Sunday, July 11, 2010

A sour end to the season's first half

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
The Nationals stranded 13 men on base in today's loss.
As much as the Nationals have tried to view this season as 162 individual games, never looking back or looking forward, it was tough for everyone to pack their bags this afternoon and not embark on the All-Star break with a sour taste in their mouths.

There was an opportunity this weekend to erase some of the frustration of the last month and close out the season's first half on a high note. Two days ago, the Nats were 5-3 on this homestand, with a chance to finish it 6-4 or even 7-3.

And then they put forth a couple of duds against the Giants, losing last night 10-5 when Tyler Clippard imploded in the seventh and then losing today 6-2 after Livan Hernandez spotted San Francisco a five-run lead.

What could have been an uplifting conclusion to the season's first half instead ended on another downswing, not to mention a 39-50 record and a firm grip on last place in the NL East.

For the fifth consecutive season, the Nationals head into the All-Star break with at least 50 losses in the books, an ignominious streak they could have snapped with just one weekend victory.

Which isn't to say this team hasn't made some significant strides over the last 3 1/2 months. These aren't the 2009 Nats, who a year ago at this point were 26-61 and about to fire Manny Acta. But there's also a sense around this club that things could (and should) be better than this.

"There's progress," Jim Riggleman said. "But we want to get to the point where we're not satisfied with progress. We want to make that next step."

Two things the Nationals could do immediately to help them take another step forward rather than two steps back: 1) Quit putting themselves in an early hole every night, and 2) Take better advantage of what scoring opportunities they get.

For some reason, the Nats' starting rotation was unable to escape the first inning unscathed the entire homestand. When Hernandez put his teammates in a 2-0 hole today, it represented the 10th time in 11 games the opposition has scored in the first inning.

"We try," Hernandez said. "We try to [get] people out 1-2-3 in the first inning. But it's not happening right now."

The Nationals actually had managed to overcome the early deficits through much of the homestand, winning five of those 10 games. But as Riggleman put it, "that's not the way you draw it up."

So the pressure will be on Stephen Strasburg, Hernandez and the rest of the rotation to come out of the chute in better shape when the season reconvenes Friday night in Miami. After that, the pressure will be on the Nats' lineup to make the most of its scoring opportunities.

There were plenty of those today; The Nationals put 17 men on base in nine innings, 11 of them in the game's final four innings. Only two of them actually scored.

What was the key at-bat during that stretch? Take your pick. Michael Morse came up with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, got ahead of Giants rookie Madison Bumgarner to create a 2-1 count and then flied out to right. One inning later, the bases were loaded again with one out and Josh Willingham at the plate. He proceeded to get three straight sliders from Sergio Romo for strikes, whiffing at the last two.

"He's got a good slider, but I'd never seen it before," Willingham said. "Next time, I'll have a better chance."

The Nationals had done a much better job hitting in the clutch in last week, led by a torrid Adam Dunn. But this lineup still hasn't shown an ability to sustain offensive momentum from game to game.

So inside a mostly quiet postgame clubhouse in which only one of eight TVs was turned on -- a couple of guys were watching the final minutes of the World Cup final -- players packed their bags and wished each other a pleasant All-Star break.

They dispersed around the country, eager to get away from baseball for a few days.

They were not in poor spirits, by any means. But after a couple of lackluster losses just when it looked like things were taking a turn for the better, the mood was less-than-ecstatic.

"It should leave a sour taste," Riggleman said. "When you lose, it should be a sour taste. And it is."


Doc said...

There is not much more to say than that which you have stated, Mark. As fans, we are fans because we look on the optimistic side of things. The Nats lost 4 of 5 starters out of the ST crew. No team hoping to be successful can afford to do that. The defense appears to be picking it up, the last few games.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, MZ. I know your view is more subtle and nuanced than mine but still I ask: do you see this team as inadequate on offense or or defense. From where I sit (in the cheap seats) I could live with the bats. It's the woeful pitching that drives me crazy.

Knoxville Nat said...

Anon 7:52,

Agree on the woeful pitching but I'm also disappointed in the fact that too often this team doesn't seem to think i.e., swinging at the first pitch after the previous batter walked on 4-5 pitches, or throwing to the wrong base (yes, Nyjer I'm talking about you!), or perhaps trying to force a play in the field that just isn't there (Ian Desmond.)

This team is improved over the 2008 and 2009 version however they still need to get a whole more of "baseball smarts" in my opinion.

Knoxville Nat said...

"a whole LOT more of baseball smarts"

My bad!!

yankish2 said...

The first half of the season showed us that we need a center fielder, right fielder and second baseman. The pitching staff needs the injured arms to heal. Zimm asks not to break up the 3-4-5 guys in the lineup, but we learned that these 3 guys are far from clutch. Get busy Mike Rizzo.

natscan reduxit said...

... a philospher, wise beyond his years, once observed, "The best thing about baseball is that hope is born all over again every day."

... he was so right.

Go Nats!! ... and enjoy your days off.

Anonymous said...


I go into every single game expecting a win. (I know am not realistic) Mark hit the problems in the head. Starting pitching gives up to many early runs, and we leave a log of men on base. Both of those can be corrected with proper preparation.

I am assuming we will come and win our next one, just I assume we would win the last one.

Go Nats

My guess is Adam Dunn will not win player of the week, as Posey even had a better week (some of that is thanks to our weak pitching this past week). Adam was 10 for 22 with 1 2B 5 HR, 10 RBIs. and 3 BB.

Anonymous said...

Gentlemen, I believe in "the plan". The team is much improved over 2008 and 2009. With Strasburg, JZim and other soon to be healed DL'ers, our 2011 starters will be competitive. I have to question if Rigglemen is the right choice to continue beyond this year. His managerial decisions leave a lot to be desired. The bottom of the 6th inning Saturday night represented some of the worse managing I have ever witnessed. I wonder what a life long baseball scout and recent GM Mike Rizzo thinks about his manager's lineups and in-game decisions. More importantly, what do the experienced players on the team think?IMHO, I think Riggleman's decisions will consistently preclude them from stringing 3 or 4 victories together. We should have had our 2nd Curley W in a row Saturday night. Instead a potential victory was gift wrapped and handed to the Giants who then proceeded to win the next game. It is becoming more and more painful to watch a Riggleman managed team. Any thoughts?

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me said...

@Anonymous 10:21:

Riggs is not the greatest manager, but is far from the worst. Yes, he does overmanage. Yes, he's plays the righty-lefty game, ad nauseum. But the fact of the matter is he feels he needs to maximize the mostly AAAA talent he has except for Zimm, Dunn, Willy and a couple of others. So he platoons and plays the percentages.

The reason we're complaining is that Riggs' moves don't produce results. But that's because his players don't hit in clutch situations, and throw the ball away on defense at a league-leading rate.

If they could hit, pitch and catch the ball a little better, Riggs' moves would look a lot better.

I, for one, hope he is here in 2011 and 2012 to reap some of the benefits from watching all this misery.

Happy All-Star break to all. I'm heading to the beach. There's something like 90 hours before the next game. I'm taking advantage of them.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is only a matter of time that Rigglemen will be gone. He manages by formula and loyalty to players rather than instinct and passion. That's not the leader that this team needs.

Anonymous said...

2013 Opening Day Line-up:

CF Bernadina
SS/2B Espinosa
3B Zimmerman
1B Dunn
LF Willingham
RF Harper
2B/SS Desmond
C Norris
SP Strasburg

Starting Rotation
SP Strasburg
SP Zimmermann
SP ???
SP ???
SP ???

CL Storen

I like this preposition. Except for the starting staff; we need more real Major League starters. But aside from that, what do you guys think?

Markfd said...

Great 1st half from the reporting angle, lots of exciting angles that were well written!

Anonymous said...

how many runners have we left on base this season and where does that rank in the majors?

Anonymous said...

It's gut check time. Flores isn't back. Zimmermann isn't back. Olson isn't back. Wang isn't back. And they won't be when the Nats open up on Friday. I expect Strasburg to pitch a gem, because it's become apparent that he's good and that committed. From there who knows. A ten game road trip. What can we expect. Will be five games under .500 or twenty games under .500 when it's over. Is the team going to play to win or it is going to a continuing excercise of Riggleman playing big league manager with minor league talent. Riggleman doesn't have the depth or breath to play match-up and situational. Settle on who is going to play second base on a regular basis. Settle on whether Beradino is going to play center field and Morse in right. Send Clippard back to Syracuse for the rest of the season to get confidence back in his fast ball. And for once, start holding these guys accountable when make errors or miss cutoff. Sign Dunn. Start winning now

Water23 said...

No, CF hep this year as the Nats just announced July 31ist is Nyger Morgan bobblehead night. Although, it would be a little funny to give out the bobblehead and trade him by midnight!

natsfan1a said...

natscan, thanks for the philosophical tidbit, which buoyed my spirits.

Markfd, I agree re. MZ's first-half reporting. A big atta boy to him!

I join Sunshine in wishing all of you (ladies and gentlemen, guys and gals) a pleasant and refreshing All-Star break.

natsfan1a said...

Oops. Yeah, I think maybe I do need a break. ;-)

NatsJack in Florida said...

Having spent Tuesday through Friday last week watching my beloved Nats in the exreme heat, I am proud to say that I saw the boys go 3-1 for my trip.

Dunn was great, Strasburg was great, and Mat Latos for the Padres was great.

I am of the opinion that Riggs needs to send out his best all around position players every nite like Charlie Manuel does with the Phillies and let the chips fall where they may. This neans sitting Nyger Morgan, and playing Bernandina in CF and Morse in RF for the rest of the season!

We also need to bring Chico up for some starts and see if he's really back and let Stammen go back to Syracuse to work on becoming consistant.

Detwiler can replace Atilano for exactly the same reason.

Anonymous said...

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.

Anonymous said...

The positives?

In spite of both fans and manager (Riggleman) efforts to denigrate them; Martin and Morse continue to improve and even thrive! Morse looks perhaps like another Hammer in the making ... unlike the other "pitch to contact" prospects that have been around since last year and before, he continues to improve and compete! As his pitching repertoire increases so too will his ability to go deeper into games ala Livo. Alberto Gonzalez also continues to improve ... any chance he gets he takes and runs with it to prove he belongs in the starting lineup.

Roger Bernadina has done a great job proving that he belongs in the major leagues and his efforts as a starter in right field have been for the most part exemplary given that this is his first year and he is essentially a rookie.

Strasburg and Storen who both more than live up to their billing as the cream of last year's draft crop.

The back end relief pitching, in terms of the setup and closers role is so well stocked, is so deep that many conclude a trade for the Nats single All Star is almost a foregone conclusion. And this is certainly Mike Rizzo's doing. Its so deep they seem able to easily move Clippard back to middle/long relief.

Livan "Ponce De Leon" Hernandez and Ivan "Pudge the immortal" Rodriguez. These are your two MVP's at this juncture of the season. What can you say about these two? I found it hard to vote Zimmmerman over Voto for the All Star game, given the kind of effort these two players put into this season. Their hearts and souls.

Anonymous said...

The negatives?

The lack of any other power pitcher in the front of the rotation (stopper) other than Strasburg. Zimmermann is still rehabbing, sooner than expect, still he will likely not be in the rotation with Stras until next year as Stras is due to be shutdown at 160 innings. Olsen's shoulder never really completely recovered. He would have been the perfect #3 pitcher to compliment Stras and Zimmn. Then there's Detwiler and his hip? From the beginning of ST Marquis was a huge disappointment. Watching Olsen we all had to figure that Wang with an even more serious version of his injury would not be available this year. At the most Hernandez was supposed to be a #5 starter. Right now he is safely ensconced in the #2 slot with the often unfairly maligned JD Martin in the #3.

Riggleman's MI rotation experiment, intended to ensure that Guzman would continue to start, was a miserable failure when all was said and done. Batting Guzman second is a sure way to have bases empty when Zimmermann, Dunn and Willingham come up. Especially when you factor in the struggles that Morgan has had this year ... at bat and in the field. Guzman's fielding at second is often miserable. Albeit Kennedy's hasn't really been better. Desmond is a rookie shortstop and looks like a prospect and a rookie. Lots of potential, lots of mistakes. Still he is far and away better than Guzman at shortstop. The guy Riggleman should have been using more than Guzman (or Harris) Gonzalez was barely seen at all. And he may be the surest MI fielder of everyone on the major league staff.

I think what I've just described is that "strong" middle the Nats were supposed to feature this year? It didn't happen, instead 75 errors happened. A lack of "clean" baseball happened.
(However, catcher, when Pudge plays, is extremely strong.) Because the MI rotation was Riggleman's along with his odd, inconsistent, and often nonsensical lineups, his performance must be considered a negative? And a major reason they are currently 11 games under .500, safely ensconced in the NL East cellar after a strong start.

In the end Morse and Bernadina seemed to do okay in right field. Combined they have nine home runs, 11 doubles, 2 triples, above .280 average with 31 RBI's. The problem with right field was again Riggleman. Who had to find some way to keep Guzman in the lineup? So, he, Harris or JMax would too often end up in right field instead of Morse and Bernadina. Why? Guzman's power had diminished he only has 10 doubles and 1 home run. He did get 4 triples. But only 22 RBI's. Compare this production to that of Bernadina and Morse in far fewer at bats? He doesn't walk so his OBP is often less than marginal. His fielding skills have declined and diminished no matter where you put him on the field.

The there's JMax (currently batting .105) originally slated to replace Dukes in right field (yes, even over Harris in Riggleman's mind), and Willie Harris hitting .180 with a .226 OBP.

This is where a fan can only throw up their hands and say WTF?

The expected that did happen?

The 3, 4, 5 guys worked out mostly as expected. Although getting them hitting at the same and with men on time seemed to be an issue.

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.

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