Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters: Aww… Nats

One game in and the Nationals are already exceeding expectations. Coming into the 2007 season, baseball types all across America thought the Nationals pitching was going to be bad, what with the four rotation spots after ace John Patterson offered up to anyone with at least one working arm and a pulse. But no one expected that Patterson would be among those pitchers getting pounded.

After letting up a home run to Miguel Cabrera that, I’m pretty sure, moved the left field seats back about seven or eight feet, Patterson strolled back to the dugout just two-thirds of the way through the fourth inning. It was the first sure sign that the final Opening Day at RFK Stadium was sure to be a very forgettable one.

Not only did the 9-2 final score signal the first stinker of the season, but the injury bug took a Jaws-sized chomp out of the Washington roster, with Nook Logan and Cristian Guzman heading to the 15-day disabled list. With the pitching staff giving up nine runs, perhaps the Nats should consider themselves lucky that injuries claimed the lightest-hitting members of the lineup. Logan hit just .258 for Detroit in 2005, while Guzman made Logan look like Tony Gwynn with a .219 clip that season. For the record, I’ve given up trying to determine if Nats fans are saying “Booooooo” or “Guuuuuuuz” when the shortstop steps to the plate. After this long, the two are virtually synonymous anyway.

On the bright side, there were 40,000 fans on hand to “Guuuuuuuz” (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) to their hearts’ content Monday afternoon. That number probably surprised a few people, given the dire, and thus far accurate, prognoses for 2007. The people of D.C. were willing to support baseball at least once this year, even if everyone, Nats’ brass included, is looking ahead to 2008 and the new stadium.

Artists’ renditions of that little architectural gem are on display just inside the main gates and the background theme for the JumboTron this season is a bunch of steel girders. It’s great to look ahead to a bright future, but it’s going to be pretty hard to overlook the next 159 games if the Nats look as bad as they did in their first two losses to the Marlins.

To put a positive spin on the opening series, Nats fans eager to look to the future might also be interested in following the present of a team that took the rebuilding path last year and nearly turned it into a playoff berth. This year, the Marlins could surprise in the pitching-depleted NL East where the Mets’ and Braves’ lone aces are 40-Year-Old Versions (John Smoltz hits 40, May 15) and the Phillies’ team ERA was 4.60 in 2006.

While optimists may point to the Marlins as an example of what the Nats can achieve this year, the Marlins’ charge last season was led by the one thing the Nationals lack — talented young arms. Last year’s Marlins staff, which included rookie starters Anibal Sanchez, Scott Olsen and Josh Johnson, led the division with the fewest runs allowed. Combine that with emerging sluggers like Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez, and established stud Miguel Cabrera at the top of the order and the Marlins could conceivably swipe the division away.

Another note for optimistic fans that think a quick farm-system led turnaround is on tap in D.C., for all of the wheeling and dealing and contract dumping, the one thing the Nats never seemed to acquire was a young major-league ready arm. Matt Chico, already penned in as the No. 3 starter, is the lone exception and he had never pitched above AA until Wednesday’s debut. How’s that Jim Bowden mantra go again? Pitching, Pitching … what was the third one?

In truth, the Nats may more closely resemble another young Florida team — the Devil Rays. A roster full of quasi-proven bats, a prime prospect or two and a rotation with more question marks than a game of “Jeopardy!”? That definitely sounds like the Devil Rays, a team that has finished last in the AL East every year since they joined the league, with the lone exception of 2004 (when they finished fourth).

The Nats can try to get young all they want, but without young, talented pitching prospects success is far from a given. The Royals, Pirates and Devil Rays have a combined 12 last place divisional finishes since 2002. Part of the reason is that those last place teams never had more than one pitcher with 15 or more starts and an ERA under 4.00. In 2006, no Royals pitcher with more than five starts broke even 5.00.

If closer Chad Cordero gets dealt this season, Bowden better break his fascination with former Reds outfielders and get a young starter in return. Either that or Willy Mo Pena better learn how to throw the Gyro Ball while he’s still in Boston.

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A bigger disappointment than the absence of a pitching staff this season (for those willing to tolerate the rebuilding year) is the absence of Hard Times Café from the food court terrace at RFK. In its place is a vendor called “Top Dawg” or some such thing, offering a tough-skinned, chemical cheese-drenched, movie-theatre-caliber chili dog in place of the Angus beef dog, Cincinnati chili and real-grated cheese of Hard Times’ “Coney.” To this travesty I say: “Guuuuuuuz.”