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ON BEING RYAN CHURCH

[July 10th] -- So, the Washington Post has suggested that Alex Escobar is the "answer" to the Nationals' center-field problem. Of course, it goes without saying that Damian Jackson and Marlon Anderson were never more than a stop-gap out there, and Marlon Byrd had every opportunity to prove that he was an every-day player in the Major Leagues, but his poor first half all but ended any hope that he'll be more than a fourth outfielder for the remainder of his major league career. I guess that's it then. I mean, there isn't anyone else capable of playing center for the Nationals. (Note: it took a comment from a reader to remind me that Brandon Watson was the team's starting center-fielder this year. How is it possible that a guy who has run a Nats' website since the day they moved to Washington forget the 2006 starting center-fielder? Well, it was Brandon Watson, afterall.)

Right?

Well, that might be the case today, but a year ago, the center-field was one of the team's few bright spots. Ryan Church, who batted .343 For 'AAA' Edmonton the year before, was on pace for a .300-20-80 season before he ran into PNC Park's left-field wall ensuring a win for the Nats and a save for Chad Cordero. He saved the game but injured his shoulder. He ended the year with a .287-9-42 in just 268 at-bats. He was set for a strong sophomore season in 2006.

Somehow, however, in the space of just seven months, Ryan Church lost his "groove." A career .295 minor league hitter, he his floundering at 'AAA' New Orleans just like he floundered at 'AA' Harrisburg earlier this year. A few days before opening day, Church was sent down, because, Jim Bowden said, he didn't seem serious about his craft, that he didn't like the way he was "carrying" himself. Since that moment, with the exception of one magic week in mid April, he's been playing the worst baseball of his career.

Why?

I think you have to go back to last year to understand why this year has been so difficult for Church. After injuring himself in Pittsburgh in mid June, he was dogged by several "minor" injuries, injuries that Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden thought he should have been able to play through them. Now, this past spring, Church wasn't "carrying himself" in a manner acceptable to the team's management. Now he's languishing in the minors, and probably will not get another chance in the "show," at least not in Washington. More than likely, he'll be traded in the next few weeks in one of those "change of scenery" deals.

Simply put, Ryan Church lost his confidence.

I have a theory (writers always have theories). Ryan Church is a deeply religious man. Remember, Church got into a lot of trouble last summer for things he said about Jews. Being a religious man (I didn't find God until my mid 20's, and it turned out to be a pretty good deal. God forgave me for all those horrid things I did as a teenager but I still have those wonderful memories :), and knowing many religious people, I believe that people of faith tend to have thinner skin then those of the secular world. Typically (and sure, there is always exceptions), people of God tend not to speak ill of others, so when they are talked about, it can really hurt. I think Church limped into the off-season in pain, partly because of what Robinson and Bowden said, and partly because of the attacks he had to endure because of what he said regarding his religion. He came into spring training this year believing (as most of us did) that he was the starting center fielder. All he was trying to do was get ready for the season. He wasn't trying to impress anyone -- he was just making sure he could hit the other way, bunt, and run the bases reliably. When he was sent down this spring, it was the "last straw" and he began to doubt both himself and his abilities. He probably began to believe that since he was playing in the minors, he was a minor leaguer. He perhaps began to think that, "Hey, if they don't notice when I give 100%, why do it?" As I said, a career .295 hitter in the minors, Church batted .211 at Harrisburg and isn't much above that at New Orleans.

How can a guy who batted .287 at the major league level hit below .220 in the minors? Confidence. He's lost his confidence. And the only way he'll regain it is to be traded to another team, making him feel like he's wanted again.

Look, I don't know that I'm right about all of this, but it makes sense, doesn't it? I mean, how else can a major league hitter suddenly become inept? A loss of confidence is the only viable explanation. I'd love for Church, one of my favorite players last year, to regain his stroke here in Washington, but that's not gong to happen now that Bowden is "the guy." No, he's going to get traded, and next year, perhaps the year after, he's going to have a Grady Sizemore type year, and I will email Bowden and say, "I told you so."

But I won't enjoy it one bit. This time, being right sucks.

Comments:
I don't think that Church had the CF position nailed down going into this season. During the off season, Bowden and Robinson kept talking about giving Brandon Watson, a no hit, no field minor leaguer, a full shot at winning the CF job because they needed a speedy lead off hitter. The plan was to give Watson the CF job and let Church and Byrd fight for the LF job. I spent spring training in Viera and it was obvious to me that as Watson got most of the playing time in CF, Church's feeling where hurt and his confidence was damaged. He started brooding and the rest is history. A friend of mine chatted with Ryan in Ft. Lauderdale before a Nats-O's game and he observed that Church seemed very unhappy with his then status with the team. If either Brad Wilkerson or Ryan Church had been in CF yesterday for the Nats, they would have won the game. Maybe Escobar can hit, but he is no center fielder.
 
One of the things that the Nats need to do over the All Star break is to dispose of Jose Guillen. This guy has become a real drag on the team, both on the field and in the club house. His brooding is obvious and his performance on the field is in a free fall. For what ever reason, Jose can't hit anymore. Further, with his most recent injury, he can't throw. His body is completely broken down and so is his spirit. Bowden keeps saying other teams are interest in Guillen so let's move him for a prospect.
 
God forgave me for all those horrid things I did as a teenager but I still have those wonderful memories

Excellent line! :)
 
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