September 2015

Bright Spots for the Nats After a Horrible Weekend

In case you missed my MASN Nationals Buzz guest blog post this week, I wrote about some of the good things the Nationals have accomplished in the past few years, even after a disappointing 2015 season and an ugly finale at Nats Park.

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It’s been a weird couple of days to be a Nationals fan. I am used to being excited after a walk-off win, or sad after a big loss. But the past couple of days I have felt a feeling that I have never felt before as a Nationals fan – embarrassment. I was embarrassed by the way Jonathan Papelbon bullied the best player on the team and best player in baseball, Bryce Harper. I was embarrassed that the Nationals coaching staff let Papelbon play after the attack. I was embarrassed all around that no one on the team seemed to care about the things that made fans feel such outrage. This was the worst display of bad sportsmanship on the Nationals since I started following the team. Worse than Nyjer Morgan’s hissy fit when he threw his glove and left a live ball sitting in the outfield. This involved one teammate fighting with another over something meaningless, and then management doing very little to make it right. All on Fan Appreciation Day! I never want to see this happen again.

To top it all off, the Mets clinched the National League East on Saturday, and the once-admired Nationals officially are out of the playoffs when the season ends on Sunday. It’s been an up-and-down (but mostly down) year for the Nationals, capped off by the lowest incident for fan morale that I can remember. But it is still worth acknowledging how far the team has come in 10 years from their inaugural season in D.C. The team made a huge transformation and became a national story in just a couple of years. They have gone from a bunch of Expos players whose names no one really remembers to a team featuring a rotation with the likes of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. We get to cheer for Harper, the 2012 Rookie of the Year and likely 2015 National League Most Valuable Player.

Since 2012, the Nationals went from a weak team that the Phillies or Braves liked to play to harden their lead in the division to a team that is always fighting to play in the postseason. It used to be that Phillies fans outnumbered the small number of Nats fans at the ballpark, but now Nats Parks hosts 2.6 million fans a year. So even though this year fell well below expectations, and things definitely will need to improve in the offseason to win back fan support, it is worth taking a look at how well the Nationals have done in the past few years and some accomplishments from this year.

When the second Washington Senators left town to go to Arlington, Texas, after the 1971 season, there was vaguely any baseball being played in the Washington, D.C., area. In fact, the Redskins were the only major professional sports team in Washington for two whole years until the Bullets (now Wizards) and the Capitals arrived. More than 30 years passed without Washington having its own professional baseball team. And then, just a month after I was born, the announcement was made: after considering northern Virginia, Washington, Portland, Oregon, Las Vegas, Norfolk and Monterrey, Mexico, Major League Baseball decided that the nation’s capital was worthy enough for their own baseball team.

I’ve written on MattsBats.com about how I became such a huge baseball fan. I think there are a lot of kids like me who have fallen in love with baseball, since my generation is the first one to have a hometown major league team in 33 years. I like the Nats; my siblings like the Nats; my siblings’ friends like the Nats. We have players like Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Harper and Scherzer, who the team signed for long-term deals, who we will be able to root for all through our childhood. It’s great that little kids are able to actually go to a Nationals game in their hometown, and not just watch it on TV or listen on the radio. I love seeing a kid get a foul ball and holding it up as their most prized possession, because that is how I became a fan. At the same time, the Papelbon incident from Sunday is a good lesson that all of that positive energy can dry up very quickly. No one wants to see the villain beat up the superhero. The Nationals need to make sure they play baseball well on the field, but also that their roster includes players that fans want to root for, not against.
Turning back to baseball, even though the Nationals didn’t win the division, it’s not like they’re at the bottom of the standings. They will finish second, likely with a winning record, which is a huge accomplishment when you think back just to the 2011 season, when .500 was a huge milestone. In 2008 and 2009, the Nationals were a terrible team, and they lost more than 100 games. (Usually they say a team will win 60 games, lose 60 games, and whether you make the playoffs depends on how you do in the third 60 games. In those years, the Nats didn’t even win 60 total).

Being that bad had one good side: good draft picks. In 2007, the Nats drafted Jordan Zimmermann, who has gone on to be, in my opinion, the best pitcher in Nationals history. In 2008, they got Danny Espinosa and Tyler Moore, both of whom have been keys to the Nationals bench. Earning the top pick in the draft in 2009, they picked Stephen Strasburg, then Drew Storen and Michael A. Taylor in later rounds. A year later, the draft got them Harper. So without the poor performances of the 2006-2010 Nationals, we wouldn’t be at the spot we are at right now. Zimmermann brought the Nats their first no-hitter. Strasburg has had four consecutive 10-strikeout games this year (and was one strikeout shy on Saturday of tying the franchise record of 14 established earlier this year by Scherzer). Storen has had his dark times, but he is probably the second-best closer in Nats history after Chad Cordero. Moore and Taylor have been great guys off the bench.

There’s a lot to celebrate in the recent years, but part of why this year feels like a letdown is that everyone thought this was the last chance to make a playoff run before Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and other key players leave in free agency. It feels bad not to win the division when in the past couple years you’ve had the best record in the National League or all of Major League Baseball. But this team is still very talented, and this is definitely not the end of the Nationals being playoff contenders. Everyone in the front office knows what needs to be improved, and I can guarantee they’ll be working on fixing the bullpen, adding a big bat (maybe in the outfield) and looking at management over the offseason. Maybe the Nats, like the San Francisco Giants, just do well in even years. If so, there is nothing to worry about.

Congratulations, Mets, on winning the NL East, but we will get you next year. So even though we won’t be raising a championship banner this year, as Brooklyn Dodgers fans always said, “There’s always next year.”

If It Can’t Be the Nats, Then Maybe Rangers or Cubs

Today in my MASNSports.com Nationals Buzz column, I wrote that if the Nationals aren’t going to make it to the playoffs, maybe DC fans should think about rooting for the Rangers (American League) or Cubs (National League). Read below or click HERE to see why. Personally, I think the World Series will come down to Blue Jays versus Cardinals, and obviously I would want the Jays to win.

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With the Nats 6 1/2 games out of the National League East with 13 games to go, it looks a lot like the New York Mets are going to pull away with the division title. There still is hope, though. The Nats are 6 1/2 games out, and the Mets are coming off a series loss against the New York Yankees. If the Nats can make up enough ground to roll into New York next week within three games of the division lead, they could pull of an end-of-season upset. As much as I would love to see that happen, it is still unlikely. So I have been thinking a lot about who I will be rooting for in the postseason if the Nationals aren’t going to be in the playoffs.

From the American League, I am going with the Texas Rangers, who have a 1 1/2 game lead in the West division in front of the Houston Astros as of Monday night. One reason for my picking of Rthe angers for Nats fans to root for: They used to be the Washington Senators team. In 1960, after the original Washington Senators moved up to Minnesota to become the Twins, MLB awarded two expansion franchises. One of them was awarded to Anaheim, Calif., which became the Angels, and the other went back to Washington. Confusingly, that team was also called the Senators. They played for 11 years at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Northeast Washington. In 1971, the Senators got shipped out to Arlington, Texas (between Dallas and Fort Worth) and became known as the Texas Rangers.

In addition to being originally from D.C., the Rangers are a good team to root for in the postseason. This year, the Rangers, like the Nationals, started off slow. In mid-May, the team was sitting in fourth place. But within a month, they found themselves 2 1/2 games behind the Houston Astros for first place. At the trade deadline, the Rangers acquired pitchers Jake Diekman and Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Matt Harrison and five prospects. That boosted the team. The Rangers soared, eventually overtaking the Astros in early September. They have a good chance to make the playoffs by winning the division or the wild card, so if you need an AL team to root for, this may be a good one (and an underdog) to take an interest in.

In the NL, if the hometown Nationals aren’t in it, then you should join me in throwing your support behind the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have some of the most supportive fans in baseball, and this year, most of Chicago is on their side. Cubs fans have been waiting even longer than Washington baseball fans to see their team win the World Series. The last time Washington had a champion was in 1924. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series title since 1908, 107 years, and it’s never happened since the Cubs have occupied Wrigley Field. The closest they came in decades was in 2003, but Cubs fan Steve Bartman famously reached over the fence an interfered with ball that could have put the Cubs within four outs of a division championship.

This may be the year of the Cubbies. In the 1989 movie ‘Back to the Future 2’, which was set 30 years in the future, it was predicted that the Cubs would win the World Series in 2015 (but over Miami, which definitely isn’t going to happen this year). If it does happen, it’s going to be because of their amazing young talent. Star third baseman Kris Bryant has been leading the way, with Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber also being big forces in their success this year. These guys remind me a lot of Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. This is a fun team to watch, and I hope that they can make it into the postseason through the wild card. It’s hard not to root for the Cubs if they make it to the playoffs.

Obviously, I want the Nationals to make it into the postseason. But if they don’t, it’ll be fun to root for some of the underdog teams that have a lot in common with the Nationals.

The Nationals’ Disappointing Season

Here is a copy of the post I wrote for MASN earlier this week about the Nationals’ disappointing 2015 Season.  Click HERE to see the original article.

On the 15th of September, the Nationals are 10 games back of the New York Mets and it’s safe to say their postseason chances are just a little more than zero. Before the season started, almost everyone thought Washington was a favorite to win the World Series. I predicted on my blog, MattsBats.com, that they would win 99 games and take the National League East easily. A lot of people are now wondering what went wrong for the Nationals this year. Today, I am looking at three of the biggest reasons the Nats’ season was so disappointing.

First off is the obvious: the bullpen. The bullpen was the team’s biggest weakness going into the 2015 year, and it only got worse during the season. The Nats traded the best lefty in the bullpen, Jerry Blevins, to the Mets for Matt den Dekker, who barely saw any playing time this year (Blevins also sat out almost the whole year with an injury). The Nats also acquired Yunel Escobar from the Athletics in exchange for set-up man Tyler Clippard, who somehow ended up a Met by the middle of the year. The Nats also lost long reliever Craig Stammen to injury, and he was taken out of the season early after pitching badly against (who else) the Mets. To fill in, the Nats had to use makeshift relievers with little or no big league experience. So this year you were likely to see Blake Treinen, Matt Grace, Sammy Solis or Felipe Rivero take the mound, as compared to last year when the seventh, eighth and ninth went to Clippard, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano. Storen took an amazing first half and flushed it down the toilet in the past couple of weeks by breaking his pitching hand thumb when he slammed a locker in frustration. The good news is that the bullpen was so bad this year that it will have to be fixed for next year. I’ve said it on Twitter, but I would love the Nats to shore up their bullpen with some relievers like Brad Ziegler, Darren O’Day, Will Harris, Tyler Clippard or maybe a trade for Craig Kimbrel.

The second reason the 2015 season went wrong was injuries to key starters. It’s hard to avoid injuries, but this season, injuries really hurt the team. Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Denard Span and Stephen Strasburg have all missed a lot of time this year due to injury. Incredibly, the Nats weren’t able to field their opening day lineup until August. Many of their replacements have blended in just fine, like Michael A. Taylor and Clint Robinson, but it wasn’t really the same without some of the best hitters and fielders in the lineup. Danny Espinosa, who played almost every position on the field this year except for pitcher and catcher, also showed a lot of improvement. And, luckily, what surprised me the most is that injury-prone catcher Wilson Ramos didn’t miss time this year due to injury. But not being able to have your starting nine play every day was a huge part of the Nats’ collapse.

The final reason for the 2015 bust is the Mets’ resurgence. Almost no one outside Queens expected the Mets would finish at the top of the division. For years, the team has been the one guarding the cellar of the NL East. But suddenly, the Mets have become Amazin’ again due to stellar pitching by Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Even Bartolo Colon made history by pitching 31 straight scoreless innings – the most in history by anyone older than 42 years old. The Mets also made good acquisitions like Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, Tyler Clippard and, of course, Yoenis Cespedes. Rookie call-up Michael Conforto has hit 7 home runs and is batting just below .300. Even without David Wright for most of the season, the Mets have been playing pretty good baseball all year. They played well enough to keep pace with the Nats all year and then kicked it into high gear at the trade deadline with the Cespedes acquisition.

The Nationals’ season definitely has not played out like expected. Other than Bryce Harper’s amazing season and Max Scherzer’s nearly perfect no-hitter, there have not been many highlights this year. The good news is MLB has released the 2016 schedule, and there are only 202 days until the Nationals’ 2016 opening day.