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Long-Forgotten or Never-Remembered Moments in Washington Baseball History, Vol. IV (8/6/05)

Today, August 6, 2006, the Washington Nationals lost a ballgame, 3-2, to the San Diego Padres. Exactly one year ago today, August 6, 2005, the Washington Nationals lost a ballgame, 3-2, to the San Diego Padres.

Strange, no?

I suppose the similarities end there. Occasional delusions of grandeur (or, given this season's National League, mediocrity) aside, this year's Nats aren't going anywhere but the golf course and presumably the bargaining table come October 2. One year ago today, as we hopefully still recall, the Nats remained in the thick of things, positioned only one game behind Houston in the NL wild card standings. Last year's Nats reached nineteen games above .500 at one point; the only manner in which this year's edition could approach anything close to that mark would be the result of a generously bizarro simulation program.

Yet, while hindsight of how last year's team wrapped up might add some extra gloss to this sentiment, I can't help thinking that, records aside, optimism actually runs higher for the club today than it did one year ago today. To that end, it's not exactly news to report that the '05 Nats were in a free-fall on August 6. The 3-2 loss---to, of all people, Pedro Astacio, in his his first win as a Friar---was the Nats' second straight and seventh in ten games. This would constitute something resembling a hot streak for the Nats in the month following their Independence Day heights; the loss was their twenty-first in twenty-nine games.

The headliners in the gamer are fellows who will probably never again don the Curly W: Ryan Drese and Joey Eischen. As reported in the article:

The game was tied at 2 when Robinson decided to take Drese out of the game in favor of lefty Joey Eischen. At the time Robinson took Drese out of the game, the left-handed hitting Dave Roberts had a 2-2 count and Eric Young was on second base as the potential go-ahead run.

The TV cameras showed Drese' dismay when he entered the dugout. It wasn't like Drese was pitching poorly. In fact, he had a quality outing. Drese had given up two runs over six innings when Robinson went to the bullpen.

. . . The change Robinson made backfired. Eischen managed to strike out Roberts, but he gave up an RBI double to Randa, scoring Young on the play to give the Padres a 3-2 lead that they would make stand for the final score in front of 38,076 at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. The run was charged to Drese. Randa had gone 0-for-3 against Drese in the game.

([editor's note, by Basil] Even if the move backfired---and it did---at least it didn't inspire a commission to investigate the incident.)

After the game, Drese kind of slammed Robinson ("There was no reason given whatsoever. I don't know. Of course, I wanted to stay in the game."); Robinson sort of took responsibility ("It's not like that I didn't think [Drese] could get out Dave Roberts. I just thought in that situation Eischen had a better shot at him."); and, true to form, Eischen inspired a bracketed response ("I put our team at a disadvantage. It [stinks].").

The offensive stars were few, as the Nats banged out only five hits. Vinny Castilla slammed his seventh homer---his first since June---with a fourth inning shot off of Astacio. Jose Vidro drove in the Nats' first run an inning earlier, chasing Cristian Guzman (1-for-3; .193 batting average) with a double. The other two hits belonged to Brad Wilkerson and Nick Johnson, who were both 1-for-3 with a walk. For old time's sake, I'll note that Wilkerson struck out. And, speaking of strikeouts, Preston Wilson whiffed twice in four at-bats. Ryan Church fanned three times, dropping his batting average below .300 and paving the way for Brandon Watson's arrival two games later. Gary Bennett, rounding out the lineup, went 0-for-3 with a walk.

As the corresponding notes article recounted, this was a team coming apart at the seams. As a matter of fact, Robinson called a team meeting prior to the game, "because he was concerned that the chemistry was deteriorating." The team's problems during the past month had festered, and the ever-famous "[s]ome in the organization" expressed concern that "players [were] not playing smart baseball and [were] too concerned about who should be in the lineup." This latter criticism was perhaps an oblique reference to the effect the Preston Wilson acquisition had on the core players, especially the outfielders, who were lumped into a four-man struggle for playing time. (The outfield's macho man, Jose Guillen, was temporarily scratched due to a left shoulder ailment and remained out for a couple more days because---hilariously, in retropsect---an MRI session that morning was cancelled when "the MRI machine was broken, according to a club spokesman." Ah, MLB ownership. Good times.)

The meeting featured a well-publicized blow-up between two of these outfielders:

According to another source, the only heated exchange was between outfielders Jose Guillen and Brad Wilkerson. Guillen told Wilkerson that he wanted him to take charge a little more in center field. Wilkerson responded by saying that that he would take charge a little more, but that Guillen never listens to him. Guillen became very upset. Heated words then followed, but right-hander Livan Hernandez, according to the source, put an end to the arguing, telling both sides and the rest of the players that the team needed to play together.

Despite this incident, a source said it was a "positive meeting" and noted the team emerged "fired up."

Whatever the source of the heat, it certainly did not ignite the Nats' bats. As noted, they scored two runs on five hits on August 6. On August 7, Robinson attempted to "kickstart" the offense by tossing out a joke lineup:

Carroll 2B
Guzman SS
Johnson 1B
Baerga 3B
Church CF
Cepicky RF
Blanco LF
Bennett C
Loaiza P

The Nats mustered only five hits---one by the starting pitcher---and were blanked, 3-0.

* * * *

As noted above, I think the future is far brighter for the Nats one year later, current record be damned. Last year's lineup was an utter joke, and while it seems to be the case that RFK Stadium is not the dungeon it seemed last season, the offense is indisputably improved at a number of positions: left and third, most obviously, but also right (arguably; Jose Guillen was quite good last season, even if he infamously couldn't hit at home) and, most strikingly, shortstop. It remains to be seen what will happen to Guzman next season; maybe he returns to the lineup and Felipe Lopez slips over to second, assuming the team can somehow move Vidro's salary.

Of course, it also remains to be seen what happens to Alfonso Soriano. It's hard to overrate the effect he has had on the lineup this season.

(And, as for the pitching, yes, I know: it stinks. But at least Livan Hernandez had another solid outing. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If Livan is indeed not toast---and he really might not be---then, the way he eats innings, he's a worth it for next season's $7 million price tag.

* * * *

Keeping with the way-back theme, I don't think I mentioned this the first time around now, but I might as well now: I just recently discovered a blog that links to mine entitled Infinite Intensity, and one of its posts from April reminds me that I didn't note the current edition of Forbes Magazine's MLB team valuations when they were released a few months ago. A review of 2005's finances revealed the Nats ranked accordingly:

Current Value $440M 6
1-Yr Change +42% 1
Debt/Value 27% 19
Revenues $145M 19
Op. Income +$27.9M 4

And here was Forbes' "skinny" on the Nats:

The Washington Nationals first season at RFK Stadium was a rousing success. The team exceeded expectations on the field with 81 wins and 81 losses. Off the field, the team drew 2.7 million fans (11th best in the majors) and turned a profit of $28 million before interest and taxes. After a winter of battling each other, Major League Baseball and Washington officials finally settled their dispute over who would pay for the Nationals' new stadium as cost projections have soared from $435 million to move [sic] than $600 million. Next up, MLB needs to select an ownership group from the eight groups that have agreed to pay as much as $450 million for the franchise.

So, what part of this synopsis tips off that it's old? Attendance of 2.7 million? Cost projections of only $600 million? No selected owner? All of the above?

At any rate, it's clear that MLB did pretty well for itself with this franchise: $120 million (purchase price) turned into $450 million (sale price), plus yet another city checked off on the new ballpark ledger. I don't care how much MLB says it lost on the the three seasons in Montreal, or how much it recently said it needed to sock away in "legal expenses." This had to be a profitable scheme, all told.

But that's all behind us now. The team's in the hands of (hopefully) more trustworthy stewards. This time last season, it seemed the mood about the team was to prolong the inevitable: They're in a slump, but if they can only sweep this series . . .

It never happened; it was two months of not being good enough to be truly in it, but deluded by no one else being good enough to truly push the Nats out of it. This season, maybe there's no pressure involved with trying to stay in it, but I can't help but think the outlook is healthier. Some things definitely need to be done, and hopefully they're in progress of being done.