Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Jun 23, 2014

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, the Capitals, the Nationals, the rest of D.C. sports and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

Boz, Let's say hypothetically that the Nats get swept out of Milwaukee and split against the Cubs, then come back home but Ramos and Harper take a a couple of weeks to shake off the rust. DC could hit the All Star Break still performing like a .500 team, but still confident that all cylinders are about to fire. What would the next "checkpoint" be? What date after the ASG do we look to the Nats to see that they've righted the ship and start to pull away in the NL East?

Nothing in baseball is precise. That's part of the fun. But it can almost make things more tense for the anxious fan -- which, it sometimes seems, is almost every fan.

With the Nats, I think the only consideration now is to see if they can actually play for 30 or 40 games with almost nobody missing. Don't even dream about "months" or health. What would a few weeks look like? They'll have more injuries. But you'd think that losing so much time from seven really key players in the first 74 games is an anomaly.

The next check point -- they never stop -- is tonight. When does Gio Gonzalez get back to pitching more like his normal self? Tonight? His next start? Is this going to be an off-year for him? I doubt it. But they are very close to having their five-man rotation all clicking at once  -- which is rare. Everybody except Gonzalez is either pitching well or very well right now. The Braves hitters were just ground down over the four days by the Nats pitching -- 10 runs in four games and only one in the last two games.

Greetings from (West) Springfield TB! Thanks for responding to my inquiry last week concerning The Post's lukewarm coverage of the UVA Baseball program. I'm certain I speak for all Cavalier fans that the last week, and the Post's ramped up notice of their CWS run, has been wonderful! Is Artie Lewicki's selection, by the Tigers in the 8th round, the STEAL of the 2014 MLB draft? Adios Tom

Thanks. Ryan Zimmerman (UVA) has a few goofball bets (not money, just "punishments" for losing) with teammates who are Vandy fans.

Glad to see increased interest in the CWS.

Is it time to move Jayson Werth lower in the line-up? All the advanced stats say so, but Werth claims he's a no. 3 guy and doesn't want to bat anywhere else. His ISO (Raw Power) right now is at a career low -- nowhere near you'd want a three-five spot guy in the line-up to be. It also doesn't help that he's in a 3-for-30-something streak right now and it's killing the Nationals.

Werth is worn out from playing everyday all season (73 of 74 games) and he's slumped recently as you'd expect for a mid-30's player on pace to play 160 games. (For him, 145 would be perfect.) Matt Williams said that Werth and Desmond (also slumping) both need to get a day off this week (and more, periodically, later). They'd decide who gets which days off and whether that's in Milwaukee or Chicago in the Cubs series.

When Ramos gets back on Thursday, the Nats will have plenty of options to rework the batting order. Far more important is to keep both Werth and Desmond in one piece -- with sufficient rest -- before the All-Star break. Werth is prone to muscle pulls and strains. He's avoided it so far. I'd say: Don't worry about his hitting. That will be fine. Just hope that he doesn't have a multi-week muscle pull/strain injury from playing so much.

If the Nats get Rendon, Werth, Zimmerman, Laroche, Harper, Ramos and Desmond in the lineup together almost every day for a while, then it won't matter much which order you bat them in. They interact as a lineup very well WHEN they are all playing. But this lineup degenerates VERY fast -- no matter what order you put them in -- as soon as you subtract two bats. It's a curiosity. Why would the Nats be so vulnerable to one, two or three injuries when they have six good hitters, all with power, in their lineup. I think it's because they are all good hitters, but none a great hitter -- like a Miguel Cabrera -- who hits well almost independent of the state of the lineup around him.

If Mike Matheny suddenly picked up the phone in two weeks and asked for your advice on a Nationals player for the NL all stars, what would you tell him?

Among pitchers, Strasburg, Soriano, in that order. Then Clippard. Stammen may never make an All-Star team but his three-year performance deserves it.

Among players, only Rendon. LaRoche has been held back by missing 17 games -- a high number for good 1st basemen.

I assume, if the Nats stay in first place, that they'll get three or four All-Stars. It should be almost all pitchers since they rank 1-2-3 in almost everything. including FIP (1), ERA (2), the least amount of walks (1) and best strikeout-to-walk ratio (1). It's a remarkable staff. If they keep pitching this well, take three of them.

So, we saw two ends of the spectrum of the catcher/pitcher relationship over the weekend. Strasburg seemed to think his job is just to throw what they tell him and then he got mad when that didn't work. Teheran seemed to...well, I'm not exactly sure what he wanted to do. (BTW, Boz, how close do you think Gattis came to telling a Nats hitter, "here comes the deuce. And when you speak of me, speak well"?) They're both wrong, correct? But how could they not know they were wrong before they got into that situation? Why didn't Strasburg shake Lobaton off at some point? And why didn't Teheran...well, I don't know what he was going to do.

Fister shook off Lobaton more than 100 times in a game about six weeks ago. I asked him about it. He takes responsibility, like a veteran, for every pitch he throws. Sometimes he even shakes off four or five signs on one pitch just to get in the hitter's head. It's harder for younger pitchers to do that. BUT it's their job to take that responsibility. It's one more wrinkle Strasburg has to learn. 

The Teheran/Gattis mess was as bad as I've seen. But, long ago, Rick Dempsey and his pitchers used to get into it when Rick was stubborn about what he called.

BTW, Yu Darvish has so many pitches (nine) that his catcher just calls "fastball" even though he throws four kinds of fastballs. 

Do you think the best option might be to trade LaRoche, allowing Zim to play 1B starting immediately? LaRoche will be a free-agent and not likely to be re-signed. We may have seen LaRoche's best this year already. The Nats may not want to make him a qualifying offer because he might just accept it. Therefore a trade would at least bring back some value. Zim looks to be throwing lollipops in left field so his arm may be completely shot such that 3B is not really an option anymore.

The Zimmerman situation is simple -- to me. It might not be to others. Zimmerman and Werth are on $126M contracts. They are central. They play LF and RF. It's a minor point but worth noting that Zimmerman WANTS to play LF. Also, Bryce Harper is Bryce Harper. He has to play. So what is leftfield? Put him in centerfield.

The Nats lineup weakness is a lack of left-handed power bats. You can't replace or trade LaRoche. It's not on the table. You need both Harper and LaRoche vs right-handed starters. Espinosa's better side for hitting is right-handed.

So the Nats are really locked at a lot of spots and decisions. The only question is whether Zimmerman's arm will allow him to play 3rd base sometimes. This strikes me as amusing. It seems that people didn't realize that his arm was shot in '12 and '13 but NOW they think "he can't play 3rd base anymore." Of course he can. But he'll play it as he did earlier this season -- playing too close to the plate to hide some of the arm problems (as he did in '13, too), trying to throw as many balls underhand as possible and lobbing it to first the rest of the time. He has great hands and reflexes. He can fake it at 3rd just as he's been faking it the last 300+ games (as anybody who reads these chats knows.) He's been "taking one for the team" for a long time by playing 3rd. But he's paid very well to do it.

The Question: Everybody knows that either LaRoche (mutual option with Nats for '15) or Span (team option for '15) will not be back in '15. That opens 1st base or LF for Zimmerman. Problem solved -- for '15 and future. BUT do you risk unnerving the team by putting Zimmerman and his .940 fielding percentage and lessened range back at third when you have a very nice young fielder there now in Rendon? The Nats are on a "fielding streak" this month, making almost no errors and have moved up seven spots in fielding percentage.

For me, I'd be satisfied if Zimmerman never played another game at 3rd in his life. And I know he'd be fine with that. But he is also willing to play some 3rd if that's best for the team.

If things stay as they are now when Harper gets back, I'd bite the bullet and bench Span even though he's done nothing wrong. He's a good defensive centerfielder, and he's had quite a few extra-base hits this year (though only one HR). But his on-base percentage this year is .318. That's poor for a leadoff man. It's the only stat that really matters for a leadoff man.

This will be a test for Williams. Does he move everybody all over the place from game to game to keep everybody semi-happy with Zimmerman as a $100M utility man at LF, 1st, 3rd and DH in games in A.L. parks. Or does he say: Here is our starting lineup and Span isn't in it. Then everybody is very happy -- except Span. 

The reason it's such a tough problem is that Span is well liked and respected and has real value.       

Now that she is 24 years old and a U.S. Open winner, I wonder what Michelle Wie would tell Lucy Li's family regarding playing in LPGA events when as a pre-teen. Or what Jennifer Capriati would say to her. I just never understand the parents in this situation.

I was really happy to watch the tape of the women's U.S. Open last night after I got home. A few years ago, when Wie couldn't putt at all  and seemed so lost, I just thought she'd never fulfill a fraction of her talent. And, of course, everybody always points at the parents. I'm not an expert on that but they certainly seemed like an obstacle when she was so young and trying to play in men's events.

One reason she's so popular among LPGA players is that she's been through so many disappointments and so much golf pain (the putting) while having her mother running all over the course, etc.

The table top putting approach Wie discovered last year has transformed her game. She had ZERO three putts for 72 holes on Pinehurst No. 2! And she sank a fabulous birdie bomb on 17 to get a two-shot lead after her double bogey at the 16th. Her fist pump after that birdie was one of the great moments in LPGA history. Every golfer can identify with it and it was totally spontaneous, no scripting, just "Take That!" to everything she's been battling for over 10 years.

She said of the putting style, "I don't care if it's not cool."

That is the understatement of the year. But great golfers with putting problems will do ANYTHING to solve their putting. Who is the No. 1 man in the world? Adam Scott. Terrible putter with any traditional method. He's gone to the Old Man Style long putter stroke that is mocked by many (like me) and will be illegal in a couple of years.

So, Scott and Wie look funny or grotesque or both when they putt. But they have won major titles doing it that way.

Good luck to Lucy Li. The 78-78--CUT was a very good result for 11. But I worry -- a lot -- about all these infant prodigies in all sports. When are you cultivating a talent and when is it almost mental child abuse? Unless you are inside the family, how would you know? But there are plenty of examples in many sports of both. 

Tom, There must be a lot of buzz in the D.C. golf world about Tiger returning to the PGA Tour at Congressional. I thought he would made his first outing in August at Bridgestone before the PGA, but he must be physically ready and mentally eager to rejoin golf. He is determined to at least make the FedEx Cup and the Ryder Cup on points.

Everybody in golf will be locked onto what happens at Congressional this week with Tiger. You'd think  by now that he would recognize his long history of hurting himself worse after coming back too soon from injuries and surgeries. Let's hope he's used good judgment this time. If he has, and I'd expect that he has, it would be just about the first time he's been sufficiently patient with himself.

As anyone who was at No. 2 for Martin Kaymer's win knows, golf needs Tiger. (And he surely needs it.)

I doubt that anything enters his mind except: What is the best way to prepare for the British Open? Only majors matter to him now. In essence, these are almost practice rounds for him. If he shoots 76-76 and misses the cut, don't be surprised. He's more than just rusty. But if he plays well, don't be too surprised either. Read Dave Stockton's  excellent golf-mental-instruction book "Own Your Game." If a pro (or amateur) has played for years, you KNOW how to play golf if you just let your unconscious side guide you, and if you don't paralyze yourself with technical thoughts as you play. Tiger has usually been great at dividing the roles of the two halves of the brain -- the analytical side before the shot, then intuitive side once you commit to the shot.

Seriously, the Stockton book is remarkable, especially in letting you rediscover your putting and short-game ability. The first time I played after reading it I was playing with my son and an old friend that I've played with for many years. After a sank my third 15-to-2o footer, she said, "Where has that guy been?" I was a very good mid-range putter (for a hacker) for many years. It seems like I just got out of the way, followed some of Stockton's advice (he won the PGA Championship at CCC in '76), and let that fellow back out. We'll see if it continues.

Anyway, great players coming back from injuries don't always need to get back to top form over a number of weeks. They know how to play great golf. It's in there.

Boz, anyone who thinks soccer is boring had only to watch yesterday's USA/Portugal game to be be turned around on that notion. The amazing skill of these players on display (Ronaldo's crossing pass to the head of the attacker was a thing of beauty, as much as it brought pain to this fan). My first love is baseball, but there is something about the great significance of each goal that makes the World Cup so tension filled and spectacular. And, seeing those videos of the thousands of screaming young American fans all over the country in Chicago, KC, NYC makes me think that maybe a corner has been finally turned on Americans taking to the game. There's room enough in the US sports landscape for the beautiful game.

The final Portugal goal was bad for the U.S. team but was great for soccer. So was the whole game. I watched that tape, too.

I always love the British-accent announcer on U.S. World Cup games. In the 93rd minute: "It will be one of the great wins in U.S. history, no doubt about it."

Turned out there was some doubt. I didn't know that, since 1950, there has only been one U.S. victory over any European team in the World Cup -- against Portugal.

It's great to hear expression, which may be cliches to soccer fans, but are new to general fans who enjoy the World Cup. On the last goal: "It was the last thing that happened." On the first goal: "Oh, my goodness me" and "a catastrophe" and "first clearance and the U.S. made a mockery of it."

No lack of totally over the top emotion in soccer is there? When little happens, you have to act like the world has come to a halt every time somebody rolls around with a cramp or misses a marginal scoring chance. Yes, a lot "happens." But when you are forced to watch on tape (I was working), you realize that, by skipping non-action moments, you can watch a World Cup match in half the time it takes to watch an MLB or NFL game and not miss much that matters. The most easily condensed sport is five hours of golf. You can see every shot by every leader in 60-75 minutes. 

Back to the announcing, when Portugal missed a late-game chance: "Will there be  anything better than that?" After Tim Howard made a great punch save, seconds after he was badly beaten on a shot that hit the right post: "He'd better kiss that goal post." On Cristiano Ronaldo, "This fellow will do something special  at some point."

It's a ton of fun for the general fan to see something fresh in the World Cup, while for soccer (football) fans it's just heaven.

(There is a small learning curve. My wife, surprised, "You mean they only play it once every four years?!")

Could the Braves players have bought into the idea that they owned the Nats as much as the Nats fandom did? Then they got one run over two games, along with a balk and two ejections.

By late Sunday I thought it was clear that the Braves really thought that their best, and maybe only chance, to win the N.L. East despite all their injuries and awful offense was to maintain this almost total hex on the Nats. I hadn't realized it until I watched it, but I thought the Braves were slightly more aware of their need to maintain their "dominance" head-to-head with the Nats than the Nats were aware of the need to end that dominance. The ejections felt like a team that realized a really big opportunity -- to win three or even four in D.C. -- had slipped away.

Hi Boz, do you have any stats on baseball manager ejections for this year? Hasn't instant replay mostly eliminated them? I saw the Rangers manager get tossed for arguing after an instant play review didn't go his way, but that seems to be the exception these days. I think that has been a big improvement to the game. Never like watching managers and umps spit in each others faces.

I'll check into it. I suspect they are down. Maybe by a lot. Many ejections are a build up of anger because of the consequences from previous wrong calls, even from earlier in the season. The less mistakes that are allowed to stand, the less anger and arguments exist about anything.

Any sense yet of how many wins it will take to be an NL wildcard this season? Second-place teams in the NL Central and West both have 40+ wins at this point (more than the Nat's 39) and are on pace for 87-88 wins. Seems like second place in the NL East might not guarantee a playoff appearance.

I think 87-88 wins is going to be a wildcard target in most seasons. I've played with the numbers from the last 20-plus years.

No, I do not think the runner-up in the N.L. East will be a wildcard. That's another reason the Braves-Nats series felt so big for a "mere" June confrontation. Four-game series are rare. They are also important because the difference between going 3-1 and 1-3 is FOUR games in the standings. For example, if Braves had gone 3-1, they'd now be ahead of Nats by half a game. But if Braves had gone 1-3 they'd now trail by 3 1/2 games.

A four-game sweep, which Oakland almost got against Boston and which did happen last weekend in another series, can make an EIGHT game swing between 4-0 and 0-4. 

If the season ended today in the N.L., Milwaukee, San Francisco and D.C., in that order, would win their divisions with the Cardinals and Dodgers playing as wildcards. Just as an example of how match-ups can impact October, lets say Kershaw beat the Cards in the wildcard play-in game. Suddenly, the two teams that the Nats "can't beat" are out and the Nats would meet the Giants, whom they supposedly can beat, in one division series.

If Brewers (47-30) actually are better than the Dodgers (42-35) and win their division series, then it'd be the Nats and Brewers playing in the NLCS to go to the World Series. And the Nats would never have to meet any of the teams which were supposed to be as good or better (in pre-season polls).

This is all of extra interest now because Nats go to Milwaukee to play three against the Brewers with Gio, Jordan and Strasburg lined up against the No. 2 offense in the N.L.   

WaPo recently ran a column comparing Nats 2014 with Nats 2012 on key stats. Among other stats, Nats today are behind their 2012 pace in home runs. But in 2012 many noted that Nats pitchers had a remarkably low rate of home runs allowed. The stat wasn't mentioned in 2013 because the Nats, presumably, regressed to the mean and had other problems to explain their troubles. How does the Nats pitching staff compare this year in home runs allowed?

Nats are No. 1 in baseball in least HR allowed per game, a hair ahead of Cards, who just had two rotation pieces go on the DL on Sunday -- Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia (both with shoulder injuries).

Nats homers are way down because they only have four homers total from Harper, Zimmerman and Ramos, of whom you might have expected 25-25-16 = 66 before the season started -- or more if Harper had had a breakout HR year. 

Nats have had big improvements in small areas on which Williams focused in Viera, FL. That Nats are toe-to-toe with the Cards at stopping the running game. I think the Nats are a hair ahead right now. They allow the least wild pitches. "Our catchers are really good at blocking balls in the dirt. I think Leon has the best 'pop time' (popping out of his crouch to throw to 2nd) in the league,"  said Clippard. "This is a season when he have spent a lot of time cleaning up the details of our game. They add up."

Nice to see Michelle finally win a major. I hope the ice cream cone-eating 11-year-old doesn't have to endure what Michelle did before finally winning one. Seems silly that the LPGA even allows an 11-year-old to play in pro tourneys.

Some sports need publicity so much, no matter what kind it is, that they'll overlook almost anything to get it. Got to admit that I think Open qualifying should have some age limits. And, for me, 11 years old would be under the limit. I haven't entirely thought it through, but that's my first impression. 

I was at the game yesterday and Go NATS. the umpire might have missed some strikes for Tanner Roark but I do think the biggest "bad" was a 3rd strike call on Chris Johnson from the first base ump. I did not think Johnson went and there were men were on 1st and 2nd. Otherwise. I think the guy having the most fun is Anthony Rendon. He is always laughing and looks so relaxed out there.

I agree. The call on Johnson was worse than, or at least as bad, as the two blown calls on Roark. Make-up call? Johnson admits that he has a serious temper control issue that he must correct. He was benched for a game and apologized to the Braves earlier this year for a temper tantrum during a game that might have injured teammates.

What could the Nats get for Strasburg? While he may be a special talent, he's not a special pitcher. Seem like his value may never be higher. I figure he should yield a near-all-star power hitter and a proven starter. Thoughts?

What could you get for Harper?

These are not "unthinkable" questions about either of them. But they are very difficult questions. I don't sense that the Nats have ANY interest in trading either. Maybe, for them, they are unthinkable questions. 

You could get a ton for either of them because they would boost attendance, merchandize sales and team profile -- which is also why the Nats wouldn't trade them unless they thought they had bad attitudes which couldn't be corrected. The Nats think both are very hard workers with astronomical ceilings. I agree with the first part of that evaluation, but think the jury is out on the second. Strasburg, right now, is very good and Harper was last year. Now, the question is: Do they have a next level and what is it?

Boz, as a UVa grad, I'm thrilled to see the Cavaliers in the finals. I was also impressed with the Terps, who remind me of Virginia about 10 years ago and might dominate the Big 10. I know it's a slightly different animal, but where does the quality level of college baseball stack up compared to the minors? Single or Double A? It almost seems like a parallel development path to the big leagues.

MLB teams don't think college is as good for pure development -- measured in progress-per-year -- as the minors. But that is a self-interested perspective. They think, "Our methods are better because... because they are ours."

Have there been any games this year where young Ross Detwiler has been asked to protect a lead? Detwiler has been given nothing but lost-cause innings duty. It is a strange way to foster his confidence -- or willingness to be in the bullpen. Seems he has been mismanaged, given his talent.

He's been wasted.

No individual decision involving him seemed unreasonable at the time. But it has worked out badly and he doesn't seem terribly interested in his role (4.97 ERA). When you don't like your job, you can bury yourself. He should follow obvious advice: When you do get a chance to pitch, no matter the situation, get pumped up and blow people away. Then good things tend to happen.

Is there anything more fun in sports than the silent treatment? Any idea how it started?

I'd love to know how it started. Enjoyed seeing Hardy celebrate him -- throw seeds on his own head, etc.

The Nats have done a good job of overcoming injuries this year to be in 1st place. But I think the Orioles have done an even better job of maximizing their ability, playing around their weaknesses (pitching) and injuries (Weiters out for the year).

Be interesting to see how Zach Britton, who looked dominant in some closing situations, reacts to his four-run implosion on Friday night in the Stadium. The O's sure reacted well with back-to-back wins over Yankees to move into a tie for secondd in the A.L. East. Nobody is managing a team better than Buck, anywhere in baseball these days. And Dan Duquette -- the GM man who signed Todd Cruz (and we'll almost forget about Ubaldo Jimenez' albatross contract) has overcome the black cloud over his head when he left Boston with the (usual) Jackals of The Nation on his trail.

That's it for this week. Lot of great topics!

I want somebody to explain to me the football dynamics, if there are any, of a successful former German national coach in World Cup now coaching the U.S. in a game against Germany on Thursday when, if they tie, both advance. Maybe there is no spin. But it sure seems like soccer has a lot of inside stuff. And, wow, can they complain about anything. "We have to FLY further to our games." Do they have to flap their wings? I thought they went on nice air conditioned airplanes with cocktail service.

Still got a lot to learn! See you next Monday, but not at 11 a.m. I have a conflict. We'll have to work out a different time. Will let you know. Thanks for all the questions.  

In This Chat
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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