The grind begins today.
The Nationals take the field at 1:05pm against the Mets, having spent last October at home and out of the playoffs, and with all manner of new perspective that failure amid the predictions of greatness. Last year, there were quite a few that put the Nationals atop the NL East and heading deep into the postseason, but they fell far short. This year, the expectations game is different. While the critics are predicting many accolades, there are just as many asking hard questions about the core of the Nationals lineup.
After the fan euphoria of 2012, and the attendant disappointment that went into 2013, Nats fans going into Opening Day 2014 are a lot more sanguine about the franchise. They have every reason to be excited, but yet they understand what it is to be humbled by a 162-game grind that puts even the most well-trained professional athlete through a brutal ringer. That’s not to say that all fans are fatalistic ones, that they toss blades of grass into the wind to find their direction, but rather that this might be the sort of realistic season where the sine curve of fullest rabidity and fullest despair are not vacillated between in an hour.
There’s a point during Spring Training you reach where you find yourself longing for nine good innings of baseball. It’s enough, some days, to get three or four innings of great pitching and strong hitting, but this Sunday I found myself wanting a game that mattered, something that counted for more than who would be sent to to minor league camp. The beautiful sunshine and the palm trees are a welcome distraction, but I find myself more than ready for a cool evening at Nationals Park, a hot dog with onions, and a fearsome 95mph Jordan Zimmermann fastball fanning whichever poor sap has to stand in the box.
I find myself lonesome, amid the snow, for my summer family, and more than ready for long homestands and long road trips, for weekend series in the sun, and cool nights on the Scoreboard Walk. While the team is still tuning up and finalizing their roster, I find myself ready for the fast forward into the summer and beyond. Baseball’s time for contemplation and anticipation isn’t present in the hockey and basketball seasons, where fast twitch and endurance outweighs the national pastime’s focus and civil pace. I miss that slowdown.
This purgatory of baseball, before the final tuneup games, and after the start of the spring’s excitement is almost excruciating. It appears Danny Espinosa is back and healthy, but no match for Anthony Rendon at second. Ross Detwiler appears to be the Nats’ fifth starter, ending the starter debate, and Christian Garcia looks to be the contender for the 13th pitcher slot. It looks like Tyler Moore is going to be the odd man out in the outfield, joining Zach Walters on the Infield side. Lobaton will take the backup role behind Wilson Ramos, barring injury. The team’s just about assembled, from here on out it’s about honing skills and building up capacity.
It’s hard to wait out these last few weeks, especially when the weather’s as crappy as it’s been. In the meantime, here’s some James Earl Jones reminding you why everything will be good again.
This weekend, you could well have spent it as I did, with the Nationals on the radio or TV while you went about your lives. No sport is quite like baseball when it comes to its ubiquity during the season. From the end of March until the middle of October, there is baseball every day except for two. There are random off-days for your team, yes, but the default state for the next six months is baseball. As we shrug off the remains of a brutally cold February, that’s an important mile marker for the passage of time.
The Nationals are still deep in the throes of the training process, and each of the games carries little life-and-death meaning. None of these games count on the standings, no result is the end of a career or the start of one; these are, in the purest sense of the word, games. Starters go 3 innings if they’re lucky, and by the time Take Me Out To The Ballgame is done, most of the franchise faces have had a shower and are out talking to the media. Games are decided by late inning relievers and third string prospects. It’s marvelous. Unless you’re the scorekeeper.
This past week, Nats Prospect Cutter Dykstra made his big league club spring debut in a split-squad game, and since he was borrowed from the minor league roster, was wearing his minor league camp jersey. The broadcast team from the Mets – a delight to listen to this spring, unlike the team from Atlanta – couldn’t figure out how the Nats had two number 10s in the lineup at the same time. In the end, the Nationals’ number 10 Will Rhymes ended up driving in the Nationals’ other number 10, Dykstra. These are the sorts of things that happen in the early part of camp. They’re a delight.
Sunday marked the first televised broadcast of a Nationals game, and though we’re in the midst of a snowstorm at the moment, that marked the start of an early spring for many DC area residents. Friday afternoon brought us the first radio broadcast, as Dave Jageler and Charlie Slowes first took a moment to celebrate the beginning of their 9th season together as a radio team. It was 26°F in Vienna, VA as I drove to a client, but inside my head, it was suddenly the midst of summer.
The start of Spring Training often means the dissection of a number of story lines, and it’s gotten to the point where there are some really good mad libs for constructing your own. You won’t find much of that here, because the Spring Training stories this year aren’t going to be about a number of position battles where wily veterans make their cases against young prospects. There are really just two battles right now: Second Base (Danny Espinosa vs. Anthony Rendon), and the last Bullpen slots (Mattheus vs. Roenicke vs. Davis vs. Garcia vs. Delcarmen). This team is largely the same as it was for their 2012 NL East Title squad and their 86-win-yet-still-disappointing run 2013 season, though, and I suspect the drama will not be intense in Florida.
All that said, the Nationals have some interesting folks to watch this spring, and here’s a few names in the infield to keep an eye on: