Friday, April 23, 2010

Facing Adversity

Before Adam Dunn jacked out his second smash of the evening at Nationals Park, Luis Atilano was facing adversity in the top of the 6th inning. Making his Big League Debut, the soon to be 25-Year Old was cruising through his first Major League Start. Called up today to replace the injured Jason Marquis, Atilano was handed the duty of facing a decent Los Angeles Dodgers lineup--minus Manny Ramirez.

And for nearly six complete innings, Luis--now wearing Number 56 on your scorecard--was keeping everything low in the strike zone. Pudge Rodriguez NEVER signaled for any pitch to be tossed anywhere but--at the knees. Atilano nearly never missed that target. From the get-go, he was sharp. Known for his sinker, Washington's Rookie Pitcher had complete command of that pitch and was in control tonight--until Nyjer Morgan misplayed a line drive to left center by L.A.'s Blake Dewitt in the key 6th frame.

Washington was only leading 2-1 at the time, mostly thanks to arguably the longest and deepest hit home run in the HISTORY OF NATIONALS PARK. Dunn's titanic blast off Dodgers' Knuckleball Pitcher Charlie Haeger, in the bottom of the 4th, had that majestic flight that you can only look at in awe. Adam socked Haeger's pitch so high, and so deep to right field--the baseball bounced off the facade of the 3rd Deck in front of Section 236. The true nose bleed seats on South Capitol Street. The Phillies Ryan Howard has socked a few goodies in our ballpark--so has Ryan Zimmerman. Albert Pujols just missed Center Field Plaza last year. And Ian Desmond's debut homer deep into the Red Porch comes to mind as well. But Our Number 44's liftoff this evening has to be the longest in the ballpark's history. If the facade did not stop the ball's flight--it would have landed on the Scoreboard Walk Walkway.

No One has ever hit a baseball there before tonight in either a regular season or exhibition game.

Yet as far as that baseball traveled, Dunn's homer only counted for one run and Washington only held a slim one run lead (2-1) when Atilano found himself in trouble in the top of the 6th. Most any young hurler making their Big League Debut probably has the advantage over the opposing hitters because the batters have mostly never seen the pitcher before. But once those same professional hitters had seen Our New Number 56 the first and second time around--they were beginning to figure him out.

And this is where the real story begins.

With two outs in that top of the 6th--The African Queen's former "Lucky Number 10", Ronnie Belliard, lashed a single up the middle. Only the 4th hit The Dodgers had recorded off Atilano at that point in the game. Then, Dewitt followed and stroked another liner into left centerfield. One of those "should I dive for the ball and make the great defensive play?" Or, "Should I play it safe and let the ball drop and give up the single?"

Nyjer Morgan doesn't appear to play anything safe and on this evening his decision to dive and miss Dewitt's drive proved costly for Our Washington Nationals when ball flew past him--putting Belliard on 3rd and Dewitt now on 2nd. Not one Washington reliever was warming up at the time. And as the phone rang in the bullpen, Tyler Clippard quickly got up to throw. Pitching Coach Steve McCatty then proceeded slowly, and I mean slowly, to walk to the mound for a conversion.

No amount of Minor League Experience is quite the same as The Big Leagues. McCatty knew it. Our Manager Jim Riggleman knew it. Even Our General Manager Mike Rizzo sitting in the front row next to Washington's Dugout knew it. Probably most all watching in the announced crowd of 23,859 knew that as well. But what everyone wanted to know was whether Luis Atilano had the wherewithal to solve his own problems?

Was He Ready For The Big Leagues?

Looking to bide time as Clippard loosened up, McCatty went out to get a feel for Atilano's mindset. Luis had pitched extremely well to this point in the game. Yet there was now a distinct possibility he might end up on the losing side. Not something you want to see after starting so well. Whatever Luis said to Steve McCatty must have assured Our Manager as well--as Jim Riggleman left Atilano in the game to face The Dodgers' catcher A.J. Ellis.

The decision setting up the final turning point to this game. As the righthanded hitting Ellis stepped into the batter's box--Atilano greeted him with an 89 MPH sinker for called strike one. The pitch that had served the young man well all night. Then, Luis followed with a fastball just off the plate for a called ball one. Atilano was proving he wasn't backing down. He also wasn't giving in. Aggressiveness which set Ellis up for the 3rd pitch--a 77 MPH slider that A.J. Ellis didn't really expect. The result? A well hit ground ball--but right at Cristian Guzman playing shortstop. "The Guz" cleanly fielding the hit baseball and throwing to first base to retire Ellis and The Dodgers during this crucial top of the 6th.

Playing in his very first Major League Baseball game; facing adversity for the very first time; handed the reigns to bring his new team home--Luis Atilano trotted off the field for the final time tonight--a trusted man. GM Mike Rizzo nodding approvingly toward Jim Riggleman as Atilano was greeted by his new teammates in the home side dugout. Finished for the night, The Puerto Rican Hurler well knew he was not finished pitching in the Big Leagues for 2010.

He made his mark in a remarkable performance--under the circumstances.

Final Score from Nationals Park where a young man no one really knew about made his Major League Debut tonight and sparkled: Our Washington Nationals 5 and The Los Angeles Dodgers 2. Curly "W" Number 9 of 2010 featured a sinker ball pitcher who came out strong, pitched confidently and when facing adversity--didn't back down. And The Bang!! Zoom!! Of The Fireworks!! signaling that Luis Atilano was not only ready for The Major Leagues, but he's added to the refreshing outlook for Washington Baseball. Playing competitively against some of The National League's best teams so far this early in the season, Washington is finding different heros throughout their schedule. Tonight, Atilano and Adam Dunn--with his two homers.

And as each day passes, more and more, Our Washington Nationals are beginning to look like a team. One that can face adversity while raising expectations. The hopes of which every fan can't wait to see--a winning Major League Baseball Team in The Nation's Capital.

Game Notes & Highlights

Luis Atilano completed six innings, allowed five hits, two walks and one run in his Major League Debut. He rarely reached above 90-91 on any of his pitches--but they were all well placed. And the young man showed composure on the mound. He didn't get flustered in the 4th inning when a Nyjer Morgan error eventually cost him one run. And he didn't back down after Dewitt's double in the 6th. Fallen off the radar and mostly considered as a reliever these past few years in Washington's Minor League System--Luis Atilano's debut was stunning. A remarkable story of a pitcher throwing for seven years in the minors, having Tommy John Surgery in 2006 and still making it to the Majors after all the struggles. And getting the personal victory. After all Luis Atilano has been through, today had to be a dream come true. Of course, Atilano got the customary shaving cream pie in the face after the game.

Achievement is also what Tyler Clippard brings to the mound each and every time Jim Riggleman hands him the baseball. Again tonight, "No Nonsense" Clippard bridged the distance in the game with two spectacular innings of relief. The Man With The Great Goggles struck out four. He didn't allow a hit. He didn't allow a walk. And when he records the final out of every inning and double fist pumps to himself--Tyler Clippard shows a tenacity in his game that needs to be bottled. That man can pitch and Our Washington Nationals have found his calling.

Just for the record--Luis Atilano was acquired from The Atlanta Braves by Former GM Jim Bowden for Daryle Ward in 2006. Bowden acquired Tyler Clippard from The New York Yankees for Jonathan Abaladejo before Spring Training 2008.

The knuckleball of The Dodgers Charlie Haeger must have looked like a beachball coming in from the mound to Adam Dunn. Our Number 44's two home runs this evening became the first multiple home run game by any National this season. After a prolonged April slump, Dunn appeared to be taking out his month long frustrations at the plate--all in one night. You can't say he's back just yet, but his two smacks and three rbi's were the first real positive signs of 2010 for Adam.

Nyjer Morgan tripled in the 1st inning and scored on an Adam Kennedy single to left. Morgan knocked in Justin Maxwell (who had walked) in the bottom of the 7th on a ripped double down the right field line. L.A.'s Andre Ethier had retrieved the baseball in the corner, but the speedy J-Maxx scored easily. Morgan with two hits, one run and one rbi on the evening.

The Defensive Play Of This Game was, maybe, the oddest double play in Nationals Park's history. Something most everyone watching had never seen before. With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 8th, Willie Harris raps a grounder right at The Dodgers' James Loney manning 1st Base. Loney never touched the bag before throwing home to his catcher A.J. Ellis. Ellis, not knowing if Loney had placed his foot on 1st base before throwing home, first attempted to tag Cristian Guzman out at home. But when Home Plate Umpire Chris Guccione signaled out--Ellis realized the force was on. He had touched home plate, but Loney had not touched 1st Base.

As Our Manager Jim Riggleman came out of the dugout to argue the foot placement of Ellis, both Guccione and 1st Base Umpire Jerry Crawford ignored him. Why? Because play was still on. Willie Harris thought he was called out on his hit ground ball and was walking back to Washington's Dugout. First Base Coach Dan Radison apparently didn't say a word to Harris that he was safe. As The Dodgers Ronnie Belliard realized what was happening--that Willie had abandoned the base--Ronnie called for the baseball from A.J. Ellis--who threw the ball to Belliard standing on 1st base. With play still active, Jerry Crawford called Willie Harris out for leaving the base. Total confusion around Nationals Park as The Defensive Play Of This Game was as odd as they come. Jim Riggleman argued the call, but later stated the umpires had correctly made the call.

Radio Broadcaster Dave Jageler mentioned to Sohna and I after the game that when Los Angeles made a series of defensive changes in the bottom of the 6th--every person involved was an Ex-National. Ronnie Belliard moved from 3rd Base to 2nd Base. Jamey Carroll entered and played 3rd. Ramon Ortiz went to the mound to pitch. Dave first stated this fact during his broadcast tonight.

Speaking of Carroll, he was wearing Uniform Number 14. It's hard to believe The Dodgers haven't retired the number worn by Gil Hodges during his wonderful career played in Brooklyn. Hodges was one of the Brooklyn Dodgers greatest players and he transferred with the team to Los Angeles in 1958. Stunning actually. How is Gil Hodges not deserving of the honor?

Teddy attempted to ride a Segway to victory in the 4th inning Presidents Race. But Abe still ran him down and won going away.

And finally--Sohna's "Lucky Number 10" visited with us. Ronnie Belliard was one of The African Queen's favorite Nationals over the past four years. They are still close today. It was great meeting up with "The Ballplayer" again after the game.

Tonight's In-Game Photos--Luis M. Alvarez (AP)
All Other Photos--Nats320--All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

William Neilson Jr. said...

Dunn going off isn't surprising nor should it be to anyone that has followed his career. He has always been hot or cold.