up to the second spot."

what is the fascination (both with some fans and with management) with putting guzman at leadoff?

the guy is terrible at getting on base (even bernadina had an OBP 30pts higher) and he's not a speed guy (he hasn't been over 66% successful in steals since 2001 nor stolen 10+ bases since 2004). he doesn't take a lot of pitches (one of the worst in the league in that respect). he doesn't have a single quality that would make him a good leadoff hitter, and yet people view him that way.

he's a 7/8 hitter, who doesn't have a sucky batting average (although slumping heavily lately), but also has no other peripheral strengths offensively.

i'd much rather see bernadina lead off. or even irod.

greg said...

actually, above i meant *MAXWELL* had an OBP 40 pts higher, although bernadina is 30 pts higher, too.

phil dunn said...

11-20 over the last 31 games against weak competition is not "just a little slump". That's heading south rapidly. The starting pitching, except for Strasburg, is a disaster.

natsfan1a said...

DC Wonk said it better than I could re. Rizzo, and Big Fish had already made the spelling point for me. Let's see, other than to say that jumping ship is not an option for me, either, I got nothing. Not a fan of the individual player bashing jokes, for Willie or anybody else on the team, but your mileage may vary.

HHover said...

I agree with a number of commenters that the Nats have a few great and some more promising pieces but not consistent strength across the board (or the 25 man roster). We can pick apart the individual losses, but frankly shouldn't be surprised by the overall number of them, or the problems that have brought them about.

Starting pitching has proved to be a problem, but a foreseeable one. Livo was never going to get thru the season with an ERA in the 2.00 neighborhood--he'll eat innings but expect him to regress to his 4+ career ERA over the summer. The return of various starters from the DL offers some hope, but not for a month or more.

A lot of commenters have been bashing Nyjer and Willie, and how Riggs has chosen to play them. I'm not happy with them either, but realize that Riggs doesn't have a lot of OF options on the 25 man roster or many good ones down in the minors. People like Morse right now for his hot bat. But if you look over his career he has limited experience in the OF, and I would suspect the more he plays there the more his limitations there will become obvious, which folks will be less willing to excuse when he (inevitably) cools at the plate. I still think Riggs probably ought to have played him more over the last week, but I don't see Morse as a long-term solution. Again, you can look to the future, but don't expect to see Bryce Harper out there regularly til 2012.

The Nats are what they are--a work in progress, better than last year but still at least a season away from a .500+ team. Knowing that in theory doesn't make the individual losses easier to bear in practice. But at least thru August, at least we have every 5th day to look forward to.

Bowdenball said...

natsfan1a-

I was just trying to lighten the mood a bit since we're all a little grumpy this morning.

I was careful to focus only on Willie's ABs this year, which I think he even would agree have been absolutely putrid, and it is inexcusable for a professional making millions of dollars to perform that horribly. Nothing against the man, who seems like a class act and is certanly an above-average defensive outfielder.

But he should not be batting for a major league ballclub. There's zero reason for it at this point. As I've said before, I give thousands of dollars to this team every year to watch them play. That means I help pay Willie's salary. So when he's not earning the salary I help pay, I have no problem letting him know about it.

I would be happy to delete the joke about career advice from Haynesworth because that went beyond his ABs this year.

natsfan1a said...

Bowdenball, I don't mind constructive criticism, it's just that I'm not a fan of ad hominem attacks (and imo equating a person with feces qualifies in that regard). I've spent my share of money on the Nats since 2005, but perhaps not enough to entitle me to do that. How much money does it take to qualify, btw? ;-) (That's a joke, fwiw. As noted previously, it's just my own preference, and the mileage of others may vary.)

Anonymous said...

is it my imagination or does Zimmerman have more of an open batting stance now? also, id like to see Bernadina adopt a more open "Dunnn-like stance" as well.

Anonymous said...

bowdenball, now there's an entitled attitude for you! I'm pretty sure it's actually the lerners who pay his salary...if you don't give them/the team a cent next year, they owe willie harris regardless. YOU don't pay his salary and YOU are not entitled to "let him know about it" when YOU don't think he's earning his salary. Gimme a break!

Bonnie Romney said...

Anon 11:05:
I was thinking the same thing about Zimm's batting stance. It looks to me like he's circling the bat over his head a la Kevin Youkilis (minus the squatting and bouncing), then stops and swings when the pitch is thrown.

natsfan1a said...

Re. Zimm's stance, see the following. Coincidence? hmmm... You be the judge... :-D

http://www.battingstanceguy.com/2010/05/26/bsg-interviews-ryan-zimmerman

Bowdenball said...

natsfan1a:

I was careful not to "equate a person with feces." If you look at the jokes, it was his ABs, not him.

Anon 11:35:

You have no idea what you're talking about. The Lerners don't pay his salary. They've been making a profit on this team since Day 1, and everything they've done with the team is paid out of that. And to top it off, I'm also a

I'm a patron of this professional team. I think that gives me the right to complain when I don't feel I'm getting my money's worth. You can disagree on that general principle of our society if you want, but I think you'd be in the minority. If you don't like people making fun of players, perhaps you should stick to amateur athletics.

Section 222 said...

Great link 1a! Thanks!

natsfan1a said...

You're welcome, 222. Glad you enjoyed it.

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