Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Winning, but still wanting more

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Adam Dunn is congratulated by Pat Listach after homering in the fourth.
CHICAGO -- The Nationals had just pulled off a 3-2 victory over the Cubs, securing their first winning month since Sept. 2007, and securing this franchise's best April since it first arrived in town.

And yet the feeling inside the cramped visitors clubhouse at Wrigley Field wasn't one of exuberance or self-congratulation. No, as well as this team has played through the season's first 22 games, it sincerely feels like it can play far better.

"Oh absolutely," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "We've got a lot of weapons that we haven't even utilized yet. We've had some guys banged up over the course of the month. It just goes to show you, we've had a lot of guys step up. That's what a winning team is all about, having everybody contribute. Once we start firing on all cylinders, it's just going to get even better."

Bet you never imagined the day when the Nationals would be two games over .500 and not even content with that.

This club, though, has loftier goals than mere respectability. It takes the field every single day believing it should win. And when it doesn't win, it seethes.

"If we lose a ballgame, they're irritated," manager Jim Riggleman said. "They're not happy. They don't just say: 'OK, we'll get 'em tomorrow.' It's not like that. They don't just brush it off. They get irritated by it, and I like the fact they get irritated about losing ballgames."

As happy as they were to take two of three from the Cubs, players still were ticked this afternoon about Monday night's 10-inning loss. The opportunity for a three-game sweep on the road was right in front of them, and they felt like they should have accomplished it.

Such is the defining characteristic of the new Nationals. Hardly any of them even realized today's victory ensured their first winning April since 2005. They're too consumed with the immediate task at hand to take notice of the bigger picture.

"Our guys have really stayed focused very well," Riggleman said. "Each day, no matter what's going on, when that umpire says 'Play ball,' our guys are focused on trying to win that game. Not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow or down the road. Just trying to win the game."

That they've managed to win 12 of 22 despite losing two members of the Opening Day rotation to the DL (Jason Marquis and Garrett Mock), despite playing the better part of three weeks now without their best position player (Ryan Zimmerman) and despite going up against three playoff teams from 2009 for a total of 13 games ... well, it's downright astounding.

It's also reason to believe the best has yet to come.

"It's so early," said Adam Dunn, who belted his fourth homer during today's win. "But the positive thing is, we still don't have our 'A' lineup out there. We've got some guys banged up. If we continue to get the pitching that we're getting and playing defense, we're going to be fine."

The Nationals are playing winning baseball because they're getting contributions from just about every guy in uniform.

No Zimmerman? No problem. Alberto Gonzalez, Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy have more than picked up the slack.

Not getting much production from right field? It's not such a big deal when Willie Harris, Justin Maxwell and Willy Taveras are playing sterling defense every day.

Marquis on the DL and Opening Day starter John Lannan still fighting to find his groove? Just hand things over to Livan Hernandez (3-1, 0.87 ERA) and Luis Atilano (2-0, 2.25 ERA) and they'll do their part.

"Everybody wants the ball in their hand. Everybody wants to make the next great play. Everybody wants to get the big hit," said Clippard, now 3-0 with an 0.54 ERA in 11 relief appearances. "It's just contagious. That's what winning does. Winning creates more winning. Right now, we're getting a taste of that."

Back on Opening Day, the Nationals felt like they just needed to try to hang on through the season's first two months. Hover around .500 and then hope the expected additions of Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Chien-Ming Wang (among others) help this club take the next step.

Well, they've just about completed the first month, and they've managed to do just that. They haven't played anything close to perfect baseball yet, but they're 12-10 and one game out of first place in the NL East.

And as each day passes and the confidence inside their clubhouse grows, these Nationals can't help but wonder whether, after digging themselves into inescapable holes each of the last four Aprils, this hot start could be the preamble to something even bigger.

"Every year, I always say: 'It's the first month. We're losing. We're going to get better,'" catcher Wil Nieves said. "It's fun to see it from the beginning, what we can do if we keep playing baseball like we're capable."


natsfan1a said...

Great piece, Mark. Thanks for all your work here.

Sunderland said...

Rizzo's got to be working a hundred different scenarios through his head as to what his rotation will look like in June.

Will Strasburg be here?
Will Wang and Detwiler be ready?
Will Marquis be ready to come back?
Will Stammen and Lannan be steady and dependable?
Will Livan and Atilano and Olsen stay effective?

Who will stay?
Could / should anyone shift to the bullpen?
Do I have enough confidence in 6 - 8 of these guys to trade one or two?
When Wang and Detwiler come off the 60 day DL, how do I trim the 40 man roster?

He's got a dozen or more variables, yet he's somehow got to make his best assessment and make some tough decisions.

In 5 weeks, we could easily have 7 guys who fully deserve rotation spots.

David J said...

Living in Fl after 5 years as a season ticket holder we get the Nats by way of MLB Extra-Innings. Often we have our opponents broadcast crew, like today with the Cubs.
They commented about the attitude of the Nats as they went through their pregame drills and the positive attitude and fun they have. Way to go Rigglemen and Rizzo, chemistry is critical, and will become more so as the season draws on.

Anonymous said...

Both Wang and Detwiler have to do spring training first plus and the stints in the minors. There are guys like Thompson, Arneson and the entired Harrisburg bullpen, plus Slaten and JD Martin who must be considered way ahead of them given their outstanding performances.

Finding room for Strasburg probably won't be a problem. Its who you drop off the rotation? Let's face it Marquis and Mock will not be seen anytime soon. Can Olsen keep going ... I'm not so sure. Do you really need a Batista, a Bruney, a Walker if their ERAs and WHIPS continue to balloon?

And room will have to be made for Jordan Zimmermann before Detwiler, and certainly before Wang.

Wily Mo Peterson said...

Great piece Mark, and I love this team. It is much fun to root for a team knowing they care about winning and losing as much as the fans do. I also love how this team expects to win every time they step on the field, that mentality alone is good for 5 or 10 wins throughout the season.

Anonymous said...

Trades are in the offing of that you can be sure.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone still confused as to why they cut Dukes?

Anonymous said...

No. Dukes Sucks.

natteringnabob said...

I have to admit I am surprised that no one has signed Elijah Dukes (not even to an AAA team.)

greg said...

aeoliano, you seem to be confused about how soon zimmermann is coming back.

keep repeating to yourself: september... september... september...

unless, of course, you're trying to say that both wang and detwiler won't be playing for the nats 'til 2011.

seriously, though, rizzo has said that while zimmermann is ahead of schedule (and september, late august at the earliest was "on schedule"), they plan to slow him down to make sure that he's back on schedule.

so if we see him *before* detwiler and wang, that's a really bad thing.

meixler said...

Since I'm really just starting to follow baseball, I wonder if someone might be able to help me out with something...

Pudge Rodriguez has been getting a lot of credit for the improved play of the Nationals, for the leadership he brings and for the effect he has on the young pitchers. I'm currently watching the Twins/Tigers game on ESPN in which Minnesota gave up a 6-1 lead after 3.5 innings to fall behind 11-6 heading into the 7th. If a catcher can get credit when a pitching staff is doing well, why doesn't it seem like they share the criticism when the pitchers fall apart? Joe Mauer is catching for the Twins... I realize that he's an MVP, a Gold Glove winner and a Silver Slugger... but isn't it possible that his pitch calls have as much to do with the Twins collapse as does the execution from the mound?

Aussie Gus said...

Please, someone mention Chuck James! PLEASE!

Bugs3 said...

You called?

meixler said...

I believe he said Chuck JAMES not Chuck Jones... who clearly had to be high as a kite when he made that.

Doc said...

Things can change (afterall, we're talking about pitchers!), but I don't see Marquis breaking into the rotation. Same for Detwiler, and Wang. I suppose trades are the answer, given that you can't keep guys in the minors for ever. At this point, it looks like Atilano, as good as he is pitching, will be shifted south for Strasburg. Unless Atliano is put into the Nats relief corps.

Anonymous said...

Sidebar, but man we're in trouble with local media.

Tonight the Comcast idiot showed the Nats "highlights." The guy referred to our starter as "Antileo." No Dunn HR. No Kennedy HR.

Tomorrow morning I will endure the daily indignity on the front of the Post sports page. That stupid blue MASN box in the upper right corner that asks, "Where's the game."

Redskins 24/7 on am 980. When they signed off I hoped maybe it was for the, live coverage of the Orioles on our most powerful am station in the DC area.

Just absolutely pathetic. It's like baseball never arrived here at all.

Natsochist said...

@Meixler, without seeing the game (and just reading various recaps), here's the best I can offer:

As you've likely noticed, baseball is a fairly mental game. If one team gets in the opposing team's / pitcher's head, they have a good chance of doing some damage. In the case of today's MIN - DET game, it looks like that's exactly what happened.

When you've got a lead and a call that could go either way goes against you (and costs you runs), the important thing is to bounce right back and get an out, thereby swinging the momentum back toward (if not outright in) your favor. In Minnesota's case, it looks like the call against Span's diving catch, which led to their manager's ejection, pushed them into a negative mindset and allowed DET to take over the game.

Could some of Mauer's pitch calls been the problem? Sure. But given what happened during the game, I'd think it's much more a case of Detroit getting into their opponents' heads and finding a way to win, instead.

Nervous Nats Fan said...

Mark, can you clear something up? I thought they had decided no silver Elvis wig on the road, but then I read that Atilano was wearing it today.

Also, should we be concerned about Clippard's and Capps' workloads? Riggleman must be at least a little concerned about having the same two guys pitch every game...

Mark Zuckerman said...

Nervous Nats Fan: They just started bringing the Elvis wig on this road trip. Livan had it last night, Atilano today. It will continue with the club to Florida this weekend.

And yes, you should be a little concerned about the workload for Capps and Clippard. The Nats desperately need another reliever or two to step up and chip in on a consistent basis. Brian Bruney and Sean Burnett seem the likeliest candidates, but Bruney has been hit-or-miss (he was good today) and Burnett hasn't really been a factor at all.

Sad Caps Fan, Happy Nats Fan said...


Great stuff, as always.

Also helping to take the load off Capps and Clippard would be the Nats scoring more than 3 runs a game - (but on the flip side, any time you win a series on the road scoring only 3 runs each game you have to feel pretty good)

Drew8 said...


Given that the Nats are building quality inventory in starters, I have a couple of questions about Bryce Harper.

1. Is the brass concerned about the "attitude" blowback we've seen of late?

2. Does the club project Harper as a catcher, or as an outfielder?

3. Given his bat and his arm, would they like to see Harper in right field for six years or so?

4. If the Nats have Dunn and Harper in the fold, where does this leave Marrerro and Norris?

Thanks, Mark. I enjoy your work.

MM said...

on Wang's return:

Taiwanese media yesterday quoted Wang saying he wouldn't be pitching in the big leagues until late Jul/early Aug. The 'plan' for him right now appears to be bullpen for May, live BP for June, and rehab games for Jul.


Brian R. said...

I don't know about No. 1, but I would imagine the club takes Harper intending for him to become a catcher, since catcher is the most valuable or most scarce position, but gets him regular outfield and 1B time to keep him versatile. This isn't really a factor in the decision, but Riggleman does like guys who can move around, and having a catcher you can stash elsewhere on the field is not common.

As for Marrero and Norris - well, the more competition, the better! Keep in mind we will have Flores around in the catcher situation, too. If we score and Flores turns into an All-Star, Harper becomes the Baseball America No. 1 prospect, and Norris is in the top 10 ... then Rizzo could score some really sweet trades.

Anonymous8 said...

Mark Zuckerman said...Not getting much production from right field? It's not such a big deal when Willie Harris, Justin Maxwell and Willy Taveras are playing sterling defense every day.

Mark, I want my cake and eat it too. There was a guy in Baltimore named Mark Belanger. He could play defense but couldn't hit a ball more than 250 feet although had 20 career HRs so the wind must have blown out for him a few times. A decade later Cal Ripken Jr. came along and could field better then Belanger and hit the ball 350 feet with no problem. Belanger had 5 seasons he batted under .199 and 8 Gold Gloves so it sort of supports your theory but that was a different era and today we expect each player to give us enough defense and offense to earn a spot on the field. Defensive specialists come in for the 9th inning.

Give Roger Bernadina some props. The guy was the best out of the group in Spring Training and has taken it in stride being sent down. He tears it up in the Minors and was a huge part of the game yesterday. Glad Riggleman went with the hot hand yesterday as he went 1 for 3 and scored a crucial run and played great defense.

So yes, I want me cake and eat it too!

Positively Half St. said...

Aussie Gus- I was looking to see if anyone would mention Chuck James, as well. The guy won 11 games for Atlanta in both 2006 and 2007, and only declined apparently because of injury. I think he needs to be in the mix.

MM- Thanks. Someone finally gave an update on Wang. It is disappointing that he is that far away, but we do want him back at full strength. Perhaps he can rehab a little at Potomac, and we can see him there.

Anonymous8 said...

MM said...
on Wang's return:

Taiwanese media yesterday quoted Wang saying he wouldn't be pitching in the big leagues until late Jul/early Aug. The 'plan' for him right now appears to be bullpen for May, live BP for June, and rehab games for Jul.


If this is true, shouldn't this come from Rizzo and not the player?

Wang needs to follow team protocol on spilling the beans, right?

So Mark, is this true?

K.D. said...

Anon 8, as long as your asking why not specify chocolate, white or marble?

Mark, I was actually wondering about Dunn's defense, greatly improved since the first of the year. I can't remember seeing Pudge try a snap throw, have you? I think he has only one stolen base against him, actually only one try. Anyway I know those throws are tough for a first baseman.

BinM said...

Aussie Gus, +1/2St.:

Part of the reason nobody mentions Chuck James is that the Nationals' starters are pitching very effectively right now. Let him keep pitching well in SYR, and we'll see what things look like in mid to late May.

Chris Stevenson said...

Mr. Zuckerman,

Any chance when you make (interesting) notes like "this franchise's best April since it first arrived in town" that you could also start letting us know how this April compares to the Expos' Aprils and Senators' Aprils? Seems like it could be interesting info given the team's and city's convoluted past.


Sunderland said...

An off day in Miami, after just leaving Chicago, must be about as good as it gets. Wonder what Livan is doing with his off day? Weeding, edging and mowing? Nah. Golf courses around Miami are seeing a minor uptick in business today.

Sec 204 Row H Seat 7 said...

Just my one cent, if Stammen continues to inconsistent, he goes down for Strasburg.

greg said...

"Cal Ripken Jr. came along and could field better then Belanger"

anonymous8, i think you're overstating that a bit. cal was a good defender, but as much because of positioning as his athleticism. belanger was still a better defensive shortstop, i don't really think that should be debatable. but he could barely hit his own weight, that we can agree on.

Steve M. said...

Talking about Rightfield, here is Ladson's new platoon of Bernadina and Maxwell.

When does Morse replace Willy Taveras?

Steve M. said...

Omar Vizquel was the reason Cal Ripken only won 2 Gold Gloves. Vizquel dominated winning 11 GGs overall and every AL GG from 1993 to 2001.

If you had UZR ratings back then to compare Belanger to Ripken, I would think Ripken's would be superior.

For his time in the Majors, Belanger was the standard for shortstops.

Archie said...

After 10 saves in 10 attempts our "closers" deserve a nickname. I've heard "Clip & Save" but how about "Mattman & Robin". Those goofy glasses Tyler wears sort of look like a superhero mask!

greg said...

honestly, gold gloves are crap. palmiero got a gold glove at 1B when he was a DH.

belanger was more like vizquel, a great glove man. cal didn't have quite the same physical defensive skills as either of them, but made up for much of it with positioning and anticipation.

if i had to choose an overall SS, cal beats both of them. if i had to pick a guy to make a spectacular defensive play, he's third on that list.

and yes, i watched all three of them play in their primes (cal and mark in person).

Anonymous said...

Now that the Caps are toast perhaps the Post will come around. I recall when the first sports page always had above the fold pictures of our heroes Seivers, Killebrew, Pascual, Lemon and so on. I hope that kind of coverage returns.

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