Archives for posts with tag: Mike Rizzo

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For a game that celebrates its tradition, baseball has evolved quite a bit this century.  “Moneyball”.  Pitchers batting eighth. “Launch Angles”. Extreme defensive shifts.  Just when you thought you’d seen everything, the “opener” gets trotted out to the mound.  I know we’re a long ways from four-man rotations and complete games being more than a random aberration, but pitching by committee shakes the core of the game’s basic duel between one pitcher facing one batter.  Houston and the New York Yankees even went with “openers” and essentially tossed staff games Saturday in Game Six of the ALCS. However, viewers of the upcoming World Series should prepare themselves for a blast from the past.

The Nationals’ path to and through the playoffs has been marked from the start; with a rotation that boasts a guy who once struck out 20 in a game, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, a high-priced free agent, and a veteran who threw a no-hitter in his 13th career start.  “You know I’ve said this all year. Our starting pitching was the key. They’ve kept us in every ball game this year and they’ve done it all playoffs,” Manager Davey Martinez said. ” It’s nice to go out there with a Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Sanchez, Corbin. These guys are a big reason why we’re here.”  Simply put:  starting pitching is the bedrock of this team.

The rotation’s 3.53 ERA ranked second best in the majors during the regular season, the same case as with its 1,010 strikeouts thrown and 938.2 innings pitched.  “They don’t give anything away and I think that’s what makes them really special. No matter the situation, no matter how many people are on, what the score is, they don’t give in,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “They continue to stick to their gameplan and use the preparation to make the best decisions and the best pitches they can.”

Four arms featuring four different approaches.  Just like the compass has four points, the Nationals rotation comes at you from four completely different directions-with four completely different personalities.

Do you want high heat?  Max Scherzer throws 48% fastballs (according to baseballsavant.mlb.com) and his preferred pitch averages 95 miles per hour.  His personality is rather easy for to describe. “Max IS Mad Max,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said.  The three-time Cy Young Award winner was steamrolling his way to a fourth Cy this summer when a back injury sidelined the right-hander for over a month.  What followed was the strangest rehab stints of recent memory:  two four-inning outings while continuing to ramp up, before finally tossing 100+ pitches in his final two September starts. “We’re at the point of the season where there’ no room for error. I cannot get hurt,” Scherzer said in August. “That’s why I’m going out there pitching under control. I’m not going to put my body in jeopardy.”  After allowing an two-run homer in the first inning of the Wild Card Game, Scherzer has resembled the pitcher who went 6-0 in June, winning his NLDS and NLCS starts.  He also tossed an inning of relief in Game two against the Dodgers.

First Intermission- while Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin have each taken turns coming out of the bullpen this month, they’ve shined as starters in the postseason with Sanchez.  The quartet has tossed 88 strikeouts over 61.2 innings as starters, posting an ERA of 2.04 over the ten-game run.  “When you try and figure baseball out, it kind of goes back to starting pitching. Always been the key,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “There’s been some teams that have been successful without it, but for us it’s always been the backbone of our team.”

Looking for something a little offspeed? Stephen Strasburg’s bread and butter is his curveball (31%) and change-up (21%).  “I think my change-up’s really evolved over the years,” Strasburg said. “When I first started my pro career it was a pitch I threw like once or twice a game. Over the years it’s turned into a weapon.” He’s not completely abandoning his fastball (28%), but the 30-year old altered his winter regime and that helped lead to setting career highs with 18 wins and 251 strikeouts in 2019.  “I obviously worked really hard last offseason;  I wasn’t really satisfied with how last season ended up,” Strasburg “I think it’s just part of the process…learning how to take care of your body better.”  How does Suzuki see Strasburg?  “Silent assassin for Stras for sure,” the catcher said.  Alliteration aside, Stras is 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA over three starts and a season-saving relief appearance.

Second Intermission- General Manager Mike Rizzo was the Director of Souting Operations with the Arizona Diamondbacks when they won the 2001 World Series behind the arms of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.  This year he’s built a rotation that not only produces on the field, but also pushes one another in the clubhouse.  “First of all you’ve got some talented, talented guys who are taking the mound for us. Yeah, they’re all competitors-they all want to one-up each other,” Rizzo said. “I think it’s healthy competition and when you get guys that are in that kind of rhythm and on that kind of roll it’s fun to watch.”

Wary of the slider and sinker combo?  Patrick Corbin (38% and 33%) is just what the doctor ordered.  One of the reasons he came to DC via Free Agency last winter was the chance to be a part of this staff. “When you have starting pitching that can go out there and pitch deep into ballgames and keep us close with the offense we do have with some veterans and young guys,” Corbin said. “It seemed like a good fit: a team that wanted to win and had the guys here to win.”  He had no issues fitting in, finishing strong with a 14-7 mark that included going 4-1 in September.  “Patty Ice–he’s cool, calm and collected,”  is how Suzuki describes Corbin.  The left-hander appreciates collecting input from the rest of the rotation. “Everyone’s been around for a little bit now and has seen pretty much everybody in the league.  When one guy’s out there pitching, the other guys are just communicating and talking with each other,” Corbin said. “I think what’s good is no one’s really selfish: we’re all rooting for each other and if anything can help it’ll be great for the team.”

Third Intermission- While the rotation is succeeding in 2019, they’re also helping lay the groundwork for the future.  Young pitchers like Erik Fedde have the chance to watch and learn from the four.  “Very very lucky to be a part of this. All four of them kind of go about in a different way,” Fedde said. “Anibal and Scherzer–you probably couldn’t have two more opposite guys and yet both still so effective. It’s good as a young guy just to be able to watch that and pick up small things from each of them and create my own personality.”

How about a seven-pitch buffet?  Anibal Sanchez empties the tank when it comes to variety:  while the majority of his pitches are fastballs (30% four-seam and 24% split-finger), the 35-year old also uses a sinker, curveball, change-up and slider.  The veteran also brings an infectious enthusiasm to the team. “Happy go lucky and nothing really fazes this guy,” Suzuki said. “He’s always happy, keeps the clubhouse loose and he has fun.”  After starting 0-6 with an ERA of 5.10, a stint on the Injured List set the veteran straight: he went 11-2 with an ERA of 3.42 after coming back in late-May.  He also set the tone in the NLCS by tossing 7.2 scoreless innings in the Game One shutout of St. Louis.

A catcher is part-planner, part-psychologist.  Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes signed with the Nationals this past offseason to help the quartet navigate their way through batting orders, slumps, bumps and bruises and long seasons.  They couldn’t ask for a more diverse–or more professional group.  “They’re all good and they have their own quirks about them,” Suzuki said. “They go about their business the right way–they’re pros and the bottom line is they know how to get the job done. That’s what sets them apart from a lot of guys.”

The Nationals’ four arms will have their work cut out for them in the World Series. Houston’s trio of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke has 77 strikeouts over 62 playoff innings, posting a combined ERA of 3.04 against American League hitting (as in a DH instead of a pitcher).  But reliever Daniel Hudson is confident, as the mid-season pickup has had a front row seat  “Those guys have gone out just about every time since I’ve been here and pretty much do what they do,” Hudson said. “To be able to come in and jump in and watch it from here instead of somewhere else has been a pretty special experience.”  Four points of the compass, looking to point the Washington Nationals towards a first-ever World Championship.

 

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Autumn in Washington can come at you fast.  Didn’t we just have a week of 90-degree weather?  You blink and all of a sudden you’re looking for the lining in your coats you removed in April and breaking out the scarf and gloves.  Baseball’s playoffs are just as abrupt, as teams gearing up for a long postseason run all of a sudden are packing up their gear after a Game Five loss.

Ryan Zimmerman is deep into the autumn of his career, one that spans the entirety of the Washington Nationals’ stay in DC.  The teams initial first round pick in 2005 was a September call-up during the tail-end of the Nats’ inaugural season at RFK Stadium.  He shined the following season as an everyday player, finishing second in the NL Rookie of the Year race (to Hanley Ramirez, for those curious).  Zimmerman topped that off by hitting a walk-off home run in the first regular season game at Nationals Park the next March.

The problem was, there wasn’t a lot of talent around Zimmerman at the time. It was an era of bad baserunning and dismal defense, misspelled uniforms and exploding sausage sandwiches in the skies (true story).  But the team was building for something special, and Ryan Zimmerman was their cornerstone. “He hasn’t changed since I saw him at the University of Virginia. He’s a pro’s pro–and one of the great players that I’ve ever scouted,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “A guy that’s really given his all to the Washington Nationals.  Physically, mentally and in the community he’s been terrific.  He’s the face of the franchise for a reason.”

The “face of the franchise” carries with it a ton of weight on the field and in the clubhouse.  Production at the plate and making great plays in the field are tangible skills one can easily see;  being the leader Zimmerman has been for the bulk of his career is not. But his teammates know and appreciate what Zim has done and continues to do on a daily basis. “He’s just an ultimate professional. A guy that goes out and puts his all into it-even banged up whatever it might be,” Adam Eaton said. “Speaks highly of everybody. Somebody that you would follow into battle type of guy.  There’s a reason he’s been the face of the organization for as long as he has been.”

That means being the go-to quote in the clubhouse when it’s not apparent who’s had a big game; it also means being the guy who the young players look up to in the clubhouse as they try to navigate their way through the early stages of their careers.  Zimmerman has been that kind of teammate; reliever Sean Doolittle played with him in college. “When I was a freshman at Virginia and he was a junior, he was one of the top prospects in all of college baseball,” Doolittle said. “And I got to watch the way he handled that pressure in that the microscope and go about about his business every day and was an awesome mentor to me.”

Being “the guy” for so long means building friendships with teammates that may spend half a season or half a decade in DC.  And Zimmerman knows that while the 2019 Nationals are the team that finally won a playoff series, this World Series appearance also belongs to the Jayson Werths and Adam Laroches.  “It’s definitely a culmination of a lot of guys that have been here,” Zimmerman said.”We’ve had some chances and haven’t come through, but they say you learn from your failures.  All of those guys that were on those teams are part of this tonight even though they’re not here.”

Baseball can be cruelly ironic.  Just when the Nationals were beginning to be competitive, Zimmerman started dealing with a laundry list of injuries.  Shoulder issues eventually moved the Gold Glove-winner across the infield to first base.  Seasons have been hijacked due to an abdominal strain and an oblique injury.  This year Zimmerman played just 52 games (fewest since his September call-up in 2005) while dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.  He finally returned on September first with the rest of the 40-man roster expansion.  After hitting .283 over 53 at bats in the season’s final month, Zimmerman was no guarantee to be a fixture in the lineup.  Matt Adams offered more power (20 homers) while Howie Kendrick was hitting a career-high .344.  Kendrick likely had to play first because second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera was coming off of a 21-RBI September.  The Kendrick-Cabrera combination at first and second base started the Wild Card Game.  “I played with him in 2014 here,” Cabrera said. “He was one of the best teammates, he’s a professional outside (of) and on the field. You want to do everything that is possible to do the best for the team and him.”

Autumn weather can defy explanation though;  it’s not as much of a straight line straight line between the seasons as it is an eventual progression from summer to winter.  And this October Zimmerman has turned back the hands of the clock, hitting .290 with a homer and five RBI over nine games.  His biggest hit was that broken-bat (more of a splintered or shattered bat) single in the Wild Card Game that set up Juan Soto’s go-ahead single in the eighth inning.  “What he’s doing now does not surprise me one bit.” Manager Davey Martinez said. “The biggest thing for him was his health. If you get a healthy Ryan Zimmerman, the product on the field speaks for itself.”

Somehow from the ashes of a 19-31 season this team surged and then scraped its way into the playoffs.  Somehow from 3-0 deficits in the Wild Card Game and Game Five of the NLDS the Nationals found a way to be the team still standing when the final out was secured (a fly-out to centerfield in both cases, just like the NLCS).  And somehow Ryan Zimmerman gets to enjoy being a key part of one historic run.  “Now to share a clubhouse with him again it’s been really special,” Doolittle said. “I’m really happy for him as somebody who’s been here from the beginning of this version of Washington baseball.”

How long will Zimmerman’s extended autumn last?  The 35-year old is in the final year of the contract extension signed way back in February, 2012.  There’s a club option for 2020 worth $18 million (his salary the last two years), or the team can buy out the deal for $2 million.  To say it’s extremely likely the Nationals will take the buyout route would be a major understatement.  But to also say that the veteran wants to come back and play his final days in Washington, even at a reduced rate and playing time, is also a major understatement.  This has become home for the Virginia Beach native and his family, and the only major league home he’s known. “Playing in the big leagues for this long you consider yourself lucky,” Zimmerman said. “To be able to do it with one team and one organization. Being involved in the community and have friends that I’ve met that I’ll be friends with far longer than I’ll play baseball.  It’s a pretty cool situation.”  He has at least four more games before those decisions need to be made, but the face of the franchise hopes to be safe at home here in Washington for 2020.

The Nationals are headed to baseball’s final four for the first time since they were the Montreal Expos and needed a strike-shortened split-season to make the playoffs.  Their thrilling 7-3 tenth inning win at the Los Angeles Dodgers sends them straight to St. Louis for Friday’s Game One of the League Championship Series.  How did they get this far?  And can they make the next leap forward into the Fall Classic?

Hot Bats: Anthony Rendon is hitting .350 in the postseason, scoring a team-high six runs over six games while driving in five.  His solo homer in the eighth inning off of Clayton Kershaw got the rally in full gear.  Juan Soto has a pair of homers and six RBI, while delivering the go-ahead hit in the Wild Card Game.  And Howie Kendrick smacked the extra-inning grandslam that gave the Nats the lead and eventually the series against the Dodgers.

Cool on the Mound:  Stephen Strasburg is 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA in the playoffs, posting 21 strikeouts over 15 innings (including his relief turn in the Wild Card Game).  Max Scherzer has been a bulldog, striking out 16 over 13 frames (including a 14-pitch tour de force in the Game Two win).  Daniel Hudson has tossed 3.2 scoreless innings over four games, while earning two saves.  Sean Doolittle nailed down the 10th inning in LA.

Stats vs. St. Louis:  Howie Kendrick went 11-22 against the Cardinals this year, while Victor Robles led the Nats with three runs and four RBI.  The table-setters? Trea Turner & Adam Eaton combined to hit 9-44 (.204), while the meat of the order Anthony Rendon & Juan Soto batted 5-29 (.172) against St. Louis this season.  The second-best bat on the team this year belonged to Yan Gomes (.429), who’s currently hitting 1-6 in the playoffs but pending on Kurt Suzuki’s wrist and face may see more action than originally intended.

Conquering Cardinals:  St. Louis used a second half surge to take the NL Central, snagging the division lead for good on August 23.  They also took five of seven from the Nats:  two of three at home in September and three of four in DC during the Nationals’ injury-ravaged April (I want to say a hot dog vendor may have pitched relief).  They’re just as resilient in the postseason as the Nats, needing an extra-inning victory to force a Game Five before blowing Atlanta out.

Birds to Beware:  the numbers might be skewed a tiny bit because of the 13 runs put on the board against the Braves Wednesday.  Paul Goldschmidt and Marcel Ozuna are both hitting .429 in the playoffs, and Ozuna drove in a team-high seven runs against the Nats during the regular season.  Adam Wainwright went 2-0 with an ERA of 1.35, while Game One starter Mike Mikolas struck out eight while allowing three runs over 12 innings against the Nationals this year.

Anibal Sanchez starts Game One;  the right-hander struck out nine over five innings of one-run ball in Game Three of the NLDS.  He lost his lone regular season start to the Cardinals, but that was in April when he was off to an 0-6 start.  That was when this team was 12 games under .500;  they’re now four wins away from the franchise’s first-ever World Series appearance.