Ask Boswell: Nationals, Capitals and more

Apr 18, 2011

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about baseball, the Masters, the Capitals and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

Haven't I seen this playoff series before? After Saturday's game I told a Rangers fan, "The Rangers have the Caps right where they want them, with a 2-0 series lead."

I hope the Caps are taking this one loss very seriously. Their worst quality, for decades, has been that they wake up to The Danger, ONE game later than they should.  I've covered it time after time. I think it'll be different with this bunch. But you absolutely don't want to start brin ging up ghosts by letting the Rangers back to 2-2. I'll be in MSG on Wed for Game Four.

(By the way, when you have a great name like "Madison Square Garden" that evokes countless great memories, and not just sports, why on earth would you start calling it "MSG." Oh, the Monosodium Glutamate Arena.)   

 Of course all Caps fans and long-time D.C.-areas folks know exactly what you fear. Those Caps who've just arrived here and say, "Those years are in the past. This is now. It's not relevant," sound too much like a million Red Sox teams that said, "That has nothing to do with us." It shouldn't. But, after a franchise passes a certain point, it does. It just does. You have to beat your history, too. And facing it is part of beating it. You see this in other sports all the time. Even in golf, Tom Watson never won a U.S. Open until he conceded that he needed to win one to be considered a truly great player and that his Open record wasn't what it should be (0-for-10 at one point). 

3-1, 2-0, 2-0, 2-0, 3-1, 3-1, 3-1, 2-0 are the eight series leads of two games that the Caps have gone on to lose in '10, '09, '03, '96, '95, '92, '87, '85.

Two years ago at this time I thought, "It doesn't matter. Who cares about the '90's and '80's? Drop the subject." Then they did it again back-to-back in '09-'10, so it's this team that put the subject right back on the table.   

While it seems to be necessary in the playoffs to use this style of play, it sure makes a fluke goal a game-changer--and maybe series changer as well.

I was one of those who said, after last year's upset to Montreal, that the Caps needed to be more of a pl;ayoff-style team. They have gone that direction even more than I ever imagined that they could or would.

So, be careful what you wish for. This is exactly what I thought they should be. Also, I tend to enjoy run-and-gun teams like the Caps of the last two seasons, but I respect this brand of play more. Arnott is such a huge team-changer on the ice and in the room, too.

I wanted to bring up one point to help fans understand that beating the Rangers is a very tough job and people shouldn't say, 'Why aren't they blowing through these guys? They're an 8th seed. Just cruch 'em."

Not that easy. There are "advanced stats" in every sport now. If you go to, you'll find some. One that isn't bad is the Simple Rating System. Yes, it's "simple," but... It combines goal differential and sgtrength of schedule.

In the NHL, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the Rangers and Caps finished 2nd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 10th respectively __in that order. I would never have guessed that ANY system, even if SRS has flaws, would rank the Caps as the 5th best team in the conference even though they are the No. 1 seed.

These are very closely bunched teams with point potals of 107, 106, 106, 103, 103, 96, 96, 93 (Rangers). Folks who say the Caps "should" do this or that are probably over-estimating the Caps by a little bit and under-rating the job ahead of them. The X factors: How much did the Caps fundamentally improve after the total System Change? And how good (or vulnerable) is a young goalie like Neuvirth in his first playoff?

Hi Tom, I thought that the rookie of the year talk for Danny Espinosa was a bit premature. After yesterday though I am becoming a believer. How about you?

I'm afraid I'm stuck with being the Original Believer. On his first at bat in MLB, he hit a bad hop single over the second baseman's head and turned it into a hustle double by cutting first base as well as I've ever seen it done. I haven't been ablte to stop watching/evaluating him since. Of course it's "too soon."

But here are his stats from last September, spring training and this season combined. 

208 at bats, 30 runs, 10 doubles, two triples, 10 homers, 44 RBI (!!!) and 24 walks-plus-hit-by-pitch. That's a .245 batting average with a >150K strikeout pace. But it also projects about 30 doubles and 30 homers with 130 RBI for a full season. Of course, he's not going to drive in anywhere near 130 runs (or 30 homers)! But I really, really want to see who Danny Espinosa is by '13. I'm going to shut up about him. He does still make mistakes. He missed a ball on an infield fly rule out yesterday and threw wide on a relay that should have been a 7-4-3 DP.

But Espinosa and Ramos are very exciting. And Jordan Zimmerman's first five (perfect) innings against the Phils were the best I've ever seen him throw.    

Hi Tom, I know we are very early into the season but Nyjer Morgan has a .455 batting average and a .500 on base percentage. Rick Ankiel has not played well at all. Was trading Nyjer a mistake?

I doubt it was a mistake. Ankiel is a smooth CF. We haven't had time to get a sense of his range yet. As everybody notes, fabulous arm. Duh. Guess so.

It just seemed that Morgan needed a change of scenery incredibly badly and that, even if he bounced back to his career levels, you weren't losing a star, just an average CF. But his nice start and the desire for "revenge" may spark him to a good season. I wish him well. When he's "on" his game, he sure is fun.

After Morgan was traded I got a few e-mails from sincerely concerned fans about the Nats committment to finding African-American players. So, I rese3arched the list since '05. I just offer it FWIW: Marlon Byrd, Preston Wilson, Junior Spivey, Termel Sledge, Jeffery Hammonds, Tyrell Godwin, Royce Clayton, Marlon Anderson, Damian Jackson, Nook Logan, Chris Booker, Dmitri Young (2-yr $10M deal), Justin Maxwell, Jerome Williams, Ray King, Willie Harris, Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Morgan, Corey Patterson, Jerry Hairston. I'm sure this is incomplete. Sorry.

Hi Tom, My team started at 6-1 but now has lost seven straight. What's the deal?

Relax. Though that's hard after 7 straight loses. This is when we find out if Buck has "mellowed" just the right amount. He's always been wound very tight. Weaver was at his best at times like this. I think Showalter will handle it well. Players who can hit just aren't hitting: OPS for Guerrero (.586), Derrek Lee (.594). That puts more pressure on the younger O's players that they thought the presence of Reymonds (1 HR but 10 rbi) and JJ Hardy might relieve. But it hasn't so far. Adam Jones (.542 OPS), Weiters (.612) and even Markakis (.654).

They'll hit a lot better. Long summer. But this is the first real test of their confidence and patience.

Hi Tom, Last season in Cleveland, I had the same record as Jim Riggleman in Washington. This season, my team is 11-4 which is currently the second best record in baseball. We are 8-2 in our last 10 games. The Lerner's never gave me a quality team but now that I have one, I am proving I can manage. Getting rid of me in D.C. was a mistake.

Though some DC fans may not have known it, one reason Manny Acta was hired was that he was pure "new wave" on all the Moneyball stats and knew them well, as opposed to Frank Robinson who didn't know, didn't care and spit on 'em, pretty much. Riggleman is a classic Cardinals "small ball" guy who really does think Small Ball is Smart Ball.

Weaver once said to me, speaking of Gene Mauch's love of early-inning sacrifice bunts: "Play for one run early, lose by one run late." Absolutely classic Earl.

I believe in Big Inning baseball, always have. I think I was the first person to dig out that in roughly half of all MLB games, one team scores more runs in one inning than the other team does in the whole game. Look at any week's worth of boxscores and I'll be true. Of course, Big Inning works better in the A.L.

But strictly for offensive tactics, I agreed with Acta and the new stat folks (who've now been around for 33 years) more than Riggleman. But I don't fuss with the way he does business in many other ways. And, no, I don't think he is a double-switch nut.  


All the past playoff failures were supposed to be irrelevant. The new defensive mindset was supposed to eliminate costly errors near to goal. The new, vocal veteran leadership was supposed to keep the team focused and intense, with a killer instinct. And yet we got a very familiar result -- the Caps laid an egg with an undisciplined, lollygagging game 3. The Caps go in 2-0 against a team whose top line might have to compete with the Caps' third liners for icetime, and they gave them a sense of hope. The Rangers do not have the weapons to win this series (even with King Henrik) unless the Caps commit dumb penalties and make mistakes in the defensive zone. Well, whadaya know? 8 penalties and a really bad mistake late in the 3rd period. (Not to mention a dumb mistake with 0.000 left in the 2nd that they barely dodged.) Doesn't a championship team go in for the kill at a time like this?

You make a lot of good points.

When the ruling at 0:00 or 0:01 went the Caps way, I said out loud, "That would never have happened in any of their 'jinx' series in the past." And I thought they'd use that to springboard to a 3-0 lead and put the miserable annoying talentless Rangers out of their misery. 

Then they find a way to lose. And the goofy winning goal is, in some sense, justioce for the back break at the last instant of the second period. I'm sure Rangers fans think that way. 

Yes, the game was called tight (like the Pens game that had about 20 power plays for both teams combined) and there was at least one penalty I thought was completely lame. But the burden is still on the Caps not to take dump retaliatory penalties. Boudreau said the same afterwards. The Avery-Boyle-Prust line will drive you crazy.

 But that's no reason to go nuts.

The Caps got out-hit in Game Three.

They need a sense of real urgency on Weds nite. I think thyey'll have it.

But this style of hockey, taken to the extreme that the Caps now play it, does seem like an overreaction at times. We've been there and done that; defense has its limits, too. You need a blend. The way the Caps are playing in this series, I feel like I've been put in a time m achine and I expect to see Langway on the ice any minute.

Bos, last week you explained how well the folks at the Masters treated the press, providing multiple media feeds to allow you to more easily do your job. You stated that no other tournament makes this effort. Do you think this has something to do with the wildly positive coverage the Masters gets every year, considering its ugly history, even by golf standards, and the reactionary nature of the leadership. I've always thought that certain events receive excessive praise from the media, who after all are only human, because of the way these events treat the media. NCAA tournament basketball, with media ringing the court, is another example. Keep up the excellent work.

Yes, too a degree.

The events/sports that do the best job of co-opting the media are the Masters and the NFL. I've written plenty of negative things about the Masters over the years. They are able to muzzle and manage the TV-radio coverage to a dazzling degree. Nobody's going to change my "view" by putting a four-channel TV at my desk! The last couple of years, the Masters has offered to give a ticket to anybody who has covered the event for more than 20 years. (I think it's 20.) I've never taken a nybody to the Masters. I asked my wife long ago and she just rolled her eyes and laughed. It's probably the last place on the entire planet that she would want to spend a week. I just told them, "Thanks very much for the offer. But I have no use for a ticket this year." I doubt I'll get that offer again.

Nobody, however, can touch the NFL. With a few exceptions __the Redskins take the cake for horrific media relations__ the NFL has had the world eating out of its hand for my whole lifetime. People who've been on the baseball beat, where managements and MLB itself are constantly roasted on a slow flame, cover the NFL, they say, "What is this?" Look how long it took for light to start being shed on the mortality rate of ex-NFL players and the concussion problems. Don't get me going.

What a joy it is to watch Espinosa play - at bat, in the field, on base. He looks like a polished all around player - dare I say toolsy? And now that Desmond may be finally coming around at the plate and with Ramos catching, the future up the middle looks bright. Why even other teams' reluctance to take the extra base on Ankiel is a cool thing to watch. Assuming Desmond, Espinosa and Ramos are here to stay, who do you see as the last up the middle guy in CF for the future?

The most-likely CF of the future ('13) is Werth for a year or two. Or Harper, if he can handle it. Eury Perez (20) is the long-range speedster prospect in CF.

Okay, like it or not, here it comes. This is a list of the players that the Phillies and the Nats will have under contract or team control in  '14. In parenthesis, I'll put the final year of the current contract or (pre-free-agency) team control for each player and their current age .


Ryan Howard (age 31): Thru '16

Roy Hallaway (33): Thru 14.

Cliff Lee (32): '16.

That's all.


Strasburg (23): Thru '16.

Harper (18): Thru '17 or later.

Werth (32) '17

Espinosa (24) '16

Ramos (23) '16

Desmond (25) '15

*Zimmerman (26) '13 (assume contract extension)

Zimmermann (25) '15

Storen (23) '15

Morse (29) '14

Henry Rodriguez (24) '15

Balester (24) '15

Clippard (26) '14

Detwiler (25) '15

This doesn't include Flores, Lannan and Slaten, under control through '13 or anybody still in the minors like Cole Kimball.

IF these guys work out, that is a LOT of future __a very big window for a lot of years, especiually for a team with a lower payroll this year than last and the ability to add 2-3 significant free agents.

If "they" don't work out....oh, never mind.





Much has been made of Werth batting second, but Desmond thrived there last season. I think you and others have said that Espinosa is destined for the leadoff spot but it was too soon in his development. It seems it was too soon for Desmond as well. Why not bite the bullet and put Espinosa-Desmond 1-2 in the lineup. Then Werth is 3rd and you move Morse and LaRoche back further where you have said they historically produce better. Is it too much for these seemingly precocious youngsters?

Of course, any team would worry about damaging Espinosa or Desmond in any way. But Desmond hit .326 at No. 2 last year. Espinosa-Desmond-Werth-Zimmerman-LaRoche-Morse-Ramos-Ankiel has some logic. Though not Ankiel at No. 8. But you could probably find a place for Harper in this lineup someday.

Desmond might end up a No. 7 hitter. Or a No. 1 (speed) or No. 2. But, eventually, you have to figure Espinosa has to hit at or near the top.

Question of the day: Who will have the best career __Harper, Ramos or Espinosa. (Sure, you'd expect Harper. but I no longer think that I KNOW the answer. That's kinda nice.) 

Ideally, the NATs will have Strasburg, Zimmermann, Lannan, Detwiler and either, Balester, Stammen or Maya competing for last spot on the starting 5 pitching roatation for 2012. With that assumption, are the NATs best served trading off their short term assets such as Livan, Marquis, Gorzellany and Pudge with their current high trade value at mid season for some solid OF and first baseman options since the other infield and outfield spots on the team seem well stacked for the future. I expect that LaRoche will be lost late this year or next to shoulder surgery unfortunately and that Morse, Ankiel and Bernadina will prove out as too uncertain as long term solutions to join Harper and Werth in the Outfield. But, those are just 2 holes to fill to be a viable contender for 2012.

Detwiler has had a copuple of good starts at AAA. The whole AAA rotation is better than the Nats MLB rotation in '08 or '09. And the bullpen was been nuts with Kimball, Balester. H Rodriguez __the 100 m.p.h. guy who was acquired for Willingham, has a 0.00 ERA in the minors. He'll be up pretty soon, I'd assume. I WANT to see a bullpen of Storen, Burnett, Clippard, Kimball, Rodriguez, Balester, Slaten.

I think it is generally assumed that Marquis would be prime trade material at the deadline if he keeps pitching as he is. Livo loves DC so much _-and only seems to be appreciated here__ so he might stay. Gorzelanny is young, under team control through '13 and they didn't get him to deal him, I don't think. Not sure you could get much for Pudge. B ut he has value as a teacher and platoon player in DC. 

Note: The Phils Big Four rotation of Halladay-Lee-Oswalt-Hamels has a combined ERA of 2.96. The Nats Little Four of Livan, Lannan, Z'mann-Marquis has an ERA of 2.97. If you include Bl;anton and Gorzelanny, the Nats have the better rotation ERA: 3.30 to 3.86.

No, that won't last long. It could be gone by Wednesday! But who thought you'd be able to say it ~10% of the way into the season?   

The commentators noticed that after the second goal, Neuvy stayed tethered to the goal. Any idea if that was a coaching order or if he didn't feel comfortable handling the puck? Could it be related to Boudreau's post-game complaints about the Rangers constantly banging into the goalie?

Neuvy has a reputation for staying at home and not straying far from the net to help his defenders. Not a problem. Just his style. However, the first Rangters goal was probably "soft" in the sense that __luck or not__ a shot from that tight an angle just isn't supposed to have even two inches to squeeze through. But he's played well. 

You can bet the Rangers are going to be in the kid's face on Weds unless the refs __OR THE CAPS__ make them pay for it. 

Boz, maybe this is a question for Carolyn Hax but certain officemates who are fans of a team up North who were chirping around my office like little Orioles only a week ago have seemed to disappear this morning. Has something happened to make them all but disappear like that? A concerned co-worker

I think it has to do with the strange inexplicable migratory patterns of fans of a certain black-and-orange bird.

In fair weather, they are all over you. (Even within my own family.)

Bos, You do great work. I have been a big DC baseball fan since 1955. I cannot think of a better glove at 1b in all those years than Adam LaRoche. Do you share this opinion?

You mean better than Julio Becquer?

Yes. Especially since Nick Johnson never came close to living up to his rep as a standout defensive player. LaRoche is certainly toughing it out with what seems to be a painful shoulder. That 20 mp.h. force out throw to 2nd on Sunday from his knees must have hurt.

That couldn't have been an infield fly rule out, because if the ump had called the infield fly rule the batter would have been out whether or not the ball was caught. Someone should have caught it, though.

It actually was called an infield fly. "Runners advance at their own risk." And two Brewers each advanced a base when it wasn't caught by Espinosa.

Boz, yesterday the score was 1-1, bottom of the seventh, bases loaded with no outs, and there were THREE fans in the camera shot showing the batter. I don't care if they give homeless kids free jerseys and sit them down behind home plate, the Nats have to do SOMETHING. Do they realize how absolutely horrific that looks on TV?

It looks bad. But those tickets are insanely overpriced. They are (still) priced for that '16 World Championship team! Oh, brother.

I'm surprised: Attendance, which I thought would be lousy early this season, is actually a little ahead of '10 and '09 for the same number of dates. But it's early. Lets wait a month.

Tom, All the projections around the Nats this offseason were based on decent offense and fielding and suspect starting pitching. Now that the starters are holding up their end of the bargain, should we expect a better finish assuming the bats ever come around? Is .500 in sight, or should we prepare for Livan, Lannan, Marquis et al to regress to the mean?

Sure, they'll regress from a combined 2.97 ERA! But all four Nats starters, for different reasons, really needed to have a decent start to this season. (In part because Detwiler looks like he's waiting to pounce.) Livo has no believers. The word doesn't seem to have gotten out that, about three years ago, he became a sinkerball pitcher. He gives up far fewer homers than he once did __when he threw much harder. He's learn the knack oif how to get more hitgters to bat the ball to the opposite field than are able to pull him.

Lannan and Marquis were so miserable early last year, then so solid in August-Sept, that they needed to reestablish that the way they finished was their "real" form. And Zimmermann neded to show that another six months of healthing and strengthening would help his arm. So, April was a big deal to all of them.

There good early starts give them a (small) psychological cushion. Hitters can recover that a 5-for-40 start at the plate and lot faster and easier than a pitcher can recover from three starts like the 20-run-in-three-game blastings Marquis got last April.   

No question, just a comment. Yesterday was my first doubleheader ever, and I had a great time (helped that the Nats played great). I know the doubleheader will never be a regular part of the MLB schedule, but I wish they would reconsider that position.

You're not alone in loving the rare doubleheader.

But consider the cost. Many teams draw 30K to >40K for every game. They can't give up a "date." That's 40K x $50 = $2M that will never come back.

The Nats drew 24K yesterday. They'd probably have drawm almost that many without the DH. So, it "cost" them $1M so you could have fun. (They had no realistic choice. The Brewers don't come back to DC this season and the Brewer couldn't play on Monday.)

I'm a optimistic Nat's fan that had dreams of the Nats playing .500 ball throughout this year. Given how they have won many of their games through quality pitching, do you think what the Nats have lacked the most above all else was a quality rotation? Having Marquis and Zimmerman back in the rotation this year is huge.

It's certainly interesting that after a 1-4 start, they have gone 7-3, much of it without Ryan Zimmerman.

This is the time of year when all things are possible. A 2-0 lead for the Capitals can actually be a  GOOD sign of a long playoff run and a 8-7 Nats start could mean a shot at .500.

But I like the Capitals chances better.

See you all next week when the NFL draft apporoches. Saw Cam Newton interviewed by Gruden on ESPN. Gruden gave him an example of a "typical" NFL play call that included about 137 words __all said very fast__ you know, "red right flanker back trips zebra over strong oh-just-shoot-me-in the foot-ifp-the-blitz on seven."

It was obvious that this was a new world as a hurry-up gun QB. "We have plays with names like '36,'" said Newton. He said Auburn liked to play very very fast.  (And keep it very, very simple?)    

Thanks again.



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Thomas Boswell
A Washington Post columnist since 1984, Thomas Boswell is known for the many books he has written on baseball, including "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."
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