January 2013

From the Desk of Mark Lerner: Celebrating NatsFest

Happy new baseball season everyone.

As usual, I find myself again counting the days until Spring Training: just 14 more days! Yes, on February 12, our pitchers and catchers will report to Viera to get everything started once more.

I have said it before, perhaps in this blog, but there is nothing quite like Spring Training.

Nearly 8,000 Nats fans young and old turend out for NatsFest last Saturday.

Nearly 8,000 Nats fans young and old turned out for NatsFest last Saturday.

Optimism abounds. And, as the cliché goes, everyone is in first place. Well, at least until the Grapefruit League slate begins on February 23 in Port St. Lucie against the Mets. Incidentally, we begin our home schedule one day later, on Sunday, February 24, hosting the Marlins at Space Coast Stadium.

But before I get ahead of myself, I would like to thank all of our fans, players and staff for what was a first class NatsFest last Saturday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

As most of you know, this was our first offseason foray outside of Nationals Park, and honestly, I could not be more pleased. Judging by the crowd of almost 8,000 fans and their enthusiasm, the venue and expanded program were well received. How about our new Racing President William Howard Taft – “Bill” – that we introduced at NatsFest? I see the rivalry between Teddy and Bill picking up where it left off after the election of 1912.

I was delighted to meet and/or reconnect with so many of our wonderful fans. Many of you were longstanding friends. Others were new, having hitched up your wagons during the special 2012 campaign. It was great to rub elbows with such a fantastic group and talk some baseball as we collectively waited out the cold winter.

Incidentally, the players were tremendously excited by the size of the NatsFest turnout. There were too many positive comments to count. I do remember, however, that Denard Span and Dan Haren were both quite impressed. NatsFest gave both gentlemen a perfect opportunity to jump-start their relationships with their new town, fan base and teammates. Rest assured, Denard and Dan are not only terrific ballplayers, but class acts off the field. Our fans will be proud to support both.

Before we can begin our journey in the Sunshine State, we have one more football game to enjoy.

Congratulations to Baltimore Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti, General Manager Ozzie Newsome, Head Coach John Harbaugh and the entire Ravens organization on their run to the AFC Championship. Sunday’s Ravens-49ers Super Bowl should, as usual, provide great pageantry and theatre. Go Ravens!

I’d be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to congratulate our Washington Redskins on their 2012 NFC East Championship. And best wishes to QB Robert Griffin III on a quick and complete recovery. He is truly an amazing talent and a fine young man.

Please enjoy the Super Bowl everyone and I hope to see many of you down in Viera in the coming weeks.

I am already packed.

Taft Makes Five

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As first reported by The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, the Nationals will announce William Howard Taft – aka “Bill” – as the fifth Racing President Saturday afternoon at NatsFest.

The 2012 season was one of many breakthroughs for the Nationals, including for the most beloved of the Racing Presidents, Teddy. On the heels of the team’s first playoff berth, Teddy finally won a race (legally) after more than 500 defeats. And while the payoff was glorious, it was time to add a major wrinkle to the Presidents Race this year.

TaftGraphicEnter “The Big Chief.”

Taft, our country’s 27th President, was always the opportunist, rising to the highest post in the land by always having his “plate the right side up when offices were falling,” as he once jokingly put it. He was also the first U.S. President to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, which he did on Opening Day, 1910, right here in The District. Legend also has it that Taft “invented” the seventh-inning stretch, when he stood up to stretch at a game and the crowd around him followed suit.

Once great allies, he and Roosevelt tussled over policy matters following Taft’s ascension to the Presidency in 1912. That led Roosevelt to run as a third-party candidate against the man that had succeeded him as Commander in Chief, ultimately costing both men the chance to return to the Oval Office. Later in life, the two reconciled, leaving the question open as to whether they will work in concert to try to win in 2013, or if their feuding will cost each a chance at victory.

The only American ever to serve as both President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Bill (@NatsBigChief27) joins Teddy (@Teddy26Nats) as the only other Racing President to speak his mind on Twitter.

Come see the newest Racing President as he makes his first public appearance at NatsFest on Saturday, January 26 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Visit nationals.com/natsfest for tickets and more information about the event.

The Hunt For NatsFest

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Last Friday, we surprised our fans as part of our 13 Days of NatsFest countdown, by launching a live, in-person scavenger hunt around Washington D.C. While the vast majority of our other contests leading up to our prime offseason event this Saturday have taken place in cyberspace, the scavenger hunt provided our local fans a unique opportunity to win a pair of VIP tickets to NatsFest, as well as prizes all along the way. At 11:30 a.m., the first hint dropped on Twitter and the chase was on.

Participants arrived one-by-one at the Washington monument to find a NATITUDE window sticker and their next clue awaiting them.

“Across the pool your next hint awaits. Be careful, he looks like Daniel Day-Lewis.”

That’s right, we made a Lincoln joke. And our educated fan base needed no further explanation, as they trekked westward across the National Mall. At the feet of Honest Abe, they collected a rally towel and their third hint.

Our scavenger hunt winner took home 2 VIP tickets to NatsFest.

Our scavenger hunt winner took home 2 VIP tickets to NatsFest.

“Now onward, and find The Sage of Monticello. You don’t need a Tom Tom – just head down Ohio.”

At this point, you’ve probably noticed the trend. As our contestants raced to their third Presidential memorial, the race tightened. And for the third straight time, we had a different leader emerge from the pack, with a 2012 Postseason issue of Nationals Magazine and the final, very straightforward clue.

“Teddy awaits! But not at a memorial, live, in person at the Nationals Park Team Store. Hurry!”

And just one hour and four minutes after the first hint hit the Twitterverse, our winner came flying through the Center Field Team Store doors at Nationals Park. As impressive as his time was, not two minutes later our second-place competitor raced in behind him…what a finish!

Thanks again to all who participated, and for everyone else, keep your eyes on the Nationals official Twitter account, where we’ll post the first clue for Saturday’s scavenger hunt, taking place at NatsFest!

The Next Four Years

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Here at Curly W Live, we rarely – if ever – discuss politics, despite residing at the epicenter of our nation’s government. We’re far more likely to engage with you in a debate on the latest exploits of George, Tom, Abe or Teddy than any sitting President. But as The District and the country as a whole catches its collective breath following Inauguration Weekend, there is no time better than the present to take inventory of the transformation of our national pastime here in the Nation’s Capital since the last inauguration.

Four years ago, a 23-year-old Gio Gonzalez had just been traded – from the Chicago White Sox to the Oakland Athletics. Stephen Strasburg was halfway through his junior year at San Diego State. And a 16-year-old Bryce Harper had enrolled at Southern Nevada College, but had yet to see a pitch from anyone other than a high schooler.

In 2012, the Postseason went from a distant fantasy to a tangible reality.

In 2012, the Postseason went from a distant fantasy to a tangible reality.

My, how far we’ve come.

The Nationals became the first team to add 10 or more wins in three consecutive seasons over a span that did not include any strike-shortened campaigns. Coming off their 59 victories in 2009, they improved to 69 in 2010, 80 in 2011 and a Major League-best 98 last year.

Given the previous franchise high-water mark of 81-81 during their inaugural campaign, any winning season at all in 2012 would have marked the best in the franchise’s annals. Needless to say, the Nationals exceeded everyone’s projections, except perhaps for skipper Davey Johnson, who guaranteed a playoff berth all the way back in Spring Training.

But the past was all about potential. The present and future are about raised expectations.

Rafael Soriano is the latest addition to an already formidable Nationals club.

Rafael Soriano is the latest addition to an already formidable Nationals club.

Now, Washington has added defensive wizard and leadoff man Denard Span, the most tested, capable fifth starter in the league in Dan Haren, and one of the game’s premier closers in Rafael Soriano. One could make the argument that each of the Nationals units – the starting rotation, bullpen, catching corps, infield, outfield and bench – rank among the best in the game.

Johnson returns for his second term with a core group of rising stars, many of which are just entering their prime. In fact, 10 players – Danny Espinosa, Gonzalez, Harper, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, Drew Storen, Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Jordan Zimmermann – are under team control through at least 2016: four more years.

The last four years of Nationals baseball have brought plenty of change. The next four promise an equal amount of hope.

But whether you identify as red or blue, as long as you’re rocking the Curly W, you’re wearing our colors. And regardless of your interest or involvement in politics, everyone can agree on one self-evident truth: with pitchers and catchers reporting for the 2013 season in just 20 days, it’s good to be a Washington Nationals fan.

A Worthy Follow, Friday

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As well-recognized celebrities, Major Leaguers are often approached with many different types of charitable opportunities. And while we have our very own charitable foundation here at the Nationalsthe Washington Nationals Dream Foundation – there are a number of opportunities outside the organization that our players are involved with. One such organization is Teammates for Kids, founded by country music singer Garth Brooks, which has raised over $80 million since 1999, donating 100% of the money to children in need.

A number of Nationals worked with Brooks and his group last season.

A number of Nationals worked with Brooks and his group last season.

On Friday, January 11 during the Winter 2013 Teammates Appreciation Event in Garth Brooks’ Nashville, TN barn, Teammates for Kids launched their twitter handle (@teammates4kids) with Garth Brooks pledging to donate $1 for each new follower through today, Friday 1/18.

Nationals players who were “teammates” last season included:

-       Tyler Clippard

-       Ross Detwiler

-       Gio Gonzalez

-       Adam LaRoche

-       Craig Stammen

-       Drew Storen

-       Ryan Zimmerman

-       Jordan Zimmermann

In addition to their generosity, each athlete who participates in the program has their contribution tripled by Teammates for Kids. So go ahead and knock out your good deed for the day – give Teammates for Kids a follow and help our players’ donations go even farther this year.

Feeling Bullish About The ‘Pen

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The Nationals made it official on Thursday, inking right-handed reliever Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal with a vesting option for the 2015 season. The 33-year-old Dominican hurler has eclipsed 40 saves in two of the past three seasons, including 42 last year for the American League East Champion New York Yankees.

Soriano gives the Nationals arguably the strongest bullpen in the Major Leagues.

Soriano gives the Nationals arguably the strongest bullpen in the Major Leagues.

Soriano fortifies an already strong Nationals bullpen, joining Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen to form a trio as strong as any in the league to shut down opponents at the end of ballgames. All three have served as closers at different points in their respective careers. In fact, average each pitcher’s most recent season in the closer’s role (Soriano in ’12, Clippard in ’12, Storen in ’11) and you get a 2.92 ERA, 9.5 K/9.0 IP and 39 saves, at an 89 percent conversion rate.

Most any team would jump at the opportunity to sign that player to pitch the most important single inning of the game. Your Nationals have three of them.

The Soriano signing was certainly the biggest player news of the week, but it wasn’t the only development out of The District. In addition to the deal that netted three minor leaguers from Oakland including the return of A.J.Cole, the Nationals also announced that pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training on February 12, with position players on the 15th and the first workout coming two days after that. Washington also signed five players to Minor League deals, and released its Non-roster Invitee list for Major League Spring Training, including five more players already under contract. Here are the names:

Minor League Deals/Non-roster Invitees:

LHP Fernando Abad

LHP Bill Bray

LHP Brandon Mann

RHP Ross Ohlendorf

INF Will Rhymes

Additional Non-roster Invitees:

LHP Pat McCoy

RHP Tanner Roark

C Carlos Maldonado

INF Matt Skole

INF Zach Walters

Some fans may remember Maldonado from his short stint in D.C. in 2012 and Bray from his 19 appearances with Washington back in 2006 before pitching for the Reds the past six seasons. Abad and Ohlendorf both have big league time as recently as last year, and the latter is no stranger to D.C. – the Princeton grad interned for the Department of Agriculture back in the winter following the 2009 season. Meanwhile, Skole and Walters should also be names familiar to those who follow the Nationals farm system, as we have profiled each of them, the former taking home organizational Minor League Player of the Year honors.

As we reach the middle of January, the roster is starting to take shape. Of course, that should come as no surprise – pitchers and catchers report in just 26 days.

The Guest Writer

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First of all, wow. We expected a solid response to our post, but suffice it to say that the depth of knowledge and passion for the game and our team in your nearly 100 submissions was overwhelming, and proves that the future of this fan base is strong with fans like yourselves leading the way. That being said, it made our task that much more difficult to narrow down to one single winner. Before we do that, a couple notes for the rest of you.

We will, as we have in the past, host a Blogger Day at some point this season (date TBD, as of now) at which we will be more than happy to host those of you who blog regularly about the Nationals. We’re happy to talk about taking guest contributions from each of you as we continue to expand what we do here on the electronic/social media side of the organization. However, for this particular opportunity, someone else stood out.

Our lucky winner will join us in the press box for a 2013 Nationals game.

Our lucky winner will join us in the press box for a 2013 Nationals game.

Next, we were thrilled by the diverse demographics of our applicants. We had students, teachers, twenty-somethings, fifty-somethings, moms, dads and fans of old and recent converts all apply. Particularly notable was the fact that, by our count, roughly a third of all the applicants for this particular opportunity were women, a great showing from our female fan base.

Before we get to the actual winner, here are a few of our favorite lines from your comments:

My alarm clock is Charlie Slowes’ call of Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in Game 4 (it was a little shocking at first to wake up to “SWINGANNNALONGDRIVE!” but I got used to it) – Dan McKeever

I love baseball, and so does my family. My kids have been going to games since they were 3 weeks old. – CDR Jeff Bennett, US Navy

Our 2-year-old is the biggest Nationals fan. He recognizes the word “Nationals” in the paper. He considers his “Inside Pitches” his “Nationals Books” … He even knows to do the shark when Roger Bernadina’s at bat music plays. – Allison Marcus

I rooted for Preston Wilson (he beat the Phillies!), Jamey Carroll, Nook Logan, and Lastings Milledge (he was misunderstood!). – Robert Hay, Jr.

By my estimation, I am the second biggest Nats fan in the world, only behind my younger sister Katie, who still does not believe that Ryan Zimmerman is married and off the market. – Matt Gilman

Ability to incorporate spot-on sports movie references. Angels in the Outfield? Check. Field of Dreams? Please. The Sandlot? You’re killing me, Smalls! We’re even willing to start the Mighty Ducks chant. – Kate and Lauren

I still believe Dippin’ Dots can become the ice cream of the future. – Jack ‘O Beam

Your posts were full of compelling reasons to be chosen and engrossing, entertaining writing all around. But after careful, exhaustive consideration, our panel chose the winner:

Growing up in a sports obsessed family, but being completely unathletic (not to mention female) journalism was my ticket to being in the middle of all of the action. It didn’t matter that every team I rooted for was struggling to remain relevant – I still threw myself into learning as much about the players and game as I could. Internships, classes, you name it, I’ve been there. However, I finished college at probably the worst possible time. The economy was in the tank, and media was in a holding pattern. Would the jobs still be there? Being scared, I grabbed the first job offer I had – which was in a completely unrelated field. It was the right choice at the time, but I’m stuck in my mid 20s now wondering what if I had gone after my dream? The Nats have given my family a new way to bond. I would love if they gave me a second chance on a dream I gave up on, even if just for a day. – Michelle

Well Michelle, we’re all about making dreams come true, so here’s your chance. Hopefully we’ll see the rest of you at NatsFest next weekend and at the ballpark throughout the season!

Returning Returns

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The Nationals announced Wednesday night that they have acquired right-handed pitchers A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen, as well as a player to be named later from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for first baseman/outfielder Michael Morse.

Originally drafted by the Nationals, the highly-regarded Cole returns to Washington.

Originally drafted by the Nationals, the highly-regarded Cole returns to Washington. (Burlington Bees)

Cole, who was originally selected by the Nationals in the fourth round of the 2010 First-year Player Draft and traded to Oakland for Gio Gonzalez last offseason, returns to Washington. The 6’4”, 21-year-old hurler ranked as the A’s number three overall prospect and top pitcher, according to Baseball America’s rankings released in November. Cole also came in at fourth in Washington’s rankings the year prior. He split his 2012 season between Low-A Burlington and High-A Stockton, putting up an impressive 6-3 record and 2.07 ERA (22 ER/95.2 IP) with 102 strikeouts and just 19 walks in 19 Midwest League starts. He ranked top-five in the Oakland organization in both ERA and strikeouts.

Treinen, 24, was taken by the Athletics in the seventh round of the 2011 Draft out of South Dakota State University. He compiled a 7-7 ledger with a 4.37 ERA (50 ER/103.0 IP) over 24 appearances (15 starts) in the hitter-friendly California League last year. Like Cole, he also posted great peripheral numbers, striking out 92 while walking just 23 (4.00 K/BB rate) on the season.

Washington will also receive a player to be named later from Oakland in the deal, the third made between the two clubs in the last 13 months. In addition to the aforementioned Gonzalez trade, the two defending division champions swapped backstops in August, with the Nationals receiving Kurt Suzuki for minor league catcher David Freitas. Washington also acquired right-handed pitcher Henry Rodriguez and outfielder Corey Brown from Oakland in December of 2010 for outfielder Josh Willingham.

Blog With The Nats

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We love baseball, you love baseball. We write about baseball all year long, both during and between the seasons. Maybe you do too, or maybe you have just always wanted to, but have never had the forum for it. Either way, here’s your chance. We will pick one lucky fan to join us in the press box for a 2013 Nationals home game and write a post for Curly W Live.

You’ll even get your own byline on one of the top MLB Pro Blogs, one that reaches hundreds of thousands of readers per year. Not bad, right? All you have to do is state your case in the comments below. Keep it under 250 words, then check back at the end of the day to see if you’ve been chosen. See below for additional details and a link to the official contest rules. Good luck!

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. Enter by 3:59:59 pm ET on 1/16/13. Open to legal residents of the 50 U.S. and D.C. who are at least 18 years of age (and of legal age of majority in jurisdiction of residence). TRANSPORTATION TO/FROM THE GAME AND LODGING NOT INCLUDED. Limit one (1) entry/comment per person and per email address. Void where prohibited. See Official Rules, which govern, for complete details.

No Clown Questions, Bro

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It’s been a whirlwind first big league offseason for Bryce Harper. Following his stellar inaugural campaign in which he helped the Nationals to their first-ever National League East crown and postseason appearance, the now-20-year-old was honored with the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Just last week, he was named as a finalist for the cover of the popular video game MLB ’13 The Show, despite having played just 139 Major League games, less than half of the next youngest nominee (Buster Posey, 308). And Tuesday night, Harper will be exposed to a different kind of national audience, as he makes his late-night television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Harper makes his late night debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live Tuesday.

Harper makes his late night debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live Tuesday.

“I’m really excited to go on Jimmy’s show,” Harper said. “It will be a really fun experience. I hope all the Nationals fans can tune in.”

Both host Kimmel and guest Harper are fellow natives of Las Vegas. The young slugger will be the second interview of the night, following actor Rob Lowe. It’s a nice reminder that, while the NFL winds down, the NBA is in full swing and the NHL gets ready to drop its first puck, pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training in less than a month.

“It’s been a great offseason,” said Harper. “I’ve been able to spend time with my family and friends, while continuing to get my work in each day. I’m excited to get to Spring Training and build on what we did last year.”

So are we.

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