Sunday, October 01, 2006

Things To Be Happy About

One game left, in what's been a disappointing season. Yet, it's right about where we all had them pegged -- 70ish wins, or so. It's that discouraging journey, the wave of losses and wins that add and subtract, giving us our feelings about this team.

It's been a rough year to watch, tough as a fan. Oh, we still love the team. We still love when they win. But the losses -- not just the Ls, but the way they came about -- have been tough.

Still, despite the overall results, there's been a lot to like about the team, the small things that've pulled us through, made us smile, and appreciate what's so wonderful about this stupid little game where grown men smack around a piece of leather with a stick.

1) Ryan Zimmerman's clutch hits -- Who'll forget that game-winner against the Yankees or the two-week run it was in where he walked us off seemingly every night. Yet, we have to go back to April for the first glimpse. Remember his first homer? A 9th-inning shot off Billy Wagner, pulled deep into the mezanine level in a game the Nats would win in extras. We thought he was something special, and we had high expectations. He surpassed them.

2) Soriano's power -- Most poopooed the idea of him being able to hit for power. And even those that didn't, couldn't have expected what he did. When he's locked in, and that beautiful uppercut swing and strong wrists are whipping his bat through the zone, it's a beautiful sight. His biggest blasts are the kind that instantly create a smile on your face, where all you can do is shake your head while chuckling; it's just to hard to believe it sometimes.

3) Nick Johnson's eye -- He's not a traditional cleanup hitter, but he's still an offensive force. Playing in a full season (mostly) for the first time in his career, he walked an amazing 110 times, which is the highest total for a Washington player since Ed "The Walking Man" Yost. Next year, I'd love to see him higher in the order, so that all those walks mean more baserunners for Zimmerman or whoever bats cleanup.

4) Brian Schneider's resurgence -- He was DOA at the All-Star Break. Since then, when Frank ripped him for being complacenet, he's been hitting like the player the Nats thought they were get. It's been a joy watching him recover his swing, finally making solid contact, driving the ball through the infield. He's been a completely different player, batting .293 since the break.

5) Felipe Lopez' skill -- He seems to have really improved with the glove over his last month or so, so that he's not the complete mess he was for a few weeks (I'd love to hear an explanation -- coaching? injury?). But offensively, he's a treat to watch, with a beautiful line-drive swing and better-than average patience. After 18 months of some of the worst shortstop play in baseball history, he's been a delight.

6) Austin Kearns' glove -- I love his on-base skills, but it's with the glove that he really impresses me. He has tremendous range, and is particularly skilled at reading balls and getting a great jump on them. If you think back, it's hard to think of a specatcular play he made, because what he does is routine, but it's effective. He puts his body in the right position to cut off balls, holding doubles to singles, and is always in an excellent spot to make the throw towards third, keeping runners from taking the extra base. Very quietly, he's a star.

7) Daryle Ward's power -- He was awesome to watch when we had him, the sort of game-changing bench force that a good team needs, and that causes the other team's manager to sweat a bit. And compared to Tony Blanco? No wonder we loved the guy!

8) Tony Armas' slider -- Remember how good he was back in April or May? His slider had bite, and his fastball had late movement. It's a shame he just doesn't have the endurance or arm strength to make that hold up.

9) Mike O'Connor's appearance -- When they called him up, I ripped the hell out of Bowden for making the dumpster dive to an AA pitcher. O'Connor came up, and got the job done efficiently, even if not spectacuarly. Watching him pitch, it's a gangly mishmash of arms and legs as he flings his fastball up with just enough deception to get it by the ocasional hitter. Somehow, more often than not, it worked. The kid did well enough, and was a joy to watch, especially when he was on that tear of 3 earned runs or less starts.

10) Jon Rauch's dominance -- he's slipped a bit from his early start, but Rauch was the cog in the bullpen, which really emerged in the second half. He came in early and often, logging tough innings, setting the game up for Cordero. I'd still like to see him get a chance to start, but it's hard to argue (or give up) the success he's had in that role.

11) Chad Cordero's second half -- Since his pre-ASG meltdown against the Padres, he's been a force, having given up just 8 total runs. His workload has been scaled back a bit, which helps, but he's also started throwing his changeup a lot more, and with much more success. That's the pitch that Randy St. Claire taught him in the spring, and its diving action down and away from left-handers is a great contrast to his hard slider which dives in. Its just one more tool to keep them off balance.

12) Saul Rivera's development -- Part of the New Orleans Kiddie Korps, he's the only one who's really stuck. I'm not sold on his long-term success, but for this season, at least, he was able to hold his own. If he can keep doing what he's doing, he's going to be a key part of the middle relief corps for next year.

13) Ryan Wagner's arm angle -- Usually when teams say that they've noticed a flaw in the mechanics of a recently acquired player, they're just blowing smoke up someone's butt long enough until they can quietly dump him a few weeks later after no improvement. Ryan Wagner is the exception to that rule. The Miracle Worker, RSC, got his arm slot to a comfortable position, and, after a few rough outings, he's been quite good, lessening the sting of the Majewski trade.

_________

This is a dramatically different team today than the one that took the field on the first of the year. With Kearns and Lopez (not to mention improvments by Schneider), it's a better offensive team. The bullpen was a complete mess earlier this year. Now, at least when we have a lead, there's a little bit of a reason to be confident with Rivera, Rauch and Cordero. They've played better, and are 'just' 5 under for the second half versus the 14 under they were in the first. No, that won't win any pennants, but there's reason to believe that things are better -- especially if they can find any sort of competent starting pitchin in the offseason.

Off-field, it's been a wonderful year, and that starts with finally being free of MLB's reign of error. The jury'e still out on the Lerners and how committed they're going to be financially to putting a winner on the field, but they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Thanks to small small deals that said goodbye to some old friends like Livan, and to a seemingly solid draft, the farm system appears to be in better shape. And, at the very least, they've put people in place, like Mike Rizzo, who have a long track record of succes. There's plenty of reason to be optimistic here.

It's been rough, but it's pretty easy to see (and to say) that the Washington Nationals are in a much better position than they were even six months ago.

I've been down quite a bit, but I shouldn't be.

When I take off for the game in an hour or so, I'm going to keep these things in mind, and be happy. We really are better off today than we were before.