Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Can They Do It Without Their Ace?

The Washington Nationals are baseball's best team. And they may have the most promising starter in baseball. But it appears that if they are to go all the way, they will have to do so without him. General Manager Mike Rizzo has apparently decided to shut down Steven Strasburg for the season.

Long ago he made the decision to limit Strasbourg to between 160 and 180 innings in his first full season after ligament-replacement surgery.  He is nearing that total now. How will the Nationals fare without him?

In the fourth inning last night Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single and Adam Laroche followed with a long fly ball to center field.  Angel Pagan caught the fly but never imagined that Zimmerman would try for second and took his time getting the ball in. Zimmerman tagged up, bolted for second, and slid in safely. The salient point about this seemingly inconsequential play is that the Nationals had a 9-run lead over the Giants at the time.

An inning later - with a 12-run lead - Bryce Harper took third when the Giants recorded an out using the shift against Adam LaRoche but then forgot to cover third. Harper scored a few pitches later. In the ninth Danny Espinosa, who was already 4-for-6, hustled to first to break up a double play with his team up by 14. Manager Davey Johnson, who saw a 9-run lead evaporate earlier this season, says there is no letting up - no matter what the score.

On Sunday the Nats had lost their first game in a week and last night they seemed determined to start another streak. They broke the record for hits at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park (21) and they did it against Ryan Vogelsong, who happens to lead the league in ERA. They tied the Nationals record for largest margin of victory and moved 5 1/2 games up on the Braves (tying for the biggest lead the team has ever had). 

Right fielder Jason Werth (right), signed baseball's 14th biggest contract ($126 million over 7 years) with Washington in 2010. He was originally signed by the Orioles, went to Toronto for two years, was traded to the Dodgers for Jason Frasor, and then starred with the Phillies.

He suffered a broken wrist earlier this year and was a late scratch Monday with a sore ankle. He hit just .232, with 20 home runs last year - he had 36 in 2009 - but is hitting .308 this year, 42 points above his career average. Against lefties he's batting .471. Werth says "This is the time of the year when it can go either way. We're right where we want to be, we're poised."

Werth's replacement, Roger Bernadina, did okay, 4-for-6 last night. He's hitting .333 since Mike DaRosa suggested the muscular part-timer try a lighter bat.

Ian Desmond (left)  leads all shortstops with 17 home runs. Outfielder Michael Moore is hitting .333 and has seven dingers since the All-Star Break. (He's hitting .301 for the year.) The aforementioned third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .362 since the break and also has 7 round trippers. First baseman Adam LaRoche has 23 home runs, on his way to his seventh sesaon with 20 or more.

They would be doing even better if their phenom, Bruce Harper, were doing better than a disappointing 10, 32, .251. The scary thing for the Braves and other NL teams is that hitting isn't even the Nats' strong suit.

The Nationals' pitchers lead the Majors in ERA, quality starts, and opposition average (.231). They are second in strikeouts and third in saves. Gio Gonzales (right) leads in wins at 13. Strasburg has a 2.90 ERA (12th best in baseball) and 166 strikeouts in his 133 innings pitched. Jordan Zimmerman is third in wins (9-6) with a sparkling 2.35 ERA.

Johnson is apparently sticking with former Yankee prospect Tyler Clippard, who the Senators converted from a starter, as his closer, even though Drew Soren, who had 43 saves last year, is back from the DL. Johnson has 65 K's in 54 innings with just 32 hits allowed. Soren recorded his first save of the year Sunday night and can provide Clippard with some welcome nights off. Clippard, has blown three of 12 saves and has a whopping 6.43 ERA since the Break  (He blew just one out of the previous 16 prior to it).

Though the Rangers have now won the pennant twice and the Minnesota Twins, the other reincarnation of the Washington Senators, won three, the World Series has not been played in the nation's capital since 1933. Even the Cubs have been in a Series since then! Could this be the year?

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