Thursday, March 31, 2011

Stinging Cold Opening Day

Photo Credit--Rob Carr Getty Images
Contact with a baseball thrown hard upon a swinging bat in cold weather many times stings.

Today on Opening Day 2011 at Nationals Park, Our Washington Nationals were stung by terrific pitching at the hands of The Atlanta Braves. Yes, it was 41 degrees at the 1:11PM official first pitch--thrown by Livan Hernandez. And a misty rain fell throughout as the ever dropping temperature deteriorated the conditions for fans and players alike.

It was frigid outside.
Photo Credit--Rob Carr (Getty Images)
But heat always overcomes cold and on this dreary Thursday afternoon, Atlanta pitchers Derek Lowe, Eric O'Flaherty, Peter Moylan, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel bettered Washington's Livan Hernandez, Doug Slaten, Tyler Clippard, Todd Coffey and Sean Burnett. Look, in the bottom of the 9th, The Braves new closer, Kimbrel, was heaving the ball in frosty breath conditions--97 miles per hours.
Photo Credit--Alex Brandon (AP)
Warmth cuts through ice and this afternoon on South Capitol Street Atlanta's pitching made Washington's batters appear as if their bats were melting from the high heat pitches thrown from their solid staff. Understand, Ole Number 61 didn't pitch bad. In fact, Jayson Heyward's second inning home run BARELY made it over the right field wall. But it did. And a little bit of lost focus in the top of the very 1st inning--with two outs by Livo--plated the first tally of the new season against D.C.'s Team when Brian McCann slapped the first pitch he faced all season right back up the middle to score Chipper Jones from 2nd base.

That was it.
Photo Credit--Rob Carr (Getty Images)
That was the ball game because Our Washington Nationals couldn't muster any rally and weren't helped either by the dead air stagnated over the stadium throughout the competition. Rick Ankiel's drive to the Out Of Town Scoreboard in the bottom of the 2nd inning off Lowe--is a home run in hot, humid weather. Adam LaRoche's opposite field whack to the visiting bullpen wall in left in the bottom of the 4th would have gone out in July & August as well. Unfortunately, this was late March--the last day in fact on the calendar month-which meant you not only had to hit every baseball hard--but you needed to make perfect and solid contact as well.
Derek Lowe wasn't going to allow any of that today. And when Craig Kimbrel threw nothing but smoke to get Ankiel looking to end this game 2 hours and 32 minutes after first pitch--The Tomahawk Choppers had put Opening Day in the win column while Washington was left thinking about 161 more days to come.
Final score from Nationals Park where chilly winter weather nine days into spring and great pitching by an opponent took every last warm feeling out of the well bundled home crowd--The Atlanta Braves 2 and Our Washington Nationals Zero.  Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche combined to make three fine defensive plays for D.C.'s Team. Danny Espinosa singled, doubled, made a terrific up the middle backhand stab and throw to first to record an out on Nate McLouth in the top of the 6th. And Washington's pitching really was--really good.

The pitching, defense and athleticism Our General Manager Mike Rizzo has consistently stated this spring was there. To everyone's dismay watching and rooting for Washington, the offense was not. Yes, heat melts ice and hopefully today's stinging cold Opening Day loss to The Atlanta Braves on South Capitol Street will soon be forgotten.

Game Notes & Highlights
Photo Credit--Alex Brandon (AP)
I wish we had a picture of this. When Livan Hernandez was warming up as the entire roster was traditionally being announced for both teams--Livo was standing in right field just beginning his warmups. In true Big Cuban Style, as his name was announced and the NatsHD camera was upon him--Ole Number 61 paused in mid rotation of a toss and flicks his neck up in acknowledgement to the crowd. That man gets the entertainment value of baseball plus the devotion and appreciation many fans in Washington have for him.

He's just so unique.
That's also why you can't fault him for getting into the 7th inning today and allowing two runs and taking the loss. He deserved better, but it just wasn't his day. Washington's offense didn't muster a single run against Atlanta's pitchers to his favor.  It happens.

Jim Riggleman's bullpen was solid. Slaten, Clippard, Coffey and Burnett were all good. Our Manager's called upon relief corp throwing 2.2 innings of one hit, one walk, shutout ball. You couldn't have asked for more.
He didn't last through the sixth inning and he tossed an astronomical 105 pitches (in Livo territory) during his time on the mound, but Derek Lowe had that great sinker of his working. Six Washington batters went down on strikes. There were just three fly ball outs recorded by The Braves all afternoon. New Atlanta Manager Fredi Gonzalez has a good pitching staff with Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson still to be seen this series. The type of hurlers Washington would love to emulate with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann leading way in the years to come. For right now though--you have to appreciate what The Braves bring to the mound.  Good stuff to emulate.

Batting 7th today in Manager Jim's starting lineup, Danny Espinosa showed all of his tools--a quick bat from both sides of the plate, tremendous range fielding at 2nd base and hustle that everyone can appreciate. Espi may just be a rookie, but Danny has all the tools to be a very good player.

A Very Good Player.

The heart of Washington's order--Werth, Zimmerman and LaRoche all singled today to complete the five hits surrendered by Atlanta's pitching. Zimmy and Ankiel also walked.

Talking with Original RFK Stadium Section 320 Nats Fan "Red Shoes Jim" during the 7th inning this afternoon, we discussed how Jayson Werth's two running in sliding catches and Adam LaRoche's sprawling dive to his right in the top of the 4th to retire Brian McCann during today's game are the type of defensive plays not seen consistently over the past few seasons in Washington. The type of defensive gems that when not made turn a one and two run down ball game into four and five run down ball game.
Odd stat of the day. The type of reference only baseball can consistently provide. Jayson Heyward's home run on Opening Day this afternoon was his second in as many seasons since beginning his Major League Career. Only Kaz Matsui of the 2004/2005 New York Mets has ever accomplished the same feat.  Go figure.

Of course, Opening Day had its usual pagentry. The announcing of the team rosters and starting lineups. The presentation of the colors. The unraveling of a gigantic American Flag. The playing of the National Anthem by The U.S. Navy Band and the throwing out of the first pitch. This year performed by the Armed Forces represented by Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard soldiers.

Ryan Zimmerman was officially handed his 2010 Silver Slugger Award and Our General Manager Mike Rizzo briefly spoke to the crowd before the game to thank them for their support.

2011 Home Scoreboard

2011 Visiting Scoreboard
And finally, we noticed quite a few tweaks to Nationals Park today--as compared to 2010 (and more on that coming later). But nothing beat the changes to the HD Scoreboard. What's with all the red & white when Washington comes to bat? And the black when the opposition hits? The lineups are smaller in size.  It's much harder to read.

Why change what was a good thing?
2010 Scoreboard (Bigger Type-Easier To Read)
2010 Scoreboard (Blue Highlight)
2010 Scoreboard (Yellow Highlight)
There was nothing wrong with the previous version of the HD Scoreboard. Yellow to represent significant numbers (especially scoring), blue to highlight, white to represent other information, larger type to be able to read everything rather easily.
2011 Scoreboard
You can't look at the new 2011 HD Scoreboard graphics without staring at it for a longer period of time. It was difficult to read today and this was a day game. What will it be like when Washington plays its first night game on April 12th?
2010 Scoreboard

2011 Scoreboard
No comparison. The older scoreboard setup was better and far easier to read.

All Other Photos Copyrighted--Nats320--All Rights Reserved

Natsfest 2011--Harper & Hondo & Nats Memorabilia Make The Day

When rain began to fall and the opportunity to watch Our Washington Nationals take batting practice at yesterday's Natsfest was cancelled, fans were left a void of things to do from around 4PM until 5:30PM when all scheduled Q & A Sessions began and the opportunity for player Meet & Greet and Photo Stations which followed.

Thankfully, MASN's Phil Wood put on display in the Stars & Stripes Club (3rd Base Side) some of his vintage Washington Senators memorabilia--some dating back to the early 1900's to pass the time. On exhibit were Sam Rice, Bucky Harris, Ted Williams & Frank Howard uniforms (among others). A nice selection of caps and batting helmets--including an extremely rare white with red Curly "W" expansion Senators cap worn a few times in the mid-1960's and a Hondo batting helmet that was originally blue with red Curly "W" painted over before the 1968 season to red--when The Washington Senators changed their primary color from blue to red.
And some of the baseball pennants were spectacular--including a 1912 "American League Washington" blue felt version that stood out.

Good stuff.

My Favorite Player Of All Time!!--Frank Howard--again put on his usual show in one of the PNC Diamond Club Q & A Sessions Sohna and I attended beginning at 5:30PM. Along with VP of Player Development Bob Boone and Special Advisor to the GM Davey Johnson, Hondo again told one of his favorite stories of making 8 outs in six at-bats at Fenway Park and getting a standing ovation from Boston Red Sox Fans. The story never gets old and you can tell--Big Frank loves the limelight retelling the tale.

Bob Boone and Davey Johnson--sitting in wonder on stage--enjoyed the rapture Frank had on the audience. For some reason most every fan stood the entire time Hondo told his very funny story.  And being like only Howard has always been with fans--Old Number 33 in your scorecard stayed behind after this session ended, signing and taking pictures with anybody that wished to meet him.

The Man Is A Class Act.
Speaking of Johnson, Davey mentioned in this session hosted by Phil Wood that when he played for The Baltimore Orioles, Frank Howard lined the hardest hit line drive he's ever seen right past the head of Brooks Robinson (the Hall of Fame 3rd Baseman for the O's). "Brooksie was the greatest 3rd baseman ever, but even he couldn't get his glove up fast enough to catch that scorched liner. After the inning ended, I remember Brooks coming back to the dugout white as a ghost saying: 'If my head was just 1/2" higher--I would be dead now!!'  I've never seen a ball hit so hard in my life."
In fact, this Q&A session was very informative--Boone talking at length about how impressed he is with the quality of catchers coming up in Washington's Minor League System--mentioning Wilson Ramos, Derrek Norris, Jesus Flores and raving about Sandy Leon's throwing arm. "Our Minor League System, in general, when I first got here wasn't really worth watching. It is now. We've got some good players at every level of this organization."
Our other favorite part of the day--happened totally by chance. There were no scheduled autograph sessions with any player or coaches during this NatsFest which made the Photo Station lines extremely long since every season ticket holder in attendance showed up for this event. In fact, The African Queen and I got into the photo line at 6:15 for the 1st of the two consecutive half hour sessions on the 1st Base Side of the Stars & Stripes Club and never got close to the front when Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Slaten, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Cole Kimball and a couple of other players were posing with fans.
Thankfully patience paid off, when as we finally neared the front of the line with the final half hour photo session 15 minutes through--Bryce Harper walked in and started taking pictures with fans waiting. That made the day for not only us--but every single fan that hung in there for that period of time--happy.

We also took photos with Laynce Nix & Alex Cora, Tom Gorzelanny plus John Lannan and Chad Gaudin (who was quite funny and had a very nice brief chat with The African Queen).

NatsFest's first event of the day was a Season Ticket Holder exclusive Q & A with Our GM Mike Rizzo, Manager Jim Riggleman and players Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche. Hosted by NBC's Meet The Press Moderator Dick Gregory--this PNC Diamond Club event was standing room only.
In fact, as the afternoon moved to early evening and normal weekday work hours ended--more and more fans seemed to show up at Nationals Park. We didn't attend the "Meet & Greets" set up along the 1st & 3rd Base concourse with the entire team, coaches and front office members--but we noticed the line snaking all the way to Center Field Plaza and into the cold and chilly rain.

Other highlights: 
Ryan Zimmerman's 2010 Silver Slugger Award.

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum put on display nice figures of Presidents George Washington and Richard Nixon.  Museum officials were also handing out special buy one, get one free coupons to visit their 10th and F Street location.

Also on display in the Stars & Stripes Club was memorabilia from Our Washington Nationals--including the pitching plate from Stephen Strasburg's debut game and signed Montreal Expos Jersey's worn by Gary Carter and Andre Dawson last year when they were honored at Nationals Park for the Ring Of Fame and their inductions into the Baseball Hall Of Fame.
Levy Executive Chefs Phil Bucco and Terrence Louzan told us that the Stars & Stripes Club will feature a complete overhauled menu for 2011, more choices, more variety. And that Teddy's Barbecue is no longer. Apparently the new Union Square Hospitality Group that will run The Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk includes Blue Smoke pit barbecue and USHG wanted an exclusive offering at their locaton. Chef Bucco stating a "loaded" hot dog stand (10-different choices) will replace Teddy's Barbecue.

And finally, the weather really wasn't the issue yesterday. Even if Natsfest was held in January (which we still prefer along with the Hot Stove Luncheon)--a cold, wet and dreary day could be expected. Natsfest 2011 needed more ways for fans to distribute their time. As the crowds became larger as the day wore on--many ended up attending the same events causing traffic jams.

Sohna and I are not autographs fans, but we know many others are. If autograph sessions are set up to coincide with photo stations--that would split the crowd and allow more fans, more contact and a better opportunity to meet some of their favorite players.

PS: A few other photos from Natsfest 2011

All Photos Copyrighted--Nats320--All Rights Reserved