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The 10 Memorable Moments of the Nats 2012 Regular Season

They’ve clinched the National League East.  God only knows what’s ahead.  But we sure know what’s behind.  One of the most interesting, historic, crazy-insane regular seasons you could imagine.   Here now, the ten most significant or just plain weird moments of the 2012 Washington Nationals most excellent campaign.  In chronological order and all in the written word:   

Bryce Harper’s 1st Game in the Big Leagues, 4/28/2012, Los Angeles, California

The One, The Kid, the Run-Until-He’s-Tagged-Measure-Testing, Laser-Throwing, Eyeblack-Oozing Baseball Cyborg* makes his 1st appearance in a major league baseball game.   The injury-racked, sputtering offense had forced Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo to call up the 19 year-old after just a brief stay in Triple A.  The teenager takes his position in Left field, looking all around the ballpark at Chavez Ravine, visibly drinking in the entire scene.  He goes 1 for 3 with a booming double, a tie-breaking sacrifice fly in the 9th and fires a throw from left field so wicked and powerful it nails the runner while the disbelieving umpire, unable to accept what his eyes have just seen, calls him safe.

*Incredibly long Bryce Harper nickname, courtesy Federal Baseball.com

Cole Hamels Hits Harper, Rookie Steals Home, 5/6/2012, Washington, D.C.

Sunday Night Baseball.  The national spotlight shines on Philadelphia Phillies lefty ace, Cole Hamels, as he faces the teenage phenom and promptly smacks him in the middle of the back with his first pitch.  Jayson Werth singles to left and Harper never stops running.  Nobody goes from 1st to 3rd with a ball hit to left.  Harper does and is now 90 feet from home.  He’d been told earlier in the game that Hamels has a slow throw to 1st when he checks runners.  He sees his opportunity.  Hamels throws lazily to 1st base for a second time.  The TV camera catches a stunned, wide-eyed look on Werth’s face.

The Kid has just stolen home.  WHAT?   He’s called safe, pops up and gives a glance at Hamels as he heads back to the dugout.  Hamels later admits he’d hit the kid on purpose as an old-school welcome to the Bigs.  Harper shows the world what he’s made of.  Don’t get mad. Get even.

Strasburg and Harper Take over Fenway Park, 6/8/2012, Boston, Massachusetts

Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, both students of the game and its history, are amped up, playing their first game at revered Fenway Park.  And the future unfolds before our very eyes.  Strasburg strikes out 13 confused Red Sox hitters.  Red Sox beat-writer, Gordon Edes says it all:

Strasburg, featuring a fastball that touched 100 mph, a changeup that violated the laws of nature and a curveball bereft of compassion, struck out seven Red Sox in a span of eight batters…

But if Strasburg (7-1) is the rainbow, then center fielder Harper is the Transit of Venus, an astronomical phenomenon that appears, oh, once a century or so. Harper homered to the right of the 420-foot triangle in center, doubled and singled, driving in three runs and scoring two, in one of the most precocious performances the 100-year-old edifice has ever seen.

Throw-Back Day and the Dancing Deer, 7/5/2012, Washington, D.C.

The San Francisco Giants and the Nationals are decked out in 1924 uni’s in a celebration of the last time a Washington baseball club won a World Series.  Matt Cain, owner of a perfect game earlier in the season, dominates the Nats taking a 5-1 lead into the 7th inning.  He gets two outs.  Then Ian Desmond homers.  Then Danny Espinosa homers.  Cain is taken out.  Lead cut to 5-3.  And then this happened in the bottom of the 9th inning, duly noted on this blog three months ago:

Three rookies up to bat, all in a row. Pinch-hitter, Tyler Moore, on the verge of striking out opens the frame with a solid double to the gap in center. Steve Lombardozzi bunts and the pitcher botches it and now it’s first and third with nobody out. The stadium is going nuts. Bryce Harper comes to the plate again. As a deafening, spontaneous chant of “Let’s go Harper” reaches its boisterous crescendo, Harper is steeped in the moment and raps a base hit- game tied 5-5.

Ryan Zimmerman is intentionally walked to load the bases and still no outs. The anticipation is as thick as the humid Washington air. Michael Morse is up but he hits a grounder and the Giants get a force at home. One out, game still tied. Adam LaRoche comes to the plate and hits a double-play grounder. They get the out at second but the shortstop sends a low throw to the Giant’s 1st baseman. It glances off his glove and wouldn’t you know it- Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old and the representative of all that is young about baseball, dashes in for the winning run.

As they celebrate LaRoche’s walk-off error, it appears the players surrounding him are running in circles doing deer imitations, waving hands over their heads to simulate antlers.  Turns out Gio Gonzalez had designed a LaRoche walk-off celebration during a long ride on the team plane.  LaRoche, an avid hunter, would launch imaginary arrows at players circling him like ripe deer.  Explaining to reporters after the game, LaRoche says he thought he bagged one just before he was tackled by teammates.

The Houston Astros: And We All Fall Down, 8/6/2012, Houston, Texas

A veritable circus of errors dooms the lowly, loveable Astros:

Nobody out, top of the 11th inning of a 4-4 game.  There’s hardly anyone in the stands because this is the Houston Astros- the worst team in baseball.  There is not a camera angle possible that doesn’t show a sea of empty seats.  It’s so quiet and dead in the stands that everyone in the stadium can hear the wailing cry of a single infant seated with its parents somewhere close to home plate.

Washington National’s centerfielder, Roger Bernadina singles to right.  And now the fun begins.   The Nationals’ new catcher, Kurt Suzuki, attempts a sacrifice bunt to try and get Bernadina to second.  Suzuki screws it up and instead of bunting on the ground, he pops the ball up. A tiny, little, baby pop-up.

Houston 1st baseman, Steve Pearce, moves toward the ball at the same time as the pitcher, Wilton Lopez.  The ball eludes them both and drops softly to the ground.  Lopez can’t seem to locate it between his legs.  Pearce literally pushes his own pitcher out of the way like a linebacker and picks up the ball.

Inexplicably, Astros 3rd baseman, Matt Downs, seemingly thinking maybe he has a play on the ball, dives over the fallen pitcher and succeeds in partially interfering with the 1st baseman’s desperate throw to 1st base.  The ball flies over the head of Houston 2nd baseman, Jose Altuve and well into right field.

Bernadina sees all the madness and takes off, easily passing 2nd base and headed to 3rd.  Houston right fielder, Brian Bogusevic sees Bernadina completely ignoring his own 3rd base coach’s pleas to stop and sprints for home.  Bogusevic’s throw is airmailed over the catcher’s head, Bernadina scores and Suzuki, who had moments ago tried to make an out by bunting the ball in the infield, is now securely at 3rd.

The Shark’s Amazing Two-out, Extra-Innings  Catch , 8/7/2012, Houston, Texas

The Nationals and the Astros had battled all night.  The Astros enter the bottom of the 12th, trailing 3-2.  MLB.com takes it from there:

Roger Bernadina glided back toward the fence, trying to make a play on a ball that would decide the game one way or the other.

Washington held a one-run lead over Houston with two runners on and two outs in the bottom of the 12th. If Bernadina catches Brett Wallace’s line drive, the Nationals win. If he can’t get there or he drops the ball, both runners could have scored and the Astros would have walked off.

He kept striding back to the corner between the bullpen fence and one of two big, green pylons. Reliever Craig Stammen stood right behind the fence, where the ball was headed, screaming, “You’ve got room! You’ve got room!”

Bernadina didn’t have much room, but he jumped toward the corner, disappearing from the sight of everyone in the Nationals’ dugout. He nabbed the ball, collapsed to the ground and held his glove high. He made the catch and saved the game, preserving Washington’s 3-2 win over Houston at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday night — the second straight four-hour, extra-inning game between these clubs.

Dancing in the Rain, 9/8/2012, Washington, D.C.

It’s the day Washington decides Stephen Strasburg is done for the season.  The Nats play a sloppy, unfocused, error-filled game. The Miami Marlins lead 6-5 as Washington goes to the bottom of the 9th.  The Baseball Gods decide it’s time for rain.  Lots and lots of rain.  After a 2-hour and 33 minute delay, Jason Werth comes to the plate and promptly launches a game-tying homerun.  In the bottom of the 10th, the Marlins use five infielders to try and escape a bases-loaded jam.  Corey Brown lofts a soft single that just eludes Miami right fielder, Giancarlo Stanton, scoring Ian Desmond with the winning run.

Gio Wins 20th Game, Celebrates with a Face Plant, 9/22/2012, Washington, D.C.

Cy Young award-contending Washington ace, Gio Gonzalez, reaches the pitching milestone but not before tripping on the mound in the middle of a pitch in the 7th inning.  The baseball flies to the backstop.  Gio lands on his face, spread-eagle on the ground, motionless for several long seconds while trainer, manager and players convene to see if he’s alright.  Turned out to be mortification not injury.  Gio gets up, his teammates laugh and he doffs his cap to the adoring crowd.  Later, Ian Desmond remarks, “A perfect 10.  I’m just glad he didn’t mess up his hair.”

Werth Gets His Philadelphia Revenge, 9/26/2012, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

From the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg:

So now we’re in the top of the ninth. The Phillies have closed within one run. The crowd is back into the game. A Nats loss here would lower their division lead to just three games. What fun for the Philadelphia crowd. The Philadelphia television broadcast is filled with audio of fans heckling Jayson Werth, especially after he walks into the on-deck circle. So he fields a foul ball, and pretends to toss it to the crowd, then thinks better of it and gives the ball to the Nats dugout.

The boos rain down. Philadelphia fans have their target for the unfairness of life’s charade, and they fill their role with gusto, in the form of saying “BOOOOO” really loud.

Werth’s take: “I was going to flip the ball. There was a group of kids. Behind the kids there were these unruly middle-aged men that to me appeared to be snarling. It’s the ninth. Who knows. I kind of got the sense that maybe they were intoxicated. I was going to flip it to the kids, and then I thought, maybe I shouldn’t, because of the people right behind the innocent little children there.”

There were only two possible things that could happen next. Werth could strike out, and the fans could celebrate, and wave their arms in triumph, and be filled with genuine feelings of joy and elation that this hairy man had been shown, had been defeated, had been denied. Or Werth could single in two runs, filling the Nats fans watching at home with similar feelings of joy and elation, that this hairy man had made up for so much past frustration and pain, had transferred those feelings to the enemy.

Werth singled.

Nats ended up winning 8-4.

Best Baseball Headline Ever: National’s Morse Hits Invisible Homerun, 9/29/2012, St. Louis, Missouri

It’s the very 1st inning in a pressure-packed game at Busch Stadium.  The bases are loaded and Michael Morse smacks a shot to Right field.  The Washington Post’s DC Sports Blog again offers a hilarious take on the MASN broadcast of the bizarre events that unfolded:

 …on Saturday night Michael Morse hit a grand slam that was called a single and then changed to a grand slam, but the umpires weren’t satisfied, so they sent everyone back to their original places, and after running the bases in reverse Morse then fake swung and hit a fake home run which Bob Carpenter fake called in his real voice.

There it goes!!” he said, as nothing happened.

“Are you kidding me?” F.P. Santangelo asked.

”Right field, it is deep!!” Carpenter continued, as no ball went into no outfield where it was not watched by any outfielder and no fans threw their hands up in frustration. “SEE. YOU. LATER. Grand Slam, the Nationals are on top by four.”

Redskins and Nationals: Crass vs Class

September 24, 2012 Leave a comment

The Redskins remind me of a 3-year old with a shiny new toy who plays with it so obsessively, the thing is broken and doesn’t work anymore after a few weeks.

It could be worst, though.  If they could figure out how to do it, RGIII would also catch passes, block and play in the secondary.

Unfortunately for the kid, he ended up with the Washington Redskins; a team that is proof that no matter what apparent good fortune has landed in their laps, crap still travels downhill, directly from owner, Daniel Snyder and the Father-Son Shanahan coaching duo.   The Rebuilding Century continues.   Except, of course, these are the Redskins.  They have nothing to rebuild with til the year after next with no 1st round draft picks next season (traded for RGIII).  They will continue to be in the 2nd year of an $18 million reduction in their salary cap for violating the NFL’s rules on signing free agents during the lock-out last year.

Last week, receiver, Josh Morgan, drew a personal foul to end the Skins chances at a comeback in St. Louis.   And this past Sunday…a late personal foul cost them again…this one apparently incurred by Redskins offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan.   Unlike Morgan who at least faced the music after the game and talked to reporters, the Redskins did not make Kyle Shanahan available to the press after the contest.  Here’s the message this sends to the team.  The players are accountable.  The coaching staff is not.

Starting at his own 2-yard line, RGIII had driven the Skins to the  Bengals 19 yard line with enough time left for several shots at the end zone.  They ended up losing 36 yards.  How do you accomplish such a thing?  Here’s how:  a 15-yard sack, a 5-yard off-sides penalty and young Kyle’s personal foul.  On their last play of the game, RG faced a 3rd and 45.

Contemplate that for a moment.  3rd and 45.

“Daddy, please don’t make me go out there and talk to those mean reporters.”

There is no doubt the Redskins picked up a franchise player in RGIII.  If he physically survives the beatings he will be taking week after week, he will have been worth every one of those #1 draft picks.   The Skins are now averaging over 30 points on offense every game.   At quarterback- mission accomplished.

I do find it striking how differently the Redskins treat their star player than, say, how the Washington Nationals protect Stephen Strasburg.  The Nationals are guarding their investment by ending his season early, convinced their long-range planning will yield a bounty of future stellar seasons from Strasburg.  The Redskins?  With the Shanahan family clinging to dear life for their jobs if they have another abysmal season- Sunday showed how much they care about RGIII.   They will keep running him out there until he ends up in the ER.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the difference between long range and short range planning, between Ted Lerner and Daniel Snyder- between class and crass.

 

 

A Football Town Becomes a Baseball Town

August 14, 2012 1 comment

Something’s seriously changing

The Washington Post had something like ten reporters covering the Redskins training camp this year.  And on the eve of the pre-season debut of RGIII, you had to work pretty hard to find any Nationals story above the fold on the Post’s sports page.

These things happen because the Redskins won a few Super Bowls a generation ago.

Meantime, on the banks of the Anacostia River, there is a baseball stadium now hosting a minimum of 30,000 fans a night and a team that is no longer a flash-in-the-pan or a charming curiosity.  It is, in fact, the most dominant team in the sport.

You see, there are three basic elements in the game of baseball; hitting, pitching and fielding.   The Washington Nationals, as homegrown a team as I can remember, have led both the American and National leagues in pitching all season.   It’s now well over a month after the All-Star break, and since the mid-season classic, no team has scored more runs than the Nationals.   So, we have offense and defense covered.   As for fielding, they rank 3rd in the NL right now.

It is expected that in a couple of weeks, the Nats will get their All-Star shortstop, Ian Desmond, back (poor things have gone 17-5 in his absence) and for the first time all year, the Nats will have their intended line-up in place.   It does not seem to matter that a dozen players have hit the disabled list this year.  They are 28 games above .500.  They are on pace to win 100 games.   They have an embarrassment of riches.

Take the San Francisco Giants, for example.  They lead the NL Western division and are not exactly chumps.  Sure, the Nats swept them in Washington earlier in the season, but it was so long ago.  According to Bay area media, there has been great anticipation about this week’s visit by the Nationals- a test of what the playoffs may hold in store.

The Nationals led 14 to 0 after five innings of the series opener.  They ended up winning 14-2.   Next up, the Giants face Jordan Zimmermann, who has been so dominant on the mound that his last performance triggered considerable Cy Young award talk around the league.  He now has the lowest ERA in all of baseball.  He can thank his teammates for that.  The San Francisco pitcher his teammates roughed up last night was the only hurler ahead of Zimmermann in ERA.  And then Wednesday, the Giants get to face Stephen Strasburg.

All of which offers some perspective on Washington’s heretofore favorite sports franchise- the Washington Redskins.   The contrast of how these two teams have been built is startling.   Over in football world, Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, has spent well over a decade bringing in a revolving door of coaches, buying splashy free agents past their prime and, until recently, ignoring the more traditional and boring aspects of team development, like stockpiling draft choices and sprinkling in a few non-splashy free agents.

Over in Nats land, they got really bad over the years in order to get really good.  They played a patient game that emphasized the basics; scouting, drafting and developing young talent.  They did sign one huge contract when they went for Phillies outfielder, Jason Werth, two years ago, but it was meant as a statement to the rest of the league.  Every now and again, in addition to developing what is now widely considered the best farm team in baseball, they showed they were willing to open their wallets and spend.

And they made a trade last year, giving up some of their hard-earned prospects for a young, proven pitcher named Gio Gonzalez who’s turning out to be having a career year and gives Washington the absolute rarity of three frontline-, #1 aces on the mound.

There is no doubt there is a sense of excitement about Robert Griffin III.  His limited play in the Washington pre-season opener showed he has great presence and patience and real talent that was only made more obvious after back-up quarterback, Rex Grossman, got into the game and stunk up the joint.  And the Skins seem to have a pretty powerful defense.  But numerous injuries along the offensive line spark questions as to how much RGIII will have to be running for his life in his rookie season.

Anyway, in this town, it’s the Redskins that have something to prove.  They come off a 5-11 season and two decades of futility since their last NFL title.  They do have a real talent at quarterback for the first time in a long, long while- but it’s early and they have accomplished nothing.

Meantime, the now universally recognized best team in baseball, keeps chugging along piling up the most wins of any team in the sport, the highest run differential, the best pitching the game has seen in decades, and led by Davey Johnson, one of the best managers in the business.

Longtime WRC-TV anchorman, Jim Vance, did a wonderful on-air commentary on this Nationals vs. Redskins business a few weeks ago.  And one of his closing lines simply cannot be improved upon.  “The ‘Skins promise.  The Nationals deliver.”

The Houston Astros: And We All Fall Down

Astros 3rd baseman, Matt Downs, inexplicably dives over his pitcher and nearly runs into teammate, Steve Pearce, as he makes an errant throw to 1st that leads to an errant throw home that leads to Nationals Victory over Houston (photo by Pat Sullivan/AP)

Baseball is not just about grace and excellence- it’s also about abject, epic, hilarious failure.  The 1961 Mets.  Bill Buckner.  All the Washington teams between 1935 and 2011.

But the poor Houston Astros, truly one of the worst teams the sport has ever seen; on pace to lose 109 games this season, defeated in 31 of their last 35 games- put on a circus show for the ages last night in one single play that will long be remembered in the annals of the sport.

Here’s the short version:  The Astros all ran into each other and fell down.

But breaking it down in all its disparate parts reveals the breath-taking wonder of the on-field collapse by half the players in the field.

Here’s the setting.  Nobody out, top of the 11th inning of a 4-4 game.  There’s hardly anyone in the stands because this is the Houston Astros- the worst team in baseball.  There is not a camera angle possible that doesn’t show a sea of empty seats.  It’s so quiet and dead in the stands that everyone in the stadium can hear the wailing cry of a single infant seated with its parents somewhere close to home plate.

Washington National’s centerfielder, Roger Bernadina singles to right.  And now the fun begins.   The Nationals’ new catcher, Kurt Suzuki, attempts a sacrifice bunt to try and get Bernadina to second.  Suzuki screws it up and instead of bunting on the ground, he pops the ball up. A tiny, little, baby pop-up.

Houston 1st baseman, Steve Pearce, moves toward the ball at the same time as the pitcher, Wilton Lopez.  The ball eludes them both and drops softly to the ground.  Lopez can’t seem to locate it between his legs.  Pearce literally pushes his own pitcher out of the way like a linebacker and picks up the ball.

Inexplicably, Astros 3rd baseman, Matt Downs, seemingly thinking maybe he has a play on the ball dives over the fallen pitcher and succeeds in partially interfering with the 1st baseman’s desperate throw to 1st base.  The ball flies over the head of Houston 2nd baseman, Jose Altuve and well into right field.

Bernadina sees all the madness and takes off, easily passing 2nd base and headed to 3rd.  Houston right fielder, Brian Bogusevic sees Bernadina completely ignoring his own 3rd base coach’s pleas to stop and sprints for home.  Bogusevic’s throw is airmailed over the catcher’s head, Bernadina scores and Suzuki, who had moments ago tried to make an out by bunting the ball in the infield, is now securely at 3rd.

I am not exaggerating when I say the last time I saw anything like this, 5 year-olds were hitting off a tee and the opposing team collapsed in a pile trying to field the ball.

For the poor, beleaguered fans of the Houston Astros- it was just all too much to take.  Here, some of their choice comments from the Houston Crawfish Boxes, a fan web site:

–        Wow

–         What the freakin…

–         Oh My God

–         Holy Lord

–         My Goodness

–         Okay, well

–         Wow- just wow

–         I don’t even know who to yell at

–         Dear God- you poor Astros fans

–         Don’t worry about us- It’s beyond anguish at this point.  I feel nothing.  I think most of us now are just trying to figure out if this is all part of some elaborate social experiment.

–         What the hell just happened?

–         You just gotta laugh at this point

–         I was mad at first but I’m laughing now

–         Cirque du Soleil Houston Astros

–         Come for the baseball- stay for the hilarity

–         Well what happened was….we got a baseball team, then 50 years later we got this shit

My Houston friends, we have all been there at one point another.  In fact, one of the reasons the Washington Nationals are finally contenders is that we were that bad two years in a row- so bad we got the #1 draft picks the next year and the year after and that’s how we ended up with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

And I must say, there is now, officially, a soft spot in my heart for the Astros and as soon as the Nats leave town, I will be seriously rooting for them to reclaim their dignity and kick a little butt.

But for now- thanks for the memories, boys.  One for the ages.

Baseball through the Eyes of a Kid


I think it’s a fairly universal experience and it’s a memory that lasts a lifetime. Mine came 43 years ago when I watched my first major league baseball game at RFK; the Yankees in town to take on the Washington Senators.

Now 2012 instead of 1969, I relived it all this week as I took my girlfriend’s grandson to his first ballgame. He had 48 hours of anticipation since I’d showed him the tickets and he was primed. Adrian is only 8 years old and he has a sketchy awareness of the rules and subtleties of the game but, already, he is drawn to baseballs like a moth to flame. For him, it’s still about a game of catch with a tiny little Franklin glove. But now it’s a much bigger thing- as if a treasure chest was suddenly opened.

It was Throw Back Night at Nationals stadium. The Nats and the visiting Giants wore uniforms from 1924, the last and only time Washington would claim a World Series. The grounds crew was decked out in straw hats, suspenders and bow ties. In front of us, the players got their last warm-up throws in prior to the start of the game.

“There’s #34, Adrian,” as I pointed to 19-year-old Bryce Harper. “Remember him, kid. He’s like Mickey Mantle before he was Mickey Mantle.” Adrian lives in New York City so I think he actually understood. After all, he had announced earlier in the day that he was going to be a Yankee some day.

Several innings into the game, it was Adrian who pointed out to me that #34 was taking his place in the batter’s box. Up to that point, the Giants had had their way with the Nats, leading for awhile by 5-1. Adrian was a little confused about who to root for. After all, the unmistakable symbol of New York was up on the scoreboard. No, no, I explained. This is a throw-back game, and back in 1924, the San Francisco Giants were actually the New York Giants, so that’s why they have that “NY” on their uniforms.

“I want to see some home runs,” he said, gesturing with his arms to imitate the parabolic flight of the ball into the outfield seats. I am convinced now that God has a special ear for the wishes of children. Washington’s all-star shortstop, Ian Desmond, apparently does too. He launched a shot into the right field bullpen against Matt Cain who had thrown a perfect game earlier in the season. He had been previously unhittable in this game. Until Desmond. Ok…now 5-2, the stadium erupted and Adrian suddenly figured out whom to root for. After Desmond rounded the bases, it was now Washington 2nd baseman Danny Espinosa at the plate. Boom. There you go, Adrian, back-to-back home runs. The stadium got even louder. High-fives were being exchanged by perfect strangers all around us. It was now 5 to 3. Cain had been replaced. A couple of batters later- here was Harper. He did not disappoint. Solid RBI double- now 5-4.

Throughout the game, Adrian had watched foul balls reach into the stands. He wanted one in the worst way and it did get real close. I mean, real close. As I made my way back to the seats holding two tiny little batting helmets filled with ice cream, a sudden commotion hit our section. Sure enough, a foul ball was heading directly toward us. Hands full, I watched as the ball came down on top of us. It hit the left shoulder of the guy sitting right below us. I handed Adrian the ice cream and scrambled. The ball hit the ground and was finally recovered by another guy sitting two seats to our left.

Ok…so now the kid has asked for home runs and gotten two of them, back-to-back. He asked for a foul ball and practically got beaned by one. He gets to see National’s reliever Henry Rodriquez strike out a batter with a fastball that registers 101 mph on the scoreboard. Now what?

The ninth inning, that’s what.

Three rookies up to bat, all in a row. Pinch-hitter, Tyler Moore, on the verge of striking out opens the frame with a solid double to the gap in center. Steve Lombardozzi bunts and the pitcher botches it and now it’s first and third with nobody out. The stadium is going nuts. Bryce Harper comes to the plate again. As a deafening, spontaneous chant of “Let’s go Harper” reaches it’s boisterous crescendo, Harper is steeped in the moment and raps a base hit- game tied 5-5. I do high-fives with Adrian and an 80-year old, white-haired lady behind me.

Ryan Zimmerman is intentionally walked to load the bases and still no outs. The anticipation is as thick as the humid Washington air. Michael Morse is up. Adrian likes the fact the guy’s nickname is “The Beast.” But he hits a grounder and the Giants get a force at home. One out, game still tied. Adam LaRoche comes to the plate and hits a double-play grounder. They get the out at second but the shortstop sends a low throw to the Giant’s 1st baseman. It glances off his glove and wouldn’t you know it- Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old and the representative of all that is young about baseball, dashes in for the winning run.

There is delirium in the stadium. The Nats players stream out in the field. In a hilarious ritual that had been pre-planned by National’s starting pitcher Gio Gonzales in the eventuality of an Adam LaRoche walk-off, several Nats players put their hands over their heads doing imitations of antlers and run around LaRoche while he takes an imaginary bow and arrow and shoots at the “deer.” After the game, he would tell reporters he thinks he got one before he was tackled.

We lingered in the park, drinking in the last of a miracle night. I took Adrian right up to the field and we watched Ian Desmond do a TV interview. The stadium lights were turned down and now the field was bathed in a soft brown light. I bought him a baseball from the stadium store as we made our way to the subway station.

Welcome to baseball, kid. You want to be a Yankee? Go for it, my little friend, go for it. That’s why they call it the field of dreams.

The Night the Kids Took Over Fenway Park

June 9, 2012 1 comment

Oh my.  There was a baseball game played in Boston last night that was one for the ages.  Washington’s two young phenoms put on a clinic as Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 and Bryce Harper pounded three hits including a mighty 420 foot blast to the deepest part of one of the most revered places in the game- Fenway Park.

Sometimes, words are completely inadequate in capturing the history and drama of a given event.  But the promise of the future and the remarkable nature of what occurred last night seemed to bring out the poet in members of baseball’s writing community.   Besides history, the game produced two of the best written articles you’ll ever read that captured every bit of it.

The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore really outdid himself.   Here’s the piece in its entirety and worth every second of your investment.  This is but a taste.

A century’s worth of players have passed through Fenway Park, where history seeps through the emerald walls. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper graced the cathedral for the first time on Friday night, and they did not dissolve into its annals. They made them richer, more complete: The old yard can say it bore witness to Strasburg and Harper at their unbridled beginning, the moment in time when the Washington Nationals became something fresh and different.

Two of the most arresting players in baseball spearheaded the Nationals’ assault on the Boston Red Sox in a 7-4 victory. Harper, the 19-year-old without an off switch, went 3 for 5 with a double, three RBI and a 420-foot, two-run home run. Strasburg, pitching on the two-year anniversary of his masterful debut, threw his first 100-mph fastball of the season, struck out 13 over six innings of four-hit ball and escaped a bases-loaded jam by throwing a 3-2 fastball with his 119th and final pitch.

It was their first visit to Fenway.  And as evidence of how much trouble is brewing for the rest of baseball with these two kids- the bigger the moment, the better they play.  They seize the spotlight with flair and greatness.  They both have a deep understanding and appreciation of the history of the game.  Harper said he was awestruck thinking he was hitting from the same batter’s box as Ted Williams.  Strasburg pitched his second best game ever, surpassed only by his major league debut, another one of those moments he seized two years ago to the day.

ESPNBoston.com’s Gordon Edes is also in fine voice this morning.  Impressive to me on a number of different levels, is that this is a Boston Red Sox beat writer waxing poetic about a visiting team.  But history is history, and a good reporter and a good writer knows when sublime drama eclipses such mundane things as rooting interests.

Strasburg, featuring a fastball that touched 100 mph, a changeup that violated the laws of nature and a curveball bereft of compassion, struck out seven Red Sox in a span of eight batters. There’s no telling how many strikeouts he might have finished with if his pitch count hadn’t climbed to 119 with nine outs to go.

“I knew I was up there, but I had so much adrenaline being at Fenway for the first time, it didn’t really matter,” Strasburg said.

But if Strasburg (7-1) is the rainbow, then center fielder Harper is the Transit of Venus, an astronomical phenomenon that appears, oh, once a century or so. Harper homered to the right of the 420-foot triangle in center, doubled and singled, driving in three runs and scoring two, in one of the most precocious performances the 100-year-old edifice has ever seen.

Both Kilgore and Edes point out that the only other 19-year olds to hit homers in Fenway Park were Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline and Robin Yount- all hall-of-famers.  The only 19 year-olds to collect three hits at Fenway were Kaline and Ken Griffey Jr.

There are not enough superlatives to describe the sheer wonder of what we are seeing with this baseball team from the nation’s capital.  The last time they were this good was in the 1920’s when they won their only World Series behind the arm of the Big Train, Walter Johnson.

But this squad has two players for the ages.  And I might add, in Davey Johnson, one of the greatest managers and baseball men the game has ever seen.  I am astounded I have actually lived long enough to witness something so pure and amazing and rare.  May we all savor and treasure it and appreciate the incredible good fortune the fates have conspired to give us.   Some of the greatest players in the greatest game ever devised have somehow managed to land on our doorstep, in a town that has seen nothing but baseball futility for well over 80 years.

Bryce Harper and the Stats that Prove He’s For Real

So how good is he?  Very good.  Not great because he’s only 19.  There is no telling what he’ll be four years from now but the potential is out of this world.  There is no doubt. Bryce Harper is a once-a-generation player.  Here are the stats from Baseball Almanac that prove it.

A lot of folks have run comparisons of Harper against other 19-year-olds in baseball history, but what I’ve done is compare him to the first full seasons of 15 other players, 14 of them in Baseball’s Hall of Fame (Ken Griffey Jr. isn’t eligible yet).  The age range is 19-24 years old.  For most of them, these are their rookie seasons.  For some, it’s their 2nd or 3rd year in the major leagues, but the earlier years were statistically insignificant.

In order to do this properly, I have projected from Bryce Harper’s 1st 100 at-bats to how he would perform if he played every single one of the remaining games of the season.  Here’s how Harper would do this year based on what he’s done so far.

Bryce Harper (projected though end of 2012 season):

Games

AB

AVG

OBP

SLUG

Triples

Homers

RBI

BB

SO

142

531

.287

.376

.525

15

21

58

74

100

So how does that stack up against the first full seasons of these 15 gentlemen?  (Babe Ruth is the oldest at 24 because he was a pitcher for his first few years; his stats are from his first season as a position player in 1919)

Player

Year

Age

Rogers Hornsby

1916

20

Babe Ruth

1919

24

Jimmie Foxx

1928

21

Mel Ott

1928

19

Hank Greenberg

1933

22

Ted Williams

1939

21

Willie Mays

1951

20

Mickey Mantle

1951

20

Ernie Banks

1954

23

Hank Aaron

1954

20

Frank Robinson

1956

21

Billy Williams

1961

23

Johnny Bench

1968

21

Eddie Murray

1977

21

Ken Griffey Jr

1989

20

In batting average, Harper is middle-of-the-pack, but better than Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Johnny Bench and Billy Williams.

Rank

Player

Age

AVG

1

Jimmie Foxx

21

328

2

Ted Williams

21

327

3

Babe Ruth

24

322

4

Mel Ott

19

.322

5

Rogers Hornsby

20

.313

6

Hank Greenberg

22

.301

7

Frank Robinson

21

.290

8

Harper Projected

19

.287

9

Eddie Murray

21

.283

10

Hank Aaron

20

.280

11

Billy Williams

23

.278

12

Ernie Banks

23

.275

13

Johnny Bench

21

.275

14

Willie Mays

20

.274

15

Mickey Mantle

20

.267

16

Ken Griffey Jr

20

.264

In On-Base-Percentage (hits plus walks), it gets better.  Bryce Harper is ranked 6th, exceeded only by Frank Robinson (who had one of the best rookie seasons in history), Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth.

Player

Age

OBP

1

Babe Ruth

24

.456

2

Ted Williams

21

.436

3

Jimmie Foxx

21

.416

4

Mel Ott

19

.397

5

Frank Robinson

21

.379

6

Harper Projected

19

.376

7

Hank Greenberg

22

.367

8

Rogers Hornsby

20

.364

9

Willie Mays

20

.356

10

Mickey Mantle

20

.349

11

Billy Williams

23

.338

12

Eddie Murray

21

.333

13

Ken Griffey Jr

20

.329

14

Ernie Banks

23

.326

15

Hank Aaron

20

.322

16

Johnny Bench

21

.311

In slugging percentage (total bases divided by at-bats), Harper is 5th behind only Jimmie Foxx, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth.

Player

Age

SLUG

1

Babe Ruth

24

.657

2

Ted Williams

21

.609

3

Frank Robinson

21

.558

4

Jimmie Foxx

21

.548

5

Harper Projected

19

.525

6

Mel Ott

19

.524

7

Billy Williams

23

.484

8

Willie Mays

20

.472

9

Eddie Murray

21

.470

10

Hank Greenberg

22

.468

11

Hank Aaron

20

.447

12

Rogers Hornsby

20

.444

13

Mickey Mantle

20

.443

14

Johnny Bench

21

.433

15

Ernie Banks

23

.427

16

Ken Griffey Jr

20

.420

Here’s how Harper ranks in these various categories against our list of 15 of the greatest players of all time.

At-Bats

6th

Homers

6th

Triples

1st

BB’s

3rd

Most K’s

2nd

Average

8th

On Base %

6th

Slugging %

5th

RBI

16th

Sixth in At-Bats means he’s established as an everyday player in his first season, and for a 19-year-old means he’s up there among the youngest day-to-day players in the history of the game.

Sixth in HR’s speaks for itself, but I suspect he’s got a better track record ahead of him on dingers as the weather heats up and he gets even more confidence and experience.

There’s no way he’ll end up as 1st on this list in triples.  But it does show his base-running aggressiveness.  Mickey Mantle was faster, timed at just over 3 seconds from the left-handed box at home running to first.  But as we all know, Harper just hustles- his aggression compensating for his good but not amazing speed.

Third in walks is a great stat that separates this young man from anyone before him at his age. Except Ted Williams.  Williams and Babe Ruth have more walks in their first full offensive seasons.  This means pitchers are already pitching around Harper and that he has a keen eye and tremendous discipline at the plate.  These are not the normal traits for a young player.  The only other 19-year-old on the list- the great Mel Ott- drew only 52 walks to Harper’s projected 74.

Yet he strikes out a lot, second only to Eddie Murray.  Harper still has a few holes in his swing or like his idol, Mickey Mantle, he swings hard; “swings violently” is the often used description.

He’s last in RBI.  But that’s not his fault.  He has to have runners on base.  It’s too early to tell if he’s lacking in the clutch component.

And, of course, these are just hitting stats.  There’s nothing here on his laser arm which only seems to throw to home, even at ill-advised moments, but as good as anything Roberto Clemente threw from the outfield.  These stats don’t measure his base-running aggressiveness which is memorable; from making lazy outfielders pay by legging out doubles, consistently advancing from first to third with less than two outs, to running ground balls into infield hits.  Oh, yeah, he stole home for his very first SB of his career.

His fielding is hilarious.  Playing all three outfield positions fearlessly, strange things happen to him out there.  Usually he overcomes every odd angle he runs to fly balls with sheer athleticism.  Or he can completely lose the ball in a grey sky with absolutely no clue where it’s headed.  Or he bobbles a hard-hit fly and it bounces off his mitt and he catches it again.  Or it falls out of his glove and he catches it with his bare hand.

Yes, The Kid is quite the adventure in every way you can think of.  Think of this.  If you ever get the chance to go see him- it will be the same as your grandparents or parents having gone to a ballgame to witness Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or Ted Williams.  Except he’s a teenager.

This is once in your life.