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Ask Boswell: Nats Spring Training, Stephen Strasburg, Caps and more

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Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell was online Thursday, March 25 to take your questions about the NCAA Tournament, March Madness, Nationals Spring Training, Stephen Strasburg, the rest of Major League Baseball, the Caps, Redskins and his latest columns from Spring Training.

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The transcript follows.

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Skeptical, D.C.: Boz,

I loved your column this morning because it made me feel 'good.' But in reality, the Caps have beat the Pens once this season. The OT/Shootout wins don't really count because that format doesn't bear itself out. At the end of the day, the Caps take too many penalties, have too many defensive lapses, and despite his torrid stretch, have an inconsistent goalie in Theodore.

I'm incredibly nervous and skeptical about the team's ability to deliver in the playoffs until I see it. I guess its just too many seasons as a D.C./O's sports fan.

Thoughts?

Tom Boswell: I agree -- I think it's too many seasons as a D.C. sports fan!

The Caps are a powerhouse right now. If you lived 2,000 miles away, you'd see it clearly. You'd see Theodore's 17-0-2 and say he was a good goalie who was playing his very best at the right time. He made some amazing stops late in the third period last night and the shootout. You'd see Knuble as one of the most perfect trades a D.C. has made in many years. A perfect fit -- the goal-mouth presence who makes them a tough team and more suited to scoring in the playoffs. You'd see Belanger as a very nice late addition -- good on the PK, faceoffs. And he's really blended in.

Also, the Caps style is best suited to a young deep team that comes at you in waves and exhausts even excellent foes as the game goes on. I doubt the Caps will be better in 2-3 years when all the young stars are older/wiser. I don't think they'll quite have the same insane energy level -- the ability to hit another gear almost on command -- that they do now. It's one reason they score in bunches and fast. They have just chewed the Pens up and spit them out in the third period this year -- very lopsided margin, though, watching the replay, I think the Caps broadcasters might have had the stat wrong a little bit.

Go ahead and feel good -- for a while. The playoffs are never easy. There will be nervous moments. But I don't think the Pens will be the Caps big hurdle in getting to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Pens had their year last year. That usually has an after-effect the next season, except in the case of truly great dynasties. The Pens have been playing around .500 for many weeks. I expect the Caps to be in the Finals and to get there with more authroity than most -- even their fans -- expect. Because I'm less a hockey fanatic, just a fan, but have covered all sports at this level for 30+ years, I suspect that I may actually see the Caps a little more clearly now than some people. But the Cup, assuming they get there, should be much tougher.

Of course it doesn't have to work out this way. Boudreau loses a lot of sleep trying to figure out whether he should keep driving the team hard to win or pull back a bit, as he did late last year. He didn't like the way it turned out in '09 when they fell behind 0-2 in games in their first playoff series. He said last night that he didn't want to repeat that pattern. So, it looks like he'll keep pushing -- right to 120 points.

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Washington, D.C.: So, now even on ESPN.com, they note when the Pens aren't being called for penalties. Outside of Pittsburgh, everybody saw it happen after the Pens fell behind Washington and Detroit in the playoffs.

Does the NHL feel that we're all stupid and don't see this happening?

Tom Boswell: NHL coaches/fans are obsessed with penalties -- it's inevitable. They have a huge impact on the game, like the Pens 5-to-1 advantage in power plays last night. But so many calls are so close and tough to decide. It's like every other call is as ambiguous as the block-charge in basketball.

However, the Pens have an edge. Whenever the current world champ in a sport is also an exciting team with glamor stars and high scorers, like Crosby and Malkin, there is going to be a tendency for them to get the best of the calls. The Lakers had it their way for years when they were Show Time. It's not conscious. It's not crooked. Great teams and great players usually end up with the refs/umps a bit on their side -- unintentionally.

That's another reason Ovechkin would help the Caps and himself if he got called for less hits that cause controversy. When your suspensions and fines start approaching $300,000, you're going to run the risk of getting called more closely and getting your team whistled a little more.

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NatsNut: Okay, I realize the complaint is almost as tired as the thing itself, but they gotta stop making Teddy lose. Seriously. This team is filthy with losing and every night they create INTENTIONAL losses and call it The Main Event?

Besides the fact that it's bad entertainment because it's not funny anymore, where's the culture of winning? It's actually starting to make me -angry-

Tom Boswell: It's a great bit. It's not "tired." Teddy is never going to win. That's why there are four Presidents, not the usual baseball mascot races that have three. He's the "extra" feature. With all due respect to somebody who shares my baseball-nut qualities, it's incredible to me that anybody could get worked up about this.

If the Nats had a .500 record, nobody would complain about Teddy being a "Loser." I think everybody grasps that, if the Nats every actually do something worth celebrating -- like going to the playoffs -- then that will be the time for Teddy to win.

Maybe.

The Presidents are the best, most inspired mascots in MLB. Leave 'em alone. They are the only thing that's worked out perfectly and you want to change 'em! (Okay, half kidding.)

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Clifton, Va.: Officiating last night stunk! The Caps penalties were penalties, but the Pens committed more than one. In fact, I saw at least one pretty clear cut too many men on the ice for them. Officiating in Pens games is always slanted, no matter their opponent it seems. I know there is a fine, but just once, I'd like to see Bruce really call out the officiating. Wouldn't you?

Tom Boswell: I'd like to see the Caps win the Cup, become even more popular around the NHL than they are now and then see Washington become the high-scoring teams of "darlings" that would start getting more of the close calls.

Of course, the NHL is famous for being percieved as having a slant toward Canada, not Russia, so the paranoia about penalties is an inch below the surface. In a sport that still loves brawls and (some) blood, and where players/coaches are still quite outspoken, I think the constant buzz about officating is part of the semi-crazy fun. As for Bruce, I don't see him holding his tongue a whole lot on any subject! But he knows how to phrase things to get his point across. Whatever he's doing, it's not keeping the Caps from eating the league alive right now. Those trades at the deadline by GMGM sure are looking smart. That had me worried. The right decision -- try to get better -- but risky nonetheless.

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Shepherdstown, W. Va.: I really enjoyed your column today. You talked about how the Penguins may have some doubts about themselves after last nights loss to the Capitals. If I remember correctly the Capitals won all the games against the Penguins last year during the regular season but still lost to them in the playoffs. Has anything changed since last year that can allow a Caps fan hope if the two teams meet again this year in the playoffs?

washingtonpost.com: Boswell: Capitals find themselves flying high, in rare air (Washington Post, March 25)

Tom Boswell: When one team specifically designs itself -- between seasons -- to improve against one particular archrival, they can usually do it. And the Caps did. Every move they made, starting with Knuble, was intended to make them better against the Pens. Pittsburgh didn't remake itself with the Caps in mind. In fact, the Pens lost two valuable defensemen -- exactly where you wouldn't want to save money if you were obsessed with the high-scoring Caps.

As an example, every Red Sox move under Theo Epstein has always been made with head-to-head or post-season matchups against the Yankees in mind. Maybe more than any other one consideration: Does this help us beat the Evil Empire.

The Caps wanted more toughness and got Walker, Corvo with that in mind. Wanted better faceoffs and PK, so got Belanger. I think the shock of the post-season will be how well the Caps handle the Pens. We need to start thinking about how some other matchups will go, not just obsess about Pittsburgh. Given a choice between the Caps meeting the Pens or playing Somebody Else, I'd pick the Pens. In part because it would insure 100% through-the-roof motivation. Even the Canada Olympic gold and Russia's bitter loss feeds into the Caps edge. Last night Wilbon was sitting next to me and said he thought the biggest hockey games of the year had already been played -- in Vancouver. I hope Crosby thinks so. I bet that not a single Caps thinks that way. P.S.: I thought Ovechkin's two-game suspension accidentally freshened him up. He looked tired, or at least out of sync, after the Olympics.

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O's fan in Kensington, Md.: I just watched a one-hour MLB network special forecasting the O's in 2010. For 59 minutes they raved about the stable of good young arms, the addition of Kevin Millwood, the limitless ceiling on Wieters and one of the best young outfields in the majors. Then in minute 60 they picked them to finish either fourth or dead last, and under .500. How long, if ever, before you see the O's seriously competing in the AL East like they did circa mid-90's?

Tom Boswell: The O's are muich better. But they are coming off an awful 98-win base. They don't have much power, especially for an A.L. East team. Will Weiters or Jones or anybody else turn into a 35-homer hitter. Last year even the Nats had 3-4-5 hitters who had 95 homers from the heart of the order. In spring training only one Oriole, who'll go North, has more than 5 rbi. Atkins is hitting .212 and Tejada .194. I didn't think they were much of an upgrade.

Kid pitchers rarely turn into stars their first full year. Look for Matusz and Tillman to be very entertaining but not finish much above .500 combined -- if they are above .500 at all. It's tough when you meet NY, Boston and Tampa 54 times. In spring training, look at w/k ratios to see which pitchers may have dominant stuff coming into April -- Matusz 3/19 (!) in 20.1 innings and David hernandez 1/14 in 1o IP. But then Hernandez stuff always looks outstanding to me.

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Washington D.C. 20019: Hi Tom, How is Jordan Zimmermann doing in his recovery and when do you think he will be back? What do you think the starting rotation on Opening Day 2011 will look like?

Tom Boswell: Z'mann has a great attitude. He'll be very aggressive in his rehab. He doesn't want to come back a "good" pitcher; he wants to come back just as exceptional as he was last year (92K/91 IP). I think that's the right approach. Coaches always say, "Slow down." But I can't remember the last guy coming back from Tommy John surgery who blew out the NEW elbow ligament in his comeback. You just want to go a little showly so you don't change your delivery and hurt something else.

I assume that TJ pitchers will recover pretty much fully but that labrum-surgery pitchers won't be the same -- until they actually prove it. So, I think Matt Chico is throwing as well (or better) than he ever has. (But that's not saying too much. He's mostly a "moxie" guy.) With Olsen you see a typical shoulder-surgery guy -- getting bombed. Will his arm strengthen? I hope they pick up his 41M deal and give him a full chance at AAA. I don't think he'll make it back to the decent pitcher he was in '06-'07-'08, but give him a chance. That's not much money in MLB.

Along the same lines, I doubt Wang will win 10 more games in his career. I hope he wins 100 more. But nobody else wanted him for $2M, so that tells you how far out of line the Nats thinking is compared to the rest of baseball. Another of their dumpster-diving cheap grabs? Or will this one finally pan out. So far, NONE have. Even Flores, a Rule Five pick, has his miseries.

Next year rotation will be -- in order of effectiveness in '11 -- Lannan, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Marquis and...Livan/Mock/Detwiller. And Stammen and JD Martin have looked like decent fifth starters this spring.

I think Lannan will have a 14-16-win season in '10 or '11. He's a duplicate of Tom Browning, Scott McGregor, Larry Gura, Paul Splitorff and about six other lefties who all had the same style. They all had one 20-win season, 8-to-10 10 win years and started in a World Series. Except for the Series part (who knows where he'll end up play), I assume Lannan will do the same.

As for Strasburg, he could erupt like Mark Prior in year Two (18-6). But That's not the way to bet. Probably more like 12-12 or 15-12 next year, like Ubaldo Jimenez at a similar stage. Though Strasburg sure looks like he has even better makeup and pitching smarts than Jimenez.

It's obviously very exciting -- potentially. Everybody talks about Strasburg and arm injuries. That's a long-term concern for any pitcher. That's why he got $15.1M, instead of $20M, which he would have if he'd been a comparably advanced hitter. But short-term -- the next 2-3 years -- there's no pattern of injuries by pitchers with his level of A+ stuff.

BTW, Strasburg, so far, doesn't throw as hard as several I've seen -- Ryan, Randy J, Koufax, Sam McDowell. But his second and third pitches -- the slider and changeup -- make him extra special. Mussina came to the majors with a great changeup but neglected it over the years and actually "lost the pitch" and never really got it back as the devastating strikeout pitch it had been when he was young. He once told me he'd "misplaced it" and never quite rediscovered the mechanics and touch he'd once had. I hope Strasburg knows what he's got in his current change and keeps it polished as he goes through his career.

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Sec314: I was kind of OK with the Dukes' release - he has holes in his swing and makes dumb baserunning mistakes, but there doesn't seem to be a backup plan. Maxwell looked lost at the plate last night -- he's regressing. Harris is NOT an everyday player. And Bernadina may end up in CF if Morgan isn't healthy. Did Rizzo pull the trigger too fast?

Tom Boswell: What you lose, in theory, by releasing Dukes is his (supposed) potential to be a great player.

But, if he stays the same player he's been so far in the majors, then the Nats haven't lost anything. Anythikng at all. And they may gain in defense, base-running and clubhouse presence. Use OPS, or any of the major comprehensive stat gages, and you'll see that a platoon of Harris -- who's as good against RH pitchers as Dukes was -- and Morse -- who's as good against LH pitchers as Dikes was -- should work just fine.

Like many, I'm getting tired of waiting for Maxwell. When the door is half-open, you have to kick it in. I don't know whether he's thinking too much, worrying, whatever -- it's time to get over it and hit. His minor league numbers say that, by his age, it's time to produce. Bernadina's last full year in the minors suggested he was ready, too, but he looked lost against MLB pitching.

For now, Harris and Morse can duplicate Dukes. What you lose is the hope that you were developing a "start" in RF. For the future, you need much better. So, that's a big gap to fill in trade, FA signing or that No. 1 overall pick.

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Ugh, O's fans: Lots of Orioles/Caps crossover today. Man, the Nats REALLY need to start winning soon.

Tom Boswell: O's 8-13, Nats 5-15. Yeah, they've got a real war going on down there in Florda to grab our affection.

But they both look like they'll be 10 wins better. At least Marquis, Capps and Burnett didn't get shelled their last times out. That's something to build on. Livan can roll out of bed, throw 50 warmup pitches in spring training and then go 11-13 in 195 innings. Until Strasburg, Wang, Detwiler, Zimmermann arrive, the Nats don't have five starters better than that.

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Leesburg, Va.: Does Jason Marquis have a sore arm?

Tom Boswell: No reports of that. He has a long history of durability and looked much better his last time out. But we'll have to watch his last two strarts of spring training. I'd guess he'll end up being the same kind of pitcher he's always been. Don't panic. (There's always plenty of time for that.)

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Strasburg's changeup: A while back you wrote a column about Strasburg and said something like, "Son, that's not a changeup, that's a home run in disguise." What has changed to make that such an effective pitch now?

Tom Boswell: He's worked on the pitch since last year. Think Boone gets some credit. Also, in college, against wooden bats, he relied on his rising fastball and slider almost exclussively, as he's pointed out this spring. His big project in Florida was to get his other two pitches -- the sinker and changeup -- under full command. So far, he's done it. The changeup -- whether he's throwing it better or differently or more, or whether it's just exceptionally sharp right now, has been the surprise of camp. I'm surprised, too. He doesn't seem surprised by anything.

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Sec314: I am very sceptical of Mock. Despite all the talk, he just does not consistently throw strikes, and it appears he still gets flustered when runners get on base.

I much prefer Stammen (who seems to be throwing with new-found velocity) and Martin. Both seem to be following the Ray Miller model: they throw strikes and work fast, keeping the fielders in the game. Neither one ever seems to get blown up the way Mock does.

Tom Boswell: The Nats think Mock has the stuff to be a starter. Does he have the makeup? They want to find out once and for all because he clearly has the best stuff of the Mock-Stammen-Martin-Chico group. He's at the age (27 in April) when you want to find out The Answer. This isn't his last chance. But it's his last Big chance, when they hand you the ball and say, "The job is yours to lose."

I enjoy watching Stammen and Martin pitch more. Mock is the kind who drives you crazy -- gets ahead, then nibbles. Doesn't trust his stuff. Caves in jams. But sometimes he can reel off a string of innings so effective that you think, "Maybe we've really got something here."

Barry Svraluga and I were joking last night at the Caps that, in theory, Mock, Chico and Livo could all be on the team at some point this year. Bowden traded Hernandez for Mock and Chico in '06. Now they have 'em all.

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Koufax threw 98?: Really?

Tom Boswell: Koufax could throw 100. And it rose more than any fastball I ever saw. It just seemed to climb over the bat. He threw straight overhand. Two monster pitches -- fastball 96 to whatever-I-need and as good a 12-to-6 curveball as there ever was. And he had command of the fastball and control of the curve. If he got behind in the count, he just poured in the fastball -- but to good spots -- and dared you to hit it. If he got ahead in the count, he threw the ball at your letters -- then it either rose to your shoulders (or above) or dropped to your knees (or below). Either way, you struck out. Unless you were Bob Uecker -- who owned Sandy. No one has ever figured out how.

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Silver Spring, Md.: As a follow up to the O's question- do you think there should be some sort of restructuring to allow teams like the O's and Blue Jays a chance at making the playoffs? The system gives an unfair advantage to AL West teams (they only have to be the best of 4 teams) and basically prevents Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa from ever making the post-season unless they put together a perfect scenario-type season (Rays in '08).

How about abolishing divisions and the four best teams make the playoffs? Or a three-game series between the fifth and fourth seeds to be the "wild card" team?

Tom Boswell: I'm willing to think more about the rotating divisions. At first, it struck me as completely crazy. Maybe not. I never thought wildcards and inerleague play would work. And they are great. Bud is cerainly willing to go outside the box. He doesn't want to have another work stoppage bfore he retires at the end of '12. And the owners who get the angriest -- and want to go to the matresses -- are those who think they'll never have a chance to win with the current economics. So, if you promise 'em "rotation" -- to give them hope -- then maybe you can get another CBA finished and maintain this nice long labor peace.

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Laurel, Md.: Tom, could you explain what the Wizards got out of the non-trade for Ilgaukus?

Tom Boswell: Just what they usually get: Nothing.

Except in cases like Blactche where they think they have something and it turns out to be less than nothing. I enjoyed Wilbon's piece on Dre this morning. Brutal but true. Talking to past Wiz coaches about Blatche, you expect them to go all "Exorcist" on you and spin their heads around backwards and spit green soup.

What a contest for No. 1 Coach Killer of The Month between Blatche and Albert Haynesworth.

What Albert has said to Shanahan is, in effect: I am going to be a 350-pound pain in the butt until you change the defense so it is just like I want it.

I didn't like the idea of going to much of a 3-4 defense because your four most talented players in the front seven -- Haynesworth, Fletcher, Griffin and Orakpo -- did well in the 4-3 and don't figure to suddenly do better in a different scheme. Albert hates the idea. There's a hint. They got rid of Griffin. Why would Fletcher, who's had such a great career as a Redskin in the 4-3 be equally good at inside backer? Etc.

But, even if it isn't the best idea in the world, the Skins will probably use all sort of defensive sets. So, after going 4-12 in a season when he was never in shape, sometimes couldn't even get up off the ground after plays, yet had $40M guaranteed, Haynesworth has only one job in the off-season: Back up the new coach.

Every other player on the Skins did. Haynbesworth showed up, directly told Shanahan to his face that he wouldn't do what the coach wanted so badly and then left to work with "my guy." Shanny was left to say: At least he told me man-to-man. Oh, great. For now, I'm going with Haynesworth as another prime free-agent booby prize of the Snyder-Cerrato regime. The era that just keeps on giving.

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Washington, D.C.: Any new buzz on how the Nats are going to handle their top draft pick this year? I know that Bryce Harper is destroying JuCo pitchers two or three years his senior, but several people (including prominently Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus) think that he won't go No. 1, or even in the top 10.

Tom Boswell: Harper dropped from 205 to 180 a few months ago before getting some time away from baseball and before putting the weight back on. He said, when he came back to Juco ball, he had some trouble adjusting to the good stuff he was seeing from his new teammates: they were "throwing 88-91 mp.h." and we has having some troublke with it. Then he adjusted and started hitting.

That's how YOUNG and undeveloped -- physically and in terms of skills -- that anybody his age (17) is going to be. You have to "project" him, not simply LOOK at him. Right now, Harper couldn't hit Strasburg with a tennis racket. He's impressed by 88-to-91 Juco pitchers. That doesn't mean he won't be great. Maybe he will. But the Nats got to draft a 21-year-old MAN in Strasburg, not guess what they will get in a 17-year-old who'd still only be a junior in high school this year.

No, from what I've seen, I probably wouldn't take Harper No. 1. His swing looks pretty. Is he a catcher? He's currently playing several positions. I think the odds of getting an extremely good MLB hitter -- somebody who ends up with 2,000 career hits -- is very high if you use the No. 1 to take a college hitter. Your chances of getting a HOFer are better taking a high school hitter (Griffey, Chipper, A-Rod) -- but those odds are not good.

I'd go 1) college hitter, 2) another college picher and 3) high school hitter. Don't even think about a high school pitcher.

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Pittsburgh, Penn.: Your quote, 'Make no mistake, this meeting meant more to the Pens' ... You don't really believe that, do you?

Tom Boswell: Absolutely.

You guys are going to haveyour hands full. Hope you enjoyed the last 20+ years. I had to cover almost every one of those lost Cap playoff series. Congratulations! But everything turns eventually. (Though it sure can take a long time.)

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Ashburn, Va.: I'm curious on your thoughts about why the Nationals really released Elijah Dukes. It certainly seems like odd timing on someone that they said was "their guy"

Tom Boswell: There's a famous quote about players with bad attitudes: "This seasons, he's finally turned his life around. He used to be miserable and unhappy. Now he's unhappy and miserable."

Dukes changed a lot. Good for him. But, when he didn't turn out to be a star, just an average OF who couldn't hit the curve, his whole package wasn't good enough to keep. That's the Nats view. I hope he gets another shot. With the Nats, he was always treated like a special case. That caused resentment. He needs to somewhere that he's not treated like a star-in-waiting who's also a powder-keg but like everybody else; go to a team that already has stature where he is forced to blend into the clubhouse or go away. I think he might just blend in.

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Tom Boswell: With the Nats and O's both stumbling in spring training, yet looking at least 10 games better on paper, I just wanted to recall what happened with the Orioles 21 years ago. It's the reason March is (properly) reserved for hope.

In baseball, anything can happen. Anything. And sometimes it actually does. To give up on that before a season even starts has to qualify as a kind of Fan Mental Illness.

The O's went 54-107 in '88. Then went 87-75, and almost made the playoffs, in '89. That's +33 wins.

What changed? They got RID of a HOFer in his prime -- trading Eddie Murray -- and added Randy Milligan (medicore 1B) and a decent vet LF in Phil Bradley. In '89, they only had two 20-homer men -- Tettleton (26) and Ripken (21). Only Cal had more than 70 RBI. They had no stars.

Their big three in the rotation were Jeff Ballard (similar to Lannan) who went 18-8 with a 3.42 ERA. Someday Lannan and Matusz will probably have a year like that. Their other starters went 14-12 (Marquis, Millwood), 10-13 (Livan H), 5-9 and 4-7. They had only one real star reliever -- rookie Gregg Olsen, 27 saves. But they were a great TEAM. They had chemistry, good defense at SS, CF and RF. They had F. Robby cheering and driving them. And they had some luck in close games.

It can happen. Probably won't. But there's plenty of time for that. For now, enjoy thinking about the good things that really might happen. (Why not? We got nobody left in the NCAA hoops.) See you all next week. Cheers.

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