Sunday, August 03, 2008

Saving The Game

Collin Balester was struggling. Staked to an early four run lead, Our Number 40 found himself in a jam of his own doing. Joey Votto had led off the top of the 6th inning and FLAT OUT CLUBBED a liner over the centerfield wall. A home run that woke up a slumbering Sunday Matinee Crowd. The First score for The Cincinnati Reds followed by a Brandon Phillips walk and Adam Dunn infield single.

With the score now 4-1 Washington, the tying run was at the plate and Our Manager Manny Acta decided not to let his Rookie Starter be responsible for the loss. Attempting to build confidence in Young Collin, Our Number 14 went to the bullpen for relief. A Re-Set Bullpen now featuring pitchers handling different roles. No longer Chad Cordero closing out the game, nor Big Jon Rauch available out of the pen. No longer Joel Hanarahan to bridge the gap between starter and closer. And the well overused Saul Rivera getting a lesser workload these days--in hopes of not destroying his pitching arm.

Manny was in fresh territory. The opportunity to give another young hurler HIS CHANCE to make a difference. Steven Shell grew up in The Angels of Los Angeles and Anaheim's System, never had he tasted a whiff of Regular Season Baseball at The Major League Level--at least not until Our Washington Nationals came a calling. Now 25 years old and like most Minor League Veterans, Our Number 59 came to DC--only hoping, WANTING for his moment to pitch in The Big Leagues.

After throwing outstanding ball at AAA Columbus earlier this season, Shell was given his first call up to DC. For the most part--Steven has been pretty effective so far. The Baltimore Orioles and The Florida Marlins hit Our Number 59 hard during his first few appearances in a Washington Uniform, but entering this afternoon's affair--Steven carried to the mound a 1.82 ERA and the record holder for the very first and RARE Three Inning save for Our Washington Nationals back on July 11th against The Houston Astros on South Capitol Street.

Handed the baseball by Our Manager with the game on the line, Steven was now in a position to be the difference. What every single player in the game wants. Opportunity had arisen. This was HIS TIME. With all the injuries, trades, poor showings by many other moundsmen before him this 2008 Season for Washington, Shell was being trusted, given responsibility, to keep Our Washington Nationals, not only in this now close game, but ahead. Do not relinquish the lead--Manny told him.

Up stepped The Reds--Edwin Encarnacion, Cincinnati's Third Baseman. Remember, there was only one out here in the top of the sixth, runners on first and second base. And Encarnacion is a Fastball Slugging Hitter. Steven Shell made sure Edwin didn't see a single heater. He played him by the book. Feeding him off speed stuff--three sliders and one curveball later--Our Number 59 had FROZEN The Reds Third Sacker for out number two. A crucial retiring that found the faithful in the announced crowd of 32,939 applauding their approval and Encarnacion looking out over to the mound at this Number 59 Guy--who he had never faced previously. Edwin Encarnacion had been beaten and Shell's Catcher Wil Nieves punched his glove directly at Steven in appreciation of his following the game plan.

The approach which Shell must continue to stay on top of Corey Patterson now stepping into the Batter's Box. The speedy Patterson is also a fastball hitter and over the course of his career never has been able to reach the heights many scouts believed his talent should bring. A Number One Pick by The Chicago Cubs. Eventually, traded to The Baltimore Orioles. Now, a journeyman looking to re-establish HIS PLACE IN THE GAME. The same prolonging Steven Shell is wishing to extend in Major League Baseball.

Two players, of different backgrounds, both looking to survive. One to renew his career (Patterson). The other (Shell) to find his base to improve on.

This game was coming down to who wanted it more. The Veteran or The Rookie. Again, not throwing a single fastball, Steven Shell again came out on top. Pressing and trying to be the difference, Corey Patterson only failed, again, when he weakly grounded out to Emilio Bonifacio on the second pitch of this crucial At-Bat for the final out of the inning. Washington still on top, 4-1. Youthful exuberance had won over experience. And Wil Nieves ran over to congratulate Shell on his triumph. Slapping gloves with his catcher in joy, Steven knew his performance was a job well done. With The Cincinnati Reds hoping to take control of this game--Our Manager Manny Acta had TRUSTED HIM WITH THE BALL. And he had not disappointed. Gaining confidence through experience--Steven Shell proudly walked off the mound knowing--He Can Pitch In The Major Leagues Successfully. Thoughtfully, he was given a Standing Ovation by the crowd. He had earned their respect. Steven Shell had SAVED THIS GAME.

Moments later the entire contingent of Our Washington Nationals Dugout met him at the home steps in thanks. Our Number 59 had maintained the lead, kept The Cincinnati Reds from getting back into the affair and gave Our Number 14, for the future, another strong option to use with any game on the line.

Later, Manny would send Steven Shell out to also complete The 7th inning, which he perfected in 1-2-3 fashion. Our Number 59 then handed the baseball over to Charlie Manning who pitched a scoreless 8th, who then passed the baseball on to Joel Hanrahan, our new closer, who--despite being touched by Corey Patterson--on a fastball I might add--for a home run--was able to close the door, and receive his very first save for Our Washington Nationals. All three pitchers combining to give Collin Balester his second career win as a Major League Baseball Player.

But even Our Number 40 understood, this Curly "W" would not have occurred, if not for Steven Shell's 2nd "Hold" of his Major League Career.

Final Score before a still rejuvenated home crowd and GORGEOUSLY COMFORTABLE New Nationals Park--Our Washington Nationals 4 and The Cincinnati Reds 2. If all summer days in the swamp that is known as The District of Columbia could be so humidity free?! I don't believe the weather has EVER been better for Any Day Game played thus far on South Capitol Street.

Curly "W" Number 41 completed an unlikely three game sweep at the hands of The Cincinnati Reds. The Bang!! Zoom!! of The Fireworks!! providing relief from the unlikeliest of heroes. No, not just our two new middle infielders (Emilio Bonifacio and Alberto Gonzalez who have sparked over the past three days), but hurlers never considered in the running for bullpen positions when Our Washington Nationals first went to camp--this past spring in Viera, Florida. No one better this afternoon on the mound than Steven Shell--who single handedly saved this game, although he did not receive the OFFICIAL CREDIT.

Game Notes & Highlights

Despite struggling throughout his five plus innings on the mound--Balester still was able to get key outs when he needed them--at least until Steven Shell replaced him in the sixth. First and second, one out against him in the top of the second--Collin quickly turned and threw to the sneaking in Gonzales from shortstop to nab a sleeping Brandon Phillips roaming too far off second base. First and second, nobody out in the top of the 4th--Balester induced a clean 6-4-3 Double Play to help extinguish another Reds Rally. And in the fifth, Collin allowed a leadoff single to Patterson (again on a fastball I might add) before settling down to retire Cincinnati again. He was not sharp, but Our Number 40 was learning how to pitch in The Big Leagues, surviving on pitching, not necessarily on his throwing talent.

Washington jumped all over Johnny Cueto in the bottom of the first--after Cueto had struck out Bonifacio and Willie Harris to begin the game. Five batters later, Our Home Team had scored four runs, on a Blast of a Home Run by Lastings Milledge to the left field stands, three consecutive singles by Austin Kearns, Kory Casto and Pete Orr. The last hit of which was poorly played by Adam Dunn in leftfield for Cincinnati. Dunn let the baseball get past him allowing not only Kearns but Casto to score--Orr now standing on third base. Our Number 4 would score Washington 4th and as it turned out final run of this game, when Wil Nieves slapped the 5th straight hit of the home frame on a bloop single to right.

As Section 218 Seatmate Jim mention after Adam Dunn's miscue: "It sure is nice to see the other team screw up in the field like we've been doing most all year!!" Sohna, about to state the exact same thing, and I just laughed. It was SO TRUE, and enjoyable to witness from the opposing side.

Bonifacio continues to be a spark plug. He didn't score any runs this afternoon, but he had two hits, one of which was TOTAL SPEED. In the bottom of the 7th, Our Number 6 would slap a DRIBBLER just down the first base line--on the grass--in fair territory. A play that Our Previous Second Baseman, that man called FLop, would have most likely just given up on and trotted down the line until the out was recorded. Not giving up on this play and full well knowing he has The SPEED to beat any lumbering First Baseman--Emilio TOOK OFF and when The Reds Joey Votto picked up the baseball and attempted to tag Bonifacio out--all Our New Leadoff Hitter did, was turn on the AFTERBURNERS and run around the tag--without running outside the baseline.

His Agility was Awesome, and Emilio Bonifacio's Speed Officially Became A Game Factor. For three consecutive games, he had used his God Given Ability to make a difference. Something every single opponent of Our Washington Nationals will always face, every single game, with him on Our Roster. That Young Man Is EXCITING TO WATCH!! What were The Diamondbacks thinking when they traded him to Washington? Far Better than expected--so far.

The Top of the 7th inning provided this day's flashy defensive leather. Cincinnati's Cody Ross slammed a first pitch fastball from Steven Hill down the left field line. Today's starting Left Fielder for Our Washington Nationals--the speedy Willie Harris--ran hard all the way toward and near the line. Tracking the sinking baseball all the way, Our Number One dove to his right, extended his glove hand, his left hand, and picked off the ball, moments before it hit the grass. Until that moment, the finest defensive play this game. At least until--Alberto Gonzalez did Harris one better--moments later.

Andy Phillips was pinch hitting for Johnny Cueto. This right handed batter would slap a hard grounder into the hole, between second and third bases. Our Number 12 would range all the way over to his right, dive straight out, extending his left glove hand to snare the hard bouncing baseball--then have enough presence to right himself, set himself, and throw ONE FABULOUS HARD TOSS ACROSS THE DIAMOND to a stationary Kory Casto at first base to retire Phillips. The Defensive Play of This Game was an effort that you could be pretty darn sure--"The Guz" does not make. Cristian Guzman does not have Gonzalez's range. Our Number 15 hardly ever dives for a baseball. For "The Guz" to make the same play that Alberto pulled--Guzman would have to be well positioned. On athletic ability in the field--Our Number 12 seems to have the instincts over Our Number 15.

And I want to be clear, this is not a complaint at Cristian Guzman. What these two infielders do--is complement each other and give Our Manager Manny Acta better options at crucial defensive points in games. Like pitching, you can never have enough defense. We now have a luxury and the ability to use those talents to our advantage. That's a good thing.

Interestingly, the final out of this top of the 7th was a defensive gem too. Bonifacio scooted in a slow roller to his left off the bat of Jeff Keppinger. Moving swiftly, Emilio scooped the baseball and tossed to Kory Casto--just in time to retire the hard charging Cincinnati Leadoff Hitter. Our Number 6 had also made a fine play. The little things that add up over time.

Austin Kearns had three hits today, all singles, nothing stroked hard, one a broken bat fly. He's raising his average, but "Bluegrass" needs to start hitting for power. Sitting in The Cleanup Spot in Our Batting Order, Our Number 25 is not hitting Home Runs, nor Doubles, not driving in enough runs. I understand Manny has fewer options right now--but Kearns is slightly overmatched batting 4th at this moment. Maybe Elijah Dukes should bat in that spot--at least on a temporary basis.

Take a look at the above photo with The Reds Adam Dunn at the plate. If the goal of every single Major League Player was to be the best HE CAN BE--would you not think that The Reds Leftfielder would make the defense play him a little more honest. A few scratch hits down the left field line, a few slaps to third--would do wonders for his batting average and open up the field of play more to his strong points. I can never understand why some players are just so stubborn. In the long run--adjusting could only help his talents as a professional.

Still, Sohna and I can't get over that fresh feeling of joy many Fans of Our Washington Nationals are experiencing over the past three days. Yes, The Cincinnati Reds are another last place team. But, you can't deny the fact that New Nationals Park has been jumping during these first three days of August. Hope is arising, despite Washington still being 29 Games below .500. Who would have thought Our Two New Middle Infielders would provide such a glimmer of hope? Contagious winning can be and the very sight of members of Our Washington Nationals, not only running out onto the field to thank each other after each of the past three wins, but some JUMPING over the protective screen to reach their teammates as soon as possible--Wonderful To See. Like Our Fans, Our Players are again experiencing the excitement. The Joys That Winning Brings.

After the game conclusion--Kids 12 & Under ran the bases. The Usual Sunday Afternoon Custom at New Nationals Park.

Finally, today was Panda Webkinz Giveaway Day. In cooperation with The National Zoo in Washington, DC, Ushers and Supervisors for Our Washington Nationals handed out to each child 12 and under a special Webkinz Panda Plush Doll and matching Tai Shan (The Nationals Zoo locally born Panda) Washington Nationals Trading Card. As you can see from the pictures--receiving the toy was huge for many of the kids.

Teddy of course lost The 4th Inning Presidents Race again--this time after being Distracted by a Life Size Panda Webkinz. Abe won again in convincing style.

Today's InGame Photos--(AP) Nick Wass
All Other Photos--Nats320--All Rights Reserved


Anonymous said...

You know what they say about the difference between contagious winning and contagious whining---Positive Mental Attitude.

We did this without our All Star and without Zim and without a proven closer and without a permanent 1st baseman. The Reds were the right team to face to get some confidence especially without Griffey.

We have a tall order coming up against some tough teams.

It's amazing to see clutch hitting to be paired with good pitching which had eluded us so many games this year in the same game.

Unfortunately we face All Star Aaron Cook tonight so this will be the 1st test.

Guzy is still my guy at SS and while he isn't the defensive "web gem" he was the only constant we had on the entire team the 1st half of the year. Not sure where Gonzalez fits in long-term but he surely did rise to the occassion when thrust into the line-up.

Anonymous said...

It had been six weeks since my last Nats game, the longest gap I've had between ball games since the team arrived in 2005. What a nice way to get back to the ballgame! Good weather, good Nats Express service, and a quick lead! Wonderful!

Still, with my seats in the sun beginning at 2:30, I had to abandon them by 2:45 to get some shade for my daughter and myself. Wish the stadium architects had not been so enamored of the sun! And with the big crowd yesterday and the strict ushers, it's not easy to get a seat in the shade. As the ushers say, you have to sit in the seat you purchased. Thankfully, the new ballpark is not a bad place to walk around. I looked over at the shady Club Seats with longing, and resolved not to renew these sun-drenched RF Mezzanine seats and just buy good, shaded seats on stub hub next year and go to fewer games.