December 2012

Ross & Craig’s USO Tour – Taking Off

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Earlier this offseason, General Martin Dempsey – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – invited Nationals pitchers Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen on the annual USO holiday tour. While abroad, Detwiler and Stammen have sent us daily journal entries detailing the events of their trip. In the interest of security, these updates – including dates and locations – are delayed several days before their release.

From: Craig Stammen | Dec 11, 2012

We arrived in D.C. at 8:30 a.m. after being in Las Vegas, NV less than 24 hours earlier. The USO hooked it up with a drive to pick us up and a suite just for the afternoon at the Ritz. Upon arrival, I worked out at Nationals Park and then proceeded to do several interviews about the upcoming tour. It was actually pretty fun to tell the media that we had no idea what, when, or how we were going to get to our destinations. It was also an odd feeling to not know exactly where we were going to go. But soon enough, we would find out!

Stammen with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey.

Stammen with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey.

Next stop was back to the Ritz to prepare our bags for our travel to Andrews Air Force Base where we would be flying out of the country on the Blues and Whites! Pretty darn exciting to be on a plane of that stature. This was definitely going to be an unforgettable experience getting to do some things most civilians do not get to do.

We took off from Andrews right around 7:30 p.m. The General made sure to come back to the plane where we were sitting to start some small talk to and get us acclimated to traveling with him and his traveling party. It would be a 6.5-hour trip to Shannon, Ireland. This was ample time to get to know the rest of the USO “talent,” as we’ve been dubbed. Matt Hendricks, Iliza Shlesinger and Kellie Pickler along with my teammate and good friend Ross Detwiler.

Dec 12, 2012

We arrived in Ireland around 6 a.m. local time. According to the Chairman’s staff, this was a good chance to hit the Irish Pub inside the airport. We had about an hour and a half to kill as the plane refueled. I was informed by my fiancé to take advantage of every new country I visited. I had never been outside of North America until now. For people from my hometown, being 28 and having never left the country was not uncommon, and I definitely felt like the least experienced traveler on this flight! So I saddled up to the pub and got my self a freshly baked scone and a nice, cold Guinness. Surprisingly, both went down smoothly. Now, back on the plane.

The USO holiday tour is Stammen's first-ever trip overseas.

The USO holiday tour is Stammen’s first-ever trip overseas.

Six and a half restless hours later and we were in Bahrain, right in the center of the Middle East. I had no idea what to expect. My initial thoughts were that we were going to a very poor country where I’d probably have to sleep in a bed way too small for me! However, I was greatly surprised. We arrived at the Gulf Hotel in downtown Bahrain. My room was amazing – definitely Five-Star! I am easily satisfied, but this place was extremely nice.

Next on our agenda was a dinner with General Dempsey and his wife. They chose a Thai restaurant inside the hotel. I’m not a big fan of Thai, mainly because I’ve only had it, maybe, twice! Time to expand my horizons – and it turned out to be a great dinner. The general and his wife were awesome. We later retreated to the hotel pub. At this point I was dog tired, but the conversation I was able to have with the chairman, his wife, and Detwiler was worth any sleep deprivation. We talked about what to expect on the tour and what the troops expected from us. Not much, except our thanks and time, according to the General. The conversation moved more personal and the advice General Dempsey gave me and Ross will stay with us for forever! We didn’t talk about how to be a better baseball player, but we chatted about our future, our goals, and how we were raised. Very cool, and I tried to soak it all in.

Top 12 of ‘12: #6 – Beast of a Comeback

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Top126Near the end of July, the Nationals entered the Sunday finale of a four-game set in Milwaukee looking to win the series and wrap up a 6-1 road trip before heading home to face the rival Phillies. Things looked up as Steve Lombardozzi blasted the fifth pitch of the game – a 3-1 fastball from Milwaukee starter Mark Rogers – into the seats for an early lead. But the Brewers responded with two runs of their own in the first and led 3-1 heading to the sixth inning. From there, they seemed to answer every Nationals rally. Washington scored once in the sixth and seventh, but Milwaukee answered with two runs in each frame to build a 7-3 advantage. The Nationals roared back with four in the top of the eighth to tie the game, only to watch the Brewers score twice to take a 9-7 lead entering the ninth.

With one out in the top of the ninth, Mark DeRosa drew a walk to bring Michael Morse to the plate as the tying run. Brewers closer John Axford quickly got ahead 0-2, but when he tried to sneak a fastball over the outside corner, Morse reached out and belted it the other way down the line in right, just clearing the wall inside the foul pole for a game-tying, two-run home run. Thanks to 2.1 hitless innings of relief from Craig Stammen, the contest remained knotted at 9-9 into the top of the 11th, when Bryce Harper walked and Ryan Zimmerman singled, bringing up Morse once more. “The Beast” fell behind in the count again before hooking a 1-2 breaking ball down the left field line into the corner, scoring Harper easily and Zimmerman on a slide just ahead of the relay throw from shallow left field, pushing Washington in front, 11-9. Tyler Clippard hung on for the save in the bottom of the frame and the Nationals escaped the biggest roller coaster ride of the 2012 campaign with another Curly W in the books.

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Tour of Duty

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Earlier this week, Craig Stammen and Ross Detwiler departed on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Personally invited by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, the two Nationals pitchers joined Capitals forward Matt Hendricks, country music singer Kellie Pickler and actor/comedian Iliza Shlesinger on a four-stop, seven-day USO holiday tour, visiting American troops overseas.

OnStageDue to the national security protocols involved in such a journey, not even the players themselves knew where they were headed as they took off to head overseas. All they were told was to pack for temperatures ranging from below zero to summer warmth in the 80s or 90s.

As exciting as the prospect of such a journey made the players, there was nevertheless some nervousness associated with heading into war-torn areas, not even knowing exactly what part of the world they would be visiting. One can only imagine how much that must have been amplified for Stammen, who had never been overseas before the tour. Detwiler, meanwhile, cut short his honeymoon in Hawaii to go on the trip.

Be sure to follow @Nationals, @CStammen35, @NationalDet and @the_USO on Twitter for updates from the tour as they become available.

Top 12 of ‘12: #7 – Gi-000000000

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MLB: AUG 31 Cardinals at NationalsThe Nationals returned to D.C. for their longest homestand of the season in late August, beginning with four games against the defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals. After Edwin Jackson twirled a gem in the series-opening 8-1 victory, Gio Gonzalez took the hill against St. Louis for the first time in the regular season, and also for the first time since a rough Spring Training outing back in March. Whatever adjustments Gonzalez made between those two appearances obviously worked, as he set the Red Birds down in order the first time through the lineup, and did not allow a hit until the fifth inning.

As the offense piled up runs behind him – leading 6-0 through three frames and 8-0 through five – Gonzalez kept dealing away, retiring eight straight to earn the ball back for the ninth inning. Having just thrown his first-ever complete game earlier in the month, the southpaw put the finishing touches on his first career shutout, retiring Shane Robinson on a flyout to center field on his 119th pitch of the night. The performance keyed Gonzalez’s run of five wins in his final six starts, propelling him to the most wins in baseball and a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young race.

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Down on the Farm: Aaron Barrett

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We’ve brought you Down on the Farm reports of several of the top prospects in the Nationals system this fall after their participation in the Arizona Fall League. And while most fans already were familiar with names like Anthony Rendon and Brian Goodwin, far less are likely to be acquainted with the likes of 24 year-old Aaron Barrett. The Evansville, IN native also played in the AFL this year, but the fact that he ended up there was anything but preordained.

Barrett's 2012 campaign began in Hagerstown and ended in the Arizona Fall League. (Richard Dougan/Hagerstown Suns)

Barrett’s 2012 campaign began in Hagerstown and ended in the Arizona Fall League. (Richard Dougan/Hagerstown Suns)

Barrett began his career with back-to-back seasons in the Short-season New York Penn League, where he posted impressive strikeout totals (57) but unnerving walk totals (44) in 47.2 total innings. He showed flashes of the talent that led him to be drafted four separate times by four different teams – the Dodgers in the 44th round out of high school, the Twins in the 20th round out of Wabash Valley Junior College, the Rangers in the 27th round as a University of Mississippi junior, and finally the Nationals in the ninth round following his 2010 senior season. He was the second Bulldog to be taken in the draft that year (behind fifth-overall pick Drew Pomeranz), and continued a solid trend of talented players emerging from the SEC school, joining Lance Lynn (’08) and Zack Cozart (’07). But it took until this year for Barrett to begin to fully realize his potential on the mound.

The 6’4” right-hander opened his third professional campaign at Low-A Hagerstown pitching out of the back of the bullpen, where he quickly established himself as the Suns closer. Barrett converted 16 of 18 save opportunities, striking out an eyebrow-raising 52 batters in just 34.2 innings pitched while notching a 2.60 ERA. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was walking just 11 over that span. The hurler’s impressive performance earned him a late-season promotion to High-A Potomac. Barrett took the move in stride, actually improving upon his already excellent season.

With the P-Nats, Barrett fanned 21 hitters while walking just three in 17.0 innings over 11 relief appearances. He yielded just a pair of earned runs, bringing his ERA for the season down to a paltry 2.09. His improved peripherals led to an overall 5.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an 0.93 WHIP. That earned him a trip to join some of the top prospects in the game in the AFL, where he posted a respectable 3.27 ERA with 10 strikeouts against just two walks in 11.0 innings for the Salt River Rafters. More importantly, he showed no signs of being overmatched by the high level of competition, twice fanning both former first-rounder Grant Green and former number one overall pick Tim Beckham.

Showcasing mostly a two-pitch repertoire, Barrett flashes a fastball that sits in the low 90s and a slider as his out pitch. Despite his short time at Potomac in 2012, he has a chance to crack to Double-A Harrisbug roster by Opening Day, and certainly figures to advance there at some point in 2013, so long as he continues to exhibit the improved control that led him to success this season.

Racing To The Top

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With all the awards flying in for the Nationals from different corners of the baseball world, one recent accolade may have gone overlooked. Unlike all the other awards, this one is not restricted simply to the world of Major League Baseball. The award in question is the Best On-Field Promotion, with the winner picked from all of professional sports by the independent operation GameOps.com. In 2012, the Racing Presidents rated by far and away the best in sports.

The website has been doling out its coveted Golden Steagle Eagle Bobbleheads to the best acts and promotions in sports for 11 years now. The Presidents Race went home a winner in its second year in 2007, then split the honors in 2009 with Milwaukee’s Racing Sausages. In 2012, a breakthrough year for not just the team on the field, but also Teddy – who won his first (then second, third and fourth) race upon the Nationals clinching their first-ever NL East title – the Racing Presidents have ascended to the top once again.

The Golden Bobblehead (from 2010), in all its glory.

The Golden Steagle Eagle Bobblehead (from 2010), in all its glory.

Why the return to glory this year? We went straight to the source for a more detailed explanation.

“The Presidents Race stands out not only for being a thoughtful connection to the market, but for being an entertainment element that is always well produced,” said Vice President of GameOps.com Jon Cudo.  “Live races, especially during a long baseball season, can become overlooked and the creativity can wane…but I never hear that about the Presidents.”

In fact, fans seemed to grow more impassioned as the season went on and the Nationals continued winning, that perhaps Teddy – by far the most popular and only winless Racing President – was ready to finally break through for his first victory. His fortunes had seemed to mirror those of the team on the field, and with the first contender brewing in the Nation’s Capitol since the 1930s, a Teddy win no longer seemed impossible.

“My favorite aspect is the four presidents each have their own story and personality, then those personalities are used to tell the race story,” said Kudo. “I appreciate what has gone into cultivating these costumes in characters, and how those characters add so much value to the Nationals well beyond the fourth inning race.”

Teddy wins, and the crowd goes wild.

Teddy wins, and the crowd goes wild.

When the Nationals clinched the division in the season’s final week, all that was left was for Teddy to hold up his end of the bargain and win his own race. With the final series dubbed “The Teddy Series,” replete with Teddy-themed giveaways each day, the win was there for the taking. But would it actually happen? The Twitter world was abuzz with speculation leading into the event, and exploded into a tizzy when – on the season’s final day – the Rough Rider finally broke the tape (legally) for the first time.

“Having Teddy lose year after year has been an amazing journey and, like many fans, I eagerly awaited the payoff victory,” Cudo continued. “The storybook finish for the Nationals, the birth of NATITUDE and the first-ever playoff berth made the perfect storm for Teddy’s eventual victory.”

What’s next for Teddy and the rest of the Racing Presidents? Time will tell. One thing’s for sure – these local celebrities are keeping themselves busy in the offseason, partaking in events like the The Washington Ballet’s rendition of the holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.”

But regardless of what happens in the future, for the 2012 season, they reign as kings of the on-field promotion world.

“Anytime excited fans are chanting the name of a character you use in a sponsored live entertainment race, you’ve won,” said Cudo in conclusion, referencing the crowd following Teddy’s victory. “In the world of game operations and entertainment, the Presidents Race, particularly in 2012, was an unqualified success and a landslide winner for Best On-Field Promotion.”

Top 12 of ‘12: #8 – Teenage Dream

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Top128After splitting a rain-shortened, two-game set with Atlanta to open the month of June, the Nationals sat in a three-way tie for first place atop the NL East with one of their fellow front-runners, the New York Mets, coming to town. In the first game of that series, Washington built an early lead, only to watch the Mets surge ahead 4-3 in the eighth inning. But Ian Desmond rose to the challenge, tying the score in the bottom of the eighth on an RBI-single. Then he stepped up again in both the 10th and 12th innings, following New York scores with RBI on an error and a double, respectively. With the game tied at 6-6 and two outs in the bottom of the 12th, rookie Bryce Harper – in just his 33rd Major League game – stepped to the plate with the bases loaded.

After falling behind in the count 0-2, Harper fished a low fastball from Elvin Ramirez and flipped it to left field on a sinking line in front of Vinny Rottino. The ball had just enough top spin to fall to the turf before Rottino could snag it on his dive. As he rounded first, Harper became the first teenage owner of a Major League walk-off hit since Gary Sheffield in 1988, more than four years before Harper’s own birth. More importantly for the Nationals, they would never again forfeit their outright division lead, riding an NL-best 68-42 record the rest of the way to their first-ever division title.

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Top 12 of ‘12: #9 – Desmond’s Dunk

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Arizona Diamondbacks v Washington NationalsWhen you win 98 games and go almost wire-to-wire to take the division crown, the season doesn’t have too many turning points. However, in the midst of a season-long five-game slide, the Nationals looked as vulnerable as they had all year, trailing Arizona 4-3 at home on May 2 with Bryce Harper at second base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Ian Desmond, who entered the game with just seven extra-base hits and a .260/.294/.375 line through his first 22 games, stood in as Washington’s final chance against D-backs closer J.J. Putz, who had shut the door for 45 saves the year prior.

With a nervous crowd clinging to hope, Putz delivered a 93 mile-per-hour, belt-high fastball in a 1-1 count and Desmond turned on it, sending it towards left-center field. Despite the cold, spring night, the ball carried deep towards the visiting bullpen. Just as center fielder Gerardo Parra and left fielder Jason Kubel converged at the 377 mark, the ball disappeared over the wall for a walk-off, two-run home run. The Nationals would go 84-55 from that night forward, and Desmond would go on to post a .300/.344/.542 line with 28 doubles and 23 home runs in his final 108 games, earning the first All-Star bid and Silver Slugger Award of his young career.

- SEE THE REST OF THE TOP 12 OF ’12 -

2012 Player Review: Bryce Harper

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The Washington Nationals enjoyed unprecedented success in 2012, recording the best record in Major League Baseball. The team relied on the contributions of many different players, whom we will catalogue throughout the offseason as we look ahead to the 2013 campaign. Today we take a closer look at the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year, Bryce Harper.

One could say that Bryce Harper’s 2012 National League Rookie of the Year campaign was preordained by Sports Illustrated three years ago. But that would not give Harper – who works as hard as any player out there at improving his fitness and his game – his due credit for the remarkable numbers he posted playing as a teenager in the Major Leagues. He hit the second-most home runs ever by a teenager. He fell just two steals shy of a 20/20 season and two runs shy of 100 in just 139 games. He was an All-Star, and even garnered MVP votes for his impressive showing, netting 5.0 wins above replacement to help the Nationals win their first ever NL East crown.

Much like our Gio Gonzalez Player Review, we won’t repeat every accomplishment in full detail. Rather, we encourage you to relive our Curly W Live coverage from some of his most memorable moments and enjoy a few of our favorite highlights from Harper’s inaugural campaign.

Mr. Harper Goes to Washington

One for the Ages

Round Two (Through 50)

A Day in the Life of a Phenom

From the Desk of Mark Lerner: Road Tripping

Teenage Dream

Year of the Rookie

- SEE ALL OUR 2012 PLAYER REVIEWS -

Top 12 of ’12: #10 – Opening Statements

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Nationals Cardinals BaseballWashington notched a dramatic victory on Opening Day in Chicago, but the Nationals saved some magic for their home opener against Cincinnati a week later, as well. Gio Gonzalez, making his first-ever home start in D.C., twirled seven sparkling innings of two-hit, shutout ball and recorded his inaugural Major League hit to boot, becoming an instant fan favorite in the District. Adam LaRoche delivered a clutch, two-out, two-run single in the fifth to push Washington ahead, but the Reds came back with a pair of runs in the ninth to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

But if any air had been let out of a raucous, packed house at Nats Park, Craig Stammen pumped it back up as he came on in the 10th inning. The converted starter, pitching in his first full season out of the Nats bullpen, struck out the side on just 10 pitches, one over the minimum. That set the stage for the late heroics, as Ryan Zimmerman was hit by a pitch to lead off the frame, moved to second on a one-out single by Jayson Werth, then to third on a groundout by Xavier Nady. That extra 90 feet proved to be crucial, as Alfredo Simon bounced an 0-1 slider to Roger Bernadina that squirted away far enough from catcher Devin Mesoraco for Zimmerman to scamper down the line and slide in safely with the first walk-off win of the season.

- SEE THE REST OF THE TOP 12 OF ’12 -

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