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.


    • I was impressed with Chico's performance. The braves have a tough lineup and Chico didn't shy away from it. The Francoeur DP and the strikeout of Chipper indicated to me that Chico is not afraid. I really believe he should have had the third strike called in the 5th on the fast ball on the outside corner to Francoeur. Sutton mentioned that the ump wasn't even expecting that pitch in that situation. But that kind of moxie is nice to see even if he didn't get the call. I'm sure Chico will suffer through a Bonderman circa 2003 like year, but that's ok as long as it doesn't mess with his head.

      By Blogger Mike, at 4/11/2007 10:49 AM  

    • If Hudson has a bounce back year to his usual performance it's going to be a fun race in the NL East. (Side Note: Will the Phillies ever learn you can't go 85% toward creating a pennant winner and say "That should be good enough.")

      By Blogger Harper, at 4/11/2007 10:51 AM  

    • Lopez's footwork at SS is awful. Even before he released the ball that Young ended up dropping I was crinding. He didn't really get set - he was practically hopping all over the place. Happy feet.

      Kearns probably didn't charge the ball that Belliard ended up making an error on becausde the two of them collided an inning or so before going after a popup (Belliard ended up making the play, and then they bumped into each other). Doesn't appear to be much communication going on out there - both balls should have been Kearns', and it looks like he backed off the second one because he knew Belliard wouldn't. Given the collision with Johnson last year, I can see Kearns being shy about running into teammates.


      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/11/2007 10:57 AM  

    • Dead on about the footwork. That's the weird thing about it. Bad throws are usually the result of bad feet!

      The bright side is that this was probably his first real throwing yip, and it's something that Dmitri should've picked anyway -- of course with the way NJ was picking them last year, he'd have missed it, too.

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 4/11/2007 11:09 AM  

    • With this team bad calls really don't make much a difference in the long haul, but boy did Chico and the team get screwed by that scumbag umpire on the pitch right before Francouer's big hit. I can't believe Acta and the bench didn't go nuts on that horrible call.

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/11/2007 11:28 AM  

    • That's right. I forgot to even mention that.

      Just a beautiful strike -- would've been #3! -- right in the middle of the plate, but high.

      Still, he had a chance to pitch around it, but couldn't.

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 4/11/2007 11:35 AM  

    • 2 questionable calls that had a huge impact last night were the non-3rd strike on Francoeur and the 3rd strike on Kearns.

      If the umpire calls that strike 3 on Francouer, then we get out of the inning in still a 1-run game and Chico is able to overcome a 2nd error.

      If the umpire calls the pitch on Kearns ball 4, then we have 2 on, nobody out, and have Hudson looking a big shaky with consecutive walks. Not like we had good hitters coming up there, but they might have seen something higher in the zone.

      The way to beat a sinkerball pitcher is to get them to bring the ball up. As long as Hudson is getting the low strike, there is no way that's gonna happen.

      Those 2 calls totally changed the game.

      By Blogger Natsfan74, at 4/11/2007 12:01 PM  

    • The Chico pitch was a strike the umpire missed.

      The Kearns pitch was a strike, too. It was low, and it was diving down, but it definitely caught the front part of the plate.

      The umpire was pretty consistent last night. He wasn't giving anything on the left side of the plate or high. But he was going low. As you said, that was just a bad combo last night.

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 4/11/2007 12:04 PM  

    • Why Ray King indeed. If the hope was that he'd be a marketable situational left handed reliever by the trade deadline, his inability to get left handed batters (or right handed batters) out, coupled with his inability to either field his position or cover first base have put an end to this hope in a very short period of time. Of course, he wasn't very effective in ST either, but ST doesn't count.

      Nice to see that Ray is enough of a veteran to know to try to play the injury card before being released.

      By Blogger jim king, at 4/11/2007 1:54 PM  

    • If he's smart, when he gets released he'll use some of his free time to hit the treadmill and drop a couple of tons.

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/11/2007 4:27 PM  

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