Nats improve but cant gain ground in divisional race

After a 5-2 streak, the Nationals have finally decided to wake up and play up to a real pennant race.  Alas it may be too little too late because of the scorching play of the New York Mets  who had won 7 straight before a 2 game slide.  With September on the horizon, a 5 1/5 game lead isnt insurmountable, but it’s prospects are looking dire and dire by the day.

Great late season comebacks arent foreign to Jayson Werth, who happened to be a member of the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies who also trailed the Mets by seven games with 17 remaining and won the division on the final day of the season.  Also in 2008, the Phils were 31/2 games behind with 16 games left, comparable in bad odds to the Nats now. The Phils won the division by three games, then won the World Series.  These probabilities don’t seem likely at all at this point but its nice to dream right?

The uninspired play early on, spotty, inexperienced managing and injuries didnt help the cause.  Everyone from fans and players alike thought a switch could be turned on but it never really happened.

As season full of promise now enters a slow crawl of sorts.  With the Redskins a national debacle, in previous seasons, fans at least had the Nationals to take our minds off that monstrosity of a franchise for the 1st month or so of the season.  Unfortunately this season, we have to watch both franchises together sink to depths we didnt think possible.

This September run will undoubtedly be the final days in a Nats uniform for at least 3 huge free agents in Ian Desmond, the longest tenured National, Jordan Zimmermann, and Doug Fister.  Each has under performed this season and I can guess that their impeding free agency was a major part of their performances.

As a fan, I am hoping for a miracle, but I know that it’s most likely not going to happen.  So, I will be watching to look at the improvement of the young guys such as Trae Turner, Michael Taylor and better consistent efforts from the guys returning in 2016.  The window for contention isn’t closed for this franchise at all, not when you have a healthy Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon to build around, but the other teams in the division are improving.  This season was a lost opportunity.

Nationals shake up lineup, but is it too late?

After 100+ games of total team ineptitude with the offense, Manager Matt Williams has finally decided that staying medium isn’t working.  It may seem like some grand experiment moving Jayson Werth to the leadoff positon, especially considering his less than stellar average since coming off the disabled list, but Werth has actually been in this exact position before.

Coming off an injury and needing a spark at the top of the lineup in 2012, former manager Davey Johnson moved Werth to leadoff and it was a catalyst for the 1st divisional title in team history.  This time though, it reeks of desperation, because it is.  That team was a feel good story for all of baseball to enjoy.  This year, its a team that has shrunk under the massive expectations of fans and prognosticators alike and its manager, who has stated ALL season not to panic, has now done just that.   Most folks believe something should drastic should have been done weeks ago but I guess its better late than never.  Werth has actually done a solid job in his new role hitting .292 to raise his overall average to the Mendoza Line (.200).

Another move that was made under the radar on Friday was the promotion of young infielder phenom Trae Turner to the roster.  Turner along with surprise starter Joe Ross were acquired in the offseason in the 3-team trade for Steven Souza Jr. and it looks like this trade could end up being another feather in the cap for GM Mike Rizzo.  Turner has been more than outstanding this year in the minors as he’s been rated the 9th best prospect in the sport.  It has to suck for Ian Desmond to watch your eventual replacement walk into the clubhouse in the middle of a pennant race but that’s where we are at this point. This quote from Rizzo kinda sums up how disappointing things have gone this season.

“We felt Trea was going to be a September call-up anyways,” Rizzo said. “And maybe this was a time to inject a little more speed and youth and athleticism into the ballclub. We felt like it was an opportune time to take advantage of some of his skills.”

As a black man, I know all about coded language.  This is the epitome of it from a sporting standpoint.

Five games out of the divisional lead isn’t insurmountable, but in the last 2 weeks, the Nats just haven’t taken advantage of any slight missteps the Mets have made.  The Mets were swept by Pittsburgh concurrently the Nats were swept by the reigning World Series Champion San Francisco Giants to back-end the season defining six game losing streak.  The schedule lightens up at this point with plenty of home games to get on a nice run, but the same goes for the Mets, so each game is paramount.  With Stephen Strasburg looking every bit of the ace we all know he can be, will the other guys in the rotation step up with him?  Bryce Harper continues to be a machine at the plate, will the other guys follow his example?

An average team, on the brink of implosion

Coach Steve McCatty argues with Umpire

At the All Star break, Nationals fans and media pundits alike assumed that when the team eventually got healthy, that the team would take off and run away with their 2nd consecutive divisional crown.  My have things have changed.

With a horrific record of 12-22 since July 6th and currently a 5 game slide during the biggest road trip of the season, this season has seemed to slip away for a myriad of reasons.  Whether it’s the starters not pitching well enough, the bullpen faltering in crucial situations, the lack of fundamental and clutch at-bats, or idiotic managing, this team just hasn’t had the moxie it showed all of last season.

Beyond MVP level play from Bryce Harper, a standout season from Yunel Escobar and maybe Danny Espinosa, you will be  hard-pressed find anyone else on the roster that has played up to his individual capabilities.  Its time to stop using injuries as an excuse, its been long enough.  The same reasons this team hasn’t advanced in October has come back to rear its ugly head.  For some reason, when the pressure mounts, this team just wilts.  You can see it in every at-bat, every plate appearance, every managerial decision.  2nd year Manager Matt Williams likes to put on a united, calming front to the media, but obviously that method isn’t working.  This team for all its regular season success, haven’t had any reason to panic in years past.  Sometimes, a new method is needed.  Where is the player to call a team meeting? Where is the player (besides Bryce Harper) to actually act like they give a damn?  Where are your supposed “team leaders” Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman?  This is the time your supposed to lead by example.

In all honesty,  if this season ends without a playoff birth, which is probably the end result with the New York Mets opening a 4 1/2 game lead in the division, heads should roll.  This team needs an internal makeover.  A new way of fundamentally attacking the game of baseball.  We don’t need 7 batters in the lineup trying to jack for home runs every at-bat.  We need players who may not put up gaudy numbers, but guys who will do all the little things this team has never done.  Moving the baserunners over with less than 2 outs, laying down bunts, inducing double plays to get out of jams, gutting out 7 innings when you don’t have your best stuff, being the guy to get the big hit when your team is slumping.

If I was General Manager Mike Rizzo, I would pass on each free agent left on the roster today, that includes Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Denard Span.  I would find cheaper replacements whether thru free agency or the farm system and just roll from there.  The old saying goes “Pressure bursts pipes”, there is a water main break at Nationals Park.  Hopefully it can be fixed soon enough.

Botched managerial decisions and spotty bullpen continues to plague Nats

 Stephen Strasburg's Overpowering Comeback Is Game-Changer in NL East Race

  The Nationals are currently 1.5 games behind the New York Mets for the National League East divisional lead.  While most good teams are hitting a stride, a rhythm so to speak, this team is still plagued with fundamental decisions that will inevitably cost them a chance for a repeat division crown.  Manager Matt Williams continues to baffle fans and observers alike with truly mind-boggling choices.  This time last year, the fan base wondered could Williams adapt to the free wheeling nature that is pressure baseball and towards the end of the year, he seemed to get away from his much-maligned “bullpen roles” but when the pressure was on in the playoffs, he ventured back into his comfort zone and it cost the team big time.

  This season, it seems he’s either letting starters pitch one batter too long, one batter too early, bringing in the wrong pitcher for the moment, or just making idiotic decisions.  Now I’m not implying that he hasn’t done a solid job managing a pitching staff that has honestly not lived up to expectations.  That doesn’t mean that he is absorbed from ridicule for some of the decision making, especially since the All Star break.  In the middle of a pennant race, vs a red hot Mets team (winners of 6 of their last seven) , you just can not make decisions such as letting rookie Joe Ross pitch into the 7th inning when you have a healthy bullpen ready to do their job, letting Gio Gonzalez bat in the bottom of the 6th and THEN after giving up a single in the next inning, taking him out.  Both of those decisions cost the Nationals winnable games this week and only fuels the ire of the fans.
  The return of Stephen Strasburg Saturday night is significant, especially if he can give the team electric efforts as he did with a 13K effort over 7 innings.  With Strasburg back in the fold and looking as healthy as he has all season, coupled with the return of CF Denard Span within a week, the squad will be at full health.  They need to be clicking on all cylinders because the Mets aren’t going anywhere, right now the Nationals just need to weather this storm and keep pace.  54 games to go…will they step up or crumble?

Nationals fans, welcome to a pennant race

Ian Desmond

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Washington Nationals moving to DC from Montreal, the team has celebrated several key moments during the last decade with the fans.  One thing anyone with the celebration hasn’t been able to experience, a real live pennant race.  A pennant race where you as a fan do more scoreboard watching than ever before, where every at-bat is over analyzed and every coaching move is criticized…Its par for the course, Nats Nation.

Welcome to the 2015 National League East pennant race.

This will be a two team race, for one divisional title.  Neither the Nats or the New York Mets will probably win enough games to secure a wild card berth so this is for all of the marbles.  Good luck to your fragile heart of fandom.  It will be broken on numerous occasions.

I used to be an Orioles fan growing up, but because of almost 2 decades of futility, I’m not used to being in a pennant race as a fan either.  If you can recall,  the two division titles that the Nationals won in 2012 and 2014 weren’t races at all, they were virtual cakewalks for the crown by winning by 4 games in 2012 and an unheard of 17 games ahead of the 2nd place Atlanta Braves.  As a baseball franchise, the Nats just haven’t had to play really gut-wrenching baseball until the playoffs officially started.

This may turn into one of the greatest epiphany for this franchise going forward.  Bryce Harper has never taken truly meaningful regular season at-bats, the type of at-bats that linger for a whole winter.  Stephen Strasburg has never pitched a huge late September game where if he doesn’t gut out a quality start, he may be home in October.

In most cities, as Dru Hill once sang “These are the times we all wish for..” and in all honesty, these next 60 games aren’t going to be about how good this roster is, or how we should patient whether its injury/youth, its going to be about making winning plays in winning moments, one thing the Nats for all of its recent success, seem to lack.  Whether it’s Manager Matt Williams continuing to make poor decisions with his bullpen as he has in 2 crushing defeats in New York in 2 1-run losses on Friday and Saturday by sitting newly acquired closer Jonathan Paplebon and Drew Storen on the bench both games for no particular reason.  Whether its the team’s offense continuing to not execute the little things like moving the batter over via sacrifice, or pitchers not being able to get out of innings after 2 outs.  The truly good teams such as the Royals, Cardinals, Giants, have no problem in the execution of those little things and that is probably the main reason that those teams seem to advance in October and win championships.

Bashing a ton of home runs and winning games 7-2 makes cheering for the team untroubled for matters of the heart on all fronts.  Winning the close games, when things aren’t going perfect, and you have to battle for each victory, will ultimately be the litmus test for a franchise that needs to show some testicular fortitude.  This race could be the catalyst for greater October success or the crumbling of the infrastructure.

Stay tuned….