In anticipation of the bitter Mets/Nationals four-game deathmatch this weekend, I enlisted the help of Kristen and Steph from 3 Girls With Heart to fill in the blanks about their beloved Washington Nationals.
1. Talk to me about Manny Acta. He was the Mets' third base coach for a little while before becoming the Nats' manager this season, and all indications are that he is a very progressive baseball man, at least in terms of his analytical approach to the game (getting on base, not giving up unnecessary outs via bunting or stealing). What can you tell us about him?
Kristen: I can say, for certain, that Manny Acta was the absolute right choice for this team. He is all about the fundamentals and made it clear early in the season that the team would fight hard everyday despite all the predictions for a miserable season. He won't hesitate for a second, for example, to pull a starter in the first inning for failing to run through first-base. The most important thing is probably his optimism and the camaraderie that has built around him in the clubhouse. We trust him; we like him. We're really happy he's here.
Steph: Manny has been just what this team needs. His philosophy of "preach and teach" has helped this young team sort of get back to the basics of the game. It's evident that our team respects him; the guys listen to him, and his coaching and positive influence have helped the Nats greatly this season.
2. The Nationals were expected to lose well over 100 games this season and, while they haven't been great, they are on pace to lose *only* 90-95. To what do you attribute their over-performance?
Kristen: I think our over-performance speaks to how ridiculous those predictions were - and those predictions were made before we lost all our starting pitchers and a short-stop to injuries. That actually is kind of how our blog started - to counter the overly-negative tone of everyone following the Nationals in the spring. Dmitri Young also contributes to that over-performance. It would be hard to win ballgames without D's bat. He's definitely been a pleasant surprise for us. Our starters have been frustrating, but the bullpen has been pretty outstanding (despite being overworked). Steph: Again I think a lot of this has to do with the positive attitude Manny Acta brings to the team. I also think that we have a team made up of a lot of young guys who truly love the sport. These guys play with heart no matter what the situation. Take when we lost to the Dodgers earlier this season, we lost the game 10-0, but the Nats did not quit and came back the next day to beat the Dodgers 11-4. It also doesn't hurt to have a few veteran players like Dmitri Young and Ronnie Belliard on the team. Both of these guys have been huge offense producers for us this year.
3. What's going on with Ryan Zimmerman? He was the runner up for Rookie of the Year last season and, though he has been better in July, his overall numbers are down significantly, on-base and slugging percentages in particular.
Kristen: His numbers are indeed down and it's tough to watch him battle through it. I don't think anyone doubts that this young guy is going to be around for a long time - hopefully as the cornerstone of our franchise - driving in runs and making spectacular defensive plays. He's making adjustments; pitchers are learning how to handle him this year and we haven't had a great lead-off guy this season (like Soriano) to give Zimmerman RBI opportunities. He will definitely surpass his HR total (20 last year, 15 already this year) and his average is finally starting to climb (finally getting back to .260). He's so much fun to watch at 3rd though. Manny recently said Zimmerman saves more runs then he could ever produce - and he's only 22.
Steph: Zimmerman is a special kind of player, one who is going to be in the game for years to come. That sort of makes his current numbers a little less important. It's got to be tough to follow such an incredible rookie season. I agree with Kristen, he's only 22 and he's only going to get better.
4. What is your overall impression of Jim Bowden? What kind of general manager is he, and what is his plan for turning the ship around?
Steph: No doubt about it Jim is a smart guy who knows baseball. The long term plan for the team is to build with young players who will stay in DC for awhile. Bowden made a great deal last year for Lopez, Kearns, and Wagner. He is keeping things pretty quiet for this year's upcoming trade deadline, but I am sure Bowden has something up his sleeve.
Kristen: I have to say, I have a lot of confidence in Stan Kasten - and the entire front office. Stan's work in Atlanta helps me to trust in his long-term plan for the Nationals. Jim Bowden is an interesting guy. The two seem to work well together and they've both invested themselves in a long-term rebuilding plan to cut payroll this year, secure great draft picks, spend a great deal of time cultivating young prospects and building the team from the bottom up. In the past, I've thought Bowden was trade-happy and I worried that his eccentric nature and flair for excitement would get in the way of good strategic moves. We were pleased with last year's near-deadline deal with the Reds (brought us Kearns, Lopez and Wagner), despite grievance charges from the Reds. Jim's also a GM that is really interested in giving people second and third chances (take Dmitri Young), but we were very upset about his rumored interest in Elijah Dukes (those rumors have since died off).
5. The Nats' starting rotation is a mess. Who among that group do you see contributing to the team's turnaround in the coming years, and what minor league arms might help out moving forward?
Kristen: Shawn Hill is working through an injury but he was excellent in his first few games. I hope to see him with us for awhile. Matt Chico deserves credit for anchoring the rotation. He hasn't missed a start yet. He's fun to watch - a real serious young guy, very focused. He can be erratic but he's improved a lot through the season. Bergmann and Simontacchi have been good; they've pitched a lot of decent games with little to no run support. The rest of our starters are call-ups or relievers and it's been tough. We've been through 12 starters already, I believe. I like what I've seen from the bullpen though. Saul Rivera has been excellent this year, Colome was great prior to his injury, Ayala is back from tommy-john surgery, and Chief and Rauch have been pretty consistent. I have very little confidence or interest in "our ace" John Patterson, who is technically on the DL - for unknown reasons with an unknown timeline for return. As far as the future - we're really excited about Collin Balester and we hope to see him up in September.
6. The Nats plucked catcher Jesus Flores from the Mets in this past winter's Rule V draft, despite Flores having never caught an inning above A-ball. He hasn't played much (87 at-bats for the season), but he has been better than most could have hoped. What are your thoughts on him?
Steph: It's true that Jesus Flores has been a pleasant surprise for the Nationals. We took a chance with Flores in the Rule V draft, and it has paid off big time. Defensively Flores calls a good game. He is reportedly eager to learn all that he can and spends a great deal of time with veteran catcher Brian Schneider. Flores is usually our Sunday starter, and he blocks balls well and consistently throws out runners. He has also been a big help to the Nats offensively, having great at bats during key game moments. Jesus hit his first major league home run in Pittsburgh on July 1st against the Pirates. He consistently comes off the bench to pinch-hit, and produces with singles and doubles. He has 12 RBI's so far this season. We are big fans of our young catcher, and are becoming more and more comfortable with him behind and at the plate as he continues to prove himself.
Kristen: Just have to say Thank you, Mets fans....(for Flores and Manny).
If you feel like reading more of my rambling, incoherent gibberish on the Mets, they conducted a delightful Q&A of their own.