Opening day 2011: Nationals have added gloves — and strikeouts
By Thomas Boswell,
The Nationals can catch the ball now. They proved that on opening day.
Can they hit it? That may take months to answer and define their season.
In a 2-0 loss to Atlanta, the scoreboard illustrated two themes that ran through the offseason: Washington had no runs, five hits and no errors.
No errors, and half-a-dozen classy defensive plays on Thursday are very nice. It’s pretty baseball. The Nats are going to be more fun to watch on their good days and a lot less embarrassing on their bad ones. With smooth, rangy Adam LaRoche at first base, swift Jayson Werth in right and rookie Danny Espinosa at second base, the Nats may turn from an eyesore into one of the game’s more exciting defensive teams.
LaRoche made a diving, full-length stop to his right on a ball where Adam Dunn would never have reacted fast enough to leave his feet. Werth made two sliding catches on liners in right that he considered merely routine; he was more concerned that Chipper Jones got a stretch double when he threw wide of second base. Espinosa had a sparkling backhand stop and cross-body throw to nail fast Nate McClouth easily. And familiar names, like Ryan Zimmerman and reliever Sean Burnett made slick plays, too.
And defense never sleeps. It shows up every day. “Defense and speed come hand in hand and they generally don’t go into slumps,” Manager Jim Riggleman said.
A crowd of 39,055 on a chilly, misty day at Nationals Park saw a display that is likely to delight pitch-to-contact hurlers like Livan Hernandez, who wasn’t his sharpest in the first two innings, yet later retired 15 men in a row and gave up only two runs on four hits in 6 1/3 innings. Without a ticket, Werth couldn’t catch Jason Heyward’s first-row home run.
Despite their glove work, the Nats still lost, and to a relatively underwhelming sinker-baller, Derek Lowe, who never touched 90 mph and struck out six. In total, the Nats fanned nine times. Get used to it.
The Nats may not have replaced Dunn’s home runs, but they sure have replaced all his strikeouts. In recent weeks, by trading Nyjer Morgan and giving Michael Morse the left field job (sending Roger Bernadina to the minors), the team added a whole bunch more whiffs. In toto, it’s stunning.
In their last two years, LaRoche, Werth and Zimmerman averaged 157, 151 and 110 strikeouts respectively. Espinosa and Ian Desmond fanned 146 and 109 times last year. Morse has 145 K’s in 618 career at-bats. And center fielder Rick Ankiel would need only 400 at-bats to fan 115 times. Baseball has far more strikeouts these days. But not like this.
Is such a lineup bad? Not necessarily. Zimmerman can draw a diagram of the field with the number of homers the Nats may reasonably expect from each position. He, like many Nats, see at least 12 to 15 from every spot with the four corner positions contributing more than 100 bombs. In ’09, Zimmerman and Werth had 33 and 36 homers, respectively.
Tons of strikeouts can, sometimes, go hand in hand with lots of runs and victories. Last season, the Tampa Bay Rays led the American League in strikeouts with 1,292, but were third in the league in runs and second in baseball with 96 wins. Don’t be quick to judge. Just recognize that the Nats have an extreme lineup type.
There’s an additional bonus, at least in theory, from bunching such players. Patient high-strikeout hitters see lots of pitches, look for mistakes to drive off or over walls and, as a group, can exhaust even the best pitchers quickly — getting into the soft underbelly of a rival’s middle-inning relievers.
On a day when Lowe was sharp and also benefited from Tim Welke’s generous strike calls at the bottom of the zone, the Braves righty was up to 105 pitches and out of the game after only 52 / 3 innings.
“You’re going to see a lot of that this year,” Zimmerman said. “We’re getting deep into at bats. Jayson and Adam and I are veteran guys, and if a pitch isn’t where we want it, we’ll take a strike.”
Werth has used his move up to the No. 2 spot in the order to lead by example. “Getting a good pitcher out of there on a high pitch count, I love that,” he said. “It’s a big part of the game.”
Some, including me, have wondered if Werth’s shift was entirely team-oriented, as all the Nats contend, or also designed to get Werth in the spot in the order called “the rocking chair” because it’s so hitter-friendly, with lots of fastballs guaranteed, because it’s in front of the 3-4-5 heart of the order. It took one day to learn that it’s almost certainly about putting the team first.
“I think [Danny] Espinosa has a chance to be a 1 or 2 hitter, and Desmond has hit second,” volunteered Werth, setting the stage for him to move to the traditional middle of the order when other Nats prove they’re suited for the top of the order. “But this [lineup] makes the most sense now.”
How long might Espinosa require to make that jump? The order in which players come out to speak to the press is no accident. The players choreograph it. Espinosa, after going 2 for 3 with a double off the left field wall, emerged first — a small honor. Like Desmond last year as a rookie, Espinosa is already assertive and perhaps a future leader.
“I didn’t think Lowe was going to bury us,” he said. “I don’t ever think that, unless everything is just filthy, I don’t think we’re going to get shut down. We have such a great lineup.”
Maybe. Eventually. Though of a very specific type. And that 18-year-old at Hagerstown might fit into it someday, too.
For now, there may be bumps in that road. Desmond is trying to learn how to be a leadoff hitter on a week’s notice. LaRoche, despite his 100 RBI last year, still has big shoes to fill in Dunn’s cleanup spot. Throughout their careers, both LaRoche and Morse have hit better the lower they have hit in the order where there’s less pressure. At the 3-4-5-6-7 spots, LaRoche’s career OPS has risen: .757, .776, .820, .846 and .991. Morse, at 5-6-7-8, has improved to .683, .755, .805 and .952.
The sooner an adequate 1-2 can be found, and Werth can go to No. 3 and LaRoche and Morse can move down a spot, the more comfortable the whole Nats lineup will be. How long will it take? Or can they prosper as they are?
After years of covering our eyes when they took the field, the Nats are now worth watching with their gloves on. They can pick it.
But can they hit it? And with a lineup that now maximizes muscle at every spot, how far will it go when they do? Only 161 games left to find out.