Sunday, May 29, 2011

Almost Werth-less: Nats’ Progress Impeded by Silent Bats

The 2011 freefall may have started for the Washington Nationals (22-29), who dropped another one Saturday, 2-1, to the even worse San Diego Padres (21-31). For the Nats, losers of 8 of their last 10 games, it was another exercise in the frustration of life as a good-pitch, lousy-hit baseball club.

The Nats are aching for respectability, and they’ve got a combative manager, Jim Riggleman, who, considering the roster he was handed, so far ought to be a candidate for Manager of the Year. But with a team batting average of .227, the Nats are eclipsed only by the Padres (.226) for MLB offensive futility. There are various, clearly identifiable reasons for the Nats’ anemic production, but chief among them are the disappointing numbers registered by high-priced free-agent acquisitions Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche.

Werth is showing some signs of shaking off the rust--well, sort of--his average now standing at .245, including eight home runs and 18 RBIs. Yet Werth is earning approximately $10 million this year, the first installment on a seven-year, $126 million contract he signed in the off-season after leaving the Phillies.

Werth, you might say, committed highway robbery, cashing in the big payday under false pretenses. He put up solid numbers for the Phillies in recent years, but he was hitting in a lineup that included Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez, among others. He saw tastier pitches to hit, and there were always people on base to drive in. That’s not the case in D.C., where Werth has been exposed as much less than a bonafide star. Currently, he’s on a pace to hit 25 homers and drive in 60 runs. Or, about $170,000 per RBI. Ouch.

Werth also recently engaged in some public bitching about the team’s fortunes. Riggleman tried to smooth it over, but damnation, Jayson, look in a mirror, dude. (And, in 2017, at the age of 38, Werth will draw a $21 million paycheck from the Nats. Think about that when you bite into your overpriced hot dog at Nationals Park.)

LaRoche, a notorious slow starter, has taken that designation to new lows. He’s currently hitting .172 with three HRs and 15 RBIs. His OPS is .546. Ugh. Brought in to replace departed slugger and fan favorite Adam Dunn, LaRoche was just recently put on the disabled list because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder--not good for a guy who bats and throws lefthanded. No one knows when LaRoche will be back or whether he’ll need surgery. So, you can probably flush another $10 million down the drain.

And you can thank general manager Mike Rizzo for both of those brilliant moves.

The Nats have also suffered the untimely loss of former All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was off to a good start (.357) when an abdominal injury sidelined him. Zimmerman’s played in eight games, which means he’s missed 43, more than a fourth of the season, already. His return is imminent but not immediate.

The hitting impotence exists practically everywhere else in the lineup, with shortstop Ian Desmond hitting .222, second baseman Danny Espinosa at .200 (though with a team-leading 28 RBIs), and center-fielder Rick Ankiel at .221 before getting sidelined by a sprained wrist. (Ankiel has since returned. Now he’s hitting .207.)

Filling the injury gaps are fill-in players like Alex Cora (.240), Jerry Hairston Jr. (.252) and Roger Bernadina (.250). Also taking up roster space is 43-year-old Matt Stairs, who is 3-for-32 for a batting average of .094 with no RBIs. (Can you say “unconditional release”??)

The big bright spot is the play of Laynce Nix, another journeyman, currently hitting .306 with seven homers and more RBIs (20) than Werth. Outfielder Michael Morse--now moved to first base to cover for LaRoche--shows occasional signs of life at .287, but until recently had not been supplying the long-ball pop team brass were hoping for in his attempt to replace the departed Josh Willingham. Young catcher Wilson Ramos appeared to be establishing himself, though his average has sunk to .248 after a promising start. Veteran Pudge Rodriguez is hitting .211.

MLB-wide, out of 30 teams, the Nats are 23d in runs scored, 28th in OBP and 24th is slugging percentage. Why the team isn’t as lowly as the lowest is a tribute to that area of the game which rarely has been considered a Nats strength: pitching.

Jordan Zimmermann lost Saturday’s game after pitching six strong innings and lowering his ERA to 3.88. He’s pitched well all year, yet his record stands at 2-6.

In fact, the Nats have received quality starts all year long from a reliable rotation that includes Livan Hernandez (3-6, 3.71), Jason Marquis (5-2, 4.26), John Lannan (2-5, 4.40), Zimmermann and Tom Gorzelanny (2-4, 4.25). And most of the time, the bullpen has been respectable. Drew Storen has nine saves and a 1.75 ERA as the stopper.

The team ERA is 3.89, and with any kind of reasonable production out of the lineup this team could easily be seven games above .500 instead of seven below. But until those veteran bats come alive, and until the younger players start to fulfill their promise at the plate, the pitchers will suffer through some hard times. And so will diehard Nats fans.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Who Killed Kenny? GroundWorks Theatre’s Fall to Earth Goes for the Maternal Jugular Just in Time for Mother’s Day

[Since my usual outlet for my theater reviews, Nashville Scene, was unable to accommodate my coverage for this week, I’ve posted this review to my wider-purpose blog.--M.B.]

So, which parent screwed YOU up the most? Sometimes that’s a pretty tough call. But in Joel Drake Johnson’s The Fall to Earth, which opened this past Friday at Groundworks Theatre, there’s little doubt that mommie dearest is the culprit.

Johnson’s play impressed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company seven years ago, and the GroundWorks producing/directing team of Robert and Sean O’Connell were there to see it. Now they’ve mounted the regional premiere, and no matter how jaggedly intravenous the discomfort can get in this baleful ode to family dysfunction, it’s compelling stuff every step of the way, in two tight acts that bring all the cringing sadness home comfortably--well, sort of--under two hours.

This economy-sized punch to the familial jaw begins when mother Fay (Wesley Paine) and daughter Rachel (Megan Murphy Chambers) enter a hotel room in Eureka, Oregon, where they’ve come to address the unpleasant business surrounding the recent death of son/brother Kenny. This means meeting with the local authorities, identifying the body and making arrangements for shipping the remains to the Midwest for burial.

We don’t ever find out what the heck Kenny was doing in Oregon, though we glean that the family is probably from Illinois, and we learn for sure that Rachel--divorced and the mother of a young son--lives in Chicago. But Kenny, we presume, was a loser--one of those poor unattended souls who got lost in life’s shuffle, bullied and unsure of everything about himself.

The drama at hand, however, is what is happening between mother and daughter. In Act 1, Rachel seems to be the stronger of the two, throwing her hands in the air in a “What are we gonna do with you?” frustration that seems very typical of daughters vis a vis their very middle-aged moms. Then the duo must confront the “Kenny problem” more directly, exacerbated when a supportive policewoman (Heather Webber) attempts to explain certain aspects of Kenny’s habits and his grungy demise.

Which bring us to an Act 2 where the emotional gloves come off, and Fay and Rachel mix it up accusatorily, and more and more is revealed about a family life that almost--but not quite--makes the situation in Ordinary People look like a simple misunderstanding.

Yes, the darkness lives with mom, and Paine’s performance has to be one of the most psychically challenging and physically demanding of her productive Nashville career. When she slaps Chambers around in their climactic catfight, there is little doubt how frighteningly dominant parenting patterns can be--not to mention how Pavlovianly compliant even grown children may react in response. Dramatically, Chambers is Paine’s match, but it’s a bitter seesaw she rides with good ol’ mom in the ascent.

Of course, there’s nothing psychologically healthy about all this, and one is drawn to wonder about playwright Johnson’s inspiration for the whole rigmarole. The good news is it’s engrossing theater. Sean O’Connell’s direction ensures that a sense of reality pervades the action, and the strong performances insistently do their truthful duty.

And a Happy Mother’s Day to all!

What: The Fall to Earth
Who: GroundWorks Theatre
Where: Darkhorse Theatre, 4610 Charlotte Ave., Nashville 37209
When: Through May 14, 2011
Phone: 615-262-5485