Where the Wild Things Aren’t

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The Nationals don’t have the best history when it comes to
their win loss record, but the 2012 season brought on a lot of “what could have
been” from fans in the area hungry for a championship. In 2011, Davey Johnson
took the manager’s role after Jim Riggleman decided to (as it is now rightfully
dubbed) pull a Riggleman and walk out on the team because of his dispute with
Mike Rizzo regarding a contract extension. Since then, Davey Johnson has been
loved by the D.C. fanbase and players alike because of his honest criticisms
and confidence in players.

In 2011, Johnson was a welcome breath of fresh air.
Riggleman was just kind of there, a place holder manager, but at the time there
was no reason to fire him. There were concerns at times over Riggleman “losing
the clubhouse,” but that is standard the-team-isn’t-playing-great jargon. When
Riggleman walked out, things changed greatly. Davey Johnson made it his mission
to get a slumping Jayson Werth going and to figure out why it was that Ian
Desmond, who had flashed power in the past, wasn’t able to put any baseballs
into the seats. Davey Johnson was not afraid to point out when a pitcher wasn’t
doing his job, either.

On July 19th, 2011 a game Jordan Zimmermann had
started and lost, Davey Johnson had some criticisms for his right-hander. He
was not afraid to come out and say it either, saying:

“The thing that bothered me the most that whole ball game –
I’m not one over my whole career with good young pitchers, good arms, I’ve got
a couple guys in scoring position, I’ve got a base open, if he gets ahead of
the guy I don’t expect him to make bad pitches. I expect him to – the hitter’s
gotta hit a pitch off the plate and a nasty pitch. He hung a slider right down
the middle, it was flat, drove in a run and the squeeze didn’t cover first.
Those things upset me. I thought he battled and maybe he didn’t have his best
stuff, but one thing when you got two strikes on a hitter, you don’t just give
him a cookie.”

Davey Johnson was right to make Jordan Zimmermann
responsible for not battling the way he should have. If someone doesn’t tell a
young pitcher when he needs to get it together, what is the point of the
manager? In 2012, there was hardly a time when those types of comments were
necessary. The Nationals were simply firing on all cylinders and finding ways
to win.

What is it with 2013, though? On May 11th 2013,
Stephen Strasburg was cruising through his start against the Chicago Cubs at
Nationals Park. When Ryan Zimmerman made a throwing error behind him, he came
undone. It was evident that the error displeased Strasburg and changed the
course of the game, which it should not have. The Nationals lost that game 8-2
and the criticism was everywhere, which was completely appropriate. Did Davey
Johnson say something to Strasburg? Most likely, but no one knew what it was.
It has been quite evident, though that someone said something and in this
writer’s opinion it was a teammate, not the manager. Ever since then, Strasburg
has buckled down when his defense makes a mistake or when an umpire makes a
questionable call. He gets mad, but does it the right way. His pitches take on
a certain kind of annoyed personality and they are mean to hitters. Very mean.
That is the way it should be.

On the Thursday day game, July 25th the Nationals
were up 7-3 going into the 9th inning and trying to close out their
first win after the all-star break and avoid losing their 7th in a
row. The smart decision would be to put in your dominant closer. Considering
Davey Johnson had been thrown out of the game because the umpires felt like
being part of the show, that was Randy Knorr’s decision to make and that is
just what he did. It has been very obvious for some time that Rafael Soriano
completely changes his approach when the game is not a save situation. Don’t
know the difference? Watch him in a save situation, he takes his time, leans
toward home plate, gets the perfect grip on his pitch, then throws with
accuracy, precision, and confidence. A game like Thursday where he doesn’t get
a save, he gets the ball, gathers himself and then tosses it. He doesn’t care.
“That last one was a ball, whatever. Oh, screamer double. Cool.” We live in an
era where relievers have been dubbed “closer” because they can get 3 outs in
the 9th inning while only being up by 3 or less runs and allowing as
few as possible. It is a dumb stat, don’t pretend it isn’t.

Davey Johnson seems to have become complacent with this type
of nonsense. After a game in which Dan Haren got lit up, Davey Johnson simply
told the media regarding his right hander: “eh, he’ll be alright.” That is not
what the fans wanted to hear. To be fair, what is he going to do? He can’t
throw Haren under the bus publicly because he has a bad case of the suck. The
manager has to work with the players he has and frankly Haren hasn’t been a
good player to have. When your big name closer isn’t giving his all to help end
a 6 game skid, what is he going to do? He can’t make Haren stop giving up
bombs, or make Soriano try. This is a problem, because it has the appearance
that Davey Johnson has given up. Comments to D.C. sports radio about “cutting
his wrists” or where he asked Rizzo to fire him instead of Rick Eckstein are
not things a team wants their manager to think. If that were your parents
talking to your teacher about how you are struggling in math, how would that
make you feel? Imagine the effect that has on the whole team, would you have
confidence to fight back when your team has lost the lead?

In that moment with Soriano on the hill on Thursday, having
considered all these problems, setbacks, and unrelenting apathy, the bench
coach Randy Knorr had seen enough. That is the extreme this problem has gone to;
a bench coach has seen enough. Randy Knorr walked out of the dugout when the
Nationals high dollar closer couldn’t have cared less and took him out of the
game after 1/3 of an inning. It was the most backbone showed by a Nationals
managerial staff member all season. Ian Krol replaced Soriano and had his
struggles, but at least he was giving his all and later admitted that the save
situation was the first time he’d been nervous since his MLB debut. The game
was tied, but Soriano was responsible for all 4 runs that crossed the plate.
Then, after the game Knorr simply said “if he [Soriano] doesn’t feel like shutting
it down, I’ll get someone else.” His someone else turned out to be a young left
hander who started the season at AA Harrisburg. If that doesn’t send a message,
I don’t know what does. The move was something the Nationals had been missing; the
fire inside to take a risk, the bold move to find where those wild things are.

The issues plaguing the Nationals so far this
season were all on display Thursday, but maybe Randy Knorr’s move was enough to
bring some urgency to the team. Davey Johnson will be back at the helm, so it
is doubtful the bold move will be anything more than a one time occurrence so
long as the managerial staff remains complacent. 2013 has been a disappointing
season, but someone has to start a fire for things to turn around.

One comment

  1. " In save situations this season, Soriano has a 3.10 ERA and opponents are hitting .259 off him with a .683 OPS. In 13 non-save situations before today, Soriano had a 0.69 ERA and opponents hit .234 with a .584 OPS against him."Adam Kilgore. on Sori’s #’s after Knorr pulled him. Curt Schilling remarked that evening that Sorianos’ 1st walk came on "strike 4". I believe Brooks Baseball pitch fx also shows the same for walk #2. SOoooo…if a "save" is an imaginary stat w/o much real validity (and i agree here with you, for the most part….but then again, what makes gold..or diamonds…inherently more "valuable"….) then SURELY Knorrs’ reading of Sorianos’ BODY language is an even LESS rational way of determining "effort". Hence my posting of stats which seem to say that, demeanor be danged, Sori pitches BETTER in non-"save" situations….that said, i have been a tad dismayed at Daveys’ paternalistic (is grandpa-ternalistic a word?) approach this year. And i continue to enjoy reading your columns -though more would be better!J

    Like

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