The Racing Presidents are off and running again in the 2013 season, with new addition Bill joining the daily scamper from the center field wall to the home dugout at Nationals Park. However, there was another participant present at one of the first races of the young season, marking the race’s first venture into Vice Presidential territory.
Over the weekend prior to the Nationals-White Sox series, Teddy announced that the Racing Presidents would run their first relay race of the season since the field expanded to five. When George and Tom partnered up, then Abe and Bill formed their own pact, the lovable Teddy was left to his own devices to find a running mate. Searching online, he asked around for suggestions for #TeddysRunningMate, and offers flowed in from around the interwebs.
As luck would have it, Teddy found someone perfectly suited to run with – Selina Meyer, the fictional Vice President from HBO’s “VEEP.” The two were spotted around Washington in the days leading up to the race, and seemed primed for victory as Teddy stormed out to an early lead in the Tuesday night race.
But given Teddy’s less than illustrious history, combined with Selina’s propensity for finishing second, it should have come as little surprise that the two were unable to collaborate on a victory. They fumbled their baton exchange, leaving Selina with a ton of ground to make up in the race’s second half. And while she made a valiant effort, per the usual, she finished second.
That left Teddy – along with rival Bill – still winless for the 2013 campaign, as both continue to search for new and inventive ways to break the tape first…or at least ensure their counterpart’s defeat.
Early in a young season, teams are still settling into the flow of the campaign, still forming the identities that will define them over the course of 162 games. A quick glance at Washington’s results through the first couple weeks may lead one to wonder what kind of team these 2013 Nationals truly are. But before jumping to any conclusions, positive or negative, take heed from someone who knows best.
“You’re never as bad as you look when you lose, and never as good as you look when you win,” said skipper Davey Johnson after the weekend series against the Braves.
He echoed that sentiment after Monday night’s 10-3, series-opening thrashing of the Marlins.
“You know, we don’t live in the past,” he said. “We don’t worry too much about things. We take it one day at a time, and this was a perfect example.”
The Nationals snapped out of their weekend funk with a roaring first inning, scoring four runs before Jordan Zimmermann ever took the mound. They added on with two more in the third, fourth and fifth to open up a 10-0 advantage behind their workmanlike third ace, who delivered his first-ever, nine-inning complete game. While it was a big game to reverse momentum and preserve the bullpen, it was only fitting that the even-keeled Zimmermann controlled the tempo throughout. Nevertheless, he allowed himself to relish in his accomplishment.
“It means a lot,” he said of his 103-pitch performance. “It means I’m doing my job, staying in the game, putting up zeroes. That’s the kind of pitcher I want to be. I want to be a workhorse.”
Zimmermann, who was the first Nationals starter to two wins, now leads the team and shares the league lead with three, to go along with his 2.45 ERA. After getting precious little run support through much of his 12-win campaign last year, he has been the beneficiary of 21 runs of offense through his first three outings this season.
“It seems like we all hit better when Jordan pitches,” said Ian Desmond, whose 4-for-5 night raised his average to .320 for the season. “Last year, we didn’t hit for him. This year, we’re hitting for him.”
Zimmermann will not finish the year 33-0 with a win in every start. The Nationals will not win every game they play against Miami this season, nor lose every one against Atlanta. It is important to keep perspective, especially considering this – entering play on June 4 last season, 39 games farther into the campaign than they currently sit, the Nationals were in a three-way tie for first place with Miami and the New York Mets. Seriously, see for yourself.
Regardless of how much stock you want to put in a single game’s outcome, though, it was a good night to get a win and get back on track.
Every year on April 15, at ballparks across the country, young baseball fans will look down at the field and notice something different. Each and every member of both teams wearing the same number on the backs of their jerseys. Inevitably, those who do not know the reason will ask, ‘Why is every player wearing the number 42?”
Perhaps this year, the question will have already been answered.
With the feature film “42” opening in theaters nationwide last weekend, the story of Jackie Robinson has taken center stage. His stellar, 10-year, Hall-of-Fame career transcended the field of play, impacting society in a way that no other athlete has in recent memory. Deservedly, Jackie Robinson’s iconic number 42 jersey is the only one retired across the game of baseball.
“I see him as transformative, the way that he continued to advocate outside of baseball,” said Kendra Gaither, a volunteer and chair of the Mid-Atlantic Scholar Advisory Committee of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. “The integration of baseball and the transformation that Jackie Robinson helped to bring about in baseball was really a larger measurement of what was happening in our own society. That’s why I think the story of Jackie Robinson continues to grow.”
Gaither brought a group of scholars to the Nationals-Braves game on Saturday, after which they departed for a screening of the film. While the Nationals unfortunately do not play at home on Monday, they honored Robinson Saturday and will do so again on the road in Miami, as the entire sport dons Robinson’s 42 for tonight’s games.
The Nationals own Bryce Harper, a proud student of the game’s history, has listed Robinson as one of his personal heroes. Harper, of course, took home the Jackie Robinson Award as the top rookie in the National League last season. The award was named after Robinson, who won it himself in 1947, overcoming immense social and cultural pressures to help lead the Brooklyn Dodgers all the way to the World Series in his very first season.
“It’s incredibly moving to see all the players wearing 42,” said Gaither, who has taken part in Jackie Robinson Day at Nationals Park for the past two seasons. “To be able to come to Nationals Park and see how much it also means to the players and the fans that are here, it’s incredibly inspiring.”
The Jackie Robinson Foundation was founded by Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, and has thrived for over 40 years, helping more than 1,400 students with a better than 99 percent graduation rate. To learn more about the Jackie Robinson foundation, please visit www.jackierobinson.org.
In honor of our first Pups in the Park of 2013, we’re sharing photos of some of our players’ dogs with you. But which pup belongs to which player? Vote below, then check the comments for the answers!
If you weren’t able to make it for today’s Pups in the Park, we’ve got three more dates scheduled for 2013, so get your tickets now before they’re gone.
There was a time, not long ago, when Ryan Zimmerman represented one of the only true threats in the Washington lineup. He trailed only Adam Dunn in intentional passes during the latter’s two-year stint in The District, and still led the 2012 Nationals in that category. Considering that, the thought of a player – any player – being intentionally walked to get to Zimmerman would seem almost farcical.
And yet, that’s exactly the situation in which the Nationals found themselves Thursday night, with Chicago White Sox Manager Robin Ventura electing not to pitch to Bryce Harper and face Zimmerman instead with two on and two outs in the fourth inning of a game Washington led 4-3 at the time.
Unsurprisingly, the plan backfired. Zimmerman kept his head down and extended through a pitch low and away from White Sox starter Dylan Axelrod, sending it darting through a steady wind and over the head of right fielder Alex Rios for a two-run double to break the game open. What may be much more surprising is that the pitch driven by Zimmerman was Axelrod’s 103rd of the night, after the starter had recorded just 11 outs.
The difference in this year’s Nationals lineup from those of years past is both its balance and its incredible patience, the tendency for every batter to grind out each plate appearance, making the opposing starter sweat for each and every out. Consider the first inning Thursday night, in which Washington scored just once, but forced Axelrod to throw 40 pitches to just six total batters, an average of nearly seven pitches per plate appearance.
With Zimmerman moving to the fourth spot in the order this season, opposing starters have to contend with a prototypical leadoff man in Denard Span, the active Major League leader in pitches per plate appearance Jayson Werth, and the dynamic, unpredictable Bryce Harper before ever even getting to The Face of the Franchise, Mr. Walk-off himself. Thursday night, that meant 20 pitches – six to Span, 10 to Werth and four to Harper.
“That’s the point of the left-right-left-right in the lineup,” said Zimmerman, referring to the symmetrical balance achieved in the offseason by the addition of Denard Span. “There’s really not anyone in our lineup you’d rather pitch to. There really aren’t any breaks anywhere in our lineup.”
Given the many ways Washington’s batting order is capable of hurting opponents, it’s only fitting that no White Sox starter survived the sixth inning in the series, the three hurlers combining for just 14.1 total innings. That’s what happens when a group of players learns that they don’t have to try to be the hero – if they are pitched around, the guy behind them will pick up the slack.
“That’s their decision,” said skipper Davey Johnson with a wry smile after the game, about the White Sox choice to walk Harper to get to Zimmerman. “I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions.”
The decision to walk anyone in front of Zimmerman is not one that had crossed opposing managers’ minds in quite a while. In fact, only one batter had been intentionally handed first base in front of Zimmerman since 2009, when on September 3, 2011, Roger Bernadina was intentionally walked by Mets reliever Bobby Parnell to load the bases with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, as New York clung to a 7-6 lead. In that instance, Zimmerman delivered – what else – a two-run hit to right field, as the Nats walked off to an 8-7 victory.
You remember Gio Gonzalez’s first start of last year, right? Who could forget when the charismatic southpaw took the Nationals fan base by storm, delivering seven innings of two-hit, shutout ball, and introduced an adoring crowd to his trademark grin when he delivered his first Major League hit in the home opener? First impressions can go a long way to establishing relationships between players and fan bases.
Except, of course, that wasn’t Gonzalez’s first start as a National. That less-than-memorable occasion actually occurred at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field on April 7, 2012, when he allowed four runs on seven hits, failing to make it out of the fourth inning. Gonzalez’s first outing was quickly overshadowed by the lefty’s success in his initial opportunity in front of the home fans five days later. He used that success to shoot out to a 7-1 start en route to a Major League-best 21 wins and a third-place finish in the National League Cy Young voting.
All of this should provide solace to Dan Haren, who makes his home debut Thursday night in Washington. With three times as many Major League wins (119) and All-Star appearances (three) under his belt as Gonzalez had entering last season, the veteran righty doesn’t have anything to prove. But a return to the form that saw him compile a 2.81 ERA and 41 strikeouts to only five walks over his last eight starts of the 2012 season would go a long way toward further endearing him to the home crowd here in The District.
Haren’s teammates have done everything in their power to set the stage. With Wednesday night’s 5-2 victory over the White Sox, the Nationals moved to 5-0 at home to begin the season and 6-2 overall for the 2013 campaign. The bats continued to deliver, as Ian Desmond led the charge with a trio of extra-base hits. Since suffering their first loss of the year, a shutout last Friday night in Cincinnati, the Nats offense has scored 25 times over the past four contests, plating no less than five runs in each game in support of their pitching staff.
If Haren can accomplish what Gonzalez did last year, Nationals fans will no doubt welcome him with open arms as the newest member of K Street.
The calendar may have read April 10, but there was the distinct feeling of summer in the air as the Nationals began their second homestand of 2013 Tuesday night. With a first pitch temperature of 81 degrees, baseballs were flying out of Nationals Park more the way they tend to do in summertime than in spring. Or, rather, more the way they did when the Washington lineup finally returned to health last summer than the way they did with the depleted, early-season edition.
It can be easy to forget, what with the team’s offensive success in the second half, just how much the Nationals struggled to score runs at times while key members of their lineup were missing. Even once the team was mostly healthy, Jayson Werth’s wrist remained at less than 100 percent strength, while Wilson Ramos would not play again until Opening Day this year.
But look at this lineup right now – there are no breaks, no easy outs. Not just that, but every hitter, one through eight (and even nine, as Gio Gonzalez would have you know), can take a mistake and deposit it over the wall. Werth slugged 20 or more home runs every year from 2008-11, blasting a career best 36 in 2009. Ramos swatted 15 out of the park in less than 400 at-bats two seasons ago before his 2012 was cut short. Considering the three through seven hitters between them combined for 122 homers in under 2,800 at-bats last season (roughly one per 23 at-bats), the current Nationals lineup may well be the most daunting they’ve ever put on the field as a franchise.
Washington has already hit 14 home runs through the season’s first seven games. With the traditional “small sample size” caveat, that puts them on pace for 324 this season, after setting a franchise record with 194 last year. Five players have hit more than one home run. Three – Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche and Ramos – already have a multi-homer game.
Last year, the Nationals had just four combined homers through seven games, and didn’t hit their 14th until Game #24 on May 2, when Ian Desmond rocked J.J. Putz for a two-out, two-run, ninth-inning, walk-off blast.
That home run ignited the first wave of offense to support the stellar pitching staff. Consider this year’s lineup already ignited.
Baseball players are creatures of habit. They have to be, by necessity. Success in this sport is defined by consistency, by the ability to produce at a high level continuously over the ups and downs of a six-month grind.
So one can imagine that it might take a while for players to get into their groove upon the beginning of a new campaign. Spring Training is easy – every day is almost the same – a morning workout, usually a mid-day game, and the evening off, with the same bed to sleep in for six weeks. The regular season brings something else entirely.
From the beginning of April until whenever the season comes to an end, the team jets north and south, east and west, zigzagging the country every few days. Most road trips – of which the Nationals will take a dozen during the regular season – include at least two different stops, meaning a new city, a new opponent for which to prepare, a new ballpark, and a new hotel bed.
It’s no wonder it can take a while for players to settle in.
“It usually took me the whole month of April,” recalled Nationals television color man F.P. Santangelo, who played parts of seven big league seasons with the Expos, Giants, Dodgers and Athletics.
For the Nationals, the month of April includes the recently concluded trip to Cincinnati, an upcoming week split between Miami and New York, and a trip to Atlanta and Pittsburgh that rolls into early May. While that is a fair amount of travel, Santangelo pointed out that the Nats lucked out in one regard.
“At least they only have one Opening Day,” he explained, referencing the April 1 opener in D.C. “Sometimes we’d have two or three. You’d have to stand out on the line for a half-hour for introductions. It would take you totally out of your routine.”
Quite often, teams will play in both their own home opener as well as one or more on the road, as Washington did last year in Chicago. The Nationals were spared the extra pomp and circumstance by a quirk in the schedule this year that saw them play three at home, travel to Cincinnati for three, then return again to D.C.
Now behind the mic, Santangelo is still subject to the same schedule as the players. Having played through it during his career, he knows not to invest too much into the highs (like a three-game, opening sweep of the Marlins) or the lows (such as a 15-0 loss to the Reds on Friday) this early in the season.
That’s the beauty of the game – while each individual result stands on its own, the teams that can get into the habit of winning for the long stretches are the ones that get to keep playing in October.
The first week of the 2013 season is in the books.
Let’s start with what was a truly ideal Opening Day. Great weather, a regular-season record crowd of 45,274 and we beat the Marlins, 2-0. Bryce went deep in his first two plate appearances of the season! Considering Bryce was experiencing his first Opening Day in the big leagues, this was a truly memorable performance that will be talked about for years to come.
Stephen dominated on Opening Day, Gio dominated like it was 2012, Jordan more than held his own and Rafael Soriano earned a pair of saves during the season-opening, three-game sweep of the Marlins.
We did not play nearly as well during the first road trip of the season, dropping two-of-three to the hot-hitting Reds. But Saturday’s gutty win in 11 innings did feature five home runs and a stellar effort from Ross Detwiler, who was touched for just one unearned run in 6.0 innings. Ross’ performance might have been the best-pitched game of the week considering the opponent, the venue and the stakes.
- The feel good story of the week had to have been Wilson Ramos’ two-homer game on Saturday in his first game at Great American Ball Park since injuring his knee there last May. We all know that the last few years have been remarkably trying for Wilson. That said, his boyish smile is back and he is easily in the best shape of his professional life. Wilson worked so diligently during his rehab process and it is rewarding to see him reap the benefits of that labor.
- When the ‘13 schedule was released, this is one of the homestands that really stood out to me. The White Sox (Tuesday-Thursday) and Braves (Friday-Sunday) visit for three games apiece.
- First, we get a rare interleague visit from the White Sox as our friend Adam Dunn returns to Nationals Park for the first time since 2010. It will be great to catch up with Adam and reminisce about his time here. Remember, he twice hit 38 home runs and drove in more than 100 runs here, so it is worth remembering just how fun it was watching Adam hit in a Nationals uniform. And on top of that, he has a beautiful family and is a class act off the field.
- Then the Braves come to town over the weekend for three games. This NL East matchup should provide great theater, not only this weekend, but for all 18 matchups this season. We will get our first glance at the “Chipper-less” Braves, who restocked themselves by acquiring B.J. and Justin Upton during the offseason. This will be a homecoming of sorts for the Upton brothers, who likely have not played together near their home of Norfolk, Virginia since their high school days. Beyond the Uptons, I am especially looking forward to Saturday’s Strasburg-Tim Hudson matchup at Nationals Park.
- Kudos to Denard Span (.444 on-base percentage), Kurt Suzuki (two doubles and a homer in three starts) and Tyler Clippard (has retired nine of 10 batters faced in three appearances to date) on their strong starts.
I hope to see you all at the ballpark wearing your red.
Until we blog again …
It was an exciting first week of the 2013 season, as next year finally arrived. The Nationals opened their campaign as defending National League East Champs against the Marlins in Washington on Monday. Bryce Harper took no time building off last year’s Rookie of the Year campaign, homering in each of his first two at-bats of the season, backing Stephen Strasburg in a 2-0 victory in front of the largest regular season crowd in Nationals Park history. Despite the star power on display, the quiet return of Wilson Ramos may have been the most impressive storyline of the day.
After an off-day Tuesday, the Nationals shut out Miami again on Wednesday, with Gio Gonzalez doing it all himself, tossing six scoreless frames and homering for the game’s first run in a 3-0 final. Meanwhile, Roger Bernadina introduced a new term into the ever-growing Shark lexicon. On Thursday, Washington rounded out a season-opening sweep with a 6-1 win, becoming just the fourth team in Major League history – and the first since the 1979 Astros – to allow just one run over its first three combined games.
The first road trip of the year began inauspiciously, as Washington was blanked, 15-0, in the series opener Friday night in Cincinnati. However, the club responded in a big way, launching five home runs, including two in the 11th inning, to capture a thrilling, nail-biting, cardiac arrhythmia-inducing victory on Saturday. Kurt Suzuki got into the offensive act with a three-run shot in the Sunday finale, but the Nats dropped the game, 6-3, and the series to the defending NL Central Champs.
Overall Record: 4-2