After Jordan Zimmermann threw a no-hitter in one of, if not, the fastest Major League Baseball games I have ever attended (just over two hours), I decided I wanted to stick around Nationals Park a little longer. Since playoff tickets were so expensive, I knew this was most likely the last time I would be at the Park for the 2014 season. Therefore, I wanted to make the most of the opportunity.
Upon exiting the stadium I made my way over behind the first base gate to the players’ lot. I knew I’d have to wait a little while before anyone started emerging, but I definitely didn’t plan on being there as long as I was. However, just like the game which had taken place, this would turn into another unforgettable experience.
I leaned against the gate which provided space for the cars to exit the stadium and which kept fans contained. There was a solid number of us there when the first significant member of the Nationals organization stopped the car he was driving to greet fans. Significant, though, may be an understatement; it was General Manager Mike Rizzo. A line for autographs quickly formed and I was sure to get my place. Before long I was at his window, and after he signed my Inside-Pitch program, I made sure to get a picture.
Rizzo departed and it was time for the next National to stop for the crowd. This time it was Drew Storen, the pitcher whose career has come under-fire since his inability to close Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS. However, I was happy to get in line and get another autograph and picture.
Next to leave was utilityman Scott Hairston. Once again, a line quickly formed, but this time I would not be in luck. The person in front of me was the last autograph he signed before cutting off the line, and he didn’t even look for a good picture. Still, I gave it a good attempt.
After Hairston came my favorite National. Ian Desmond’s work on and off the field has put him in a special place in the hearts of many Nats fans. He’s the reason I wear number 20, and I was especially excited when he also stopped to sign autographs. While he preferred I not take a selfie with him, my mom, standing a few feet away, got an awesome picture of our exchange.
Desmond drove away, and it was time for one of the most important members of the Nats to make an appearance. It was not a player, it was manager Matt Williams. He stepped to the side and signed autographs for the long line of fans. I did not hesitate, and took my place to acquire yet another picture and autograph. My mom snapped a picture while I was taking the selfie of my own…a little pic-ception (click the pictures to view as a gallery).
After Williams, I encountered two more people of note. The first was play-by-play man Dave Jageler, the broadcaster Steve and I interviewed on our podcast back in May. I did not take a picture with him, I just wanted to make my way over and say hi. There were others in front of me talking to him, and I lingered in the back waiting my turn. Then he saw me peeking over the small crowd and said, “Hey Paul,” which was significant to me. Over the course of the season you run into a lot of people and talk such a large number of fans, so for him to remember my name and pick me out was special. Granted I did tweet him several times since our interview, and my profile picture has remained that of me and him, so it may not have been all that difficult. However, still cool nonetheless. When I got my chance to talk to him, he asked me if I was at the stadium to receive a bobblehead the night before, a reference to my waiting in line for the Jayson Werth Garden Gnome in August. I told him we chose to go to this game instead of last night, and he remarked that you can buy a bobblehead on eBay but you can’t exactly do the same for a no-hitter. After the exchange, Jageler departed, and it was time to see one more National before heading out myself.
The man who caught the first no-hitter in Nationals history, Wilson Ramos, made conversation with the crowd. By this time, it was over an hour and a half since the last out of the game had been recorded, so there weren’t all that many people left. When I saw Ramos, I made sure to get a picture. Last season, he played in a rehab game at Potomac, but the picture I got with him after that game was fuzzy. I needed a better one, and a better one I took.
All in all, it was such a memorable day. From seeing the first no-hitter in Nationals history, to interacting with the players after the game; it was an experience I will take with me for as long as I can remember. To conclude, here is another gallery containing the pictures. As always, click on one to be able to go through them more easily.
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!!!!!!
As Spring Training nears, we come to number 4 on the countdown of my top 5 things to look forward to in this upcoming season.
4. Pitching Performances
Over the past few seasons, the Nationals have acquired a pitching staff which, when pitching at its full potential, is unrivaled in the National League. However, there were the key words: when pitching at its full potential. Young phenom Stephen Strasburg had his struggles last season in his first full year since coming back from Tommy John surgery. Gio Gonzalez showed spots of brilliance while also faltering at points, and finished the season with an 11-8 record. The pick-up of Dan Haren late in the offseason did not play out nearly to the hopes of GM Mike Rizzo. He struggled mightily the entire first half of the season before regaining some sort of success for a couple stretches following the All-Star break. Haren stumbled to a 10-14 record in his first, and what would be his only, season as a National. To his credit, he did come up big at certain points, such as getting a save in a marathon extra inning game in Atlanta, but his struggles ended up outweighing his successes. Even Ross Detwiler, the team’s fifth starter, fought the injury bug for much of the season.
The Nationals’ gem in the starting rotation during the 2013 season came in the form of Jordan Zimmermann. He pitched his way to an outstanding 19-9 record, including a complete game 2 hit shut-out; a marvel of a game I was fortunate enough to witness in person. He was also one of the two Nationals players selected to the National League All-Star team, along with Bryce Harper. Hopefully, Zimmermann’s successes last season will carry over into this year.
The bullpen also produced some pleasant surprises during 2013. Rookie Tanner Roark (Row-ark) burst onto the Major League scene by finishing the season with a 7-1 record and shining in clutch situations. Drew Storen never completely regained his pitching form after the devastating loss in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS and spent a period of time at AAA Syracuse. New closer Rafael Soriano, another one of Rizzo’s offseason signings, untucked his jersey 43 times (Soriano emphatically untucks his jersey after earning a save). We will see how newly aquired Jerry Blevlins performs out of the bullpen in his first season as a National.
Who will the surprises be this season? Will the starting rotation live up to its expectations? How will the bullpen handle the long season?
Worst Case Scenario:
Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez struggle through the season and do not pitch with much consistency. Zimmermann must once again hold down the rotation on his own and the rotation’s back end of Fister and Detwiler do not anchor it enough to fulfill expectations. Mid-season trades are needed for a reliable set-up man and the game cannot be assured when the ball is handed off to the bullpen. Starters try to push themselves to avoid having to use the bullpen, but as the season wears on they begin to get exhausted and give up runs. The Nationals sputter across the finish line due to sub-par performances by their highly touted pitching staff.
Best Case Scenario:
The rotation stays healthy all season long without many complications. Strasburg pitches like the phenom he used to be, and the 1-2-3-4 punch of him, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, and Fister end up being too much for nearly any team to handle. They dominate series after series behind quality starts from their starting pitchers, and 5th starter Ross Detwiler exceeds expectations by pitching at a very high level. The bullpen shuts down games when given the opportunity; solidifying the Nationals as a force to be reckoned with across baseball. Opposing teams cannot muster runs due to shut-down performances by Nationals pitchers and the pitching staff provides the team with a chance to win on a daily basis.
I personally believe the Nationals pitching staff will not have an off year. I do see them having their struggles at points and giving up some runs because of pitching mistakes. Overall though I feel they will be much more reliable than last season. I’m not saying the Nationals pitching was terrible last year, because by some standards it was above average, but it was not near what many thought it would be. I believe they will pitch together as a unit, giving the Nats a strong opportunity to win in any situation. The one variable will be seeing how well they can avoid the injury bug. If they can stay healthy all year with time missed kept at a minimum, then the staff will be nearly unstoppable. Here’s to hoping that is the case.
Countdown to #Natitude: 4 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
Once a year, the Nationals organization provides a tease for Nationals fans; an event signaling the looming arrival of spring training and generating excitement for the upcoming baseball season. This fantastic event is called NatsFest. Many Major League teams put on fan festivals around this time, and the Nationals are not to be excluded in that count. The 2014 NatsFest was Saturday, and even though I was over two hours late because of taking the SAT, I was there nonetheless. However, the 2014 festivities were much different than the festivities four years ago in 2010; the first year of NatsFest. They were two much different scenes, so I decided to share my experiences at both.
In 2010, NatsFest was held at Nationals Park. Basically every part of the stadium was open; you walked in through the main gates, got to tour the locker room, hit in the real batting cages adjacent to the locker room, get autographs signed inside on the second level of the stadium, and listen to guest speakers such as Tim Kurkjian and George Will. Best of all, it was free and not very crowded at all. The Nationals had had a dismal year the previous season in 2009, and the fan support was accordingly low. Not saying it was empty, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the 8,400 that were at the Gaylord Convention Center this past Saturday.
We parked in the stadium’s parking lot, got the tickets we had reserved, and made our way in for what would be such a memorable experience. I saw players up close such as Pudge Rodriguez and got to have my picture taken with Ryan Zimmerman. Back then the lines weren’t so crazy, so I went back a second time and got a picture with then-manager Jim Riggleman and then-National Jason Marquis.
We toured the locker room, and as I mentioned, I took a few hacks in the batting cage across the hall. Those are the experiences not easily forgotten. The ones where you see up-close what you’ve watched so long on TV and have a new-found understanding for, in this case, your beloved team. The Nationals organization did a spectacular job in preparing their first fan festival. I did not attend in 2011, 2012, or 2013, so we decided this year it was time for a return trip.
A lot changes in four years, and indeed much has changed since that memorable NatsFest at Nats Park four years ago. As the college search is kicking into gear, I had to take the SAT bright and early Saturday morning. When I saw the date coincided with that of NatsFest I was dissapointed because I figured since the SAT was so extensive, I would not be able to make it over there in time. Luckily, the problem was solved. I raced out of the test as soon as we were allowed to leave and my dad and I were on our way to the Gaylord Convention Center with just about an hour and a half remaining. But hey, better late than never right?
We walked through the doors and stood there taking in our surroundings; looking at the vastness of the room and trying to decide what we wanted to do first. We took a lap around the Center, seeing the photo stations, the autograph stations, the main stage, and the makeshift field where Ross Detwiler was being bombarded by little kids for autograph requests. Dad and I listened to a panel which consisted of Mike Rizzo and newly aquired Nationals Jerry Blevlins and Doug Fister. It was interesting hearing them discussing their goals for the season, and Blevlins added some humor when he was asked how he could hit since he was coming from the American League. He responded by saying that he had one at-bat last season in an 18 inning game and he felt accomplished when he hit a foul ball in that at bat. He quipped that we should thus view him as a contact hitter this season.
The highlights of the afternoon for me personally were the people I got to meet. As an aspiring journalist and broadcaster, when I saw Bob Carpenter,
the Nationals’ TV broadcaster, just standing by himself, I jumped at the opportunity to finally meet him. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what we discussed because I was a little shocked, but I’m sure it was legendary. I watch the games and listen to his commentary every day, and to finally meet him in person was a fun experience. Also, a few minutes later, I saw my friends from The Nationals Archive standing in the back of a Q&A session. Over the past year I have loved reading their blog posts and interacting with them on Twitter, so meeting them gave me the chance to let them know how much I appreciate all of their work. Finally, as we were exiting, I shook hands with the one and only Matts Bats, another Nationals blogger. If you haven’t heard of him, check him out. He’s doing some pretty incredible things for being a nine-year-old. Needless to say, since college is on my mind, that kid will have no lack of things to write on his college resume in a few years.
So, all in all, even though it was only for an hour and a half, being able to go to NatsFest this year was definitely worth it. While it was different than being at Nationals Park, it was nonetheless an awesome day. I got to listen to the players, interact with people I wanted to see, and enjoy the spirit of my fellow Nats fans looking forward to this upcoming season.
16 days until Spring Training everyone…16 days.