Sunday, June 6, 2010

Mounting frustration

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Brandon Phillips takes a retaliatory Miguel Batista fastball in the ribs in the ninth.
These Nationals don't like losing. These Nationals don't like opponents showing them up. And when both things happen on the same night, well, everybody leaves the ballpark in a sour mood.

That's perhaps the best way to describe the home clubhouse following this 5-1 loss to the Reds, a game that featured any number of infractions both in the pure baseball sense and also in the sportsmanship sense.

Once again, the Nats couldn't get a clutch hit. They put six men on base in the first four innings against Cincinnati rookie Mike Leake and failed to score one of them.

Once again, the Nats made mistakes in the field. They were charged with three errors, and though two of them were of an unconventional variety, they still brought this club's season total to an astounding 53 in 57 games. That's far and away the most in the majors and leaves the Nats on a pace to surpass last year's ridiculous total of 143 errors.

But that's not what this game will be remembered for. No, it will be remembered for three plays in the final two innings, all of them involving Brandon Phillips, all of them resulting in controversy.

Play No. 1: Phillips takes second on Sean Burnett's wild pitch in the eighth, rounds the base, makes contact with Ian Desmond en route to getting thrown out at third, but is awarded the base because Desmond is called for obstruction. That leads to Jim Riggleman's ejection, and ultimately allowed Phillips to score a key run on another controversial play (more on that in a moment).

"He was pretty much coming after me," Desmond said. "He was obviously trying to come after me for the obstruction. I thought I did all I could to get out of the way, but I guess it wasn't enough."

Desmond quickly added that he didn't fault Phillips for what he did and called it a heads-up baserunning play. Riggleman, though, felt umpire Dan Bellino should have taken into consideration the fact Desmond was trying to get out of the way. The manager's argument went nowhere, and he was promptly ejected.

"I don't really know what took place, but I know the explanation I got didn't satisfy me," Riggleman said. "So I argued that. It didn't make a lot of sense to me."

All that was merely the precursor to the biggest play of the night, which came moments later when Phillips took off on a grounder to short, slammed into catcher Wil Nieves and knocked the ball loose to score the Reds' fourth run.

Nothing wrong with the collision. There was something wrong with Phillips' reaction. He immediately pounded his chest in celebration, a gesture that set the Nationals off.

"He looked like he scored a touchdown or something, the way he celebrated," Nieves said. "Hitting me is part of the game. It's going to happen. It's part of the game. Just what he did, I don't think it was professional."

Standing in the home dugout, Ivan Rodriguez (currently on the DL) rose to the top step and had some words for Phillips and the Reds. The issue didn't figure to go away. Some form of retaliation was bound to happen.

Sure enough, when Phillips came up to bat again with two outs in the ninth, Nieves set up on the inside corner. Miguel Batista reached back and fired a fastball at Phillips' ribs. Phillips took it like a man and trotted to first base. Plate umpire Joe West immediately ejected Batista, who offered no argument even though he amazingly tried to insist afterward the plunking wasn't intentional.

"The umpire's just doing his job," Batista said. "If it looks suspicious, he has the right to throw me out. He was the only one who thought it was intentional."

Uh, not exactly, Miguel. Everyone in the ballpark knew it was intentional, and everyone else in the Nationals clubhouse basically admitted it.

"I think any team in the league would have done that exact same thing," Desmond said. "We obviously want to look out for our catcher. He's our leader right now. I don't think that was anything out of the ordinary. I think everybody in the ballpark knew that he was going to hit. The whole thing was handled right."

"I think everybody in the ballpark kind of knew that was going to happen," Nieves added. "So he got hit. I thought he got hit where he was supposed to. Not in the head. Obviously we don't play like that. Miguel hit him in a good spot."

Or, as Riggleman put it: "Players take care of issues. I thought it was handled very professionally by everyone involved. It's over."

It would appear there won't be any carryover to tomorrow's series finale, even if Phillips (a former Expos farmhand who has riled up plenty of teammates and opponents alike over the years) seemed oblivious to his infraction.

"I play with a lot of excitement," he said. "I'm just out there playing. I don't see anything wrong with what I did. If people think I did something wrong, I'll apologize to anyone that thinks so, but it's the [game] of baseball. I'm just going to keep on going out there playing the best way I know how."

The Nationals are not playing the best way they know how right now. They've lost 15 of their last 22, have been slumping at the plate with men on base, have been turning sloppy in the field and are showing signs of frustration.

This is a critical juncture for this team. It surprised many with its play over the season's first month-and-a-half, to the point where everyone began to expect a high level of play. Over the last three weeks, things have steadily turned south.

The Nationals still are only three games under .500. They've established a resiliency not found in previous versions of the squad. And they're about to add a staff ace on Tuesday.

If the Nats would like to offer Stephen Strasburg a nice welcome gift, some better performances on the field would be a good choice.


rt said...

If a Nat gets a chance to break up a double play they should put Phillips into left field.

Grandstander said...

Repost for new thread:

Where is the accountability? Is it simply a matter of not being to sit some of these guys because of our lack of depth? That's the way it seems to me. Before, when Nyjer was just terrible and made those 2 inside the park HRs happen, any other team would have sat him down, we didn't. Why? No one could take his place. Guzzy and Desmond combine for 6 errors in 2 games, who else you gonna put in? Nieves can't even make a clean throw to second, let alone get a freaking hit, but who else do we have??

I've said it before and it's now become glaringly obvious, the lack of depth on this team has totally exposed our weaknesses. If one guy isn't there and performing, the whole ship goes down. Pudge, Dunn, Nyjer, with them out or with them slumping we simply cannot win consistently because no one is able to fill the void.

It hurts more because we had such a hot April/May, but this is simply not a competitive team yet. In a couple of years, absolutely, and I trust Rizzo to make the right moves to make it happen. But we were fooled into thinking this team was anything more than some bright young talent mixed with some retreads who could hobble us back into respectability.

Stephen Kammerman said...

At the least the team is showing up this year. These close losses are games that young teams lose and veteran teams win. Things will get even better with Strasburg.

natscan reduxit said...

... baseball is a body contact sport, a rough place to place, especially when somebody is overly aggressive. He goes into second with his spikes high? Go ahead and nail him at the plate later. He makes a tag by slamming his glove into your head? Go ahead and nail him at the plate later. He taunts your bench and thumps his chest in derision? Don't take the bait; rise above it. That's what better teams know how to do.

Go Nats!!

Anonymous said...

There's nothing amazing about Batista avoiding saying out loud that the plunking was intentional. To have said that to the media after the game would have almost certainly guaranteed a suspension by the commissioner's office.

natsfan1a said...

eh, Phillips got what was coming to him. I agree with rmoore re. Batista not saying as much, though.

In other news, I did think that Atilano helped his cause, and hope that Stammen will do the same today (particularly seeing as how I will be in attendance :-)).

Sunderland said...

I doubt there'd be any action from the commissioner's office for a plunking in the ribs. You're allowed to throw at people. The penalty for that is awarding the batter a base.

Grandstander, you're pretty much dead on on all accounts. This team has no depth in the outfield, and we knew this coming into spring training.

(And please don't use this to start an Elijah Dukes discussion. With Dukes, without Dukes, same issue, a lack of talent, a lack of defense, a lack of clutch hitting, a lack of good consistent playing of baseball, a lack of thoughtful base running, etc.)

We have acceptable talent and depth in our infield.

Depth at catcher is not so good, as Nieves is below average at every aspect of the game. When Coste got claimed, and tied up a 40 man spot for 12 months, it made me believe that Flores will not be back this year. We'll see.

Depth at starting pitching is not so good but there's so much in the near term, you just leave it alone and see what happens. (Strasburg, Detwiler, Olsen, Wang, Marquis, and even farther out Zimmermann, and more at AA and AAA).

Depth in the outfield stinks, and there's almost nothing down on the farm that could help us this year.

Depth in the bullpen is something we could address if we wanted to. Capps, Clippard and Storen, Batista make a good start to the pen. If we want to improve it more, we do have Joel Peralto in SYR pitching really well (25 IP, 0.72 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7 BB, 31 K).
We could also pick from our AAAA starters and find a couple guys that could really solidify the pen. (Chico, Kown, Martin, Martis, Stammen (ugh), Wilkie)

I'd like to see the Nats make some moves in the bullpen. As well as having pretty much no downside, it would show everyone that we're trying to do what we can do to get better, to get more wins, to respect the efforts of the guys who go out there every day.

For the outfield, we could have gone after Randy Winn, released by the Yankees and claimed by the Cardinals a few days ago. Much help? Probably not. But it couldn't hurt (except perhaps figuring out what do do with the 40 man roster).

For now, we just trust that Rizzo sees what we see, that he's scheming a bunch of different options, and he'll pull the trigger when it makes sense.
I trust in Rizzo, for sure. I just don't know how tight the purse strings are being held by the Lerners.

K.D. said...

Mark, Just to lighten things up... if you get a chance to talk to Jamie Burke ask him about the game in July 08' with Seattle. He came in to pitch against the Tigers (I think it was the 15th or 16th inning) and struck out Pudge. Pudge had three or four hits that day against real pitchers. Of course Pudge was pretty tired after catching the whole game.

LoveDaNats said...

I was at the game last night. From our seats, I couldn't tell that Desmond had been called for obstruction. After bringing up your blog on my Droid I had the explanation (and your psychic prediction of Phillips plunking). Keep it up. I love your work.

NatsNut said...

...Batista said. "If it looks suspicious, he has the right to throw me out. He was the only one who thought it was intentional."

mmmmm hmmmmm. right.

TheRealFrankL said...

You have to throw at him in this situation, and Batista can't admit it. If he does, then upper management (and the League) have to take notice and do something about it. It's one of the unwritten rules that when you plunk someone you don't admit it-even though everyone knows it was intentional. Plausable deniability.

The real test is if its over today or not. If these guys are pros, and Phillips teammates talked to him, it should be. Yesterday should be over and today should be today.

Couple of really good books on the shelves right now about the unwritten rules-when its appropriate to throw at someone, when it isn't-great read.

Mayhemnsuz said...

Did anyone else feel any mounting frustration with our broadcast team on MASN yesterday? The Leake love fest and attaboys to Phillips for not charging the mound were getting a little tedious.... For a while I really thought I was watching a Reds channel. Particularly when the discussion of the opposing team lead to not calling the game in progress....

Avar said...

Sunderland is dead on re: depth. Infield quality and depth is good to above average. And Desmond still has more upside. Catching quality is good w/ Pudge, the big league depth is very weak. But, the organizational depth is good with Norris, Montz and Harper. I have to say I'm wondering if Flores is going to make it back. How many guys take this long to come back and then are themselves again consistently?

SP and bullpen are in good shape between current roster and minors. But the OF is really in trouble. Love Willngham, and continue to believe we have to give Morgan time. But RF is a gaping whole and we have zero depth. Most good teams have a strong 4th outfielder. And I see no one in the system that gives me any hope.

I really hope that we draft one or two strong college outfielders AND sign a free agent or two. That might turn the tide.

Anonymous said...

Great news about the gusto and testicular fortitude from the Nats, but I'd really like to see some better defense and some freaking W's instead. Little luck would be nice, too.

Anonymous said...

If Nats players had 1/2 the heart that Phillips brings day in and day out, we would not be under .500

Mrs. Z. said...

Sunderland said:
I doubt there'd be any action from the commissioner's office for a plunking in the ribs. You're allowed to throw at people. The penalty for that is awarding the batter a base.

Actually, you're NOT allowed to throw at people. That's why they eject you and fine you when you do...

See Rule 8.02(d)

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