By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, May 24, 2009
As they play the Orioles this weekend, the Nationals dream of becoming contenders, but for competence, not pennants. Their time frame: Someday. Their present: more losses.
Tomorrow, Nats right-hander Shairon Martis, 22, from Willemstad, on Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles, will try to beat Baltimore to raise his record to 6-0 and improve his rookie-of-the-year status from implausible to conceivable. His pitching model, he says, has been Greg Maddux, all brains and changing speeds, with a dash of Pedro Martínez. Martis speaks four languages but the wise rookie says, "I try not to say too much in any of them." He remains a promise and a mystery -- maybe a flash in the pan, maybe real.
On Friday night, Jordan Zimmermann, on the eve of his 23rd birthday, held Baltimore to two runs in seven innings with seven strikeouts on only 97 pitches. "I want to come back with this kid's stuff," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who has seen three of his starts.
Team building is the work of years. For fans, watching the process requires patience, forgiveness and delayed gratification -- the last things you want at a ballpark, where a cold beer, a hot dog and a standing ovation were more what you had in mind.
Some, perhaps wisely, have turned their eyes away. For the rest of us, a breed far larger than seems sane, we stay tuned. Bad teams are a heritage, a burden, a secret pleasure, a baseball laboratory and, when kept compartmentalized in just one ventricle of our hearts, seldom actually fatal.
Fifty years ago in Griffith Stadium, I was initiated in the rites. The Nats and Orioles were locked in a similar battle of bad and worse. I loved it then, knowing no better, and am determined to enjoy it now, since I have no choice. It's an odd pastime for a lifetime. Yet, for a century, millions have shared it. In a world with the Yankees, everyone else in baseball is born more likely to lose than win.
How do you enjoy losing teams, seeing them for what they are rather than wasting years of energy, mocking them for what they are not? How do you hold the owners and front offices who guide these Titanics accountable for their disasters, yet respect the athletes who man the lifeboats as best they can, going over the side into the icy waters of .400 baseball 162 times a season, knowing the long odds against keeping their dignity or jobs?
Most of all, since baseball should be fun, how do you squeeze a dozen laughs or cheers out of a 95-loss season for every time you curse at the TV?
For many teams, the answer is complex. As a child, I isolated the excellence of home run champion Roy Sievers from the comedy of Herb Plews or the unfulfilled potential of Pedro Ramos, who carried a Wild West six-shooter on road trips (sometimes loaded).
But for the Nats, it's simple. The biggest reasons to watch, to study, even to believe in a future, all sit in a row, locker to locker. There we find those rookies Martis and Zimmermann, plus steady lefty John Lannan, 2008's pitching discovery.
"We're all quiet, maybe a little boring," says Zimmermann, whose PA music, Citizen Cope's "Son's Gonna Rise," hints that "smart" may be the word he's overlooking.
"On the mound, they're all 'ice water,' " says Manager Manny Acta.
Nearby sit Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen, who made their first major league starts this week. Detwiler, a No. 6 overall draft pick in '07, threw 73 percent strikes in five strong innings, then followed it up with a one-hit, six-inning performance on Saturday night against the Orioles. Stammen, an obscure 12th-rounder who reinvented himself with a power sinker, retired 18 of the first 19 men he faced. No verdicts yet. They may revisit AAA ball. But the rotation door stands ajar for either if he kicks hard enough.
And on June 9, as Lannan says dryly, "Oh, I think we'll draft Stephen Strasburg."
He throws 102 mph and is often called, by the hyperventilating intelligentsia of draftology, the best pitching prospect since such picking began in '65. (Pass the salt.)
Young pitching is the most precious, but perishable commodity in baseball. You don't count such chickens until they hatch, molt, grow feathers, flap around the barnyard and win a dozen games twice. So far, these five infants who, for the moment, constitute the Nats' rotation are a 20-game winner. That is, combined they have 20 wins -- 13 of them Lannan's. But, to those of us who saw the '50s Orioles develop enough young arms to become the best team in baseball from '60 through '83, the point is clear. If your team will never have New York or Los Angeles money, then this is how you do it.
Will it work? That's what '09 and '10 are about. Maturity won't arrive until '11, at the earliest, even for Strasburg. That's not what the Nats, with tickets to sell, will say. But if you want to hop on this bad baseball train, that's what you have to accept, then relish.
At this instant, each has a pitching project. Lannan has to learn to buzz fastballs inside to left-handed hitters to set up his breaking pitches away. He could do it in the minors, then misplaced the knack. "I see the [left-handed] hitter," he says. That's bad. He should be invisible. In Lannan's last two starts he drilled a couple of lefties, didn't care, then turned several of them inside out with rainbow curves. Progress.
Martis has the compact repeatable delivery and fine changeup of his model Maddux. Command of a low-90s fastball with movement is the game's unappreciated weapon. He may have it, too. But Mad Dog's equalizer, the swing-back fastball that starts outside the plate then darts back over the corner, isn't in his arsenal. "I'm working on it," he says.
The most blessed with raw stuff, Zimmermann, was blighted by ugly beginnings, giving up 13 runs in six first innings. After that, efficient. Then, Friday, he learned to "stage" a mock first inning in the bullpen, with a coach standing at the plate as he warmed up. Problem solved? Also, against the Orioles he demonstrated true command, not just control, for the first time. "He's had 'plus' command everywhere else," said acting general manager Mike Rizzo. Such precision is the difference between Roy Oswalt and Roy Hobbs.
To enjoy a bad team, you have to distinguish between Martis, Lannan and Zimmermann, a combined 9-4, and all the other Nats pitchers, who are 3-25. The former are the future, the latter will mostly flake away. You have to care whether Detwiler has the gumption to pound the strike zone against scary lineups, not just the Pirates, and whether Stammen's hard sinker stays knee-high almost every night or just sometimes. Baseball is the sport in which the laboratory is so open to inspection that you can see the results of the experiment in real time.
The Nats, by being so utterly awful -- 71-131 since their new (publicly financed) ballpark opened -- have driven many normal folks from their midst.
But for those of us who can't, or don't, wish to help ourselves, who spend our hours so profligately on a bad team, these are days as fascinating as they are strange. The Nats, already assured of a hideous 11-game homestand, will play the Orioles on a warm Sunday afternoon in May in a lovely new ballpark with thousands of empty seats.
Shairon Martis, SHY-ron Mar-tiss, will start. Where else would you rather be?