Thursday, April 5, 2012

An April win with an October vibe

US Presswire photo
Ian Desmond drives in the winning run with a ninth-inning single.
CHICAGO -- Adam LaRoche stood at the plate in the top of the eighth inning of a 1-0 ballgame, a pair of teammates on the bases in scoring position, the intimidating Kerry Wood on the mound, a sellout crowd of 41,176 pleading for the hometown Cubs to get out of this jam and everyone inside the Nationals dugout living and dying with every pitch.

The calendar said it was April 5. The vibe throughout Wrigley Field suggested otherwise.

"It seemed like a playoff game," LaRoche said. "It really did."

Get used to that feeling, folks. The tension and high drama that was present throughout the Nationals' 2-1 victory -- especially during the insanely intense eighth and ninth innings -- could become commonplace over the next six months. Maybe seven months.

Sure, Opening Day has a way of magnifying everything. Perhaps the stakes won't feel quite as high on May 8 in Pittsburgh or August 6 in Houston. But the kind of ballgame the Nationals played today -- low-scoring, the outcome hanging in the balance til the very end -- is probably going to be the norm for this club.

"If you didn't like that ballgame, you don't like baseball," manager Davey Johnson said. "That was ... every pitch meant something."

Indeed, from the moment Ian Desmond stepped to the plate and sent the very first pitch of the season into right field for a single, til the moment Brad Lidge caught Marlon Byrd looking at a slider at the knees in the bottom of the ninth, it felt like a lot was riding on every single pitch.

This is how the Nationals were constructed. They know they're going to win on the strength of their deep pitching staff ... and the hope they can scratch together a couple of runs.

For seven innings on a bone-chilling afternoon at the corner of Clark and Addison, it didn't look like they would be able to scratch together anything. Desmond hit that first pitch of the day from Ryan Dempster, and then the Nationals went silent until Desmond got Dempster once again for a base hit in the top of the eighth.

Not that a few guys didn't manage to hit the ball hard. They just fell victim to a harsh wind blowing in off Lake Michigan that turned every well-struck ball in the air into a routine flyout.

"It's a grind here with the wind doing what it was," LaRoche said. "I'm on deck and [Ryan Zimmerman] hits the ball maybe as hard as I've ever seen a ball hit. And it gets caught. ... It's cold. It's windy. It can be frustrating as a hitter, but you still have to go out there and play."

So the Nationals slogged their way through those first seven innings, hoping Stephen Strasburg could hold the Cubs in check as well and keep this game within reach. The young ace did just that, allowing one run over seven superb innings made possible by his remarkable efficiency.

All spring, Strasburg talked about his desire to pound the strike zone early, get quick outs and keep his pitch count low. And boy did he do that in the first Opening Day start of his career.

Strasburg needed only seven pitches to navigate through the first inning. Then he needed only seven more to cruise through the second inning. Johnson had said earlier in the day he would let his ace throw anywhere from 80 to 100 pitches. At the rate he was going, Strasburg could've gone the distance ... and then started the nightcap of a doubleheader.

"Just going out there and trying to pound the strike zone early," the right-hander said. "I think that [swinging early] is something hitters are going to try and do throughout the season, and the rest of my career. Swing early, because they don't want to get to two strikes."

Strasburg did record five strikeouts, four of them coming in a stretch of six batters midway through the game. By the time he finished the seventh, his pitch count stood at only 82. He easily could have stayed in the game, but down a run, Johnson needed to pinch-hit for him.

His afternoon finished, Strasburg could have retreated to the clubhouse to ice his arm, as is standard practice for starting pitchers. Not on this day, though. He wanted to remain in the dugout until the final out was recorded, wanted to see his teammates rally to win.

"Oh yeah," Strasburg said. "I mean, especially today, being at Wrigley, I was going to watch the rest of the game for sure."

The game-tying rally wasn't so much a rally as a walk-fest. Zimmerman, LaRoche and Jayson Werth all drew free passes off Wood in the eighth, with Werth battling back from an 0-2 count to force in the run that made it a 1-1 game.

"The last pitch came out of his hand funny," he said. "It was a ball out of the hand, so that made that easy."

The winning rally featured a couple of base hits, at long last, though the first came from a surprising source: Chad Tracy.

The journeyman corner infielder -- relegated to playing in Japan last year -- was never supposed to make the Nationals' Opening Day roster. But a late injury to Rick Ankiel opened the door, and Tracy took advantage of the opportunity he got, launching a two-out double off the right-field wall to ignite the ninth-inning rally.

"I've been saying the last few days since I made the team, just the opportunity to be here is very special to me," he said. "And to be able to come through for the team is even more special."

Tracy's double set the stage for Desmond to deliver one more time. He had already been on base three times, scoring the tying run in the eighth. Now he poked a single to right off Chicago closer Carlos Marmol, allowing pinch-runner Brett Carroll to easily score the run that put the Nationals on top, 2-1.

"Hitting the ball in the air today was pretty useless," Desmond said. "I just wanted to hit the hardest groundball I could. I pulled off it a little bit, but it worked."

That description pretty much applied to the Nationals as a whole today. They didn't quite do everything in picture-perfect fashion -- witness Lidge needing to pitch his way around a one-out triple in the bottom of the ninth -- but they made it work.

They got a great pitching performance. They produced at the plate when they absolutely needed to. And they ended the day high-fiving each other at the center of the diamond.

"What a way to start the season off," Strasburg said.

Better get used to it, everyone.

58 comments:

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me said...

Well put, Mark. I thought it was the bourbon and Maalox that was making me feel that way. But it just might've been tight, playoff-type baseball.

Jim Kurtzke said...

Mark, you're such a great writer. Look forward to six months of this stuff.

Ernie said...

I got newposted...sorry.


Back from the game. Opening Day at Wrigley was a lot of fun. I'm still catching up on the reports and comments, but a couple thoughts:

That wind was no joke. I've heard about it on TV, but there was no way anything was leaving that park today. One of the Wrigley regulars near us agreed that one of Zimmerman's shots would have been "off the scoreboard" if he hit the same ball in June.

We must have seen 10-15 other groups of Nats fans on the El and at the park. Not a bad showing. We weren't even the only ones in our row in Nats gear. It's nice to see the fan base growing.

That said, it was amazing to see so many people decked out in Cubs gear on the way to the park. DC might be getting better at drawing people to Nats park, but they don't represent the same way. It seemed like everyone was in Cubs gear - usually multiple items of clothing, bags, etc. It will be great when we get to the day that we can fill Nats park with something more than half of the crowd with curly W caps.

Cubs fans are amazingly friendly. They seem jealous that we're on our way up. Everyone wanted to talk about our rotation. No one understood why LaRoche was hitting cleanup.

It looked like Werth misplayed that triple in the 9th really badly. Maybe it made more sense on TV. A lot of sloppy baseball on both sides today, really. But we'll take the win.

We spoke to a Nats scout after the game. He was clearly concerned that we need to hit, but mentioned that DeRosa was one of "Davy's guys" and that Johnson would not stop talking about him all winter long. He also was proud of Tracy's addition to the team - as one of Rizzo's guys from Arizona.

The crowd at Wrigley was not happy with Sveum's decision to pull Dempster. They love Wood, but no one understood why there wasn't more action in the pen. A lot of boos today. And the stands were emptying out before the bottom of the 9th.

Then again, it was COLD. Did anyone mention that?

gonatsgo said...

It says a lot about Strassie that he wanted the team to win even though he was not going to get credit for it. Very nice.

NatsLady said...

It goes without saying that Clip got the win. At least he didn't "vulture" it. Oh, a 2-1 victory? Where have I heard that before?

Anonymous said...

Zimmerman playing 3rd base is such a luxury. That play at the plate and the line drive out were both key defensive plays. How can you not love that guy?

Gonat said...

Mark, Rizzo did a phone in on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Report and said that Stewart hits balls low in the zone real well. Lidge threw one low in the zone. Was it a mistake pitch or did he not have the scouting?

Section 3, My PFB Sofa said...

Welcome to April in Chicago, Ernie. Speaking with fully fifty years of experience, this was nothing unusual for spring on the North Side.

Anonymous said...

Bueno

Doc said...

Having sat in Wrigley field for a few games, I can attest to how friendly Cubs' fans are. Night and day between them and the Philthie fans.

Mark, nice article. Now about your 84 win prediction.......

Big Cat said...

Ernie.....somewhere my old buddy Mike Quade is smiling. Casting out those bass lures and just smiling wide.

Section 222 said...

Great report Ernie, thanks. Someday I'm going to make it out to Wrigley for a series, but I think I'll wait until the Nats are playing the Cubs in a month other than April.

Just watched Nats Extra on DVR, and they didn't even replay the Zimmerman play in the 9th to get Stewart at the plate. That was the play of the game as far as I'm concerned.

Finally the season is started, and it was great to spend it with the Nats Insider crowd at Duffy's. We'll have to do that again folks.

MicheleS said...

I am still on the game day high. Bourbon and Maalox are going to be in big demand this year. I swear I was going to throw up during the top of the eigth..

Can you believe this game? This team? WOO HOO!

Oh and by the way, Marlins lost again. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

FS said...

regarding Stras tweet, I only tried Lou Malnati's by Wells st. I loved it. Cheap and great food, with excellent service. You can't top that. Next time I guess I will try Gino's next time.

sweet win. very happy and could not have asked for a better birthday present.

Gonat said...

Which is the pizza joint in Chicago that you get to write notes and graffiti on the Wall?

Anonymous said...

Any word on Beast's rehab ABs and defensive mobility tonight?

SonnyG10 said...

As I bask in the glory of our win today, I'm reflecting on what a good starting rotation we have. It doesn't matter what game is coming up, I will enjoy seeing whichever pitcher is out there that day. That is a really good feeling.

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me said...

@MichelleS:

As long as you keep supplying your cogent, insightful comments, I'll provide all the bourbon and Maalox we'll need for the season.

I am especially fond of simply: "WOO-HOO!"

By the way, the bourbon is PFB!

Waddu eye no said...

As per beasf:
http://www.milb.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?sid=t547&t=g_log&gid=2012_04_05_haraax_bowaax_1

Slow night in bowie

Whatsanattau said...

Nice gamer Mark. Blogs are wonderful, but a good game story with mood and background woven together in a good narative ... sigh ... Maybe journalism will survive the Internet after all.

Joe Seamhead said...

Slightly off topic, but Brian Goodwin's pro debut - 2-4 with a HR, bb, and 4 RBI's for Hagarstown.

Joe Seamhead said...

A little rougher night for Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel.
Morse - 0-4 with 3 K's
Ankiel- 0-2 with 2 K's and a walk. He was the DH and was pulled late for a PH .

MicheleS said...

Sunshine.. I will leave the cogent, insightful comments to others. I have a feeling as one of the total homers on this site, that I am going to be a complete mess during the season, so bring on the bourbon and maalox, because I have a feeling that most days, the only thing I will be able to say is WOO HOO!

natsfan1a said...

Speaking of comments, I think some new drinking game phrases may be needed now that the season has started. Given the ST bent of many of them, they might not be as frequently uttered. Just a thought... :-)

sjm308 said...

MicheleS - you just keep Woo Hooing but remember, its 162 games so there will be some Boo Hooing as well. Isn't amazing the ups and downs in just one game?

Natsfan1a - sorry I didn't post yesterday but I had the opportunity to watch the game with a good friend I had not seen in awhile. Those links will just have to wait.

Great win! Love that Desmond played a big role. Can't believe they didn't charge him or Ramos with errors but I understand the rules on Ramos since the runner didn't gain an extra base.

Those that criticize LaRoche either don't care about defense or just want to criticize because I saw two plays yesterday that were outstanding and while he could have certainly helped his cause at the plate the first 3 times, the walk in the 8th was absolutely crucial to our success as well.

Will bask in this win for 24 more hours, plus I am now in the rotation of hats for the season and get to wear the Away Game Hat until at least Saturday. (If they lose, the 1916 Blue hat with small white block W stands ready as next in line with 8 others to follow). Rules are I change hats after a lose and keep the hat during a win streak.

Go Nats!!

natsfan1a said...

That's okay, sjm, we'll save the link tutorial for another time.

Well done on the hat rotation, as we all know that one doesn't, er, toy with a streak. :-)

Rabbit said...

Wow, it looks like Morse and Ankiel have a way to go. They got in handed to them at AA yesterday. GO NATIONALS!!!

UnkyD said...

What a Hoot!! SO much fun, hangin' at Duffy's, yesterday... Very cool to hook up with so many of you... And a Great Win, to boot!!! Desi's gonna make it tough on his mailman, now that he seems to reside... ON BASE!!! Great to watch My Boy get off to such a positive start (though he certainly stretched Adam out, on that one play...). Gonna be a fun year, and I look forward to more get-togethers....

GYFNG!!!!!

Rabbit said...

What an exciting game! It was a little frustrating at the beginning with Zimmerman killing the ball and nothing happened. At least he's on it! Great win. And, to top it off, the Marlins are 0-2!! GO NATIONALS!!!

Bueno Bryce said...

Anyone else a bit concerned about the massive increase in number of poorly informed comments on the game thread? People wanting to dump Laroche after 3 bad at bats. Strasburg 'serving up meatballs'.

RickH said...

Great win!!!

Rabbit said...

Curt Shilling seemed very concerned about SS's delivery which would make him very prone to another injury. Any comments?? Mark, how about you for a comment??

natsfan1a said...

On topic, it was a great win and lots of fun to watch with fellow Insiders (and maybe an Anon or two) at Duffy's. Plenty of tv screens, tasty chicken wings and munchies, and a lively crowd.

Sunderland said...

Another real nice play by #11 was tagging out Soriano on the SB attempt. The throw from Ramos short hopped, and Zim did a great job of not letting his glove come up very far and quickly getting the tag down.

*****
Anonymous said...
Zimmerman playing 3rd base is such a luxury. That play at the plate and the line drive out were both key defensive plays. How can you not love that guy?

April 05, 2012 8:49 PM

Young Pitchers said...

re: Zimmerman's throws

i only caught two throws by Zimm on TV - one the 543 DP to Espi in a late inning, the other the 52 to Ramos. is it me or did he slightly 'rainbowed' both throws? i don't know but i expect more straight-lined throws in such tight spots...

thoughts?

Anonymous said...

An idea for the drinking games -- "And Ian Desmond makes an error" or " And Adam LaRoche strikes out to end the inning" ;)

baseballswami said...

I live in Northern Virginia and couldn't make it to dc to watch a game. Any NI folks who live farther south who might want to find a watching spot for Thursday?

MicheleS said...

Swammi.. I will be at the game.. :-)

natsfan1a said...

Swami, I can't make it next Thursday but good idea.

Joe Seamhead said...

I know one thing: If every game plays out like yesterday then my " Check Liver" light is going to be on a lot this year.

Section 3, My PFB Sofa said...

Chicken liver ... mmmmm

oh, wait. Nevermind.

Section 3, My PFB Sofa said...

And another Second to the Duffy's -- excellent game-day experience with food, fans, friends, and fbeer.

Section 3, My PFB Sofa said...

@Bueno Bryce, when there's 413!!!!! comments, they won't all be good. And that's with a couple dozen Insiders AFK.

Like the handle, btw.

Joe Seamhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bueno Bryce said...

AFK = Away From Keyboard?

I always have and still hate the day off after Opening Day. I'm ready for some more. Though it sounds like there are a few livers that could use a break, because it's a marathon, not a sprint, and we've got 16 straights days of good times coming up.

natsfan1a said...

AFAIK, yes. :-)

AFK = Away From Keyboard?

Section 222 said...

I'm a Desi and ALR skeptic. My view remains unchanged after yesterday. But I'm not going to harp on an individual game performance for either player, and neither should their boosters. Let's see what the numbers show after April.

On ALR's defense, there is no question it is superb. But let's not go overboard on the picks at first. Lots of 1Bs make those plays. And having a slick glove man at 1B is not going to win championships for the Nats. ALR has to hit, and hit for power to be deemed a success.

jeeves said...

Of course, you're still a Desi skeptic, section 222. 'Tis the nature of the beast. The fact that he has outperformed (offensively) every other Nat not named Morse or Zimmerman the last two months of last season, this spring training, and now, the first game of the regular season will be ignored by the Desi skeptics. Like vultures they'll wait for his fall. Maybe your skeptcism should be saved for the Werths or Espinosas. That being said I love Espy, and believe he will right himself sooner or later. And LaR definitely should not be a cleanup hitter.

Joe Seamhead said...

sec 222, I don't believe that either of them will be all-stars, and doubt very seriously that either of them will still be here when the Nats are entering their glory years, Now that said, I'm a Nats fan and I'm rooting hard for both of them to have great years and I honestly believe that we could do a lot worse then either of them.A sub-par defensive first basemen seriously weakens any infield, but a good one sure makes your SS look better.Adam is someone that I fully expect to have a 25-30 HR /85-100 RBI season. If he does return to form, the order of Zimm, Morse, Werth, ALR, is pretty formidable.If he doesn't come on soon, then maybe Morse ends up back at first this year, which would possibly be easier on this injury that he's recovering from. As to Desmond,though both Rizzo and Johnson both love him, his sand is slowly flowing through the hourglass.This is his make or break year and I'm pulling for him. Personally, I'm more worried about Espinosa, not only at the plate, but he's also had some boneheaded plays in the field. I sure hope that he comes around, because I'm not sure that Lombo is quite ready yet. GYFNG!

UNTERP said...

I already have Ian Desmond batting .400 at the All Star break, starting the All Star game, and batting .360 for the season. That is what will happen, like it or not...

Section 3, My PFB Sofa said...

Personally, I'm more worried about Espinosa, not only at the plate, but he's also had some boneheaded plays in the field.

Haven't seen many games so far this year--please refresh my memory. What bonehead plays in the field by Espinosa?

341f1580-3d97-11e1-ae39-000f20980440 said...

Games like yesterday's are what make baseball so much better than football to me. And I LOVE football! I just love a great baseball game that much more.

sjm308 said...

UNterp - I don't read all comments and you will laugh, but I thought of you and unkd when Ian had his big day. You guys have been with him through thick and thin and its great to see him perform. Also like what I heard from Davey that they don't want the typical leadoff guy who takes pitches, they want him doing just what he has been doing for the last few weeks of last year and so far this year. He goes up swinging and its looking good so far.

I agree on LaRoche not hitting cleanup but I am still amazed at his defense. Someone said there were plenty of firstbasemen that would have caught Desmonds throw but I can't think of two.

Go Nats!!

sully said...

Mark, this is probably not a good time to mimic "Debbie Downer", because yesterday's win was exhilarating. However, in regard to the post above about pitching mechanics and injury, why can't we hear the organization's orientation to the thought about the "inverted w", given that many reputable commentators have identified more than one of our pitchers as being at high risk for injury. Do they simply ignore this, do they totally discount it, or do they try to alter mechanics to reduce the risk? It is an important question, and it would seem that prudent organizations address this in some way. How about the Nats?

Section 3, My PFB Sofa said...

Not sure about Rizzo, @Sully, but Natstradamus had a post on the topic the other day that might interest you.

blovy8 said...

I think you don't mess with a pitcher unless he's not effective. It might be just as likely that altering how he threw his change up caused the elbow problem. That was the new element that happened with the Nats, not his mechanics. Not to say injuries might not be more likely with that delivery, but it's a trade off since his stuff is just too good when he's using it. Maybe if you try to change it, he can't throw strikes, hurts something else, tips his pitches, loses velocity, etc.

Kind of like telling a hitter like Bagwell to move off the plate since he keeps getting broken bones on HBPs, um, no, that's part of WHY the guy can hit. Unfortunately, there's no pad for Strasburg to wear.

Joe Seamhead said...

Sec 3, my PFB, by the time Werth got the ball into Espinosa on Stewart's triple yesterday, Stewart was pretty much already to third when Danny " relayed " the ball to Zimmerman, who had to go at least a couple of steps up the line to save a throw that should never have been thrown, as there was no chance to get the runner. It was a heads up play by Ryan. In an exhibition game I saw him throw home on a play that had no chance to get the runner, but by doing so he allowed a runner to advance to second. ST game, so it doesn't matter, but both ill conceived plays are plays that I wouldn't have expected from him. I just hope that his struggles at the plate don't get into his head defensively.

Nats in Athens said...

As they say an exception that keeps occurring is no longer an exception. It is still early but Desi is hitting well since late last year. It is in game conditions like these where you want your singles to take you home that he gives you a chance to win.

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