Monday, April 02, 2007

A Longggggg Season Ahead for the Nationals -- I'm back from the first and last opening day game at RFK, and I can report that the Nats are not quite yet even a work in progress. They do have two excellent young players in Ryan Zimmerman (one of the best at his position already) and Austin Kearns. Zimmerman had a good day at the plate, and in the field. Dmitri Young made his Nationals debut as a fill-in for the injured Nick Johnson. With two doubles on well-driven smashes, it's clear that Young still swings a mighty bat. I can't say much else good about the Nationals -- at least not today.

With respect to the rest of the lineup: when they made contact, they did not hit the ball well or hard. Weak flies and weak grounders all around. Ryan Church seemed determined to walk his way on to the bases, swinging only when he had to do so. He did manage a pair of walks, but he did not look like a confident major league hitter. Church wasn't the only National who looked overmatched by the Marlins' pitching.

I had some hopes for Cristian Guzman (even wore a jersey with his name on the back). Guzman was called an "all-star" by the Nats' hitting coach, who praised the way Guzman hit during the spring. He said it was "no fluke." Well, it's not spring training anymore. "Fluke" or not, Guzman looked overmatched at the plate. He came out after a timid, almost accidental swing and groundout in the fifth inning. I'm not sure if Guzman hurt himself on the swing, or running, or whether he was mercifully benched by Manager Manny Acta. The Post reports Guzman had a hamstring strain -- but the boo-birds were raining down on Guzman again. Right from the start of the season. Could be a long, unpleasant year for him, if he hits as he did in 2005, instead of the way he hit this Spring, in Florida.

In the field, Zimmerman continues to amaze. Two highlight reel plays -- After he slipped down fielding a ball by the mound, he threw the runner out at first, while lying on his back. The second play was a great catch over the railing in foul territory. Nook Logan also made a great play tracking down a long drive at the wall, but he hurt his foot crashing into the fence. Not clear when we might see Logan again -- early reports are that x-rays were negative, but it looked like he might need a week or two at least, to recover. This might mean a quick recall from the minors for Kory Casto.

As bad as the hitting was, the pitching was worse. John Patterson (didn't even make it out of the fourth innning) and Micah Bowie were both hit hard. Levale Speigner walked three batters in one inning, including one with the bases loaded. Only Jesus Colome impressed for the Nationals, as he closed out a miserable 9-2 drubbing.

There will be some better days than this, but the Nats showed the gap between them and teams like the Marlins. I might add that I think the Marlins are a terrific team. They have been overlooked, undeservedly, in all the preseason discussion about the Mets and Braves. Even the Phillies have gotten more respect and attention than the Marlins -- also undeservedly. The Marlins pitching may prove to be a little shaky, but they have a lineup that can flat out hit the ball. They may have discovered a gem in rookie center fielder Alejandro De Aza, who can fly and drive the ball a long way. Second-year player Dan Uggla may have dispelled fears of a sophomore slump when he crushed a ball to the upper deck in left-center field. Probably the longest shot I've seen in RFK. And Miguel Cabrera showed why he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Albert Pujols when discussing the most feared hitters in baseball.

There were two teams on the field today. One is a real major league club -- probably even a pennant contender. The other is a real pretender -- with a few exceptions, the Nationals are a Triple-A club playing in the big leagues. And it really showed today. Today's loss in the opener means the Nats are likely to be cellar-dwellers from start to finish. A long season, indeed.

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