Monday, July 12, 2010

First half: The best and the worst

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Stephen Strasburg's arrival highlighted the first half of the Nationals' season.
Was the first half of the Nationals' season eventful? Is Ed "Too Tall" Jones too tall?

Quite a bit has happened in NatsTown since Barack Obama threw out the first pitch on April 5, from that Opening Day debacle against the Phillies to a string of dramatic victories over the last week. There's plenty to rehash, analyze and criticize, and there's plenty to look ahead to in the season's second half.

I'll try to touch on all of that the next few days as the All-Star break continues, but I wanted to start with a look back at the most significant moments of the first half. Here are some of the best (and the worst) of the last 3 1/2 months...

July 3: Nats 6, Mets 5
What began as Strasmas VI, with a sellout crowd at Nationals Park (and a national TV audience on Fox) eager to watch Stephen Strasburg take down the Mets on Independence Eve, turned into something far more incredible. Strasburg labored through five innings, though he kept the damage to only two runs. When Tyler Clippard entered for the eighth and allowed three runs to put New York up 5-2, the day looked ruined. Many fans streamed for the exits. Not so fast, folks. The Nats rallied in stunning fashion in the bottom of the ninth. Adam Dunn nearly clubbed a walk-off grand slam off Francisco Rodriguez, instead settling for a controversial double off the top of the wall that nearly led to a collision at third base between Cristian Guzman and Willie Harris. No matter, because two batters later, Ivan Rodriguez singled past a five-man infield to bring the winning run home in the wildest game of the year to date. Leave it to the always-quotable Drew Storen to put this one in perspective: "Today was a reminder of why baseball is so great."

April 5: Phillies 11, Nats 1
Is there anything worse than playing your worst game of the season on Opening Day? Well, yeah, playing your worst game of the season on Opening Day with the President of the United States and 20,000 Phillies fans in attendance. It was a debacle on many levels, and it offered some clues for what was to come. John Lannan struggled through the first of many poor starts that ultimately earned him a ticket to Harrisburg. Ian Desmond committed an error on his first chance of the season. Willie Harris, the Opening Day right fielder and No. 2 hitter, went 0-for-4. It was an embarrassing start to the season, and it left many worried that nothing really had changed in NatsTown.

July 7: Adam Dunn
Dunn has hit 338 home runs in a career that has regularly boasted 40-homer seasons. But the big guy had never hit three in one game. Until last week, when he blasted the Padres for a hat trick that earned him a curtain call. The performance also prompted fans and media members alike to scream for the Nats to re-sign the pending free agent and not trade him away before the end of the month. In the Nationals' brief history, only one other player has homered three times in a game: Alfonso Soriano, who also was the subject of trade rumors leading up to the July 31 deadline. The Nats didn't deal Soriano, and they didn't re-sign him either. Instead, they let him walk as a free agent and received two draft picks as compensation (Jordan Zimmermann and Josh Smoker).

June 16: Nyjer Morgan
Full disclaimer: It's not fair to rip on one guy for one bad day at the plate. But Morgan's performance that evening in Detroit was wretched. He was simply no match for Tigers ace Justin Verlander. He struck out looking in the first inning. He struck out swinging in the third inning. He again struck out swinging in the fifth. And then, with a shot at the Golden Sombrero in the eighth, he weakly grounded Verlander's first pitch to third base to finish 0-for-4. Not the best night for Nyjer, who had been frustrating fans for weeks with his inability to get on base.

June 8: Stephen Strasburg
I briefly considered giving this to Scott Olsen, who on May 6 carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Braves. It was a fabulous performance for a guy who really did pitch well before his surgically repaired shoulder finally caved in. But come on, how could Strasburg's debut not be the choice? With all that hoopla and pressure surrounding him, with a sellout crowd on hand and a media contingent that rivaled one you'd see at a postseason series, the 21-year-old surpassed everyone's expectations with a performance for the ages. Fourteen strikeouts, including seven in a row to end his night. We all witnessed the birth of a phenomenon, and we may never again see anything like it.

April 18: Jason Marquis
It was bad enough that Marquis failed to retire any of the seven Brewers he faced that afternoon. It was worse that all seven wound up scoring. It was even worse that this was the right-hander's third straight ugly start to open the season. The real kicker, though, was that a few days later, Marquis would acknowledge there was something wrong with his elbow. An MRI revealed bone chips, so he went under the knife to remove them and hasn't returned since. Did we mention the Nats signed this guy last winter to a two-year, $15 million contract primarily because of his rock-solid reputation as a workhorse who never got hurt?

June 25: Nyjer Morgan
Morgan has been criticized plenty for his misplays in center field this season (more on that in a moment) but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better play made all year than Nyjer's leap at the wall at Camden Yards to rob Corey Patterson of a home run. Shoot, it even left J.D. Martin (the least-animated guy on the roster) screaming in disbelief. Just an incredible play. (Honorable mention to Willie Harris for his game-saving catch at Citi Field on April 10. It prompted me to come up what I have to humbly admit was one of my favorite game stories I've ever written.)

May 22: Nyjer Morgan
Boy, Nyjer sure has figured into a lot of significant events this season, hasn't he? Shows you just how important he is to this team, both in good and bad ways. There's no sugarcoating his gaffe against the Orioles one month before that spectacular catch against the same team. His misplay of Adam Jones' drive off the center field wall was bad. His subsequent reaction was embarrassing. Morgan slammed his glove to the ground, believing the ball had crossed the fence for a home run. The only problem: The ball was sitting about 10 feet to his left. By the time Josh Willingham came all the way over from left field to retrieve it, Jones had an inside-the-park home run. It was the second inside-the-parker hit against the Nats in four days. Both involved Morgan.

So there are just a few of the many highlights from the season's first half. I'm curious what everyone else thinks. Do you agree with these choices, or would you pick any other moments as the best/worst?

Plenty more first-half analysis and second-half preview to come in the next three days...


Nattydread said...

Thanks for this Mark! Great Post.

How about best/worst clutch hitting performances and best/worst clutch pitching performances.

Without getting doing the analysis of specifics, I would give Pudge the first and Clippard the latter.


KateKirk said...

Worst series: losing to the O's. THAT was demoralizing.

Bowdenball said...

What about Smartest Play and Worst Brain Fart?

I submit Bernadina betting picked off second as the lead runner down two runs in the bottom of the ninth as the Worst Brain Fart. Possibly the single dumbest play I've ever seen a baseball player make. There was not one reason for him to take a lead at all. In any review of the first half of the season, that play deserves mention with Nyjer's CF conniption and

Smartest Play: Nothing comes to mind, because they just don't stand out as much as stupid plays. But whatever it is, I'm assuming Pudge made it.

Also, Nattydread: I nominate Zimmerman's season-saving (for at least a month or two) pinch-hit HR to beat the Phillies in mid-April as the clutch hit of the first half. Either that or Bernadina's 2 HR game to beat the Mets, his first two MLB HRs.

Nervous Nats Fan said...

Great post! Enjoyed reliving the highs, and trying to drown my sorrows (with Dr. Pepper!) reliving the lows.

I might have gone with one of the Orioles games as the worst game of the season, primarily because of the expectations the team created for themselves with the first part of the season. With the Phillies game, I felt my hopes for the season crushed, but they weren't built up that much yet.

swang said...

Speaking of Bernie, what about that scoring from second on a failed pickoff? I mean, when have you ever seen that?

Stew Magnuson said...

How about a column on the worst music selection by the Nats players/Sound man?
Does anyone other than Strasburg — who comes in to Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes — have decent taste in music?
I hope the Nats trade Capps just so I don't have to hear The Final Count Down by Europe anymore. God, I hope they don't pay that if/when he comes into the All Star game. It would be an embarrassment.

nats rising said...

For best team defensive play - last Tuesday's game against the Padres to preserve the tie broken moments later by Zimmerman's walk off home. Willingham to Desmond to Pudge to prevent the go ahead run in the top of the ninth after the Nats had just blown a 3 run lead in the eighth. Perfectly executed.

Anonymous said...

I mistakenly posted this on an older story when it belongs on this string. So with apologies for those seeing it twice, here are my comments on where the team is at the break:

Biggest surprise (and disappointment) of the year is Nyger going from being the positive spark of 2009 to being a knucklehead in the field, on the bases and in the batter's box.

Riggs does over manage at times but he's not the major problem. There's not much a manager can do when he's handed a five run deficit in the first couple of innings.

Another disappointment is the lack of clutch hitting and this failure even hits our best guys. It's great to see Dunn on a tear but what was his streak at one point for runners in scoring position with two outs? I lost count at 0 for 24 IIRC.

Regarding pitching, we have just two legitimate big league starters Livan and Strasburg going for us now. With Olson out, Zimmermann trying to get back in A ball, and Wang just a distant rumor, this 10-game road trip could get ugly.

A DC Wonk said...

Biggest surprise (but favorable) - a 38 year old catcher. coming off a sub.250 season, re-tooling his swing, and hitting .296 going into the All Star break (and 5th in RBI's for the team, 3rd in doubles).

natsfan1a said...

Speaking only for myself, I prefer not to single out "worst" performances.

However, I would add Livo's complete game shutout to the "best" pitching performances area in my personal Hall of Nats Fame. I went to the game on a whim and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was part of the cheering throng as he came out to bat late in the game and we realized that he was going to pitch in the 9th. Granted, I've had a soft spot for the guy since 2005, but that was some performance, and who knows when or whether he might pitch another, given that he is presently (cough) thirty-five years old. I would also guess that it might have been particularly gratifying for him given the lack of demand for his services earlier this year.

On a lighter note, and in light of Mark's opening line above, how about a "best new commercials" category? I'm torn between the one featuring R. Lee Ermey as a therapist and the one featuring the results of a snowball fight with Randy Johnson. I like 'em both. On the former, my only regret is that he didn't use the "what is your major malfunction" line, but perhaps there were copyright issues. :-)

On a somewhat related note, in the "worst timing of a scoreboard feature" category, I'd give a nod to the one equating various Nats players with superheroes. When it played in the bottom of the 9th yesterday, it seemed a tad bit off, given what had taken place up to that point in the game. heh.

John O'Connor said...


Best walk-up/walk-in music: Dunn, Peralta, Morse

Worst: Zimmerman (by a wide margin), Nieves, Willingham (except when he does Skynard or Peasrl Jam).

LoveDaNats said...


Add to the first half highlights your coverage. (I know....sounds like I'm sucking up). Especially when at a game I always had the reasons for what was happening, injury reports, etc. Thoroughly enjoyable!

As for a highlight, I'm still waiting for my first win at Nats Park. Went to the game yesterday, my 8th game this season without a win. I'm getting kind of tired knowing the outcome before I get there. :)

Traveler8 said...

Best walkup music by far is Tony Vega for Wil Nieves - seems to me that that would be an excellent late game substitute for Sweet Caroline. Dave and Charlie apparently agree, because that is the only walkup music they play.

Les in NC said...

They (the Nationals) went from a .299 winning percentage (pre ASG) in '09, to a .440 winning percentage (post ASG). Thats an increase of .141%. They currently have a win % of .438, so if they could duplicate the increase in percentage points from last year (post ASG) they could get to 82 wins this season! Wouldn't that be crazy?
Lets say they dont produce those kind of results for the remainder of the year, but are able to play .500, then 74 wins would be the ceiling.
It may sound crazy, but everyone here knows this team is capable of winning more than they lose. It's just a matter of the team "putting it all together" until October. Yes, they may be out of the post season race but its an impressive improvement over the last 2 seasons.

Bowdenball said...


I think we all know it depends in large part on the health of our pitching staff.

To that end- if Mark's taking suggestions, how about a full review of the status of all the injured or rehabbing Nats players some time over the break? We;ve all seen bits and pieces here and there, especially recently about Zimm, Detwiler, and Flores. But I think a full review of everyone in one place would be a GREAT read and something all of us would appreciate and enjoy. I know at least I would.

Knoxville Nat said...


To add to Bowdenball's suggestion how about a detailed look at any prospects in the minors, how they are performing so far, who is likely for a September call up, who might help us next season?

Anonymous said...

Pudge's offence has really been pretty bad when you look under the covers: OPS is 713 (compared to 909 for Zim, 913 for Willingham and 959 for Dunn) the OBP is 325 which means that he doesn't walk; 1 home run which means that he is essentially a mediocre singles hitter. Take away his hot first 6 weeks and his numbers are exactly in line to what we should have expected.

HHover said...

Anon @ 4:42 - While you're right that Pudge's #s don't qualify as a best of the season, they're still somewhat surprising and certainly welcome when a) they come from a 38-yr-old catcher, and b) the Nats are otherwise so sorely lacking in both offense and defense at the position.

Anonymous said...

@anonymous 4:41,

On Pudge, all that says is that he should be batting eighth or ninth not 5th or 6th. Desmond's OBP is lower so he would bat ninth. But Pudge's OBP is usually about the same as Guzman's and Guzman bats second??

Plus there's this:

113 AB, .218 OBP, .186 average with 1 homer and an OPS of .475? Yep, that's who plays when Pudge must rest, Will Nieves.

Given the clear defensive advantage (with game calling) that Pudge represents? And given his "alternative"? Who are we kidding? He probably is one of the team's MVP's because no one expected that much offense from a 39 year old catcher!

That said, do they need another catcher? Possibly as much or more than they need another power pitcher in the top 3 rungs of the rotation. And they do need that desperately.

Sec3mySofa said...

@Anon at 4:42--what they said, and ...
I think you're cherrypicking, and using the wrong stats while you're at it. He's not leading off, he's hitting middle-down in the order, and his 27 RBI from there are a respectable 8th in the NL, which is actually more impressive, given that he's not driving himself in like Olivo or McCann.

ChicagoNatsGirl said...

A little off topic, but I wondered if anyone else saw Stephen Strasburg's "Beyond Baseball" commercial during the Home Run Derby tonight. Before I even knew what it was, I said to my husband, "This is going to make me cry" (because all of the commercials do--can't say why) and it did. It was really good. It ends with "This is beyond heat. This is beyond baseball." They'll probably play about 15 times during the 7 or 8 hours it takes to play the All Star game tomorrow night.

Anonymous said...

Would you please drop the "Strasmas" line. It's getting old and it detracts from Stephen's talent and true accomplishments thusfar. Enough already. Find another phrase.

Another Anonymous said...

We're talking baseball here -- and it's only baseball, not world peace of famine relief. A form of of show biz. LOL. I'm fine with the Strasmas stuff.

natsfan1a said...

Chi-town, nah, that one doesn't make me cry. Maybe if it was a PSA, talking about a cause that was bigger than baseball. But more hype about the "legend," meh, not so much. (No offense to the kid and his talent but...geez...) And, not that it matters much, but I agree with anon 1:21 re. the "Strasmas" designator. Actually, I was not big on it from the start (so to speak).

Doc said...

Overall, for me, the best part of the first half of the season was your coverage, Mark. I don't follow other ball sites, but your's has to be right up there!

That July 3rd game with Willie and Guz coming down the 3rd base line, and Pudge's walk-off--now that was a Nat's game I'll always remember. Be even better if it was part of a Championship season!

Anonymous said...

That July 3rd game with Willie and Guz coming down the 3rd base line,

And Guzman almost screwed that one up!!!

Was listening to the podcast that had Brian Oliver, Dave Nichols and Greg DiPalma. All seemed in complete agreement that it would be a complete waste for a team that will likely only post 70 (or fewer) wins to start or even use Cristian Guzman at this point. That it might be better to see what Alberto Gonzalez can do along with Desmond. The same might be said of Willie Harris. Been thinking that myself for a very long time. But Riggleman, will of course, do precisely the opposite while losing 70 (or fewer) games and losing vital major league reps for potential future prospects.

This is where I begin to wonder what Mike Rizzo and staff are thinking?

Anonymous said...

But more hype about the "legend," meh, not so much. (No offense to the kid and his talent but...geez...) And, not that it matters much, but I agree with anon 1:21 re. the "Strasmas" designator.

Just means you will have to find a 'nickname' for Franchise Savior II who will replace Franchise Savior I, Stephen Strasburg, at the end of August as the top of the rotation starter: Jordan Zimmermann. They may briefly work together in August, let's hope 'the hype' rubs off on Zimmnn ... adds a kind of synergy to his efforts.

natsfan1a said...

peric, Z-nn doesn't need that kind of pressure, imo.

Section 222 said...

Late to the party, but just wanted to note that getting crushed by the Phillies on opening day wasn't really unexpected or all that demoralizing. We had 161 games left after that after all. The Houston series at the end of May was -- Guzman dropping a game ending fly ball. Berkman striking out but getting another chance because the 3rd base ump wouldn't call his check swing a swing. Losing three in a row to a worse team after crushing them in the first game of the series. That's where the wheels starting coming off in my opinion.

A question for Mark (or the masses) on your CSN article: What's the theory behind paying Harper a bigger signing bonus than SS but less salary so the total contract comes in below SS's $15.1 million?

Anonymous said...

peric, Z-nn doesn't need that kind of pressure, imo.

I think its far too late for that 1a. At the all star game they talk about the guy with wonder and awe. You have veteran all stars asking for his autograph for their kids.

Zimmnn has seen this. He and the other pitchers don't have to look outside their own bullpen and clubhouse to know what the high bar looks like. Its right in front of them now. And perhaps JZimmnn who does have some very good potential as a starter, feels its achievable.

The pitching among last years' prospects has improved over their 2009 baptism in fire. Especially non-prospect JD Martin, perhaps the most competitive of anyone on the current pitching staff. But he'll have some competition for that moniker when Trevor Holder finds his way to the majors.

The next two years are going to be interesting. These players just need to find the right manager, and coaching staff to shepherd their development.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Sec 222: Regarding Harper, he could end up getting a larger signing bonus than Strasburg's $7.5 million but not surpass the overall $15.1 million figure if he only gets a minor-league contract. Strasburg got a major-league deal, which includes four years' worth of guaranteed salary. Only a handful of draft picks (usually college players) have ever gotten big-league deals. Since Harper is still 17, I wouldn't be surprised if he gets a minor-league contract. Then, to account for his immense talent, the Nats would give him a larger signing bonus than Strasburg got.

Anonymous said...

Like Nervous Nat, I believe the Oriole series was the worst games and specifically that Friday one. When you have a six run lead to the worst team in baseball relatively late in the game you should win. While it was bad losing to Philly by that margin, off-the-field was worse with Obama wearing a Sox cap and the busloads of Philly fans booing Zimm while the Nats were honoring his 2009 accomplishments.

Stew, I agree the Nats lack some musical taste. I think what you want in this department is something that distinguishes you. Clipp' Peaches by POTUS is my fav. Morse, idk what its called is also good. I like Sean Burnett, "Here I go Again on my own." I like Zimms music choices but I think he needs to pick something uniquely Zimm. I think Stras as noted above is the perfect choice for him. Storen needs to find the next "Enter Sandman." One thing I won't miss when Capps is gone is the "Final Countdown," which is way too generic especially coming usually after the Nats play "Zombie Nation."

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