- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
The Redskins are rebuilding, again, and the Wizards spent the winter dealing with a weapons issue. The Washington Capitals were knocked out of the playoffs, and the Orioles are on track to be eliminated sometime in late July or early August. The high ground is there for the Nationals to seize the sports conversation in Washington, and there are signs of progress.
The Nationals lost 103 games last year, and so far this year, they are 14-13. Before the season began, I wrote that both they and the Orioles could suffer through a brutal early stretch -- each team had perhaps the toughest April schedule in its respective league -- and yet Washington has thrived, while the Orioles have been swept under. And sometime in the next five weeks, Stephen Strasburg -- widely regarded as the greatest pitching prospect in recent memory -- will probably be summoned to the majors. This could only fuel interest in a team that is climbing, both in talent and in stature.
"It'll be nice to get him here," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman, on Wednesday afternoon. "It's going to be a circus."
Strasburg has handled the attention well, to this point, and Riggleman assumes that the organization will create some set of rules that will help Strasburg to deal with the media crush.
If he is as good as everybody thinks he will be, Strasburg could give the Nationals exactly what they need -- a solid and consistent performer for their rotation every fifth day. Washington has been winning so far while relying very heavily on its bullpen, on setup man Tyler Clippard and closer Matt Capps. The Nationals rank 27th in starters' ERA, at 5.38, and only one team's rotation has generated fewer innings. Riggleman's biggest concern is getting more out of his starting pitchers.
But the Nationals have a good lineup; Ryan Zimmerman is back from some early-season injuries, and Adam Dunn seems to be shaking off an early-season slump. Drew Storen, a first-round pick last year, will be promoted to the big leagues soon, and Jordan Zimmermann, a high-end talent, is recovering from Tommy John surgery and should be back at full strength next season. Washington is making strides, day by day.
Riggleman on Tyler Clippard, who has struck out 25 and allowed just eight hits in 19 2/3 innings: "He's got a knack for throwing the ball in an area where it's tough for the hitter to lay off. ... He literally has a great changeup. He'll throw it at any time, and he's not anywhere close to a finished product.
"His confidence in his changeup is like Trevor Hoffman's confidence in his changeup."
Riggleman on the defensive play of Adam Dunn, who switched from the outfield to first base: "He's been better. You know, he wasn't very good in spring training, but what I told him was, 'What's really going to help you is playing there every day.'" In spring training, of course, position players usually play no more than six innings, and they have a lot of days off. Now Dunn is playing first every day. "With reps, he's gotten better," said Riggleman.
Range will always be Dunn's greatest limitation, but Riggleman feels Dunn has done well in scooping throws out of the dirt, in catching throws. "And you know what else -- he has no fear of throwing," said Riggleman. "A lot of first basemen don't like to throw, but the other day he made a throw to third, or if there's a pickoff, he'll make the throw to second. ... He likes to throw."
Which makes sense: Dunn was a quarterback.
Elsewhere on this topic, a reliever who has been good for the Nats had a tough night, Adam Kilgore writes.
For years, Milton Bradley had cast responsibility for the problems that he has had onto others. But over the past 36 hours, he asked Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu for help.
It may be that Bradley returns to the Mariners as a good and productive player; it may be that he doesn't come back. Either way, this is a good thing for Bradley, good that he is open to help. "We will do what we can to help him in any way," Zduriencik wrote in an e-mail.
He will get the help he asked for from the Mariners, writes Geoff Baker. Bradley inspired children in a speech Wednesday, writes Jerry Brewer. Give the Mariners credit for their compassion, writes Dave Boling.
I will say this: There have been many folks around Bradley in the past who would have been just as receptive to helping him. There are very, very few people in the game who wish for bad things to happen to their teammates/players.
These are critical days for Ortiz, to show that he can put this early-season slump behind him.
The overriding question about the Yankees coming into the season was whether their aging rosters would be more susceptible to injuries, and over the last week, there have been physical problems with Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, to various degrees. The Yankees announced that Pettitte has mild inflammation in his elbow after he had an MRI -- which, of course, is not really a full diagnosis; inflammation is often a symptom of another problem. Pettitte has pitched through elbow trouble in the past -- although knowing the Yankees, they're apt to take the conservative route in treating the injury, and would shut him down if they thought it would help his chances of being available in September and October.
Pettitte's aging, aching arm is reason for concern, writes Bob Klapisch. These injuries could be trouble, writes Joel Sherman. Sergio Mitre, who had a great spring, is ready to step into Pettitte's spot, if necessary.
Why Matt Garza won: He finished hitters off. Every batter who went to a two-strike count became an out, compared to the MLB average of 72 percent. He started innings strong. All eight leadoff hitters he faced became outs, compared to the MLB average of 68 percent.
Dings and dents
2. A Giant took a night off after getting drilled in the head.
3. Brett Anderson is scheduled to play catch Saturday.
4. It's expected that the Orioles will activate a pitcher, Steve Gould writes.
7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is being held in the minors to work on his throwing mechanics. As I've written here before, many rival talent evaluators believe that Saltalamacchia has something of a Mackey Sasser-like issue throwing the ball -- sort of a mental hitch. Whatever the problem, he hopefully will work through it.
Moves, deals and decisions
2. Andy MacPhail was blunt in speaking to Orioles' players: They'll be sent down if they don't improve.
5. Ron Washington feels like he made a mistake.
7. Dusty Baker dealt with Brandon Phillips' hustle situation, writes Hal McCoy.
The Patience Index
1. Cliff Lee was great for much of the Mariners' game, but then it got ugly after he left.
3. Barry Zito was dominant again, Henry Schulman writes. Why Zito won, from Mark Bowers of ESPN Stats & Information: He worked the inner third of the plate, with 54 of his 101 pitches inside. Marlins hitters hit .214 (3-for-14) on inside pitches. He threw strikes. His 71.3 strike percentage Wednesday night was his highest of the season. Zito's curveball has been his go-to pitch throughout his career, and this season has been no different. On Wednesday, Zito surrendered his first hit against his curveball, an infield single. Opposing hitters are 1-for-39 against Zito's curveball this season (.026 average). In 2009, opponents hit .168 against his curve, and chased it 24 percent of the time. This year, they chase it 29.7 percent of the time.
4. Watched a lot of the Athletics-Rangers game Wednesday, and Trevor Cahill seemed more in control than he was last year -- and Oakland climbed back into first place in the AL Mud Wrestling Division. Every game that Oakland wins now buys the Athletics time for Brett Anderson and Kurt Suzuki and others to heal, and for prospects Chris Carter and Michael Taylor to develop -- and if the Athletics are hanging in the race at the end of June, they'll be dangerous.
6. The Mets had their guts ripped out, again, Andy Martino writes.
8. The Braves pulled out a win in extra innings, writes Carroll Rogers.
10. The middle of the Rangers' lineup was a problem, again.
13. The Twins finished off a series sweep against the Tigers, Joe Christensen writes.
15. The Tigers finished up a tough stretch of games, Tom Gage writes.
20. The Jays rallied and took their manager off the hook, writes Richard Griffin.
21. The Diamondbacks had their hearts ripped out, writes Nick Piecoro.
23. A scoreless streak of a San Diego reliever came to an end, dramatically.
24. The losses are mounting for the Angels.
The Impatience Index
• Comerica Park is being prepared for the viewing of Ernie Harwell, Matt Helms writes.
• A former University of Miami reliever lost a long battle with cancer.
• Frank Robinson went to the Nats' ballpark.
• Duane Kuiper matched the achievements of his idol, Andrew Baggarly writes here, within this notebook.
• The blame game on why there are fewer blacks in baseball is off base, writes Bruce Jenkins.
• The Red Sox and Yankees will play again this weekend -- and the games usually are very, very long, Richard Sandomir writes.
• Bud Selig is handling Tom Hicks correctly, writes Randy Galloway.
• Vanderbilt will open its field for flood victims.
And today will be better than yesterday.
The Washington Nationals were supposed to be dragged down by the undertow, an early-season schedule that was maybe the toughest in all of baseball. But they sit at 14-13, and, within the D.C. sports scene, that's saying something.