SweetSpot: Davey Johnson

Happy Birthday, Davey Johnson

January, 30, 2014
All-Stars born on Jan. 30 -- Davey Johnson, Charley Neal, Brooks Lawrence, Walt Dropo and Mickey Harris. Also born on this day: 19th century star Tony Mullane, 1955 World Series hero Sandy Amoros and 1970s pinch-runner extraordinaire Matt Alexander.

Davey Johnson: Born 1943

You probably know about Davey Johnson the manager. Or maybe you don't, at least outside of his recent tenure with the Nationals, since before the Nationals hired him to replace Jim Riggleman during the 2011 season he hadn't managed in the majors since 2000. Part of that was Johnson's fault. When he managed the Orioles he got into several public spats with owner Peter Angelos. After making the playoffs in 1996 and 1997, Johnson faxed a demand to Angelos, asking for an extension or a buyout. Angelos accepted Johnson's resignation the day he was named Manager of the Year. Before that, he managed the Reds to first-place finishes in 1994 and 1995 ... and Marge Schott promptly fired him. So Johnson developed a reputation and after two years managing the Dodgers; he didn't get another job for 11 years.

Anyway, Johnson's record as a manager is close to the level of a Hall of Famer. He managed one of the most famous teams of all time, the 1986 Mets. He took four different teams to the playoffs, a feat matched only by Billy Martin. He was one of the first managers to use computers. His strength as a manager was a belief in young players -- best exemplified by his insistence on promoting Dwight Gooden from Class A to the majors in 1984 and that Bryce Harper was ready for the majors as a 19-year-old. He's 28th on the all-time wins list (19 of the managers ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame) and he has a higher career winning percentage than Bobby Cox, Joe Torre or Tony La Russa.

OK, Johnson the player. For some reason, the Hall of Fame seems to consider individuals only as players or managers, but not both. If Johnson's record as a manager gets him to the front door, should his playing record let him enter? I've always thought it was a reasonable argument.

Johnson played two years of baseball and basketball at Texas A&M before signing with the Orioles for $25,000, in the days before the draft. Originally a shortstop, he moved to second base in Triple-A and reached the majors at the end of the 1965. He was a rookie second baseman for the 1966 club that won the pennant and swept the Dodgers in the World Series. Jim Palmer, Wally Bunker and Dave McNally spun consecutive shutouts in the final three games, two of them 1-0 wins. The Orioles' farm system was spitting out good young players in those days like Lenny Dykstra used to spit out his chew on Johnson's '86 Mets. Palmer, Bunker and McNally were all 23 or younger. Five regulars in the lineup were 24 or younger.

With all that youth, it's not surprising that the Orioles built a dynasty that would last into the early '80s. They were built around defense and pitching. It took a couple of years for that '66 team to consolidate -- Palmer got hurt and missed almost two years and Bunker was already damaged goods. But the team acquired Mike Cuellar, replaced Hank Bauer as manager with Earl Weaver and won three straight pennants from 1969 to 1971 winning 109, 108 and 101 games. They twice got upset in the World Series, otherwise they'd be more fairly remembered as one of the greatest teams ever.

Johnson was a big part of their success. He was an All-Star in '68, '69 and '70 and won three Gold Glove Awards, drew some walks and usually hit around .280. With Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair and Johnson leading the way, it was one of the best defensive squads ever assembled.

Even then, Johnson was always thinking. He took classes at Trinity College in San Antonio and his SABR bio reports that in 1969 he fed various Baltimore lineups into a computer to determine the optimal order. I'm sure Weaver responded loved that. In 1972, Johnson had shoulder and back injuries and hit just .221. Bobby Grich was ready to take over, so the Orioles traded him after the season to the Braves.

Johnson responded with one of the greatest fluke home run seasons ever, hitting 43 -- his previous career high had been 18. Johnson credited Hank Aaron, but the balls must have been juiced in Atlanta that year as Johnson, Aaron and Darrell Evans became the first trio of teammates to hit 40 home runs. (The 1996 and 1997 Rockies later matched the feat.) The Braves hit 118 home runs at home that year, 88 on the road, and led the league in runs. Unfortately, Braves pitchers also led the league in runs and the Braves finished 76-85.

That what was about it for Johnson has an effective player. He'd made 30 errors in 1973, so he played a lot of first base in 1974. He dropped back to 16 home runs. In 1975, he played one game with the Braves and then signed with the Yomiuri Giants, becoming one of the first Americans to play in Japan. He played there two years before returning for two final seasons in the majors.

Johnson may not have always gotten along with his owners, but he was probably always smarter then they were. His long absence from the diamond seemed to have mellowed him during his two-plus years with the Nationals. He retired after the 2013 season, and is now 71 years old, a reminder of how long ago 1986 now seems.

I'm left pondering this: What if Stephen Strasburg had pitched in the 2012 playoffs? You know Johnson wanted him out there. If he has Strasburg on his team, maybe the Nationals win it all. And a second World Series title might have made Johnson a Hall of Famer.

Lessons from Stephen Strasburg

May, 31, 2013

It's entirely possible that Stephen Strasburg's latest injury is no big deal.

The Washington Nationals' right-hander left his start Friday in Atlanta after two innings, and word from manager Davey Johnson is that it's a strained right oblique. He's headed back to D.C. to be examined by the team doctor, so we won't know the severity of the injury until at least tomorrow. One hopes Strasburg won't have to miss any time.

Of course, there is a chance he misses a start (or more), which would put the Nationals further behind the eight-ball in a season in which everyone (including the Nationals) assumed they would cruise to the playoffs. And while no one is wishing poor health for Strasburg, I'd guess there are more than a few people in the industry who would get a quiet kick out of the Nats missing out on October.

Whether it was intentional or not, there was a healthy dose of hubris in the Nationals' decision to shut down Strasburg at the end of last season. It was as if they were saying to the league, "It's cool, we're so good we'll be back a few more times with this squad."

That could still be the case -- the Nats did win 3-2 tonight -- but it fails to account for the fact that the stars were aligned for Washington last season. Not only was Strasburg dominant, but so too was Gio Gonzalez. Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond had career years and Jayson Werth had a bit of a renaissance. And that Harper kid had an impressive debut to boot.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesStephen Strasburg talks with Nats manager Davey Johnson after he came out of Friday's game.
Of that group, only Bryce Harper is playing better this year, but he, like Werth, has spent a lot of time on the shelf, while LaRoche and Gonzalez have not been nearly as impressive. There are no guarantees in baseball, and the Nationals decision to not go all-in on the 2012 season could haunt the franchise for years.

Furthermore, we should know by now that pitcher injuries are incredibly unpredictable, and you can only do so much to prevent them. While the Nationals had the best interests of Strasburg and the organization in mind when they shut him down last season, they had no way of knowing if they could prevent an injury. He could end up on the disabled list because of the injury he suffered tonight -- and that could cost them a playoff spot.

(Another perfect example of this phenomenon is Orioles prospect Dylan Bundy. The O's could not have been more careful with him last year, limiting him to outings of fewer than five innings for most of the season. Yet he's suffered arm soreness this year and has yet to pitch an inning.)

It would be a bit depressing if Strasburg ends up hurt, as the game is always better when the best players are on the field, so let's hope that he doesn't have to miss any time. However, even if he's fine, we shouldn't forget the fact that you can't take anything for granted. Frankly, it's part of what makes this game so interesting.

It was 86 degrees in Baltimore on Wednesday night, the ball was flying and we had one of the most exciting games of the season, a 9-6 Orioles victory over the Washington Nationals and one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, including a six-run rally in the seventh inning.

Here are 30 thoughts/observations/random tidbits on the game ...

1. Chris Davis. It was Chris Davis T-shirt night at Camden Yards and he didn't disappoint, slamming his 18th and 19th home runs, going 4-for-4, scoring three runs, driving in three, selling pretzels between innings. After his second home run, the camera panned to him a few moments later in the dugout, his helmet off -- and if you ever want to know the look of a man in the zone, Davis had it. Sort of part-bemused, like he was reliving the moment, part-amazed, like the first time you see the Grand Canyon, eyes wide, soaking it all in.

2. Electric atmosphere. As the Orioles announcer said, it had the feel of a Friday-night college crowd, with a buzz going all game, the fans exploding after each hit during Baltimore's big seventh. Baseball at its best.

3. Last season, it seemed Orioles fans were a little reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, as the support -- at least as shown in attendance figures -- was slow to get going, certainly understandable after years of losing. Looks like the support is getting back to levels we saw in the mid-1990s, when you couldn't get a ticket to an O's game.

4. Davis versus Miguel Cabrera. For all the attention that Cabrera has rightfully been generating for chasing the Triple Crown again, Davis is having the better season at the plate:

Davis: .359/.447/.755, 19 HR, 18 2B, 50 RBIs, 1.214 OPS
Cabrera: .368/.444/.656, 15 HR, 13 2B, 59 RBIs, 1.099 OPS

5. Of course, as one Tigers fan tweeted to me the other night, let's see the numbers at the end of the season.

6. Still.

7. Fifteen players have slugged .700 in the first half since 2000, but only two since 2009: Albert Pujols in 2009 (.723) and Jose Bautista in 2011 (.702).

8. This isn't the same Chris Davis who had a big breakout season last year, when he hit 33 home runs. Last year, he struck out in 30.1 percent of his plate appearances and walked in 6.6. This year, those figures are 21.9 and 13.2. A man with his power and better control of the strike zone is a scary proposition. OK, so maybe he's not a .359 hitter, but he's not doing it by accident.

9. Manny Machado hit another double. That's 24. He's on pace for 73. The record is 67, set way back in 1931 by Earl Webb.

10. He doesn't turn 21 until July. That's Machado; Webb is dead.

11. Will it upset everyone to suggest that Machado -- with his brilliant defense at third -- has arguably been as valuable as Davis and Cabrera? I mean ... he's hitting .332/.365/.517 and has more range than Meryl Streep. Baseball-Reference wins above replacement leaders, American League, entering Wednesday: Machado 3.4, Dustin Pedroia 3.0, Cabrera 2.8, Davis 2.7. FanGraphs: Machado 3.1, Davis 2.9, Cabrera 2.9, Mike Trout 2.9.

12. It's a legitimate argument if you can look beyond RBIs.

13. Ryan Zimmerman, have a day. Tough to hit three home runs -- he homered his first three times up -- and get upstaged, but that's what happened. Is it fair to say that Zimmerman is one of the most important players in the National League? With the Nats' offense struggling -- although a little better of late -- it desperately needs a second big bat behind Bryce Harper. Zimmerman has to be that guy, or maybe Adam LaRoche. Or, preferably, both. Zimmerman's throwing troubles have been an issue all season, although also better of late.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyChris Davis' second homer of the night, a two-run blast, gave the Orioles their final margin.
14. Davey Johnson's beard. Google it. Let's hope the Nationals turn this into a promotional event down the road.

15. Jordan Zimmermann was due for a bad game, but did make some bad pitches. Davis' first home run was off a slider over the middle of the plate. Nick Markakis' home run came off an 0-1 fastball that Kurt Suzuki wanted in but was also over the middle of the plate.

16. Both were hit to the almost identical location in right-center -- in fact, you can see the same guy in the white tank T-shirt reaching for both homers.

17. Steve Pearce's two-run shot off Zimmermann just cleared the fence in left-center. On another night, with a little more luck, it's maybe three long outs to the warning track.

18. Davis' second home run, off an 0-2 changeup from Tyler Clippard, was the most impressive of the night as he showcased his huge raw power, with an easy, almost one-handed swing. How strong is this guy? This one landed near where T-shirt dude was sitting as well, except he must have been off in the beer line this time around.

19. Zimmermann hadn't walked a batter since May 8. So now he has 10 in 11 starts. Terrible.

20. The Orioles can hit. That's 10 or more hits in 27 of their 53 games.

21. The Nationals' bench was supposed to be a big strength heading into the season, but it's been a weak spot. Roger Bernadina did homer, but he's hitting .149. Tyler Moore is hitting .149. Chad Tracy is hitting .170. Steve Lombardozzi is hitting an empty .234. And they've had to play a lot, accumulating more than 300 plate appearances among the four of them so far. Along with struggling Danny Espinosa, they're a huge reason the Nationals are just a game over .500.

22. Remember when Nate McLouth was washed up?

23. He's 17-for-18 in steals. The O's lead the American League in home runs and are tied for the lead in stolen bases. When's the last time that happened?

24. I'm sure Orioles fans were a little nervous when Jim Johnson entered for the save in the ninth, considering his last outing in Toronto on Sunday -- his fourth blown save and fifth loss. But he had a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts, albeit against the bottom three hitters.

25. Tommy Hunter was unfair in the eighth inning. He threw a 100 mph fastball to Moore followed by a two-strike curve that Moore missed. No chance.

26. I still don't know what to make of Chris Tillman. Four home runs tonight, 11 over his past five starts. Yes, four of those games came at Camden, but he's going to continue having gopher ball problems with such a low ground-ball rate (37 percent on the season).

27. A Beltway Series would be fun in October. Nearly happened last year, but I think the Orioles will need to make a deal for a starting pitcher. I mean, Freddy Garcia goes on Thursday.

28. Buck Showalter can manage my team.

29. I still think second baseman Ryan Flaherty can produce some offense. He returned to the Orioles lineup' and had two hits. I'm less confident about Espinosa.

30. How do I get one of those Chris Davis T-shirts?

Does picking top skippers make sense?

November, 13, 2012
Johnson-MelvinAP Photo, US PresswireDavey Johnson, left, and Bob Melvin were particularly adept at managing lineups and pitching staffs.

It was the managers' turn Tuesday in Major League Baseball's awards week, and you can understand why this might be greeted by a collective yawn by the performance-analysis community. The throwaway comment is that it's the award for whichever guy in the dugout saw his team improve by 15 or more games from one year to the next.

If that's true, I guess that means we could have ruled out Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox (six-game improvement from 2011) and Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants (eight games) right off the bat. Given that the Washington Nationals' Davey Johnson and Oakland A's Bob Melvin are bringing home the trophies in their respective leagues, that fulfills that bit of prophecy.

You could just chalk up the results to simple luck, with voters picking who was luckiest. Buck Showalter, Melvin and all three National League finalists were in the black as far as seeing their teams finish with records better than expected via Pythagorean projections. By that standard, Showalter was most fortunate of all, with his Orioles finishing 11 games better than the 82 wins they were “supposed” to wind up with, while Dusty Baker and Bochy tied for the NL lead at six games better than expected.

Admittedly, Showalter's plus-11 tally represents an unusually good year, and also reminiscent of Mike Scioscia's best years in the Aughties, when the Angels would exasperate statheads yearly by consistently finishing with better-than-expected records. Calling that luck risked losing sight of the Angels' execution and exploitation of opportunities, or the virtues of those teams, and I wouldn't be so quick to consign Sciosia's pair of manager-of-the-year trophies to mere luck. Similarly, I wouldn't say Showalter's Orioles were just lucky.

Certainly, describing a manager's impact on his team defies easy description. Thanks to stats, we like simple, measurable answers, but analyzing managers brings in a broad category of soft factors -- whether managing players' workloads, placing players in the best position to succeed or exploiting their abilities to best effect, or even something as ill-defined as “leadership.” But because we can't ascribe a numerical value to those things doesn't mean we can't pretend they don't have an impact. (Whether or not the people voting for the award have a perfect grasp on those things is another matter altogether.)

Not even the best book on the subject, Chris Jaffe's comprehensive "Evaluating Baseball Managers," succeeds entirely at quantifying a manager's impact, because on some level it's impossible to separate player performance from managerial predilection, and as responsibility for roster design became more and more the general manager's turf over time, you can't credit skippers with most of who's on the team. And in-game tactical options, one of the more obvious places where managers make an impact, are fundamentally rooted in personnel.

Besides which, fixating on that kind of offensive information is particularly pointless today, because for all sorts of reasons, one-run strategies just aren't in vogue. The total difference between the leading teams in position player sac bunts (the Angels and Brewers with 60 apiece) and the last-place team (the Cubs with 19) that had them bunt the least is noticeable, but it isn't anything like the difference between teams managed by Gene Mauch and Earl Weaver in the '70s.

So how do you sort out who did a great job managing his team in a particular year in today's game? I'm someone who thinks the award still matters because -- as someone who has voted twice on managers of the year, in 2010 and again in 2011 -- I think the careful voter can validate the best dugout efforts. But on some level, you have to address the changing nature of the role of managers.

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter
Tim Heitman/US PresswireBuck Showalter's Orioles greatly exceeded projected win totals, and finished just shy of the ALCS.
Pitching-staff management almost automatically demands the primary place for evaluating a manager's impact, particularly bullpen management. In today's game, you don't necessarily have to be great at it, and you don't have to turn in virtuoso performances like Bochy has in his club's World Series wins or Tony La Russa did in 2011, but as a matter of handling multiple players, varying workloads, game situations and securing the right matchups, it may well be the most important task a manager has to get right across 162 games, not just in a single game. It's equal parts logistics and tactics, foresight and reaction.

On that score, all of the candidates have their merits. Baker's bullpen wound up leading the NL in fair run average, while Johnson cobbled together a fairly effective 'pen despite losing key relievers for extended periods of time. Johnson also had to deal with -- or perhaps fight against -- the tight rein kept on Stephen Strasburg's workload, but ran a deep rotation effectively despite that distraction all season. In the American League, both Showalter and Melvin had to adjust their rotations constantly, and both struck upon effective late-game formulas despite relying on relatively lightly regarded relief corps. Crediting them with getting tremendous mileage out of guys such as Pedro Strop or Sean Doolittle is the least we can do.

Lineup-card management is another thing you have to take into account. Not so much the batting orders themselves, but who gets to play, and to what effect. The mileage that Melvin and Ventura got out of unknown quantities such as Brandon Moss or Alejandro De Aza in their lineups certainly deserve shout-outs. Johnson deserves especially high marks for sticking with a couple of past established habits, stocking a strong bench and using it to good effect (Tyler Moore, Chad Tracy and supersub Steve Lombardozzi in particular).

The other thing I like to look at is how well a skipper adjusted in-season to when he had to adjust his roster, either because of injuries or slumps. Essentially, how well did he adapt when things started going wrong? Because things always go wrong -- players get hurt, somebody earns his release, a rookie earns a shot.

Again, looking at how Showalter, Johnson and Melvin tweaked their rotations and lineups constantly, I think you have to credit them with remarkable adaptability and flexibility. Whether Johnson's willingness to move Lombardozzi all over the diamond or shift Danny Espinosa across the keystone to play short while Ian Desmond was injured or Showalter's aggressiveness in moving Chris Davis around between first base, the outfield corners and designated hitter to try to squeeze every last bit of offense out of the slim pickings he had to work with, some managers were clearly put on the spot and came up with creative solutions.

In the AL, Melvin had to cycle through a variety of options at third base, shuffle around his outfield, and had to work without a perfect answer at first base until the stretch run, when he had the benefit of balancing Moss and Chris Carter's playing time.

Those kinds of decisions and reactions have a place in being honored, in this or any season. I'm glad for dugout favorites old and new -- congratulations to Davey Johnson and to Bob Melvin. They weren't the only managers who did great work, but they were deserving of their honors just won.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

We just witnessed one of the most amazing games in postseason history. Whether this game will eventually earn itself a place alongside other legendary games remains to be seen -- after all, Cardinals-Nationals doesn’t quite have the same buzz to it as Red Sox-Yankees or Dodgers-Giants -- but I can assure you this: None of us has ever seen this before.

No team had ever rallied from more than four runs down to win a sudden-death postseason game, and only two teams had done that -- the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 7 of the 1925 World Series against the, yes, Washington Senators, and the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

The St. Louis Cardinals made history in remarkable fashion.

Of course, that means, with the 9-7 loss, the Washington Nationals made history in the most heartbreaking fashion possible.

I had an entire post written, telling Nationals fans that winning in the postseason isn’t easy, that even holding a six-run lead is never easy, that playoff baseball makes your stomach churn and all that.

I wrote that assuming they would hold on to the lead. Even after Gio Gonzalez once again lost the ability to throw a ball over home plate and the Cardinals scored three runs. Even after Edwin Jackson was for some reason summoned from the bullpen to pitch an inning and allowed a run. Even after Daniel Descalso homered in the eighth off Tyler Clippard to make the score 6-5. But when the Nationals added an insurance run in eighth, it felt like Nationals fans could finally breathe.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Descalso
AP Photo/Nick WassDaniel Descalso, right, drove home the tying runs, then scored the final one of the Cards' comeback.
On the other hand, as Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma -- a man apparently of few words -- said after delivering the go-ahead two-run single: "Never give up."


* * * *

Friend of mine after the game, not a Cardinals fan or Nationals fan: “If the Mariners ever lost a game like this, I'd be in a hospital.”

Postseason baseball is the most exhilarating ride in sports.

Postseason baseball is the cruelest of sports.

* * * *

Carlos Beltran is awesome. He singled in the first, walked and scored in the fourth, walked in the fifth when the Cardinals scored twice off Gonzalez, doubled in the seventh to move Jon Jay to third (Jay would score), doubled to deep right-center off Drew Storen leading off the ninth. What a game. Five plate appearances, five times on base. One of the great sudden-death game performances a hitter has had.

* * * *

Calvin Schiraldi, Bill Buckner, Donnie Moore, Grady Little and company, Jose Mesa, the guy pitching in the Francisco Cabrera game (actually it was two, Doug Drabek and Stan Belinda), David Cone and Black Jack McDowell … and, yes, even Mariano Rivera. And now Drew Storen.

* * * *

Yadier Molina had a terrific at-bat in the ninth inning with two outs and Beltran on second. He was 2-for-18 in the series when he stepped in and had left the bases loaded in the fifth, flying out to right field on a 2-0 fastball from Gonzalez. The pitch sequence:

Slider low.
Fastball fouled back. (Fans standing, cheering, mustering strength to wave their red towels, two strikes away!)
Fastball outside.
A 96-mph fastball fouled away. (One strike away!)
A slider that dipped low. I don’t know how Molina held up. Tremendous pitch awareness and bat control.
Fastball high.

From the moment that Allen Craig struck out, Storen threw 12 pitches, any of which could have ended the game. Six pitches to Molina. Six more to David Freese, who also walked. The 13th pitch was a 94 mph fastball that Descalso ripped hard up the middle, off the glove of Ian Desmond, the ball bounding far enough into center field to easily score pinch runner Adron Chambers with the tying run.

* * * *

Kozma, a guy who hit .232 in Triple-A, playing only because of the September injury to starting shortstop Rafael Furcal, then lined a 2-2 fastball into right field to score two more runs. (Descalso had smartly stolen second base).

Washington manager Davey Johnson could have walked Kozma once Descalso stole second base. Cardinals closer Jason Motte, who had pitched the eighth inning, was due up next, although Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had sent backup catcher Tony Cruz, the last player left on the bench, to the on-deck circle as a decoy. He’d be entering the game anyway for Molina, who had been run for. Kozma has been pretty hot, hitting .333 for the Cardinals during his September call-up and homering earlier in this season.

Johnson could have put Kozma on and pitched to Cruz, which would have served two purposes: Force Matheny to bat Cruz, a guy who hit .254/.267/.365 in 126 at-bats, but also a guy without an at-bat in nine days. More importantly, it would have likely forced Matheny to pull Motte. Matheny already used Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica and Mitchell Boggs, so that would have meant the Cardinals would be using, at best, their fifth-best reliever in the ninth.

Huge mistake by Johnson and I can only guess he was in such a state of shock he didn’t have time to think the situation through properly.

* * * *

Yes, the Nationals could have used Stephen Strasburg. That’s obvious. Whether that lost the series for them is debatable. But I’m pretty sure he would have helped somewhere along the line.

We'll be doing a lot of quick takes on managerial decisions in this space during the postseason. As always, ultimately it's the players who win and lose games, but it sure is fun to second-guess some of the key moves.

Mike Matheny perfectly executed the first major blunder of the postseason in the eighth inning on Sunday. The situation: The Cardinals leading the Nationals 2-1, two outs, runners on second and third, the pitcher's spot due up. With right-hander Mitchell Boggs pitching, Davey Johnson sent up lefty Chad Tracy to hit.

Matheny went to his lone lefty in the 'pen, Marc Rzepczynski.

Johnson countered with right-handed Tyler Moore, who flared a 2-2 fastball down the right-field line for a two-run, go-ahead single.

You can say it was bad luck for the Cardinals since the ball wasn't hit hard. But it was bad process. The main argument here is that Boggs is a better pitcher than Rzepczynski. The second argument is that it should have been obvious Johnson would hit for Tracy once Rzepczynski entered. The third argument is that Moore is a more dangerous hitter than Tracy. So there was really no reason for Matheny to bring in the reliever they call "Scrabble." Boggs versus Tracy or Rzepcynski versus Moore? Easy call. (And that's without even getting into the option of bringing in closer Jason Motte for a four-out save.)

Rzepczynski got some big outs in the postseason a year ago for the Cardinals, but wasn't as effective this season. Right-handers hit .259/.323/.459 against him; overall, he allowed seven home runs in just 46.2 innings. Moore hit .247 against left-handers but has big power, hitting 10 home runs on the season in just 156 at-bats. Tracy is a veteran pinch hitter who had only nine plate appearances all season against lefties; Johnson wasn't going to let him hit there.

Matheny's in-game strategy drew a lot of criticism from Cardinals fans this year: too many sacrifice bunts, ill-advised intentional walks and so on. This decision won't alleviate those concerns about the rookie manager.

Johnson, of course, was weaned in the '80s, managing against Hall of Fame skippers such as Whitey Herzog, Tommy Lasorda and Dick Williams. He played under Earl Weaver. Nobody is going to beat Johnson in a chess match. More importantly, the Nationals have multiple weapons off the bench. Like his Mets teams in the '80s, Johnson carries some guys who can hit in Tracy, Moore, Roger Bernadina and even Steve Lombardozzi. As I wrote earlier, the Nationals have a big advantage over their NL counterparts in bench strength.

There's a lot more we could write off this game. The Cardinals managed only two runs off Gio Gonzalez, despite Gonzalez walking seven in five innings. They later loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh, but the Nationals escaped with a force at home and double play.

The Cardinals will regret missing those scoring opportunities. But Matheny should regret the tactical error he made.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield

A night in baseball: What we learned

September, 25, 2012

One year ago -- 368 days to be exact -- Freddie Freeman batted in the bottom of the 13th inning with one out and grounded a 3-2 pitch from the Phillies' David Herndon to first base. John Mayberry Jr. started a 3-6-3 double play and the Braves' season was over in a 4-3 defeat, the final gut-punch in a horrific final month that saw Atlanta go 9-18 in September and lose its final five games to miss the playoffs by one win.

So maybe it was fitting that Freeman was the player who launched the Braves into the 2012 postseason, hitting a dramatic game-winning two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth on Tuesday night, an arching blast over the 400-foot sign in dead center that gave Atlanta a 4-3 win over Miami.

Maybe it was fitting that Craig Kimbrel, the closer who blew a ninth-inning lead in that 162nd game a year ago, pitched a scoreless ninth to pick up the win.

It certainly was fitting that Chipper Jones, who went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in the 2011 finale, started the rally with a leadoff double. Old man Chipper, still stinging line drives all over the place.

And needless to say, it was no surprise that Kris Medlen, the Braves' good-luck charm, started the game. He didn't get the decision and even proved human -- allowing three runs! -- but the Braves have now won 22 consecutive games he's started, going back to 2010, tying the all-time mark with Whitey Ford's Yankees and Carl Hubbell's Giants.

"We are shooting for the stars," Jones said after the game. "It makes it all worth it. I'm happier for these guys because they worked hard."

What did we learn on this evening? That maybe the Braves should start Medlen in the wild-card game ... and Game 1 of the Division Series ... and Game 2 ... and ... OK, we learned that Braves fan can finally breathe. No collapse this year. And we learned that Medlen is still the hottest pitcher in the game -- 7 innings, 5 hits, no walks, 8 strikeouts -- and continues to give Atlanta ace-level performance.

Here are a few other things we learned:

Anibal Sanchez puts the pressure on the White Sox
Sanchez delivered one of the dominant outings of the season with his fifth career shutout, a 10-strikeout, 3-hit, 105-pitch gem. His Game Score of 90 was just the fourth of 90-plus by a Tigers starter since 2010 (some guy named Verlander had the other three) and just the 17th such start in the majors in 2012. More importantly, it moved the Tigers into a first-place tie with the White Sox, who had lost earlier in the day, their sixth loss in seven games.

Is it panic time in Chicago? Robin Ventura announced that he'll start Hector Santiago on Wednesday, pushing Jake Peavy back to start the series opener against the Rays on Thursday. Peavy hasn't been the dominant pitcher in the second half (4.20 ERA) that he was the first three months, so maybe an extra day of rest is a smart move, especially since he got roughed up in his previous start. Still, the sinking Sox turn to a rookie making just his third major league start. Things are starting to look gloomy in ChiTown.

David Price might have locked up the Cy Young Award
Umm, remember the Tampa Bay Rays? The Little Team That Could before the Orioles and A's became the Little Teams That Could. They were declared dead after getting swept in Baltimore, losing two of three to the Yankees and then two to the Red Sox, but here are they are, winners of six in a row after Price struck out a season-high 13 in a 5-2 complete-game win over Boston. Price improved to 19-5 and leads the American League with his 2.56 ERA.

The Rays are hitting .346 over this six-game stretch and trimmed another game off their deficit to the wild-card-leading Orioles after they were blanked by the Blue Jays. Is this right time to remind Orioles fans that the Rays and O's finish the season with a three-game series in Tampa? Not that right time? I mean, the Orioles -- after all this, after finally earning respect -- they're not going to blow it, are they?

Johnny Cueto had an important outing for the Reds
You don't want to read too much into mini-slumps this time of year, but the Reds' ace had been a little shaky his past few outings. Cueto quelled concerns with seven terrific innings (7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 5 SO) to beat the Brewers for his 19th win -- the first Reds pitcher to win that many since Danny Jackson in 1988 and first right-hander since Jack Billingham in 1974. More good news for the Reds: Aroldis Chapman also pitched his second game since his 12-day layoff and threw 10 fastballs in a 1-2-3 inning -- 100, 100, 99, 98, 98, 98, 97, 97, 96 and 95.

Don't be alarmed by another Nationals loss
The Nationals are now 4-7 over their past 11 games. Davey Johnson has said he's more concerned with resting players than beating out the Reds for the top seed in the National League. Should Nationals fans be worried about this little slump? Not really. Late-season hot streaks or cold streaks are overrated. I looked at the World Series champs since 1996 and looked at how they played during the entire season, over the final month (September or September/October) and over the final 10 games.

Season: .586 winning percentage
Final month: .575 winning percentage
Final 10 games: .587 winning percentage

This is why you shouldn't pay much attention to what happens down the stretch. World Series winners haven't been any "hotter" down the stretch than they've played all season. Mixed in those World Series winners are the 2006 Cardinals (12-17 the final month, 3-7 in their final 10 games); the 2002 Angels (4-6 their final 10); the 2000 Yankees (13-18 and 2-8); and the 1997 Marlins (12-15 and 3-7). Yes, the past four World Series winners went a combined .667 the final month, but that doesn't tell which other "hot" teams didn't win the World Series. Plus, the Nationals are still 13-10 in September. They're fine.

Brandon Moss might have saved the A's season with a spectacular catch
The situation: bottom of the seventh, bases loaded, two out, Sean Doolittle versus Elvis Andrus. Then Moss does this.

Jorge Coutares is Dominican, right?
No? What, he's Greek? His name is spelled George Kottaras? He just won a big game for the A's? Have they even invented sticks and balls in Greece yet?

Angels tie record with 20 strikeouts in nine-inning game
Zack Greinke fanned 13 in five innings against the Mariners but had to leave after throwing 110 pitches. Ernesto Frieri struck out John Jaso for the final out in a 5-4 victory. Amazingly, the Mariners tied only their own club record. The Angels remain just two games behind the A's. If Oakland goes 3-5 over its final eight games, the Angels have to go 6-2 to pass them. Good news for the A's: The Mariners send King Felix to the mound on Wednesday ... which means he won't start against the A's over the weekend, making his final start Monday against the Angels.

Anibal SanchezAP Photo/Paul SancyaJust ask Anibal Sanchez: 'Tis the season for more than a little rational exuberance.

The most important weekend in Washington Nationals history might have been the final three days of the 2008 season. The Nationals began the weekend 59-99; the Seattle Mariners began the weekend 58-101. Both teams were horrible. The Nationals had lost 12 of 14; the Mariners had lost 14 of 15.

The prize for the ultimate futility: Stephen Strasburg, already the clear No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft.

The Mariners had it in the bag.

Except the Nationals lost three in a row to the Phillies. Their batting order the final day was a beautiful list: Emilio Bonifacio, Anderson Hernandez, Kory Casto, Ryan Langerhans, Alberto Gonzalez, Roger Bernadina, Luke Montz and Pete Orr, with Odalis Perez on the bump. The Nationals lost 8-3.

And then the Mariners did the impossible: They won three in a row against the A's. On the final day, Ichiro Suzuki had two hits and scored two runs. Yuniesky Betancourt had a big two-run triple. The starting pitcher and winner: R.A. Dickey.

The following June, the Nationals drafted Strasburg first overall. The Mariners drafted Dustin Ackley.

* * * *

Or maybe the most important day came in the draft in June of 2005, the first for the Nationals since moving from Montreal. With the third pick in that draft, the Mariners selected Jeff Clement. With the next pick the Nationals selected Ryan Zimmerman. That draft also yielded John Lannan and Craig Stammen. In 2007, they drafted Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann. In 2008, they drafted Danny Espinosa. In 2009, Strasburg and Drew Storen. In 2010, they once again had the No. 1 overall. It didn't take long for Bryce Harper to arrive.

Maybe the most important day came on June 28, 2009, when then-interim general manager Mike Rizzo traded Langerhans to the Mariners for Mike Morse, a middle-of-the-order bat for nothing.

Maybe the Nationals should give the Mariners part of their playoff share.

* * * *

The Washington Nationals clinched a playoff spot with Thursday's 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers as Detwiler was terrific over six three-hit innings, lowering his ERA to 3.10, another reminder that this rotation is much deeper than Strasburg, Zimmermann and Cy Young contender Gio Gonzalez.

The celebration was understandably muted; the Nationals obviously have their eyes on a bigger prize and they'll celebrate with more fever when they clinch the National League East sometime next week. Still, it was a great day in franchise history. In 44 seasons since the team played its first on an April day at Shea Stadium in 1969, the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals had been just one postseason appearance, in the 1981 strike season. It was another strike season in 1994, of course, that ultimately helped doom the franchise in Montreal and led to its departure a decade later.

There is still one player on the team with ties to the Expos: Shortstop Ian Desmond was a third-round pick in 2004. Desmond is a great symbol of the franchise's growth in recent years. His prospect status was up and down through the years, a talented player with a terrific but erratic results in the field and at the plate. After making 34 errors as a rookie in 2010 there were long-term doubts about his viability as a big-league starter. The Nationals stuck with him, however, with Davey Johnson a big believer in his ability. Desmond has added power to his game this year and is hitting .296/.333/.517 with 23 home runs, an important cog in an offense that has the second-best OPS in the National League since the All-Star break.

* * * *

The Cincinnati Reds also clinched a playoff spot and they could clinch the NL Central title in a day or two, as their magic number is down to two. Their story might not be as dramatic as Washington's and it's difficult to make the case that they're better than the Nationals, considering the Nats have scored more runs and allowed fewer. But it's a good team, a fun team, one that has allowed the second-fewest runs in the NL despite playing half its games in The Great American Ball Park.

Their celebration was also muted, especially with manager Dusty Baker hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat.

"I worry about Dusty, and everybody in that clubhouse was really worried last night," interim manager Chris Speier said. "You don't just go to the hospital for a cold or anything like that. And I still feel that way. ... My thoughts are more about Dusty than this game."

Despite their convincing lead in the NL Central, the Reds still have a few questions to answer in the season's final days. Ace Johnny Cueto, the leading NL Cy Young contender a couple weeks ago, earned his 18th victory in Thursday's 5-3 win over the Cubs with a mixed bag of results: Six scoreless innings but four walks and just two strikeouts. Still, after allowing 14 runs his previous three starts, the six shutout frames was a good sign -- even if they did come against the Cubs.

Closer Aroldis Chapman hasn't pitched since Sept. 10, when he walked three Pirates in two-thirds of an inning (three days after losing a game to the Astros). Chapman has said he no longer feels fatigued but wants a couple more bullpen sessions to work on his command before returning. Watch his velocity when he does pitch again.

Joey Votto is hitting .342 in 13 games since returning from the disabled list, walking like scary-era Barry Bonds (OBP over .500 since return) but hasn't homered. It's a small thing, but worth watching. The Reds can go all the way if opponents keep pitching around Votto and the guy behind him produce, but it would also seem the Reds will need Votto to hit some home runs in the postseason if they want to reach their first World Series since 1990.

So our first two teams are in. The Nats are 91-58 while the Reds are 91-59, so the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage is still up in the air. Who knows what will happen, of course, but I'm thinking there's nothing wrong with a Gio Gonzalez-Johnny Cueto showdown in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.

Davey JohnsonAP Photo/Jacquelyn MartinDavey Johnson will lead the Nationals into the playoffs -- postseason baseball in D.C. for the first time since 1933.

If you missed it the other day, check out Steve Wulf's excellent story on Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Is he the top manager of 2012? Eric Karabell and myself each rank our top five managers ... and discuss the worst.

Bryce Harper, Nats winning slugly

September, 6, 2012

“That really pops” is usually a phrase you’re more likely to see on Bravo than ESPN. But these days, it’s what you can say about the Nationals’ lineup, because for a second consecutive night, it put up another power display that might have made you wonder whether they’d really put away the batting cages.

There were six home runs hit off Nats bats Tuesday and then the six more they hit Wednesday. Checking with Baseball-Reference.com can tell you that a team has done that just twice before since 1918. The Dodgers did it June 29 and 30, 1996, in Denver, in Coors Field, pre-humidor -- although even that is not doing the trick at altitude so much anymore, a story for another night. And the other time? That was in 2003, by the Angels against the Expos in rinky-dink Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico. Two crazy parks where crazy stuff was supposed to happen.

The Nats have been their own kind of crazy, but it has had nothing to do with the dimensions of Nationals Park. Starting with the “now you see him, but soon you won’t” saga of Stephen Strasburg, they’ve been nothing but fun from Opening Day on, to Bryce Harper's lauded arrival and beyond. Want some sour grapes? You can keep sniping about Jayson Werth's paydays, although with an on-base percentage better than .400, he’s a 6-foot-6 leadoff man who delivers what’s needed instead of being a tower of power. A pitching staff whiffing 22 percent of opposing hitters, third best in the league? A lineup that ranks third in homers hit? Gio Gonzalez notches his 18th win Wednesday to keep pace with R.A. Dickey for the league lead? Gotta squeeze that in there somewhere, too.

Put all of that together, and the Nats have been as action-packed as any team in the league. And if you need off-field drama, how about a war of words between general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson? That’s the sort of thing that might make you wonder whether chemistry is just something you talk about when all the other stuff isn’t happening.

But it’s the power that deserves the headline right now. Perhaps the signature slugging feat in Wednesday’s cornucopia of clouts was Harper’s pair of home runs. Maybe that can help end worries that his second-half slump will be something he’ll have to carry into October. After a low-wattage July (during which he powered just one homer and had a .313 slugging percentage), followed by a fading walk rate in August but better bopping (six homers), Harper seems to be slowly asserting his ability to dominate at the plate. Before Wednesday, he’d been OPS’ing at a .999 clip since Aug. 17. You can parse any hot streak to make a man a statistical hero, of course, but ESPN Stats & Information provides a peek at where he’s been doing damage lately.

Bryce Harper heat mapESPN Stats & InformationBryce Harper's heat map during his recent hot streak.

That's a lot of red, of course, but it's also interesting that he's clobbering stuff on the outside corner as well. For more on that, check out Stats & Info's blog post from Wednesday night's action.

Harper hasn’t been the only hero, however. First baseman Adam LaRoche, so long the target of derisive “he’s so average” catcalls from the stathead community, combined for three across Tuesday and Wednesday nights. In a day and age when he was dismissed for not being Albert Pujols, he’s leading National League first basemen in home runs with 28, his highest single-season tally since 2006, when he belted 32 bombs and slugged .561. That helped him catch the eye of the Pirates, who dealt him for Mike Gonzalez and Brent Lillibridge, a lose-lose move that might turn up only in a never-to-be-released Braves documentary, "John Schuerholz: The Blunder Years." As a Pirate, Red Sox, Brave and Diamondback through 2010, LaRoche slugged .478, with a mediocre isolated slugging number of .208. But this year, he's the resident steady Eddie in the Nats’ lineup while coming back from an injury-ruined 2011. Even now, he’s managing to be a background hero on a power-laden lineup, but that’s a nice problem to have.

Now, admittedly, a good chunk of the Nats’ feat is just the genuine pleasure big league hitters will get stepping in against these Cubs these days. They’re on an 8-26 tumble since July 31, and this isn’t Wrigleyville’s midseason staff with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza or even Paul Maholm out there. Instead, it’s the legacy of former GM Jim Hendry’s player development program on display, as Theo Epstein’s management crew riffles through the farm system’s upper-level options in a pitch-or-ditch test to see what the team has to work with. The Nats aren’t going to be stepping in against Blake Parker or Chris Rusin or Rafael Dolis in October, after all.

Even so, the Nationals have a lineup packed with top-to-bottom power, and guess what? They get to face the Cubs again Thursday. Could a team hit six or more homers three nights in a row? As with so much else about this club, you can ask, “Why not the Nationals?” Look around and then look back, because on the baseball landscape, face it, the Nats just pop.

Roger BernadinaPatrick McDermott/Getty ImagesRoger Bernadina may well be coming back to the dugout asking who hasn't hit a home run lately.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Is there any limiting Stephen Strasburg?

June, 21, 2012
Stephen Strasburg shut down the Rays on Wednesday, striking out 10 in seven innings pitched, notching his ninth win of the season while winning his sixth consecutive start. Not team wins, not decisions -- his sixth consecutive start. The past four have been especially impressive: 40 Ks in 26 innings pitched with just 23 baserunners allowed and a 2.08 ERA. These are the individual data of dominance, the symptoms of superiority.

Leave the kudos for later: He’ll be an All-Star, he’s a Cy Young contender, he’s all that. If you’re a Nats fan, this is exactly what you signed up for in 2009 (when he was drafted) or even sooner, if you understood that your guys were going to pick this generation’s one-and-only out of San Diego State with the top choice in the draft.

But in a nutshell, those numbers also capture the agonizing logistical challenge the Nationals have in front of them, because Strasburg traveled past another not-so-little number: His halfway point to 160, the innings total that he’s “supposed” to pitch if plans are set in stone and circumstances aren’t allowed to change and if we want to pretend that general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson are actuarial obsessives instead of men charged with players and possibilities. Strasburg’s 14th start of the season put him at 84 frames so far.

How good is Strasburg? As J.R.R. Tolkien might have said, his stuff pierces cloud, shadow, earth and flesh. But it’s the last of those things that might make you wonder, because even after a night like tonight, Strasburg is mortal. He’s had to go under the knife before, and the nightmare is that by pushing too hard too soon, he might have to again.

One old theory on pitcher workloads was that you wanted to be careful with guys younger than 24; before then, they were in “the injury nexus,” as I think my old colleague Jonah Keri (now of Grantland fame) liked to put it. Strasburg is 23, a month away from his 24th birthday.

Johnson has been entrusted with generational greats before, of course. He was the man in the Mets’ dugout when Dwight Gooden came up as teenage phenom in 1984. You can’t place the provenance of Gooden’s eventual breakdowns to any one thing -- overwork at such a young age? Being a kid on that team of good-time charlies? Getting coached to throw more breaking stuff early on? If you want to plead any of those for why Gooden will merely be well-remembered as a treasure, and not as a guy you’ll see in Cooperstown, you’d have a case.

But as distant as 1988 is to the present in terms of workloads or offensive environment, it puts the concerns about Strasburg into some perspective when you notice that at this time of year in Gooden’s season, he had made 15 starts to Strasburg’s 14, thrown 112 1/3 innings to Strasburg’s 84 and delivered 1,571 pitches to Strasburg’s 1,332. Gooden was also in his fifth full season in the majors. And as history records, Gooden needed shoulder surgery in 1989, the first in a series of injuries.

So, as far as Strasburg and the Nats are concerned, that sounds reasonable, right? Strasburg’s working less and has had considerably less mileage on his arm now than Gooden did by then. Well … maybe. This was also Strasburg’s second start of the season with more than 110 pitches, which will alarm some folks, especially since they’ve come in two of his past three turns. That’s the development I find more troubling than his innings or his starts or even his cumulative pitch count.

Even if you’re generous and want to note that 120 pitches is the standard we ought to be using for the hard line between OK and overworked for most pitchers, it’s worth noting that even that reliable defier of pitch-count paranoids, Justin Verlander, threw only three such starts in his age-23 season back in 2006, and his last one (on September 2) pretty much gassed the rookie for the remainder of the season -- and the postseason, when Verlander The Invincible would have made a big difference in the World Series against the victorious Cardinals.

And that’s the other nightmare scenario: They pile even more work on Strasburg to no happy ending, not unlike what the Cubs asked of Kerry Wood in the National League Division Series in 1998, only to find that they had asked too much of their wunderkind top gun.

None of this is guaranteed bad news for Strasburg, of course. Every pitcher is a unique talent. Every pitcher creates his own possibilities. Verlander didn’t break, even if he did wear down in 2006. Despite years of confident assertions that Livan Hernandez’s arm was going to fall off throwing the workloads he was tasked with, it never did. (Livan could probably still throw 230 innings if you asked him. They wouldn’t be good innings, mind you.)

And there is no talent like Strasburg’s. Now that we’re beyond the theory of what might have been the case, now that Strasburg is beyond the halfway point, you can bet that he’s not going to throw “just” 160 innings -- not pitching like this. Not even if the Nats try to give him additional rest around the All-Star Game by kicking him to the fifth turn post-break, and not even if they give him a two-week trip to the disabled list due to “tired arm” or some other malady general enough to be plausible. At this point, his trajectory’s going to take him past all of that.

To some extent, the cap has become so much nonsense, but that’s because Strasburg has made it so at the same time that the team’s bid to win is making it so. In the broad strokes, the Nationals have been as moderate as you could wish for in managing his workload up to this point, even as they tried to temper expectations by having tossed out that “160-inning cap” notion in the first place. You can fidget -- as I do -- over the pitch counts accumulated over multiple starts, but if Strasburg keeps upsetting all these good intentions, it’s because he’s the real deal.

Don't feel sorry for the Nats, that they have this call to make. There are 29 other teams that would kill for the chance to be making the tough choices Rizzo and Johnson will have to make. Simply as an observer, I say enjoy it while it lasts, because like Gooden 25 years later, we'll still be talking about Stephen Strasburg 25 years from now.

Ryan RobertsMark J. Rebilas/US PresswireRyan Roberts knows that everybody loves Tatt-Man after an inside-the-park home run.

Strasburg will need, and get, help

April, 12, 2012

At first blush, Stephen Strasburg’s overpowering start for the Washington Nationals might seem like good news for a club trying to get itself taken every bit as seriously as the Miami Marlins in the National League East’s “Division of Death” this season. But two outstanding starts into the season, Strasburg’s work brings up a couple of interesting things about this Nats club that bear watching as we head deeper into the 2012 season.

First, there’s the question of his workload. In the broad strokes, worrying about this now would definitely qualify as a case of too much, too soon. Even if Strasburg is limited to starting in a five-man rotation, in which nobody’s turn gets skipped because of scheduled days off, his total starts and innings are going to pile up. Even if Strasburg gets the odd extra day of rest between turns, he’s going to have around 17 starts by the All-Star break. As a 23-year-old. Coming back from elbow surgery. With the second half to look forward to. If he fends off a (perhaps unwanted) All-Star Game invite, he’d be on turn to lead off the rotation in the second half, same as the first.

That might not seem like a big deal. Davey Johnson probably isn’t going to overwork his young stud starter in individual ballgames, after all. But as dominating as Strasburg was Wednesday against the New York Mets, he still racked up 108 pitches against 24 batters in just six innings. Eighteen pitches facing just four guys per inning? That’s life when you’re striking people out, and that’s going to get you run out of games early, even when you’re going well.

But the real problem about the ideal of watching the kid’s workload and giving all due care to the logistical tedium of managing top talent carefully is where it might run up against the Nats’ bid for contention. That might sound silly to talk about in April, but various projection tools have the Nationals winning 80 to 82 games, and perhaps nobody in the NL East reaches 90. That makes the Nats a contender, on paper or in projections, admittedly, but a team that will be in the running.

Now, what does that mean for how they manage their best starter’s workload down the stretch? Is a buzzer going to go off when Strasburg makes his 24th start at the end of August, and general manager Mike Rizzo rings up Davey in the dugout and says, “Bad news, skip, the kid’s got just two starts left this year”? An incredulous Johnson might look at the standings and see that his team’s just four out and wonder what the point of the first five months was if you have to pull up and watch the Braves or Phillies or Marlins race on ahead.

That becomes even more difficult to swallow with the new two-wild-card setup for the postseason -- if you’re the Nats, and you might squeak into a one-game playoff to move into the NL Division Series, wouldn’t you feel pretty confident about your chances if you’ve got Strasburg in the fold?

Happily for the Nats, Johnson has a roster set up with more than a few compensations to deal with a young ace who’s going to have to be handled carefully early in the season, so maybe the issue becomes academic. First, you can skip worrying about who’s getting saves for the Nats, whether it’s Drew Storen or Brad Lidge at whatever point of the season. The real relief the Nats can look forward to comes from the relative no-names who will be pitching in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, starting with Tyler Clippard -- the NL’s most valuable non-Braves reliever last year, according to WAR -- and Henry Rodriguez's triple-digit gas, and Craig Stammen's ground-pounding sinker. That’s the kind of talent that will keep hard-hit balls from happening, usually with strikeouts. They won’t notch saves, but they’ll allow Johnson to hook Strasburg earlier than a previous generation’s skipper might have, and that might help keep the kid in the mix to the very end of the season.

Second, Johnson’s an old hand at getting the best from his lineups, to the point that he’ll eke out runs by cheating on defense. Witness Wednesday’s lineup behind Strasburg: With lefty Johan Santana on the mound, it becomes relatively affordable to put the towering Jayson Werth out in center field. Why? Because Strasburg generates so many outs at home plate that Johnson can risk a few adequate (or worse) defenders on the field. Against the Mets, Strasburg got half of his outs at home with those nine K's, got three ground-ball outs, and got a fly-ball out per inning.

There’s nothing very newfangled about this: Back in the 1980s, Johnson was willing to play sluggers such as Howard Johnson or a young Kevin Mitchell at shortstop when he had an extreme fly-ball/strikeout pitcher such as Sid Fernandez on the mound. And with more strikeouts happening today than ever, it makes even more sense now.

So maybe that’s the formula that gets Strasburg deep into the season: Better run support thanks to tailored lineups, a bullpen that can cover three or four frames per game, and not just pitch counts. If the Nats stay in this thing the way you could think they might, we’ll see what they decide about Strasburg’s workload then.

Ichiro SuzukiRick Yeatts/Getty ImagesIchiro might be getting up there, but he can still get on his horse and ride.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
DALLAS -- Back in spring training of 1984, Davey Johnson was the first-year manager of the New York Mets, a club that had lost 94 games the year before.

"I had to fight for a 19-year-old pitcher in New York," Johnson said Monday, retelling the story of how he had to lobby general manager Frank Cashen to put Dwight Gooden on the major league team. Gooden had spent 1983 in Class A ball, dominating the Carolina League, but he also made two starts for Johnson's Tidewater team in the Triple-A World Series.

Johnson knew what he had. He managed to convince Cashen that Gooden was ready. "And the rest is history," he said. Johnson didn't have to mention that Gooden won 17 games and led the National League with 276 strikeouts as a rookie. The Mets won 90 games behind their 19-year-old ace and two years later were World Series champions.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Andew Weber/US PresswireNationals manager Davey Johnson has a history with young talent like Bryce Harper.
The Gooden recollection was brought up when asked about Bryce Harper's chances of becoming the Washington Nationals' Opening Day right fielder -- even though Harper doesn't turn 20 until October.

"The main thing: Do I think he can handle it mentally? I know he's done everything his whole life to succeed on the highest level," Johnson said. "I think this guy is pretty mature."

Harper hit a combined .297/.392/.501 in his first season in the minors. One of the youngest players in the Arizona Fall League, he hit .333 with six home runs in 93 at-bats.

With the Mets, Johnson successfully incorporated many young players into the Mets' lineup -- guys like Gooden, Ron Darling, Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell and others. Unlike some managers, Johnson has always trusted inexperienced guys. "I feel I'm pretty good at handling young players," he said.

While he tried to keep his enthusiasm for Harper restrained, his affection for the Nats' uber-prospect was pretty obvious. "Is he the best candidate out there? I'd like to have another left-handed bat out there. I'm open to him competing."

While the Nationals have stated their desire to have Harper play at each level of the minors, starting a season with a 19-year-old position player in the majors wouldn't be unprecedented. Back in 1989, the Seattle Mariners gave their Opening Day center-field job to a kid who had played just 18 games above Class A.

Ken Griffey Jr. turned out pretty well.

Obviously, phenoms like Griffey are the rarity. Since 1950, only four players in their age-19 season have received 500 plate appearances -- Griffey, Robin Yount, Rusty Staub and Al Kaline. Only three others -- Edgar Renteria, Ed Kranepool and Tony Conigliaro, received as many as 400 plate appearances.

But Johnson's point was clear: That's the kind of talent Harper possesses.

If Harper wins the right-field job, Johnson also said he'd be comfortable sliding Jayson Werth over to center field, where he started 14 games last season. "He loves center," Johnson said. "He's a heck of a right fielder and I thought he did a good job in center."

Johnson clearly craves another left-handed bat. Other than Adam LaRoche, who must return from his shoulder surgery, the only other left-handed hitters currently on the Nationals' 40-man roster are outfielder Roger Bernadina and switch-hitting infielder Steve Lombardozzi, neither of whom possesses much power. Johnson says his ideal lineup would include at least three left-handed batters.

Spring training is months away, but you get the idea the Harper campaign has already begun.
A good ol’ time was had by all on Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast, as Keith Law and I went into extra innings on many subjects, including these:

1. Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan made news Wednesday night for some interesting reasons. Is he justified or is he the next Milton Bradley?

2. In the last relevant race, the Los Angeles Angels win and the Texas Rangers lose, and former prospect Jerome Williams played a big role. We reminisce on the right-hander.

3. Similarly, good for Oakland Athletics right-hander Guillermo Moscoso, who was nearly perfect against the Kansas City Royals. Who is this guy?

4. Let’s talk Tigers! Justin Verlander and the many wins, Jose Valverde and the many saves … what does it all mean?

5. The Philadelphia Phillies and the Brewers begin a big series Thursday, but is it really big at all? Do you believe in October calling cards?

Plus: Excellent e-mails, Chase Utley’s head, identifying bat speed, Davey Johnson in D.C. long term and so much more on a packed Thursday Baseball Today podcast. Download now!