Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Tranquility of Losing

Free from the expectations of winning, I'm kinda enjoying watching the game, and last night, it was a pleasure watching an elite pitch carve up the NAAAts. When Matt Chico takes the mound against Tim Hudson and the Atlanta Braves offense, what else would you expect?

To show the difference in quality of the two teams, take a look at yesterday's Braves lineup. 2-7, is there any of those that wouldn't be batting cleanup for the Nats? Even Matt Diaz and Kelly Johnson (8 and 1 respectively) would be in the top half of our lineup. Poor Matt Chico. At least the Christians had the power of faith when they squared off against the lions.

Despite that all, Chico fared well, no thanks to (watch for the recurring theme) his defense. In many ways, his start reminded me of Mike O'Connor's outing against the then-powerful St. Louis Cardinals. They were both lefty pitchers who don't throw very hard, going against thunderous lineups and both of whom probably aren't quite ready for the bigs.

Despite the similarities there, there's a pretty big difference. Chico goes for it. O'Connor pussyfooted around the batters, nibbling on the outside of the strike zone, as if he were afraid of what the batters would do to his stuff. Chico, threw strikes, keeping the ball low, and mixing up his pitches enough to keep the Braves off balance. And for the most part, he succeeded.

It looked like it was going to be a long night in that first inning. After getting Kelly Johnson to fly out, Edgar Renteria hit a slow grounder to FLop. His throw was a bit low and Dmitri Young dropped it, a play he should've made: E3. Chipper Jones followed by ripping a curve back through the box, and the Braves had a rally, which Andruw Jones would extend with a bases-loading walk. One out, shoddy defense, and the bases loaded, and there wasn't a Nats fan not related to Mr. Chico that had a glimmer of faith.

All it took was one pitch. Jeff Francouer smacked the first pitch -- a slider? -- on the ground, for an easy inning-ending DP. He had pitched around the defense.

He survived into the fifth inning, when he started getting tired. He started leaving some of his pitches up, and he was missing targets more frequently -- always a danger sign. With one out, Chico got Renteria to pop to short right, along the foul line. Ron Belliard ran out, twisted, bent, and contorted to get to the ball, which he had taken the wrong angle on, before letting it drop, fair. It's a ball that Austin Kearns probably should've charged harder. Perhaps he had a better play on it?

Micah Bowie started warming in the pen, but Manny Acta wanted to nurse Chico through the inning, since the pitcher was due to lead off in the next inning. Chipper singled, Andruw lined out, and then Chico squared off against Jeff Francouer again, this time with runners on 1/2. He got ahead of him quickly, 0-2. Francouer is probably the most free-swinging batter in the league -- just like Guerrero, but without the power or the contact ability! He tried throwing a sloppy curve away, but he left it far too close to the zone, and Francouer smacked it to the gap in right-center, scoring two runs. Game over.

Chico deserved better, and there were a lot of positives to draw on from the start. He worked a tough lineup into the fifth, and gave up only one earned run. He just needs strong defensive support, and he didn't get it.

On the other side of the ball, Tim Hudson was masterful. I said this the other day before we faced Brandon Webb, but groundball pitchers are a tough nut to crack. When they're on, and when they're capable of striking out hitters, they are statistically the toughest pitchers to score on. Hudson had sharp command of three different and distinct pitches, all of which he was throwing right to his spots.

His two-seam sinking fastball slid from left to right on the plate, jamming our right-handed hitters, and forcing them to make contact with the ball as if it were a shotput. Contrasting that was a sharp-breaking slider that dived down and in towards left-handed batters, in an opposite move of the fastball. You could aim for one or the other, but if you guessed wrong, you were missing by 6 inches. Then to really screw with the batters, his splitter was diving sharply straight down at the same speed as his sinker. Three pitches, three different directions. No wonder they looked helpless.

I enjoy sharp pitching, and even though my team was the victim of it, it was a pleasure watching him toy with batter after batter. When a sinkerballer is on, the batters don't even look like they're trying.

  • Ray King came in late, got rocked, and left with tendinitis. The idea of King is nice, but he's a luxury I'm not sure we can afford. With the difficulties of the starting rotation, it's completely robbed Manny Acta's ability to match up anyone in the bullpen. For the most part, the guys he's sending out aren't being sent out because it's their role; it's because they're the only non-tired arms. With an inability to matchup, is having a reliever who can face only a few batters at a time something we really need? (especially when he's facing many more righties than lefties, and the few lefties he's faced have a .400 average against him?)

    Federal Baseball, too, wonders why Ray King.

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