Sports Fix, The Features

Neutered Nats Flop Against Fish, Lose 3-0

Friday night was never going to be easy for the Washington Nationals. A letdown of some kind had to be expected after an emphatic four-game road sweep of the New York Mets earlier this week, and the red flags waved even more frantically when Davey Johnson announced that he was giving both Michael Morse and Jayson Werth a day off. (And he meant it; Alex Cora was first off the bench to pinch-hit.) And that was before anyone bothered to check the statistics and note that Florida had had the Indian sign over Washington this season, with an 8-4 head-to-head record entering this three-game weekend series, the next-to-last of the season between these two clubs.

But no one expected the Nats to go down as meekly as they did in the 3-0 loss. Javier Vazquez, a pitcher who has generally been mediocre to below-average since being traded by the Montreal Expos to the New York Yankees prior to the 2004 season (exceptional outliers in 2007 and 2009 notwithstanding), recorded his first complete game since September 25, 2009 (when his Braves defeated, yes, the Nationals), and he needed only 104 pitches to do it. True to form, there was nothing particularly special about what Vazquez was doing. He threw his fastball for strikes, got ahead in the count, and took advantage of a Nationals lineup that seemed completely uninterested in working the count. Of the 30 batters that Vazquez faced, 17 either took a first-pitch strike or swung at the first pitch.

The Nationals were compliant in their own demise as well, making two foolish mistakes on the basepaths. The first came in the second inning with the score still 1-0. After Rick Ankiel had singled to center with one out, Espinosa flicked a ball into left-center field. The ball was cut off quickly by center fielder Bryan Petersen, but Ankiel was still able to advance to third. However, Espinosa either underestimated Petersen’s arm or thought it was the right time to take the double play out of the equation. Regardless of his reasoning, he was easily cut down at second base for the second out of the inning. Chris Marrero flied out to right field to end the once-promising inning.

The other, less forgivable lapse came in the seventh inning, with the score 3-0 but Vazquez wobbling for the first time all night. Ryan Zimmerman and Laynce Nix singled to lead off the inning before Ankiel (fooled by a curveball) and Espinosa (unable to catch up to a fastball) struck out swinging. Then, with Marrero at the plate in search of a first home run of his term with the Nats, pinch-runner Brian Bixler was picked off of first, despite the fact that second base was already occupied by the less-than-speedy Zimmerman and it was unnecessary for Bixler to take undue risks on the basepaths with the tying run at the plate. The whole sequence summed up the lazy, haphazard approach the Nats offense brought to the ballpark last night.

Lannan wasn’t much better, though he managed to wring six innings and a quality start (in name only) out of his evening. He struggled to locate his fastball and changeup in the early going and gave up six of the eight hits recorded off him in the first three innings. The pitches that weren’t hit were taken outside of the strike zone, and this is what led to Florida’s first run of the game. Gaby Sanchez and Petersen worked one-out walks in the second inning and advanced to third and second on a wild pitch. Sanchez scored on John Buck’s single to center, and if Petersen hadn’t stopped between second and third base to make sure the ball would drop, he would have scored as well. As it was, Lannan got out of the inning with no further damage after Vazquez failed to get a squeeze bunt down and got Buck thrown out at second base and Emilio Bonifacio grounded into an inning-ending force play.

The Marlins added their other two runs in the third inning as Omar Infante and Mike Stanton opened the inning with back-to-back doubles before Stanton came home on Sanchez’s single to center. Again, the damage could have been worse, but Petersen went too far when turning first base after his two-out single and managed to get himself thrown out 7-6-3.

It was, in short, the type of game that was to be expected on a cool Friday night in September when both teams are eliminated from the playoff race (mathematically as well as realistically).  If there’s anything positive to be taken from it, it’s that Saturday’s game shouldn’t be nearly as somnolent. After all, Werth and Morse should be back, and some kid named Strasburg is on the mound.

Sports Fix, The Features

Rockies Hurt Lannan, Stifle Nats 3-2

Photo courtesy of
‘not too happy’
courtesy of ‘philliefan99′

If Thursday night’s 10-9 loss to the Chicago Cubs was a spectacular defeat for the Washington Nationals, Friday night’s 3-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies was more in keeping with past defeats this season, complete with offensive incompetence and a pinch of bad luck.

In this case, actually, the bad luck was a hammer blow in the form of a baseball off the bat of Ty Wigginton in the top of the fourth inning with Washington on top 1-0. John Lannan had started his outing crisply, and had made it through the first three innings without allowing a single baserunner. After Carlos Gonzalez struck out swinging at a two-seam fastball to lead off the fourth, however, things fell apart quickly for Lannan. Jonathan Herrera lined a four-seam fastball back up the middle for Colorado’s first hit (and base) of the night. Todd Helton pulled a two-seam fastball over the inner half of the plate into right field to put runners on first and second base. And then Wigginton lined another two-seamer straight at Lannan’s skull.

Replays were inconclusive as to whether the ball deflected off Lannan’s glove. What was more definitive was the ball striking Lannan in roughly the place where nose and left cheek come together. As the ball continued into center field and Herrera raced home to tie the game at 1-1, Lannan staggered to his knees for a few seconds before picking himself up and walking to the clubhouse under his own power, holding his cap to his face to staunch any bleeding. The official diagnosis was a nose contusion, and there remains a possibility that Lannan could make his next scheduled start after the All-Star Game.

Despite being allotted as much time as he needed to warm up, Ryan Mattheus seemed rattled by his early appearance in the game. He induced Mark Ellis to ground back to the mound, but double-clutched on the throw to second and only an apparently generous out call from Brian Knight gave the Nationals the second out of the inning. Mattheus was then called for a balk by home plate umpire Bob Davidson, which forced Helton home with the go-ahead run. That in turn was followed by an RBI single for rookie Cole Garner, which made the score 3-1 and was all the scoring Colorado would do or need.

The rest of the night was, for the most part, an exercise in futility by the Nats offense, beginning in the first inning, when they loaded the bases with nobody out against Jason Hammel on a Roger Bernadina double, a walk to Danny Espinosa and an infield single by Ryan Zimmerman. Hammel kept it together, allowing only a sacrifice fly by Michael Morse (which scored Bernadina to give Washington their early lead) before striking out Jayson Werth and inducing Rick Ankiel to pop out to second base. In the rest of his outing, Hammel faced 20 batters, and allowed just four of them to reach base (a walk to Espinosa in the third inning, a solo home run by Wilson Ramos that made the score 3-2 to Colorado, a two-out single to right by Werth in the sixth, and a single to right by Desmond in the bottom of the seventh that precipitated Hammel’s removal).

Hammel’s removal did not turn the tide in Washington’s favor. With newly-recalled Jesus Flores pinch-hitting in the seventh inning against Matt Reynolds, Desmond was picked off and caught trying to steal second. And the offensive ineptitude reached its climax in the 9th inning after a leadoff single by Morse. After Werth struck out flailing wildly at a pitch in the dirt, pinch-runner Brian Bixler, seeing the ball get away briefly from catcher Chris Iannetta decided to try to scamper over to second base. Iannetta recovered the ball in plenty of time to throw out Bixler, and Ankiel’s swinging strikeout ensured that the Nats would drop back to the .500 mark entering the final weekend of the season’s first half.