Overall, the first half of the 2011 season was an upbeat one for the Nationals and their fans. While Derek Jeter was busy chasing his 3000th career hit and Justin Verlander and Francisco Liriano were pitching no-hitters, the Washington Nationals were quietly playing .500 baseball. More impressive is that this happened while adjusting to a new manager, learning new defensive positions and dealing with injuries at the major league level. Hopefully these changes will produce positive results and the season will end on a good note.
To the casual baseball observer, the Nationals are that innocuous team relocated from Montreal which has been mired in last place ever since. They are the afterthought on “SportsCenter” and seem to only sell out when the Phillies fans are in town. Take a closer look though, and you will find a young team (except for Liván Hernandez, Matt Stairs and Iván Rodriguez), motivated players with a beautiful ball park, loyal fans and Racing Presidents (if you haven’t been to Nationals Park yet, it’s bigger, easier to get to, and more modern than cramped Oriole Park, and the food selection is much better too!).
The Nationals (and their fans) knew that 2011 would be a “transition” year, especially with phenom Stephen Strasburg out for the whole season after Tommy John surgery and last year’s #1 draft pick Bryce Harper spending the whole year in the minors. My colleague Adrian Fedkiw predicted that the Nats would end the season at 68-94, placing 5th in the NL East (which Chris Rowe picked them 4th ahead of the Mets). I was a little more optimistic at the beginning of the season, and am sticking with my prediction of an 81-81 record and 3rd place in the NL East.
One of the first conundrums facing the Nats was replacing power hitter Adam Dunn at first base. GM Mike Rizzo signed Adam LaRoche to fill that spot, but LaRoche tore the labrum in his shoulder and will not be back until next season. So they put journeyman Michael Morse at first base, not knowing how he was going to do there. It turns out Morse is doing just fine, batting .314 (currently 12th in the Majors), and has covered first base better than anyone expected. Morse will become a free agent at the end of this season, so let’s hope the Nationals can hang on to him.
Another “lemon” that the Nationals turned into lemonade was the injury to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. After having surgery for a torn abdominal muscle, Zim missed 58 games. A trio of Jerry Hairston, Laynce Nix and Alex Cora jumped in to cover third base respectably. Zimmerman’s return instantly added some spark to the team’s offense, but Ryan is still a little shaky when it comes to throwing from third to second. He is definitely not back to his Gold Glove self, but since shortstop Ian Desmond commits so many errors, Zimmerman doesn’t look so bad.
The biggest surprise in the infield has been the consistency and skill of second baseman Danny Espinosa. He still strikes out often and is leading the Majors in being hit by pitches, but he has a bright future ahead of him – hopefully still with the Nationals.
Behind the plate, my all-time-favorite-player-ever, Ivan Rodriguez, is just plain getting old (too bad, because we’re both the same age)! ”Pudge” can still throw you out trying to steal second base, but he’s been having all kinds of aches and pains and has not played very regularly this season (currently on the DL with a strained oblique muscle and spending a week in Miami receiving physical therapy). However, Wilson Ramos has been doing a very good job behind the plate, probably because he’s had such a good mentor in Rodriguez. Jesús Flores is currently the backup receiver, since Wil Nieves went to the Brewers (no big loss there).
In the outfield, the Nats got rid of Nyjer Morgan early in the season (thank GOD!) and have been doing fine with the under-rated Roger Bernadina and the strong arm of Rick Ankiel in center field. Laynce Nix and Jerry Hairston have been OK in left, while Jayson Werth continues to cover right field adequately with his strong arm and good field coverage. The Nationals don’t have a lot of depth in the outfield though, especially since Bryce Harper probably won’t be ready for the Majors until 2012.
Rumor has it that the Nationals are interested in Rays’ outfielder BJ Upton, and that the Rays would like Ian Desmond in return. Only one week to go before the trade deadline, so we’ll soon see if that rumor is true…
Nationals’ starting pitchers have had a decent start. By mid-May, they were the only team in the Majors whose starters lasted at least 5 innings. The bullpen was shaky (except for the consistency of Tyler Clippard, who was the Nationals’ only All-Star) but closer Drew Storen was not getting many save opportunities. Those roles were reversed, with Liván Hernandez struggling and a void as the fifth starter (Yunesky Maya, Ross Dettwiler and Tom Gorzalanny). Then in June, Jason Marquis, John Lannan and Jordan Zimmerman started pitching well, and even though part of the bullpen continued to struggle, the “Clip and Save” combination of Clippard and Storen were winning some games.
In my nerdy opinion, I think the Nationals need a starting pitcher who can go for more than six or seven innings, but Roy Halladay is taken, so I don’t have a good solution there.
The big shocker to everyone (fans, players, broadcasters, and even my friend Nikki who is not a baseball fan) came when Nationals’ manager Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned after the Nationals beat the Seattle Mariners. The Nats had been on a very good winning streak, but Riggleman was not given the opportunity to sit down and talk about a possible long-term contract. After the shock wore off and I weighed all the facts, I sided with Riggleman. How can you feel respected if you keep getting little contract extensions as opposed to a multi-year contract – and your owner refuses to address the issue?
Riggleman was quickly replaced by veteran manager Davey Johnson, who has gotten very old since his days as the skipper for the 1986 World Champion Mets. I always thought Johnson was kind of boring, especially since he never makes big changes in his lineup, but no one from the Nationals asked me for my opinion (I would have suggested Willie Randolph), so I guess Davey is OK.
To confirm my thoughts that Davey Johnson is boring, in a game against the Cubs earlier this month, Johnson implemented the first suicide squeeze in his career. I found this so hard to believe! You mean to tell me that Keith Hernandez never tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt with Lenny Dykstra on third base? It’s incredible to me that a guy who has managed for so long can be so anti-squeeze play!
So, the Nationals are 49-51, with a series against the Marlins coming up. They have many more games left to play against the other NL East teams and I’m pretty confident they will do fine against the Marlins, Mets, and suddenly struggling Braves. If it weren’t for those pesky Phillies, the Nationals would be farther up in the standings (Nationals have beaten the Phillies twice this year, so don’t be surprised if they win one or two more)!
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About the Author
Written by Marien Hornyak
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico but have lived in the continental US for 22 years. I have a BS in Athletic Training and a MEd in Sport Management, where I did my thesis on "The History of Baseball Litigation." I am a wife, mother of 2, and self-proclaimed "Baseball Nerd." My favorite baseball players include Roberto Clemente, Kirby Puckett, and Iván Rodriguez.