A Test of the Nationals' Patience
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Just before 9 p.m. last Wednesday, in the fifth inning with a runner on third and one out, Philadelphia's Jamie Moyer threw an 0-0 pitch to Lastings Milledge right where a pitcher wants it, four inches outside, the precise overlap in space where a pitch looks hittable but isn't. Every word the Washington Nationals' outfielder had heard earlier that day, and every sentence in a scouting report he had read, told him not to swing. And still, he swung.
Some six hours earlier, Milledge, 23, had arrived early at Nationals Park for extra work with hitting coach Lenny Harris -- a burly motivator who credits at-the-plate patience for his own 17-year career. "If a guy chases a ball," Harris said, "that makes me hot."
The Nationals' internal scouting report on Moyer, photocopied onto 8 1/2 -by-11-inch sheets and made available to all players, sketched the simple strategy during at-bats: Wait, and wait some more, until Moyer, baseball's most caricaturized control pitcher, had no choice but to cross the plate with his 80- to 82-mph fastball. "This guy shouldn't get you out in the strike zone," one bullet point on the report stated. "Make him bring it on the plate."
Moyer's approach, both because of the velocity he lacks and the precision he lives by, doubles as a referendum on a lineup's patience. And this season, Washington's entire lineup has swung too often and hit too little.
Chronic ignorance of hitting's oldest chestnuts -- wait for your pitch; sit and drive -- have fostered questions about Harris's ability to teach and Washington's ability to improve. Then again, improvement, or its inverse, can be measured even in the moments otherwise forgotten, which is why Milledge's one swing in his fifth inning at-bat Wednesday, in a game Washington already trailed 7-3, is emblematic of an entire season.
That inning, Milledge had walked to the plate feeling urgency. Since returning from the disabled list just five days earlier with a strained groin, he'd gone 2 for 15, including two flyouts earlier in the game. "I mean, I can't keep doing this bad forever," he said.
Four weeks of lost time while injured had shaken all the muscle memory from his mechanics. During recent swings, his head flew up, as if spinning out of orbit, and his body lunged forward. As it turned out, those same flaws -- especially in this at-bat -- would keep Harris awake at night, and bring him, along with Milledge, to the ballpark early the next day.
Milledge and Harris have spent the season forging a necessary, but close, relationship. Harris himself never had Milledge's talent. Milledge always had the talent to negate the need for technique-based coaching. Until age 17, he didn't study hitting as a form; he just did it. "I'd always been successful," he said, "so nobody wanted to tamper with me."
Ask Harris about his influences as a hitter, and you'll get an ode to the old artists of bat control -- Tim Raines, for instance, and Pete Rose. Ask Milledge the same question, and in translation, something rearranges: "Well, my dad taught me how to hit, how to be aggressive," Milledge said. "And my older brother, too. He went all the way up to rookie ball. I guess I learned my aggressiveness from him."
During the offseason, Washington traded for Milledge, drafted 12th overall in 2003 by the New York Mets. The team knew of Milledge's shortcomings at the plate but loved his potential. "He's got to learn how not to chase," General Manager Jim Bowden said.
Milledge's acquisition, along with the decision to play him every day, demonstrated Washington's willingness to use its big league roster as a teaching ground. Milledge would learn from Harris. Occasional failure would be tolerated, so long as it promoted a tangible long-term payoff.
Harris himself had been on the job for only a half-season, installed in the middle of 2007 when Mitchell Page left for personal reasons. Harris believed, and lamented, that some modern hitters advanced to the big leagues without first mastering the fundamentals. A player can get to the big leagues on ability, Harris said, but that alone won't suffice once he gets there.