Monday, May 14, 2007

Luck Is The Residue of Design

When I had my brush with greatness with Stan Kasten, one of the first things out of his mouth was strangely not a curse word or a threat of a lawsuit, but a quote from Branch Rickey. It wasn't the one that titles this entry, but that one's just as pertinent as I think about Jason Bergmann.

For the '07 Nationals, Jason Bergmann was an afterthought. And it's sheer feckin' luck that he's in the rotation.

Bergmann was absolutely terrible in his 2 seasons with the Nats, with a complete inability to control any of his pitches. He'd fall behind batters, and walk the ones he wasn't throwing 2-0 meatballs to. And looking at his minor league stats, it wasn't a surprising outcome. He had moments of excellence, but his numbers look like the numbers of any other hundreds of hard-throwing, no-control minor leaguers. He'd strike a bunch out, but he'd walk a bunch, and it seemed like he was surviving more on the quality of his stuff than actual command of his pitches: he was striking out batters because 19-year old kids crapped their pants when they saw his slider, not because he was painting the corner.

While there are hundreds of minor leaguers with a similar profile, there's something terrific about them. If they're getting by on the quality of their stuff, if they ever do find some control and command, bingo! You've got a quality pitcher.

And that's what we've seen with Jason Bergmann.

Something clicked after that first start of the year. Jim Bowden likely thinks it was his much publicized shouting match, where he challenged Bergmann mano y mano. But more likely, it was a quiet mechanical fix, something tiny he's doing different. Because not only his Bergmann finally harnessing his pitches, he's commanding the spot.

Look at how he handled the Braves tonight. It was a thing of beauty. He keeps that low-90s fastball up higher in the zone. It's not overpowering on its own, but you can see the late tail on it, tugging it away from bats at the last minute.

Then he throws that mid-80s slider, which zipped away from right-handed batters, rolling further and further away. On the rare time a batter made contact, it was a slow tapper foul. When it's away and had as much movement as it had last night, it's practically unhittable.

His other main pitch is a sharp little curveball. It's not a huge 12-6 break, more of a short, quick break that comes in in the mid-70s. He pounds that pitch low in the zone. But to the batters, who have to be wary of that high, tailing fastball, it starts out high like the #1 does. They have to swing early in case it is, leading them to pop the curve, as they slow and drag the bat through the zone, hoping to catch a piece of the much-slower pitch.

When all three are moving, and he's spotting each of those three, batters have no chance. Some of the swings the Braves got tonight were laughable. They missed the fastball by a foot. Or they lunged and flailed at a slider a foot off the plate. It was a pleasure to watch.

But all of it is because of luck.

Were it not for Jason Simontacchi's groin, we wouldn't be hear tonight, happy with his win. Jason Bergmann was all set to go to the minors to start the year because he had options, and because the Nats had too many warm bodies that they wanted to protect. Remember, too, that his ERA was over 5 in the spring.

NOBODY saw this coming. Nobody.

If Simontacchi's healthy, Bergmann's in Columbus, and then how would things be?

Would he have found things on his own? Or did he need the combo of Jim Bowden's foot up his ass and Randy St. Claire's watchful eyes picking apart his moves? You've gotta believe it's the latter, right?

It's to the Nationals credit that they've apparently developed a legitimate starting pitcher, and 5 great starts out of 6 chances makes me think he's turned a corner, and not just in a hot streak.

But we owe as much to dumb feckin' luck as anything. So as you're reflecting on how great this game was, give thanks to Simontacchi's groin. With a healthier groin, who knows how much we'd suck?

hey.... wait a minute!


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