Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Drive-Thru Ice Cream Parlor

When spring training for Our Washington Nationals ended early today due to the full uniform photo shoot, The African Queen and I headed over to the beaches of Cocoa, Satellite & Melbourne to take in the view for the remainder of the afternoon. Incredibly, folks were actually in the water when the temperature has not reached 60 degrees since we arrived on Thursday evening. That's cold, folks. But the coldest and best sight, by far, was driving south on the A1A (Intercoastal highway) and running into The Drive-Thru Ice Cream Parlor in Melbourne.

Yes, a Drive-Thru Ice Cream Parlor.

Moo's Soft Serve is apparently some sort of local institution here. In what appears to be a converted gasoline & service station, the cash only operation stands out for its cow motif and for what appears to be a former work bay now the drive-thru. Passing by and seeing this oddity is just something Sohna and I couldn't pass up. Now, there is nothing fancy about Moo's Soft Serve. Not a lot of modern technology. You don't order through a speaker placed beside an electronic price list. Instead, drive-thru service is manual, one car at a time. The menu is placed on a surfboard seen while waiting in line. Once your turn comes, drive up, order directly through the window and wait until your ice cream is handed directly to you through a small window.

The locals claim Moo's serves original soft serve ice cream--whatever that means. But we can vouch for the fact the experience was worth the few dollars spent on enjoying a unique experience. Interestingly, we decided to finish our ice cream on Moo's makeshift Walk-Up Customer Porch which includes Surfboards as tables. And ran into two other visitors from Washington, D.C. Lifelong residents who got a total kick out of the fact we were down in Florida to watch Spring Training of Our Washington Nationals. They had no idea D.C.'s Baseball team practiced nearby.

Yet interestingly, the first thing out of their mouths when noticing the Red Curly "W" Cap on top of my head: "How's that Strasburg guy working out? Is he the savior?"

The Pied Piper of Our Washington Nationals had made an impact, again.

And these folks weren't really baseball fans. They only wanted the best for their hometown city.

Incredible how amazingly small the world can be sometimes.

Talking Nationals Baseball At The Drive-Thru Ice Cream Parlor In Melbourne, Florida. Who would have thought that?

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"This Is Serious Business"--Day Three Full Squad Workouts

"This is serious business," pointed out Our Manager Jim Riggleman. "There comes a time in most every game when you can help yourself at the plate. Being a good bunter is important to what you do for this team."

Nearly all 35 pitchers in Spring Training Camp for Our Washington Nationals were sitting and standing around home plate on Field Number 4 this morning. Day Three Of Full Squad Workouts happened to be Photo Day. Everyone was completely attired in Washington's Home Uniform to meet with a photographer for Media Guide, Yearbook, Scoreboard and Promotional use. But the picture Riggleman wanted to keep fresh in these hurlers' minds was they all must be able to lay down a sacrifice bunt when called upon. A game day strategy of importance in The National League where the pitcher is included in the batting order.

For nearly 25 minutes, Jim Riggleman went over situation after situation. He explained proper technique. He emphasized the importance bunting is to winning ball games. In fact, Our Manager conducted a tutoring session that The African Queen and I had never seen previously during our Spring Training Camp visits. An on-the-field classroom where the teacher was getting his finer points across to his students.

Nice to see.

With players shuffling in and out of practice to attend their picture times with the photographer(s), there was not much action around the practice fields near Space Coast Stadium. Hitting Instructor Rick Eckstein and New First Base Coach Dan Radison held the complete infield/outfield drill--knocking fungo after fungo shot around Field Number 1. There was some batting practice with a few players, pitchers worked on conditioning and Livan Hernandez threw his bullpen session. After that, not much else. By 11AM, most of the players had left the fields to head back to the clubhouse. 45 minutes later, just a few stragglers remained.

Other items of interest:

Non-roster invitee Chris Duncan is an interesting person to watch. The left-handed power hitting outfielder/first baseman (yes, he's taking reps at 1st base this week too) has a very nice swing. Being feed nothing but fastballs by the BP Pitcher this morning, Duncan showed the ability to spray to all fields and excellent power--knocking four pitches well over the the fences on Field Number 2. In the video above, Duncan stands tall in the batters box, cocks his arms on the delivery and slightly lifts in front right leg in preparing to swing. Ryan Zimmerman slightly lifts his left front leg as well--but more dramatically--when The Z-Man is hitting from the right handed side of the batters box. When Chris Duncan went deep, he had released his rear left hand off the bat and had extended with his right hand.

With the players wearing their home uniforms for the first time in 2010, Rick Eckstein stood out because he has switched his number from 18 to 14--Manny Acta's former uniform number. Eckstein, the hardest working coach in camp (in our opinion), again back with his trusty video camera taping every single swing of every single player that steps to the plate on Field Number 1. No one seems to make themselves available more than Eck. Today, he was seen engaged in a rather long discussion with Pudge Rodriguez over Ivan's early season hitting.

Reliever Tyler Walker--free agent signee coming over from The Philadelphia Phillies--HUGE!! Big Dude!! Slightly smaller in size than Jonathan Broxton of The Los Angeles Dodgers.

New 1st Base Coach Dan Radison has quite the sense of humor. He's already developing a new nickname for Sohna and since our first day of arriving--has made the effort each day to come over and chat. "You like the tall men--don't you?" He chuckled to The African Queen--while looking over at me. Then proceeded to kneel down and take this photo. At first, we actually had no idea who he was, but Dan Radison has had a big smile on his face every single day we've attended Spring Training Camp for Our Washington Nationals and has shown a terrific sense of humor.

That pleasantness which Justin Maxwell always has possessed. One of the most well-grounded baseball players we have ever met--The African Queen and I are hoping that 2010 is a breakout season for J-Max. He has the talent. Maxwell just needs to put it all together.

Finally, Sohna and I had the great pleasure to meet Amber & Sam from Social Circle, Georgia. A one-stop light town between Atlanta and Savannah--according to the couple. They were long-time Los Angeles Dodger Fans that lost their Spring Training Team when The Dodgers moved to Arizona two years ago. Last season, they drove down to Viera to check out Our Washington Nationals. Loved the access and friendliness of everyone in camp. Ended up watching many of Washington's 2009 games on MASN and thanked us for providing a fun fans' perspective at Nats320 on the team we've all come to enjoy. Nice folks. We hope to see Amber & Sam at Nationals Park sometime over the next six months.

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Maybe, Our Favorite Quote Of The Day--Ever

Livan Hernandez is throwing a bullpen session this morning and holding court at the same time. About 15 fans are lined up on the sidewalk watching Ole' Number 61 throw his usual loop de loop stuff. At the same time, a few of those watching are throwing comments toward Livo and the friendly Cuban is responding. He's having as much fun as the fans.

Near the end of the session, Livan looks in toward his bullpen catcher--Nilson Robledo--and says: "Curve ball, dropping down in front of the plate."

As he begins his motion, a fan speaks up and calmly says:

"Is that because you have great command?"

And as Livo is about to plant his left foot and deliver the baseball, the same man continues perfectly timed with:

"Or, is that because you don't have enough strength to get the ball there?"

You have never heard The Big Cuban laugh so loud!! He breaks off the delivery and nearly can't control his laughter. Slightly leaned over, but still chuckling, Livan Hernandez responds: "That's cold, but very, very funny!!" (his accent made the entire event even better).

Then Ole' Number 61 continued on with his bullpen as if nothing ever happened.

Maybe, Our Favorite Quote Of The Day--Ever.

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Some Thoughts From Jordan Zimmermann

“I am doing alright. I feel good and I am in no pain," said Jordan Zimmermann. "I am up to throwing from 105 feet and having no problems. Things are really going well. I do feel good.”

Jordan Zimmermann started 2009 as a bright spot for Our Washington Nationals. A rookie pitcher with the arsenal and moxie to stand on the mound and challenge any hitter. A early fan favorite, Zimmermann was fearless. And like most first year Big Leaguers had his ups and downs battling against some of the best batters in the game. Then, in late May, 2009, the team announced Jordan felt a discomfort in his elbow. A short time after that, Zimmermann was diagnosed with a torn elbow ligament in his right throwing arm. Tommy John Surgery was performed.

Zimmermann is now back in camp in Viera looking to resurrect his once blossoming pitching career. Once again throwing, Jordan hopes to be back on the mound soon and looking forward to joining a potential pitching rotation that will eventually include Stephen Strasburg, John Lannan and Jason Marquis. A staff that could legitimately push Washington up in the standings.

Here are some thoughts from Jordan Zimmermann:

On when the injury occurred: “For about month, I was experiencing discomfort. I could pitch. My velocity was there. My control was there. But between innings my elbow got really tight. So I knew something wasn’t right. I got checked up and surgery was the result.”

On his current status: "I am throwing three days per week right now. I am active and that’s a whole lot better than not throwing at all. When I had the operation, I was in a cast for about three weeks. Then, it was taken off and I slowly began to move it here and there. But overall, the elbow feels good. It’s still a little stiff in the morning, but I just go to the hot tub and everything gets back to normal."

On coming back strong as before surgery: “They (the doctors) don’t really know. I don’t know, but I am doing all my work and preparing to get back on the field. I am confident of a strong return."

On possibly returning to pitching for Our Washington Nationals in 2010: “September, that’s my goal. I don’t know what their plans are (the team). But it’s when I want to be back. I am looking to be pitching off a mound in about a month, maybe. Then, I am not sure--maybe two months from now in a (rehab) game. After that, we shall see."

On a possible rotation with Strasburg, Lannan, Marquis and Zimmermann: "We have a good team this year and hopefully we can make a run to the playoffs and I can get in there in September and help them out. Next year, we could be even better. We’ve now got a lot of good players. He (Mike Rizzo) has been working hard and done a great job, I believe. Getting the quality of players we now have is a key start to having a good team.

Zimmermann Photo Copyrighted--Nats320--All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Matt Chico--Feeling 150% Better

Matt Chico has not pitched a baseball game in a Washington Nationals uniform since May 21st, 2008. On that day against The Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park, Our Number 47 completely tore his left throwing elbow ligament from it's bone. A tear that has sidelined his career for the past 21 months. In 2009, Matt threw 15 rehab assignments for Hagerstown (Single A) and Harrisburg (Double A). Only recently, has an injury free Chico taken his left handed throwing talent back to the mound with direction in mind. He is in camp at Viera, Florida looking to resurrect his Big League Career.

Sohna and I caught up with Matt Chico after today's rainy practice.

I was reading the other day that you were feeling good for the first time in a long time?

“Yeah, it has been a while since I felt really good and was in no pain. Right now, it’s free and easy when I throw.”

Remember last year, when we briefly talked in Bowie while you were playing for Harrisburg. How difficult was that experience for you to get everything back together again?

“While I was there, I was still rehabbing. I was really just trying to find my groove. My location wasn’t there. Of course, that is expected. I think at that time I was at about 13 months after surgery. It took until the last two starts I had (in 2009) before I felt I was where I needed to be and just needed to get a little stronger. My speed started to come back after those two starts. My location was better. There was a bright, bright, ending to the difficult last year and one half.”

Knowing athletes, it must have been pretty frustrating for you for a long time?

“Yes, it definitely was. Sitting around, being down here (Matt lives in Viera)--I wanted to go out and play and I wasn’t able to. The rehab was giving me one inning here, sit for five days, pitch one more inning, to sit for five more days--that was really frustrating. It was like I didn’t belong, but it’s part of coming back. During the journey, I was not upset, but: ‘God, I want to go more!!’ Now, I appreciate going slowly more than ever because I have advanced to where I am right now in terms of health.”

How difficult was it to fight the doubt that you would recover and still have a Major League Career?

“Really, I never had any doubt. I knew that as long as I do what I am suppose to and do all my strengthening work--it would all come back. It was just a matter of time. There was no doubt, whatsover. The recovery period was more time than I wanted it to be, but it’s all worked out.”

So now, what do you have to do to convince Mike Rizzo you could be an integral part of this team again?

“I think I need to pitch like I know how to pitch. It’s been a long time since I felt healthy and pitched well without any pain. For about three years before I popped my elbow, I wasn’t feeling pain, but I knew something wasn’t just right. My range of motion wasn’t there. I would get real sore in the elbow after starts. I thought, oh, it must just be tendinitis. The doctors said it was just gradually starting to go. The bone started to tear from my ligament and that finally forced everything to finally snap. Now, all of that has gone away. There is zero pain.”

Before the surgery, there was that talk to get you back to throwing across your body after struggling with an newly adopted windup. How are you pitching now?

“I am still across my body. But with being healthy now, I can extend my range on each toss--before I couldn’t do that--especially across my body. I was falling off. Now, I can get through the pitch and stay where I want to with the leg kick while still going across my body.”

Right before you went down with that serious injury, there was this game where you were throwing in the low 90’s on your pitches--not normal for you.....

“I remember that was against The Braves. The first two starts I was at 82 or 83 MPH. That particular game, I was throwing like 90. I shouldn’t have been doing that because from what I have learned is that right before you pop your elbow, your speed just jumps. And shortly after that--I popped my elbow.”

“But moving forward, my last two starts of 2009, I was right around 89 to 92. Hopefully, that is where I can stay. If I gain a little more speed, which I don’t think I will, so be it. But, I hope it is possible.”

There is a lot of competition in this current camp. You are coming back from injury, out of the lineup for nearly two years. What kind of legitimate chance do you think you are going to get to make the roster?

“I really try not to think about it that much. I am really taking it day by day. Today, I am glad that when I wake up in the morning I can still come out and throw without pain. That is where I am out right now. I want to go there and pitch like I can. If I can get the job done, I will have a job. But that is their decision, not mine.”

There is a relief to all this baseball activity for you, isn’t it?

“You better believe it. I am just happy to be able to compete for a spot right now knowing how I can throw.”

You feel 100% ready to give it your all?

"I feel 150% better than at any time since I was injured two years ago. Truly the difference between night and day. I wake up every morning and I want to throw right now. (laughter)”

“It’s been a while since I felt like that. Baseball is fun again.” (Smiling Broadly)

Matt Chico Photo--Copyrighted Nats320--All Rights Reserved

The Mechanics Of Strasburg

Yeah, Stephen Strasburg can throw a baseball consistently in the reaches of 100 miles per hour. Everybody is talking about him. After watching The Pied Piper Of Our Washington Nationals throw today for the very first time--it was clear his mechanics were really solid.

Please start with the video above of Stephen pitching from the full windup.

Stands Tall To Begin.

Slight Leg Kick, But Nothing Major.

Wonderful Stride That's Not Too Long, Comfortable, Giving A Nearly Perfect Release Point. Notice How The Foot Plant Is Right In Line With His Arm Letting Go Of The Baseball

The Foot Plant Right Down The Middle Of The Mound. No Wasted Energy.

A Right Over The Top Delivery That Is Imposing From Any Mound.

Finishes Standing Nearly Straight Up--Ready To Field Any Hot Shot Back To The Mound.

Now, Stephen Strasburg from the stretch position.

Modified Stand-Up To Peer Over To A Runner On Base.

I Wouldn't Call It A Slide Step, But Strasburg Modifies His Leg Kick Slightly From The Stretch.

And He Dips Is Rear Leg Slightly More To Compensate For No Full Windup. Wonderful Windmill Motion That Creates Power.

Finishes Exactly Like His Windup.

Stands Tall Again To Recover Any Hot Shot Back To Mound.

It is hard for anyone to throw 100 miles per hour consistently. Stephen Strasburg can reach that range thanks to fine mechanics. He was taught well how to pitch. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't know how to use it, you will never be successful.

The Mechanics Of Strasburg are nearly flawless. That's where he harnesses his power. A real pleasure to watch him today for about 20 minutes during this session.

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Getting The Bunt Down--Day Two Full Squad Workouts

"Nyjer!! I need you to get the bunt down all the time, not half the time!!" shouted Minor League Instructor Tim Foli. "You need to place every single bunt right on the dime, no margin for error!! You understand?"

"Yes sir," replied Our Number 1. (yeah, yes sir--how about that?)

During the field rotations of drills during Day Two of The Full Squad Training Camp for Our Washington Nationals, one of the most interesting sights was Tim Foli giving bunting lessons to Morgan, Justin Maxwell, Adam Kennedy and Mike Morse.

"Guys," continued Foli, "when the sacrifice is up, you have got to be perfect. Everybody knows in the ballpark what's coming next. Two fielders are charging in from the corners. The pitcher is coming right in from the mound. It is your responsibility to make this play happen."

Over the next 10 minutes or so, Foli got right in there with Morgan, Maxwell, Kennedy & Morse. He displayed the necessary technique to deaden the ball while directing the bunt to the desired location. "Drop both your knees down when you square away. Let that baseball be caught by your bat," continued Foli. Then later: "And if we are bunting for a base hit, you need to walk into the pitch, especially you Nyjer. Your speed enhances every chance to be successful. If you can consistently bunt for a base hit, that puts you on base and that puts us in scoring position every single time."

Like a Field General Tim Foli was putting players for Our Washington Nationals right into game situations this morning that might arise at any time. He clearly had the respect of those in his sessions. And although Tim would listen to whatever someone had to say on any bunting matter--it was Foli's final words that ruled the day.

He had everyone's attention that came onto Field Number 4 on Saturday. Really nice to see.

Day Two of Full Squad Spring Training was cold, chilly and wet. It rained off and on for the first 90 minutes when all pitchers were in attendance doing their drills. But once they all left the premises, batting practice with a batting practice pitcher was conducted under a constant wetness. As practice ended around 12 Noon, the rain truly began to fall and everyone left the practice fields for warmer and dryer comfort.

The African Queen and I did have the opportunity to witness Stephen Strasburg throw for the very first time today. He was warming up in a side-session when we first arrived at the Space Coast Stadium Practice Fields. Then, The Pied Piper of Our Washington Nationals was sent out to the mound on Field Number 1 to throw to Derek Norris, Willy Taveras, Eric Bruntlett and Roger Bernandina. Everybody came to watch--including those four players. Not willing to be jammed on a near 100-MPH heater from Strasburg and feel the sting of the cold bat--Norris, Taveras, Bruntlett and Bernadina watched the action themselves--standing in the batters box--not one single swing among them.

Whether the players were holding back by design or not, we have no idea. But it sure was funny watching four players step to the plate and not a single person swing his bat. When Stephen Strasburg left the mound, his pitching effort over, practice returned to normal and the crack of the bat on Field Number 1 returned.

Sohna and I also watched Craig Stammen, Jason Marquis and Matt Chico throw live BP. Chico telling us after practice during an extended conversation posting up later that: "I feel 150% better than at any time since I was injured two years ago. Truly the difference between night and day." And Matt Chico was happy too. You could see it in the animated expression carried on his face.

Other notes from Day Two Of Full Squad Spring Training:

Nyjer Morgan was being followed around camp today for a special to air on MLB Network. He was wired for sound. He continually kept telling the camera crew--"You've got to check out The African Queen!! She's right over there." Whereupon, when Nyjer came jogging over to his next workout session--grabbed Sohna and stated before the camera--"This is The African Goddess. She is one of our biggest boosters--comes to every home game. Yeah Baby!! How about that!!" Then continued his jog over to the next field.

In baseball, especially spring training, there can be a lot of down time between training sessions. When Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman, and Chris Duncan finished baserunning drills with Spring Instructor Devon White and 3rd Base Coach Pat Listach on the Half-Field in the back of the training complex--all of them got started imitating other player's home run swings and trots in a very animated style. Dunn and Listach especially going all out for style points. Funny stuff. Really funny stuff.

Infielders and catchers worked rundown defensive drills around the bases. And Adam Dunn absolutely hammered a batting practice fastball that rocketed well over the fence and into the high grasses beyond Field Number 1. There were the usual "ooh's" and "aww's" on that blast.

Stephen Strasburg signed autographs again for everyone desiring his signature after practice. So did Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn.

Special Assistant To The General Manager, Davey Johnson, was on hand with Our GM Mike Rizzo. It was funny how when Johnson and Rizzo were driving away after practice in their golf cart--everybody wanted Johnson's signature while Rizzo mostly sat their watching. "No love, huh Mike?" I asked. Rizzo: "That's OK, I like it this way just fine." Of course, Mr. Rizzo was so bundled up he was hardly recognizable by the casual observer.

Earlier Johnson and Assistant GM and VP Of Player Development--Bob Boone--were into an animated conversation about the proper technique for any catcher to get himself ready to throw out a stealing runner. This give and take must have gone on for a good 15 minutes--with Boone squatting down, getting himself in throwing position. And Johnson listening intently and following up with his own comments.

Finally--The Quote Of The Day

During defensive rundown drills, Elijah Dukes was a participating runner.

Some other player yells out: "Elijah you need this instruction more than anyone. How many times did you get thrown out on the bases last year?

Dukes: "Dawg, if you don't get thrown out, you are not trying hard enough." (Laughter all around)

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