After 79 years, playoff baseball back in D.C.

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After 79 years, playoff baseball back in D.C.

From Comcast SportsNet

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As the Washington Nationals' first draft pick back in June 2005, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was there almost from the start, through the various last-place finishes and the consecutive 100-loss seasons.

He stuck around, signing a couple of long-term contracts, always convinced he would be a part of a winner one day.

That day finally arrived Monday night, when the Nationals clinched their first NL East title since moving from Montreal seven years ago.

And so, his gray championship T-shirt soaked with champagne and beer, white ski goggles dangling around his neck, Zimmerman -- low-key and straight-faced through the ups and downs (well, mostly downs) -- paused in front of the couple of thousand fans in the stands cheering and chanting during the players' on-field celebration. On his way to the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, Zimmerman raised both arms and bellowed.

"The odds were in my favor, that I was going to win at some point here, right?" Zimmerman said moments earlier, smiling as wide a smile as can be.

"For all the things we've been through, all the things this organization's been through," he added, "to be right here, right now, it's pretty impressive."

Despite being beaten 2-0 by the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night, the Nationals earned the division championship, because the second-place Atlanta Braves lost 2-1 at the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Washington, in first place since May 22, leads Atlanta by three games with two to play in the regular season. The Braves' loss finished as the top of the ninth inning ended in Washington, and the Nationals congratulated each other in their dugout with hugs, high-fives and spiked gloves.

"The way it happened tonight doesn't really matter," Zimmerman said. "We put ourselves in that position to have the luxury of having the other team have to play perfect baseball. We played a great 159, 160 games to get to that point, and we should be commended for that."

Amid the postgame delirium on the field, the crushed cans and strewn bottles collecting in the grass, pitcher Gio Gonzalez grabbed 86-year-old team owner Ted Lerner and steered him toward the gaggle of players.

"Ted, this is your party!" the effervescent left-hander yelled. Then, turning toward teammates, Gonzalez shouted: "Hey! Who's got the cooler? This is the man, right here!"

All in all, 21-game winner Gonzalez and the rest of the first team in 79 years to bring postseason baseball back to the nation's capital threw quite a victory party. Thanks to strong pitching from Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper's burst of energy and Adam LaRoche's slugging, the Nationals won enough from April through September that even a loss on the first day of October could not stop them from achieving the sort of success that seemed so far away only a few years ago.

"The puzzle came together," Lerner said, "a little earlier than we expected."

When Michael Morse led off the bottom of the ninth, the PA announcer informed the crowd that the home team was the champion, and when the game ended red fireworks lit the night sky with the Capitol building off in the distance beyond left field. The scoreboard declared "NL East Division Champions."

It was the second division crown in franchise history. The Montreal Expos won the NL East in 1981, a strike-shortened season, by beating the Phillies in a best-of-five playoff.

"This is incredible. The excitement. The joy. The fans. Smiles on everyone's faces, the excitement that's going on," Gonzalez said. "Everyone here just witnessed history. Hopefully we can try to continue that journey."

When the game ended, the Phillies -- winners of the previous five NL East titles; already eliminated from playoff contention this year -- gathered in the middle of the diamond for regular post-victory handshakes.

"Made me mad. Yes it did. Very much so. I'm a bad loser," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said about watching Washington clinch against his club. "Nobody should be a good loser. I'm a bad loser and I always will be."

The Nationals, meanwhile, collected in their home clubhouse for alcohol-spraying. They gathered around general manager Mike Rizzo and dumped bubbly over his shaved head. Harper, who has more homers (22) than years on earth (19), shared some apple cider with LaRoche's 9-year-old son, Drake.

"I'll remember being in the scrum in the middle of the clubhouse with all the guys, just elated and all together," Rizzo said later. "We live with each other for seven months a year. (This is the) culmination of all that emotion and such a successful season for us."

On Sept. 20, the Nationals assured themselves of no worse than an NL wild-card berth -- and guaranteed Washington a postseason game for the first time since the Senators lost the 1933 World Series to the New York Giants.

But even on that night of success, Washington manager Davey Johnson made clear he wasn't all that interested in merely getting a chance to play in a one-game, in-or-out, wild-card playoff. No, he wanted his team to focus on bigger prizes at hand.

With Washington back home from a six-game road trip and on the verge of a big accomplishment, the first roar of the night from the crowd came a few minutes before the first pitch, when a booming voice over the loudspeakers let everyone know that the home team's "magic number is down to one!"

In the end, Kyle Kendrick (11-12) pitched seven scoreless innings for the win. John Lannan (4-1) gave up two runs in five innings for Washington. That the Nationals lost did not matter, of course.

The spectators often rose at key moments, whether their team was at the plate or in the field. Fans also reacted with applause and cheers when the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field showed that Pittsburgh had taken a lead against Atlanta in the fifth inning.

All in all, quite a contrast from the mostly silent, mostly empty ballparks that were home to Nationals teams that lost 100 games apiece in 2008 and 2009. Then again, those worst-in-baseball clubs earned No. 1 overall picks in the amateur draft that turned into Strasburg and Harper.

Rizzo also oversaw a rebuilding of a farm system and two very key additions from outside the organization: Gonzalez, acquired from Oakland for four prospects last offseason; and Jayson Werth, signed away from Philadelphia with a 126 million free-agent deal in December 2010.

He was right in the middle of all the celebrating, twirling a shirt overhead in the middle of a circle of bouncing, fist-pumping, alcohol-dumping teammates.

Werth was brought to Washington, in part, to show the club how to win, having been a part of the Phillies' perennial division champions and 2008 World Series winners. And so it was somehow fitting that the Nationals' title came on a night when they were facing the Phillies.

"These guys have been through a lot. That just goes to show you it's not easy. It's not easy getting to this point," Werth said. "Luck plays into it a lot. You've got to be on good teams -- and I'm on a good team."

Casspi thanks Kings after trade to Pelicans: 'Definitely isn't easy'

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USATSI

Casspi thanks Kings after trade to Pelicans: 'Definitely isn't easy'

The Kings traded Omri Casspi to the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, prompting the forward to post a heartfelt message on his Instagram account.

I want to thank the Sacramento Kings organization for the opportunity to play basketball in front of the great fans of Sacramento. My wife and I felt in Sacramento like being home and this is something we both will cherish for ever. This definitely isn't easy for me and my family to leave, and you all know how much I love our city, organization and fans but the time has come. I want to wish nothing but success to my Kings. I will definitely will follow and cheer from afar. 
Always a big part of my heart, 
Omri #18

Casspi, 28, averaged 5.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 18 minutes per game for the Kings this year.

A's spring training Day 7: Rosales readies himself everywhere

A's spring training Day 7: Rosales readies himself everywhere

MESA, Ariz. — Adam Rosales has a real simple plan for which infield position he chooses to try to get work at.

“Wherever there’s less guys, I go over there,” he explained with a smile.

The sun came out and the A’s finally got on the field for their first full-squad workout Monday after being rained out Sunday. That meant Rosales, back for his second go-round as an Athletic, got his first chance to prepare for what figures to be a super-utility role, which is how he’s carved out a nine-year major league career.

All indications are that he’ll be the primary backup infielder, capable of spelling Jed Lowrie at second base, Marcus Semien at shortstop, Trevor Plouffe at third and even fill in at first base or left field in a pinch.

Though Rosales, who spent 2010-12 with Oakland and re-signed in January on a one-year $1.25 million deal, is well-versed in preparing himself all over the diamond, one position in particular is one that he says is most difficult to master in limited time.

“Shortstop,” he offered without hesitation. “There’s a lot more going on there, a lot less room for error. At shortstop, especially with a guy like Mike Trout running, you’ve got to be in good rhythm, good timing, get rid of the ball and make an accurate throw.”

Depending on how the A’s prioritize their 25-man roster, Rosales could very well be the only backup infielder. That means fellow infielders Joey Wendle and Chad Pinder would start in the minors if the A’s were to keep a fifth outfielder or third catcher. But because the A’s have some players who can fill in at multiple spots, there’s numerous ways they can choose to configure the roster when it comes time to pare it down.

Rosales, 33, said walking back into the A’s clubhouse for the first time made him “feel like I’m back home.” So much of the support staff — equipment guys, clubhouse guys — are the same as when he was here before. He was also happy to see former infield mate Mark Ellis walk through the door Sunday. He says Ellis, a teammate from 2010-11, instilled in him the importance of being a great defender. Ellis is working as a part-time spring instructor.

“He told me, the No. 1 reason he was in the big leagues was because of this,” Rosales said, holding up his glove. “I was such a young player then. I’d always work with him, how to turn double plays. Just to have him around is awesome.”

NOTEWORTHY: Sonny Gray and Kendall Graveman were among the pitchers who faced hitters for the first time this season. Bruce Maxwell caught Gray, his first time behind the plate with Gray other than the one inning Gray threw in an abbreviated start at Anaheim toward the end of last season. Maxwell said Gray’s changeup in particular looked good.

Manager Bob Melvin has been very impressed early on with Graveman’s command. Graveman said he’s trying to improve his changeup, in an effort to induce weak contact from righties and get them on the their front foot, which could then make him more effective on the inside corner.

CAMP BATTLE: There could be a good fight for the seventh and final spot in the bullpen, and it would seem being left-handed could give someone an edge. Sean Doolittle is the only lefty currently projected among the A’s top six relievers. Melvin had good things to say about Daniel Coulombe, a lefty who made 35 appearances in relief last year and also saw a bit of time with Oakland in 2015. Coulombe posted a 4.53 ERA last season but struck out 54 in 47 2/3 innings.