September 25, 2021

Been Down So Long

April 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

A scant year ago, Jim Bowden departed Washington, DC with the Nationals baseball team as ruined as his reputation.  Just as we tend to forget the desert at the first oasis, so the barren geography of hopeless losing was washed away this weekend as Matt Capps converted his first five save opportunities and up and down the lineup, the clutch hits rained down like a mighty stream.

Don’t get me wrong, the Washington Nationals pose no threat to the Phillies in the NL East.  But this team can play some baseball.  Last year at this time Bowden’s carefully crafted outfield of Adam Dunn, Lastings Milledge, and Josh Willingham was a comedy of errors that brought only tears.  Gone are those days.

The credit for the Nationals record of 6 wins against 5 losses goes to the players. Newcomers like Ivan Rodriguez and Adam Kennedy, like Capps, have added that extra spice of professionalism that makes Jim Riggleman look like a chef supreme.

Riggleman has had a few challenging moments.  Playing the Phillies six games out of the first eleven has been tough, but the Nationals survived the test, winning two hard fought games against Philadelphia, each of which have given the team momentum in subsequent series against the Mets and Brewers.

One defining moment for the team came this past week when Jim Riggleman was tossed from a game after several bad calls went the Phillies way.  He said the umpires seemed to have no respect for his team.  He has been willing to support his players, fighting for a little love when losing proved frustrating.  Last year’s manager, Manny Acta, was notable for his quiet demeanor.  It drove fans crazy who watched call after call go against the Nationals without a peep from the dugout.

Riggleman gets it.  He knows his players, saying of Josh Willingham, “he wants to get his three, four at bats.  That’s what he cares about.”  Willingham is getting those at bats this year after riding the pines early in 2009.  Now he is doing what he does best, crushing the ball.  He is not a great defensive player, and when it matters he will come out in the eighth or ninth inning for someone who plays a better left field.

Some of the new pieces that Mike Rizzo has given Riggleman have yet to click. Jason Marquis has yet to win a game, and the gaping hole in right field is just that. Riggleman and 26-year old outfielder Justin Maxwell are both from Silver Spring, MD and it is clear that Riggleman wants to give his homey every chance to become that right fielder. On Saturday Maxwell repaid the confidence, smacking a two-run home run to back up excellent pitching from the old master, Livan Hernandez. Hernandez and the Nationals ran all over the Brewers, as he pitched a complete game shutout, an 8-0 win.

Stephen Strasburg is still playing two hours away in Harrisburg, PA.  His every move is watched breathlessly in DC.  He is just part of the calvary that is available to reinforce a surprising Nationals team this year.  There is bullpen help in Drew Storen and Luis Atilano, both of whom have been lights out in the high minors. Starters Chien-Mien Wang and Ross Detwiler could join Strasburg by June or July in the Nationals rotation.

The Nationals have been a laughing stock so long that every pundit assumes that they will be sellers by mid-summer, that Adam Dunn and Scott Olsen will be trade bait as the team continues to amass badly needed young talent.  Conventional wisdom is a cheap commodity.  By July this team could just be coming together.

The Nationals have a meager payroll of just over $60 million.  Yet they made more money than almost anyone last season. It is a team that can afford to be buyers if there is a piece that could make Washington into something more than an also ran coming down the stretch.

So keep the expectations low.  There won’t be bus loads of Nationals fans trooping up to Philadelphia for payback this year.  It is so early and who knows what the season will bring.  But when you been down so long any dream is a good one.

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