Tuesday, September 25, 2012
The revival of baseball in the Beltway
By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
Washington Nationals utility man Steve Lombardozzi has lived in Columbia, Md., about equal distance between Washington and Baltimore, for 20 years, since he was 4. He is too young to truly understand the tremendous story that is developing in and around the Beltway, a story of hope and redemption and magic, a story that has never been told in that area, a story that wasn't supposed to happen this season. All Lombardozzi, 24, knows is that, until this year, he couldn't remember a .500 season for the Nationals or Baltimore Orioles.
"It's funny because me and my buddies used to go to Orioles games, and we loved it even though they weren't winning," he said, laughing. "My buddies are still going to Orioles games all the time, and I've had to tell them, 'Hey, guys, can you give us some love, too?'"
There is plenty of love to go around the Baltimore-Washington area these days. The Nationals have qualified for the playoffs -- the first Washington team to do that since 1933 -- and they are days from clinching the National League East title. The Orioles have recorded their first .500 season since 1997; they are only 1½ games out of first place in the American League East; and they lead in the AL wild-card race. This is unprecedented. The Orioles and Nationals/Senators have finished .500 in the same season only once -- 1969 -- and in that season, the Senators still finished 23 games behind the Orioles.
"It's wonderful," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who played for the Orioles and managed the Orioles and can appreciate what's happening this year in Baltimore and Washington. "I grew up here. My kids grew up here. I have great friends here. Baltimore is having a great year; we're having a great year. It's so nice to see this. The fans deserve it."
The Orioles were the first team in history to follow a 98-win season (1997) with 12 straight seasons under .500; only their streak was 14 straight years. A great baseball town that used to boast about "The Oriole Way" and "Oriole Magic" sadly became irrelevant for more than a decade. But now it is back, and making incredible magic again: The Orioles are on a pace to have the best record in one-run games in one season in major league history; they have won 16 straight extra-inning games (one short of the major league record in a season); and they are the first team ever to win 11 straight extra-inning games on the road. And they've done all this partly with a collection of spare parts, from Nate McLouth to Lew Ford to Taylor Teagarden, and with help from a few top prospects and a few astute trades.
The Nationals lost 100 games in 2008-09. They are not far removed from the days when Matt Chico led the staff with 94 strikeouts (2007), the days when hope rested with the likes of Eljiah Dukes and Lastings Milledge, when a decent season depended on the health of pitcher John Patterson, when a prayer was needed that Jesus Colome, or anyone, could get three outs in the ninth. Now the Nationals have a staff of power pitchers -- they'll have at least five pitchers finish the season with 99 strikeouts -- an excellent defense and a formidable lineup.
"Back in the day," Johnson said, meaning the 1960s, "the Senators had Buster Narum. Now we have [Stephen] Strasburg, Gio [Gonzalez], Jordan [Zimmermann] and a whole lot more."
The 2012 managers of the year likely will come from Baltimore and Washington. Buck Showalter, who specializes in reclamation projects, has done perhaps his best work in Baltimore, changing the culture, restoring the rich tradition of the Orioles, running a bullpen as well as any manager and creating an us-against-the-world atmosphere, which includes absolutely no fear of their powerful division, especially the Yankees. Johnson's work has been so complete and expert, he might have made the Hall of Fame with this season, in which he has joined Billy Martin as the only managers to take four franchises to the playoffs. One of Johnson's squads was the Orioles in 1997, the last time they went. A Washington franchise had not been to the playoffs since 1933. Coincidence? We think not.
And each franchise has received a huge boost from a teenager, the Nationals' Bryce Harper, 19, and the Orioles' Manny Machado, who turned 20 on July 6. Each has brought an edge and an enthusiasm to his team; each has filled a gaping hole in the lineup and the defense; and each gives hope that his team is going to be good for years to come.
"It's so cool what's happening here," said Nationals co-closer Drew Storen. "My sister lives in Baltimore. For her and all her friends, it's always the beloved Orioles, but until this year, it was just one of those things. But what makes it so neat is that we share a fan base."
Indeed. It doesn't work like this in New York, where you love one team and hate the other. In Baltimore and Washington, next-door neighbors are fans of the Orioles and Nationals, some of both, and they don't hate each other. Around the Beltway, where, for the past seven years, no baseball fan has been truly happy or content, they're all happy now.
|Davey Johnson will lead the Nationals into the postseason this year. He was also the Orioles' manager when they last made the playoffs in 1997.|
Showalter's impact on the Orioles was felt his first day in July 2010 when, seconds into his introductory speech to his team, he told a famously loud Japanese interpreter to shut up, "I'm talking here!" Later, one Oriole said, "We've been waiting for two years for someone to do that." Showalter had everyone's attention. He summoned a key player into his office after a game to explain why he had jogged to first base on a ground ball: Showalter had the tape cued up; he had a stopwatch in his hand -- the player hasn't loafed since. Six weeks into Showalter's tenure, a young Oriole forgot how many outs there were.
Showalter: "That's the third time you forgot how many outs there were."
Player: "Well, it was only twice."
Showalter: "How about the time in Kansas City?"
Player: "Oh, you saw that?"
Showalter: "Yeah, I saw that."
Showalter sees everything. There is no more observant, perceptive person in the game. It used to work against him: It would make his players nervous and self-conscious knowing that if they missed a sign, or a cutoff man, he was going to see it. But these Orioles like his vision.
"He'll come up to me and whisper something like, 'You know, this guy has only thrown six curveballs in the last three starts,'" McLouth said. "I'm thinking, 'How does he know that?'"
DH/outfielder Chris Davis smiled and said, "He'll walk through the dugout and ask a baseball question, and it's like, 'Buck, we know you are the only one who knows the answer.'"
First baseman Mark Reynolds smiled and said, "He'll walk by me on the bench and let me know about something that's going to happen later in the game, and then when it does, I will look over at him and he'll just tilt his head as if to say, 'I told you about that.'"
Showalter saw what everyone saw in Machado after the Orioles made him their No. 1 pick in the draft in 2010. He looked like a young Alex Rodriguez, a big, strong, power-hitting shortstop from Miami, he even wore No. 13 in honor of A-Rod, his baseball hero. So, when the Orioles were struggling in early August and essentially had no third baseman, Machado was recalled from Double-A to play third base in the major leagues. In his first game, on Aug. 9, he singled and tripled in four at-bats. In his second game, on Aug. 10, he hit two home runs to become the youngest player in history -- 20 years, 35 days -- to record a multi-homer game in his first or second major league game. And he became the first player in history to record two home runs and a triple in his first two games.
"He's been unbelievable," Davis said. "To be 20 years old, and do what he has done, is amazing."
Even bigger than the early home runs was the defensive play Machado made Sept. 12 against the Rays. In a 2-2 game in the ninth inning, with speedy pinch runner Rich Thompson on second base, Machado barehanded a slow roller off the bat of Evan Longoria. Machado had the presence of mind to hold the ball -- if he had thrown it, Thompson would have scored -- fake the throw to first, then wheel immediately and throw to alert shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was covering third. Thompson was caught off the bag, then tagged out in a rundown.
"That's the first time I've ever made that play," Machado said after the game.
Added Hardy: "It's not just the physical skills he has, which are incredible, it's his instincts for the game that are so impressive. Twenty-year-olds usually don't make a play like that."
The Orioles have been making plays of all kinds all year. They are a unique combination of top prospects, cast-offs and reborn players. Matt Wieters has developed into perhaps the best all-around catcher in the AL. He leads all major league catchers in innings caught; no AL catcher throws better than him; and no one in the game blocks the plate better than he does. Adam Jones has developed into one of the top center fielders in the game, and has shown an affinity for hitting in the clutch: He has four extra-inning home runs this season. He gives credit to his hitting coach, Jim Presley, whom he jokingly calls, "Lieutenant Dan," from "Forrest Gump." When Jones struggled mightily at the plate inn August, he smiled and said, "I went on vacation. I went to the Bahamas for a month. But everyone picked me up."
Leading the way has been Reynolds, who lost his third-base job because of his defense but has become an above-average defensive first baseman, and recently hit nine home runs in a 13-game span. "They come in bunches for him," Jones said . "He struggles, then you look up, and he has 20 homers." Reynolds has struggled more than most established players, especially with making contact. "It's a hard game," he said earlier this year, then added with a warm laugh, "My mom asked me, 'How did you miss that 2-0 slider?' I said, 'Mom, it's not that easy.'" Reynolds said he was so bad in spring training that he wondered, "'Is this it, am I done?' But in August, it just clicked in again."
|Buck Showalter has quickly turned the Orioles into a feared team.|
The best athlete on the Orioles is Hardy, whose dad played on the professional tennis tour and whose mom was a professional golfer. Hardy has as good a pair of hands as any shortstop in the game -- he catches many ground balls one-handed -- and he has that Alan Trammell-carry to his throws from shortstop. He also is the best pingpong player on the Orioles.
"The next-best is Brady [Anderson, a special instructor]," Hardy said, half joking. "I've played him 100 times. I've beaten him 100 times. He'll never beat me. No one can beat me."
I grew up here. My kids grew up here. I have great friends here. Baltimore is having a great year; we're having a great year. It's so nice to see this. The fans deserve it.
-- Davey Johnson
There is no more confident manager in the game than the Nationals' Davey Johnson, the ultimate gambler, whose attributes are many, but none more than the belief that he is the smartest guy in the room, that his decisions are always right and that, no matter what, he's going to win. And not just in baseball. Johnson played basketball at Texas A&M, and, at the age of 69, he has shot his age in golf. Stephen Strasburg is a pretty good golfer, "and Davey kicked my a--," he said. When Johnson was asked whether he could protect a 2-shot lead against Tiger Woods going to the final hole of the Masters, with all the pressure, Johnson shot back, "I don't need a 2-shot lead. I'm going to par that son-of-a-b----."
Johnson was an excellent second baseman with the Orioles in the '60s. When he joined the team in 1965, one of the first things he noticed was that Brooks Robinson wrote with his left hand. "He's the greatest defensive third baseman of all time, and he writes with his left hand," Johnson said. "So I wrote with my left hand for a year to see if it would make me a better second baseman
it didn't work, but I had to try." It's that type of attitude that has served Johnson so well, a winning attitude that he has brought to this team and this town.
So it was hard not to take notice this spring when Johnson said that his team was ready to contend in the National League East and that he would take his rotation over the vaunted four in Philadelphia. And, again, he was right. But the Nationals didn't become the Nationals until Harper arrived in late April, in part because Johnson knew he was ready. Remember, Johnson managed Dwight Gooden in New York. The Mets said he was too young (19) to jump from Class A to the big leagues, but Johnson convinced them, saying, "That stuff will play anywhere." And it did. And so has Harper's talent, which is absolutely stunning.
Harper has provided a spark to the Nationals since his recall on April 28. He arrived with a complicated haircut and a chip on his shoulder, but he has matured greatly in his first major league season and now seems to do and say all the right things -- as well as play the game the right way every night. It has helped being around so many veterans, including third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a team leader, a guy who made it to the major leagues at the age of 20. Harper also called the Braves' Chipper Jones, another former No. 1 pick, for advice.
"He is a very impressive young man," Jones said.
Harper also is a terrific player. He has 50 extra-base hits, becoming the fifth player in history to record that many extra-base hits before turning 20. Harper has 19 home runs; Tony Conigliaro (24) is the only player to hit more home runs as a teenager. Only Mel Ott has a higher OPS than Harper in an age-19 or under season since 1920. Defensively, Harper has been terrific, be it at any of the three outfield spots. And his strong throwing arm is comparable to almost anyone's in the game.
"His base running is what impresses me most," Storen said. "You just don't see that at this level. He will be out there running, and he takes a chance, and I think, 'He's out, this is going to be bad.' And then there's no chance, he beats it. He also brings it every day. He had his slump, but it was not a catastrophic slump like a 19-year-old would have. You'd think, at that age, that they would eat him up the second time around. But he made the adjustments. You just don't see guys that are 19 years old making the adjustments he has."
Johnson agreed. "His stroke is just so good. That's what is so impressive. That, and his all-in attitude. He always goes at it hard. I thought I could wear him down, but I wasn't able."
But this team is built around Zimmerman, the only player who has played for the Nationals every season since they moved from Montreal in 2005. He has seen the worst of the Nationals, and now, at least so far, the best. Five years ago, Zimmerman was 22 and the marquee player on the team because there was no one else. One night, he was equal parts furious and confused when he asked a writer, "Aren't you supposed to care for 10 minutes that we lost again? I just got out of the shower and there were guys in there whooping it up as if we won the game."
Zimmerman needed help then, and now he has it with Harper and fellow outfielders Jayson Werth and Michael Morse, whose power, especially to right center, is legendary among the Nationals. Johnson says the Nationals have the best infield in the league with Zimmerman, first baseman Adam LaRoche (the Nationals' MVP?), Ian Desmond, who can throw with any shortstop, and Danny Espinosa, who can also, and he's the second baseman.
The pitching staff, even without Strasburg, is loaded. Saturday, Gio Gonzalez won his 20th game -- and became the first Washington pitcher to strike out 200 in a season since Walter Johnson in 1916. Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson all throw in the mid-90s. The bullpen, now led by co-closer Storen, is deep and is filled with hard throwers.
"This is so much fun," Storen said. "I saved 43 games last year, and I've had so much more fun with my 32 appearances this year because we are winning. There's nothing like winning."
And now, in Baltimore and Washington, there is winning going on every day. It is not out of the question that, in October, Lombardozzi's buddies, the big Orioles fans, could go watch their team play and watch their buddy Lombardozzi play at the same time. A Beltway World Series. Now that would really be cool.
|Bryce Harper, 19, has developed into a key player for the Nationals.|