Posts Tagged ‘Davey Johnson’

Stephen Strasburg, the Long Haul, and the Short Thinkers

The easiest thing on earth to understand is that Stephen Strasburg isn’t thrilled with his shutdown. The hardest thing on earth to understand, for an awful lot of people still, is why the Washington Nationals stuck to the plan with the postseason dead in their sights and the World Series a distinct possibility. Somewhere in between is a point too often bypassed, whether you favoured or objected to the Strasburg Plan.

Former major leaguer Doug Glanville, now an ESPN writer, doesn’t bypass the point. “[W]hat is of greater concern for the Nationals is how they went so far to protect Strasburg and, in doing so, may have placed doubt where it wasn’t before for him,” Glanville writes this morning. “He now is worried about letting his team down; he now knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can be emotionally unavailable and distracted on the mound, a place where he used to be comfortable. He knows he can be shaken to his core.”

“It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come,” says Strasburg, even if he doesn’t really want to be shut down . . .

Strasburg wasn’t exactly quiet or timid expressing fears of letting the team down prior to Friday night, when his rough outing against Miami—he barely lasted three innings and got strafed for five runs and two home runs, in a game the Marlins hung on to win after the Nats got him off the loss hook—prompted manager Davey Johnson to impose the shutdown perhaps a few innings before actually planned or decided. He just never expressed them in verbiage quite as strong as he deployed the morning after.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it,” Strasburg mourned. Then, referring to the near-incessant writing and analysing that’s accompanied the Strasburg Plan, he said, “When that’s all you hear, it’s hard for it not to bother you. It is what it is. It sucks.”

Yet Strasburg also seems to know just what Glanville means, even if he’s not in Glanville’s seat in the observation tower. “I’ve got to move forward and be here for this team,” he continued. “It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come.”

The righthander who’s just finished his first full season following the Tommy John surgery, recuperation, and rehab has already been shaken to his core. He admitted to Johnson that he’d had trouble sleeping and been haunted by fears of letting his mates down. By Saturday morning, Strasburg had the highest ERA on the Nats’ starting rotation based over the group’s last ten starts each. And he had not been his full-powered self in recent outings overall.

“[L]eaving little room,” writes Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, one of the Strasburg Plan’s stubborn defenders, “for critics of the Nats’ conservative medical protocol to continue braying.”

Not that that’s stopping them. It’s one thing to critique how the Nats have played the Plan publicly. “Had [general manager Mike] Rizzo had a general idea of a limit and kept it to himself during spring training, he could have imposed it now, citing Strasburg’s stuff flattening out,” writes Anthony Witrado of The Sporting News. “It still would have been a major story with several points of view, but it wouldn’t have been a distraction for an entire season and wouldn’t have worn down Strasburg’s psyche, as Johnson claimed it did.”

But it’s something else entirely to dredge up the shooting-themselves-in-the-foot argument against shutting Strasburg down with the Nats knocking on heaven’s door, so to say. Strasburg’s a competitor. No questions asked. But if you really think the Nats can’t get there or stay there for most if not all the postseason haul, you haven’t really been watching this team play.

Don’t dismiss the possibility that the hype surrounding the Strasburg Plan didn’t creep into the psyches of the rest of the pitching staff now and then. They, like many non-pitching Nats, have said at various times they’d rather be with than without Strasburg. But they’ve also said, and this is the part lots of people bypass, too, they’d rather have a healthy than a hindered Strasburg as well. No matter who among these Nats feels strongest about a Strasburg-less postseason this year, you’d be hard pressed to find any Nat who doesn’t appreciate that they’re being built for the long term, and that a single postseason appearance is not in their thinking.

Maybe now that the issue’s resolved, more or less, those Nat pitchers—dearly though they’ll miss having Strasburg taking his regular turns—are made of stuff hardy enough. The brawl the Chicago Cubs instigated Thursday night smothered Jordan Zimmermann’s own recovery from a horrible previous start, and Zimmermann’s outing is just one example.

And the whole team? With Strasburg, the Nats pending Sunday’s outcome have a .619 winning percentage and, by the way, the best record in baseball. They’ve also got a .604 winning percentage in the games Strasburg didn’t start before the shutdown was announced. Would you like to know how many World Series winners have gotten there with a regular season winning percentage around .604? Let’s look at just the last ten Series winners:

2011—St. Louis Cardinals, .556.
2010—San Francisco Giants, .568.
2009—New York Yankees, .636.
2008—Philadelphia Phillies, .568.
2007—Boston Red Sox, .593.
2006—St. Louis Cardinals, .516.
2005—Chicago White Sox, .611.
2004—Boston Red Sox, .605.
2003—Florida Marlins, .562.
2002—Anaheim Angels, .611.

I see four teams with .604+ winning percentages winning among the last ten World Series, including a couple of wild card winners. (2002 Angels, 2004 Red Sox.) I see one team (2007 Red Sox) not all that far away from .604. Six of the last ten World Series winners did no better than a .568 regular-season winning percentage, and one (the 2006 Cardinals) barely got past .510. You’re going to argue that the Nats, with a .604 winning percentage without Stephen Strasburg thus far, are killing their World Series possibilities?

Now watch some of the brayers fume that those who think as I just expressed are trying to say, “Nice going—you’ve just said the Nats can win without him as well as win with him.” You can look at it that way if you like. And you’d be wrong. This year’s Nats can win without him, but don’t pretend they’d like to or that it wouldn’t be harder. Of course it would. But how much harder would it be to make their long-term stand if they lose him due to imprudence? And if you think these Nats haven’t had bigger challenges than the Strasburg Plan, you haven’t followed their season unless Strasburg’s on the mound.

They’ve already had their intangibles tested, including and especially playing around their injuries. And these lab Nats still have the best record in baseball pending Sunday’s outcome.

They may have misplayed the Strasburg Plan when dealing with it publicly. Some of the brass’s comments have bordered on laughable. Johnson, Rizzo, and others can’t hang it on the press when they’ve been dropping it all on the press at every known availability, practically. They know it. But you’d have to assume, unless there’s undetected evidence otherwise, that a team playing it smart with a young Tommy John recuperant’s long term physical health isn’t going to ignore his parallel psychological health.

Every Nat from the principal owner down to the rawest September callup knows Strasburg’s feelings about being shut down. What they have to remember, and may have to remind him a little more than now and then, is what Strasburg himself said following up.

I’ve got to move forward and be here for this team. It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come.

Stick tight with that, Stras. Make it your mantra if you must. But hold tight and don’t let it go.

And when you add a few future postseason trips to your resume, you’ll look back on how much this shutdown and its attendant hype sucked. Then, if you’re as mature as you’re showing even now, you’ll probably say, “Thank God they didn’t let me forget I wanted to be here for many years to come.”

If that’s good enough for Strasburg, and good enough for the Nats, it ought to be plenty good enough for everyone else. Ought to be, but probably won’t be.

The Chicago Cubs, Slow Learners

They’re named after baby bears. Thursday night, they behaved like babies. And one of the infants in the middle of it, who actually began as one of the field’s diplomats, still insists on taking the low road.

“You’re up 7-2, Lendy Castillo’s pitching, it’s 3-0,” harrumphed Chicago Cubs catcher Steve Clevenger. “You don’t swing in that situation. Things happen.”

Let’s see. It was the fifth inning. The Washington Nationals, who’ve already played with a little more than derring-do to build that 7-2 lead, have the bases loaded, two out, and Jayson Werth at the plate. Castillo, a Rule 5 player who isn’t used much otherwise, hoping to impress his brass, but not exactly doing a fine job of that thus far, has fallen behind Werth 3-0.

Standing by their men . . .

The fifth inning. Not the eighth. Not the ninth. Four more innings to go. Did nobody teach Castillo, Clevenger, or any of these Cubs that they play nine innings in real baseball? No wonder the Cubs are going into the 105th year of their rebuilding effort.

Some of what’s likely to be forgotten about Thursday night is Kurt Suzuki whacking a three-run bomb to support Jordan Zimmermann in a nice bounceback start, punching out nine in seven innings’ work; or, the two-run bomb Adam LaRoche would hit not long after everyone went back to his dugout.  None of what’s likely to be forgotten, and I notice surfing around that the Cubs don’t have as many defenders as they’d probably like to have this time, is the Cubs looking, acting, and talking like a bunch of four year olds.

Thursday night’s Cub starter, Justin Germano, made that clear enough. “When you have circumstances like that, you can take it like that—for yourselves to know that we’re not going to let guys run over us,’’ he told the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘And if we’ve got to make them uncomfortable in the box, then that’s what we’ve got to do—not totally going after somebody but just trying to make them aware not to be uncomfortable.”

If we’ve got to make them uncomfortable?

These Cubs couldn’t make a Little League team uncomfortable. Germano was talking over his head for a guy who’d been slapped silly for six earned runs (seven overall) in four innings’ work including Suzuki’s blast and, in the fourth, Bryce Harper’s Flying Wallendas-like infield hit with first and second, which allowed Suzuki to score with Werth and Harper moving up further on Starlin Castro’s miscue and scoring—Harper included, on another round of fancy foot and headwork measuring the play and the throw in—off Ryan Zimmerman’s single.

And Germano’s going to sound the charge against guys running over these Cubs?

Clevenger’s major league career to date has been a small cup of coffee with the Cubs in 2011, good for one double and a run scored in five plate appearances, before a 2012 that shows, thus far, sixty games, a .276 on-base percentage, fielding percentages and range factors below the National League average for catchers, and a -0.8 wins above a replacement level player. In early August, with his playing time upped since Geovanny Soto was traded to Texas, the rook got himself tossed after bellowing, with swearing, at ump Jeff Nelson over a pitch call while batting against Cincinnati.

Yep, he’s the one to show the world the Cubs aren’t going to take the Nats’ chazerei lying down. Clevenger, the Chicago Sun-Times noted about the August toss, “is learning about major-league demeanor as much as hitting and working behind the plate.” Apparently, he’s a slow learner. Maybe if the commissioner’s office hands him, Castillo, and Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk (about whom more anon) suspensions, he’ll get a little closer to his diploma.

So Werth took a big cut on 3-0 with the ducks on the pond in the fifth. Where I and just about every other baseball watcher comes from they call 3-0 a hitter’s count. Would the Cubs have been offended less if Werth had had the decency to wait until 3-1 before taking a cut?

Clevenger took time to switch mitts when a lace broke on his game piece. During that time, as he went to the Cubs’ dugout to find its replacement, Quirk  and a few possible other Cub pine-pony riders started barking toward the Nats, third base coach Bo Porter in particular. Porter didn’t exactly take kindly to the barking, but he strode almost calmly toward the Cub dugout’s railing, provoking both benches to empty for the first time, though nothing much more than that happened just yet.

It almost seems forgotten that Werth skied to right for the side after order was restored the first time. Certainly it wasn’t necessarily predestination that Harper should lead off the bottom of the sixth. He’d only had a huge hand in the Nats’ Wednesday night 9-1 thrashing, with a pair of bombs. Harper had also been 4-for-8 in the first three games, not to mention turning a double into a triple and a run scored plus an infield hit before he batted in the sixth Thursday.

Clevenger (51), practising scuffle diplomacy . . .

But by God Castillo and Clevenger were going to send the kid a little reminder of who the men were around here. Castillo threw the first pitch of the inning at Harper’s belt on the hip side. Harper bent out of the way like an architect’s compass. Clevenger moved not. a. muscle. as the pitch sailed past Harper and to the Nationals Park backstop. The two Cubs should only be grateful plate ump Jerry Layne—who helped Clevenger nudge Harper away from thoughts of having a mano-a-mano showdown with Castillo at the mound—didn’t throw them out of the game right then and there.

Only when Harper took a couple of steps forward to object to the no-questions-asked purpose pitch did Clevenger rise out of his crouch and step forward, looking to all the world like a peacemaker as he urged Harper back, followed by Werth and Ryan Zimmerman hustling quickly to the plate area to protect their “kid brother,” as pitcher Gio Gonzalez would call him.

You could understand the Cubs’ frustrations. The Nationals slapped them around like bowling pins in the set’s first three. Until Harper got bent the Nats had been on a feeding frenzy including and especially a whopping twelve home runs in the first three games and six on Wednesday night alone. Lots of players don’t hit twelve home runs in a season. Some don’t hit that many in a career.

What you couldn’t understand, of course, is why a kid pitcher who’s been walking six per nine innings thus far, with an ERA that looks like the average price of a compact disc album, and a kid catcher who isn’t exactly making that big an impression behind the dish or at the plate, are going to teach these rapacious Nats a lesson in manners by throwing at anyone. Never mind a Bryce Harper who’s one teenager that doesn’t know the meaning of throttling back when it comes to playing major league baseball.

“It’s really frustrating,” Clevenger drawled in the clubhouse. “They’ve been swinging the bat well all series, you can’t do nothing about that. You try to make some pitches in, and things like that happen.”

Johnson (right, with Michael Morse), managing to win . . .

If all it was was trying to make a pitch inside, Clevenger wouldn’t have sat like a catatonic as the pitch bent Harper and sailed to the backstop without so much as waving his mitt even to look like he was trying to spear it. If you’re going to throw at someone with plausible deniability, protecting your pitcher includes making it look, all the way, like a pitch that just got away. Wave at it. Lunge at it. Anything but sitting still. It betrays you every time.

Somewhere in the milling and mewing that followed immediately, Clevenger, who swears he was still trying to play peacemaker, managed to swing an open hand at a Nat—possibly Ian Desmond, who happened to stumble back and knock umpire Bill Miller down accidentally, Desmond helping Miller up post haste—before trying a shove against hulking Nat Michael Morse. A Cub relief pitcher, Manny Corpas, could be seen in one of the few open spaces in the melee jawing and pointing at a Nat or two. Clevenger, Corpas, and Nats relief corpsman Miguel Gonzalez were thrown out of the game.

Layne left no question who he thought was to blame for touching off the entire evenings’ rumble. He hung it on Quirk in the fifth, saying the bench coach’s “screaming obscenities” at Porter was the pouring of the powder into the keg.

“Here we are in the fifth inning,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said after the game. “We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything. We ain’t stopping trying to score runs. Certainly a five-run lead at that time is nothing. I think it was the bench coach’s frustration in us handing it to them for a couple days. If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we’re going to keep competing.”

Sveum, managing to survive . . .

“It’s probably one of the biggest butt-whuppings I’ve ever gotten in my career, as a coach or player,” said Cubs manager Dale Sveum, whose baby bears had just been thrashed in four straight and outscored by 22 runs while they were at it. I don’t remember getting manhandled that bad in any kind of series I’ve ever been a part of. Hopefully these young guys–the team that we’re trying to build–can look back on this and learn a lot from it and know exactly where you got to be as a team to get there.”

Johnson, managing to win. Sveum, managing to survive. You get the feeling the Cubs didn’t learn a thing Thursday night, other than if you can’t beat ’em, try to bean ’em or beat ’em up.

“It’s probably not going to help them avoid their first 100-loss season in [Cubs president of baseball operations] Theo Epstein’s lifetime,” writes the Sun-Times‘s Gordon Wittenmyer, “but the fight the Cubs showed in Thursday’s 70-man scuffle with the Washington Nationals was a significant step in the growing process for the young team, said some of the clubhouse elders.”

If that’s so, how come no less than Cub first baseman Anthony Rizzo all but said after the drubbing was done that there was no earthly or other reason to think about throwing at Harper?

“I don’t think he was over the top at all,” Rizzo told the Chicago Tribune of Harper’s immediate response after Castillo bent him in half. “Things escalated. Bryce, it wasn’t like he was running his mouth or saying anything. He plays this game the right way. He plays hard. He’s real exciting to watch. Playing against him, you have to contain him.”

If Rizzo said as much to his teammates after it was all over, he’d have established himself as a legitimate team leader right away. Because the Cubs showed the wrong kind of fight Thursday night, but the Nats showed the right kind all week long. Among other things, it’s the kind of fight that doesn’t send you home for the winter to watch the postseason on television while leaving behind the impression you’re nothing but a bunch of sore losers.

The Nats Play Baseball, the Cubs Play Basebrawl

All of a sudden the Chicago Cubs seem to have a new slogan: You play baseball, we’ll play basebrawl. Not that it’s going to stop the Washington Nationals from finishing what they started Thursday night, a 9-2 drubbing to complete a four-game sweep. But by cracky it’ll make us feel like men’s men to teach you a lesson, you miserable pudknockers!

Yep, that’s the way for a team who got outscored 31-9 over the four games in Washington to show the world who the men are in this game. Let that upstart Harper brat pick himself up, dust himself off, and roll all over us, will you? Let’s see how smart he looks when we knock him on his ass after we’re so far down in this game we wouldn’t be able to get back up with a rocket.

“Whaddya mean, get bent? Whaddya think he just did to me?!? And those ain’t clown questions, bro!”

That’ll teach the Nats to play like champions-to-be against the Cubs, who’ve now dropped seventeen of eighteen road games and built a six-game losing streak overall in the bargain. Who cares if the Nats are in a pennant race for real while the Cubs couldn’t out-race a millipede in a manual wheelchair? They want to pour it on when they’ve already got themselves a 7-2 lead? We’re not gonna take that lying down!

No, they were going to make sure Bryce Harper took one lying down, or close enough to it. Lendy Castillo, the Cubs’ righthanded relief pitcher, opened the bottom of the sixth with a fastball right at Harper’s belt. Castillo couldn’t even think about trying to argue that the ball got away from him. And at first Cub catcher Steve Clevenger looked like a first-class diplomat. When Harper, understandably enough, took a couple of steps toward the mound, Clevenger merely got around to his front and urged him back and away.

That’s when Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman hustled out toward Harper to make sure the lad didn’t get himself into any further hot water as the benches and bullpens poured out for the second time on the night. And that was where the entire field crowd might have dissipated after a little barking and no punching. Except that Gio Gonzalez, Wednesday night’s winning pitcher, felt a Cub paw on his shoulder, and heard another Cub barking at him, and the two dissipating sides poured back in.

This time, Clevenger surrendered his diplomatic corps credentials and gave a shove to the Nats’ Michael Morse. This is something along the line of Tom Thumb challenging Paul Bunyan to a boxing match. It’s also guaranteed to cause a scrum within the scrum, which is exactly what happened. All this while Harper, Werth, and Zimmermann did their best to stay on the peripheries. “You come into our house and try to mess with our kid brother,” Gonzalez told the Washington Post after the brawlgame, “that’s how we look at it. You’re not just going to come in and please as you do with that.”

Clevenger got the ho-heave. So did Nats relief pitcher Michael Gonzalez and Cubs reliever Manny Corpas, who was seen rather vividly on camera jawing, pointing, and for all anyone could tell threatening various mayhems to various Nats.

By the time any semblance of order could be restored, and Harper could continue his turn at bat, the only question remaining before the house was what the hell Castillo was still doing in the game. Maybe the warnings went to both sides after he bent Harper, but even the blind could have seen he left no room to wiggle into a claim that the ball got away from him somehow.

As things turned out, Harper finally struck out, but Zimmerman chased Castillo with a base hit. Jeff Beliveau came in to relieve and found no further relief when Adam LaRoche hit his first service into the right field seats.

Just a night earlier, after getting thumped 9-1, with Harper himself leading the mayhem with two bombs and the Nationals just about running out of bleachers into which to deposit their launches, Cubs manager Dale Sveum—who’d been thrown out in the third for arguing balls and strikes—seemed to know the score well enough. “It’s just men playing against boys right now,” he mourned.

That was Wednesday, this was Thursday, and the tensions probably started in earnest in the fifth, after the Nats an inning earlier poured it on further with three more runs. Now, up 7-2 with the bases loaded and two out, Werth took a big cut on 3-0. Too big so far as Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk seemed to be concerned. He started jawing from his dugout at Nats third base coach Bo Porter, who could be forgiven for not taking kindly to Quirk telling him something along the line, perhaps, of how nice it isn’t to keep playing guns blazing when you’re already burying the opposition.

Yep—it’s just men playing against boys right now . . .

Porter may have left the Nats’s broadcast team aghast when he strode over to the rail of the Cubs’ dugout. But Quirk was the one ejected. And, the instigator. Says whom? Says Thursday night’s home plate ump, Jerry Layne, leaving no doubt. “The fracas was started because all that stuff that happened that was instigated by Quirk screaming out at Porter. And the obscenities that he screamed out, I just felt was inappropriate and that’s what caused everything,” the husky ump told reporters.

Inappropriate? If the ducks hadn’t been on the pond at the time, who’s to say with the mood of the Cubs that Werth wouldn’t have gotten one thrown toward his own gut.

Harper had already returned under the Cubs’ skins as early as the first inning, when he whacked and ran out a nifty triple, diving head first into third just to be sure, then scored on another dive while Zimmerman was grounding out. In the bottom of the fourth the lad got even friskier, beating out an infield hit with Kurt Suzuki and Werth on ahead of him, Suzuki scoring, Werth to third and Harper to second on Starlin Castro’s muff, before Werth and Harper came home on Zimmerman’s single.

Werth was in position to swing 3-0 with ducks on the pond in the fifth after Ian Desmond—who’d be knocked into umpire Bill Miller during the sixth-inning soiree after Clevenger took an open-hand swing at him—drew a one-out walk off Castillo and stole second. Danny Espinosa singled him over to third, then stole second himself after a second out, before Zimmerman drew a full-count walk to load them up. That Werth skied to right for the side almost went forgotten while Quirk launched his screed to Porter and both sides launched out of the dugouts and the pens.

Davey Johnson, a manager to whom the word “quit” is an obscenity, illustrated precisely why the Nats are where they are and the Cubs are where they aren’t. “Here we are in the fifth inning,” he said to reporters after the game. “We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything. We ain’t stopping trying to score runs. Certainly, a five-run lead at that time is nothing. I think it was the bench coach’s frustration in us handing it to them for a couple days. If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we’re going to keep competing.”

Handing it to them for a couple of days? By the time the Nats finally got through with them, the Cubs were probably calling in search and rescue teams to help them recover their heads.

They weren’t anywhere to be seen in Nationals Park all week long. These Cubs didn’t even pretend to keep competing. They got steamrolled. And there was no way they were going to leave town before letting the Nats know who the men around here were.

Not these Cubs. Why, their rebuilding effort is only going to go to its one hundred and fifth year. Big deal.

Stay the Course with the Strasburg Plan

“It’s funny,” Stephen Strasburg told reporters Tuesday night, after he waxed the Atlanta Braves with six one-run innings, not even letting a rain delay affect him. “Nobody talks to me personally about it. Obviously, I can either scour the Internet or watch all the stuff being said on TV or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess.”

If Strasburg did any Internet scouting over last weekend, he might have seen the innings limit—the talk of which has dominated just about everything when it comes to the National League East and, really, most everywhere else in the Show—has now achieved what some might think the ultimate affirmation.

A writer for Rant Sports, Michael Collins, suggests the pending Strasburg Shutdown is really a well-constructed smokescreen the aim of which is to lull the competition asleep and then, bing! wheel out Strasburg once the postseason, into which the Washington Nationals seem to have a locked-down berth, practically, opens. And Mr. Collins all but blames the conspiracy on, what do you know, Strasburg’s agent.

Strasburg’s agent is the venomous Scott Boras, and it wouldn’t be beyond the scope of possibility that Boras, Rizzo, and all other parties involved have hatched a little scheme to catch other clubs asleep at the wheel.

Boras has made passive aggressive legal threats in public regarding the Strasburg situation, saying that there could be “legal ramifications” if the Nationals don’t follow the advice of physicians and shut him down.  But has anyone really seen a doctor’s note, or heard directly from any qualified physicians who have examined Strasburg and recommended this action?  There’s just a lot of fluff being thrown around the whole situation.

Strasburg—The Plan proceeds, and not without controversy still . . .

You want a doctor’s note? How about commentary from the surgeon who performed Strasburg’s Tommy John surgery? The Nats came up with the Strasburg Plan based on the counsel of Lewis Yocum. “It is Yocum’s belief,” wrote Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, who has been absolutely on board with the Plan from the outset, “that pitchers who break down from premature returns from elbow surgery—sometimes ruining their shoulders, and their whole careers, rather than their new elbows—don’t usually do so during the first big stress year but rather the following season. That would be 2013 in Strasburg’s case.”

If you believe Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, Boras isn’t exactly talking like a man looking to snooker the competition on the field. He’ll play the hardest game of hardball at the negotiating table when it comes to his players’ paydays, but ponder what he tells Kepner regarding the Nats’ following—read carefully, Mr. Collins, wherever you are—doctors’ recommendations, if not doctors’ orders.

“A lot of people have come to me,” Boras says, “and said, ‘What about the fans?’ You’ve got to remember, the fans of Washington are benefiting from this program. The Nationals wouldn’t be where they are without [Jordan] Zimmermann being part of that staff. Zimmerman followed the same protocol, and that’s why he’s about to pitch 200 innings and pitch in postseason games—because he’s healthy.”

Collins seems blissfully enough unaware that Zimmermann (who isn’t a Boras client) underwent Tommy John a year before Strasburg did and, while Strasburg sat it out for 2011 after having his procedure, Zimmermann worked 161.1 innings and was shut down 28 August. It was the heaviest workload Zimmermann had had to that point, too.

Oho, you can hear Collins fuming to himself, but where did the Nats end up last year? Is he aware that, this year, unless there’s a Boston-type breakdown due in September that we’re not aware of, the Nats have run roughshod enough over the NL East in very considerable part because Zimmermann is working with, at this writing, the second-lowest earned run average in the league? Is Collins willing to argue that the Nats finished third last year because they shut Zimmermann down when they did?

Nobody else is, so far as I know.

And nobody else seems quite so ignorant of the point that, thus far, the Nats’ three-way brain trust—owner Ted Lerner, general manager Mike Rizzo, manager Davey Johnson—takes doctors’ recommendations/orders seriously.

Rizzo has been the point man on the Strasburg Plan, of course, and he’s never been silent about his thinking regarding this. In the proverbial nutshell, the easiest thing on earth would have been to push for the Promised Land like now. (Want to know the last time a Washington team won a World Series? How does a month before Americans elected Calvin Coolidge to the White House in his own right strike you?) The harder but more prudent thing on earth would be exactly what Rizzo has said: taking the future of this pitcher and this team into full account.

“One reason the Nats have come so far, and so fast,” Boswell wrote almost a fortnight ago, “is the same reason they will shut down Strasburg when Rizzo decides the day. The Nats do things their way—or, rather, Rizzo, Johnson and Lerner’s way. They act in line with their best baseball, medical and philosophical judgment. Then, they don’t care what anybody thinks—as they’ve proved time and again in recent years, though few notice.”

It didn’t begin with the Strasburg Plan. It sure as hell didn’t begin with last season, when then-manager Jim Riggleman tried a holdup for a contract extension and Rizzo held the door for him as he quit ignominiously. And it didn’t end with Rizzo bucking every last urging from the conventional wisdom and, ignoring then-free agent Mark Buehrle or failing to deal for Zack Greinke, sending the Oakland Athletics four prospects for Gio Gonzalez. Whose 16-6/1.16 WHIP/3.23 ERA/9.5 K-9 is a neat parallel and companion to Strasburg and Zimmermann. And, whose personality has apparently turned the Nats’ rotation as lively off the mound as on it.

Gonzalez is also one of the Nats’ best interviews. Not to mention one of the wisest, as he showed talking to a Washington radio host earlier this month:

“I think that we want what’s best for Stras . . . “

I don’t really try to sit in the office and [say] ‘Hey, Rizz. What are you doing?’ I think he knows what he’s doing and I think that we want the best for Stras. And if that’s the situation, we’re more than happy to back him up. He’s an unbelievable pitcher and he’s been lights out for us all year. He’s key for us so far.

“But at the same time, we want him to be healthy and strong. We don’t want him to be damaged in any shape or form. I feel like we have a great team behind us, great rotation. Guys that can still pick him up whenever they need them. Our bullpen to me is gonna be our key. As long as they’re healthy and strong, they’re gonna definitely clean up a lot of our mess.

The Nats aren’t flying blind here. They know damn well that Strasburg is one of their biggest weapons against teams .500 or better. In fact, after he got through with the Braves Tuesday night he stood at a nifty 7-1 against those teams. Gonzalez is 6-3, but Zimmermann is 2-4. Edwin Jackson is 4-2 but Ross Detwiler is 2-4. But they have a bullpen more than capable of picking up and kicking aside any dicey openings.

But they also know damn well that their chances for going all the way to the World Series, never mind winning it, decrease without Strasburg. And if they’re OK with it, and Nats fans seem more and more to be OK with it, what’s the big deal?

Believe it or not, Tommy John himself thinks it is. The man upon whom the procedure bearing his name was first performed thinks the Nats should just turn Strasburg loose. Why? Because John himself pitched over 200 innings the year after he had the procedure. What he didn’t say was that he’d pitched 1930+ innings before he underwent it. Strasburg pitched a mere 68 innings before his procedure; Zimmermann, 91.1.

“Should we follow the expert medical opinion of a licensed surgeon who performed Tommy John surgery,” Boras asks, “or of the patient who was asleep?”

“Should we follow the expert medical opinion of a licensed surgeon who performed Tommy John surgery, or of the patient who was asleep?”

The Nats also know they’re not the pitching-only club they were reputed to be when the season began. Since the All-Star break, they’ve scored the most runs in the National League. They’ve found ways to win that would have been unthinkable for earlier Washington franchises. Their defence has been showing itself as somewhere between acrobatic and brilliantly timed.

But they also know what those yammering to chuck the Plan and let the kid pitch don’t know. Never mind that Washington hasn’t seen a postseason since Franklin Roosevelt’s first year in office, these Nats weren’t built to win like yesterday, never mind now.

“We know what’s right for us,” Rizzo insisted as early as the Fourth of July. “And we have the guts to stick with it. We’re an organization that prides itself on proper development of players. That’s what we explain to every parent about their son and every agent about a player. What’s changed? What’s different than it was with Zimmermann? Oh, a Washington team is in the race. I guess people are shocked. We’re building a team that we think will be good for a lot longer than one season.”

It beats the living hell out of some near-future prospects getting the idea, based on dumping the Plan and possibly watching Strasburg turn from winger to wreck, that signing with the Nats means you have a great chance at a short career launching with a team that couldn’t build and secure a Tinkertoy tent.

Damn right it’s fun, fun, fun to say “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and way out in first in the National League East.” Damn right it’s going to be fun to watch the Nats in the postseason no matter how far they actually go without their main lancer. But won’t it be even more fun to watch, very possibly, the Nats going back again and again, maybe even picking up a couple of rings, with Strasburg on the mound, and without having to worry about 95 percent of the time whether he’s going to break in half for good along the way?

I guess it won’t be, to enough people. Among them, the kind of people who let a great conspiracy theory—or a pitcher with a whole career ahead of him getting wrecked by overwork before he hits 25—get in the way of plain sense.

Boys Will Be Boys

Roger Clemens gets off the hook on a perjury rap because either the House Committee for the Sending of Swell Messages to Kids, the actual prosecution, or the original Mitchell Report bungled its way across the sticky wickets of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. It induces something of a giant sucking yawn, with only an occasional bleat against putting the Rocket into the Hall of Fame.

Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay setup man, gets tossed before throwing a single pitch against the Washington Nationals, his former team, when a little pine tar is found in his glove, at the instigation of his former manager Davey Johnson. And it’s hail, old school chicanery, complete with exhuming a lot of classic observations (Claude Osteen, one-time Los Angeles Dodgers rotation mainstay, once observed so many 1950s pitchers were doing things to their balls that it should have been called the decade of the spitter) and derring-do. (It’s said that Ford Frick, one of baseball’s arguable worst commissioners, actually supported re-legalising the spitter in the Decade of the Spitter.)

Peralta, pine tarred and feathered . . .

Ah, the memories. The late Preacher Roe, Brooklyn Dodgers lefthander, and as elegant a competitor as ever took the mound, put paid to his career by giving a major magazine a story confessing that the outlaw pitch was his money pitch. His teammate, Carl Furillo, right fielder, swore to Roger Kahn (while writing The Boys of Summer) that the rest of the team knew when Roe was going to throw a loaded pitch: “When Preach touched the bill of his cap with two fingers, that was the signal. That’s when we knew it was coming. When he did it with one finger, we knew he was faking.”

Roe may have had a crosstown rival for chicanery, Eddie Lopat, the Yankee lefthander whose trademark lack of power pitching once earned him the nickname Slow, Slower, Slowest. Sure enough, Roe and Lopat tangled in a couple of World Series games. “Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they?” Casey Stengel, who had a ringside seat managing the Yankees, observed after watching and admiring the two of them going at it. “It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ’em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ’em.”

You think every so often there’s a small swell of insistence that Gaylord Perry got into the Hall of Fame by subterfuge? Well, now. Whitey Ford may have gotten there in something of the same way. Well, at least, the stories go that he began picking up Lopat’s mantle in the twilight of his own career, looking for any way to endure the elbow troubles that began to dog him in the 1960s. The Ford mud ball is almost as deep a legend as the Ford Mustang. Except that it wasn’t always Ford who profited from the pitch, which involved either Ford or catcher Elston Howard getting a little patch of field mud on the ball after the grounds crew wet down the dirt.  Bo Belinsky, the rakish Los Angeles Angels lefty, once said that if Ford ended an inning with a strikeout and Howard would roll the ball back toward the mound as the sides changed, “I had two outs waiting for me right there.” If not, Belinsky said, “I was dead.”

Did the Vulture literally sweat for his supper . . . ?

Phil Regan came almost out of nowhere in 1966 to emerge as the game’s craftiest and deadliest relief pitcher that season. (Sandy Koufax, noticing Regan’s eagerness for the ball when games got a little dicey, nicknamed Regan the Vulture.) For several years nobody could figure out what Regan was or wasn’t doing with the ball until, a few years later, toiling for the Cubs, someone noticed his propensity to sweat heavily. Turned out that Regan, who never wore anything under his uniform jersey but a short-sleeved T-shirt would let the sweat run down his arm and onto the ball.

They went nuts when Kenny Rogers had the postseason of his life in 2006, allowing no runs in three virtuoso starts, and a Fox Sports camera caught that brown smudge on the heel of his thumb. Rogers dutifully if puckishly washed his hand, but nobody else did much with him, which you couldn’t say about the rest of the Detroit staff in that World Series. On the other hand, once upon a time, the late Lew Burdette beat the Yankees in all three of his World Series starts to put the only rings on the fingers of a Milwaukee team to date. Burdette, a notorious mound fidget, was thought to be building himself a toxic waste puddle from his chewing tobacco and, when bending over to adjust his cleats yet again, scooping up a little of the sludge.

A camera just dropped in to see what condition his condition (or his thumb heel) was in . . .

Don Sutton’s another Hall of Famer who’s thought to have gotten there the old-fashioned way—with anything he could get away with, even if he didn’t have half of Gaylord Perry’s inverse charisma. Sutton was merely wittier. He’s said to have had notes tucked in his gloves if the umpires thought about frisking him. “You’re getting warmer,” said once such note. “But it isn’t here.”

Sutton, said one-time longtime Oriole pitching coach Ray Miller, “has set such a fine example of defiance, that someday I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound . . . [and] throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.”

You can imagine the fun those who were there had the day Sutton, with the California Angels, squared off against Tommy John, then with the Yankees, and carrying likewise a reputation for using wile, guile, and anything else he could think of. Yankee manager Lou Piniella had to talk owner George Steinbrenner out of his demand to have Sutton frisked, arraigned, and if necessary prosecuted: “Whatever they’re doing out there,” Piniella said, knowing full well his own man was liable to be read his rights in such a situation, “TJ’s doing it better. So let’s leave it alone.” When the Yankees won the game, a scout in the press box is said to have purred, “Tommy John versus Don Sutton? If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

Gaylord Perry in a familiar position—frisked, if not arraigned . . .

On the other hand, even the umpires developed a perverse sense of humour about Perry’s subterfuge. One ump who had Perry all but strip-searched on the mound bumped into the righthander on the street the next day. They exchanged some pleasantries (Perry had a reputation for being very friendly with umpires off the field) and the conversation turned to the ump’s son, a pitcher, whose Little League team was getting clobbered routinely. “Gaylord,” the ump’s said to have asked, “can you teach him to throw that thing?”

The late Mike Flanagan once drew Thomas Boswell, baseball’s Montaigne, off to one side during spring training. Flanagan produced a fresh, untouched baseball, and a broken-open coat hanger. Then, the Oriole pitcher cut three perfect gashes into the meat of the hide, and held it up. “Any time I need four new pitches, I got ’em,” he said evenly, while going on to say he wasn’t going to use them in a game—yet. (“Every pitcher needs an insurance policy.”) In the same article that sprang from that encounter, Boswell recorded suspicions, from Flanagan and others, that the legendary Oakland Athletics rotation of 1980-83—the ill-fated Mike Norris, Steve McCatty, Matt Keough, and Rick Langford—“had one kind of spitball or another as soon as Billy Martin could have it taught to them.” Usually, this came by way of Martin’s preferred pitching coach, Art Fowler, whose own money pitch in his days as a useful reliever wasn’t exactly clean and dry.

Staten Island stinker?

And before you get your moral outrage on, be advised that George Bamberger—once a formidable major league pitching coach, after a minor league pitching career in which his own money pitch was what he called his Staten Island sinkerball—observed, “A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A guy who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor.”

George Frazier, he who once set a sad record by losing three games in a single Series, had a reply to anyone accusing him of using foreign substances: “I don’t use foreign substances. Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.” Bill (Spaceman) Lee once admitted he threw loaded balls and would continue throwing them. Mike Scott went from nothing special to never better after learning the split-fingered fastball, but half the National League, especially the 1986 Mets, swore he was doing something other than gripping his pitches. The Mets retrieved several balls from Scott during a National League Championship Series game, all of which had a mark on the same spot, but the league decided not to prosecute.

And, come to think of it, there were those who first thought the split-finger fastball wasn’t exactly a kosher pitch. “It’s nothing but a legal spitball,” Ray Miller once said. “I was looking at my hand, thinking of the ten years I [pitched] in the minors, never getting to the majors and, honest to God, the thought floated up. ‘What if, fifteen years ago, I’d had my middle finger amputated? I’d bet I’d have had one hell of a split-finger fastball.”

“Any man who would consider cutting off a finger to make the major leagues,” Boswell wrote in retort, “will certainly cheat to stay there. Always has, always will.”

When Peralta got bagged, the pitcher rather understandably denied all. He must never have read from the gospel of Miller, who once had a run-in with Kansas City’s Dennis Leonard over a quote taken out of context in which Miller seemed to say Leonard had a good spitter. “Dennis,” Miller told the pitcher, “you should thank me. Nobody can do a pitcher a bigger favour than saying they’ve got a hell of a spitter.” Translation: Spitter on the brain—the one they only think you’re going to throw—is going to clip their batting averages even more than the one you might really serve.

It’s a point Peralta’s manager, Joe Maddon, might have missed. Maddon steamed because Johnson called for a check on Peralta’s glove, knowing damn well that Johnson had managed his man recently and was trading, essentially, in inside information. “That’s a pu$$y move,” Maddon fumed, a comment that isn’t half as likely to go as viral—and as far as the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, for that matter—as Bryce Harper’s “That’s a clown question, bro.” All Madden had to do was keep his mouth shut, let his man take his comeuppance like a man, and he’d have guaranteed the next time Peralta took the mound the enemy hitters would have a fair chance of surrendering a little more readily even if Peralta took the mound clean as the proverbial hound’s tooth.

Gaylord Perry exploited that for years. You remember Perry’s famous between-pitch routine? He’d stroke the bill of his cap both ways, with both hands, then brush his sideburns, then brush the breast of his jersey, then tap his belt twice. That’s the routine he’d go to when he wanted hitters to think he was greasing. And he made no bones about it. “I just leave a lotta evidence lyin’ around,” he once crowed. On the other hand, when Perry spent a spell with the Cleveland Indians, it was thought—courtesy of Detroit pitcher Milt Wilcox, who told the story to umpire-turned-raconteur Ron Luciano—that Ray Fosse’s catcher’s mitt had such a ring of Vaseline around the pocket nobody knew whether it was a byproduct of Perry’s infamous servings or whether Fosse put it there himself to keep Perry from getting cuffed and stuffed.

Preacher Roe

In fact, it won’t always be the pitcher loading one up for delivery. Perry is far from the only one who may have had partners in crime. Preacher Roe once admitted he got occasional help from Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese and infield partner Billy Cox, once a formidable defencive third baseman. “Once in awhile,” Roe told a reporter, “after the ball had been tossed around the infield, Pee Wee or my buddy Billy would come up to the mound and drop the ball easy in my glove and say, ‘Okay, give us a good pitch now’.”

The mud ball wasn’t Whitey Ford’s only technique. He threw a ring ball concurrently; he had a rasp in his wedding ring that gave him what amounted to “my own tool bench out there.” At least, it did until an ump ordered him to remove the ring. Then, Elston Howard devised a new tack, no pun in tended: he’d scrape the ball on the buckles of his shin guard before throwing it back to Ford. “The buckle ball,” Jim Bouton once said, “sang four choruses of Aida.”

Partners in crime . . . ?

So while it’s rather pleasant to emerge from the sense and nonsense of the Clemens trial into an old-fashioned chat about cheating the old-fashioned way, let it never be said that the innocent don’t suffer. Once upon a time, according to Boswell, Ford also used an extremely sticky compound for, he said, a better grip on his curve ball. He kept the goo in a hollowed-out roll-on deodorant tube. Knowing that Yogi Berra mooched personal products almost by habit, Mickey Mantle—who never met a practical joke opportunity he couldn’t exploit—left Ford’s stickum on a shelf in Ford’s locker, making it look like a real deodorant tube. And Yogi fell for it, hook, line, and Staten Island sinker.

Two minutes later, the next sound in the Yankee clubhouse was Berra screaming blue murder as he ran into the trainer’s room. He had to be shaved free when his arms got stuck to his sides.

Maybe we’ve hit on the real difference between actual or alleged PEDs and the Houdinis of the hill. There wasn’t a lot of room for punking the juicers. There’s plenty of room for punking the scuffers, who prove themselves that boys will be boys. Always have been. Always will.

For Your Reading Pleasure . . .


RIP, Bob Forsch

* Bernie Miklasz (St. Louis Post Dispatch) remembers Bob Forsch—who died at 61, a week after he threw out the ceremonial first pitch for Game Seven of the World Series—as a straight shooter who was an underrated pitcher . . . and maybe one of the few Cardinals who went out like a professional when the rest of the team was too busy imploding in Game Seven of the 1985 Series . . .

RIP, Matty Alou

* When Harry Walker convinced Matty Alou** to try a heavier bat, the freshly-minted, slap-hitting Pirate—once part of the first and only all-sibling starting outfield for the San Francisco Giants—went from nothing much special to nothing much to trifle with at the plate. He won the National League batting title that first Pittsburgh season. Neil Tarpey of the Eureka (CA) Times- Standard, remembers the hard-working outfielder who wasn’t a power or scandal threat, and who died last week at 72, from complications of diabetes . . .

* Hall of Fame baseball writer Murray Chass has some interesting recollections of Tony La Russa . . .

* Allen Barra, usually one of baseball’s most prescient and acute analysts, still hasn’t acknowledged that baseball season didn’t quite end before 19 October . . .

* Nobody could save the Minnesota Twins from dead last in the American League Central in 2011. That didn’t save general manager Bill Smith from a date with the guillotine . . .

* Dan Duquette has a job again—eight years after his dour reign as the Red Sox general manager (where he built the next-to-last pieces of the cursebusting Idiots but alienated one and all before and while he was doing it), he’s been hired as the Baltimore Orioles’ general manager. Some think that’s getting back into baseball the hard way. Gordon Edes, who saw it from the inside during his years on the Boston Globe, is more than slightly amused . . .

Davey's sticking around awhile . . .

* Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post—whose latest collection of baseball writings is way overdue, by the way—is thrilled to death that Davey Johnson will return as the Washington Nationals’ manager. I can’t disagree with him . . . .

* Ken Rosenthal doesn’t think the Phillies should be thinking that seriously about pursuing Michael Cuddyer, even if Jim Thome thinks they should . . .

* Melky Cabrera is going to San Francisco for Jonathan Sanchez. It’s win-win for the Kansas City Royals: they upgrade the rotation and leave room for a live center field prospect to make his bones . . . while the Giants may not be getting quite what they think no matter that the ex-Yankee finally had a breakout season in 2011, says Sports Illustrated‘s Cliff Corcoran . . .

* The New York Daily News thinks the Empire Emeritus has stronger eyes for C.J. Wilson that Roy Oswalt, most likely because of Oswalt’s back issues . . .

* Yu (The Whirling) Darvish could attract posting and contract dollars comparable to Daisuke Matsuzaka but with one major advantage, says the Boston Herald . . .

** DO YOU REMEMBER . . . the old graffiti gag: “JESUS IS THE ANSWER!  What was the question? Who’s Felipe and Matty’s kid brother?”