Although I have not posted in nearly a week, my absence should not be interpreted as a sign of Nats-related apathy, or at least not predominantly so. Still, maybe I should keep Wednesday night's post at the top of the page a little while longer, just for the good tidings it represented. Since the last time I posted, the team has lost five straight and scored something like negative four runs. Day by day, I've thought of posting something but haven't had the time and, what is more, have grown to like the blog better this way. The last post is optimistic in a certain Tonight's the Night sense, and that pleases me.
Nevertheless, I suppose I must move on and post something, however grounded in our current reality as it may be.
Tonight's game was more of the same: no hitting, poor defense, an inability by the pitching staff to keep it together. I turned on the game after Matt Chico exited in the fifth inning, but both his line and the post-game analysis suggested his performance was a mixed bag. Chico yielded nine baserunners in 4.2 innings pitched, and he's now surrendered four homers in 8.2 innings total (after Andruw Jones's bomb in the fourth). On the other hand, Chico was obviously done in by Ronnie Belliard's defensive gaffe in the fifth; I didn't see the play, but the description sounds brutal. Additionally, as Knight pointed out during "Nats X-tra," Chico did some good things. These good things were presented in Baseball Tonight-style quick edits, so it's difficult to determine if the highlights are in any way meaningful or mainly divorced from context. But the way Chico froze Chipper Jones on a two-strike fastball that kicked in with a little extra oomph appeared impressive. To engage in some Kastenite quality reaching, maybe Chico is our version of a 1988 Tom Glavine, a guy who is well put together but has to learn on the fly and take some knocks.
Speaking of knocks, they simply haven't been there for the DC nine. While I concede I haven't seen enough of the early-season Nats to make much of an observation, there doesn't seem to be much synergy in the batting order. It could be because Manny Acta hasn't settled on a batting order, or it could be because Acta hasn't yet found an order that can be consistently effective. Dropping Brian Schneider to the eighth spot is probably a positive move. I suspect giving Ronnie Belliard a whirl in the two-hole might be worthwhile at the moment, just as a temporary, stoke-the-fire kind of manuever. I don't know; I'm grasping for something here. When a team plops out four hits - three on bloops - the batting order is probably a secondary concern to the batters themselves.
By the time I turned on the tube, the Nationals had settled into a form of competitive purgatory: they had already fallen out of it, but they had not yet relinquished their dignity. In other words, they were sort of vaguely competitive through the seventh, when Jesus Colome spent nearly thirty pitches (and probably nearly half an hour) to fall into, and extricate himself from, a bases loaded situation. In the eighth, Ray King sold the farm, allowing five baserunners in two-thirds of an inning; well, maybe you call it four baserunners if you don't count Jeff Francoeur's one iron into the left field seats, seeing as he passed directly to Go. Three of King's baserunners reached via walk, including half-a-walk that his replacement, Levale Speigner, brought to fruition. King left with shoulder inflammation, though early reports indicate he will not be put on the disabled list.
Meaning no disrespect to King, who is a veteran trying to reestablish himself as a marketable reliever, perhaps it would be best if he spent the next two weeks out of action. The Nats certainly could use his roster spot on a pitcher of greater utility. Coming into tonight's contest, Washington's starters had averaged fewer than five innings per start, well shy of the NL average of six frames per game. This is a well I dipped into quite enough last season, admittedly, but the "innings gap" bears watching. Last season, Nats starters averaged 5.43 innings per start, which trailed the NL average by well over an out per game. I intend to track this number again this season, although I think I'll wait until three weeks or so into the season so as to allow the averages to gain a bit of perspective.
At any rate, Chico pitched only 4.2 innings, and the bullpen filled in the rest. Notwithstanding Shawn Hill's quality start on Sunday, this has become a familiar theme. Entering tonight's action, the starters had logged all of 34 innings pitched, whereas the relievers had accounted for the remaining 29 innings. This is not what one would characterize a winning ratio, and the only factor that bettered tonight's ratio was that Atlanta was the home team. Blessedly, the Nats needn't blow another reliever inning beyond the eighth in an eight-run ballgame.
One simple question ties this discussion back to Ray King: What the hell do the Nats need a LOOGY for right now anyway? The Nats could use another stretch-out reliever to match Speigner far more, and Billy Traber happens to be hanging around in Columbus. I understand the idea is to give King an opportunity for success (or merely mediocrity) so as to flip the lefty for something even half-way useful at the trade deadline or prior to the waivers deadline; it might be a tough go to match last season's Mike Stanton-Shairon Martis stroke of luck, but King could perhaps attract something worthwhile with 50 appearances and 35 innings. However, if he can't pitch tomorrow or the next day, there's little point in keeping him on the active roster. This team needs guys available to pitch, because in any given game the team could need anyone and everyone.
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So this is where we are with the Nats: no runs, no drips but, unlike Krylon, some errors. It has become fashionable to refer to the Nats as a Triple-A outfit, although the consensus is (rightly) that Nationals Enquirer does so with the most panache. Capitol Punishment also provided a neat little exegesis on the topic recently. The main thrust was the Nats have talent and are playing well, but they don't have enough talent and aren't playing well enough.
I have nearly a lifetime of experience watching Triple-A teams, and the best I can tell is that the observation is spot-on as applied to the Nats. And no, that's not an insult. Triple-A baseball is, of course, minor league baseball, but that description should not be confused with bad baseball. I've had this discussion with my boss - also a Richmond resident for many years - and we're in agreement here: In a very legitimate sense, your best deal in baseball-watching is Triple-A baseball. It's good baseball, and it's cheap, and you're close to the action. (Of course, RFK Stadium can also be cheap, what with the $3- and $5-dollar outfield seats, and is also comparatively close to the action.) The teams are not full of weaklings or bumblers or wild things, although they have some of those types to be sure. Then again, so do big league teams. It's merely a difference of degree. In the big leagues, generally speaking, the weaklings aren't quite as weak, the bumblers aren't quite as bumbling, and the wild things aren't quite as wild. You watch one Triple-A game and one big league game, and (outside of the comparatively anonymous names associated with the former) it's pretty hard to tell the difference. If you're observant, you can of course tell, but it really does take some pretty close observation. I swear.
Now, the differences in degree mount as the days become weeks, the weeks become months, and the months become a full season. And that's where we are with the Nationals. But big league teams get snuffed out on offense like the Nats did tonight, and big league teams see their starting pitchers get chased early sometimes, and big league teams are often undone by sloppy play. The Nationals may well be the NAAAtionals, but that in itself is not a tremendous insult on a given night. Even a pure Triple-A squad could win, what, a quarter to a third of the games on a big league schedule?
Catch 'em on the right night, and you might even see a win.