2014 Washington Nationals: Breaking the gridlock

Dick Nen

Dick Nen, the father of World Series-winning reliever Robb Nen, had about four times as many minor-league at-bats as he did major-league ones. But one of his very first big-league swings impacted a pennant race. Nen’s ninth-inning home run off Ron Taylor, in relief of Bob Gibson, in his second at-bat tied up a Sept. 18, 1963 game vs. the Cards; Nen had entered the game as a pinch-hitter and stayed in (the double-switch is not new). The Dodgers won in 13, 6-5, (reliever Ron Perranoski pitched the final six innings) to finish a three-game sweep of the second-place Cards and take a four-game lead with nine games to play. Nen never had another hit for the Dodgers, spending ’64 in AAA (.280, 18 homers) and then being traded in a seven-player deal to the Senators, with Frank Howard, for Claude Osteen. As a part-time player for Washington, Nen hit six homers in ’65, ’66 and ’67, batting .260, .213 and .218. Nen was sold to the Cubs in ’68 and returned to the Senators in 1970, getting his last hit, a pinch one, off the Twins’ 20-game winner Jim Perry. Nen played on in the minors through 1972 before retiring. Nen’s minor-league OPS, with parts of eight seasons in AAA, was .830 in 3,247 at-bats, with a .376 on-base percentage. In his first season in 1961 in the Class C California League, Nen hit .351 with 32 homers and 102 walks at age 21. As a big-leaguer, Nen had but 826 at-bats. Final big-league numbers: .224 average, .288 on-base, .335 slugging, .623 OPS, 21 homers, 107 RBIs, -1.0 WAR.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: The Nationals traded pitcher A.J. Cole to get Gio Gonzalez, then traded Mike Morse to get him back. They’re ahead on both counts, even if Cole must wish they’d finally decide. The Nats also got Ian Krol in the Morse deal, and used him to help get Doug Fister. Shrewdly, they still have Cole, even if they need him less than the teams they’re dealing with. Cole is 22 and could make another team whose pitching isn’t as good. He showed that last year in AA (2.18 ERA, 45 innings, 10 walks, 49 Ks, 31 hits) and again this spring training (6.2 innings, 5 hits, 0 walks, 7 strikeouts). He’s fanned 393 in 366.1 innings and walked but 87, and isn’t even the Nats’ top pitching prospect. That’s teenager Lucas Giolito, a 2012 No. 1 pick who dropped to the Nats because of injury and has been limited to 38.2 innings over the last two years.

Trivia: Who was the starting pitcher in both the first Washington Nationals game (at Philadelphia in 2005) and the first Nats home game (same guy)? Who hit the first Nationals homer and the first at home (different guys)?

What he said: Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth: “Last year it felt like there was a black cloud over us all year.”What he meant: “This year there’s a black cloud over the Braves.”

Outlook: Sports Illustrated picked the Nationals to win the World Series last year and they didn’t make the playoffs. So that explains why what shouldn’t have happened did, how a team that has Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann wasn’t a playoff team in a time a third of the teams are.

The Nats dropped 12 wins and 107 runs of differential, missed the playoffs and changed little but for the manager, who said he should have been fired if they didn’t make the playoffs in 2012. Davey Johnson retired, perhaps saving the team the trouble.

Then the Nats added starter Doug Fister, in a trade everyone liked for them but the Tigers, who were the other half of the trade.

And now the Nats start the season in front, with their rival Braves filling surgeons’ appointments books with elbow surgeries while the Nats fill out their roster with healthy stars.

The Nats are blessed with talent — when it comes to pitching, they’re in baseball’s one percent.

And yet what gnaws about the Nats is their failure to address what ails them. They dealt for Fister, which made a team strength stronger, but kept their weaknesses weak.

They failed to address what facilitated their 2013 demise: first base, where Adam LaRoche under-slugged .403 at age 33; leadoff, where Denard Span’s .327 on-base percentage kept the bases mostly empty and closer, where Rafael Soriano’s .668 OPS against wasn’t as good as Tyler Clippard’s .621 in 2012 or .517 last year.

The Nats shrugged, insisted they were right the first time and hired a new manager to answer the questions in case they’re not.

Maybe they are, and maybe LaRoche will hit 30 homers as he did in 2012, despite having done so only one other time in a 10-year career; maybe Span will get on base more than the .342 percentage that’s been his peak over the last four years; maybe Soriano will get his OPS against under .600 for the first time since 2010. And maybe President Obama and Congressman Boehner will take in a game together, sing Take Me Out To The Ballgame, and hold hands.

It’s not that the Nats have weak points that’s aggravating. It’s that they had all offseason to do something about them and yet did little more than wink at them. For all the time there’s not much going on in a baseball game, any fan can tell you that inaction is rarely rewarded.

Trivia answer: Livan Hernandez started the Nats’ first game, losing at Philadelphia 8-4, and the home opener 10 days later (he beat Arizona 5-3, taking a shutout into the ninth inning. Terrmel Sledge hit the Nats’ first homer, his only one in a 2005 curtailed by injury; Vinny Caastilla hit the first home run at home, one of 12 in his only season with the Nats.)

Team song: Charlie Parker: Now’s The Time

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