Monday, July 19, 2010

Silver linings from the skies

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Craig Stammen pitched a fantastic game in yesterday's loss.
33,000 FEET OVER SANFORD, FLA. -- I've always wanted to use a dateline like that. Thanks to Delta Airlines and their on-board wi-fi -- where have you been all my life? -- I'm actually able to do it this morning.

As I trek my way north from Fort Lauderdale to Cincinnati, I'm tempted to find more ways to harp on the Nationals' offensive woes from the weekend. But, to be honest, there's not much left to say. They were terrible with men on base the last two days, and thus suffered back-to-back shutouts against the Marlins. No sense rehashing that once again.

So I'm going to take a cue here from Jim Riggleman and look at the glass as half-full for a moment. Despite their obvious travails in certain areas, the Nats did do some really good things over the weekend. Here are a few of them...

After a couple of abysmal outings heading into the All-Star break, Stammen started off the second half in style. It got lost among all the Nats men left on base yesterday, but Stammen tossed a real gem: six innings of one-run ball that included six strikeouts.

The key for Stammen was his ability to throw a nasty slider, providing a change of pace from his bread-and-butter sinker.

"You've just got to be able to throw something for a strike besides the fastball," he said. "Today I was able to do that, so they had to respect more than one pitch."

Starts like this remind you why the Nationals remain high on Stammen: He's capable of dominating an opposing lineup. He's done that probably four or five times this season. The trouble is, he's had just as many (if not more) wretched outings. There seems to be no middle ground with him.

Will he be able to carry this performance over to his next scheduled start (Friday in Milwaukee)? We'll have to wait and see. But both Stammen and the Nationals have to be encouraged by what happened yesterday.

This really got lost amid everything else, but the Nationals' bullpen was superb against the Marlins.

Friday night, Drew Storen and Matt Capps combined to throw three hitless innings and preserve Stephen Strasburg's fourth career win.

Saturday night, Tyler Clippard tossed two perfect innings in relief of Livan Hernandez.

Yesterday afternoon, Joel Peralta followed Stammen and didn't allow a hit over his two innings of work.

Yes, that's seven innings of scoreless, hitless baseball from the Nats' relief corps. Their combined pitching line in the series: 7 ip, 0 h, 0 r, 3 bb, 4 k. Pretty impressive.

"Three days in a row, our starters did a good job and our bullpen didn't give up any runs," Riggleman said. "I'm certainly happy with what took place there."

One of the biggest complaints about the Nationals' offense all season has been the inability of the guys at the top of the lineup to get on base and provide Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham with RBI opportunities.

Well, you couldn't complain about that this weekend. The Nats' Nos. 1 and 2 hitters reached base a combined 10 times in three games. Nyjer Morgan went 4-for-12 with a walk and beat out a pair of bunts for singles. Roger Bernadina had three hits out of the 2-hole on Saturday. Cristian Guzman picked up a hit both Friday and yesterday.

The blame over the weekend didn't go to those guys. It went to Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham, who couldn't drive them in. That said, if Morgan and whoever hits second (Guzman or Bernadina) can continue to reach base at that rate, you've got to like the other guys' chances of driving them in on a more-consistent basis moving forward.

"We had a lot of runners out there," Riggleman said. "We drove them in before the break. Here right after the break, we're not driving them in."

That's all for now from the friendly skies (oops, wrong airline). Don't forget to keep your seatbelts fastened and your tray tables in the locked, upright position until the plane has come to a complete stop at the gate. I'll have more from Great American Ball Park later this afternoon.


HHover said...

Mark - I appreciate your efforts to find the silver lining--maybe it's easier to spot from 30K feet.

I think you're spot on about all 3 points. The question, of course, is whether those things are signs of what's to come or just flukes. I wish I found it easier to believe the former than the latter--certainly as to the 1st pt and the 3rd.

Anonymous said...

That's easy, the problems with the last two games (two games, people) were exactly the opposite of the kind of problems that we should expect to be recurring. Fluke. If we keep losing it will definitely, certainly, without a doubt be for OTHER reasons. I.e., regression on some or all the things we did RIGHT the last three days. By any reasonable measure, this has been an encouraging start to the second half.

Anonymous said...

Losing teams find a way to lose.

When our hitting is going well, our pitching is weak. In close games our defense often lets us down. When the pitching is strong our bats usually fade into the background.

The only true silver lining will occur when we can succeed at all of these elements at the same time on a consistent basis. “Cherry picking” these good performances leads to false optimism. And at this point (12 games under .500)optimism will lead us down the wrong path from a personnel perspective.

JayB said... win or you lose...Marks Cherry Picking is useless and dangerous as we know from past 100 lose seasons.....No progress without wins.

Sunderland said...

Anon 11:45 - An encouraging start? By any reasonable measure?
How many runners did we have thrown out on the basepaths? (4)
How many successfull sacrifice bunts did we get down? (0)
How many times did we strike out (30)!

Some good things happened, for sure.
But I do not look back on this 3 game series and feel encouraged.

Because much of what failed us during this series is influenced by coaching and managing. It's been stuff uncorrected all season, and there is no logigal reason to believe it is going to be corrected anytime soon.

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_for_Me said...

OK, I'll look at the bright side. Nobody got killed when we got into our running the bases like Helen Keller on crack mode.

There, I can be a sunny optimist too.

Anonymous said...

Regarding a team that can't seem to put all the good stuff together, I recall someone once saying to me, "Do you know what it means when your pitching is good on the days you don't hit, and on the days you score plenty of runs your pitching and/or defense lets up more? It means you stink."

Anonymous said...

So far, Stammen has been a big tease; very much like Jason Bergmann was for so many seasons. He has a stellar outing, gets everyone excited, then follows it up with with a couple of outings where he stinks up the joint. If he starts to acquire some consistency, I will change my mind about him.

Sunderland said...

Another good thing that happened during the last series, no one got stung by those bees.

Optimism is fun, but I bet it's gonna wear off pretty quick.

(Hey - I wonder if Stan K invited those bees to the ballpark?)

Anonymous said...

Not a constructive question at all, but something that's been in the back of my mind for the last couple of weeks: how come everybody keeps harping on Lerners/Rizzo for not signing O. Hudson in the offseason, but no one has pointed out the season Kelly Johnson has been having for Arizona? IIRC, Kennedy and Johnson were both available at the same time, and about for the same price (a lot cheaper than Hudson's), and Rizzo chose Kennedy. Why don't we second guess Riz for that choice?

Doc said...

When in doubt, Rizzo goes for the grizzled veteran. Unless they're from the Arizona farm system, then younger is OK! Like most who have a scouting background Rizzo continues to believe in his own clan of prospects, even when there is little to believe in.

Also, Rizzo tilts towards signing pitching prospects, over position players--hence the logjam of OF/IF Nats talent in their minor league system.

How much better would Desmond be, if he had a really good second baseman to play with regularly??

A DC Wonk said...

Doomsayers -- deal with it. Our bullpen is magnitudes improved from last year. The past week is not proof of it -- it's evidence of it.

(Anyone remember Kensing, Mock, Rivera, Sosa, Ballester, etc etc?)

Our pitching overall is almost a full run (ERA) improved from last year.

We still have a long way to go -- but improving pitching from far and away dead last to almost-average is a necessary and not-so-trivial first step.

Anonymous said...

Baseball is like gambling. There are smart bets and dumb bets. When you make the smart bet and you lose, just shake it off. When you make the dumb bet and you lose, time to rethink. When you make the dumb bet and you win, well, don't start planning your second home just yet because its probably all going to be house money soon.

These two games (two games people!) we lost because Zim, Dunn, and Hammer couldn't get anything going when it counted most. I don't think there is much to be gained from hand-wringing about that. When three great, professional hitters have two bad days in a row and we lose because of it, the one and only lesson to take away from that is... that's baseball.

Too often, commenters on this site sound like political bloviators, trying to score points for whatever their pet projects are, be it fire lenny harris, or bowden, or acta, or nieves, or what-have-you (all moves I agree with, by the way). Now, if Nieves had left all those guys on base, then you'd have an argument. One game, or one series, or one fortnight, is never enough to evaluate a player/coach/manager etc. But everybody is so keyed into recency, the latest news cycle, that three-quarters of what I read in the comments is utter hogwash.

That "you win or lose" talk is pure foolishness. This isn't the playoffs, and this isn't a playoff team. When you are in a playoff race, THEN you just win or lose. For those looking to get within shouting distance, the win-loss total shouldn't be everything. The more imporant question is, are we making smart bets or dumb bets? what needs fixing? Because you don't just win or lose. You win or lose the right or the wrong way.

Now, I'm sure everybody knows this on some level. That's why we don't lose our shit when Strasburg took some tough-luck losses. Thats why (at least those with some intelligence) didn't panic when Dunn went, what, a month(?) without a homerun. By and large (and that's all that matters in baseball) we know those guys are going to pay off big time.

Why didn't the 2005 Nats win the world series? Because even when they were winning they were winning in an incredibly lucky way day in an day out. You can win the wrong way (i.e., not sustainable) and, yes, you can lose the right way (again, not sustainable). This isn't football; in baseball you really can't win them all.

Does this mean that the critics don't have a point? Of course not! Nieves is not going to carry this team to greatness. But, these two games are evidence of nothing bad at all. In fact, there are some truly encouraging signs that Mark noted above that maybe, maybe, Stammen could be a marginally decent bet, and maybe this bullpen will be valuable for the team, etc. Only time will tell, of course, but there is no reason to freak out about these two games.

bobn said...

Are there stats on base-running errors? Seems to me that running mistakes ought to be noted in the box score. I would think the Nats are right up there.

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