Monday, July 16, 2007

Nats' Second-Half Outlook (Why the Nats Will Win More) -- I've just returned from watching a Washington Nationals game -- their first home game since the All-Star break. This game went almost as scripted, except maybe better. The Nats ended up beating the Houston Astros, 4-3. The fun, as it always is in baseball, wasn't just in the final score, but in the getting there.

The Nats had good pitching from started Mike Bacsik, who shutout the Astros through the first five, before surrendering a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning. Saul Rivera came on to put out that fire. In the bottom of the inning, Ronnie Belliard led off with a solid single. Then, amazingly, Ryan Zimmerman bunted for a base hit. He did that a lot last year -- 11 times, I believe. I'm pretty sure this was the first time he did it successfully this year. The Nats, and the crowd, were fired up. Dmitri Young smacked a 3-run home run, to grab a 4-2 lead for the Nats. Carlos Lee did hit an upper-deck smash, off Jon Rauch, to narrow the gap. Chad Cordero came on in the ninth, to shut the door and earn the save.

Besides Zimmerman's bunt base-hit, there was another unusual moment in this game, with tremendous portent for this team. In the seventh, there was a close play at first base. Dmitri Young fielded the ball, and threw to the pitcher Rivera, who was racing to the bag. Young's throw was not the best, as he didn't lead Rivera enough, and it knocked Rivera a bit off stride. That made the play closer than it might have been. It was either a tie to the bag, or Rivera got there a fraction of a step before the runner. The umpire ruled the runner was safe.

With the crowd cheering him on, Manager Manny Acta came out of the dugout to argue the call. That's almost unprecedented for Acta, who was quoted in an article this weekend saying it doesn't make much sense to protest, because the umpire's won't change the call. Sometimes they do, but Acta's point is well-taken. That's why it was so striking to see him gesturing to the base, as he discussed the matter with the umpire. Acta wasn't incredibly demonstrative, but even this low-key approach made the fans and players take notice. The Nats came through, turning a double play to end the threat.

So, why will the Nats be better in the second half? Firstly, they couldn't ever be so bad as they were in the opening ten days of the season. Secondly, they will be a healthier team. Yes, Christian Guzman is lost for the season -- with Lopez' anemic hitting lately, that's a big blow. Still, Ronnie Belliard is doing a pretty good of hitting, and his average is now comfortably over the .300 mark. Dmitri Young is in a serious groove -- you won't see many hitters in a better groove than he has been in the last two months.

Of course, trades could muck that up, since Belliard and Young are the most likely to be moved. One would think Young has tremendous trade value, given his torrid hitting pace. Given his weak fielding, though, he's best as a DH in the American League.

The problem is that, except for the Yankees, the AL contenders are pretty well set at DH. Will the Yankees make a play for Dmitri? It's possible, but Young doesn't strike me as a Steinbrenner-type of player. Moreover, until the Nationals know whether Nick Johnson will be back this summer, they may be reluctant to trade Young. He makes the fans happy, and he's a bargain at $500,000.

Another possibility would be to see the Atlanta Braves go after Young. They need an upgrade at first base. Actually, though, the Braves have reportedly inquired about Young -- and they were scared off by the Nationals' asking price. Unless one side or the other in those talks makes a drastic change in its negotiating stance, that deal isn't going to happen.

As for Belliard, he's probably more marketable than Young, given his versatility -- but the Nats can't get the same kind of talent in exchange for Belliard, as they hope to get for Young. The Nat would be much better off keeping Belliard as their utility infielder, and I think they probably realize that, too.

Ryan Zimmerman's average and power numbers are climbing. For all the talk about how he hasn't performed up to eh standards he set last year, he's actually not so far off that pace. If his average climbs another 15 points, he'll be where he finished last year. His home run total might be similar, as he will surely hit more in the dog days of July and August than he did in the cooler months. While he might not get 110 RBIs this year, he will give it a run, and probably get 100 -- not bad considering the Nats do not score many runs.

Zimmerman's bunt single tonight is a great sign. With that threat back into the picture, he will find that some of those hard smashes to the corner infielders go for doubles, instead of the outs he's been getting. I swear Ryan Zimmerman gets called out looking at more badly called third strikes than anyone I can recall. Tonight was another instance -- with two hits already in the game, Zimmerman took a pitch for a called strike three. The pitch appeared to be about at Zimmerman's neck level. That might be an exaggeration, but the pitch was far too high to have been a legitimate strike call.

Personally, I think the home plate umpire was in a hurry to get out of the heat -- he returned the favor for the Nats, in the ninth, with a called third strike to end the game, even though the pitch appeared to be considerably outside.

In any case, as Zimmerman's average continues to climb, he will get a better strike zone. This will help Zimmerman, and it will make Young a more dangerous hitter. With Zimmerman on base more often, Young will see better pitches -- so, we can expect more extra-base hits, including home runs, out of Young, in the second half. Dmitri is a power hitter. Perhaps, not in this lineup, but as the lineup improves, so will Young's power numbers.

Adding Alex Escobar should bolster the offense. He's a terrific hitter, if he can stay healthy. I thought Escobar would play today, but I guess his arrival at RFK was put off until tomorrow. With Escobar and a hot-hitting Belliard at the top of the lineup, Zimmerman and Young will have more RBI opportunities. And. there is always the possibility that Nick Johnson will return to bring his slick glove to first base, and his consistent hitting to the middle of the Nats' order. The might even try the portly Young in the outfield for six or seven innings. As comical as that might be, the batting order would be a lot more formidable.

The pitching will be better, as well. The real strength of this staff, as advertised, is the bullpen. Cordero's early-season struggles are a distant memory. Trade Cordero? You don't trade Trevor Hoffman, when he has his best years ahead of him. Cordero is the best young closer since Hoffman. There's no way the Nats can get fair value in return -- unless they're going to get a can't-miss power-hitting prospect, or can't miss flame-throwing pitching prospect (and there really is no such thing), and I don't see that happening. Stop thinking like a small-market team. The Nats have to start acting like one of the big boys. Don't trade Cordero -- sign him to a long-term deal.

Cordero also has great set-up men, with Rivera, Rauch, and now Luis Ayala. I suspect Ayala isn't quite at full strength, but he's put up good numbers, and been effective almost every time out. Traber and Schroeder are good, and King has his moments, and his role. There are some good prospects down on the farm, too -- for late-season call-ups.

The starting rotation is going to be quite deep. Shawn Hill may return to lead the rotation next month. Sean Bergmann is already back, though not with the sharpness he had before his injury. There's no reason to think that he won't work out whatever problems he's experiencing now. If things work out as the Nats hope, we might see three pieces of the rotation of the future, as well. Ross Detwiler, John Lannan (who is astounding everyone, as he has climbed from Class-A Potomac to Triple-A Columbus, and continued to dominate) and Colin Ballester are being talked about as late season additions to the roster.

Certainly, that would be something to make September interesting for Nats' fans -- rather than just closing out the string and waiting for the last games to be played at icky old RFK. On a night when your team wins, everything seems better. I think there will be more nights like this one, in the second half.

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