Sunday, September 17, 2006

Speed Is The Name Of The Game

Since the All-Star Break, the Washington Nationals have hit over .270 as a team, compared to .247 before the break. Our Nats can score runs, but poor pitching has buried the team in the standings. And, as the 2006 season nears its closure, Washington has added an entirely new dimension--SPEED to its arsenal. Speed on the basepath. Speed in the field.

During the 2005 Inaugural Season, The Washington Nationals where a base to base team. They had no speed. The Inuagural Nats stole just 45 bases, and got thrown out stealing--45 times. Jamey Carroll was their fastest runner and he only stole 3 bases in 7 attempts. Many times, the 2005 Nationals could not reach difficult hits into the gap, or grounders into the holes of the infield. 2006 is far different. With just 2 weeks remaining in the season, Washington has stolen 110 bases and been thrown out 57 times. Significantly better than last year. Alfonso Soriano was the catalyst for the speed change this year. But, when Felipe Lopez (who I still believe is a terrible fielder) joined the team in July after the big trade with Cincinnati, the Nats where able to put game changing speed at the top of their batting order. Later, Bernie Castro was called up from New Orleans, showing tremendous speed and range, in the field at second baase. Finally, Nook Logan was acquired from Detroit, to provide outfield agility. Logan has a terrific loping stride, moves effortlessly. Personally, I would love to see a footrace between Castro and Logan, it would be fantastic!! Soriano, Castro and Logan have far reaching range. Plays that Wilkerson, Vidro, Church and Preston Wilson, could not retrieve last season, are outs with these 3 in the game this year.

That new found tool, speed, directly led to today's 6-1 dismantling of the Milwaukee Brewers. A game that saw Brew Crew Starter, Doug Davis, pitch a perfect game into the 5th inning. A game that saw Bernie Castro score after beating out an infield single that travelled all of 50 feet, scoring from second on a blop that landed 5 feet from a fielder and, later on, score from first on, basically, a routine single to right. Nook Logan continuing that speed show with a 30 foot bunt--running safely to first. Finally, the bullpen was great, Nats reliever Chris Shroeder would strike out all six hitters he faced over 2 innings. Looking invincible, totally unhittable today. In fact, the Nats bullpen throwing 5 No Hit innings.

All this occured on the African Queen's Birthday. A Birthday Screech stopped by to celebrate with his new found GIRLFRIEND!! And, on the day the Washington Nationals celebrated Sohna's Favorite Player, Alfonso Soriano, reaching the elusive 40/40 Club.

This days' festivities started off when Owner Mark Lerner and Team President, Stan Kasten, presented Alfonso with a Commemorative Plaque near Home Plate for his historic achievement. The Video board in right field, playing a 3 minute Soriano Highlight reel. Soriano grinning with Frank Robinson, awaiting to jog onto the field to receive the award. THE RFK FAITHFUL cheering wildly, standing ovation for Number 12. Soriano, all smiles, appreciative of the honor. Soriano gave Stan Kasten a nice High Five while both walked back to the Nats third base dugout after the brief ceremony.

As the game began, Screech made his first of 2 appearances in Section 320, stopping in to hug, smooch and help sing "Happy Birthday" to the African Queen. Sohna unaware that Screech knew of her BIG DAY!! I think Screech would have taken her home today, if I allowed it. Screech then, quickly, getting "down in front".

Both starters today, pitched well. Davis throwing a perfect game through 4.1 innings. Mike O'Connor, barely reaching 83MPH on any pitch, yet somehow hanging in there. In the second inning, O'Connor would hit Prince Fielder with a pitch. Kevin Mench would follow with a single to center. Still no outs. David Bell would hit a routine ball to Ryan Zimmerman at third. Z, slumping of late, tried to turn a double play, and threw wildly to second, bringing Castro off the base. All runners safe. Bases Loaded, No outs. Zimmerman just doesn't look right these days. Maybe the long first season is beginning to wear him down.

Brewers Catcher, Damian Miller, would follow with a deep enough fly to Austin Kearns to sacrifice Fielder home. 1-0 Milwaukee. O'Connor would get out of the jam when Davis laid down a sacrifice bunt, moving Bell to second, and Brady Clark flied to center to end the threat.

Then, nothing for the next 3 innings. Schroeder would come on to replace O'Connor in the top of the 5th, and strike out the side for the first time tonight. In the bottom half, Zimmerman would fly out to center for out number 1. The Sunday Crowd, really not into this one. Alot of kids for the Sunday, "Build A Bear Giveaway". I mention to RallyTimeRichard that, "You know, if Davis is pitching a perfect game after 8 complete, I am going to want to see that perfect game!!"

Well, my Perfect Game hope didn't last long, as Austin Kearns stepped to the plate, and on a 2-2 count, ended the PERFECT GAME, NO HITTER and SHUTOUT by blasting a line drive HOME RUN over the left field wall, near the foul pole. Tying the game at 1 and giving RFK a legitimate reason to rock. 1-1 after Davis recovers to retire Jose Vidro and Brandon Harper. Vidro, playing first base today, as Frank Robinson decided to rest the slumping Nick Johnson.

Schroeder would again strike out the side in the 6th and leave to a ROUSING standing ovation from the crowd on the 3rd base side. Schroeder tipping his cap as he dropped down into the dugout. Neither team could cobble together anything significant in the bottom of the sixth and top of the 7th. But, in the bottom half of the seventh inning, that new found speed worked to Washington's favor.

Bernie Castro, would slap a grounder to the right of Prince Fielder, the ball not even reaching the infield dirt. Fielder made an attempt on the ball, tossing it to Doug Davis covering. "Speedy Gonzalez" motoring all the way, JUST beat the foot touch of the bag by Davis. Castro safe on an infield single. Aaron, sitting to my left, said "Wow--Can that guy run!!" Me saying "You should have seen him last night on 2 triples, incredible speed!!"

Felipe Lopez would sacrifice him to second. I told Aaron, all we need now, is any type of blooper over a fielder and Castro scores easily. Sure enough, after Z goes down on strikes on a pitch he thought was ball four, Kearns would follow with a first pitch bloop JUST OVER Prince Fielder's head, the ball landing just a few feet from his feet. Castro, charging hard, had already just about reached home, by the time the ball landed on the turf. It was INCREDIBLE!! Section 320 in total amazement over this guy's running ability. Castro can flat out RUN!!! The Crowd going NUTS over this score. Nats take the lead 2-1 after 7.

Jon Rauch replaced Rivera to start the 8th. Rauch was shaky at first, walking Damian Miller leading off the inning. Brewers Manager, Ned Yost, would send Pinch Hitter, Geoff Jenkins, up to pinch hit for Doug Davis. Jenkins, he of 2 homers on Friday Night. At the same time, Yost would send in speedster, Tony Gwynn, Jr. to pinch run for Miller. Jenkins, looking to jack the ball out of the park, popped a ball toward the Nats 3rd base dugout. Brandon Harper, today's catcher, would chase it down, near the dugout railing. Take one step backwards and make a fine two hand grab to retire Jenkins for out number 1. Brady Clark was next. And, on the very first pitch from Rauch, Gwynn, Jr. took off--Rauch throws an off speed pitch over the outside corner of the plate. Harper looking to throw out Gwynn, Jr, reaches out to catch the pitch. Clark lunges and SWINGS at the pitch, just missing Harper's glove (hitting Harper's glove would have been catcher's interference--a rule book single wih all runners advancing one base). Clark lined the ball to short right field. Kearns, playing in, didn't seem to track the ball well, yet recovered to make the catch---Gwynn, Jr now near second base, reversing course, and hightailing it back to first. Taking his time, Austin short arms the ball, on the run to first to just retire Gwynn. Double Play to end the inning. As KentuckyRob noted--"Austin was playing in, almost still didn't get there, and then didn't seem ready to throw the ball to first--very strange" And, it was. But, it ended the Brewers opportunity to tie the score, setting up the fine bottom of the 8th for the Nationals. Speed, once again the major factor.

One time Brewers Closer, and All Star, Derrick Turnbow, was now on the mound for Milwaukee. Long, 1970's thick styled hairdoo, short from the set position delivery, this guy can hum the ball. Over the next 13 pitches thrown by Turnbow, NONE would rate less than 95MPH on the radar gun. One pitch fired in at 99MPH. For a guy with a short stride, the man can FIRE THE BALL!!! RallyTimeRichard, KentuckyRob, Aaron and I could not stop talking about it. Of course, we learned very quickly why he has such a high ERA--No control, and everything looks the same.

Harper was first up for Washington. Brandon looking lost against Turnbow, down 1-2 in the count. Derrick would fire in another heater, and Harper swung fooled, only the speed of the ball hitting bat helped Brandon, as the ball was lined into left for a leadoff single. We all laughed mightily in Section 320. Nook Logan was next and bunted just to the left of Turnbow. Logan, all speed, easily ran to the bag for an infield single. Harper moving to second. Nick Johnson, now in the game as a defensive substitute for Vidro, was up next and K's swinging hard at a 96MPH fastball from Turnbow. Nick just overmatched.
Soriano was next and, once again, THE PERFECT STORM was set. Freewheeling Fastball Pitcher against the BEST Fastball Hitter in the game. The Brewers realized this and Turnbow plunked Alfonso with the very first pitch-loading the bases with 1 out. KentuckyRob looking at me, saying "The Brewers recognized that PERFECT STORM and didn't want any part of it."

Bernie Castro was next, resulting in the Controversial Play Of The Game. Castro looked overmatched with Turnbow. Swinging madly at strike one. On the very next pitch, Bernie would slap a grounder to Bill Hall at shortstop. Hall, fearing that he could not turn a double play to second on to first, to end the inning, double clutched, and then fired home, in an attempt to beat the charging Harper. The ball sailed high, but new catcher, Mike Rivera, jumped high to catch the errant toss, and seemed to land right back down on the plate with his left foot, beating the sliding Harper. Home Plate Umpire, Doug Eddings called Brandon SAFE!!!! TV replays showed Rivera coming down on the plate for the out. Although a nice photo from Mrs. MICKNATS showed Rivera landed inches to the right of home plate. Safe was the correct call. Ned Yost came out to argue, but to no avail. 3-1 Nats.

Felipe Lopez would then face new Milwaukee pitcher, Dennis Sarfate, and hammer the second pitch of this at bat to right field, near the line, but not anywhere near past rightfielder Corey Hart. Nook Logan and Soriano score easily, but Castro, flat out tearing it up, would take a HUGE TURN around second base, footprints showing his oval near the rear part of the shortstops set position. As Castro neared 3rd base, Hart had the ball in his hands and was ready to fire it back into the infield. Nats 3rd base coach, Tony Beasley, put up the STOP SIGN. Last night, Beasley held back Castro on a sure INSIDE THE PARK HOMERUN. Bernie was having none of that today, running right through the stop sign, putting the hammer down--scoring easily from first on a liner to right!! It was a magnificent run. JUST MAGNIFICENT!!! Section 320 downright giddy over what we just witnessed. The RFK STADIUM Crowd of 26,128 roaring its approval.

Speed was, once again, the deciding factor. Speed--The Game Changer Today!! 6-1 Nats, and this game was OVER!!!

Ryan Wagner would retire the Brewers in order in the 9th. Curly W number 65 for Washington. Another Series Victory for the Nationals. And more importantly--after starting the season 1-9 at home, the Nationals have won 37 and lost only 25 since. The Nats have learned to play at RFK Stadium. Alfonso Soriano taught them that you can hit home runs there. And, the players have learned, hitting into the gap goes along way to scoring alot of runs in this cavernous stadium.

Alfonso Soriano continues to press, with his entire family in town for the momentous occasion. He needs to settle down a little. Sohna's main main is swinging at EVERYTHING!! Z looks tired. But, the relief pitching from Wagner, Rivera, Rauch, Cordero and now Schroeder has been impressive. And, that SPEED, that SPEED has changed the dynamic of the team. Our Washington Nationals can score runs without what Aaron describes so perfectly by "not doing anything substantial baseballwise!!"

Its totally true. If we only had some starting pitching, we might be decent. Maybe not championship caliber, but good. Its a start.

1 comment:

SenatorNat said...

2006 season coming to a close with some SENSATIONAL memories and real hope for 2007: wouldn't it be something if the RFK karma were to rain down on the team, as out of some wonderful sappy kids' movie, and we just went ahead and won it all for the Old Girl.

She (the Stadium) will actually have her last year housing professional football (American-style) and baseball. {Presumably, Clark Construction can get it done by 2008!)

The pictures of Alf with Frank, and Stan and Mark are sterling - only exceeded by the African Queen and Screech!!

Is it possible for a rookie to do better than Z and be such a great guy to boot? Isn't Cordero still the coolest thing in relief-pitching and doesn't he continue to scare you to death? And you can place his own bobble-head on his brim!

Isn't it incredible that a crowd can be that pumped up on an "NFL Sunday" over two guys who do not hit the ball over 10 feet from the plate?

Can a single in September from a guy who apparently has NO glove at short make the jumpers jump watching a team more than 25 games out of first in their division? Rhetorical question...Can Lucy's heartthrob strike-out six in a row in relief - what a classic!

"40-40-20": that's 100, portending a one-hundred win miracle season in the House that Z Built (or started in, or something like that...)

All we need to do is invoke the Gods of RFK, to pay homage to this stately lady who gave us the two greatest happenings in modern D.C. sports: 1972 and 1983 Dallas Championship Games; and the 2005 Nationals Opener, and a certain walk-off home run by a rookie third-baseman against the vaunted NY Yankees!!

The beauty of baseball is its seemingly crease-less quality - one season ends as the quilt is being started for next season...

{And, incidentally, the Redskins need some RFK magic quickly - maybe Screech can "move 'em on up" at a Nationals game before their season is lost altogether. We'll take Tom Hanks over Tom Cruise, anyway...)