Monday, June 30, 2008

Place Your Bets

On this very tense day of hand-wringing before unrestricted free agency begins, let's try to predict which of these eventualities will be announced by the Capitals first:

A. Signing of Mike Green to a multi-year deal, financially satisfying to both parties
B. Signing of Cristobal Huet to a three-year deal
C. Signing of Sergei Fedorov to a one-year deal with club option for second year
D. Signing of Brooks Laich to a multi-year deal, incentive-laden for his imminent 30-goal season

The above, coupled with any sort of announcement out of Pittsburgh concerning any sort of dismantling of that club (in addition to the Malone and Roberts thing, we mean), will make for a happy midsummer's day.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Looking to Dodge 100 Again

Following last night’s victory over the Baltimore/Washington/Pennsylvania/Delaware/Maryland/West Virginia/North Carolina Orioles (right, Pete?), the Nationals' record at mid-season is 32-49. This represents but a dropoff of one game from last season’s non-historical terribleness. The win, propelled by the ever-gelling lineup heart of Dukes-Milledge-Flores, puts the Nats not on pace for 100 losses! It’s quite the achievement, when you think about it.

Given last year’s annihilated-by-inuury pitching staff and this year’s annihilated every position conceivable, it’s really something the team will not be combining to lose 140 games in the two inaugural years of the Epoch of Manny. Someday, Manny and the World Champion Nats, powered by MVP Elijah Dukes, will look back fondly on such early and midsummer travails as the basis for an NL East dynasty. They’ll see such bad-at-the-time events as Austin Kearns and Paul Lo Duca missing substantial time (those “opportunities” Man Act waxed about telepathically) that opened the door for non-rotation in every outfield spot not occupied by Willy Mo Pena, securing Milledge and Dukes in their starting roles and providing the spark for the growing 2-3 threat in the lineup.

Likewise with $5 million man Lo Duca, whose injury gave away his job to Jesus Flores, who should have had it all along. The true steal from the Mets, Flores is aptly filling the 4th or 5th spot on a nightly basis.

So with 81 games down, there is no appreciable step back to be found. Some may note, perhaps legitimately, that no true steps are being taken forward, but as ChariManny said, how can he/we evaluate this team until he has his guys back? Put an improving-when-he-was-hurt Ryan Zimmerman back in the lineup, along with a fully healthy Nick Johnson (possibly still only a theoretical being), and the team could be well on its way to improving upon last season's history-defying pace. All things considered, this team is showing the same resilience it did last year, going through an almost identical chronological order of struggle-excel-struggle-tread water….as its predecessor. All that’s left now is to keep the losses under 100 (or 90), ruin another team’s postseason dreams again in September, and continue to look to that bright future.

Boz detailed the coming magnificence nicely in his latest column. Ignore the stuff about the non-Washington team (except the part that mentions a score of 30-3) and it’s a great read.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Great Non-Sweep

This was going to be one of those “we’re not so bad off, look at [some other team]” type of posts we used to revel in last spring and summer, when we’d lift our weary DC-supporting spirits by pointing out the worse straits occupied by some other city’s franchise(s). The team in question would have been, of course, the Nationals, that lovable bunch of low-expectations-saddled, Manny-led ballplayers who had just been swept my Minnesota, taken down in 2 of 3 by the Rangers, and seemed destined to be a three-game speedbump for the AL West buzzsaw Angels.

We’ll still go in that direction a bit, but this was all before doings of increasingly clutch-seizing Elijah Dukes and the anti-LoDuca, Jesus Flores. We all remember Dukes, right? He of the dugout blowout vs. our Man Manny, for reasons classily undisclosed, on June 10? He who was, from that point forward, destined to tear apart this Nats team with his rank terribleness? Since that day and his subsequent non-suspension/benching, Dukes has hit .327 with 8 RBI and a trio of fabulously stolen bases, highlighted by an early-career-defining 5-6 performance against Texas, wherein he managed to knock in the tying and winning runs (separated by six, mostly extra, innings). The projected clubhouse cancer has become a reliable 2-slot hitter, freeing up also-resurging Lastings Milledge to bat third and do things like hit his seventh home run against the Angels.

It’s kind of like Manny (again) knew best how to back a player down from the emotional edge and re-state his confidence in such a player. It’s like an extended version of last June’s calming down of an ejection-bound Felipe Lopez prior to a game-seizing triple. Lopez, at that brink, was 0-5 (sub-.100 batting average?) before his game-winning stroke (.327 tear?). Dukes, likewise, could have been on some manner of brink, prior to Manny keeping the faith and keeping him in the lineup.

So there was Elijah, putting behind early season indignities and getting that badly needed ninth-inning single. By the time stolen-from-the-Mets Jesus Flores stepped up with Dukes on second and one out, the inevitability of yet another Nats bottom-of-the-ninth-or-later victory (their seventh of the year; thanks, ESPN, for actually acknowledging the Nats existence AND for providing us with this nugget) was baldly palpable. Dukes of course came trotting home on Flores’ convincing single to deeeep right center and the Nats avoided the sweep. Cue “there’s someone worse off than us” portion.

While the Nationals were busy losing 2 of 3 to a division leader and World-Series contender, what of one of my allegedly new “hometown” teams, the NY Mets? That debacle-in-waiting of a franchise that does not quite want to admit it may be headed for a rebuild ($100 million+ roster notwithstanding)? They were performing an encore to their classless manager firing entitled “Losing 2 of 3 to Seattle”.

That’s right, the same Mariners these Nationals seemingly effortlessly swept, keeping that “worst team in the Majors” moniker safely at bay. In their three games vs. Seattle, Washington managed to avoid the horrid, blasphemous indignities of: A. Having their “ace” (an expensive and highly touted one, at that) serve up a grand slam to an American League pitcher with eight career at-bats. B. Losing by 11 runs to the Mariners.

Such awfulness would have put any Nats losing streak in perspective. Sure they may be wallowing in the injury-filled depths of last place in the NL, but at least they are fulfilling expectations rather than falling miserably below them, a la the Mets, who can say a prayer of thanks today to those expectation-shattering Rays for visciously taking care of the Marlins and allowing them to gain a badly needed game in the NL East. The Rays might yet become something of a “sister team” to us Nats fans, seeing them so maligned and declared retraction-worthy by so many before their ascension into division-contending glory. Sounds like something out of the not-too-distant future in DC.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Caps Love RFAs. UFAs Love Caps.

Two of the more trauma-inducing (to non-optimists) Capitals’ off-season situations received some trauma-reducing news this week. First, the bring-it-on statement from still-somehow-maligned, division-championship-team-building GM George McPhee that Restricted Free Agents will not be plucked away from the team, possibly by offer sheets from Edmonton. Offers will be matched, players will stay. In other words, Mike Green will be here next year. We’ll presume such an attitude also extends towards players named Laich, Morrisonn, Gordon, etc.

Strike a blow for continuity. Nothing to worry about here, just as there turned out to be no worrying necessary with the Why Isn’t Alex Locked Up Yet minor crisis earlier this year. That turned out better than any of us hoped, and with that as precedent, we look forward to seeing Mike Green weave between opposing forwards and around their defensemen to score more Orr-ish goals against their goalies. All this with an increasingly un-Gonchar-like commitment to his “proper” end of the ice. We already know certified elite player and NHL-bound defenseman Karl Alzner looks up to him, too, so put “mentor” into his job description for the next decade as well.

Now the other "worry": the unrestricted free agents, those often-elite, often offensively minded players the Capitals would desperately woo in an off-season, only to be refused by the likes of Roenick, Turgeon, Tocchet, et al. Times have changed, and DC is apparently a desired place to be for soon-to-be-not-rented Sergei Fedorov and Cristobal Huet.

Fedorov, that perfect-for-the-third-line veteran whose enthusiasm for the sport was rejuvenated in Washington after enduring a couple of life-sucking years in Columbus under Ken Hitchcock, was long-rumored to want to stick around, rumors seemingly confirmed by his buddy/prodigy/countryman Ovie last month. A cagey veteran third-line center with Selke-worthy shutdown skills and an offensive upside? Possibly out there with a crease-clogging, 25-goal-scoring Brooks Laich? Sounds pretty good.

Huet seemed equally smitten with the burgeoning DC dynasty, having himself contributed in a big way to getting it started. His division-clinching and nearly-playoff-series-clinching win streaks established him as a must-have for next year (as did the sad departure of Olie) as we hope to see that much-talked-about “bridge” established to the fine crop of young goaltenders the Caps are raising. Huet is apparently quite willing to be that bridge, even looking for the same sounds-so-perfect three year deal the Caps should hope for. Deal term was a potential worry, but no more. And if the Caps are apparently so willing to ante up to match RFA offer sheets, they should conceivably be willing to make money a non-issue with equally (more so?) critical-to-keep Huet.

As nice as the last off-season was, with the needed injection of offense in the acquisitions of Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov (remember when everyone was ragging on Kozlov early on? Seems pretty silly now, with those 51 points and team-leading +28 and all), plus the heralded minutes-eating ability in Tom Poti, this summer looks even better. This time, the needed pieces are already here, just waiting to be signed. A free agent or two would be nice, but it doesn’t have quite the desperate urgency that was felt in some quarters last year with the “GMGM better score big or he needs to go” attitude floating around. The braintrust pulled it off last year and this time around, with the help of some willing non-free-market-hitting potential UFAs, we’re optimistic they’ll do it again.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mets - Manny = Disaster???

With the speculation-turned-fact firing of the $138 million Mets' Willie Randolph, it only now dawns on us what should have been obvious from the beginning: their downfall began when Acta left.

It's so simple: in 2006, the Mets won the division then nearly went to the World Series, losing the NLCS in seven games, and Manny was there at third base, waving those winning runs home. Next offseason he came to Washington for the opportunity to manage he'd never get in New York. Things look great for the Mets for a while, another division title looks imminent, then BAM, the Curse of Manny takes full effect with a late-season sweep at the hands of the Nationals in the midst of what is still called an "historic" collapse. Anybody remember the hints from NY media that offseason that the Mets should hire Acta to manage? As if they could just grab him back from the franchise that looked into his 'tism-y soul and saw the manager of the future?

Now the Mets are in full-blown underachieving mode, their enormously expensive, Jesus-Flores-less lineup floundering 6.5 games out from where they "should" be. It's so clear as to why, and we at DCO are ashamed for not seeing it sooner. ManAct was the optimistic glue holding an imminently collapsing franchise together, and with his departure went the fortunes of the Mets. He'll yet bring that fortune here, while the Mets wallow in their self-inflicted Curse.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

It Takes A Big Man(ny)

The Elijah Dukes vs. Manny Acta story seems to have blown over a bit now. No more pressing, breathless questions about what could have gone wrong, about how we all “expected this” from Dukes, how this was “bound to happen”, given his history, how he would “blow up” any minute and absolutely destroy the clubhouse atmosphere Manny had striven to build this last year and a half.

The demise has not occurred. Just like it did not occur last year. Remember the panic over Dmitri Young? Remember how he was to de a catastrophe-in-the-waiting? How the Nationals took such a huge risk just having him around, and how his “fluky” batting average would slide right back into the low .200s and he would tear the team apart with his overt terribleness? It didn’t happen with Comeback Player of the Year Young, and it won’t happen with Star-in-the-Making Dukes.

Since that little incident in Pittsburgh, Dukes has four hits and four RBI in three games (five hits, taking into account tonight’s current game in Seattle, along with that lead-producing run). He’s slowly climbing through the .200s in batting average, no longer wallowing in that sub-.100 wasteland he sloughed through earlier this year. It’s a full-fledged turnaround in progress, a becoming of the player the Nationals trusted he could be when they took him off Tampa’s unwilling hands.

He can thank Manny.

Yes, he can thank our Master, the Master of all things ‘tism, who looked past a little dugout blowup and post-game handshake snub to keep the up-and-coming Dukes in the lineup, saying only “He’s our right fielder.” A simple statement, but one full of the same never-give-up, accentuate-the-positive attitude we’ve come to love from ChairManny. A more bloated-ego-having and problematic-rage-possessing manager might have seen such insubordinance as worthy of a benching or release recommendation. The Master sees through such nonsense, and further looks to the potential of the offending party. He will not give up on his players, and he emphasized as much with the early struggles (everyone seems to have them, don’t they?) of Luis Ayala. “I’ll never give up on him”, Manny said at the time. Apparently the same extends to Dukes and whoever else might not offer his hand for a jaunty slap in a victory-celebrating line.

Also, how about this Lasting Milledge guy? Another outfield turnaround in progress? How about yes. There he is with 11 hits in his last ten games, putting that average well above the .230-ish many a naysaer thought he might stay at all year. A few more weeks like these might put an end to the preening of Mets’ fans everywhere over that “steal” of a trade for Ryan Church (batting average already slipping a bit, along with the rest of the Mets franchise).

It all goes back to the Master, he the ever-positive leader who brings out the best in all his players, even those who are prophesized to tear apart his team.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Looking For the Sweep (Ovie and Otherwise)

Just a little more than an hour from Alex Ovechkin’s completely in-the-bag grab of trophies Hart and Pearson. News-leaking t-shirts aside, there wasn’t all that much suspense to begin with. The one true-but-still-minor threat came from Evgeni “Sid’s shadow” Malkin, but looking past the blinding He Saved Hockey When Sid Was Hurt hype, Ovechkin really stood alone with his 65 goals, 112 points, double-digit game-winners, etc. And no slight to Jarome Iginla, very much Ovie-like in his own right and very un-Crosby-like in his complete aversion to diving (full disclosure: I signed him as a UFA in NHL 08; best move by a fake GM ever).

So there’s part one of the slight fulfilling of our somewhat-maligned-yet-eerily fruitioning (and somehow popular Google-search destination) pre-season awards predictions. Bruce II should be the other lock for a trophy. If not, what's the point of the Jack Adams? The only even miniscule question mark is Nick Backstrom and the Calder. He may unfairly suffer from this “stats padded by playing with Ovechkin” nonsense, and it would be a shame to see him locked out because of that (or by that, um, incident against the Penguins). Regardless, we came to know the studdy playmaker Backstrom is, the clutch OT goal-scorer he can be, and the hands-down winner of the Calder Trophy For Best Team-Promoting TV Commercial By a Rookie. Steeeel see it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

We've Seen This Before (when it was also incorrect)

Does this piling on the Nats, fashionable once again after the more-successful-than-anyone-thought 2007 season fades into memory and a few more losses than wins start accumulating now, ring a little familiar? Sure it does, because 13 months ago to this very day, similar invective were being published in the Post. Maybe that’s too strong a word, but it was, and is, mostly along the lines of, oh those Nats, they stink, whatareyagonna do? Oh we’re so bad, yuck yuck yuck. Then follows the typical condemnation by the fan and pundit alike of the Plan, the players, etc, with the typical Philly-like woe-is-us, no-light-at-the-end-of-this-tunnel, tired shtick. Back then, a little eight-game losing streak brought out the optimism-hating. Today it’s a little five-game skid. DCO responded to last year’s panicked calls of awfulness with a seer-ish guarantee of fewer than 100 losses, swimming against the tide of those rushing to declare the 2007 Nats “Worst Ever”. It was true then and it’s true now: the Nats will not lose 100 games. They will yet surprise us all and be closer to 75/80 wins than anyone now thinks.

Remember when the afformentioned yucks were being had at the expense of that woeful starting pitching staff? That starting pitching staff that was beset by something beyond all known magnitude of injury? Not just one or even two, but five or six key components of what was supposed to be a terrible unit to begin with? The patchwork staff, of course, pulled it together and was something of a strength all year long, giving us fond memories such as Levale Speigner outdeuling Johan Santana in Minnesota. We even got to know Mike Bacsik, that cute little footnote to something big that might have happened while he was pitching (heard he’s great with kids, too).

This year, as we well know, it’s those batsmen getting hit by the injury locusts. Names of starters or potential starters like Kearns, Johnson, Zimmerman, Dukes, Belliard, Lo Duca, and Young being found on a disabled list for good lengths of time will hurt any lineup, even one expected (again) to be so very wretched. But there’s light and, as usual, it’s brought to us by our spiritual leader in ‘tism, Manuel Acta. Weeks ago, before the pile-on began in earnest, Manny spun yet another positive, making us all remember why his name is so lauded in this space, and why he was such an inspiration to start this blog to begin with. In declaring yet another brutally barbaric string of injuries to be “an opportunity”, and expounding so eloquently on the reasons for such, Man Act once more refused to dwell on the negative, to resort to the self-flagellation too often found amongst sports fans, and perhaps prophesized a batting turnaround, much as the shuffling of injured pitchers a year ago ushered in a pitching turnaround of just-good-enough-to-stay-competetive-and-respectful proportions. It’s all we can ask for, really. And while we’re being thankful, let’s repeat our thankfulness, echoed in these pages all last summer, that such a young and promising team is not being led through its temporary dark age by someone named Girardi or, much much worse, Pinella. Not a speck of ‘tism to be found there in a time of need such as this.

So let’s calm down. Everything’s going to be fine. The batting will come around, as we have been told it would, with this new park and all. There are already rumblings to indicate resurgences from those outfielders getting their Manny-declared “opportunity” named Dukes and Milledge. Wins will follow. Snarky ‘tism-blocking commentary will end.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Nightmare is Over

Mrs. DCO probably put it best when, shortly after Marian Hossa’s wouldn’t-have-counted-anyway last-second shot trickled harmlessly if-tantalizlingly through the crease, she said, “Someone had to lose, and I’m glad it was the Penguins.” With this godsend of a loss, we are now free from the mental anguish that has plagued us all since Pittsburgh threw their final regular season game against the Flyers so they could match up against Ottawa in the first round. Yes, the Senators, who were swept in the regular season by the Capitals long before it was fashionable, and common, to sweep the Senators. The Peguins’ shell-curling-up-in on that last day denied the Caps a chance to again take down Ottawa in four, and left the Chosen One and his lackeys an open door into the second round and beyond.

We watched in horror as we realized we had to first choose between the Penguins and Rangers. After but a few moments, it was clear we had to, extremely grudgingly, root for New York (I still choke on my keystrokes writing that). Once that trial was passed, it was on to perhaps the greatest conundrum in Washington sports outside a Cowboys-Eagles NFC Championship: Flyers vs. Penguins for the opportunity to play for the Cup. Was there more a sinking feeling in recent hockey history as knowing that one of these reviled franchises, one with the aforementioned Anointed One and one with Danny Briere, would be within but four victories of defiling that fine silver chalice? It was enough to (almost) make an optimist’s heart wilt.

But we got through it and, as always, were able to find something positive in the experience. A celebration of a quarter century of Philly sports dominance was worth seeing the Penguins become Eastern Conference champions – provided they lost the next round. And lose they did, despite Sidney Crosby’s “performance for the ages” in Game 3 and Evgeni Malkin’s imminent breakout heralding, accidental game-winning-goal-assisting Game 5. Rescuing us from more Crosby coddling was Conn Smythe winner Henrik Zetterberg, who tied lil’ Sid for the playoff points lead (often scoring goals) and denied him yet another pair of his birthrights: leading the playoffs in points, and possibly the Conn Smythe itself.

The last week has been a hectic week for DCO, with both members immersed in working obligations in the Central timezone, hence the paucity of posting. All is well now, however, and we are ready to bring you another summer of Nats’ successes (on the field and in the draft room), Capitals’ trophy-collecting and roster-strengthening, Redskins’ gearing-up for a season of continuity, Wizards’ doing the same, and United’s staging of another comeback from a less-than-ideal start. That we get to enjoy such a summer without glowing stories of Crosby’s heroic secondary-assist dishing, his superior “vision” for being able to skate into the offensive zone and drop the puck to a defenseman (a move nobody else has ever pulled off, ever), his unprecedented two-goal game in the Finals, and Malkin’s inspiring 3-point Cup Finals performance makes it all the sweeter.

At last, the only hockey news in front of us is good news. Alex Ovechkin will collect a couple of trophies on June 12. Bruce should collect another, and Nick Backstrom is a prime deserving candidate for yet another. Then we wait on imminent signings of next season’s third-line center Sergei Fedorov, and next season’s starting goalie, Cristobal Huet. Still more goodness follows, with a key free agent signing here and there, followed by a training camp featuring a healthy Michael Nylander, Chris Clark, and Brian Pothier, then on to a division-title-defending season culminating in a Cup run, perhaps with a sweep of the Penguins thrown in. It’s (finally) going to be a good summer.