Saturday, October 2, 2010

Limping to the finish line

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Tyler Clippard has suffered two losses in 18 hours.
NEW YORK -- This is what happens when a ballclub limps to the finish line, when a club that is woefully thin on the bench tries to overcome injuries to its top three hitters, when a club that has been out of the race for months sees Game 162 right in front of them.

It doesn't make for pretty baseball, and today's 7-2 loss to the Mets was the latest example. The Nationals put forth another feeble offensive effort, amassing two runs and six hits against Raul Valdes and six New York relievers, watching as overworked reliever Tyler Clippard served up the game-changing homer in the seventh and watched as yet another middle-of-the order hitter succumbed to injury.

Ryan Zimmerman (ribs), Adam Dunn (hamstring) and Josh Willingham (knee surgery) were already out due to various ailments. That left Jim Riggleman fielding a lineup that featured a 5-6-7 of Wilson Ramos, Alberto Gonzalez and Justin Maxwell. Combined stat line for those three guys: a .218 average, four homers and 18 RBI.

And then Michael Morse -- one of the few guys actually producing at the plate, having homered each of the last two days -- aggravated a nagging hamstring injury and couldn't finish the game. Though he hopes to return to play tomorrow, Riggleman said Morse probably won't.

So an offense that has scored a total of six runs over its last five games will probably be down another man for the season finale. Should be fun.

"You'd like to say [the injuries aren't having an effect], but it's pretty much inevitable," Ian Desmond said. "You lose some horses like that, it's not easy. ... Whenever you've got threats behind you, you want to get the next guy up. I think we're trying to do a little bit too much by ourselves."

The manager refuses to use mounting injuries as an excuse for his team's play in the last week.

"You know, every club's got that," Riggleman said. "The Mets have played without All-Stars. The Phillies played without All-Stars all year. That's not an excuse. There's no excuse. We're just not getting it done."

That may be true, but here's the difference between most teams and the Nationals: They have the depth to overcome injuries, the Nats don't.

Has there been a more woeful bench in the majors this season? Willie Harris is hitting .181. Adam Kennedy is having the worst year of his career. Kevin Mench is 3-for-26. Wil Nieves has a .550 OPS. Alberto Gonzalez is threatening to become only the third player in modern history with at least 175 at-bats and fewer than five RBI.

And Justin Maxwell, bless his heart, just can't hit big-league pitching. I mean literally can't hit big-league pitching. After swinging and missing a 3-2 fastball at the eyes with the bases loaded in the seventh inning today, he has now struck out in 42 of his 103 at-bats. That's a worse rate than even Dunn (who sits on 198 strikeouts) posts at the plate.

The Nationals simply can't afford to have to use those bench players on a regular basis. Which means they simply can't afford to see guys like Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham and Morse succumb to injuries.

The pressure then gets put on the rest of the squad to overcome it, and that's the last thing most of these guys need at this late stage of the season. Everyone is worn down, physically and emotionally, after a long season. And it's showing on the field.

We probably saw it today from Clippard, who had been brilliant for much of the last month but last night served up Josh Thole's game-winning homer in the 10th and today served up a towering, three-run homer to David Wright that put the Mets ahead for good.

Clippard can certainly be excused for having a couple of poor outings in an otherwise splendid season, but clearly he's worn down after making 78 appearances totaling 91 innings.

Remarkably, Clippard now has an 11-8 record as a reliever. He's going to finish at least tied for the team lead in wins (depending on what Livan Hernandez does in tomorrow's finale) and he's got a chance to wind up tied for second on the team in losses (if he somehow suffered another one tomorrow, which seems unlikely). He's the first big-league reliever in five years to record 19 decisions, only the second in the last decade.

"His struggle is kind of like the offense's struggle," Riggleman said. "We've seen great things, and we've seen times where we're just doing nothing."

There's a reason there are so few Cinderella teams in baseball: The season is so long, everyone's weaknesses get exposed along the way. It's possible for a club to overachieve for a couple of months, maybe even three or four, but it's almost impossible to do it over the full 162-game stretch.

Since that mid-May day in Colorado when the Nationals were 20-15, plenty of weaknesses have been exposed, perhaps none more glaring than the lack of depth on this roster.

Mike Rizzo's primary offseason objectives may be acquiring a No. 1 starter and ensuring he has a cleanup-hitting first baseman. But the GM might also want to make it a priority to improve his club's depth.

Unless he believes the 2011 Nationals can avoid injuries, he's going to need all the quality backups he can get his hands on.


Jim Riggleman said...

I just hope we can give Justin Maxwell a good look for next year. He looks like a ballplayer and, as Ray Knight said last night, he's our best outfielder. If we can get him some at-bats next season maybe he can show us what he's got.

Anonymous said...

Jim - I posted this in the other thread. Try this lineup tomorrow!

Trying to be somewhat legit and filling all positions. Everybody here has played these slots in the majors...

Maxwell CF
Kennedy 2B
Bernadina RF
Dunn 1B
Mench LF
Gonzales SS
Harris 3B
Nieves C
Poor Poor Poor Livan P

Anonymous said...

I note that Jim Riggleman has yet to be re-upped by the Nationals.

As for the bench ... we'll have to see what happens after the trades and FA signings are done. Normally, you reach down to the minors for guys on September to shore up depth. For whatever reason Riggleman wouldn't do that? There are guys in Syracuse. There is a prospect in the wings in son of Steve, Steve Lombardozzi. They could have brought up one or two of Whiting, Lambin, Davis, Botts, Orr, and a guy who has been a career farmhand but who hits, Seth Bynum.

But Jim Riggleman wouldn't hear of it. Wouldn't let them steal at bats from floundering Maxwell and Harris. Sub-mendoza and given the idiotic errors Maxwell has started to make one can tell he isn't taking his chances in the line up very seriously.

This is NOT Rizzo, this most assuredly is Jim Riggleman. I'm sure Rizzo had to fight a bit with Riggleman to get Espinosa into the lineup given what he said before the call ups about sticking with his veterans else he'd lose them? SO LOSE THEM!!!! Here we have everyone saying your bench sucks? Would it hurt to DFA them?

Probably not given their performances ... please can this be a "performance" team in a "performance" league and not a team that looks more like US Grant's administration full of cronyism?

Please get rid of Riggleman. Thank you.

Feel Wood said...

Not to worry. Super Nyjer is still available tomorrow. And with a day of rest, he'll be even more fresh!

phil dunn said...

How can Clippard end up tied for the team lead in losses if he loses tomorrow? Clippard has 8 losses and Livan has 12.

dj in Fl. said...

Excellent point on the bench Mark. This must be a priority this offseason. We have starters that would be canidates for a seat in waiting, but I do not know that we can get any of the FA,s we need.
Maybe we can find a youngster ready to break out to start on the bench and play his way into starting. And no as much as I hoped JMax would make it, enough is enough. I wish him well but it is time for giving others a shot.
As others have said, thanks for making a rough season more bearable Mark. There was not a missed game, except for Fox screwing things up, and every broadcast was viewed with laptop, enjoying your coverage. I look forward to the hot stove coverage and next spring to do it again.

The Herndon Kid said...

I feel like every at bat Mench gets is a direct failure on Riggleman's part.

Anonymous said...

Certainly today Balester put a crimp in the notion that Clippard could be used as potential trade bait with Balester waiting in the wings to pick up where he left off. The same with the Bisenius experiment.

Hopefully AJ Morris progresses rapidly through the minors as a reliever.

Cwj said...

The bullpen is just getting tired. They've performed admirably this year. Lets not focus too much on them with 1 game to go.

Cwj said...

I wouldn't tinker with the bullpen via trades. Wouldn't hurt to add a veteran closer.

Anonymous8 said...

I just saw the Royals took the team option on David DeJesus so he won't be a Free Agent now. Still think if you can work an extension that he would be a good OF in a trade.

Mark Zuckerman said...

phil dunn said...
How can Clippard end up tied for the team lead in losses if he loses tomorrow? Clippard has 8 losses and Livan has 12.

Whoops, not sure how I glossed over that one. You are correct. If Clippard were to somehow lose tomorrow, he'd end up with 9 losses, tied with Jason Marquis for second-most on the team (behind, of course, Livo). Sorry about that.

SilverSpring8 said...

Re: "I just hope we can give Justin Maxwell a good look for next year. ... If we can get him some at-bats next season maybe he can show us what he's got."


That's an admirable sentiment, but Maxwell has already shown us what he's got. He's a good-field, no-hit ballplayer. He's a nice kid but he's never going to hit big-league pitching and we should cut him loose.

Steve said...

SilverSpring8, you may want to give these a read:

Big Cat said...

Bernadina is really limping to the finish line. He hit .165 in Sept. After what Ray Knight has exposed of his swing, I feel maybe the pitchers have got him figured out, a steady diet of off speed stuff

natsfan1a said...

SS8, see also:

NatsJack in Florida said...

I got to see A.J. Morris for the second time yesterday and he was lights out again. Two innings, 3 K's and 3 weak ground balls to the infield with 1 soft broken bat line drive over second as the only hit he has given up. Throws consistantly 92-93 fasball with good movement and a sharp 85-86 slider that locks righthanders up. He's ML reafy right now.

Sec3MySofa said...

@Anon (and on and on) at 7:54pm
OK, I'll bite: how do you know this? Riggleman works for Rizzo, not the other way around.
"This is NOT Rizzo, this most assuredly is Jim Riggleman."

dale said...

Regarding slumping players, lack of offense---

This team gets infatuated with the long ball and forgets how to hit. You can see it in the changing swings of Bernardina, Espinosa Maxwell and other players who should be swinging for the gaps and not the fences. I am sure that Eckstein is not teaching them this but they are observing who gets the attention on the team and subconsciously modeling themselves on those players. Look, when your highest paid player gets excused for 200 strikeouts a season players take note. Pitchers who don't strike anyone else out get double digit K's on our team. The pitching has been horrid at times but the offense as been consistently bad. How many times have we seen production of zero or one runs in a game?

I love Zimmerman's approach at the plate by contrast. He has a smooth powerful level swing. The result--power with a .300 average. He does not seem to be concerned with a homerun swing 100% of the time but his natural power takes care of that. Morse has found his way to that level as well.

The key to this team will be unlocking the player's minds when they approach hitting. Their focus on fundamental approaches to the game has been occluded. Is it Riggleman as some would rant? I don't think so--it is a bit more subtle, more of a copying the wrong style. Maybe the absence of Dunn will enable these guys to refocus their approach.

CBinDC said...

Can all the teams in town not called the Capitals please put away the, " yeah he may not look big league professional now but just wait the UP side is so UP"
I can not think of one player who was described as being great in the future who came through later. If you can not see progress to the next year it is time to move on maybe someone else gets the surprise player you were hoping for but look at all the time wasted if you hold on and they never become the player you hoped for. This is one infection on this team from the Bowden years that has not been fully healed.

natsfan1a said...

Who says the games don't have meaning today? Our Nats currently sit one game behind Cleveland. Of course, they're managed by that guy who couldn't hold a candle to Riggleman down the stretch in 2009. What was that guy's name again? And now, of course, Riggleman's evidently the one who has to go. Turns out he may not be a genius after all. hmmm... could it be that the manager isn't the problem, after all? Nah, that's crazy talk. :-)

Doc said...

As some have pointed out, the last month has seen the Nats batters with double digit Ks against a bunch of back of the rotation starters. Maybe, like Desmond says, the non-injured players are going outside their game.

Maxwell, like Mark has noted, chronically misses mediocre fastballs that Willingham, Zim, and Morse hit for doubles and HRs. The time for Maxwell to demonsstrate that he can hit big league pitching has come and gone.

Anonymous said...

1a is criticizing the team? Now that IS news.

Anonymous said...

Although to be fair to 1a, it is hard to evaluate Riggleman because the talent on this team is pretty barren. Also, Riggs seems to be a veterans type manager. He is really good at making his vets and vet bench players feel like a big part of the team. He might be better suited for a veteran team like the Yankees rather than a young team like the Nationals.

natsfan1a said...

Anon@11:50, if you think that I never criticize the team, then you haven't been paying attention (not that it matters to me whether or not people are paying attention. ;-)).

Anon@12, I'm not saying that Riggleman is bad, I'm saying I don't know that anyone would have done better than either of them given the hand they were dealt. Jettison a manager here, a player there, or a GM, or a broadcaster...whatever. There's no one piece that makes it all better.

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