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CLUTCH!

[July 26th] -- There aren't any "automatic" outs in the Nationals' lineup anymore, and it's starting to show in the standings. With their 4-3, come-from-behind win on Wednesday, The Nats have now won five in a row and are 8-2 over their last ten games. Several seemingly un-related circumstances over the past three weeks have created an energized and multi-talented lineup. In short, they are "winners."

First, Jose Guillen got hurt. The three longest "hot streaks" of 2006 have all come with Guillen either out of the lineup or out of the clubhouse entirely. Second, Jim Bowden made "the trade." It took a week for Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns to feel comfortable in a Nationals' uniform, but the moment they began to hit, the team began to win. Finally, center-field is no longer an "issue." First Alex Escobar, and now Ryan Church, are playing solid, fundamental baseball. When you have a one-through-eight lineup that can flat-out hit, all of the team's other problems just seem to take care of themselves. That's what's happened with the Nationals.

For the former Reds, the hits just keep on coming. Felipe Lopez got another two hits, the fourth straight game he's done that, and Austin Kearns got a hit and two RBI's, including the game winning sacrifice fly. Hey, it's not as sexy as a homer, but the win counts just the same. It was a good trade; both teams keep winning with their new players, which means that no one got robbed. It was a win-win transaction.

I'm afraid that Ryan Church is playing too good. He got another two hits against the Giants and has raised that early season .215 batting average all the way to .250 in just a few games. He's a great hitter; all he needed was the opportunity to (again) show he was a major leaguer. Barry Svulgara (I'm too tired to see if I got his name right) said in a recent chat that Bowden might be show-casing Church in hopes of "sweetening" a deal. The sweetest of all possible deals would be the one that keeps Church in Washington. Keep him, Jim. Keep him.

It's become obvious that Ryan Zimmerman is out of his slump. No more 1-27's for this guy. He went 0-8 over parts of three games, popping everything up to shallow right-center, his sure sign of struggling at the plate. Zimmerman, however, made the adjustment before things went too sour, and has now gotten six hits in the three games that followed his "mini ofer." Zimmerman also drove in two runs, and now has 66 RBI's for the season, still on pace for 100+ RBI's. He hasn't hit a homer since July 4th. So what? The power will come. For now, let him batter the opposition with line-drives off the outfield wall.

Pedro Astacio pitched better than his linescore would indicate. Six innings, six hits and three runs. Fact is, he only gave up two earned runs, and they came as a result of a bloop single that dropped in between three Nationals' defenders. He was brilliant. Hopefully, scouts were watching and Astacio will find himself in a pennant race somewhere while the Nationals are the beneficiaries of a couple of youngsters. Right now, the Nats have three pitchers, Astacio, Ramon Ortiz and Livan Hernandez, who should be able to bring some decent talent in a trade.

Micah Bowie continues to impress. He was the "real deal" when he was with the Braves, then just fell of the radar screen. Washington is happy to have him. Bowie has crafted a fine 1.46 ERA during his stay with the Nationals. He, and Luis Ayala, could become mainstays in the team's bullpen next season. That's why the Reds-Nats trade still makes little sense from a talent-for-talent perspective. Middle relievers are a dime-a-dozen. You just keep rooting through the pitching scrap heap until you find a couple of guys who are hot and ride them for as long as you can.

For the fifth straight game, the Nationals topped 30,000 in attendance. More than anything, this is the most positive sign that I can see coming out of this winning streak. Oh sure, the Cubs draw well, and it was the "re-grand opening," but now it's the Giants, and the Nats continue to draw. Normally, I'd agree if you said it was Barry Bonds drawing the fans, but this is the older, less talented, almost-prosecuted version several homers away from Babe Ruth and many homers away from Hank Aaron. No, fans are coming because they want to watch Washington baseball again.

How cool is that?


Comments:
Don't get too excited about the recent jump in attendance. The Cubs series was jacked by the opening of the new season under the Lerners and the new food for the foodies. The Giants are drawing because fans want to see Barry Bonds before he either hangs it up or goes to jail. Let's see how we draw when the Marlins come back to town.
 
But, Farid, there is an automtic out in the Nats lineup and his name is Brian Schneider. This guy is having a terrible year with the stick and his defense has taken a nosedive too. He either strikes out or hits weak grounders to the second baseman. Maybe the security of his recently signed contract did him in.
 
Phil,
You're right, of course, assuming Brian Schneider continues to hit as poorly as he has thus far in 2006. I don't that is going to happen, however.

Throughout his career, Schneider has hit "well enough," and very well for a catcher, "extremely well" for a defensive specialist. At any moment, Schneider could break out of his slump; he's do.

Remember, Schneider is "Mr. hot-n-cold." Over a three week period last year, he raised his batting average from .223 to .293 in late July and early August before coming back to Earth.

I think he'll get hot take on the league at some point, making it a "true" 1-8 lineup. That said, Soriano will probably be traded before that ever happens.

Oh well ....
 
Well, the fact remains that he is an automatic out until proven otherwise. I am hearing around here that he has adopted a different attitude since signing his four year contract.
 
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