What does a sweep mean?
For now, of course, it means saving face and building some momentum and giving the 20,000 or so folks who come out nightly a reason for hope, particularly with seven games remaining in the homestand. (Attendance for games against the Marlins, by the way, is always horrific. Despite the presence of Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez, this team just isn't a draw here. I'm convinced that had the Nationals played any of the other N.L. East teams on Opening Day - Atlanta, Philly or the Mets - it would have easily been a sellout. But you don't exactly meet people in the District who say, "Man, I grew up in Miami, and I've been a Marlins fan all my life, and I can't wait till Fredi Gonzalez's crew comes to RFK because I'm going three days in a row.)
It also means that, for today, the Nationals (12-25) do not have the worst record in baseball. That distinction belongs to the Royals (12-26). (Aside: It'll be interesting to watch the Royals rebuilding process, too, because they have a Braves disciple pulling the levers in General Manager Dayton Moore, and they have a stud young third baseman around which to build in Alex Gordon (selected before Zimmerman in the draft).)
But here's what I think the sweep means, and it actually has little to do with winning the games. I wrote about this in the $.35 edition this morning, and I think it'll be the most touched-upon theme of the season. What happens in each and every game that might have an impact in 2009 or 2010?
(Oh, and here's yesterday's podcast -- which was recorded while the cleaning crew was blowing every single piece of popcorn from the stands. The whirring away in the background sounds horrible, but whatever.)
With that, and this is somewhat painful to say, toss aside the performance by Jason Simontacchi. He is a great story, and I love the idea of him playing ball in Australia, laying sprinkler lines during the week just so he could play on the weekend. He pitched for Italy in the Olympics, played independent ball, Dominican winter league, etc. And now, he has a victory to show for all that work, which is a wonderful story. Should he continue to pitch decently for the Nationals, he'll be a nice memory of the 2007 season.
But I think what's far more important is the performance of Jesus Flores. The goal of this season has got to be to land on Oct. 1 with more players that could be part of future success than you started with. Flores, in early returns, seems to be one of those players.
(I am not going to use this space, right now, to start a debate as to whether Flores should split more time with Brian Schneider. Quietly, Schneider has hit .406 with a .472 on-base percentage and .531 slugging percentage since May 1, lifting his average from .184 to .250, which is more like what he is. He's also thrown out the last four men who have tried to steal against him, a statistic he believes can only be achieved with help from the pitchers. But either way, he has steadied himself, he is the veteran, the Nationals are on the hook with him for the next two-and-a-half seasons, so for now, he plays.)
Flores is one of those guys that just seems to get it, whatever "it" is. He has not once complained about not playing, seems thankful for every opportunity, and has delivered in just about every situation in which he has found himself. Since getting the first two hits of his major league career April 22, Flores is hitting .409 (9 for 22) with five RBI. Only once in that time has he started on back-to-back days. For a young kid - one who has never played above Class A before this spring - to be able to stay prepared is an unbelievable indication of his maturity.
Remember, keeping Flores is an inherent risk. The Nationals selected him in the December Rule 5 draft from the Mets, and in order to hang onto him they must keep him on the major league roster for the entire season. They are doing the same with pitcher Levale Speigner, who will start on Wednesday. Rule 5 success stories are spotty. (The Nationals' last successful Rule 5 choice was Luis Ayala, and Johan Santana is probably the marquee example out there. But there's also the Tony Blancos of the world. The Nationals selected him in the Rule 5 draft before the 2005 season, and he was a complete non-entity here, hitting .177 and striking out 19 times in 62 at-bats. He has since battled all kinds of injuries, and is now hitting .176 with two homers and 11 RBI for Class AA Harrisburg. At 25, he's no longer really a prospect. That's the argument against Rule 5 picks - and keep in mind that Blanco (who apparently didn't stake out his own Web address in time)was here when the Nats were in a race for a playoff spot, and he offered nothing.)
Anyway, Flores appears to be ready to handle all this - both mentally and physically. Again, I dealt with some of this in the $.35 edition, but here's some more from Schneider and Acta. Both are giving bench coach Pat Corrales, something of a catching expert, credit in Flores's development.
"Although he's not playing a lot, he's working so much because he understands what his role is right now," Schneider said. "You see him out there a couple days a week, early work, extra work. He's in all the meetings. He learns. He's learning the game right now, and obviously he's going to be very, very good."
Schneider also told me something I find telling. Even as Flores has hit, he was really bugged about the fact that the Nationals had lost all of his starts as a catcher.
"It was [ticking] him off," Schneider said. "He'd come in after these losses, and he was mad. I had to try to talk to him about it. He thought it was him, thought he didn't have the best of luck." So after yesterday's game, Schneider went up to Flores immediately.
"I told him, 'First win. Congrats.' He was so happy."
Acta likes the way Flores carries himself.
"He has handled himself like he's been here before. He goes up there to the plate and is not chasing bad pitches and just really has that swagger about him. If you ask him, he'll tell you he's ready to play here, which is always good to have that."
Which begs the question: If things continue like this for Flores, where will he play next year? The normal line of thinking would be for the Rule 5 guy to just survive the 2007 season and then go to the minors for a full year of playing, regaining whatever development has been lost, and then think about the majors again in 2009. But I can tell you there are people within the Nationals organization who already believe that won't be necessary for Flores. (This, of course, could change, as there's four-and-a-half months to go in this season, but still ...)
Which leads to another question: Could Schneider end up getting traded to accommodate Flores?
It's possible. Schneider must perform as he's capable of doing. He must be a .250-.270 hitter who is absolutely superb defensively. While he has righted himself in the early going here, he's not quite back to his prime level defensively. Though he doesn't have a passed ball, the Nationals lead the N.L. with 18 wild pitches, and though they aren't the catcher's fault by definition, I believe anyone who has watched this team since 2005 would agree that Schneider used to save the pitching staff tons of wild pitches, and he hasn't done that quite as well this season.
Schneider is making $3.5 million this season, $4.9 million in 2008 and $4.9 million in 2009. Another aspect of his contract: Should he be traded, the team that receives him owes him a $500,000 bonus (though the Nats could end up paying it as part of a trade negotiation).
None of this is to suggest that the Nationals are actively shopping Schneider now, nor is it to suggest there are teams out there pursuing him. But it's an example of what could happen should the young players the Nationals are gathering develop as Flores appears to be doing thus far.
Other minor stuff: Speigner will start on Wednesday. The Nationals just made the move today to mark the return of Chad Cordero from bereavement leave. Shawn Hill, who was having an MRI exam on his right elbow today (not to mention one on his left shoulder as well), was placed on the disabled list, as expected. They have to make one more move tomorrow to activate Jerome Williams from the DL, and you have to think it'll be sending Winston Abreu back to the minors because Ryan Wagner is already on the DL and Saul Rivera has pitched well.
Speigner, however, likely wouldn't have gotten a start up here had Joel Hanrahan not suffered a groin injury at Class AAA Columbus. Hanrahan is 1-1 with a 1.69 ERA, but he hasn't pitched since April 23. GM Jim Bowden told me last week that Hanrahan is expected back "soon," but he didn't have an exact date.
Also: Acta said yesterday that the team didn't consider bringing up either Collin Balester or Mike Hinckley from Class AA Harrisburg. Balester is 1-2 with a 2.35 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 38-1/3 innings on a horrible, horrible Harrisburg team. Hinckley, who was on the verge of washing out as a prospect, began the year 4-1 but has dropped his last two decisions while giving up 11 earned runs in 9-1/3 innings, walking four each time. Acta called them "the future here," and said there's no sense in bringing up guys like that just on a temporary basis. That makes sense.
Programming notes: I'll be at RFK tonight for the John Smoltz-Jason Bergmann matchup, and then am off Tuesday and Wednesday. (I know, I know, when do I work, right? I have to try to get a couple days this week because I'm working the whole Orioles series over the weekend and then headed back on the road for the entire Cincy-St. Louis trip, etc., so I'm getting the time while I can. Plus, I have a screen door at the front of the house that needs fixing and painting and a grill that needs to be cleaned, etc.)
I should be on "Washington Post Live" from RFK tonight for a bit, I think around 5 p.m. or so. I will definitely be on "WPL" on Wednesday in the studio, when I'm scheduled to be joined by Elisabeth Shue. It is impossible to overstate my excitement at this prospect. It is impossible, too, to overstate my wife's lack of excitement at this prospect. (It is, no doubt, Elisabeth Shue's lifelong dream to meet a dumpy sports writer who lives on Capitol Hill and considers going to a baseball game on his night off a good idea. (Plus, if you knew my wife, you'd understand that Elisabeth Shue has absolutely nothing on her, and as a dumpy sports writer, I am already one of your luckier dudes out there. So there's that.)
Other than that, I'll get you lineups from the park. Have a good rest of your Monday.
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