Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Aug 03, 2015

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

Why do you think he's getting more playing time over Ramos?

*The several pitchers, including Gio, like throwing to Lobaton. I do think he has the pitch-framing knack, which has value.

*Ramos has played a heavy load, in part because he wanted to stay healthy and prove he was a catcher who could start 125+ games behind the plate and still stay strong enough to be an important hitter. He's on pace to play in 127 games but his OPS is a poor .623 and even that is padded by two homers in a 16-4 blowout that were hit off position players who were used as emergency "pitchers."

*Since LaRoche left, the Nats have a very lob-sided righthand-heavy lineup that is vulnerable to righthanded pitchers, especially those with a power-pitching style... 95+ fastball and hard breaking ball... like the Mets. Lobaton is a switch-hitter whose OPS vs RHers is almost identical to Ramos' this season. IOW, neither of them hit much against RHers, so why not keep Ramos fresher (maybe his bat wakes up) and give Lobaton's defense and pitch-calling some PT.

Ironically, the Nats "JV" did better vs the Mets the previous weekend, perhaps in part because LH-hitting Clint Robinson and switch-hitting Danny Espinosa were playing every day then. You want Rendon (in particular) back as well as Zimmerman and Werth. But the kind of team they help you against the LEAST is one like the Mets that can throw Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard at you.

BTW, here is a major point. The Mets took the Nats very seriously and set their rotation so that their "Big Three" could start all six games vs the Nats in the last 10 days. Coming out of the All-Star break, the  Nats could have set their rotation any way they wanted. They CHOSE not to take the Mets very seriously. They didn't start Scherzer... you know, the $210-million guy... in either start. But they did start a rookie, Joe Ross, is both series. Ross pitched well. But where was Scherzer?

Hindsight is easy. So here's some easy 20-20 hindsight: It's bad managing or bad strategy among all concerned... the manager, coaches, GM, everybody with a voice...  to let your division lead disappear without using your ace in any of six games against the only team in your division with a chance to catch you.

Everybody focuses, and they should, on why a rookie (Ross) on an innings count, who hadn't been going more than five innings in any start in the minors to conserve those innings, was sent out for the seventh inning against the Mets with a 2-1 lead when the Nats had Janssen, Storen and Papelbon rested and ready to pitch the last three innings.

What was worrisome was that Williams acted after the game like there was no real decision to be made. He said, paraphrase, that it was pretty by-the-book managing to leave Ross in the game (to give up a homer to Duda who had ALREADY homered off him in the game).

It WAS a decision in the sense that a case can be made... not a very good case in my book... to leave in Ross because he had a low pitch count and had allowed only one run. Williams should know that he'd made an important CHOICE... not just a by-the-book standard non-decision... and it blew up. IOW, you can leave Ross in and say, "Yeah, yeah, I know... where were our newly-minted 1-2-3 bullpen guys?" I thought Ross was throwing the hell out of the ball and looked fresh. I stuck with him. It didn't work. So, 1) I still like the logic of my decision and would make it again or 2) this is one of those times when I may have a long talk with myself about Things a Second Year Manager Can Still learn about having a "feel" for the game.

OK, he's probably not going to go with answer No. 1. 

But... decision? What decision? That's not a good answer.   

Let's face it: He is still making the kind of mistakes that cost two playoff games last October. Saturday night in New York was a disaster: leaving in Ross too long, walking Cespedes, never using his two studs. What good is it for Rizzo to get the players if Matt Williams doesn't know how to use them?

Sometimes the granular stuff of baseball and it's strategy is what's important. Why did you  do this specific move in this specific spot? But at other times, like the Nats-Mets series, you need to step back and ask a bigger-frame questions.

How can you play three games, two of them very close, and never use Storen or Pabelbon in any of them? How can you get into the 12th inning and feel that you have no choice but to have a rookie, who's already pitched two shutout innings, go out for a third inning and give up a walk-off homer? Others "were not available." 

And, as I'll talk about in another question, where was Scherzer in BOTH of the Mets series? You pay him $210M. You play SIX games with the Mets. They line up their three best pitchers for BOTH series. Coming out of the AS Game you STILL don't have your ace set for either series.

Somebody didn't take somebody else very seriously. And probably paid a price for it.

But at least the N.L. East is exciting now. There's that! And long-suffering Mets fans get to be happy, which they deserve, because their scrappy 86-win-ish team is still good enough to stick with the when-will-they-wake-up Nats.

Character, schmeracter. This guy has more baggage than a fleet of 747's. To me it's not a close call. I realize if he helps the team win all will be forgiven (though not by me) and if he messes up again, he'll be gone but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

As Jerry Brewer pointed out in an excellent column on Saturday, Scot McCloughan said a few months ago that "The last thing I want to do is try to embarrass this organization, bringing in these so-called bad guy. I won't do that. If there is that kind of question mark that he might be a bad guy, we're not going to do it."

My view: Well, he just did it.

So, he never meant it. Or he broke his promise to the fans almost immediately. Or he forgot to mention the asterisk *if the guy is a really good pass rusher, we'll make an exception. Or somebody else, or multiple somebodies, still want to "win now" (or at least not go 3-13 or 4-12 again) at any cost to prove they aren't a bunch of rockheads who messed up a franchise. Does this team really think it has a strong locker room or leadership after 7-27? And with a potential QB debate that may drive 6 million people in the metro area out of their minds by Oct 1? And with a second-year coach with a 4-12 record and a history of friction with the QB that the owners has an enormous reputational stake in reviving?

THIS is a team that needs to add baggage to upgrade NOW?  

When talented athletes (FINALLY) realize that they are down to their last chance or they are out of their sport, they sometimes get the message. Not most of the time, but sometimes. Galette may be one of the guys who can flip a switch and straighten up. He better be for his sake. But here is my bottom line: the Saints reportedly ate about $18M of a contract they gave him less than a year ago just to get rid of him. 

I'm sure the team takes it as another series, while the fans are freaking out. Are we moving into a repeat of the 2013 season?

The Nats tend to underestimate opponents. In the case of the Mets, I'm probably guilty of that, too. They are so clearly "what they are" -- a nice team with three big arms at the top of the rotation but still with plenty of work to do to be a top team. That doesn't mean that if the Nats decide to win 86 games again, as they did in '13, that the Mets couldn't win 87.

It is significant that a team, any team, is good enough to win 98-86-96 games in three straight seasons and be, until last week, nine games over .500 in a year with waves of talent. But the Nats sometimes think they are just one level better than they are. I don't think they took the Giants as seriously as they should have last year. They just flat out thought they were better. Well, that's all very nice but it's a perfect way to play a sloppy Game One, fall behind in a short series, start to feel tight and go cold for 18 innings on a chilly night. No, "attitude," or attitude alone, doesn't win and lose games... or seasons. But it matters.

Matt Williams is excellent at setting a steady, calming, patient tone. And it has helped during two injury-damaged seasons. But that seems to be the only note, or certainly the primary one, on his violin. Can he bring himself to transmit the idea that "this is a big series."

Ironically, the Nats played the O's as if it were a big series. They won two of three. They treated the Giants as a big series and swept them. They seemed "up" for their Replacements Series against the Mets at Nats Park and won two of three. They certainly looked focused against the Dodgers, though they lost two of three. Even the four games in Pittsburgh seemed like a more significant test than the Mets.

Why?

Because the Nats (and many others) see the Giants, Dodgers and Pirates as SERIOUS October rivals for the Nats and the O's as a local rival. The Mets are seen more as a plucky temporary nuisance. Well, the nuisance just bit 'em. And they'll probably be around for a while.

I have a pet theory that I've mentioned here before. For some reason, I think teams with a lot of heart and motivation (for example teams that have been losers for a long time), can play on heroics and adrenaline for about 110 games. Then the August heat or the long season or the truth of sample size gets 'em starting around game 110. I don't know whether the Mets are one of those teams -- the Nats certainly shouldn't be -- but I think we'll see a rapid reality check on one or two "darling" teams who won't make it to Labor Day in one (contending) piece.

He is 2nd on the team in WAR. He last played July 26th. What are your thoughts on his benching?

Espinosa was double-switched into the game last night for Desmond.

It's a dilemma without an obvious answer.

1) Rendon must play as many games as his just-back-in-game-shape body will allow. He and Harper, together, are the heart of this order. Rendon looked excellent last night vs Syndergaard. He ended up with a HR to CF, a single pulled down the left field line and a double that hit the RF chalk off a 98 mph fastball! So, we may see a hot Rendon pretty soon.

2) Desmond had a brief hot streak. He's a core team leader and Rizzo/Williaams are connected at the hip to him.  Espinosa might get a game or two at SS. But the standard view in baseball is that, after a 3-time Silver Slugger SS shows signs of life, you LEAVE HIM IN. You suffered through the slump. So, at least get the full benefit of the rebound. And Desmond drove in two runs against deGrom on Saturday.

3) Escobar is hitting .314, among the league leaders, but more important has a .360 on-base percentage in a lineup that needs men on base ahead of Harper and which also needs a bat-handler like Escobar to manufacture runs with hit-and-runs and also with singles sliced through the hole to right field to send men first-to-third.

As slick as Escobar can look at third base, advanced stats say that his range is very limited. Zimmerman last year played very close because his arm was weak. Escobar plays in very close to "narrow the cone" (soccer goalie talk) and hide lack of lateral movement and also be less vulnerable to the bunt. Whenever you see a third baseman who ALWAYS plays shallow it means "there's a problem here that's being disguised."

And game that Espinosa isn't at second and Rendon isn't at third (rather than second) you are sacrificing defense at TWO positions. All metrics I see say that the Nats are in the bottom third in MLB in defensive range or defensive "efficiency." It's not a small worry.

Espinosa needs to get some playing time. The more Werth, Zimmerman, Rendon and Desmond hit, and their total contribution for this season grades out at "Absolutely Pathetic," the more you can afford to give various players a day of and use Espinosa as a super-sub. But until those guys find their timing, start to hit and the best-available lineup start producing more, Espinosa is the one who tends to suffer.

You have an adage: Lose the right way. All season, as well as last October, we have had to suffer through multiple Matt Williams' gaffes, including a couple big ones this past weekend in New York. He doesn't seem to know how to use a bullpen. And his choice not to throw Scherzer against the Mets is unforgivable. He is skilled at losing the wrong way. I know Williams has other skills but can the Nats survive his bungling? What is your real opinion of him?

Covering baseball has taught me two rules (or cliches) that seem to work in the game and probably aren't bad notions to carry into the rest of daily life. "Lose the right way." And "how stupid would I feel if..." they are connected.

For example, if you set your post-ASG rotation to give Scherzer a start or starts vs the Mets and it doesn't work out well, I don't think you "feel stupid." I'd say you just feel like you lost and sometimes you're gonna lose. But if you DON'T use him and your lead this a.m. is less than one percentage point, I think I'd feel pretty stupid. Sure, "hindsight stupid," but it's a bad feeling.

Same with not going to Janssen, Storen and Papelbon in the seventh on Saturday. I think it's a case of "how stupid would I feel if I let my rookie give up this lead when I finally have my Three Closer Bullpen set to unleash?" My answer: I'd feel pretty stupid. Janssen, Storen and Papelbon have ALL been CLOSERS, which means you don't play nervous match-up games with them. You say, "This guy is GOOD. Go get 'em. Lefty, righty, who cares? This guy has closer ability not just reliever ability." Does Janssen really have that? Well, you got him to SET UP.  So the organizational opinion is: YEAH. Look at his numbers the last FOUR years. 

OTOH, if you hook Ross with a low pitch count and Janssen gives up the same homer, do you "feel stupid?" No, I think you feel like you got some useful, maybe painful info about Janssen. And you leave Ross with a very positive night. 

Fans of all sports tend to jump to extreme conclusions. So do writers! I really thought that the WAY the Mets lost on Thursday night, basically, two rain delays sent by the devil himself caused them to lose when they were one out from victory, would have an after-effect, especially with the Nats up next. Logical, but wrong.

In Williams case, fans jump from Not The 'Next Great Manager' That Mike Rizzo Thought He'd Found straight to Worst Manager Ever. It's funny. Okay, probably not if you are Williams. He has lots of good points. But having a "feel" for games, especially in the late innings, is part (new and old stat) science and part The Art of Real-Time Observation.

Williams has the misfortune of being close, in geography or time, to Buck Showalter and Davey Johnson, two of the best bullpen managers of their time. Both knowing how to build a bullpen, identify the people who could handle various jobs, then keep them in their roles, define the roles and also not burn them up. Williams isn't bad at it. But I seldom find myself saying, as I did with Buck and Davey in most of their years, "This guy really has a feel for getting through 7-8-9. How does he do it?"

It's (bitterly) ironic that Johnson will be remembered, in part, for not being able to get through 6-7-8-9 in Game Five in '12. Fans point at this that and the other to say, "He blew it." But I've talked to managers who say, "Come on. His job was to give his closer, a good closer, a multi-run lead in the ninth. And he MANAGED to do that."

Oh, no, box of worms open again. Close lid. Move on.

It's easier to blame the manager... always. It's harder to say, "Our 21-game winner walked the ballpark with a 6-run lead" or "our Deep Talented Lineup That's Finally Completely Healthy couldn't buy a hit off Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Hudson."

Seems to me, Tom, Stras has to return with his best and Werth/Zimmerman/Desi have to go on rolls for them to win the division. And that seems like a lot to ask right now. The only solace I'm taking is I can't remember seeing anyone facing the kind of pitching they have over the last two weeks ...

Don't react too much at high and low points. Because of covering golf or having friends in town I didn't watch the Mets games in real time. I watched them, more cold bloodedly perhaps, long after they were over. What I saw besides the losses: Rendon (1 HR in '15) is probably about to break out. Zimmerman's HR, double and a couple of other hard-hit at bats showed promise that maybe this isn't a lost year for him yet. Ross is special. And Rivero, especially against the Mets LHers, is going to continue to be very useful. (Okay, maybe not so useful in the third extra inning of relief.)

IOW, what struck me was:

1) The Mets were more ready and had their rotation more ready. They didn't like losing to the JV in D.C. They got even.

2) Harper better get his temper under control and stop showing up home plate umps (in-game) and his own manager (after games) or else he's going to be remembered for getting ejected in a Game Seven someday somewhere. For the 1,000th time: You ARE your habits. He's developing, or not stomping out, a TERRIBLE habit. The ump's call was wrong. So what? Excusable. Harper got ejected for the third time THIS year then, after his manager said, "That can't happen" several times, Harper still said he'd done nothing wrong. That's very hard to excuse.

3) They're very close to breaking out and hitting much better. In a 15-game span, they just saw Harvey (2), deGrom (2), "Thor" (2), Greinke, Kershaw, Cueto, Cole and Liriano!

In those 15 games, about as tough a test as a hitter will see, Harper hit .296/.397/.519. Scored 10 runs. got on base 24 times. Three homers. Some hits came off relievers. So? HR off Kenley Jansen doesn't count? Tough test. Good grade.

The Nationals are beginning to remind me of the Redskins. They are starting to believe the mantra that "we have amazingly great players but for some reason our record doesn't reflect how amazingly great we are." At some point, the best team in baseball is measured by having the best record, not the best players. Bryce should know this.

Yes and no.

Since start of '12, almost 600 games, the Nats are still second in MLB in wins. That's "doing something."

As I said in my column last week, I'd prefer they clam up. But that's just me. That's not them. Teams get to build and define themselves, then live it out. And the complexity of this team, how hard it is to figure out what it will do next (or fail to do, makes for great theater. You (as fans) could ask for a better team to root for. But I could hardly ask for a better team to WRITE about, including getting swept by the Mets.

When people say that baseball is addictive I suspect that the Washington area is beginning to understand, it's the CONSTANT emotion and drama. It just gets you hooked. I remember Edward Bennett Williams, the famous trial lawyer (and other things, too) saying that running the Redskins (which he did) and owning the Orioles were simply not comparable experiences. Baseball, he said, was MUCH more intense, tormenting and constant. "When we're playing on the West Coast, I can NEVER go to bed until the last out," he said. No matter how early he had to get up to go run his law firm or the Democratic party or, well, a decent-sized chunk of the world. And it is the intensity of the LOSSES that is a huge part of the addiction process. A home stand starts tonight. It just doesn't stop. And by next Monday, we... and fans in about 15 different cities... will feel quite different than they do today.

I get that Terry Collins wanted to make a statement by sweeping the Nats, but what's the point of letting Harvey throw 109 pitches, de Grom throw 117 and Syndergaard throw 109? To me, it seems like a shortsighted managerial strategy that could come back to haunt the Mets.

Perfectly normal numbers.

Maybe deGrom a little high. But not enough to matter.

"Out-managed by Terry Collins..." words you don't often hear.

So the Nats were on national TV last night. Well, that's nice but why the heck do I have to listen to a couple of knuckleheads who don't know the first thing about the Nats?As far as their concerned if it ain't Mets it ain't baseball. I wouldn't mind chipping in a few bucks to hear FP and Carp. If all the other Nats fans out there did the same, maybe we could convince MASN to let them do a simulcast or something just so we don't have to listen to those NY-centric know-nothings.

I listened to part of Sunday's game on the radio returning from the Tiger Tournament. Apparently, there was a pitch in the third inning that was called a "ball" when it was a strike (by 2 or 3 inches, when I watched it this a.m.) and that was really, really important. And, oh, yeah, the Mets hit three balls into or off the upper deck in five Zimmermann pitches later in that inning.   

I did enjoy watching the ESPN crew watch Rendon's home run land EIGHT FEET from where they were sitting with a PERFECT view and NONE of them said, "That was over the line on the wall by at least a foot, so it's a home run, not a double." They waited and waited. You watch the replay and all six of their eyes are right ON the ball. They had the best view in the known universe and didn't say a word. Not bad, just funny.

Tom, Another great performance by Inbee in winning the British Open. Too bad her win is overshadowed by the stupid fifth major that the LPGA added a few years ago. Of course, she won the career Grand Slam.

That's seven majors for her at age 27! I watched the highlights. Sorry she didn't get anything like her due.

BTW, I know the field at Quicken Loans National was about as bad as you ever see at a Tour event that's actually played on a quality course in a major market. Bad date, sure. But still...

However, I thought Troy Merritt's win was really memorable because he and his story are very interesting. 

If you listened to the TV broadcast, you had no hint of who Merritt was as a person. His post-win interview was exceptional. 

This could turn out to be the best thing for him. He's been fantastic in the regular season for a while, but he's got a postseason mental hurdle to get over. Maybe it'll be easier for him to get over it as an eighth inning guy. This assumes the Nats reach the postseason, of course. Yikes.

It's four-to-six weeks to start worrying about such a thing.

Storen's six-up-six-overpowered performances after Papelbon arrived were a classy statement. Maybe the best stuff I've ever seen him have in back-to-back appearances. He's such a nice guy. Right now, if I were a hitter, I think I'd have, in the back of my mind, "This guy's head is about to explode he's so jagged off. Don't do anything to tick him off any more than he already is."

Storen's probably going to be a heck of a closer for somebody in some post-season some day. Maybe not in D.C. From now on, I think in October he'll be permanently inoculated by a Full Adult Dose of MLB Ornery. He may get beat. But I bet he goes after people with a cold fury.

Anger, even a lot of anger, can be very useful, very freeing when channeled.    

I’m not panicking yet over the Nat’s playoff chances, but I believe that if they do miss out, the fault will be solely on their own shoulders. All year we’ve been hearing that they are clearly the best team in baseball, but after 103 games, they are tied for the sixth best record in the National League. I understand the injuries, but this team had the opportunity to address those gaps and decided not to do so. Maybe Desmond is what he is at this point in the season and can no longer turn around on those pitches inside and up in the zone. Maybe relying on a 31 year old centerfielder with back issues and a 34 year old corner outfielder with wrist injuries to immediately return to their primes isn’t such a good bet. As much as I have loved watching the Zimmerman as the face of this franchise for the last 10 years, let’s face up to the fact that the best we could hope for is that he could be an average first baseman in a National League overloaded at the position. Zimmerman’s OPS from his best years of 2009-2010 would only rank him sixth among first basemen in the NL this year, and I don’t think he’s capable of being the player he was five years ago. What say you?

I'd say you are a very observant fan.

Many things, back to Werth spending a blink in jail for speeding, have felt like bad omens this year.

This is when people come together or start to fall apart. And it's a time when you find out who looks for excuses and who refuses to use them. For example, free agency arrived in 1976, so teams having players in their walk year is no excuse for anything. Teams have been going to the World Series with key players who were probably not going to return for almost 40 years. It's part of the game. If Desmond, Z'mann, Fister and/or Span don't perform, then blame it, in any way, on the last year together, that would be lame. But I don't think they will. They're pros. They'll more likely say: Suck it up and show 'em how good we are.

Injuries: No excuse. They're healthy and tied for first place. The manager? Give me a break. I watched Joe Altobelli win the World Series. Maybe Williams is a little too By The Book but if you are GOOD then By The Book shouldn't hurt you much at all.

I'd say the No. 1 and No. 2 concerns that actually matter are: How much do Zimmerman and Werth have left? Can they offer the proper support, this year and next year, too, for Harper and Rendon? Z'man is only 30. He should have YEARS left. Will he? Werth is smart and resourceful. His combined stats the last three years are exceptional, near the top of the game: .303/.394/.479. OPS+ of 140. He's been a beast, when he wasn't missing 129 games and now 68 more this year. Can he stay healthy? How much of that slash line is still accessible to him. I'd guess "plenty." We'll see.

Why do GMs keep hiring inexperienced Managers/Coaches? Oates? Williams? Gruden? Shouldn't the other teams learn from what happened with the Caps when they hired an experienced coach and did much better with essentially the same players?

Interesting connections across different sports. Thanks. Might be a column there. What's predictive? What isn't? How long do you wait to evaluate someone you believe in deeply but who has no experience? McPhee thought Oates was the One Man that he always wanted to have as his coach.

That's it for this week. See you next Monday at 11 a.m. Then a couple of weeks of August vacation. 

 

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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