Spring [Training] Is In The Air

While the weather in DC continues to be more “Winter Olympics in PyeongChang” than “opening day baseball at Nats Park,” the countdown is officially on and with just over 2 weeks left before the first regular season pitch is thrown, spring is definitely here and consequential baseball is right around the corner. This year looks to be a pivotal and historic year in our nation’s capital for baseball, with the 2018 All-Star game hosted at Nats Park, a World Series or bust roster, and potentially the final season of DC’s most iconic superstar over the past 5 years, Bryce Harper. There is no shortage of storylines for this team so I did what any reasonable local Nats fan turned beat writer/podcaster would do: I went to West Palm Beach to check out the team in person during spring training.

The pilgrimage to spring training is a rite of passage for any avid baseball fan. But this trip was extra special as I brought with me my 3 year old son, who celebrated his 4th birthday on the trip. Now there will be plenty of time to discuss batting orders and pitching rotations, which young CF should be playing over the other, and what to do with #34’s impending historic free agency and contract. But for now, I thought I would share some thoughts about the overall fan experience at Nationals Spring training complex in West Palm Beach.

The first thing that strikes you upon entering the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is the sheer beauty of the entire facility. From the larger than life “curly W” to the pristine practice fields and stadium, the whole thing looks completely brand new, which is how it should look being only 2 years old now. But it’s clear the Nationals (and Astros) spared no expense in making this a world class facility for their players and fans.

But let’s be honest: the most important thing for a fan’s experience at spring training is the access to the players. And once again, the Nats are second to none in this regard. The Nats have arranged their practice facilities perfectly so that players walk through rows of fans and are totally accessible. 90% of the players stopped on their way to practice to sign balls for the kids and genuinely seemed happy to do it.

And the way the practice fields are set up, you can catch batting practice on one field while watching the pitchers throw a bullpen session on the other at the same time. So it’s a fan’s dream. It’s quite clear the Nationals have prioritized the fan’s experience in everything they do, be it at the ballpark here in DC or at West Palm Beach, which is just further proof of what a top-flight organization we have here.

And of course, to top it off, we were able to catch 4 innings of the Nats take on the Mets, and more importantly, get our first glimpse of Stephen Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard. Strasburg struck out 5 through 3.1 innings and looked as dominant as he did all of last season, minus a few mistakes that allowed 2 ER. Syndergaard, to his credit, reminded everyone why he’s one of the best in the game, striking out 7 through 3.1 innings and showing off that nasty slider that produced groundball after groundball per usual I imagine we’ll see several of these pitching battles this season between these 2 clubs.

On the offensive side, the team continue to get power production from newly acquired 1B Matt Adams, who homered off of Jeurys Familia in a rough 5th inning for him. Victor Robles continues to produce at the plate as well, with 2 more RBIs, taking his total to 4 this spring. His offensive production, coupled with his flare for the dramatic in CF makes him a tough sit coming off the bench and as he gets better, he’ll push MAT at the CF position. Not a bad problem to have on March 13th.

While this whole trip was a first for me as it relates to spring training, this will definitely become a regular staple of my winter and can’t wait to bring the whole family back for an incredible experience. Kudos to the Nats organization and let’s get this season started!

The Curse Lives On; Nationals Lose to Cubs

Put a “Curly W” in the books for the DC Curse… and another “L” for the Nationals.

This may be the most gut wrenching of them all. For a team that’s suffered 3 straight NLDS game 5 losses before tonight, including one in which they led 6-0, that’s telling. Of course, in true tragic and familiar fashion the Nationals took an early lead as the offense finally woke from its slumber to put up a 4 spot in the second. The hero of that second inning was Michael Taylor, who in consecutive at-bats going back to game 4 was responsible for 7 RBIs. While Gio Gonzalez labored through 3 unimpressive innings, the thinking was that this time, our deep bullpen would carry us through. Well….think again.

Screen Shot 2017-10-13 at 1.29.45 AM

The relief efforts started innocently enough as Matt Albers came on and pitched a scoreless top of the fourth. Then, it was Max time. Scherzer had pitched brilliantly in game 3, throwing 6 hitless innings before giving up his first hit in the seventh and being pulled. He retired the first two hitters in game 5, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who happen to be the Cubs best hitters. From there, disaster struck. Three hits, an intentional walk, a passed ball, a dropped third strike, catcher’s interference and a hit by pitch — all with two outs and suddenly the 4-3 lead had turned into a 7-4 deficit in a hurry. A lead washed away, an electric crowd silenced in disbelief.

Somebody must have it out for Dusty Baker. The 68-year-old manager of the Nats has seen enough heartbreak on the baseball field to last two lifetimes. Now (seemingly) 0-10000 in elimination games, everything he does in these types of games always seems to backfire. Even his good moves go against everything we’ve come to count on and expect. Start Jayson Werth in the 2nd spot again? He gets on base 4 times and has the best at-bats on the team. Everything else? That’s the story of the misery of Dusty Baker in the postseason. Starting with Max’s incredibly unlikely outing, everything fell apart for Dusty and the Nats. Brandon Kintzler and Sammy Solis combined to give up 2 more runs when they needed shutdown innings in the worst way. So, even after the Nats score 3 runs in the 6th and 7th, they still trailed 9-7 heading into the bottom of the 8th.

The bottom of the 8th might go down as the opening scene in the Dusty 30 for 30. The inning started beautifully as Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon drew leadoff walks to bring up the pitcher spot (switched into the 7th hole) and everyone’s favorite blonde, Adam Lind. Sticking to the tragedy script, Lind of course grounded into a double play on the first pitch. What followed the double play is beyond words. After Taylor singled in Murphy (8 RBIs in 2 games, never buying a beer in DC ever again) Jose Lobaton singled up the middle. Lobaton, the backup to starting catcher Matt Wieters had been inserted as part of a double switch an inning earlier. This after Dusty had the chance to pinch-hit for Wieters with Lind or Howie Kendrick with the bases loaded, but instead watched as Wieters flew out to end the inning.

Back to the bottom of the 8th inning; Taylor on second, Lobaton as the go-ahead run and Trea Turner up to bat against a laboring Wade Davis. As Turner worked the count in his favor 2-1, Lobaton drifted too far off first trying to get a secondary lead and Wilson Contreras almost picked him off. As the bang-bang play was replayed, Lobaton appeared to slightly lose his footing on the bag and Joe Maddon promptly challenged, and of course won, because he’s not Dusty Baker. Just like that, the inning was over and Davis was spared. 3 outs later in the bottom of the 9th, the Cubs advanced and the Nationals were bitterly sent home for the winter once again.

Screen Shot 2017-10-13 at 1.28.34 AM

It’s too soon to ask, where do we go from here? A loss like this is going to be very hard to move past for a long time. It’s understandable if you want to blame Dusty or the bullpen or the lineup, but the blame game has been played before and we’ve still lost in Division Series 4 consecutive times. While you can’t say Dusty was the sole reason the Nats lost the series, his moves over the course of the 5 games will be justifiably questioned throughout the offseason. With his contract up, it will be interesting to see what the Lerners and Mike Rizzo decide to do. For now, we’re left with the same depressed feeling as D.C. sports fans, another year where we’re left saying the familiar phrase, “well there’s always next year”. What a disappointing way to end such a promising season. The Curse lives on!

Nationals Game 149; Win Number 90

On a night when the Nationals acknowledged and celebrated the most dominant Air Force in all the World, the US Air Force, the Nats and Dodgers took the field in the third game of a three game series to claim their place as the most dominant team in the National League.  The Dodgers got much needed quality pitching performances from Alex Wood and Rich Hill, two starters slated to be a big part of the Dodgers playoff rotation plans. The Nationals on the other hand countered with Edwin Jackson and A.J. Cole, two pitchers who may not even make the playoff roster, depending on how things shake out.  

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 10.24.56 AM

You could say that this series doesn’t mean much considering the Nats wrapped up the NL East what seems like months ago, even though it’s only been a week. Since clinching, the Nats have lost 4 out of 5 games, you might call it a bit of a hangover. The Dodgers came into DC a bit of a wounded dog.  Yes, they were on a 2 game winning streak, but that was after losing 11 in a row and 16 of their last 17. To say the Dodgers were struggling would be quite the understatement. The Dodgers began this losing streak with a record of 91 -37, that’s 54 games over .500! Even after all that losing, they still held a 92 -52 record and a 10 game division lead over the 2nd place Arizona Diamondbacks.  Coming into this series the Nats were 5 games behind the Dodgers for the best record in the NL. A sweep, brings it down to 2 games, with 14 left to play…anything can happen.   Losing the first 2 games pushes the Nats to 7 back. A loss Sunday, and the Nats fall 8 back and all of sudden the once dormant Dodgers (if you can call a 95 win team dormant) are now on 5 game winning streak and feeling good about themselves.

Tonight, Stephen Strasburg, one of the heads of that Nationals dominant two headed pitching monster along with Max Scherzer, took the mound to face the Dodgers. Strasburg came in hot, having pitched 34 straight scoreless innings.  Observers will tell you he hasn’t been perfect during this streak but he has been getting himself out of trouble, if ever he found himself in it.  The Dodgers countered with Hyun-Jin Ryu, a  lefty pitcher with a nasty curve and an average fastball. Ryu is a good pitcher but isn’t likely to be part of the Dodgers rotation.  Also sitting for the Dodgers were Adrian Gonzalez and Again, tonight was a matchup between two teams that may look a bit different if they meet again in October.

Strasburg, for his part, had some slight control issues in the early innings, giving up 2 walks and hitting a batter in the first 3 innings. Hiis scoreless streak ended at 35 innings after conceding a double to Logan Forsythe that scored Yasiel Puig. That said  he still managed to strike out 7 batters through 5 innings and kept the Dodgers at bay. The Nats offense however seems to have collectively slumped. Ryu, initially seemed to continue the string of strong Dodger pitching performances in this series but got chased by after throwing 98 pitches in 4⅔ innings, not having allowed a run but walking Strasburg and lead off hitter Trea Turner.

In the most controversial moment of the evening, the next batter Jayson Werth lined an 0-2 pitch from reliever Ross Stripling down the left field line. The 3rd base ump immediately called the ball foul. Strasburg stopped half way between 3rd and home, with Turner on his heels. Nationals manager, Dusty Baker immediately called for a challenge and review by the league offices in NY. The crowd was certain the call would be overturned, only to be disappointed by the upholding of the call on the field.  Boos rained down on the umps and Werth flew out to centerfield to end the inning.

In the bottom of the sixth, the heart of the Nationals lineup made some noise. Following an Anthony Rendon walk, Daniel Murphy lined a sharp single to center for Ryan Zimmerman.  Zimmerman crushed a 3-1 90 mph slider over the right center field wall for a 3 run homer. Strasburg  was done after six very strong innings giving up 3 hits, 1 run, 3 walks 1 hbp and 8 strikeouts on 94 pitches.

It was then on to Baker’s trusty bullpen beginning with Brandon Kintzler who breezed through the top of the 7th on 10 pitches. Ryan Madson pitched the eighth, getting off to a shaky start giving up a hard single to right by Corey Seager. Seager advanced to second on an error in the field by Werth. Madson would then retire Justin Turner, Cody Berlinger and Yasiel Puig in order to end the threat.  Sean Doolittle came into the game in a non save situation and closed out the game getting the final three outs around a harmless single and walk.

The Nats added another run in the seventh on a Rendon double down the left field line that scored Werth who legged it home all the way from first. The Nats used the long ball to pad the score in the bottom of the eight with, Zimmerman hitting his 2nd homer of the night over the scoreboard in right center to make the score 5-1 and Adam Lind hitting a sharp 2 run homer to left Center into the visitor’s bullpen.

For one Sunday night in September, all was well again in Nats Park. Not much can really be made of this series. Dusty definitely wanted this win tonight, leaving nothing to chance. He got just what he needed from Strasburg and the law firm of Kintlzer, Madson and Doolittle. Zimmerman and Murphy went a combined 6 for 8 tonight reviving the slumping lineup.  There are still 13 games left in the season before meaningful baseball is played in Nats park again. Until then, expect Dusty to rest some of the regulars and to tinker with some lineups as he figures out his 25 man roster for the playoffs.

Gio Speeds Up As He Loses Velocity

When you take a look at the stats below, you might be amazed at the differences, or lack thereof, of the dominance that each pitcher has displayed: (All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference)

Pitcher A: W-L: 12-5, ERA: 2.39, IP: 162.0, SO: 150, WAR: 6.3, ERA+: 185

Pitcher B: W-L: 12-5, ERA: 2.25, IP: 160.1, SO: 220, WAR: 6.1, ERA+: 197

Based on the high strikeout total you probably figured out the Pitcher B is Max Scherzer, having another incredible season that has him ahead of the pack for his second consecutive CY Young Award (barring an extended DL stint due to neck issues that have continued to bother him). To the shock of all around baseball, Pitcher A is none other than Gio Gonzalez, having one of the quietest great seasons in recent history. How can a pitcher with a 4.57 ERA a year ago with declining Fastball velocity be so dominant just one season later? It seems unfathomable to comprehend, but that is where things stand with Gio this year.

Everyone knew the Nationals had a great rotation going into the season. It is one of the many reasons they were picked to win the NL East and challenge the Cubs and Dodgers in the playoffs. When analysts and smart baseball guys talked about the rotation, most mentioned the obvious names such as Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Some expected the continued excellence of Tanner Roark and that Joe Ross might make the leap this year in his third season. There was even high praise for hotshot prospect Erick Fedde after a strong spring and after the Nationals traded away Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez over the winter. The least talked about holdover from last season’s rotation was Gio, a pitcher seemingly in decline and who has been unable to throw enough strikes throughout his career. Now, with Joe Ross out for the year after having Tommy John Surgery, Scherzer currently on the DL, Strasburg just having returned from the DL, and Roark struggling this season, Gonzalez has been the steadying force in the rotation throughout the entire year.

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 12.46.48 PM.png

ERA+ is a stat that measures how much above or below average a pitcher is over the course of a season. Factors such as the average ERA around baseball as well as the nature of the ballpark (hitter or pitcher-friendly ballpark) are taken into account with a baseline of 100. According to B-R, Gio Gonzalez has been 85 percent better than the average pitcher around baseball this year. This is a shocking turnaround given that Gio was 9 percent below average last season. The ERA+ last season demonstrated a continued trend over the last few seasons as it had gone from 138 in his awesome 2012 season (his first with the Nats) to the measly 91 he put up last year. All the advanced and non-advanced pitching stats point to a pitcher coming into his own after a few down seasons. His innings per start are up over 6 IP/start after checking in at 5.1/IP start last season. While he’s still walking a few too many guys, he’s managed to give up only 6.6 H/9 after giving up more than a hit per inning the last two seasons. All of this begs the question of how has he done it?

Watching Gio Gonzalez in recent years was akin to a slow climb up a sloped mountain. There was a lot of talking to himself, lots of pacing aimlessly, and a very slow, methodical approach. This year, Gio has continued to talk to himself, but the rest of the experience has sped up exponentially. He’s pitching with confidence and a renewed sense of self-belief even with declining velocity. The most basic way to look at this is how he’s fared when facing batters with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP). Last season the league batted .333/.406/.507 in those situations as he essentially turned every hitter he faced in that situation into Jose Altuve. The season before, those numbers were .272/.333/.424. Thanks to an improved pace and a belief in his stuff, the numbers this year are .121/.220/.168, numbers that reflect a below-average hitting pitcher.

While it would be too simplistic to say that Gio is better because he’s pitching faster, watching him this year reveals a much more relaxed and calm individual on the mound. He’s learned to take a deep breath when things don’t go his way and focus only on the next batter and the next pitch and not what just happened behind him. Even when he’s fallen behind hitters, he has had the confidence to come right after them and make his pitch and get the outs. There is no stat to back this up, but it seems like he’s given up 0 hits to batters that he’s fallen in the count 3-0 to. The same self-confidence is evident in Stras this year and it might be time to give Mike Maddux the due he deserves for the work he’s done with the staff this year. He’s gotten everyone to buy in and believe in their stuff; it is one of the reasons that the starters are pitching with more confidence and going deeper into games.

With Scherzer due back shortly and Strasburg pitching strongly in his first game back from his DL stint, the Nationals rotation is set up very nicely at the top. Given that Strasburg missed the 2012 and 2016 postseasons and Scherzer was not around in 2014, the continued excellence of Gio this year gives the Nats hope for their best playoff rotation yet. With tough lefties such as Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber Cody Bellinger, Curtis Granderson, and others looming in the playoffs, Gio will play a key role in just how far the Nationals advance this year. That is no longer scary thought for the Nationals and their fanbase.

Nationals Bullpen is Red-Hot; Dusty Keeps Adjusting Roster; ESPN / Robert Lee Fiasco

Nationals Bullpen is Red-Hot; Dusty Keeps Adjusting Roster; + ESPN / Robert Lee Fiasco

Stevie, FP, Joe, and special guest Anthony (the Nats Stat Authority) sit down to talk about the red-hot Nationals bullpen and debate how much credit Mike R deserves for adjusting/trading on the fly (1m-5m). The Nationals are still missing key players but they are getting closer to a full “stud” lineup (6m-11) and Dusty continues to work his magic with the roster day in and day out (11m-14). Harper will take his time returning but they really don’t need him against the impressive Astros do they (15m-21) and don’t miss the hot take about the Robert Lee, ESPN mess at the end either! (Photo Credit: Washington Post)

Source: Nationals Bullpen is Red-Hot; Dusty Keeps Adjusting Roster; ESPN / Robert Lee Fiasco