Cubs and Wrigleyville create mutual magic

By David Webber and Edwind McGhee

See a timeline of the history of Wrigley Field and the Wrigleyville neighborhood here.

Does the neighborhood build up the ballpark, or does the ballpark create the neighborhood? In the unique relationship between Wrigley Field and the Wrigleyville area, both could be true.

Every day the Cubs take to the diamond at the Friendly Confines, they are playing in the shadow of a neighborhood that has used baseball to its full advantage and is reaping the benefits in unbelievable ways. In the same way, the Cubs can take solace knowing that no matter how poorly they play, the neighborhood will keep the team afloat due to its infectious atmosphere.

“Wrigley Field and Wrigleville are magnets,” said Mike Conklin, a 35-year veteran for the Chicago Tribune who has spent years covering baseball on the North Side. “Ostensibly people are drawn to it for the baseball, not necessarily the quality. The fact that they continue to draw with a terrible team it tells you there’s a lot more there. Most teams’ success are reflected at the gate, but that’s not the case with Wrigley Field.”

The iconic neon sign decorating Wrigley Field is as much a part of the stadium as it is the neighborhood.

The iconic neon sign decorating Wrigley Field is as much a part of the stadium as it is the neighborhood.

The Cubs, famously, have not won a World Series (or even come close, for that matter) since winning back-to-back championships in 1907 and 1908—a run of futility unmatched in any American professional sport. Yet they still draw fans from around the country and around the world that clamor to take in some Cubs baseball on a nice afternoon. While the mythos surrounding the team’s impossible streak of mediocrity undoubtedly contributes to the draw, the fact of the matter is that no team should be able to consistently sell out games without showing any signs of improvement for decades.

The relationship between the Cubs and Wrigleyville is incredibly mutual. Without the Cubs, Wrigleyville wouldn’t have been able to create the aura it now has—and it would have continued to wallow in the pre-1980s squalor that pervaded the area for decades. Without the success of Wrigleyville, the Cubs would almost certainly draw fewer fans than they currently do, and Cubs baseball would be more of a chore than a hobby.

While Wrigleyville reaped the benefits of housing a baseball team, the Cubs took it upon themselves to make sure that the “parternship” wasn’t wasted.

“The team had success in the 1980s and a lot of that can be attributed to [former Cubs president] John McDonough,” Conklin said.

It’s as if the area owed it to the Cubs to help promote the team. Prior to the 1980s Wrigleyville was an area with a rather bad rap—a dilapidated, run down part of town that you didn’t want to get caught in once the sun set.

“Wrigleyville was an old German neighborhood, basically a working-class area,” said George Castle, who has written 11 books chronicling the ups and downs of the most inept franchise in sports. “It started to deteriorate in the 60s. The areas north got worse and worse, merged into Uptown, and you were taking a bit of a risk if you were, say, walking to the Sheridan ‘El’ station. It wasn’t safe.”

“In the 1960s, Wrigleyville was dangerous,” Conklin said. “Then it was gentrified and everything changed.”

Once McDonough decided to make the neighborhood his home, things began looking up and Wrigleyville became the sports and entertainment hub it now is. “Wrigleyville’s resurgence can almost directly be related to McDonough,” Conklin said.

But it wasn’t all about the Cubs’ visionary president.

“You had urban pioneers who decided to move in around the 1970s and they got these nice homes for $30,000, and the neighborhood started improving,” said Castle.

The economic factor was surely a big one. As the neighborhood became gentrified, the Cubs started doing something they hadn’t done in a very long time: win baseball games.

“It really took off in 1984 when the Cubs started winning games,” said Castle. “Harry Karray and the Cubs dramatically increased the team’s reputation, and the neighborhood became gentrified.”

The Sports Corner is one of countless bars that you can frequent before and after the game.

The Sports Corner is one of countless bars that you can frequent before and after the game.

Because of the hustle and bustle of Wrigleyville, the Cubs will remain successful and generally revevant—but they will continue being a punch line until the real issue is solved.

In addition, a new animal has arisen that threatens to perhaps alienate the fan base. Team president Tom Ricketts has stated that he wants to build a new, high-tech scoreboard to replace the manual one that currently resides in the outfield.

Larry Bennett, a professor of political science at DePaul, has written books about sports stadiums and their impact on neighborhood development. He says that the battle between the Wrigley Rooftops and the Ricketts family could prove to be a detriment for the area.

“There’s always been a lot of controversy when it comes to modernizing the ballpark,” said Bennett. “When they added lights for night games, there was an outcry. This is a little bit different, it’s a very complicated set of interests.”

It’s also a very interesting case study in the relationship between the stadium and the neighborhood. The fans seem to prefer the manual scoreboard, but the general consensus also seems to be that the rooftop seats are obstructive and unnecessary.

“It’s the same as if someone could stare into a movie theater with external seats,” said Castle. “The Cubs walked into it, they signed the deal with the rooftops. So there’s no clear winner. Still, you can understand the team not wanting these rooftops seats poaching their product.”

While the decision with the scoreboard won’t define the legacy of the relationship between stadium and neighborhood, it will go a long way toward deciding whether or not the Cubs remain a fan favorite.

Of course, there is one solution to all the problems, and it’s something that’s eluded the Cubs for over 100 years: winning.

 

White Sox and Twins ready for rubber game – Storify

The Sox are in Minnesota today, battling the Twins.

The Twins won the first game 10-3 and the Sox got a measure of revenge the next day with a 4-2 triumph.

Despite what anyone says, there is some great writing on the web

1. SB Nation Longform has become a haven for me whenever I just need to read some good, wholesome sports reporting. One of my favorite articles is from February, a piece about James Reed, a white male who attended an all-black high school and played basketball. One particular reason I like this article is because it makes sure to delve deep into what this experience meant to Reed. Instead of simply profiling it, author Justice B. Hill finds how it affected Reed as a human being, and how it changed his outlook on life and basketball. The addition at the end about Reed’s view as a coach from the sidelines is also very interesting, and adds a completely new dimension to the story.

2. Tracee Hamilton is a superb writer at the Washington Post and this article hits the nail on the head following the Boston Marathon disaster. Sometimes, the mark of a truly good sportswriter is the writer’s ability to separate sports from real life – and in this case, Hamilton made sure to do so. She does a very good job of giving a “big picture” view of the aftermath of the bombing and still finds a way to incorporate a broad idea for sports in general.

3. Another SB Nation masterpiece, this article discusses Mick Foley’s life after his wildly successful and debilitating career as a wrestler with the WWE. I’m not a huge fan of the WWE per se, but I do watch it from time to time and I’m always interested in reading about the human/real sides of the men who portray characters for a living. Mick Foley, to me, is one of the most personable wrestlers who ever ran through the WWE, so it was a fun read. It’s definitely sobering to see that he’s so broken down (but what did I expect), but I’m glad someone took the time to humanize a man who has played a madman for most of his life.

4. I’m probably taking a bit of a risk putting this article because it’s a very different kind of sportswriting, but it remains to this day my favorite piece ever. I found it in Great American Sports Writing 2010. It stands out because not only is it creative, it’s very smart and fun to read. Sports journalism can be some of the best writing around, but it can get stale from time to time. Inspirational stories and incredible profiles can only go so far – so why not write a realistic recap of a fake animated baseball game? Is it sports journalism? Who knows – all that matters is that it’s a great read and you’ll never, ever forget you read it.

Weekly Post #1 – Journalism 523

This report is one that has gone viral and has forced Rutgers University to act quickly in the wake of its revelations. I think it’s the perfect example of how sports journalism today is completely the opposite of the legacy newsroom setting it used to occupy. First of all, there are only two sources – and for a story like this, the traditional three is rendered completely unnecessary by the presence of the shocking footage that accompanies the story. Had this come out in, say, the Washington Post, Rutgers probably would have taken action; the video aspect and the fact that millions of people could physically watch what Mike Rice was doing to his players made sure that Rutgers would definitely take action.

A legacy report is great, and much of the best sportswriting/reporting comes from newspapers and magazines. But for stories like this, a non-traditional, media-friendly approach can go a long way towards making a statement. Without the video, who knows what would have happened to Rice?

The reporting isn’t superb per se, but it gets the job done. All that matters is the audience. If you’re an old schooler, you may prefer to see this in a newspaper. But the vast majority of consumers these days love reports like this. They’re ripe for social media and it gets talked about for weeks. There is also the chance for great follow up stories, i.e. what did Rutgers do/how quickly did they act? How did they deal with contract terminations? What is Rice doing, now that he’s essentially been blacklisted? 

There’s really no contest in terms of how effective the story is. Good reporting or not, this was original content from ESPN, the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports – millions of people are going to see the content regardless. Like I said earlier, having an outlet like ESPN report it was perfect. It forced Rutgers’ hand and didn’t allow the AD to hide behind false statements. We could all see exactly what happened, and we all knew there could only be one result. A traditional report could never have done that.

5 Things About the Redskins in Week 1

1. Yes, RG3 looked phenomenal.  The heralded rookie had a near-flawless debut in one of the toughest venues in the NFL.  The Saints’ defense was decimated (and frankly, played terribly) and the offseason drama undoubtedly affected the team, but Griffin did what a good quarterback does – he took advantage of what was given to him. 

And looking past the stats, there was even more to love.  After losing his number one target, Pierre Garcon, for the last three quarters, Griffin didn’t shy away.  He started 7/7 for 123 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, and kept it up for the rest of the game as well.  He went 12/19 the rest of the way, for 197 yards and a touchdown.  Entering the second half with a six-point lead after the Saints returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, Griffin refused to let the team cave and promptly led the offense on a touchdown drive for a 27-14 lead.

Photo Courtesy of xfinity.com

He ran when he had to, not when he wanted to, and made throws that defied imagination, particularly this gem to Fred Davis. 

The most important thing?  RG3 had zero turnovers.  On a day when rookie quarterbacks generally stunk, Griffin put on a sterling performance that could have a ripple effect as the season continues.

Another interesting stat: the Redskins offense wasn’t that great on third down, but they had far fewer than they could have.  RG3 went a ridiculous 6/6 with 111 yards on second and long (6+ yards).

2. The defense put together a game for the ages.  When you allow 32 points, it’s tough to assume a good defensive performance.  But as good as RG3 was yesterday, the Redskins’ defense was just as impressive.  Matching up against one of the best offenses in NFL history from a year ago, the front seven got pressure all day and the maligned secondary played superb man-to-man coverage for most of the game.

The Redskins held the Saints to 358 yards of offense, the Saints’ lowest yardage output since compiling 283 yards at St. Louis on Oct. 30, 2011.  Drew Brees, who set an NFL record with a 71.2 completion percentage last season, was held to a shocking 46.2%.

The high-powered Saints never go in a rhythm and ran for a grand total of 32 yards on ten carries.  It may have been one of the best defensive performances on the Mike Shanahan era.  The Saints came back at the end, but it was mostly junk time.

Photo Courtesy of zimbio.com

3. The Shanahans drew up a beautiful gameplan.  Where to start?  The Shanahans simply outcoached the Saints, and worked a beautiful game.  They smartly got Griffin into a rhythm with screens and dump-offs at the beginning, and utilized play action fakes to maximum efficiency.  They stuck with the running game from start to finish and generally had the Saints’ number all afternoon.  The most telling statistics of a well-coached game are turnover differential and time of possession.  The Redskins won the turnover battle 2-0, and simply dominated possession, holding the ball for a shade under 20 minutes more than New Orleans. 

4. Billy Cundiff could be a godsend.  Graham Gano had a couple of four-field goal games as a Redskin, but none came in a win.  Against the Saints, Cundiff went 4/4, with two 37-yarders and a pair of 41-yarders – only the first of which was even remotely in doubt.  Not only did Cundiff put a very important 16 points on the board (including extra points), he did something even more critical – by making the long field goals, he never gave the Saints great field position.  If he had missed even one, it’s hard to imagine Drew Brees failing to take advantage of the short field.  In a game where every cog of the team seemed to contribute, Cundiff put together a superb game that was just as good as performance as any other on the afternoon.

5. This should have been a good, old-fashioned blowout.  Think about it.  The Redskins were winning 20-7 with 40 seconds left in the first half, primed to receive the ball in the third quarter and perhaps drive for a touchdown and a 20-point lead.  As it happened, the Saints blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown, making it 20-14 at halftime.

The Saints also scored on a long touchdown pass on fourth-and-10 late in the game.  And then they scored again on a fourth down with only a few minutes left.  So put it this way: if the Redskins had not allowed the punt block, and had held just a play longer on two drives, we’re talking about a score somewhere in the range of 40-21.

But of course, they won the game – so we’re just nitpicking here.

MLB: A Look Back and a Look Ahead

By James O’Hara

These are my midseason MLB award picks and playoff picks at the midpoint of the MLB season.  Let me hear what you think deserves them.

AL MVP  and Rookie of the Year – Mike Trout

What can I say besides the fact that the kid is a beast with a slash line of .341/.397/.562.  Doing all this at the age of only 20 and being the main catalyst behind the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim getting to one of the best first half records in baseball after a lousy start.

AL Cy Young – Justin Verlander

The Tigers are my second favorite team behind the Nats and I own a Verlander jersey so there is a bit of homerism in this pick.  But his 2.58 ERA and 128 strikeouts in a league leading 132.2 innings is nothing but impressive.  Not to mention his insane .95 WHIP.

NL MVP – Joey Votto

Votto is probably the best hitter in the game right now and he’s doing it for a Reds team that is just one game out of first and on top of the NL Wild Card race.  His slash line of .348/.471/.617 is absurd even for a first baseman.

NL Cy Young – R.A. Dickey

This is a clear case of first half recognition over a prediction of who will probably win it at the end of the year.  Dickey had an amazing first half throwing back to back one hitters and exciting baseball fans everywhere with his mysterious knuckler.  The only question is if he can keep it up with a notoriously fickle pitch.

NL Rookie of the Year- Bryce Harper

If a rookie is doing something that Hall of Famers didn’t even do then it’s a pretty clear cut choice of who to pick.  Harper’s .826 OPS if it holds would be the third highest by a nineteen year old since 1900 ahead of the likes of Willie Mays and Ken Griffey, Jr. Pretty incredible.

Second Half Predictions

In the NL I have the division winners as the Nationals, Giants, and Reds in that seeding order. I love the Nats and Giants pitching and the Reds stars will carry them in a wild division.  I think the two wild card winners will be the Cardinals and the Braves. The Dodgers and Pirates will be on the outside looking in as they are not yet ready for primetime.  Look for all of these teams outside of possibly the Cardinals to be in playoff conversations for years to come.

In the AL I see the division winners as being the Rangers, Yankees, and White Sox again in seeding order.  The Rangers and Yankees are the two best teams this year easily managing the few injuries they’ve had.  While the White Sox have the most consistent production from their star players in the division. I’m going with the Angels and Rays to slot into the two wild card spots as both are simply more talented than their closest competitors.

A Guide to the Balk

Article By James O’Hara

Let me start this by saying I am neither a balk expert nor scholar. However I have been pitching since one is first allowed to in Little League all the way through High School which I believe gives me a good understanding of the balk.  If you have any questions or believe I am incorrect please let me know in the comment section below.

Okay on to what many baseball fans consider the most confusing part of a baseball game.  I have seen these frustrations whenever a game changing balk is called with many calling for the balk rule to be gotten rid of entirely.  However the balk rule is perhaps one of the most important rules in the game of baseball as many actions baseball fans take for granted only occur because of the balk rule.  Hits and base runners would become much more difficult to come by while leads and steals would be non-existent without the set of rules that comprise what a balk is.

So what exactly is a balk?  Well the basic guideline is when a pitcher starts a typical pitching action but stops it before it has been completed. These actions are typically an easy way for a pitcher to deceive a base runner or hitter, but nowadays are more typically just mistakes made by the pitcher.  For example Nationals fans will remember recently when pitcher Henry Rodriguez began to bring his hands together and then stopped causing a balk; there was no obvious deceit intended it was merely a mental mistake.  However this guideline requires one to know what the typical pitching actions are, which not many outside of pitchers truly understand.

To start there are four positions a pitcher can be in: off the rubber, on the rubber, set, and in motion.  Off the rubber is irrelevant to the balk rule as a pitcher is allowed to do whatever they want when not stepping on the rubber.  On the rubber is an interesting position as it is a relatively free position while still having some balk opportunities; in the windup this position is just set. On the rubber is typically when the pitcher is looking in to get the signs from the catcher.  If the pitcher is in the stretch then after leaning in to get the sign they must become set in the stance they are going to begin their motion from. Finally the pitcher is in motion either throwing a pitch or attempting a pickoff. In motion is probably where the most and most subjective balk calls come from as we will get to soon.

So now let’s break down the different parts of the balk rule by where they can occur in these four positions, excluding off the rubber as we have already stated it is not relevant.

On the Rubber: As mentioned above when the pitcher is in the windup there is only one on the rubber position so almost all of the relevant rules for the windup will be found in set.  However one rule that applies to both the windup and stretch is that the pitcher is not allowed to step on the rubber without the baseball.  The main rule here though is the transition from this position to the set position which must be done and once it is started cannot be stopped.  The transition usually entails standing up straighter, moving legs closer together, and bringing the ball and glove together.  However the only required part of this transition is bringing the ball and glove together. Another way, although highly unlikely, to draw a balk is to step off the rubber but not straight back, which is the only allowed way. The pitcher is also not allowed to drop the ball while on the rubber as this is seen as a way to trick the runner into taking off while the pitcher easily scoops up the ball and throws him out, however unlikely a scenario that is.

Set: In the set position the pitcher is only allowed to move their head, and usually their shoulders slightly, in order to look at a base runner.  If the body moves outside of a regular pitching or pickoff motion then a balk is called.  As mentioned above once a pitcher comes into a set position they cannot come out of it unless they step off the rubber with their back foot, or in the windup their non-lead foot. Also as stated as a pitcher comes set the ball and glove must come together, in addition they then must stay together at all times until the pitcher is in motion.

In Motion: As stated previously this position is where the most and most subjective balk calls will come from.  Let’s start with an easy one, once a pitcher starts their motion they are not allowed to stop or pause during it, they must have one continuous motion.  As Nationals fans will know there is a lot of leeway here as Chien-Ming Wang gets about as close as a pitcher can to pausing without doing so.  Now to the tricky stuff, pickoff rules.  First no pickoff attempts can be made from the windup without first stepping off the rubber. Now in the stretch if a pitcher steps, or turns and steps,  directly at either first base or home plate without first taking his back foot off the rubber he must throw the ball towards that base.  If he holds the ball or throws the ball in another direction a balk is called.  Some leeway can be given by the ump if the ball appears to slip out of the pitchers hand.  However if the pitcher steps towards second or third or first steps off and then steps towards a base he is not required to throw the ball.  The most subjective rule though is the 45 degree rule, which almost always deals with left handers.  As stated above if a player steps towards a bag he is committed to throwing to it, which means raising the leg straight up at a 45 degree angle to the base commits the pitcher to no base allowing him the freedom to still choose where to throw the baseball.  Once this plane is broken though the pitcher is then committed to the bag he moved towards and if he throws it elsewhere it is a balk.

Finally there are a few balks that don’t fit into these categories.  A catcher must be inside the catcher’s box at the time of a pitch’s release, a pitcher is not allowed to unnecessarily delay a game, the pitcher cannot deliver a pitch while facing away from the batter, and a pickoff throw to first must have a teammate in the vicinity of first base.  These are mostly ones that very rarely occur and are given a large amount of leeway in enforcement.

The important thing to remember when it comes to the balk is that there are a lot of regulations regarding how to pitch so if you see something that looks out of the ordinary it is probably a balk.  And that if a pitcher was allowed to do whatever they wanted the game of baseball as you know it would be completely different.

James is a student at Virginia Tech studying Computer Science and Math.  Baseball is his favorite sport as he has been playing it since the age of three.  However he has a passion for nearly every other sport one can imagine as well and this has led him to attempting to contribute to a sports blog despite average writing grades in school.  He is the main person tweeting behind the name @nextyeardc and gets way too excited whenever he sees he has a new mention.

3 and 3: Looking Back at the Giants, Looking Forward to the Rockies

3 Things on San Francisco

The Nationals played some of the best baseball we’ve seen them play all year in a thoroughly entertaining 3-game demolition of the San Francisco Giants, formerly the No. 2 team in the N.L.  Here are five things to take away from the sweep:

1. The Back End

The Nats beat a very good team with the back end of their rotation.  The Giants have one of the top pitching staffs in baseball, but even their top three starters couldn’t hang with the Nats.  The combination of Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler, and another stellar series by the bullpen allowed the Nats to post a very respectable 3.66 ERA in the three games.

2. Hitting the Best

When the Nats plated 35 runs in four games at Coors Field, it was easy to suggest that the notoriously thin air of Colorado was to blame.  Not so, apparently.  The Nats scored 24 runs against the Giants – good for an even eight runs per game – something that just doesn’t happen.  San Fran came in to the series with a 3.37 team ERA, and left with an ERA 15 points higher.

3. No Fluke

Perhaps the most amazing stat of the series?  In the last 2 years, the Giants were 74-1 in games in which they led by three or more runs.  The Nats somehow managed to grab two such wins in two nights, an accomplishment that speaks to something very important: we may be beyond the point where we simply think the Nats’ bats are hot.  Perhaps it’s just the potential finally coming through.

3 Things on Colorado

1. Home Cookin’

The Nats entered Colorado a few weeks ago with a 2.95 team ERA.  In the four games at Coors Field, that pristine ERA, which had been under 3.00 for 63 of 70 games, shot up to 3.11, thus proving that no pitching staff escapes Colorado with good stats.  What does that mean for the Nats?  It means they get to face the Rockies at home, where the pitching staff is decidedly better.  Sweep?

2. The Matchups

There really isn’t much to say here, except this:

Strasburg (2.81) vs Pomeranz (3.72)

Gonzalez (3.01) vs Francis (5.16)

Zimmermann (2.70) vs Guthrie (6.28)

3. Heading to the break on fire.

If the Nats manage to sweep the Rockies, as they are entirely capable of doing, they will be riding a 7-game winning streak heading into the All-Star break.  Since you never know how a team will perform in the week or so after the break, going into the break with such confidence is critical.  The Nats can’t get overconfident – falling in a series to the Rockies could be very detrimental to the rest of the season.

Ian Desmond: From Expo To All Star

April 5, 2012 was a very important day for Washington Nationals’ shortstop Ian Desmond.  The 26-year old holdover from the Montreal Expos (the only other National who can claim that distinction is Roger Bernadina) was stepping to the plate against the Chicago Cubs in the season opener of the 2012 campaign.  For all intents and purposes, it was the beginning of the most pivotal season in Desmond’s career, one that would decide whether or not he would make a career as an everyday player in the major leagues.

2012 was deemed a make-or-break year for Desmond.  In 2011 Desmond’s second full year of starting he regressed significantly and posted thoroughly unimpressive stats.  His batting average went down almost 20 points and his defense, while slightly improved, was still a major question mark.

In that first game against the Cubs, the 330th game of his career, Desmond started his quest to silence the doubters by banging out three of Washington’s four total hits, and driving in a game-winning run in the top of the ninth inning. It was a resounding start to a year that has seen Desmond go from a potential replacement player to a National League All-Star, and arguably the most important player in the N.L.-leading Nationals’ lineup.

You can take any position you want to describe Desmond’s sudden rise.  It could be his slightly altered batting stance.  Or maybe it’s the immense amount of hard work he put in during the offseason. While it could be any combination of factors, one stands out above all – for the first time in his major league career, Ian Desmond is the most confident player on the field.

“He’s doing things we all know he’s capable of doing,” says Nats’ manager Davey Johnson.  Desmond’s confidence spurs from Johnson’s refusal to keep the rocket-armed shortstop out of the lineup.  Even when Desmond wasn’t hitting well near the end of March, Johnson stuck with him and the results have been superb.

Ian Desmond

Through 79 games, Desmond has already crushed his career high in home runs (14, vs 10 in 2010) and with 47 RBI is only two off the total he had all of last season.  His 11 errors put him on pace for a career low in the department that Nats fans have been grumbling about for his entire career.  Though his defense is not yet sterling, it is well beyond the point where fans cringed every time he fielded a routine ground ball.

Through all of his improvement, the most amazing thing about Desmond has been his ability to hit in the clutch.  While Adam LaRoche was the backbone of a struggling offense in the first part of the year, Desmond’s clutch hitting has been there since the beginning – and it’s gotten so good that you hope Desmond is up at the plate in any clutch situation.

Desmond’s newfound clutch gene was never more prominently on display than on June 5 against the Mets. Washington found itself down by one run in each of Desmond’s final three plate appearances, and the young shortstop promptly drove in a game-tying run in every single at bat, including two in extra innings.  Thanks to Desmond’s heroics, the Nats moved nine games over .500 with a 7-6, 12-inning victory.

Another stat that proves Desmond’s clutch factor is his ability to drive in runs with two outs.  More than half of his RBI come in these situations – 25.  Think about that.  With two outs, there are only two ways to score the runner when contact is made: by error, or by a hit.  That means that Ian Desmond gets hits with two outs, and he gets them a lot.

That screams clutch.

All the stats and the accolades can only say so much, though.  The best way to see Ian Desmond’s improvement is to simply watch him.  He’s not a kid anymore.  He’s a seasoned veteran who has learned how to play ball.  He’s become a feared hitter who can hit for average, power, and has speed on the base paths.  He doesn’t walk much, but he can hit the gap with the best of them (3rd in the N.L. in doubles) and he’s slugging almost .500.

Say what you want about Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, or Bryce Harper – Ian Desmond is the Original National, and he’s finally showing that he can play with the big boys.

Which Nationals pitcher would be the first to throw a no-hitter?

Matt Cain threw a perfect game the other day, in one of the greatest displays of pitching in Major League Baseball history.  It was the third no-hitter in the last 13 days (counting the Seattle Mariners’ combined no-hitter about a week ago) and the fifth this season.

While being treated to yet another dominant display of pitching, the thought occurred to me: Which Nationals pitcher, on arguably the best staff in the game, would be the first to throw a no-hitter?

The Nats currently employ one pitcher who has a no-hitter to his credit – Edwin Jackson, who tossed the most tumultuous of no-no’s in a 149-pitch “gem” against the Tampa Bay Rays.  The four others – Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Chien-Ming Wang – have yet to pad their resumes with a no-hitter.

From a pure “stuff” standpoint the obvious choice for no-hitter number one would be Strasburg, who, at just 23 years of age, as established himself as one of the best pitchers in the game.  There is no pitcher in the league who can match Strasburg’s control over such a vast and deadly array of pitches.

The problem with Strasburg, though, is his lack of experience going deep into games.  Obviously, the most basic quality of a no-hitter is that it comes in a complete game – something Strasburg has yet to do.  And, as a strikeout pitcher, his pitch count could prevent him from having the stamina to go the distance, even in a few years when he isn’t staring at an innings cap.  So as much as it may seem strange to say it, I don’t think Stephen Strasburg is the pitcher on this staff who is most likely to throw a no-hitter.

So that leaves us with Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson, and Wang.  Now remove Wang (let’s be honest here).

After taking out Wang, I’d focus on Jordan Zimmermann.  Zimmermann is a workhorse.  And he’s an excellent pitcher.  But his abilities don’t lend themselves to pitching a no-no.  He’s a fastball/slider guy who is as solid as they come, but who also finds himself in tricky situations late in games.  Also, he has allowed about a hit per inning (8.8 hits/9 IP) in his career, which is the death-knell for no-hitters.

So now we’re down to Jackson and Gonzalez.  Jackson has a no-hitter, and is in the midst of a career year.  And sometimes, he comes out with nearly unhittable stuff.  But Jackson isn’t necessarily what I’d call an elite pitcher (although that seems to be criteria for perfect games…here’s looking at you Dallas Braden and Phillip Humber), and while I can see him throwing another no-hitter somewhere down the road, I just can’t see him getting it before…

Gio Gonzalez.  Until Matt Cain threw his perfect game, I would have put in my vote for Gio as the N.L. Cy Young of the season thus far (look at Cain’s stats and you’ll realize why he’s now the frontrunner in my opinion).  The thing that Gio has going for him in terms of getting a no-hitter is this: opponents are hitting .168 against him, which to me is a trend that cannot be overlooked.  He has allowed just 43 hits in 72 innings, and has the lowest WHIP of his career.  The only way to get a no-hitter is to allow no hits – and that’s what Gio Gonzalez does best.

In an interesting twist, I’d put Gio down as the least likely to throw a perfect game, because while his control has been decent this year, I don’t think there’s any way he’d go nine innings without walking someone.

So there you have it.  In my opinion, Gio Gonzalez is the pitcher most likely to throw the first no-hitter for the Washington Nationals.

As for who will have the most?  I’ll take Strasburg – and I’ll take the over with and over/under of 3.

Let us know who YOU think will toss the first no-hitter in Washington Nationals history! (An aside: the Montreal Expos had 4 no-hitters, including one in just their 7th game as a franchise.)

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