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April 11, 2010

Game Story

Nats at Mets

by Christina Kahrl

Unhappy chance puts me in New York now instead of Chicago tomorrow to see the Cubs' home opener, but the usual formula for what to do with lemons applies in the Empire State as much as the Land of Lincoln. Today's game in Flushing gave me a shot to see Citi Field for the first time, with a chance to see Johan Santana on the mound, Jim Riggleman steer a patchwork roster, and Jose Reyes play in his second game since his activation from the DL.

In his first turn on Opening Day, Santana beat the Marlins handily, getting an early hook with a 6-1 lead only 24 batters and six innings into the game. For his foe, he drew last season's temporary Mets hero, Livan Hernandez, making his first start for the Nats this season, and his first turn against the team that cut him loose in August to spare itself some change. Would Livan avenge himself? Avenge the loss of $250,000? Mocked Livan has been and perhaps deserves to be, but he's no Mock, having spun six quality starts for the Nats in his eight turns since they picked him off the discard pile last August. Stephen Strasburg might be starting in Altoona today, and the future make be better, but re-saddling Livan makes the case that this is another edition of Brokeback Rotation.

The dilemma for both ballclubs in lineup selection was injury-related. Facing a power lefty, Riggleman was without Ryan Zimmerman to play third after the third-slot hitter went down last night with a strained hamstring. Making matters worse, righty-batting utilityman Mike Morse was DL-bound, so he wasn't available; the start against Santana from third base would go to veteran Adam Kennedy—possessor of an OPS barely above 600 against opposing left-handed starting pitchers, and 1-for-17 on his career against Santana. A low-tech Earl Weaver 3 x 5 could tell you Kennedy's a bad idea, but hammering Riggleman for this would be pointless—the skipper properly deposited Kennedy in the eighth slot and made do given his shorter deck to work from.

Riggleman's adaptation was interesting enough—he plugged Willy Taveras into the second slot behind Nyjer Morgan, a move that if nothing else provides a ton of speed atop the order. Pudge Rodriguez was riding pine after starting four of the first five games, putting Wil Nieves on the spot for just his 12th career start outside of the eighth or ninth slots. It was enough to make you think whether Livan ought to bat higher than ninth, but his .227/.237/.305 career clip isn't quite Don Robinson/Micah Owings territory.

For the Mets, even with Reyes back, Luis Castillo's bum wheels left him inactive again, so Jerry Manuel spotted him with Alex Cora at both second base and the second slot. Mike Jacobs was in the fifth slot, the early-season giggle over having him clean up to separate David Wright and Jason Bay appropriately dispensed with after two games.

The first inning began in grand fashion for the Nats, and finished that way with the help of the game's handy-dandy adoption of instant replay. Morgan showed bunt on the first pitch, then ripped a full-count triple to left-center. Taveras followed with a walk, prompting daydreams of steals of home, delayed steals of home, basepaths mayhem of some sort... and Riggleman had Taveras going when Cristian Guzman pelted a liner at David Wright. Wright's sweeping attempt to tag Morgan came up empty, Taveras was already at second, so Wright took the out at first. Adam Dunn juiced the bases with a full-count walk (no productive outs for this TTO hero), bringing up Josh Willingham. He was having none of last season's early solo homer issues, instead providing a double dip of excitement on the same ball in play when he crushed a Santana changeup: fans got two plays at the plate and a grand slam, thanks to the modern miracle of instant replay. Willingham's clout on 2-1 carried to left-center, hitting just to the right of the orange line above the Citi Bank sign, bouncing back into play—an obvious home run, but it hadn't been called. Morgan scored, Taveras scored, Dunn ran through Rod Barajas, knocking the ball free, and Willingham sort of waddled into the crowded mess and was called out on a toss from Barajas to Santana covering home. So, a blown call produces old-school entertainment? Happily, it was somewhat obvious, and the provision existed to get it right. Riggleman came out of the dugout, the umps came off the field, the play was reviewed and overturned, human error took a long since earned L, creating Willingham's fifth career grand slam.

The Nats plated a fifth run in the third, as Santana's velocity started sagging into the high 80s. Willingham struck again, this time off Santana's cooling heat as he doubled after Guzman singled and Dunn walked; Dunn held up at third. Ian Desmond followed with a fly to right field that created a close play at the plate; third-base coach Pat Listach might have been thinking he was on the bases instead of Adam Dunn, or maybe he's Russell Carleton's kind of third-base coach. Dunn isn't the worst baserunner, but he's not an asset; he chugged home and decided to not slide, trying to step over Barajas as the catcher took the feed from Francoeur. Shades of Jeremy Giambi and the most horrific baserunning play in Oakland history? I think so, but then some of us are scarred for life and have flashbacks.

Down 5-0 going into the bottom of the fifth, Manuel hooked Santana with the pitcher's slot up, one out, and nobody on base, and pinch-hitting Castillo. This seemed sensible for a few reasons. Santana wasn't at his best, and with this just his second regular-season game coming back from last fall's elbow surgery, 87 pitches and 22 batters seemed like enough. If you've got a twelfth pitcher, why not use him? Manuel used this as an opportunity to break in today's call-up, defector from Cuba and Cubs castoff Raul Valdes, making his big-league debut more than five years since his defection, and having bounced from the Cubs to the indy leagues to Mexico to the Mets as a 32-year-old rookie.

Mop-up duty's just that, but since Valdes was a southpaw following up a southpaw, it was a way of extending the initial expectation that a Zimmerman-free lineup would have issues with lefties. It worked well enough, as Valdes got a nice separation between his high-80s fastball and his slider and change to work two scoreless frames.

Livan cruised through seven innings without allowing a run, and never really getting into trouble. He allowed two baserunners in an inning just twice (two-out walks each time), throwing slow fastballs ("changeups," per some sources) and working efficiently. The quarter-million-dollar loss to Mets' decision-making appropriately avenged, Riggleman swapped him out in the eighth, preferring to get Adam Dunn's glove off the field and deposit Willie Harris in the ninth slot—due to bat second in the ninth inning.

The move was telegraphed somewhat by a decision to pinch-run Alberto Gonzalez for Willingham in the top half of the inning. This seems like a good tactic, to punt the pitcher's slot further away, obviate a pinch-hitting decision, and go for better defense, right? As bad as Dunn and Willingham are in the field, this seemed like an overly aggressive switch to defense, since it pulled the Nats' two best hitters in the same frame, this while Zimmerman's out with his bum hammy. It may not matter if you keep the lead, but blow it, and you're in an especially awful situation offensively if the Mets get back into the game.

Brian Bruney did his part to make it a matter of concern, walking David Wright, and then coughing up a two-out full-count cookie to Mike Jacobs that the sometime slugger belted off the Pepsi signs on the right-field upper deck's facing for his 100th career homer, and his first for the Mets this year, and since his electric 2005 debut. Riggleman gave him another hitter to staunch the bleeding, but Francoeur crushed a hard-hit ball down the third-base line. Defensive replacement Alberto Gonzalez made a tremendous stop, and rather than eat it threw it hard enough to perhaps get Francoeur, but out of Kennedy's reach, the wild throw rattling around beyond the home dugout behind first as the runner moved to second. That was it for Bruney, having created a save situation (and perhaps getting a hold for his troubles, who knows), and in came Jason Bergmann, who retired Gary Matthews Jr. on a three-pitch strikeout.

Manuel responded to his new, tighter game with alacrity, bringing in Francisco Rodriguez down by just three. K-Rod made things interesting by plunking Harris, who shared how he felt about it as he took the base, leading the closer to come off the mound and pass along his own sentiments. Both dugouts emptied out perfunctorily, and both ballclub's bullpens emptied desultorily, and everyone milled around in another classic non-violent confrontation. The Nats' pre-game materials suggested that there's no love for Willie Harris here, touting a trio of game-ending catches in previous contests against the Mets for the Braves as well as themselves. The Nats may not be a historic franchise, but from such little things can a bit of bad blood be brewed, and a history created.

With the save opportunity successfully generated, Riggleman called on Matt Capps to get the statistical footnote. He did so handily enough, getting Rod Barajas, Angel Pagan pinch-hitting in the pitcher's slot, and striking out Reyes to end the action. A 5-2 Nats win, with Livan's first win/act of vengeance giving the Nats a series win.

What takeaways are there? After the game, Riggleman commented on the club's run of low-scoring games, stating that he'd run Taveras up to the second slot against lefties was to "create some havoc on the bases." Given the desperate shortage of options with Pudge getting a day off and Zimmerman out, you can understand the desire to make some sort of lineup compensation gesture.

The other thing worth noting is how the Nats have used the early schedule and the flexibility of having Livan initially set up as an NRI and eventual fifth starter Scott Olsen optionable to carry eight relievers and just four starters at any one time. That won't last deep into this next week, as Olsen will be activated to make Thursday's start, so somebody from the staff is outbound. There are no end of potential candidates—graybeards Tyler Walker or Miguel Batista don't hold a ton of promise, and second lefty Jesse English is optionable, where Jason Bergmann is not. Given the state of the rotation, Clippard and Batista are both handy as former starters, but Riggleman has already used that pair as well as English and Walker in multiple innings. We'll see how it plays out, but moving Walker or Batista's would probably press Bergmann into more extended action, a change from his usage patterns this year or last.

As for the Mets, Manuel dealt with a bad day from his ace well enough. The disjointed offensive performance echoes the odd collection of talent on the roster. A Mike Jacobs homer, a Jeff Francoeur walk and a triple, Reyes aboard twice... you'd think these things would be symptoms of more than a two-run effort, but the relative silence of Wright and Jason Bay today brings the point back to how much this is very much a short-sequence lineup. Say what you will about Castillo's limitations, but when you've got Alex Cora, Li'l Sarge, and Rod Barajas in the lineup, you're dealing from a short deck.

With that, a few game notes:

  • Walking over to the Hodges Gate after parking, I overheard a father and son reflecting on one of the various historical banners and tiles outside the park. The son enthused that 1969 was from the year the Mets came from behind and beat the Cubs, dad clears his throat, and the kid hastily adds "the first time." The venue may change, but clearly some traditions are honored. Somehow I doubt Giants fans enthuse over 1989 or Padres fans over 1984, or Marlins fans (if they exist) over 2003 with quite the same glee.

  • Corporate boondoggle or not, the park's just flat-out gorgeous, and about as magnificently appointed as any of the NewGen parks can be. Now sure, the needlessly ziggy-zaggy outfield wall in right field around the Mo Zone is a deliberate bit of kink, but in a Big Apple lost in the short shadow of Bloomberg, kink's pretty hard to come by these days, so take what you can get. It helped create the entertainment of Jeff Francoeur's second-inning triple, as the hard-hit fly struck the last crag to the right of the 415 marker in center, rebounding towards left in the warning track past a scrambling Nyjer Morgan. Sure, it came up empty on the scoreboard, and maybe it would have been a fly ball in some parks, a homer in others, but artificial fun's still fun.

  • The Nats were shading Guzman to the right on Jacobs, but leaving Desmond in place at short, so it wasn't a full shift. It made for an interesting bit of adaptive defense, and another example of the sort of thing we can hope more substantive defensive metrics in the future capture.

  • Ryota Igarashi showed low-90s velocity in the eighth inning. He's yet to be entrusted with a lead, but this was his third time he was charged with holding the fort. As I noted on Friday, there's no obvious right-handed set-up complement to Pedro Feliciano on the roster, but Igarashi could pitch his way into the role.

  • Adam Kennedy belted a clean single off Santana in the fourth, proving yet again the more that you know, the less you should assume.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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