Last night was Ian Desmond bobblehead night at Nationals Park. As I stated in my post about the Jayson Werth Garden Gnome, I’m not one of those crazy, die-hard bobblehead fans. However, that Garden Gnome may have converted me. I found myself desiring a bobblehead of my favorite baseball player, which lead me to 1500 South Capitol Street on Thursday afternoon. While I was not first in line for this one, I did receive one nonetheless.
In deciding whether to attend the game or not, I was slightly hesitant. I had not seen a win at Nationals Park since Jordan Zimmermann’s complete game two hitter against the Marlins last season, and the Nationals were in the midst of an outstanding nine game winning streak. I figured my presence at the game obviously wasn’t going to affect on-field performance and I thought it would be pretty neat to say I was at the Nats’ 10th win in a row.
Gio Gonzalez pitched the last game I attended but had a much more solid outing this time around. He threw 7 full innings while not allowing a run and striking out six along the way. He only yielded four hits and three walks, an encouraging sign of hopefully similar outings to come in the near future.
The story of the game early and throughout the entire contest for the Nationals was runners left on base. It seemed that everytime the Nats would find themselves with an opportunity to score, they would also find a way not to score. In fact, as Adam Kilgore tweeted, through 7 innings the Nats had eight hits and six walks (i.e. lots of baserunners). However, at that same point in time they were 0 for 11 with Runners in Scoring Position, and had left eight runners stranded. Had the Nats gone on to lose the game, I’m sure that would have been a more prevalent topic in Matt Williams’ post-game press conference.
The Nationals’ defense though backed up their pitching. Behind multiple double plays, the game was scoreless entering the 9th inning. If the Nationals were to extend their winning streak it would come via the walk off. But what’s new? The Nats had walked off four of the last five days, so why not make it five of the past six?
A side-note, I had never seen a Major League walk-off in person before even after all my years of attending games. I guess it was the magic in the air, but I could sense something was brewing in the bottom of the ninth that might put that streak to an end.
With one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, Denard Span notched his second hit of the ballgame. Upon reaching first base, Mark Trumbo, the Diamondbacks’ first baseman, said to Span, “Just how you guys like it (referring to now possibly winning on a walk-off).” After waiting patiently and analyzing the quick-delivery of Arizona’s pitcher, Evan Marshall, Span stole second base. He picked a perfect pitch to steal too; a slider, giving him that extra time to slide in and beat the tag.
Span was now in scoring position and it was a question of whether Rendon would come through. I had my camera recording for what I hoped would be that elusive walk-off I had yet to see in person. Rendon connected and hit a ground ball to the third basemen, and it’s Arizona’s third basemen Jordan Pacheco whom Nats fans should thank. He made an errant throw to first, and when Trumbo failed to scoop it, the ball bounced into the Nationals dugout. The ball was out of play and by rule Denard Span was allowed to score. The Nationals were now the owners of a 10 game winning streak; only the second time they have accomplished this since returning to the District in 2005.
The Nationals had walked off for the fifth time in six days. I had witnessed my first Major League walk-off. My losing streak at Nationals Park was over. I got my favorite player’s bobblehead. I captured the walk-off on video, which you can see below. Needless to say, it was a good day.
Over the past several days, I have been counting down my top five things to look forward to this upcoming season. I thought for a long time on what to pick as number one, and I finally made a decision. So drum roll please…
#1 – Fulfilling Expectations
I considered a variety of different topics for number one. I thought about making it “The Matt Williams Decision,” or a variety of other ideas, but in the end I kept coming back to this. So many people hopped on the Nationals bandwagon at the end of the 2012 season, only to be sorely disappointed in 2013 when the Nationals failed to make the playoffs. That’s why I decided the number one thing we should look forward to in this upcoming season is the Nationals fulfilling the lofty expectations set for them.
You might wonder, what are some of these expectations? Well different people will have their own expectations. But on a general basis, the largest expectation going into this year is for the Washington Nationals to still be playing baseball in the middle of October; that is, to make the playoffs. Along the way, the pitching rotation is expected to shut down opposing offenses, hitters expected to produce runs, and fielders expected to perform at the highest level. General Manager Mike Rizzo has done an outstanding job in assembling the pieces to be able to fulfill all of these expectations in their entirety. The Nationals have one of, if not the, best rotation in all of the Major Leagues. The Nationals farm system is extremely deep, allowing the team to dip down to AAA and find a player needed for a spot start in a crucial game knowing that player will produce. Also, the Nationals have acquired a strong defense to complement the pitching core. Even though you do not often see Nationals at the top of statistical hitting categories, they still manage to win games by manufacturing runs in needed situations.
It seems every facet of the game has been put together to give the Nationals the best opportunity to be successful in the 2014 season. So what might cause the season to not go as planned?
Worst Case Scenario:
I honestly would rather not think about the worst case scenario here. After suffering through a painful 2013 season, I can’t imagine what not making the playoffs would mean this year. By many standards, especially the Marlins or the Lastros (yeah that was on purpose), the 2013 season was superb. The Nats were 10 games over .500 and were fairly competitive in what has been often considered the toughest Major League division. However, the Nats didn’t make the playoffs. So when it comes down to it, that would be the worst case scenario this season: the Nationals fail to reach the postseason. I won’t go on about different ways they wouldn’t make it because there are a variety of ways they could find themselves on the outside looking in. But I just don’t believe that will happen. I’m not one to predict a World Series ring, but I will predict a playoff berth. It would truly be the worst if that were to fail to happen.
Best Case Scenario:
Now I know I just said I would not predict a World Series championship and I’m not. Not because I don’t think they can win, I just tend never to predict specific winners; it’s just part of my sports personality. I definitely believe the Nationals are a contending team with all the right tools in place to win a title, and that is why the best case scenario this year in fulfilling their expectations as an elite team would be to be to bring the World Series trophy to Washington D.C. With the team that has been assembled for them to make a stretch run, winning a title should be a definite possibility.
For now, I am just too excited to see what happens. Most of all, I’m glad baseball is returning. It has been a long, dark winter, and pitchers and catchers means Spring is on the horizon. The prospect of baseball approaching is almost too much for me to handle. I wait all winter for this day, and it has finally arrived. Baseball has returned. The world is back to normal again.
Pitchers and Catchers report tomorrow everyone!!!!
Countdown to #Natitude: 1 DAY!!!!!!
The 2013 Nationals feasted upon the bottom feeders of the league. They went 14-5 against the Miami Marlins, 12-7 against the New York Mets, 5-2 against the San Diego Padres, and 4-3 against the Chicago Cubs. Yes, a win is a win, but come playoff time it is important that the Nationals are battle tested and ready for the strong teams they must face.
Last season they went an abysmal 6-13 against the Atlanta Braves, 0-6 against the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals, and even 1-3 against the Baltimore Orioles. For the Nats to be successful this year, they must prove their mettle against the top tier teams in the league. In inter-league play they face teams such as the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics, as well as the regular NL East power house Atlanta Braves.
How the Nationals fare this year against winning teams will show if they are a well oiled machine and ready for a deep playoff run. They have the veteran team to do it; it’s just a question of going out on the field and getting the job done.
Worst Case Scenario:
The Nationals struggle in prime games plain and simple. When push comes to shove, they bow out under the spotlight. They rely on harvesting wins against low-level opponents while struggling mightily against teams they need to beat. Even though their record shows a strong team, they cannot compete in big situations, causing them to have yet another disappointing season. A win is indeed a win, but a win against a strong team does more to improve the club’s performance than winning laughers against last place teams.
Best Case Scenario:
Even the best teams in the league are no match for the 2014 Washington Nationals. They roll through the season demolishing teams no matter the opposition’s record, and head into the playoffs with unparalleled momentum. Pitchers pitch deep into ball games, hitters lead many statistical categories, and the season goes right along with many’s expectations. Wins against quality teams are not a problem, as they win game after game no matter who they are facing. The 2014 Nats are what was expected out of the 2013 Nationals.
It is important that the Nationals perform well against above .500 teams. While wins against sub-.500 teams do count, they do not benefit the club as much as the experience gained through beating good teams. For the Nationals to be successful in this upcoming season, it will be important that they prove they can keep up with the best of them, and not back down in the face of a challenge. If they do that, then this could be a magical season.
Countdown to #Natitude: 3 days
With only five (yes, 5!!!) days remaining until the Nationals’ pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Florida for Spring Training, I thought it would be beneficial to count down what I believe to be the five biggest things to look forward to in the upcoming season. Today, we start with number five:
5. Their start
There are many baseball fans who do not appreciate the first two months of the regular season. They seem to think a day game at the end of April is not nearly as significant as a night game against a division rival on the final day of the season. However, a win is a win, and the date/opponent does not appear in the standings; only wins and losses do. No team proved this better than the Atlanta Braves last season who started off on 12-1 run only to play a majority of the rest of the season at a near .500 pace. While they did finish with a 96-66 record, it was their fast start which propelled them through the summer.
The Nationals on the other hand got off to somewhat of a lackluster start compared to many people’s expectations. They swept their opening series against the Marlins before playing the rest of the season struggling to hold a winning record. It was not until late August when the Nationals started playing the type of baseball everyone had expected from Opening Day. By that point though, it was too little too late and they missed the playoffs after winning the NL East and finishing with the majors’ best record the previous season.
So the question remains, how will the Nationals start their season? Will they play lackluster baseball through April and kick it into gear as June rolls around? Or will new manager Matt Williams and a reminder of last season give them the needed motivation to produce a quick start?
Worst Case Scenario:
We don’t like to think about the worst case scenario, but as last season showed us, it’s always a possibility. Here’s how it could go wrong this year:
The Nats have a slow Spring Training and these effects carry over into the beginning of the season. Pitching is sub-par and the Fister deal doesn’t prove as effective as everyone believes. New manager Matt Williams isn’t flat on his feet and makes some risky in-game decisions which cost the team some valuable early-season wins. From there, the Nats spend the summer playing catch-up and have to make a late season run following the All-Star break.
Best Case Scenario:
I shouldn’t even call this the best case scenario. I should call this the realistic scenario; the one which, barring unforeseen injuries or other problems, is most likely to happen:
As has been apparent from his video interviews this winter, manager Matt Williams comes into Spring Training as a man with a plan. He burns a work ethic into the Nationals players and they have a hard working, productive spring. These successes roll over to Opening Day, where the Nationals rack up win after win as they march through April (see what I did there?). GM Mike Rizzo shows his executive prowess once again as the acquisition of Doug Fister proves to be the biggest steal of the winter. Batters see the ball like beach balls and knock it around the park, leading the team to win after win. They go into the All-Star break with a determined attitude and as a National League contender.
I do believe my best case scenario will be closest to the truth. While it may take some time to adjust to the new managing style of Williams, they are Major League Baseball players who are trained to adjust in between every pitch. I think they will realize the importance of a strong start and the importance of emerging from April as one of the strongest teams in the league.
So when you’re sitting there watching the game in late April or early May, and the Nationals make a bad mistake in the 6th inning of what seems to be an unimportant game, or they walk-off in an improbable fashion, who knows; maybe that mid-game decision can come back in October to mean all the difference.
For now, we just have to wait and see.
Countdown to #Natitude: 5 days