Sunday, October 14, 2012

Grading Davey Johnson

With their startling and rather pathetic demise in the baseball playoffs, the Washington Nationals are finding little sympathy in cyberspace.

People are still grousing about the Strasburg Decision, of course, but we’ll let that one lie for now. (Yes, Stephen Strasburg’s presence in the NLDS could’ve made a difference. The Nationals were a better team with him, and management blew its handling of his season. The fact they were still in it and were leading Game 5 vs. the reigning world champion Cardinals is testament to how good the team was without him, and at that they still might’ve won that series.)

But now I’m seeing folks criticize manager Davey Johnson in untoward ways, and I have to protest.

I followed the Nats religiously. For a team that was supposed to improve but probably not make the postseason, Johnson’s management was often nothing short of masterful. Dealing with young arms and young minds, and then with a series of injuries, Johnson made all the right moves to keep the team on track.

After moving into first place for good on May 22, the Nats stayed steady, this despite the fact that Jayson Werth was sidelined half the year with a broken wrist, Michael Morse missed 60 games with various injuries, Ryan Zimmerman’s chronic shoulder problem was acting up early, catcher Wilson Ramos was lost for the year to knee surgery after playing only 25 games, and shortstop Ian Desmond’s oblique problem cost him 30 games. 

In Zimmerman’s absence, Johnson got decent production out of veteran Chad Tracy. When Ramos went down, Johnson utilized AAA fill-ins who did just that—filled in—until finally in early August the Nats procured veteran Kurt Suzuki from the A’s. Great move.

When Desmond was MIA, Johnson entrusted shortstop to second baseman Danny Espinosa, who played  at a level where the infield really didn’t miss a beat defensively. That’s because young Steve Lombardozzi took over second base, and if he was not Espinosa’s defensive equal, then he was certainly good enough, and he hit .273 on the season.

(Espinosa, BTW, hit .247 and struck out a whopping 189 times, and if there was one regret about Johnson’s managing, it might have been allowing Lombardozzi to languish on the bench over the latter portion of the season. The 23-year-old, son of former major leaguer Steve Lombardozzi I, gets the bat on the ball, runs well, plays good D and flat-out should have had more playing time down the stretch.)

Johnson’s biggest challenge, though, was probably the outfield, with Morse and Werth laid up for significant chunks of the season. Some would call it fortuitous, then, since that evinced the call-up of rookie Bryce Harper, whose feats at the age of 19 are now the stuff of semi-legend.

Still, Johnson couldn’t have predicted Harper’s emergence, and the youngster definitely had consistency issues. Johnson moved him between center and right field defensively, utilized the versatile outfield skills of Roger Bernadina, and got Lombardozzi outfield playing time as well, in a deft bit of talent juggling that assured a minimized drop-off in results until Morse and Werth returned. (Rookie Tyler Moore also was brought up from AAA to play some outfield, and he batted .263 with 10 homers, offering the promise for bigger numbers in 2013.)

Meanwhile, Johnson got lucky with the pitching. Besides the Strasburg Decision, there were no major issues with the starting staff. Arms were young and healthy and stayed that way. The relievers were also in good shape, with the exception of 2011’s excellent closer Drew Storen, who underwent elbow surgery early in the 2012 season. After the failed experiment with Wildman Henry Rodriguez, setup man and 2011 All-Star Tyler Clippard had to morph into the closer, a role that he took on quite nicely, ringing up 32 saves. Storen returned later in August and resumed his major role with success—excluding the mixed results apparent in the NLDS.

Now, there were signs of general mediocrity or burnout or whatever you want to call it in the last quarter of the season. The Nats were 22-18 over the last 40 games. That’s okay, but it’s not exactly setting the league on fire. They were beating up on nonentities like the Mets and Cubs but still struggling with better teams like the Braves, who continued to nip at their heels in pursuit of the NL East title.

Still, Johnson got the team to the finish line, even without Strasburg. They had a division crown, the best record in the game, and home-field advantage in the playoffs. He had worked miracles around injuries, steadied the play of young newcomers and handled the pitching staff reasonably well. 

Considering the meltdown in the NLDS finale, it’s hard to see what Johnson might have done differently. His hitters finally hit, and his Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez gave him five useful if disappointing innings, and the team was ahead 6-3 after six.

Now, bringing in starter Edwin Jackson for relief in the 7th inning is still a bit of a head-scratcher. Guess Davey wasn’t trusting middle-relief man Ryan Mattheus, who’d been scuffed up a bit in Game 3. But Jackson is a maddeningly inconsistent pitcher, and his appearance in that situation looks like a reach. Mattheus was rested enough and more used to the relief regimen. Jackson gave up a run and made things scary in his one inning, so this move looks weak.

Clippard and Storen were then in their appropriate roles in the final innings, so there’s little to criticize there. Davey certainly couldn't do the pitching FOR them. 

Let’s face it, there’s only so much a baseball manager can do. On balance, Johnson pushed a lot of smart buttons in 2012 and his knack for adjusting when injuries threw him curves was impressive. The team just got hornswoggled by those darn ol’ Cardinals, whose ability to avoid elimination in recent years has become legend.

Time for a break. And 2013 is not far away. Let’s hope Davey is around for the next installment.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Nationals Nightmare Fueled by Power Outage

Our Long “Nationals” Nightmare began about 9:30 p.m. Central Standard Time last night.

In the top of the 5th inning of the deciding Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals,  Nats lefty Gio Gonzalez was pitching with a 6-2 lead, buoyed by an early outburst of long-ball power by Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse. Finally, after a terrible offensive showing in the series’ four previous games, the Nats’ bats had come alive, and, with Cy Young candidate Gonzalez on the mound and a standing-room-only crowd of 45,966 at Nationals Park cheering wildly, it looked like the Nation’s Capital’s baseball team would advance to the National League Championship Series. (And make me a very happy Nats fan.)

Then the power blew at my house. The entire apartment complex was out. Everything went pitch black. Goodbye, lights. Goodbye, TV. Goodbye, PC. Only half dressed, I stumbled around for my cell phone, to use it to light my way to my shirt and shoes. Finally, I poked my head out my front door, only to see other apartment dwellers wondering what was going on. The whole neighborhood, as far as the eye could see, was in darkness.

“WTF?” I said to myself. I phoned a friend—who happens to be a Cardinals fan. He commiserated about the power outage, and updated me on the game. It was now 6-3, but the action had moved on to the 6th inning, and he really wasn’t optimistic about the game’s direction. (Sure, I thought, it’s nicer to be ahead.)

Yet it didn’t look like Nashville Electric Service was going to be Johnny-on-the-spot with the repairs, so I made the only decision I could: I got in my car and made my way to a sports bar in nearby Hillsboro Village.

Frankly, I do not like to watch important sporting events at a bar. I like watching them in my living room, with my food and my beer and my victorious whooping (when applicable) and my tears of despair (also when applicable).

I should have known it when it happened: the power outage had fucked with my karma. And a painfully long evening had begun.

I arrived at the bar, found a seat and waited for the overworked barmaid to take my order. It took her forever to arrive. Meanwhile, I had to listen to this guy sitting next to me—an obnoxious Cardinals fan—clap his hands loudly on EVERY SINGLE PITCH.

I finally got a bottle of beer, but I could not stand sitting next to this guy. So I moved from the bar to a table near another large-screen TV. Alas, there I was surrounded by more Cardinals fans, loud and urging on their heroes. (In fact, I soon realized that about 95% of the patrons were rooting for the Cards.)

I watched the TV and saw that Nationals manager Davey Johnson had brought in Edwin Jackson to pitch the 7th inning. “WTF??” Jackson is one of the most nerve-wracking and unreliable starting pitchers in the league. He once threw a no-hitter, and he has some talent, but you NEVER know what you will get with him, and this was the most important game of the year, with the team nursing a three-run lead (which had been a six-run lead, so the hemorrhaging had begun).

Jackson’ll drive you crazy, and I suppose it was a blessing to see that he “only” gave up one run. Typically, he walked batters and had to extricate himself from a mess. So now it’s 6-4…and what happens next? The TV I am watching blows out. No shit. Boom. No picture, no sound. Gone.  

“WTF??” Now I move to another part of the bar, beer bottle in hand. I eye a petite blonde lady who is sitting with friends and is… a Nats fan! An occasionally vociferous Nats fans!! So I find a table near her and hope the karma will stay positive for the remainder of the game.
No such luck. The two guys at the table in back of me represent more of that ardent Cardinals fandom and keep up the chatter. “C’mon, Allen.” “C’mon, Yadi.” “C’mon, Pete.”

It’s now the 8th inning, and the Nats bring in Tyler Clippard, their setup man and sometime closer. He’s pretty good, but he was not dominant late in the season. So what does he do? He gives up a home run to none other than the great Daniel Descalso, the Cards second-baseman who hit a whopping .227 this year. Doh!

Now it’s 6-5, and the walls of inevitable ineptitude are beginning to close in, though neither that blonde lady nor me can give up hope. I mean, we DO have the lead, right?

And, when, in the bottom of the 8th the Nats add a run to make it 7-5—and there are only three Cardinal outs left to get—well, maybe…..MAY BE…

All season, the Nationals have been defined by their pitching. They can hit a little, yes, but they were very erratic in that department. Anyone who followed the team all year knows that it was pitching that made it possible to eke out many close victories. And let’s face it, pitching is the name of the game in the major leagues.

Enter Drew Storen, a young relief stud who excelled in 2011 but entered 2012 with physical problems that took him months to work out. He had seemed to finally have gotten into shape down the stretch but his reliability was still an unknown—especially in the biggest game of his life. (To be fair, Storen had won the previous night’s game, pitching a scoreless ninth inning just before Jayson Werth hit a dramatic walk-off homer that ended an extremely tense pitchers’ duel.)

Of all the monsters in this frightful scenario for the Nats, Storen proved to be the most ghastly. Yielding three hits—including key blows by that Descalso guy and the immortal Pete Kozma (a 24-year-old rookie who batted .232 in AAA ball before a late summer call-up to replace the injured Rafael Furcal)—and two unforgivable walks, Storen made a mockery of quality relief pitching, as the Cardinals scored four 9th inning runs to take a 9-7  lead.

With that, I left the bar. The inevitable was nigh. Some sporting events take on lives of their own. This was not only the Great Cardinals Comeback—it was also the Great Nationals Choke.

When I returned home, my power was back, the game was over, and I learned that the Nats hitters in the bottom of the ninth had faded 1-2-3. The power outage theme for the evening was now complete.
For a team cannily built on pitching, the Nats’ playoff performances pretty much sucked. In the three games they lost, Nats pitchers yielded 29 runs on 38 hits and issued 17 walks. While ace Gonzalez pitched okay in two games, he was not lights out, and his lack of control kept inviting trouble. The well-respected Jordan Zimmermann got hammered in Game 2; ditto Jackson in Game 3. Only youngster Ross Detwiler in Game 4 acquitted himself like a champion.

No further proof was needed that the Nats were not the same team without Stephen Strasburg. When they shut down the young ace for the season in deference to concern for the possible untoward stress on his surgically repaired elbow, they changed the delicate character of their team. Jackson, a pitcher who is fine for regular season use, will never be the third starter on a championship team, and his ascension as a key player in the Nats playoff run played a critical role in their downfall.

General manager Mike Rizzo and Nats fans everywhere will now get a long, long off-season to ponder the what-ifs of what was, otherwise, a pretty exciting season.

As for karma and power outages? They’re a bitch. 

And our long Nationals over. (With apologies to the late President Gerald Ford.)