August 30, 2015

OPINION: Caps must find better effort in Game 7 or risk history repeating itself

If you’re one of those fans that always looks on the bright side of things, that wants to see the positive, that hopes for the best… you might want to stop reading now. I’m not going to go on about how the Washington Capitals franchise is cursed (it’s not) or that the league wants the team from the bigger television market to win (it might, but that doesn’t influence games). But I am going to lay down some pretty harsh thoughts about the boys in red.

They simply don’t play hard enough for long enough stretches to win.

That’s a harsh thing to say, I know. But until the Caps finally do win and change the script, that’s going to stick with them as long as they play the game.

Throughout this season, the Caps have adopted coach Barry Trotz’ idea of “heavy hockey.” It took until the last week of the season to qualify for the playoffs, and the last day of the season to clinch anything but a last-seed in. Only through an utter collapse by the New York Islanders and the fluke of losing a shootout on the last day of the season did the Caps “earn” first round home ice.

The Caps obviously have some talent on the roster. But there’s not enough to outplay similarly skilled teams, they have to outwork them as well.

The Caps played that heavy hockey successfully in the first round, wearing down the smaller Islanders until they were finally able to deliver the knockout punch, but any honest Caps fan knows that their favorite team was outplayed much of that series and if the Islanders were a little more composed or had a little more experience, it easily could have gone the other way.

Then onto the current series with the Rangers, where again despite being outplayed for long periods of time the Caps were finally on the right side of a couple of lucky bounces and found themselves up three games to one. For once, folks were starting to believe maybe, just maybe, it was going to be the Caps that came from a lower seed to upset a heavily favored President’s Trophy winner.

So what happened to change the mood so much in three days? It’s not curse, conspiracy or choke.

When Curtis Glencross scored midway through the third period of Game 5, the Caps were nine minutes, six seconds away from advancing to their first Eastern Conference Finals since 1998.

Instead of playing the final minutes of Game 5 like their hair was on fire, taking their game to the Rangers and dictating play the way they got the 3-1 series advantage, they took their foot off the gas. With no margin of error, the Caps played back — “turtled” — hoping to survive the Rangers heroic onslaught.

They were not successful.

It came as a shock to no one that once Chris Kreider tied it with 1:51 left, the air was let out of their sails. The Rangers didn’t need overtime to beat the Caps, they’d already done it to themselves.

It’s cliché to say you play “to win the game.” But every cliché is written with history as a guide. Greatness isn’t forged by trying to not lose. You have to take it for yourself. When have you seen a champion — in any sport or athletic feat — win by playing conservatively or cautiously?

Simply put, after Glencross’ goal in Game 5, the Caps didn’t start playing aggressively again until midway through the third period of Game 6 when they were already down 4-1. They were trying not to lose instead of trying to win.

What we saw from that point forward was absolute domination from the Caps, in effort, intensity and skill. Were the Rangers a bit relaxed with their gift-wrapped three-goal lead? Sure. Did they weather the just over 15-minute storm. Just barely.

But the rules still apply. The Rangers took their foot off the gas and only because they had a three-goal cushion and happen to roster the best goalie in the world (for my money) were they able to withstand the barrage the Caps unleashed at them.

The point is this: the Caps must finally find a killer instinct in Game 7. They’re capable of it — we witnessed it Sunday night. But they have to sustain it for the entire 60 minutes, and whatever overtime may come too. Despite where the Caps sit, with the ability still to advance to a conference final, it’s shocking we still haven’t seen that complete effort — even in the games they’ve won, as long as we’re being honest about it.

It’s remarkable at this point and time in this franchise’s history — and the tenure of their best players — that we’re still having this conversation. Yet, here we are. The Capitals must have better, consistent and thorough effort in Game 7 or we’ll simply be watching history repeat itself. Again.

OPINION: Caps advance past Islanders the Trotz way

It’s tempting to say that the Washington Capitals first round defeat of the New York Islanders exorcizes demons of previous failures. In all honesty, it would be hard to fault any Caps fan if they felt that way. The Caps entered play Monday night 2-7 in Game 7s and 1-4 in the Ovechkin Era. So if you want to believe in putting ghosts back in their place, who am I to judge?

For me, I remember the Easter Epic like it was yesterday. What happened at the Verizon Center on Monday night, no matter how joyous or exciting, can exorcize that indelible memory from the recesses of my cranky brain.

But it matters not. For the joy of this Game 7 win should be taken on its own merit. It doesn’t need to carry the weight of any past failures with it. These Capitals, the 2015 version, have earned the right to let their work stand on its own. Winning is better, of course. But these Caps have come a very long way from the futility that last year’s version displayed.

And funny, it’s with many of the same players who were criticized for allowing the team to miss the playoffs.

Sure, they bolstered the defensive corps. They brought in an experienced goalies coach. Shoot, they brought in an experienced head coach for the first time in franchise history. It worked. For all the years that the national (Canadian) media said the Caps didn’t or couldn’t play “playoff hockey”, well, guess what? Those same types are singing the praises of Barry Trotz and the return of “heavy hockey” to D.C.

You have to hand it to Trotz, a guy with a ton of experience but not much playoff success of his own. The Caps played this series for the long haul from the very beginning. He bet that if the Caps big, strong, tough forwards continued to pound on the smaller and quicker Islanders defensive corps, it would pay off in the long run.

It’s unfortunate that the strategy worked so well as to remove two of those smaller, more frail players from the series, but what are you gonna do? That’s playoff hockey.

And it should sound familiar. It’s what teams have been doing to the Capitals for the bulk of the Ovechkin Era.

But no more.

The Caps may or may not be able to get past the New York Rangers, a very familiar foe in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Rangers are big, fast, talented and strong, built very much like Trotz’ Caps. Obviously, they bring into the series one of the world’s elite goaltenders.

But the Caps will answer with a squad that’s big and tough in its own right, with a quality goalie of their own. And now, they also have the knowledge that they can win playing this way. Trotz’ way.

Desmond’s struggles emblematic of Nats slow start

With the Washington Nationals’ slow start to the 2015 season, we’re already hearing stories of a fractured clubhouse and lack of leadership among the players. This team is one of the oldest in baseball, with veterans up and down the order and in the rotation. Hell, even the bench is old. With Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Denard Span, Max Scherzer and Ian Desmond, the clubhouse is not where the Nats are lacking.

It’s on the field they’ve been stinking it up.

No one illustrates that more than Ian Desmond. In his contract year, Desmond has gotten off to an historically bad start in the field. With eight errors already to his credit, and several other miscues that weren’t awarded errors, Desmond typifies the Nats struggles.

Desmond is a “max want to” type of guy. He wants to be the guy up to bat with the game on the line. He wants the ball hit to him in every situation. He wants to be the guy that makes the big play. It’s evident in the way he carries himself and the way he plays.

That’s not a bad thing. He has exceptional talent. He’s been the only player in the bigs the past three seasons to hit 20-20 each season. He is capable of scintillating defense, we’ve seen it on occasion this year despite the troubles.

But it can work against him as well. Unlike guys that allow the game to come to them (see: Zimmerman, Ryan), Desmond also goes out of his way to try to be the hero, even if he does is subconsciously.

The play on opening day, where he ranged well over to second base only to flub what should have been Dan Uggla’s routine pop up? He didn’t do that on purpose. He just kept drifting and drifting until he was out of position and caused a problem. He gets overanxious fielding routine grounders and kicks them away. He tried to make a hero throw to first when eating it is better idea. We’ve seen it time and again.

Some players thrive on playing in their contract years. Perhaps, and I’m just speculating, Desmond’s the type of guy that won’t let it get out of his head. Maybe Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Span handle it better. So far, it’s been a recipe for disaster.

As for the real problem plaguing the Nats right now, no one is hitting. It’s systemic, and has manager Matt Williams grasping at straws, shuffling the lineup every day trying to find the right combination.

Picked as everyone’s preseason favorite to represent the National League in the World Series, the Nats have stunk up the joint thus far. As a team, they are hitting .218/.288/.349. Livan Hernandez had better years. The slash numbers are 15th, 14th and 13th in the N.L. It’s bad. Yunel Escobar and Bryce Harper are the only players hitting .270 or above. No one other than Harper has more than two home runs.

As of today:

Ryan Zimmerman: .205/.284/.384
Jayson Werth: .171/.255/.220
Denard Span: .240/.296/.240
Ian Desmond: .263/.309/.395

And it gets worse. Dan Uggla and Danny Espinosa are both under .170. Tyler Moore and Reed Johnson are hitting .167 and .176 respectively. There’s been less than zero contribution from the bench, which were the players playing when Span and Werth were out, and are still subbing until Anthony Rendon returns, which should be some time this week.

It will get better, but will it be in time? Werth and Span clearly aren’t in 100 percent baseball shape. There’s a huge difference between an injury being healed and being ready to face 95-MPH fastball and knee buckling curves. They are playing their way into shape. Pundits make fun of the 40 days of spring training and 25-30 preseason games, but they do it that way for a reason.

Werth and Span (and Rendon, when he comes back next week) are all going to need time to build strength back up in their injured areas and play their way into baseball shape. Will it take to Memorial Day? All-Star break? It’ll be different for the different players.

Will the Nats be in striking distance at that point? The Mets aren’t going to play .750 baseball all season. After the three-game sweep, the Marlins are just starting to pick it up. The Braves and Phillies are going to be bad.

If the Nats lose the series against the Braves this week, it’s trouble. But don’t write them off just yet. Yes, it’s bad. But the Nats should get healthy eventually, and in a weak division should be able to make up ground. Let’s just hope that happens sooner than later. It gets late early around here.

OPINION: Don’t let slow start get you down

When I started writing about the Washington Nationals in 2010 for We Love DC, they weren’t a good team. According to the official standings of the 2009-10 seasons, the Nats were among the worst teams in Major League Baseball. When I first moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005, the team was fresh on the scene with a yet-to-be-written future ahead of them. It’s within the context of this that I watch the Nats play baseball.

A lot can happen in ten years. The Nats have gone from hopeful newbies to cellar dwellars, which all led them to two recent division championships and subsequent playoff runs. Those playoff runs might have been short-lived but that’s certainly not a bad start for the MLB’s youngest team.

Washington is off to a moderately shaky start this April,  but this is expected to shift once manager Matt Williams’ desired starting nine is healthy and playing daily. Third baseman Anthony Rendon is currently on rehab assignment meaning he’ll be returning sooner than later.

Pairing Rendon with infielder Yunel Escobar for a second base-third base platoon could be an interesting experiment with potential for positive results on both defense and offense. They’ve got solid back-up with infielders Danny Espinosa and Dan Uggla to fill in as needed but having Rendon and Escobar in a lineup along with their quick defensive moves make for an even stronger Nats batting order.

One of the most entertaining stories outlining the legacy of a singular player within modern D.C. baseball history is the story of infielder Ryan Zimmerman. From being a September call up in 2005 to present day member of the starting nine, Zimmerman’s moved from being a Golden Glove and Silver Slugger-winning third baseman  (during Washington’s wort seasons on record) to a veteran leader at first base with grace, poise, and passion.

Watching players like Zimmerman in action, on the field and off, is one of the defining positive aspects of being an observer of Nationals baseball. As it stands, Washington is 7-10 and six games back in the National League East division. The Mets and Braves are currently ahead in the standings but it’s April and we all know this is a marathon sport. Ten years worth of baseball has been played in the name of Washington, D.C. in the modern era. Here’s to making the eleventh season a memorable one to commemorate how far this particular team has come since moving from Montreal to U.S. soil.

OPINION: Historic day in DC sports should be savored

The Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards (nor any previous combination of city and nickname) had never won a playoff game before on the same date. That is, until April 21, 2015. Add in a perfectly run-of-the-mill, ho-hum, boring, average 10th inning walk-off homer win by the Washington Nationals, and you’ve got yourself an historic day in the nation’s capital’s sports scene.

Obviously, the Caps and the Wizards are the big stories here. Both teams won road playoff games — the Caps evened their series with the New York Islanders at two games apiece, and the Wizards destroyed the Toronto Raptors to go up 2-0 in their series. The Nats walk-off, courtesy of a no-doubt homer by Yunel Escobar — punctuated by a head-first slide into the pigpile at home plate — was simply the cherry on top of the playoff sundae.

But all three victories are momentous in their own right.

Let’s start with the Caps, shall we? Nick Backstrom’s seeing-eye wrist shot from way downtown was a gift from the hockey gods. Even Backstrom will tell you he couldn’t have been trying to sneak that puck in the approximately four inches between Jaroslav Halak’s right shoulder and the crossbar. He was simply trying to get it on net, with the hopes that something good would happen, with Joel Ward camped in the crease and Alex Ovechkin lurking after the offensive zone faceoff win.

Something good, indeed, happened. Halak lost sight of the puck as it whizzed past Ward and Johnny Boychuk and it went right where Halak wasn’t. Goals like that often decide overtime games, and we saw it an hour later in the third overtime between Chicago and Nashville.

Make no mistake, out of the 14 periods the Caps and Islanders have played thus far in the four games of this series, the Caps have been soundly outplayed in 10 of them. Save for the final two periods in Game 2, the third in Game 3 and overtime Tuesday night, the Islanders have skated circles around the Caps. Yet, as a result of Backstrom’s wizardry (see what I did there?) and Braden Holtby’s superb play throughout, the Caps have regained home-ice and momentum heading into Game 5 Thursday. It’s a funny sport.

But how ’bout those Wizards?!? Losers of approximately 43 straight heading into the playoffs, they’ve come out like world-beaters  against a suddenly gagging Toronto squad, which after Tuesday’s loss have dropped their last four home playoff games. In Game 2, John Wall went for 26 and 17 and Bradley Beal dropped 28, and even Otto Porter added 15 as the Raptors had absolutely no answer for the Wizards’ guards.

The Wiz shot 53 percent from the floor and 47.6 from beyond the arc, and with Game 3 on Friday at Verizon Center, they’ve put themselves in a prime position to perhaps sweep the higher seed in the first round.

Then we come to the Nats, who pulled back to .500 with the 2-1 win over their new nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals had won seven of the last nine from the Nats entering Tuesday’s game, and that doesn’t count the 2013 NLDS debacle. So how much does an extra inning walk-off win mean in the 12th game of the season? Especially coming after Drew Storen managed to blow another save against those very same Cardinals?

It’s huge. I’m not a huge believer in team psyche, but for some reason the Nats seem snake-bitten against the Cards. They’re just starting to get a little momentum, with the return of Jayson Werth and Denard Span to the lineup and the news that Anthony Rendon has begun playing simulated games in Florida in rehab of his left knee sprain, and could very well start a minor league rehab assignment as soon as Friday.

Had they lost to the Cards, especially in the manner and form it would have taken — with Storen the goat again — it would have cast yet another pall over the early season and reinforce all the bad “juju” that surrounds this team as far as the Cardinals go. If you believe in those things, just maybe Escobar’s homer exorcised some of those demons and will allow the Nats to perform against St. Louis much as they do against the rest of the National League.

Yeah, as far as April baseball games go, it was a big one.

So live it up today, all you DMV sports lovers. April 21, 2015 was about as good as it gets. It’s a reminder that while it may be 23 years since the city last had a champion, at least they’re still trying. Though disappointment may still be in store tomorrow, don’t let that diminish the accomplishments of yesterday.

OPINION: The Nationals need to bring back Chuck Brown

Dear Washington Nationals (attn.: Valerie Camillo):

In your eleventh year after returning to the District of Columbia, I was saddened and confused when you changed the home run anthem at Nationals Park from Chuck Brown’s timeless “Bustin’ Loose.” Its selection as the home run song back in 2005 was a nod to the District’s long history as a music city with its own regional variety, and the importance of local culture associated with crafting the identity of the Nationals in local lore.

“Keep what you got, ’til you get what you need,” is how Chuck Brown starts the 1978 go-go masterwork that found wax in 1978 and spent some time in the Top 40 in 1979. The horn hits and that glorious backbeat are a celebration of a whole class of music that is local to the DC region, especially to the part of town where the Nationals now play.

I’ve watched hundreds of homers leave Nationals Park, and before it, RFK Stadium in the last 10 years, and to hear each of them be serenaded by The Soul Searchers’ horns and the Godfather of Go-Go made me feel close to my city’s immense history. If there’s one thing DC has, it’s local history. Baseball history, civil rights history, music history, jazz history, go-go history.

To move to Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s “Bang Bang” (whose video was shot in, and stars, New York City, seems like the sort of move that abandons the local culture of the District in favor of something bland and acceptably “popular”.

One thing I love about sports is that sports are the last remaining home for civic religion. Sure, some people treat local politics that way, but not all places do. You can unabashedly love your sports team because it’s a personification of your region, and a lot of teams carry on the traditions of their city as standard bearers. I think here of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and their incredible traditions, from the Terrible Towel, to “Here We Go”, to “the Steelers Polka”. I have come to love the Nationals as my civic religion, and for the last ten years, Bustin’ Loose has been my touchstone for DC at baseball games.

Yes, Ben’s Chili Bowl will continue to be at Nats Park repping the half-smoke, and for that I am grateful. There are beer stands that feature favorites from DC breweries, and for that I am grateful. But to take away Chuck Brown from the celebration at Nats Park, and to replace him with something overproduced and generically pop-y, is to say that DC’s music culture just isn’t there.

I won’t let that stand, and I don’t think it represents the best that the DC area has to offer. The Godfather of Go-Go belongs on the PA at Nats Park, as Bryce Harper or Ryan Zimmerman or Michael Taylor (eventually) round the bags. The Godfather of Go-Go represents an incredible can-do spirit of the Go-Go form, and it represents DC having a good time.

It’s time to bring Chuck Brown back to Nationals Park, Ms. Camillo, and Tuesday is plenty soon enough. Nats fans across the DC area can sign a petition to tell the Nationals that Chuck Brown belongs at Nats Park. Just like fans told the Nationals it was what they wanted back in 2007.

“Keep what you got, ’til you get what you need,” Chuck sings. The Nationals are still building their franchise. They’ve got to keep what they got ’til they get what we all need. Go back to Chuck Brown. Keep what you got ’til you get what you need.

Tom Bridge, Staff Writer (Nationals)
District Sports Page

Washington Nationals Opening Day: Optimism abounds, but injury concerns lurk

The Washington Nationals are almost every single publications odds-on favorite not only to represent the National League in the World Series, but win the whole dang thing, and with good reason. The starting rotation could perform at historic levels, the batting order was third in the N.L. in runs scored last season, and the bullpen is deep and talented, though perhaps not as deep as the past season or two.

In fact, the only thing that could derail the Nats from what seems to be their destiny this season has already reared its ugly head: injuries.

Look, I know opening day is a time for unbridled optimism. And there’s a lot of cause for that in the Nation’s Capital. And by Memorial Day, this discussion could very well be a moot point.

But with the injury track record of some of these guys, in very well may not.

The best news is that there haven’t been any concerns thus far with the starters. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister all seem to be 100 percent and ready to carry this team to predicted great heights. The Nats are in an enviable position of carrying 15-game winner Tanner Roark in the bullpen.

But there are plenty of other concerns, any single of which could slow the Nats significantly on the way to the playoffs.

Denard Span, who is the catalyst of the offense, had abdominal surgery and while he’s started running and playing in the field for a few innings at a time, is still a couple of weeks off from being able to play on a regular basis, and at that, could feel the lingering effects of a core surgery for months.

Jayson Werth, he of off-season shoulder surgery (as well as a short jail stint for going 105 in a 55), just started swinging a bat and while he thinks he could be ready by the end of the week, it could very well take until the All-Star break before full power returns to his shoulder.

Nate McLouth is apparently still so far from returning the Nats traded Jerry Blevins to fill his spot with Matt den Dekker.

Set-up guy Casey Janssen, brought in for the departed Tyler Clippard, is shelved for an undetermined period with shoulder tendinitis and, with his history of shoulder trouble, it could be quite some time before he throws his first pitch in a Nats uniform.

The most worrisome injury, though, is to third baseman Anthony Rendon’s knee.

Injured during spring training, Rendon was supposed to miss a day or two with soreness in his left knee. “Day-to-day” became indeterminate, then officially “week-to-week” after a third opinion recommended no surgery for the burgeoning superstar.

We still have no real time frame for Rendon’s return, and with he, Span and Werth all out of the lineup, the Nats — projected for 90-plus wins, a division and league title — are without their 1-2-3 guys in the lineup to start the season, most likely for the better part of a full month.

Then, we have to consider Ryan Zimmerman, and his penchant for injury. He’s missed significant time each of the past four seasons due to injury. In spring training, he hanged up a shoulder diving for a ball at first base. He’s tried to wean himself from sliding into bases head-first, but it’s also hard to break old habits and change an aggressive nature.

Speaking of aggressive natures, wither Bryce Harper? Here’s a guy that figuratively exploded during the bright stage of the NLDS last year, with three homers in the series. Though he enters his fourth full season in the bigs, has yet to play more than 139 games in any due to accumulation of injury.

Not to mention Yunel Escobar’s history of back trouble, and playing through it, or Wilson Ramos’ inability to play though a full season at this point in his career.

What does that do to projections? Does that turn a 94-win team into a 90-win team? 88 wins? Battling for a wild card? Hard to tell.

This Nats team could be special. All things considered, a perfectly healthy Nationals team should be favored to win the National League. With the Phillies and Braves projected to be the two worst teams on the circuit, a division title at least should be a lock.

But all the injuries early are a cause for concern for the Nats on their way to coronation.

OPINION: Be Excited, Nats Fans

There’s this awful fear in sports fan culture of being too excited about a season; that the sports gods, wherever they may reside, will take that excitement and visit upon it injury, suspensions, and abject failure in response to that excitement. There is nowhere more polluted with this myth than sports radio, where most of the on-air hosts for local outlets spend their days tearing apart even the smallest rift in a team for ratings, and DC is no exception. There’s this pervasive myth that the only happy sports fan is the one who’s panicking over the latest injury rumor.

This trend has resulted in proclamations of the Sports Illustrated Curse, amongst others, despite the fact that Michael Jordan’s many appearances there did nothing to hinder his career, nor did it stop the Seahawks from winning the Super Bowl in 2014. But I get where this whole thing comes from. A good baseball season is a bit like being in a spell, convinced that what you’re experiencing is some peculiar form of sorcery.

I grew up an incredibly superstitious fan of the Oakland Athletics, holding my breath across the Carquinez Bridge on the way to the Coliseum, because if they didn’t, Mark McGwire or Mike Gallego (my two favorites) would befall some peculiar injury and not start that night. I don’t know where it came from, I was just grateful the bridge span is only half a mile long.

There are all manner of fan superstitions out there related to winning, be they special jerseys, hats or pins, what gets packed in your shoulder bag, how certain signs are marked in your scorebook. For some they are a comfort, for others still a compulsion, and I don’t mean to call judgment down against fans who are just getting the most out of their experience.

What I am here to do, Nats fans, is free you to be enthusiastic and excited for this season.

This is absolutely a team that should make you cheer and dream. You should go to the park, or flip on your radio, TV or app, and feel good about what’s about to happen. Every pitcher the Nats send out to the bump in the first is a legitimate No. 1 in their own right. Scherzer, Zimmerman and Strasburg can overpower batters or finesse them, and Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister can confound them. While the bullpen isn’t quite matched with the starting rotation, this is a team you will want to remember.

We could step through Jayson Stark’s piece on why they’ll win it all — even if you read all of his caveats and take them to heart, there’s still a lot to love. As Thomas Boswell wrote this week, the rotation isn’t a guarantee, but there’s no guarantee you’ll survive your next Metro trip, or won’t be flattened by a crazy Uber driver as you walk downtown.

I’m not saying that Nats fans should be cocky or obnoxious — that would be irresponsible and stupid — but I think there’s a lot of confidence that’s warranted on behalf of this year’s team. Yes, you’re going to have people pointing to offensive defects in this lineup, people who write for this site, even, a bench that might be as frustrating as last year’s, and an injury bug that puts six Nats out of reach for at least the first week of the season.

It doesn’t matter. Or, rather, it shouldn’t be enough to let the fear set in.

None of those are defect enough to cripple this team from now until October, and there’s plenty of time before the trade deadline to fix problems should they arise. Yes, it has been a long, long time since a DC sports team found themselves in such a good position to win a championship. Yes, a sports championship in DC has the chance to upset the applecart, in terms of which franchise is this city’s favored child. Yes, it has the ability to move a whole generation of young sports fans.

My swimming coach in college got asked a lot by his pupils how to handle their nerves on the eve of a big race, and that same advice is what I’m going to give to you, dear Nats fans: There’s no fear, no pressure, when you are where you wish to be.

Ten years ago, as DC readied itself for the return of Major League Baseball, there were no expectations of that team. They played their hearts out, came out a .500 ball club, and finished nine games back in the division, in dead last. We saw six straight seasons of sub-.500 purgatory, two of those seasons so bad, their season highlight reels are measured in seconds, not minutes.

The turnaround in the last three years is nothing short of miraculous. This team has averaged 93 wins a season since then, racking up 280 victories in three seasons, and two trips to the playoffs. With a starting rotation that compares favorably to the 2011 Phillies, the 1997 Braves or the 1971 Orioles, the Nationals are in rarified air, and that should be absolutely exhilarating.

Rejoice, Nats fans, there’s much to look forward to. It’s a long season, but there’s incredible depth in this club. Fret a little, yes, it’s healthy, but there’s no need to panic.

Alex Ovechkin rediscovered his “edge” by ditching the razor

Remember back when Alex Ovechkin played the swashbuckling superhero, scoring goals at a pace no one else in the league could, slamming bodies to the ice and boards like a wrecking ball, and grinning that gap-toothed smile through a scraggly beard with shaggy hair flowing out from underneath his helmet, infuriating opponents, officials and the Canadian media at every turn?

What’s that you say? Everything old is new again?

In his past two games, Alex Ovechkin’s on-ice actions have been met with derision from his opponents and media across the country. First, Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf called him a “diver” in response to this retaliatory slash.

Then, in Tuesday’s game in Pittsburgh, Ovechkin gave Kris Letang a pretty healthy slash across the ankles and the diminutive Letang crashed hard into the end boards, which caused the Penguins to really get off their game chasing the Caps around instead of concentrating on winning the game. Arguably, Ovechkin could (should) have been called for a two minute minor on the play, but the on-ice officials really let the game get out of hand.

By the reaction of the Penguins media contingent, you’d think Ovechkin assaulted Letang a la Todd Bertuzzi, instead of chopping at a puck in the offensive zone and ending up on Letang’s boot.

Regardless, until recently Ovechkin has kept his nose fairly clean with regards to this type of activity. But it seems as if Ovechkin has his “edge” back, for lack of a better term.

For the first several years of his career, Ovechkin was a devil-may-care dervish, playing with reckless abandon. He was suspended several times for roughness as he plowed through defenders as often as he scored goals, making enemies across the league.

The Great 8 was often criticized for his rough play, and specific members of the Canadian media took every opportunity to tear down Ovechkin for anything the Russian player ever did — namely, being non-Canadian.

For the past several seasons, though, until very recently, Ovechkin has been a much more mild-mannered version of himself. As early playoff series losses mounted, as coaches came and went, as schemes became more and more defense-oriented, as he was asked to change positions, at times Ovechkin seemed joyless, a lesser version of himself.

Gone was the gap-toothed smile much of the time. Gone was the leap into the glass after scoring big goals. Gone, mostly, were the bone-shattering questionable hits.

A search for “What’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin?” yields 32 million hits.

Sure, Ovechkin still scored goals and delivered hits by the dozen. But it just didn’t seem like he had his old swagger, beaten down by playoff and Olympic losses.

At the start of this season, he was scoring, but not at his normal rate, as he — as well as the rest of the team — adjusted to Barry Trotz’ systems. But over his last 27 games, Ovechkin has 24 goals. He’s simply carrying his team.

And now, he’s getting under the skin of his opponents as well. It seems like he’s enjoying himself more and more on the ice. Maybe it’s just coincidence that his contract with Gillette ran out over the winter and Ovechkin had returned to the scruffy look. Maybe it’s not.

Maybe that stupid shaving contract was a metaphor for Ovechkin being forced into something he was not. Maybe now, after several seasons of “What’s Wrong with Ovechkin” we’re seeing the “real” Ovi back on the ice.

It’s been too long.

Washington Nationals laundry list short for spring training

As the Washington Nationals expect pitchers and catchers to report next week, this season — as opposed to years in the past — the Nats have relatively little to figure out with regards to the big league roster.

The team is celebrating its 10th anniversary in D.C. (in its 11th season), and there have been multiple years in the past where they’ve held open tryouts for the starting rotation and batting order, let alone bullpen and bench help.

Shoot, they signed 2008 opening day starter Odalis Perez on Feb. 23 that season, after pitchers reported in Viera.

Things have come a long way. [Read more…]

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