April 2012

You Complete Me: Another Look at Edwin Jackson’s Gem

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When Drew Stubbs singled home Miguel Cairo in the top of the second inning of Saturday’s RedsNats affair in Washington, it looked like this might finally be the day the offenses broke out and delivered a high-scoring game. Following consecutive extra-inning games, in which the two teams combined for just eight runs in 23 innings, the early sign of life seemed to indicate a shift, the 74-degree first pitch temperature and out-blowing breeze priming the afternoon for an offensive explosion.

Who knew in that moment, with the Reds still threatening to add on in the inning, that Cincinnati would not log another hit the rest of the afternoon against Nationals starter Edwin Jackson. The hard-throwing righty retired 22 of the final 23 batters he faced, polishing off a two-hit shutout by inducing a weak pop to shallow center field from Joey Votto, one of the most feared power hitters in the game.

In many ways, Edwin Jackson's performance Saturday was more impressive than his no-hitter.

Jackson is perhaps best known around the baseball world for his bizarre, 149-pitch no-hitter, which he threw with Arizona against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 25, 2010. He walked eight batters in that contest while striking out just six, but gutted out a marathon performance to earn his place in the baseball history books. In many ways, though, his performance on Saturday in front of 35,489 frenzied fans surpassed his no-no from 16 months prior.

First, there was that lone baserunner after the second inning, a four-pitch walk to Chris Heisey to open the eighth inning. As dominant as Jackson had been, there suddenly appeared to be a crack in the armor, the crowd that had given him multiple standing ovations quieted to a nervous murmur. Tyler Clippard scrambled to get warm in the bullpen as pitching coach Steve McCatty paced out to the mound for a chat. What did the coach have to say?

“It’s your game,” said Jackson, recounting McCatty’s pep talk after the game. “Just get these people out. Throw every pitch with conviction.”

Manager Davey Johnson, the lifelong baseball man, actually found himself nervous in the moment.

“When I’m seeing a gem and we need it, lights out, it makes me nervous,” Johnson said. “I usually don’t get nervous. But when you see something like that – he had a low pitch count, just a dominating game. From a manager’s standpoint, you don’t want anything to go wrong. You kind of protect against all contingencies.”

Jackson got the support he needed from Jesus Flores and the rest of the offense.

After all, even though Jackson was the only National who pitched on Saturday, this game meant something to everyone on the staff. Following those back-to-back extra-inning games, both bullpens were spent, leaving few options for the skippers. Perhaps the biggest number of the night was 92: the total number of pitches it took Jackson to finish what he started, a full 57 pitches fewer than his no-hitter.

Meanwhile, the offense did its part, responding when Jackson needed it to by tying the game in the bottom of the second. Jayson Werth – fresh off his game-winning hit in the fifth hour of the game the night prior – legged out the back end of a double play and eventually scored the game-tying run with two outs to level the score at one apiece. An inning later, Adam LaRoche came through again, following a walk to Danny Espinosa and a single from Ryan Zimmerman, with a two-run double into the right-center field gap. The Nationals would only add one more tally the rest of the way, but it was more than enough for Jackson.

After all, Jackson has had plenty of experience finishing off a masterpiece, going back again to his no-hitter in 2010. For all the grief he has received for that non-conventional feat, Jackson nevertheless got the outs he needed – all 27 of them – while pitching with just one run of cushion the entire game. And who, do you suppose, plated the lone run in that game? Why, Adam LaRoche, of course. His solo shot in the second inning was the lone score in a 1-0 game. Both players have looked very much at home, united once more in Washington in the season’s opening stretch.

Gio Dons the Red Jacket

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This past weekend, The Masters was played, as it is every April, at Augusta National. When Bubba Watson sunk his par put on the first playoff hole to seal his victory and went to retrieve the ball, he broke down in tears of joy. It is considered one of the greatest feats in sports when a player wins The Masters, and he is rewarded with its symbolic trophy, a green jacket that the past year’s winner helps the winner put on in the post-tournament ceremony.

Gio Gonzalez wore the red jacket for the first time following his first Major League hit Thursday.

There was a moment on Thursday, as the Nationals opened their home season in Washington D.C. with an extra-inning, walk-off win over the Cincinnati Reds, in which a Nationals player caught a bit of that same pure emotion that only sports can offer. It was not the two-run single by Adam LaRoche that broke open a scoreless tie in the fifth inning. It was not the franchise player, Ryan Zimmerman, sliding across home plate with the winning run after a wild pitch in the 10th frame. No, it was a simple, one-out single to left field by Gio Gonzalez, his first Major League hit, that drew not only pure joy from the athlete himself, but a standing ovation from the sold out crowd of 40,907 at Nationals Park.

Gonzalez had only a select handful of at-bats at the big league level prior to 2012, having spent his entire career in the American League. He had claimed in Spring Training that all he wanted was to get that first hit, to get one out of the way so that he didn’t have to worry about it. Fast-forward to Game 2 of the season at Wrigley Field, where he took a rip at a fastball from Matt Garza, sending it deep towards the right-center field gap. The solid contact surprised everyone, Gonzalez included, but the ball hung up long enough for former National Marlon Byrd to track it down before it landed.

And so, here he stepped into the batters box in his first home start, after grounding out to shortstop in his first at-bat. Now in the fifth inning, this would likely be his final plate appearance of the afternoon. He got a fastball from Mat Latos and put a good swing on it, certainly a better cut than one might have expected, given his short batting history, but one that reflected his at-bat from Chicago five days earlier. This ball hung up as well, but got down just in time between Reds left fielder Ryan Ludwick and the left field line.

The Nationals celebrated a walk-off win in their 2012 home opener.

As Gonzalez ran to first, he watched the ball the whole way. As it finally fell to the grass, he whipped his head towards the Nationals dugout, mouth open in an ecstatic, toothy grin. After he rounded first, he walked back to the bag with his head tilted back skywards, an expression of relief, yes, but more so pure happiness. As the bat boy returned the ball to the dugout for safekeeping, he also retrieved the pitcher’s big red jacket, to help keep the hurlers arm warm through the rest of his sparkling home debut.

“Big smile, big smile,” he laughed.

Gonzalez gave credit to his father, with whom the pitcher worked in the offseason to get his swing back in shape, but admitted he still has a long way to go.

“I’m not going to say I’m a great hitter or anything like that…I’m just happy to get the first one out of the way.”

While the pomp and circumstance of the green jacket carries much more prestige, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone as happy as Gio Gonzalez to be wearing that red Nationals jacket at first base on Thursday afternoon.

The Publications Go Public

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It’s time for the Nationals to return to D.C. for Opening Day, which means a lot of things to a lot of people. For Nationals memorabilia fanatics, there’s often no better way to show your pride or commemorate the history of your favorite team than by collecting each of the official magazines and playbills. And so today, we’d like to give you a sneak peek at the first issues of both Nationals Magazine and Inside Pitch (our official playbill), which will be available to those of you who attend Nationals Park for the first homestand of the season.

First up, Nationals Magazine. There are also features on both the Natitude campaign and Jayson Werth, but the lead story and the cover belong to Stephen Strasburg, who made his first ever Opening Day start last week at Wrigley Field. Pick up a copy around the ballpark for $5 or, if you are from outside the area, keep an eye out on Curly W Live, where we’ll provide a link to purchase publications later in the season.

For the first Inside Pitch, we had to go with Ryan Zimmerman, who recently signed a long extension and even more recently plated his 500th career RBI. Inside Pitch is available for free at every Nats home game, so make sure to pick yours up at the ballpark!

We’ll keep updated covers of the current publication available at the ballpark over in the right-hand column here at Curly W Live, so that you know which issue awaits when you come to a game.

Gio and EJax Go Spelunking at the Fan Cave

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A pair of the newest Nationals got their first exposure to the MLB Fan Cave this afternoon in New York City. While many visiting players have dropped by over the last couple years, often while their team is in the Big Apple for games, few had as much fun as the flame-throwing duo of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson.

In addition to answering fan questions submitted through Facebook, the pair jumped on stage for an impromptu jam session with the cave dwellers, igniting their Natitude to the delight of everyone in attendance.

Check out Edwin Jackson on the drums below and check here to see both players’ answers to your questions.

Weekly Review (4/9)

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Here at Curly W Live, we will be conducting a weekly review every Tuesday of all the storylines from the week that was. If you’re new to the site or have just been too busy to stay current with all the day-to-day storylines, this is your way to get caught up on everything going on with the team.

After a long spring, the Nationals made their much-anticipated return to Washington to begin the 2012 season. Following one final game in Florida against the Red Sox at their brand new Grapefruit League home, JetBlue Park, the two teams squared off again in our Nation’s Capital. While the Nationals made a valiant comeback, rallying from a 6-0 deficit to take a late lead, the real story of the day came in the second game played on the field, as the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team soundly defeated a group of D.C. celebrities.

The Nationals hit the road to officially open the season, sending Stephen Strasburg to the hill at historic Wrigley Field for his first-ever Opening Day start. Washington couldn’t break through to provide the heralded right-hander with any run support during his seven strong innings, but rallied with single runs in the eighth and ninth innings to steal a 2-1 victory. Meanwhile, as the team enjoyed an off-day on Friday, outfielders Rick Ankiel and Michael Morse were just up the road from D.C. in Bowie, MD on Major League rehab stints with the Harrisburg Senators. Both players looked just fine at the plate, as each homered in a 5-2 victory.

On Saturday, the Nationals continued their come-from-behind ways, trailing by two late before a five-run, two-out rally in the eighth inning keyed a 7-4 victory. Sunday’s game began to follow the same script, as Washington cut a three-run deficit to one on Adam LaRoche’s two-out, two-run shot in the ninth. However, the team’s third comeback attempt in three days came up just shy in a 4-3 loss to the Cubs.

Thu. @ CHC: W, 2-1

Sat. @ CHC: W, 7-4

Sun. @ CHC: L, 4-3

Weekly Record: 2-1

Cleaning Up the Offense

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Sunday brought some good news and some bad news for the Nationals. The bad news: the dream of a perfect 162-0 season is gone, as is their streak of come-from-behind victories. The good news: even though they came up just short against the Cubs on Sunday, the Nats still took two of three at Wrigley to start the season, and head to New York to take on the Mets for a three-game set before heading back to D.C. for the home opener on Thursday.

Ryan Zimmerman appreciates Adam LaRoche's hot start so far this season.

The trends of the first two games continued, as again the offense was dormant early but exploded late. Unfortunately, Washington came up a run shy in the loss, but the team has now scored nine of its 12 runs in the eighth inning or later, after Adam LaRoche’s two-run shot in the ninth on Sunday afternoon. It was the second longball in as many days for the first baseman, who lost most of his 2011 season to injury but has started this season with a bang (or rather, two).

There was a lot of preseason talk about a former Nationals first baseman named Adam – Dunn, that is – heading into the season as a candidate for the Comeback Player of the Year. The way LaRoche has played so far, he seems primed to enter his own name into that debate. He is batting .412 (5-for-12) with the two dingers, three runs scored and four RBI through his first three games, numbers that have to feel especially good after struggling through just 43 games last season.

There was a even a smattering of Nationals red in the crowd at Wrigley enjoying Washington’s series win. Those of you who follow us on Twitter may have already seen this, but we figured it was worth a share with everyone. As if the drama of the last three games wasn’t already enough, hopefully this helps you Ignite Your Natitude. After all, baseball comes home to Washington in just three days.

Also, make sure to check in on Facebook around noon tomorrow, as a few Nationals will be visiting the MLB Fan Cave and taking your questions live. Which players, you ask? You’ll just have to drop by and find out.

Better Late Than Never

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There are two ways that a ball club can improve its performance from year to year. The first is by acquiring players to give themselves a stronger roster – very simply, making the team more talented. The other path to improving a club’s record comes by finding ways win the games it’s not necessarily supposed to win. You know, the ones where there’s a late deficit to overcome, where the offense has done little to inspire confidence, but breaks out of its shell just in time to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.

Adam LaRoche tied a career high with four hits, including a big two-run home run.

The Nationals certainly added to their talent pool in 2012 by acquiring a couple nice pieces to their starting rotation and getting a number of players back from injury on both sides of the ball. But the story in the early going of the 2012 campaign has been their late-game comeback ability. Through two contests, 10 of the team’s 16 hits and seven of their nine runs have come in the eighth inning or later.

Of course, winning late is nothing new for the Nationals. Seven of their 17 wins in September of last year were of the come-from-behind variety. Much of that same team has been on the field these first two games in Chicago, but there are a couple of noticeable differences, and each has been key in Washington’s victories.

Nationals fans may not have known much about Chad Tracy before this week, but the hero of the season so far is quickly gaining notoriety in D.C. He delivered again on Saturday with another late, two-out hit, plating a pair of runs to put the Nationals ahead for good.

The other big game on Saturday belonged to Adam LaRoche, who not only put Washington ahead early with a two-run home run off the foul pole in right, but also tied a career-best with four hits overall.

Danny Espinosa started the Nats' five-run, eighth-inning rally.

Looking to Sunday’s series finale, the Nationals will hand the ball to Jordan Zimmermann for his first 2012 start. If Washington can give him some early support against Jeff Samardzija and the Cubs, the team will be looking at a franchise first – a three-game road sweep to open the season.

Danny Espinosa – who homered to kick-start the five-run, two-out, eighth-inning rally – expressed appreciation for what his team has been able to do so far, but also wouldn’t mind seeing some of those runs come earlier in the game.

“We want to fight, try to jump out early and hopefully get the lead,” the second baseman said after Saturday’s win. “[But] it’s nice to know that we have the ability to come back, we don’t die, we continue to fight.”

We’ll see which variety of game the team plays in the final game of Opening Weekend.

Past the First Bowie

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With the Nationals enjoying an early off day Friday following their thrilling, 2-1 victory over the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Opening Day, we decided to make the 20 mile drive northeast from Nationals Park to Price George’s Stadium, home of the Bowie Bay Sox. Why, you might ask, would we do such a thing? We wanted to check in on Rick Ankiel and Michael Morse, both on Major League rehab assignments with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, who opened their season in Bowie. We also wanted a chance to see a couple of prospects – Destin Hood and Danny Rosenbaum – play in a real game.

Rick Ankiel taking batting practice in Bowie. He would go on to homer on the first pitch he saw in the game.

While we didn’t get a chance to see Rosenbaum, a starting pitcher whose turn of the rotation lands on Sunday, we got more than our fill of Ankiel and Morse, despite each taking only three at-bats. They each looked healthy enough right from the start. Ankiel swatted the first pitch he saw deep out of the park to the opposite field, and Morse followed with a ringing double off the wall in right-center. Morse saved his best at-bat for last, though, blasting a towering shot the opposite way that hung in the air forever and still got out on a chilly Maryland night.

We also saw prospects Eury Perez and Jeff Kobernus each deliver two-hit nights, both using their speed to their advantage. Both put pressure on the defense with bunts and both stole a bag, contributing to the 5-2 victory. While Hood had an off night at the plate, he looked impressive in his batting practice rounds and clearly is a player to keep an eye on over the next couple of years.

Back to big league ball today, as Nationals fans will get their first regular season look at Gio Gonzalez at Wrigley Field. We’ll have more here at Curly W Live following the game.

Open For Business

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Whew. If there was any question of how the Nationals would respond to the pressures of expectation in 2012, they showed some good signs in their first game of the season on Thursday. However, we’ll all have to wait until Saturday before enjoying chapter two.

The quirky schedule gave the team a day off Friday after just the one game. While players might normally want to save that break for a time later in the season, our fans could certainly use the chance to catch their collective breath after a nerve-wracking, gut-checking, come-from-behind victory over the Cubs on Opening Day at Wrigley Field. This is the type of game they should come to expect, though. With the way this Nationals team is built, there are likely to be a good number of well-pitched, tight, low-scoring affairs all season long. And there will be 161 more games in the next 180 days, so brace yourselves.

Stephen Strasburg looked like a seasoned veteran through seven solid innings in his first Opening Day start.

The opener had a bit of everything to make for an exciting affair: great starting pitching, would-be home runs (knocked down by the wind), sparkling defense, and a pair of late rallies, one to tie the score and the other to put Washington in front for good. Many of the offseason storylines were tested immediately. Could the top two spots in the order get on base? Check – Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa combined to reach safely in five of their 10 plate appearances. How would Stephen Strasburg fare in his first Opening Day start? His line – 7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 5 K – suggests he was more than up to the task. And what kind of impact could we expect from Davey Johnson’s revamped bench? Look no further than Chad Tracy’s double, which led to Brett Carroll scoring the game-winning run in the ninth. It’s as strong a first impression as Johnson could have hoped for from this group in its collective debut. So on a day when the team managed just four hits, the rest of the pieces came together to get the Nationals that all-important first Curly W.

We need not worry about Ryan Zimmerman, either, whose 0-for-2 (with two walks) performance would have been a 2-for-2 with a pair of home runs, if not for the sharp, gusting wind coming in off Lake Michigan and directly over the center field wall. The third baseman showed just how deep his value really is, though, with two superb defensive plays. He bailed out Wilson Ramos on a pick and swipe tag to catch Alfonso Soriano stealing in the fourth inning, before reversing roles and gunning down Joe Mather at the plate in the ninth (with Ramos applying the nice tag) to preserve the one-run victory.

Jayson Werth couldn't be happier to be reunited with teammate Brad Lidge.

Jayson Werth also had a potential run-scoring, extra-base hit knocked down by the wind early. However, he came up with a great defensive play of his own and battled back from an 0-2 count to draw a bases loaded walk, forcing in the game-tying run in the eighth inning. That’s what team leaders are supposed to do: find ways to contribute, no matter what the circumstance. Werth is one of the best in the game at finding ways beyond the box score to do that. Don’t take our word for it, though. Pick up the first edition of Nationals Magazine when you’re at the ballpark starting next week and read all about it.

There should be no lingering questions surrounding Brad Lidge and his stuff at this point, either. One of Johnson’s fill-in closers (along with Henry Rodriguez), Lidge utterly overwhelmed Reed Johnson with a slider and froze Marlon Byrd with a perfectly painted fastball to end the game. He could be the steal of the offseason for Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo, providing veteran leadership to the back end of the bullpen and the occasional save when called upon.

Nevertheless, it will be great to get Drew Storen back, as it will be to have outfielders Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel in Washington again. Morse and Ankiel are both on rehab assignments with Double-A Harrisburg, which is playing just up the road in Bowie this week.

In the meantime, breathe easy and enjoy the day off. There’s been plenty to talk about, but we’re just one game in. At the end of the day, though, the team is 1-0. And that’s as good of a place as you can be one game into the marathon that is the Major League Baseball season.

Our Time Begins on Opening Day

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“Don’t tell me about the world. Not today. It’s springtime and they’re knocking baseballs around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curveball.” – Pete Hamill

Native Washingtonian and esteemed sportswriter Thomas Boswell once penned the famous notion that time begins on Opening Day. For baseball fans of every generation, this simple ideal expressed their love for the sport in a way that resonated and persisted. It is a sentiment still referenced each spring as planes scatter and leap from the two hubs of the game’s preseason universe only to come to rest in the metropolises that dot the nation. This is our signal, the raised starter’s pistol, of the beginning of the season and, as such, time itself.

Stephen Strasburg takes the hill as the Nationals open 2012.

On this day, hope is always in grand supply, but its depth is not universally equal amongst the 30 squads. By now, even the blindest of faith, the homers of all homers, have admitted to themselves the boundaries of their team’s potential. Nationals fans, such as yourself, have surely looked at past editions of the team with this hesitation – with the hope that you are proven wrong by the team’s success. It’s hard to open yourself up to a team, to become vulnerable, only to have your love go unrequited in the doldrums of the dog days of summer.

Indeed, winning takes time. Building a sustainable, competitive organization takes more than that. It takes smart personnel hires, diligent research on potential draft picks, key pickups through trades, valuable free agent acquisitions, and a generally keen eye for exploiting market inefficiencies. With most winning teams, there is a moment where everything comes together and clicks. It often happens quite suddenly, so that only in hindsight can you look back and say, “well, sure, of course they were that good.”

This spring, your friends and family from Philadelphia and New York will tell you that your team is too young, that they lack the firepower to be true contenders. Some, at their most forgiving, might allow the concession that the Nationals could be competitive in a few years, somewhere down the line. It is neither the time, nor the place to argue with their steadfast proclamations. Simply nod politely, smile, and wait.

You understand. You know that their team’s clock, their time, began years ago. They are clinging to memories of teams past, or younger versions of the ones on the field in front of them this April. They are watching as the grains of sand dwindle in the top of their hourglass. The louder they chirp, the more obvious it is that they understand this. The more they dismiss the reality of the situation, the more clearly they are in denial of where the Nationals are in their own timeline.

Our team’s hourglass flips today, as full of potential as any fan could hope.

Make no mistake, none of it means anything yet. Nothing has been accomplished, not a single game won in the standings. But the squad has been assembled and the excitement in the air is both real and justified. There is no cause for celebration, just anticipation for a truly new beginning. The opportunity is there for the taking in front of a team, an organization, and a city aching for a winner.

It’s time to rethink everything you used to know about your team, right here, right now.

Let’s play ball.