SweetSpot: Ian Desmond

Nationals' delivery on promise a team thing

September, 16, 2014

Some ways of winning you find yourself liking better than you expected. Five and a half months ago, most of us anticipated the Nationals would win the NL East, so now that Washington is on the cusp of clinching, there isn’t any drama. It’s done. For weeks, it’s been a matter of math and shrinking odds.

Admittedly, the Braves made a better-than-expected showing with a cobbled-together rotation, but the Nationals should clinch at some point this week, which provides time to reflect on how and why they did it. This is why I’d argue it has been more fun to actually see them do it than you might've expected from a slam-dunk preseason favorite.

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Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesIan Desmond and Wilson Ramos are among the many guys who have put the Nationals on top in the NL East.
For example, if you thought they’d win because of their much celebrated young duo of nascent superstars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, guess again. Both have been good, but Strasburg isn’t the Nats’ best (or second best) starter, and Harper hasn’t been as important to the Nationals’ success in the lineup as Adam LaRoche or Anthony Rendon or Jayson Werth.

So set aside the guys such as Strasburg and Harper who get the most headlines. If you had to peg the “worst” player in the Nats lineup, whom would you peg? Wilson Ramos? Catchers with an OPS north of .700 don't grow on trees -- not these days. Ian Desmond? Asdrubal Cabrera? Those are both useful players with whom you can win, as the Nats have.

Take Desmond at shortstop, one of the last legacies from the franchise’s Expos incarnation, a third-round pick out of high school in 2004. His prospect status languished as he spent the better part of four years bouncing between Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg before he finally broke through with a reminder that, in time, youth will be served. If you look at what he doesn’t do -- generate positive numbers in advanced defensive metrics or walk -- you might underrate him. He’s durable and has already notched his third straight 20-homer season while playing a solid shortstop.

Instead, the Nats are an interesting success story because of their depth and because of the number of guys who put them over the top. It’s even more interesting when you consider how many analysts have been critical of the decisions to sign Werth and LaRoche. Some might still lament getting three years of control of center fielder Denard Span in a deal with the Twins for hotshot pitching prospect Alex Meyer. But in the end, this is a concentration of talent that has used financial muscle via free agency and accumulated value from more than a decade of scouting.

That isn’t the only thing that has worked out well, even if the current management regime can’t claim all the credit. Whether getting Doug Fister from the Tigers or stealing Wilson Ramos from the Twins, there’s plenty to brag about. Betting the upside on Werth in his 30s has worked out well for the Nationals, as David Schoenfield noted recently. Reviewing his seven-year, $126 million deal at the midpoint, it certainly looks much better than the B.J. Upton contract (five years, $75 million), a deal many celebrated and a lot of smart folks liked at the time and a deal that has almost no chance of working out, now that Upton’s on the short list of worst regulars in baseball. LaRoche? It used to be fashionable to bash him as a mediocrity; these days he's a solid sure thing the Nats can bet on.

That is not to say the Nationals will have it easy from here on out. They still have important questions to ask and answer -- and two weeks to find answers before they head into October.

Perhaps the biggest question involves their former starting third baseman. As Ryan Zimmerman tries to work his way back from the DL, he went through a full workout Monday at instructional league and will play a simulated game Tuesday. If he can come back in time to get a week or so of everyday play in the majors, the Nats might be able to determine if they can move Anthony Rendon back to second base and start Zimmerman at third or if they’ll have to settle for Zimmerman spot-starting at first, left and -- should they make it -- DH in the World Series. It’s a nice problem to have.

Less enjoyable will be sorting out what they’re going to do with former closer Rafael Soriano. Handed a four-run lead in the ninth inning Monday, he brought the Braves back into the game by allowing two runs to score. Since his latest save Sept. 1, Soriano has allowed six runs and blown two saves in his past 4 1/3 IP across five games. He’s allowed 10 baserunners. He’s giving Nationals fans the willies, and if Matt Williams had any hair left, it would have long since gone grey. Drew Storen came in to clean up the mess, notched his fifth save in five appearances and demonstrated there is no “committee” solution to Soriano’s struggles as a closer -- the job is Storen’s.

The question now might be whether Soriano is worth a postseason roster spot. That might sound extreme, but if he doesn’t show anything in the next two weeks, would you invest the space in keeping him around? They’ll be adding someone from the rotation -- probably Tanner Roark -- to the pen, and with Tyler Clippard and Aaron Barrett around, it isn’t like they’re short of quality right-handed arms for setup work. It might come down to a choice between Soriano and third lefty Jerry Blevins.

The Nationals will be better off if Soriano can put people’s minds at ease in the meantime. He didn’t Monday night, but thanks to the margin they’ve built to clinch shortly, they’ll be able to afford him the time to get back in gear. Those are the benefits you win for yourself when you deliver on the expectation that you’d win going away -- and then you do.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

After badly underachieving for the first four months a year ago and playing themselves out of postseason contention, the Washington Nationals were looking forward to a fresh start and some more positive karma under new manager Matt Williams.

Other than leading the major leagues in errors and devastating thumb injuries, they have yet to distinguish themselves in a way they might have hoped.

The Nats suffered a blow two weeks ago when All-Star Ryan Zimmerman fractured his right thumb diving into second base on a pickoff play against Atlanta. Zimmerman’s thumb is in a splint, and the Nationals say the original four- to six-week prognosis still applies, which means he’ll probably be back sometime in mid- to late May.
[+] EnlargeRyan Zimmerman
AP Photo/Jason GetzWhen Ryan Zimmerman returns from the DL, he'll come back to a lineup without Bryce Harper.

He’ll return to a lineup without Bryce Harper, who will undergo surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb and is expected to be out until at least early July.

All the Nationals need now is for Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond or Adam LaRoche to hurt a thumb sliding into first base, and they’ll be three-fourths of the way to a cycle.

The injury is yet more fodder for critics who say Harper is “all hype” and doesn’t belong on the same planet with Mike Trout. That’s unfair, of course, but it’s still been a strangely off-kilter spring for Harper. After looking ready in the Grapefruit League, he struck out 10 times in his first 21 regular-season at-bats and pronounced himself “pretty lost right now.” Then Williams benched him for jogging out a ground ball, of all things. And there was that surreal moment last week when Harper smoked the ball in his first two at-bats only to gift-wrap an out for the Angels by trying to bunt for a hit in a big spot with a man on base.

Regardless of Harper’s meager power numbers at the time of his injury, his absence will hurt a Washington lineup that’s off to a strong start. The Nats rank second to Colorado in the National League with 115 runs scored and a .731 OPS, and Harper looked as if he might be poised to go on a roll with a season-high four RBIs Friday against San Diego. Now he’ll be replaced by Nate McLouth, a handy guy and a solid defender who won’t provide much thump.

The injuries will test the Nationals' fortitude and resilience, but any team with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann in the rotation is going to win its share of 2-1 and 3-2 games. Tanner Roark has been a revelation, and Doug Fister will complete his rehab assignment shortly and make it an even stronger contingent.

But this season clearly isn’t going to be the joyride that everyone expected when the Nationals were anointed as the clear NL East front-runner in spring training. For starters, the division is stronger than a lot of people expected. The Braves are off to a terrific start, and they’re about to get a boost from the return of Mike Minor to the rotation. They’re also 18-7 against Washington since the start of the 2013 season, and some people think they’re in the Nationals’ heads.

The Phillies just returned from a 6-4 West Coast trip, and Chase Utley is looking awfully spry. Terry Collins always gets the best out of the Mets, who have a solid rotation from the first through fifth slots. And the Marlins have a chance to be trouble, as well, if they can figure out a way to improve upon that 2-10 road record.

In late March, when ESPN released its “expert” predictions, 40 of the 44 folks surveyed picked Washington to win the NL East (with only four prognosticators going with Atlanta). Twelve of those 44 picked the Nationals to win the World Series.

Suddenly, Williams has to deal with the absence of Zimmerman, catcher Wilson Ramos and Harper and the potential for some flagging morale in the clubhouse. It might be time for him to deliver a pep talk to ensure the Nats don't fall victim to a case of “here we go again”-itis.

And while Williams is at it, he might want to mix in some remedial sliding lessons.
There's certainly no shame in losing to Adam Wainwright. When he's commanding his fastball to the corners and dropping in that big curveball, the 1927 Yankees with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig would have trouble beating him.

It's one thing to lose to an ace like Wainwright, but it's another to go down like the Washington Nationals did on Thursday night: one lone infield hit to Wainwright until there were two outs in the ninth; four errors, to add to their league-leading total; 192 pitches thrown; one wild pitch, one hit batter and a whole bunch of fans who left Nationals Park early.

This is supposed to be one of the best teams in baseball? The Nationals looked like the '62 Mets in this one. By the seventh inning, I expected to see Marv Throneberry triple into a double play.

Of course, every team has a game like this at some point during the season. There are more than a few teams who would like to own the Nationals' 9-7 record. Still, this game exposed some concerns about the Nationals, namely, their defense, their arguably overrated rotation and their inability to beat good teams.

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Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsDanny Espinosa made one of four errors by the Nationals in their loss to the Cardinals on Thursday.
Yes, the Nats are 9-7, but they’re 3-0 against the Mets (who, granted, are off to an 8-7 start) and 5-1 against the Miami Marlins, but 1-5 against the Atlanta Braves and now 0-1 against the St. Louis Cardinals. In those seven games against the Braves and Cardinals, they've been outscored 40 to 16.

If that sounds familiar, I take you back to 2013, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 0-6 against the Cardinals. Against the five National League playoff teams, they went 14-31 while being outscored 181-125. The Nationals went 86-76 only because they beat up on the hapless Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Marlins, and they did much of that damage in September, once those three clubs had long since packed it in. If we're supposed to take the Nationals seriously, don't they need to start beating the good teams?

That vaunted Nationals rotation. It had a 3.60 ERA last season. That's good. I mean, it was only sixth best in the NL, barely better than the Mets (3.68) and only a little better than the Marlins (3.87). Of course, the Mets didn't get to face the Mets and the Marlins didn't get to face the historically awful Marlins offense, but 3.60 is pretty solid. Many thought it would be even better this season: They brought in Doug Fister to replace Dan Haren, and Stephen Strasburg should be better and Jordan Zimmermann just needs to do what he did in the first half last season (12-4, 2.58 ERA) over a full season.

That hasn't happened early on. Fister hasn't pitched yet; the depth from Taylor Jordan, who started Thursday, and Tanner Roark hasn't materialized; Strasburg has struggled with runners on base; Zimmermann had a blow-up start. The Nationals have a 5.21 rotation ERA, second worst in the majors.

It's probably good news that the Nationals are 9-7 when the rotation has struggled to this degree. Sure, there's undoubtedly some bad luck in there -- the .348 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) the starters have allowed is also second worst in the majors -- but they're also 28th in average innings per start and 25th in walks per nine innings. They're also first in strikeouts per nine, but strikeouts are nicer when they come with run prevention.

OK, most of us still believe in the rotation. And they'll have a lot of games against the Marlins and Phillies to look good against.

The defense, however, has been the biggest disaster of all. On Thursday, shortstop Ian Desmond made a fielding error and a throwing error, raising his season total to seven; second baseman Danny Espinosa dropped a throw from Desmond; right fielder Jayson Werth dropped a fly ball. That's 20 errors in 16 games. Ugly.

OK, errors aren't everything. You can make up for errors with good range. But they look bad, and, sometimes, sloppy baseball feeds off itself. The pitchers have to throw more pitches and work out of more jams. That leads to earlier exits and puts more strain on the bullpen.

Again, one game. In September, it will be forgotten. Heck, it might be forgotten by next week. But I won't forget until I start seeing the Nationals do some damage against better teams. Ask yourself this: How would we view this team if it played in the NL Central instead of the NL East?

The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

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Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.

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.

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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.

Last season, the Washington Nationals led the majors with 98 wins. They had the following stretches:

April 26-May 19: 9-13
June 15-July 16 13-13
Aug. 12-Sept. 1: 9-9
Sept. 14-Oct. 1: 7-10

Those four periods covered more half the games the Nationals played and they went 38-45. Did I mention they still won 98 games?

So, no, there's no reason to be that alarmed over their slow start, a 10-11 mark through their first 21 games -- a record boosted by a 5-1 mark against the dreadful Marlins. If not for the heroics of Bryce Harper, the start would be even more concerning.

It's just that we don't notice a mediocre stretch in the middle of the season like we do in April. That's part of the charm of April baseball, the extreme highs and lows and overreaction to each win and each loss. Nationals fans can look to Thursday's 8-1 win over the Reds -- Gio Gonzalez allowed just one hit in eight innings and Harper homered again -- and suddenly feel much better about their team.

Now, on the other hand, the Nationals were expected to win a lot of games. Many had them winning more than 100 games -- I pegged them right at 100 -- and nearly everyone had them winning the National League East, or at least a wild card. I thought I'd check to see what kind of starts the best teams in recent years got off to, so I looked at all the 95-win teams over the previous five seasons, which gave us 19 teams.


Considering their 11-11 start, how many wins do you now predict for the Nationals?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,858)

Only three of the 19 had a losing record through 21 games -- the 2012 Reds (10-11, finished with 97 wins), 2009 Angels (9-12, finished with 97 wins) and 2008 Rays (10-11, finished with 97 wins). The average record of the 19 teams was 12.7 wins, 8.3 losses, so that puts the Nationals only three wins "behind" the starts of these, which is easy ground to make up. Of course, a lot of teams have started 10-11 and didn't win 95 games.

Which means the Nationals do have some issues. Let's run down a few of those.
  • Gonzalez, the 21-game winner last year, entered Thursday's game at 1-1 with a 5.85 ERA, mostly driven by a high walk rate (11 in 20 innings) and a higher hit rate than 2012. Against the Reds, he allowed only Joey Votto's fourth-inning homer; more importantly, he walked just two batters. He threw 78 of 112 pitches for strikes -- 70 percent, much better than his 58 percent rate entering the start.
  • Stephen Strasburg is 1-4 with a 3.16 ERA, but the ERA is a little misleading because it doesn't include four unearned runs. He's allowed 15 runs in 31.1 innings. His problems seem correctable -- opponents are hitting .360 against him in the first inning, .186 after that, and he's had issues locating his fastball in the first inning (strike percentage of 46 compared to 58 in the ensuing innings). The bigger issue is his inconsistency against left-handed batters, something trending downward:

    April 2012: .504 OPS
    May 2012: .708 OPS
    June 2012: .563 OPS
    July 2012: 1.172 OPS
    August 2012: .552 OPS
    September 2012: .800 OPS
    April 2013: .776 OPS
  • Dan Haren has allowed a .376 batting average through four starts. He's probably not that bad. But here's an interesting note about the Nationals staff: It's allowed a line-drive rate of 20.4 percent, better only than the Marlins and Tigers. Last year, they were tied for third-best in the majors at 17.6 percent. Line-drive is just a small part of the entire pitching picture, but I'm guessing the Nationals will improve in this area.
  • Defense. The Nationals lead the majors with 19 errors (shortstop Ian Desmond already has seven and Ryan Zimmerman four before he recently landed on the disabled list) and their defensive efficiency rating (percentage of balls in play turned into outs) ranks 22nd. Defensive Runs Saved has them at minus-5 runs before Thursday's game, 20th in the majors.

In the midst of all this has been the 20-year-year wunderkind Harper, who continues to show those MVP predictions were anything but outrageous. He went 2-for-3 with a walk on Thursday, hitting a third-inning, 0-1 sinker (that didn't sink) from Bronson Arroyo over the fence in left-center field for his eighth home run. He's batting .364/.443/.740 and there's a case to be made that he's been the best player in the game in April. He's exciting, thrilling, already good and maybe getting better. Not since Barry Bonds< was doing illegal things to baseballs has there been a must-watch hitter like Harper.

So, yes, there are some minor concerns with the Nationals. But remember: It's April. They have five months to assert their dominance.
Quick thoughts on Tuesday's games …

  • Ahh, just a few short days ago the New York Yankees were 1-4 and the butt of jokes across baseball land. Now they've won three in a row after beating the Cleveland Indians 14-1. Andy Pettitte allowed just an Asdrubal Cabrera home run in his seven innings. He's 40 and looks as good as ever. Remember when Robinson Cano was hitting .130? This is why you should never look at first-week statistics unless you're Chris Davis' agent. In his past two games, Cano has seven hits, including three doubles and three home runs, and is now hitting .303. For the Indians, the rotation shuffle might already be starting. Carlos Carrasco made his first start since Tommy John surgery in 2011, wasn't effective and got ejected after hitting Kevin Youkilis. Brett Myers, Cleveland's scheduled starter for Wednesday, pitched the final 5.1 innings Tuesday, so Terry Francona will need to find a different starter, which maybe isn't the worst thing since Myers has already allowed seven home runs.
  • [+] EnlargeTim Lincecum
    AP Photo/Jeff ChiuTim Lincecum had another bumpy outing, but the Giants comeback got him off the hook.
    Tim Lincecum had another shaky outing. After walking seven in his first start, he walked four in this one but did manage to scuffle through six innings. Through four innings he had thrown 71 pitches -- 37 strikes, 34 balls -- and had twice walked opposing pitcher Juan Nicasio. He was, as the ball/strike ratio indicates, all over the place. He was a little better his final two innings -- 33 pitches, 24 strikes -- but he certainly didn't placate any concerns. It ended up being a tough loss for the Colorado Rockies, off to a nice start, as the San Francisco Giants rallied from a four-run deficit.
  • Caught a little bit of Nick Tepesch's debut for the Texas Rangers, a 6-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. He pitched into the eighth inning, allowing four hits, walking three and striking five, flashing a low-90s fastball, slider and a curveball that worked on this night (the Rays went 1-for-8 with four Ks in plate appearances ending with the curve). Tepesch was the surprise winner of the No. 5 slot in the rotation, but it appears he knows what he's doing out there. Todd Wills of ESPNDallas.com has the reaction from Tepesch's teammates.
  • Wild 8-7 victory for the Washington Nationals over the Chicago White Sox on a hot April night in D.C. Jake Peavy and Gio Gonzalez were locked up in a 1-1 duel through four innings, but then Ian Desmond homered in the fifth and Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche homered in a four-run sixth. LaRoche later added another home run off Matt Thornton (his first two hits of the year after an 0-for-15 start). Peavy said he ran out of gas in the sixth; game-time temperature was a humid 81 degrees. Gonzalez labored through 99 pitches in his five innings, but escaped with just one run. The biggest takeaway from this game, however, is that Rafael Soriano struggled again, giving up two runs in the ninth on Alex Rios' two-run homer, although still absurdly getting credit for the save. Just something to watch. One more thing to watch: Bryce Harper is hitting .379 but hasn't drawn a walk. Let's see if pitchers can take advantage of that aggressiveness (and then see how Harper adjusts).
  • Kudos to the Houston Astros for their 16-run explosion against the Seattle Mariners. They even limited their strikeouts to 10! (They went 22-for-37 when putting the ball in play.) The eight combined home runs at Safeco were the third-most ever in a game there; there were nine twice in 2004. Mariners rookie starter Brandon Maurer was terrible, giving up seven hits and a walk while retiring only two batters. As good as Maurer looked in spring training to win a rotation spot, it's a reminder that he wasn't exactly dominant last year in Double-A, striking out 117 in 137.2 innings with 48 walks. His slider has been up in the zone and batters are 7-for-12 against it.

What should Team USA look like?

January, 14, 2013
The World Baseball Classic provisional rosters will be announced later this week and news is starting to slip out on who Joe Torre will be naming to the roster. Giancarlo Stanton has committed to playing for Team USA, but Mike Trout will not, instead sticking to a full spring training with the Angels. That's certainly understandable in Trout's case, since he battled an illness last spring that caused him to lose 20 pounds and begin the season in Triple-A. Other players who have committed include R.A. Dickey, Andy Pettitte, Craig Kimbrel, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Mark Teixeira.

In a perfect world where every player wants to play, who should be on the Team USA roster? Since the World Baseball Classic is to a large degree a marketing vehicle for the sport, you want a mix of the best players in the game and young stars. In the cases of Trout and Stanton, they would be easy inclusions: They're young and already among the game's elite players.

Here's my 30-man roster:

Catcher -- Buster Posey, Matt Wieters, Joe Mauer
Pretty easy choices here, especially with Brian McCann coming off a bad year and offseason shoulder surgery. One of the interesting story lines for 2013: Does Wieters have any offensive growth left in his game? After back-to-back years hitting .262 and .249 with 22 and 23 home runs, he may have maxed out his power, but if he can learn to hit for a little more average against right-handed pitchers (.223 in 2012) and improve his batting line to something like .280/.360/.500, then he's one of the most valuable players in the game, not just one of the most valuable catchers.

First Base -- Prince Fielder, Anthony Rizzo
Is first base the weakest position in the majors right now? Joey Votto missed 50 games and was still easily the most valuable first baseman in the majors. Prince is the obvious No. 1 choice but with guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Teixeira having down years, let's promote and up-and-coming star like Rizzo. Plus, it gives us a Cub.

Second Base -- Ben Zobrist, Dustin Pedroia
The switch-hitting, slick-fielding Zobrist would be the starter with Pedroia coming off the bench or playing against a left-hander. You can make cases for Aaron Hill (terrific season for Arizona) or the always reliable Brandon Phillips.

Third Base -- David Wright, Chase Headley
There's a lot of depth at third base in the majors right now, but not all of it is U.S.-born players. Wright and Headley were the two best in the majors in 2012 -- yes, arguably better than Miguel Cabera. On the road, Headley had more home runs and a higher OPS than Cabrera.

Shortstop -- Ian Desmond, Jimmy Rollins
With Troy Tulowitzki and Derek Jeter returning from injuries, it's an easy call to give our roster slots to Desmond and Rollins, who ranked 1-2 in FanGraphs WAR among all shortstops in 2012 (not counting Zobrist, who started there the last month and a half, but will move back to second with the acquisition of Yunel Escobar). Desmond will have to prove his power burst is for real -- from eight home runs to 25 -- but I'm a believer.

Outfield: Ryan Braun, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper, Jason Heyward, Austin Jackson
A good mix of MVP candidates (Braun, Trout, McCutchen) and future MVP candidates. The tough choice for Torre: Who do you start? An outfield of Braun in left, Trout in center and Stanton in right gives you three right-handed batters, so maybe you mix in Harper or Heyward against a right-hander.

Starting Pitchers: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain
You don't see many starting pitchers on the World Baseball Classic rosters, in part since they're limited by pitch counts and there aren't that many games to play anyway. But we'll pick five. Verlander and Kershaw are clearly the top two pitchers in baseball right now, as both could have easily picked up their second consecutive Cy Young Awards in 2012. Price and Dickey are the reigning Cy Young champions and are the type of players you want to expose in this kind of event. There are many defensible choices for the fifth spot but Cain gets my nod as the leader of the staff for the World Series champs and the kind of guy you want starting a big game.

Relief Pitchers: Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Sergio Romo, David Hernandez, Kris Medlen, Jake McGee, Sean Marshall, Charlie Furbush
For the bullpen, we're not too worried about just looking at the saves leaders. We want dominant arms in the pen but also the ability to match up late in games if needed. Kimbrel is obviously our closer -- and hopefully Torre will use him for more than three outs if needed, especially with a one-run lead! Papelbon had a couple big blown saves for the Phillies but had a dominant 92/18 strikeout/walk ratio. I'm not sure he's our top setup guy, however. That role may fall to Romo and his death-to-righties slider and the underrated Hernandez, who fanned 98 in 68.1 innings for the Diamondbacks.

Medlen has to be on our team after his dominant transition to the rotation last year -- 0.97 ERA in 12 games as a starter. Are you kidding? With his experience pitching in relief he can be our long guy. And then I went with three left-handers. Tampa Bay's McGee finally had the season long expected of him with his power arsenal. He had a 73/11 SO/BB ratio in 55.1 innings, but he's not just lefty killer as right-handers hit a .098 against him. Marshall has long been one of the best against lefties and Furbush is the new Marshall; with his fastball/slider combo, lefties hit just .147 off him, with just three doubles and no home runs in 75 at-bats.

That's my team. Who would be on yours?

Your 2012 MLB All-Star team

November, 5, 2012
I've always thought Major League Baseball should announce an official end-of-season All-Star team. You could have different voting components -- 25 percent computer, 25 percent fans, 25 percent players and managers, 25 percent media, something like that. Make a big production out of it, get a sponsor, get the players to show up, televise it during one of the off days of the World Series and drum up some publicity for the game's best players. What a concept!

So make it happen. There are end-of-year All-Star teams named, of course -- I think The Associated Press still names one and some individual publications will name their own. So in the interest of fun, here's mine. I factor in the entire season, which means the postseason counts. Also: Who's your player of the year?

C: Buster Posey, Giants (.336/.408/.549, 24 HR, 103 RBI, 7.2 WAR)
Yadier Molina had a terrific season as well, but since we're factoring in the postseason, the Giants' World Series pushes Posey over the top. According to Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement, the only three catchers since 1980 with better seasons were Mike Piazza in 1997, Gary Carter in 1982 and Joe Mauer in 2009. Posey should become the first catcher to win the NL MVP Award since Johnny Bench in 1972.

1B: Prince Fielder, Tigers (.313/.412/.529, 30 HR, 103 RBI, 4.4 WAR
By WAR, Joey Votto was the best first baseman in the majors, but Fielder played all 162 games while Votto missed 51 games. It was a pretty weak year for first basemen -- only Votto, Pujols, Fielder and Adam LaRoche reached 4.0 Wins Above Replacement. Fielder has now posted four straight seasons with an OBP over .400, he's missed one game in those four seasons and he walked more than he struck out for the second straight season. He may have the body of a slugger, but Fielder is a hitter.

2B: Robinson Cano, Yankees (.313/.379/.550), 33 HR, 94 RBI, 8.2 WAR
He got criticized for his production with runners in scoring position (he hit .268, .207 with two outs), but that's nitpicking a fantastic player who had another terrific all-around season. He did hit .316 with men on base and .286 in "late and close" situations, so he wasn't a zero in the clutch. He hit 22 of his 33 home runs at home, but hit more doubles with more walks and a slightly higher average on the road, so his overall production was actually pretty similar. It was his best season, an MVP-worthy campaign in many seasons.

3B: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (.330/.393/.606, 44 HR, 139 RBI, 6.9 WAR
Cabrera had a fantastic season, of course, winning the Triple Crown, but his season at the plate wasn't really any more valuable than 2010 or 2011. In fact, his wRC+ and OPS were higher both seasons. His walks did drop from 108 to 66 (intentional walks from 22 to 17), perhaps a result of Fielder hitting behind him. His home runs did increase from 30 to 44, and while you can argue that was because Fielder was protecting him, it's worth noting that Cabrera led the majors with 16 "just enough" home runs, according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker. By the way, isn't it time to start listing the Tigers' acquisition of Cabrera from the Marlins as one of the greatest heists of all time?

SS: Ian Desmond, Nationals (.292/.335/.511, 25 HR, 73 RBI, 3.2 WAR)
There was no standout shortstop this year -- and, yes, I didn't forget about Derek Jeter, who had a great season at the plate with a .316 average and major league-leading 216 hits. Erick Aybar had the highest WAR at 4.0, but I'm going with Desmond, the only regular shortstop to slug .500. The defense is a bit erratic at times, but he has a strong arm, the power numbers were big and he swiped 21 bases in 27 tries. His improvement was a big reason the Nationals owned the best record in the majors.

OF: Mike Trout, Angels (.326/.399/.564, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 49 SB, 10.7 WAR)
What do you do for an encore after a season like this in which you turned 21?

OF: Ryan Braun, Brewers (.319/.391/.595, 41 HR, 112 RBI, 30 SB, 6.8 WAR)
Nearly identical numbers to his MVP season of 2011, although I suspect he'll finish out of the top-five in the balloting. Led the NL in home runs, runs, OPS and total bases. The affects of not having Fielder behind him? Pretty minimal, other than his intentional walks increasing from two to 15. The Brewers, by the way, scored more runs in 2012 than 2011.

OF: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.327/.400/.553, 31 HR, 96 RBI, 7.0 WAR)
Now, get this man some help. Pirates outfielder with 7-win seasons: Roberto Clemente (5), Barry Bonds (4), Ralph Kiner (3), Willie Stargell (2), Dave Parker (1). And now McCutchen.


Who is your major league player of the year?


Discuss (Total votes: 54,794)

DH: Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (.280/.384/.557, 42 HR, 110 RBI, 4.2 WAR)
It's not like he hadn't showed power before -- 26 home runs with the Reds in 2008, 38 over the past two seasons in part-time roles -- but I don't think anybody saw this coming. He did start 66 games at first base and that could be his full-time destination in 2013. Regardless of where he plays, expect big numbers again.

SP: Justin Verlander, Tigers (17-8, 2.64 ERA, 238.1 IP, 60 BB, 239 SO, 7.6 WAR)
I'm sure he'd like that final game, a disappointing end to an otherwise dominant season. It will be interesting to see if the Tigers back off him a little next season, making sure you have all your bullets left in October.

SP: David Price, Rays (20-5, 2.56 ERA, 211 IP, 59 BB, 205 SO, 6.4 WAR)
My guess is he edges out Verlander for the Cy Young Award, given the similar ERA but better W-L record. I think Verlander's 27-inning edge and performance in front of an inferior defense gives him the edge, but Price's 20 wins will likely sway the voters.

SP: R.A. Dickey, Mets (20-6, 2.73 ERA, 233.2 IP, 54 BB, 230 SO, 5.6 WAR)
Led the NL in innings, strikeouts, batters faced, complete games and shutouts. A wonderful year, a wonderful story.

SP: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (14-9, 2.53 ERA, 227.2 IP, 63 BB, 220 SO, 6.2 WAR
Nobody talked about him all season, but he once again ended up with dominant numbers. Don't be fooled by the 14 wins: He was every bit as good as last year. Don't blame him for the Dodgers not beating out the Giants: In five starts against San Francisco, he allowed seven runs, walked seven and struck out 40. Alas, he went just 2-3.

SP: Matt Cain, Giants (16-5, 2.79 ERA, 219.1 IP, 51 BB, 193 SO, 3.5 WAR)
In a year with so many strong starting pitching candidates, I'm giving Cain the fifth spot. His WAR isn't as impressive as some of the other candidates, but he became the ace of the rotation that won it all. Sounds like a good tiebreaker to me.

RP: Craig Kimbrel, Braves (3-1, 1.01 ERA, 42 SV, 62.2 IP, 27 H, 116 SO, 3.2 WAR)
With that unhittable slider, opposing batters hit just .126 off him and Kimbrel struck out over half the batters he faced. A season that ranks alongside Eric Gagne's 2003 Cy Young season and Dennis Eckersley's 1990 as best ever by a closer in the past 25 years.

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.

SweetSpot TV: 2012 MLB All-Stars

October, 2, 2012

Eric Karabell and I actually recorded this week, but I don't think anything changed. We present our 2012 major league All-Stars. Yes, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout both made our squad. The biggest surprise, however, may be who we like at shortstop.

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.
Eric Karabell got stuck in traffic (twice!) on his way from Pennsylvania to Connecticut, so I filled in at the last minute to host Monday's Baseball Today podcast with Keith Law. Among the topics:

1. The Oakland A's are red hot after sweeping the Yankees. Can they stay in this race? We discuss the A's, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes and their playoff chances.

2. The Pittsburgh Pirates are also hot! Hey, anything is possible ...

3. Keith provides an update on Cubs prospect Jorge Soler, who hit his first minor league home run over the weekend.

4. We probably talked way too long about Brett Myers, who is now a member of the Chicago White Sox. Did the Astros get anything of value for him?

5. We go to the user emails to discuss whether the Twins would or could trade Joe Mauer and whether the playoff system will end up being unfair to a good team.

All that, plus mentions of Jon Lester, Ian Desmond and more on Monday's show!
LincecumBrad Mills/US PresswireSan Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum has given up more runs in the first half of the season than he did all last season.
First base: Lincecum loses again. Jayson Stark gave his first-half Cy Yuck award to Tim Lincecum and deservedly so: After getting knocked out in the fourth inning on Sunday, the two-time Cy Young winner finished the first half at 3-10 with a 6.42 ERA, worst in the majors among qualified starters. Lincecum has allowed 72 runs after allowing 74 all of 2011. "You never want to say, 'Hey, I've hit rock bottom,' or anything like that," Lincecum said after Sunday's game. "But when things are going as bad as they are right now, you've kind of got to go out there like you've got nothing left to lose. Leave it all out there on the field and what happens, happens."

Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Lincecum will be the team's No. 2 starter coming out of the All-Star break. Lincecum supporters will point to the fact that he's averaging 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings as evidence his stuff is still there and his .333 average on balls in play is one of the highest in the majors. However, it's more than just "bad luck" that is plaguing Lincecum: It's mostly bad pitching. He has little command of his fastball and hitters are taking a lot of pitches, leading to walks and high pitch counts. His offspeed stuff can still produce strikeouts -- in part, because he's getting to a lot of two-strike counts as hitters work deep into the count. However, Lincecum's inability to make good pitches can be seen in what happens when the batter gets ahead in the count: They're hitting .345/.538/.605 in those situations; a year ago they hit .269/.457/.446.

I didn't watch Sunday's game but I charted his previous start against the Nationals, another blowout loss in which he got knocked out in the fourth inning after allowing nine hits and eight runs. A few notes from that start:

  • He allowed four hits that could have been caught. In the first inning, Steve Lombardozzi lined a single up the middle off the glove of shortstop Brandon Crawford. It was a 3-1 fastball and Lombardozzi smoked it. In the second inning, Ian Desmond grounded a single past a diving Pablo Sandoval (who may have gotten his glove on it). It was a hard grounder off 1-1 breaking ball, but a third baseman who doesn't resemble a doughnut may have made the play. In the third, Ryan Zimmerman grounded another base hit past a diving Sandoval off an offspeed pitch. In the fourth, Bryce Harper lined a double past Buster Posey at first base. It was a fastball right down the middle that Harper hit hard.
  • OK, while those four could be classified as unlucky (or at least the two hits past Sandoval), Lincecum also constantly missed his target. Danny Espinosa doubled to deep center field in the second inning as Hector Sanchez set up low and away, but Lincecum's fastball was up and over the plate. A bad pitch. Later in the inning, pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (a good-hitting pitcher) lined a double to right off a hanging breaking ball. In the third, Adam LaRoche just missed a home run with a double off the center-field fence. Sanchez had set up inside but Lincecum's pitch was belt-high on the outside corner. Desmond followed with a home run off an 0-1 curveball, that wasn't a terrible pitch, just above the knees, but Desmond crushed it to left field (he was 9-for-11 at that point in his career off Lincecum). It was also the same pitch Desmond had singled off earlier in the game.
  • Lincecum threw 87 pitches in the game, faced 21 batters, gave up seven balls classified as line drives, allowed five extra-base hits, fell behind in counts, missed locations and hung some breaking balls. There just wasn't a lot of bad luck in this start. The key in the second half is getting command of his fastball back. Lincecum is undoubtedly one of the most important pitchers of the second half. Right now, I don't know what to expect. His first start will be at home against the Astros, but the tougher test will be his first road outing (where he has a 9.00 ERA this season).
Second base: Dynamite Desmond. Speaking of Desmond, the All-Star shortstop homered again on Sunday, giving him six in his past 11 games and raising his slugging percentage to .515. Desmond has 17 home runs -- only two fewer than the other NL East shortstops combined. Since 1990 only seven NL shortstops have slugged .500 over a season -- Barry Larkin (three times), Rich Aurilia, Bill Hall, Hanley Ramirez (three times), Jimmy Rollins, Stephen Drew and Troy Tulowitzki (three times). Desmond was miscast as a leadoff hitter the first 40 games, but he's settled nicely in the fifth and sixth slots. Some doubt whether the power is for real, but keep in mind he also has 24 doubles. That's 43 extra-base hits, tied for second in the NL behind Joey Votto.

Third base: Bauer power. Arizona rookie Trevor Bauer made his third start and it was finally a good one (insert Dodgers caveat here) with six scoreless innings and two hits allowed. After relying heavily on his fastball in his first two starts, Bauer threw more offspeed pitches against the Dodgers, throwing them 54 percent of his time. The Dodgers went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts in at-bats ending with Bauer's offspeed stuff, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He also threw his "reverse slider" for strikes 12 of the 13 times he threw it. (Bauer calls the screwball-like pitch a reverse slider.) With Daniel Hudson out for the season, Bauer's second half will be vital to Arizona's playoff chances.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. With Matt Cain drawing the All-Star start for the National League over R.A. Dickey, Adam Rubin had this tweet:
Ah, the highs and lows of being a New York Mets fan! We’ve got Mark Simon to discuss this, and many other topics, for Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast!

1 .One day they get a no-hitter, and on Tuesday the Mets somehow manage to lose to the Nationals in a crazy game. We celebrate Bryce Harper, the annoying Stephen Strasburg angle, and of course, talk Mets.

2. The Diamondbacks are struggling, and the team’s managing general partner decided it was time to verbally motivate a few players. Was he out of line?

3. Tuesday was a night for barehanded defense, and we point out the season leaders in this unique category.

4. We take your Tweets on a variety of topics, including late draft steals, being clutch and the Pirates.

5. Wednesday’s schedule features interesting arms for the Rays and Yankees, Zack Greinke and the underrated Felipe Paulino! Of course, you know all about Felipe Paulino, right?

So download and listen to Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast as we bring the passion and hope you enjoy it!