Everybody gets hurt in baseball.  But not all injuries are created equally.  If the Nats were 5-15 when Adam Eaton went down with the knee injury or if the offseason acquisition were hitting .143 at the time, there’d be no continual jab to the ribs every time one saw Brian Goodwin leading off.  If Jayson Werth hadn’t shown signs of life last year when moved to the #2 spot in the order, his absence over the last month would just de liver shrugs.  If Trea Turner hadn’t been setting the basepaths on fire the month he got hurt (22 of his 35 stolen bases came in June) it would be just another second-year player missing time.  If this were the first time we’ve seen concern over Stephen Strasburg, we’d treat his shortened start with the “isolated incident” mindset.  Instead, this is a team with October dreams where every bump and bruise has an impact not necessarily now but in an NLDS this team has never won.  You think these injuries hurt now?

Digesting the Division- so despite all of the issues, injuries and ineffectiveness the Nats have won 8 of 10 to extend their lead over Atlanta to a dozen games.  Do we dare start the magic number count?  It’s 53 for those scoring at home.

Last Week’s Heroes- Bryce Harper hit .476 while scoring 7 runs and driving in 6…even with plans B and C hitting ahead of him in the lineup.  Adam Lind made the most of his limited time, notching 5 hits in 9 at-bats.  Edwin Jackson turned back the clock to 2012 by scattering 3 hits over 7 innings in his 2017 debut with the team. Tanner Roark bounced back from a rough patch by striking out 11 over 7 innings in a win.  Relievers Matt Albers and Ryan Madson combined to toss 5 and a third scoreless innings over 5 games.

Last Week’s Humbled- reserves Chris Heisey, Ryan Raburn and Stephen Drew combined to tally 4 hits in 35 at-bats.  Max Scherzer allowed 3 homers in the first inning against the very team that drafted him in 2006 (Arizona) while Gio Gonzalez had a rough outing as well.  Joe Blanton’s 11.57 ERA for the week over four outings has the strange sense of deja vu.

Game to Watch- Wildcard leading Colorado comes to DC this week…giving fans three chances to see the Rockies.  Antonio Senzatela (10-3 but with an ERA over 4) starts the series finale Sunday.  Will we get the good Gio, the bad Gonzalez or simply the snakebitten one?

Game to Miss- originally the series with Milwaukee was going to be a “duel of division leaders”. Now it’s a matchup against a team that trails the Cubs by percentage points in the NL Central.  The Thursday finale sends Tanner Roark to the hill at 12:05 PM.  I’m all for getaway days…but 12:05 in July is more like a sweat-away day.

The storyline of the first half of the Nationals season was three-fold:  explosive offense, solid starting pitching and a flammable bullpen.  One weekend after the All Star Break, little has changed.  The offense pounded out 29 runs (even though Joe Ross is on the DL and headed for Tommy John Surgery instead of on the mound), the starting pitchers tossed 20 and a third scoreless innings while the bullpen notched an ERA of 9.95.  Will the trade for Oakland relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle do something to patch up what’s been a leaky hull (5.31 ERA, worst in the Majors) all season?  If nothing else, it removes Blake Treinen from the equation:  the 6-foot-5 right-hander began the year as the team’s closer but wound up sporting a pre-All Star Break ERA of 5.73.  He’d been more “Blaze” than Blake over the last month. 

Dissecting the Division- pesky Atlanta (nine and a half games back) keeps pace by sweeping their weekend as well, and with Freddie Freeman back in the lineup the Braves could make a run at the postseason.  At least their pitching is consistent–meaning the starter’s ERA ranks 19th in the big leagues and their reliever’s ERA is 20th.  The Nats have six more games against Atlanta this season–all in September.

O’s Woes- the only thing worse than a leaky bullpen is a razed rotation.  After entering the All Star Break on a two-game winning streak, the Orioles proceeded to get swept at home by the defending champion Chicago Cubs.  Pitching was porous:  the starters allowed 21 runs over 11 and a third innings (16.68 ERA).  Some storylines never change. The New York Yankees currently own the final playoff spot in the American League at 47-43…a pace of 85 wins over the full season.  In order to catch them, the O’s would have to finish 43-28.  The team may say they’re buyers as the trading deadline looms…but you have to think they’re going to auction off some pieces for prospects.

Last Week’s Heroes- Anthony Rendon hit .636 with 3 homers and 9 RBI.  Granted, three games is a small sample size but WOW.  Daniel Murphy hit .625 with 7 RBI…while Murph and Bryce Harper both homered twice over the weekend.  Gio Gonzalez tossed 8 and a third scoreless innings while Max Scherzer struck out ten in his start and Tanner Roark had a solid outing for his first win since June 4th.

Last Week’s Humbled- Brian Goodwin went 2-for-13 over the weekend (.077) with 2 walks and 5 strikeouts…not what you want to see from your leadoff hitter but repeat after me, “it’s a small sample size”.  Relievers Trevor Gott (5 earned runs in one inning) and Austin Adams (2 runs allowed without recording an out) may have small sample sizes, but anytime you’re a pitcher who wears a number in the 60’s or 70’s it can’t be good.

Game to Watch- Sunday Stephen Strasburg (9-3, 3.43 ERA) pitches in Arizona against Robbie Ray.  Despite having two first names, the Diamondbacks pitcher is 8-4 with an ERA of 2.97.  He’s also a former Nats farmhand…having been sent to Detroit in the Doug Fister deal.

Game to Miss- Wednesday night the Nats wrap up their series with the Los Angeles Angels as Gio Gonzalez pitches against Ricky Nolasco (4-10, 4.82 ERA).  It’s a 10pm start… meaning you’re likely going to bed after golf’s British Open (or as they insist, “The Open Championship”) tees off.  Golf’s oldest major wins the tiebreaker here.

 

Out of the pool, kids!  The midsummer hiatus has the Nats atop the NL East with plenty of causes for confidence and concern.  By splitting their series with Atlanta, Bryce Harper and company enter the hiatus nine and a half games ahead of the pack.  They’ve been playing tag with the “16 games over .500 mark” since June 5th…and likely have their fourth busy October in six years on the horizon.  Who wants to trade a reliever?

Dissecting the Division- the Nats lead Atlanta by nine and a half games…while Miami and the New York Mets are both double digits off the pace and Philadelphia owns the worst record in the majors.  All four teams bring negative run differentials to the table…and while the Phillies (29th in scoring and 21st in ERA) seem incapable of a second-half run (they’d need to finish 60-15 to catch a Nats team going .500 the rest of the way) it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see the Braves, Mets or Marlins making a move.  Stop laughing.   Atlanta now has Freddie Freeman back in the lineup;  he’ll boost an offense ranking 23rd in slugging while a rotation that has the fifth most quality starts in the majors (Nats are #1) becomes all the more important in the dog days of summer.  The Marlins boast the 4th best batting average in MLB while their pitchers allow the 9th lowest batting average in the bigs.  Unfortunately Miami’s rotation is one of the worst in the bigs (fewest quality starts).  The Mets?  They can’t stop anybody from scoring (28th in ERA, 27th in batting average and 21st in quality starts).  Barring a major collapse by the Nats, the NL East is theirs whether they want it or not.

O’s Woes- the Birds enter the break winners of two straight but still four games under .500.  But they own the fifth worst run differential in the majors and have the worst ERA in the bigs.  How soon will General Manager Dan Duquette enter “sell” mode?  July 31st is less than three weeks away.

Last Week’s Heroes- Wilmer Difo hit .571 with an OPS OF 1.310…while Daniel Murphy hit .435 with 9 RBI.  Joe Blanton and Blake Treinen pitched in a combined seven games and did not allow a run.  Who are those guys?

Last Week’s Humbled- Adam Lind hit .083 while catchers Matt Wieters and Jose Lobaton combined to bat 3-for-19.  Stephen Strasburg had a short outing against Atlanta.  Relievers Oliver Perez and Sammy Solis both posted double-digit ERAs.  Now that’s the bullpen I’ve grown accustomed to…

Game to Watch-  Friday the Nats return from the break at Cincinnati. Who’s ready for the ramping up to the trade deadline?

Game to Miss- Sunday they wrap up their series with the Reds.  I’ll be watching Wimbledon. 

 

 

 

The Nationals played the Chicago Cubs in a four game series last week that while not being a duel of division leaders could serve as a potential playoff preview (even though the Cubs have been playing tag with .500 this year they’re just two games out of first place in the Central).  And while they split with the defending World Series champs, the series caused more concern than confidence.  While they won handily in the middle two games (by a combined 14-5 score) the Nats bookended the series with a pair of 5-4 losses.  Defeats where they failed to execute the little things (errors one night, a bullpen blowup another).  October baseball magnifies all of the little things…and with a chance to show the world they could execute on all cylinders the Nats came up short.

Plan C- so much for Trea Turner lighting up the basepaths this summer.  Before suffering a non-displaced fracture in his right wrist, the Nats shortstop was tops in the Majors with 35 steals (22 of them coming in June).  The offensive engine will now be on its third sparkplug this season (remember Adam Eaton?) and while Brian Goodwin and Michael A. Taylor have had their moments this year neither is what Turner was.  See you in September…

All Star Central- I know the midsummer classic doesn’t drop by the district until next year, but the Nats are sending five to Miami.  Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy were each voted as starters by the fans.  Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg make the roster as well…while Anthony Rendon is one of the five NL finalists for the final roster spot.  Vote early and often.

Dissecting the Division- is anyone worried about Atlanta?  The Braves have inched a little closer by winning 11 of 15…and now stand seven and a half games back in second place.  All this while ranking 18th in the majors in runs scored and 20th in ERA.  With Freddie Freeman on the shelf due to injury.  Just like the Nats regained their mojo a few weeks ago by taking three of four from the Mets, they can kick the Braves back into the land of non-contention this week during their four game series in DC.

O’s Woes- after taking four of six from Tampa Bay and Toronto on the road, the Birds dropped two of three to the Rays at Camden Yards over the weekend.  Halfway through the season the team is 40-41…and closer to last place in the AL East than a playoff spot.  Seven games on the road take manager Buck Showalter’s team into the All Star Break;  Milwaukee leads the NL Central while Minnesota’s only three games back in the AL Central.  There’s been plenty of talk about if the O’s are buyers or sellers as the trading deadline approaches.  This week could go a long ways toward determining their status.

Last Week’s Heroes- we’re here to praise Trea Turner, not to bury him.  The sparkplug hit .429 and stole 7 bases before his injury.  Bryce Harper homered twice in prime time Sunday (helping avert a sweep in St. Louis) and hit .346.  Max Scherzer went 2-0 with an ERA of 0.69, striking out 18 over 13 innings.  Gio Gonzalez was almost as impressive, posting an ERA of 1.38 over two starts with 17 strikeouts over 13 frames.

Last Week’s Humbled- Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Wieters each hit .167.  Tanner Roark’s June swoon ends with a three-inning effort (he went 1-4 this month with an 8.31 ERA) where he allowed three earned runs.  Relievers Blake Treinen, Jacob Turner and Matt Grace each had ERA’s of 10+.

Game to Watch- Friday Max Scherzer starts against Atlanta’s ageless R.A. Dickey.  Every Max start is must-watch.  And you can’t beat a July Friday night in DC.

Game to Miss- Tuesday Joe Ross pitches against the Mets’ Seth Lugo.  It’s an 11:05 AM start.  Go to the pool…

I don’t know if Joe Ross gambles at the MGM Casino in the National Harbor, but if he does I want a seat next to him at the blackjack table.  The Nationals have scored 104 runs over his ten starts this year…with Saturday’s 18-run explosion the latest incident of sitting in the right seat at the table.  Ross is off to a 4-3 start with a 5.40 ERA and although he’s bounced back from an awful April (7.47 in the season’s first month), the Nats’ number five starter continues to enjoy a charmed life.  I’m surprised the National League hasn’t tried to change dealers or cards, or heaven forbid bring William H. Macy over to sit on Joe’s shoulder.  As the Nats own a commanding NL Central lead, one of the fun features of the long summer ahead will be watching Ross split aces and eights as well as double down when the dealer shows 5.  Deal me in…

Dissecting the Division- surging Atlanta moves within nine games of the Nats, thanks to an offense that ranks 5th in the Major Leagues in hitting.  Problem is, the Braves pitching is in the bottom third of the big leagues in most major categories and summers in Atlanta aren’t kind to porous pitching.

O’s Woes- at least they stopped allowing 5 runs in a game (after 20 such games).  And at least the Birds took two of three from AL East foe Tampa Bay (you can call them Rays, but ya doesn’t have to call them consistent).  The fact that the Orioles remain on the fringe of contention despite owning the fifth worst run differential in the Major Leagues is a testament to Manager Buck Showalter’s bunch being able to do the little things right when the opportunity arises.  Unfortunately, when you allow 6 runs in the first inning a lot of the little things go out the window.

Last Week’s Heroes- Michael A. Taylor homered three times and Daniel Murphy drove in eight runs, but the emergence of Brian Goodwin as a capable bat in leftfield and in the #2 spot of the lineup was huge.  With Jayson Werth out…the order can ill afford a dead spot before the likes of Harper, Zimmerman and Murphy.  When Werth returns, perhaps we’ll get a chance to see Goodwin stay in the lineup (filling in for Taylor as well in center) against select righties.  Gio Gonzalez struck out eight over seven innings in his lone start of the week…and is off to his best season since 2012 when he won 21 games.

Last Week’s Humbled- catchers Matt Wieters and Jose Lobaton combined to hit 3-for-23 with 7 strikeouts.  The usual rock-solid rotation hit a couple of bumps:  Stephen Strasburg wilted in the heat (5 runs allowed on 8 hits over 5 innings) while Tanner Roark allowed 12 runs over 8.2 innings in his 2 starts.  Max Scherzer had the most humbling outing:  within 5 outs of a no-hitter Scherzer allowed a single off of his glove before an error at first allowed the inning to survive.  A hit batter, a wild pitch and another single turned Max from making history to suffering a loss.

Game to Watch- Tuesday Max Scherzer returns to the mound to face the Cubs and duel with Jake Arrieta (7-5, 4.36 ERA).  Despite his defeat last Thursday in Miami, Max is having special outings every time he steps on the field.  Despite a 2-1 mark this month, Arrieta has not won consecutive starts since April.  The June heat may provide a couple more assists.

Game to Miss- Friday the Nats begin a series in St. Louis (Cardinals are in fourth place) and Tanner Roark pitches against Mike Leake.  Roark’s ERA this month is 8.23 as every outing is an adventure while Leake is sub-500 on the season.  Friday night in June?  Enjoy the Waterfront at Tony & Joes.

We don’t often have Christmas in June, but the local NBA team delivered just that.  The Wizards traded their second round pick to New Orleans for Pelicans guard Tim Frazier.  The Penn State product fills a major need for the Wiz as he’ll be expected to back up John Wall;  Frazier averaged 7 points and 5 assists over 24 minutes per game last season.  If there was one deficiency with this 49-win team that screamed over all of the others, it was the second unit.  And second unit efficiency begins with a productive point guard.

What’s also nice is we won’t have to see which player they’ll take in the second round.  Since Ernie Grunfeld came on board over a decade ago.  The Witness Protection Progam should envy the Wizards’ second round success…although there aren’t a lot of players who stick in the NBA once you get to pick #45.

Here’s a glimpse at what the Wizards have wrought over this decade…:

2016- nothing.  The first rounder was dealt for Markieff Morris and the second rounder went towards bringing Kelly Oubre Jr. to DC. Two pieces that are much more promising than Georgios Papagiannis (the Suns’ pick) and Isaia Cordinier (Atlanta’s selection).  The only rookie worth mentioning this past winter was Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon, selected by Milwaukee with the 36th choice.

2015- forward Jerian Grant (Notre Dame) in the first round, forward Aaron White (Iowa) in the second.  Grant was dealt to Atlanta as part of the Oubre deal and is now with Chicago (averaging 17 minutes per game last season).  White has yet to play a minute in the league and the 11 players picked below him have played a combined six games in the NBA.

2014- the first rounder went to Phoenix as part of the deal that delivered Marcin Gortat. The Suns took Tyler Ennis with that selection–and the guard has been traded three times in three seasons as a pro.  The second round saw the Wiz take Jordan Clarkson (forward, Missouri) with the 46th overall selection…and then trade the combo guard to the Lakers for cash considerations.  Clarkson is one of the more productive players from that draft, averaging 14 points over 70 plus games for LA in the last three years.  Nobody taken after Clarkson has seen a third year in the NBA.

2013- Georgetown forward Otto Porter went third overall and is one of the ten most productive players from that draft (according to “win shares” on basketball-reference.com).  Question is, can they sign the forward this summer?  Both second round picks were traded to Philadelphia that night:  South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters (38th selection) played 79 games in the NBA and spent this past season playing pro ball in Belgrade (Serbia) while Oregon forward Arsalan Kazemi didn’t play a regular season minute in the league.  That’s life after the early second round-only three players picked after Wolters reached a fourth year in the NBA.

2012- Florida forward Bradley Beal went third overall and has more than answered expectations during his five years with the team. Tomas Satoransky from the Czech Republic was taken 32nd overall…and averaged 13 minutes over 57 games this past winter in his first season with the team.  Time to hide your eyes:  Jae Crowder, Draymond Green and Khris Middleton were picked 34th, 35th and 39th that year.

2011- Jan Vesely.  With the sixth pick.  The Czech Republic forward voraciously made out with his girlfriend on draft night…and that was the highlight of his tenure in DC. Vesely averaged 4 points and 4 rebounds per game over two years with the team…and saw his NBA career end in 2014 with Denver.  Who did they miss out on? Kemba Walker (9th) and Klay Thompson (11th) would have looked nice not making out with their girlfriends and even nicer in the red, white and blue.  Florida State forward Chris Singleton seemed to be a decent pick at #18…but the Seminole washed out of the league after three years at 4 points per game.  Available? Tobias Harris (#19) and Jimmy Butler (#30).  The Wizard took Shelvin Mack with the 34th overall selection;  the Butler guard has developed into a productive pro–just not in DC.  Guards available at the time?  Forward Chandler Parsons (38th) and guard Isaiah Thomas (60th and last player selected). Ugh.

2010- Before you go off about how easy it is to get the #1 pick right, think about Kwame Brown.  Kentucky freshman guard John Wall has been the player this franchise has been built around over the last seven years, and he’s developed into one of the best point guards in the league.  Paul George may have more “win shares” and a higher “value over replacement player”, but would you rather have the guy who’s trying everything he can to get out of Indy?  The team took Marquette swingman Lazar Hayward and Serbian forward Nemanja Bjelica with the 30th and 35th overall selections…and neither would play a regular season minute with the Wiz.  Both were shipped to Minnesota for Trevor Booker and Hamady N’Diaye.  Hayward was out the of the league after three years and 72 games while Bjelica didn’t play in the NBA until the 2015-16 season with the Timberwolves;  he averaged 11 minutes per game last winter.  Only two players of significance were taken after the 35th pick:  Landry Fields (Knicks-39th) and Lance Stephenson (40th-Indiana).

So in the last seven drafts we’ve seen a couple of slam-dunks and a couple of air-balls.  So brace yourselves when selections #22 and #52 are announced…

What if?  It’s the saddest sentence in the English language that says so much yet nothing of substance at the same time.  Thirty-one years ago today Len Bias died from a drug overdose, sending his school and his future employer into separate spirals that clouded both the University of Maryland and the Boston Celtics.  Three and a half years ago I imagined what Lenny’s 50th birthday extravaganza in College Park would have been like.  It was a pleasant distraction from another 50th anniversary–the JFK assassination.  So we’re always imagining a better world.

 

NOVEMBER 18, 2013—Len Bias turns 50.

 The University of Maryland honors its Basketball Hall of Famer with a star-studded evening…almost a “This is Your Life” at the Comcast Center (popularly called the “Driesell Dome”).

Lefty Driesell’s expected to make the trip up from Virginia Beach where he’s enjoyed retirement since stepping down in 2002.  After posting 696 wins over 32 seasons as Terps coach the longtime rival of Dean Smith left the game same time his constant nemesis did (Driesell joked that “Dean was done in ’97…but only stuck around so I wouldn’t have a crack at his record”).  Although Bias didn’t lead Lefty to the Final Four, he helped set the stage for the recruiting classes that finally did in 1991.  They’d lose to to Gary Williams’ Ohio State Buckeyes;  despite the disappointment it was something special to see Williams get the most out of top recruit Jimmy Jackson.  OSU would fall to Duke in the finals that year because the Blue Devils always got the calls then but the seeds were sown for an era of Terrapin dominance in the decade of the 90’s.  Lawrence Moten arrived on campus that fall and scored over 2,000 points (try imagine the unassuming guard with high socks pulling that act in the rough and tumble Big East)… and with Joe Smith dominating inside the Terps would reach the Final Four again in 1994 and ’95.  Smith and Moten would end their careers by beating UCLA for the championship in 1995.  This allowed Lefty to finally say that Maryland was in fact the “UCLA of the East”, to the surprise of absolutely no one.

Larry Bird’s supposed to fly in from Indianapolis…his back that gave him issues in the late 80’s after the Celtics’ third championship in a row needed more surgery this past summer.  Remember Boston coach KC Jones trademarking “Boston Three Party” and making a mint off the merchandising?  Savvy move.  Kevin McHale will be in town as well;  how about when as a rookie Bias stepped into the starting lineup so McHale could fully recover from foot surgery for the playoffs?  That not only allowed the Celtics to repeat as champs in 1987 but also kept McHale in prime shape for the ’88 and ’91 title runs.  Robert Parish may bring down the house with his deadpan wit (“the closest I came to smiling was watching Lenny play”).

Michael Jordan will be on hand as well.  The duo’s rivalry defined the decade like Bird & Magic or Russell & Wilt.  Jordan’s Bulls ended the Bird era by bouncing the defending champs in 1992…and although it took a while for the “Bias Bunch” to reload they were able to keep key cogs like Rick Fox and Brian Shaw on the roster to let the new talent know what it meant to be a true Celtic.  Titles in 1996, 98 and 2000 bookended Bias’ first three championships.  The last one was especially sweet as the Celtics beat a new generation of Lakers in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant…especially with Larry Bird in the front office.  Bias probably kept Jordan from winning five or six rings.

And even though he coached a different sport, Bobby Ross will make an appearance…probably to bask in the 25th anniversary of the National Championship team that upset Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.  When Bias left College Park, Ross was fresh off guiding the Terps to a 9-3 season (with losses to eventual #2 Michigan, #3 Penn St. and #9 Miami)…and with a supportive Athletic Department Maryland was able to take things to the next level over the next decade.  Ross finally retired after the 2000 season, handing the program to Ralph Friedgen who promptly led the Terps to another ACC Title and an Orange Bowl in his first season.

What a celebration– and what a what-if.   It’s still too soon–31 years later.