Athletics

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."

A's rookie Olson stays humble during record-breaking power surge

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A's rookie Olson stays humble during record-breaking power surge

OAKLAND — Matt Olson is aware of the company he’s keeping in the A’s record books.

His reaction is a mix of reverence and a shrug-of-the-shoulders type humbleness.

That’s the personality of the A’s rookie first baseman. Even as the conversation about him and his awe-inspiring home run pace grows louder, he remains the same steady, grounded presence.

“I’m happy for him,” A’s hitting coach Darren Bush said. “The guy’s worked his butt off. He’s the same today as was when he first got called up.”

Olson cleared the fences once again Friday night, his two-run homer off Nick Martinez in the second inning helping the A’s to a 4-1 victory over the Texas Rangers. At this point, it’s much more newsworthy when Olson doesn’t homer than when he does.

He’s crammed 24 homers into just 57 games this season. Taking into account his first call-up last September, and Olson’s 24 homers over the first 68 games of his career are the second-most in the history of major league baseball over that span to open a career. The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger also hit 24 and only the White Sox’s Jose Abreu, with 25, hit more over his first 68.

Olson’s 13 homers in September are the most by any rookie in major league history for the month, and there’s still eight games left in it. But Olson’s hot streak dates back to Aug. 27. He’s hit a major league-best 16 homers in 23 games since then.

Among rookies in A’s history, only Mark McGwire (49) in 1987 and Jose Canseco (33) in 1986 have hit more than Olson’s 24. But neither Bash Brother, nor any other player in Oakland history, ever hit 15 homers in a 21-game span as Olson recently did.

“It’s definitely an honor,” Olson said before Friday’s game. “I grew up with a Mark McGwire poster on my wall. It’s a little surreal.”

Who saw this coming?

Olson went 2-for-21 without a single RBI in his first taste of the bigs last September. Then he shuttled five times between Triple-A and the majors this season before getting called up once again Aug. 8 and being told he’d get a shot as the A’s regular first baseman with Yonder Alonso having been traded. The constant shuttling took its toll, though Olson never let on about that publicly to reporters.

“You could see (the frustration),” said Ryan Christenson, his manager at Triple-A. “When he walks in and you tell him ‘You’re getting sent up,’ and he’s like, ‘Well, how many days is it for this time?’ He wouldn’t voice it necessarily, but you could sense it.”

Olson, with help from Bush and others, made an adjustment coming into this season. He began holding his hands out farther away from his body to begin his swing. With his 6-foot-5 frame, Olson had found himself getting jammed inside. Then in trying to adjust to that, he couldn’t square up pitches on the outer half.

“Now, his hands are firing from where he wants them to,” Bush said. “He doesn’t have to fight. You want your hands to have a clean path. Now he can stay in there, stay behind the ball, let his hands work for him.”

Olson, a 23-year-old from Lilburn, Ga., takes this sudden burst of success — and attention — in stride.

“I’ve been hit with so many stats here in the past week, I can’t even keep track of who’s done what, and honestly what I’ve done,” he said. “I kind of try to ignore all that.”

That’s OK. Others are taking plenty of notice.

 

As Dodgers celebrate, Bochy turns eyes to franchise-altering talent

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As Dodgers celebrate, Bochy turns eyes to franchise-altering talent

LOS ANGELES — The Giants left their dugout quickly after Friday’s loss, escaping a celebration on the mound and a fireworks show in the sky. As Dodger Stadium shook with cheers, Bruce Bochy sat in the visiting clubhouse and smiled. He nodded at his laptop, which earlier had been used to pull up highlights of Japanese two-way star Shohei Otani. 

“He’s good,” Bochy said, laughing. “I absolutely would play him every day.”

Earlier in the week, when it became known that Bobby Evans and Jeremy Shelley were headed to Japan to scout Otani, Bochy said he couldn’t imagine a player pitching and then moving to the outfield between starts. What changed? 

Perhaps it was the tape Bochy saw. Otani throws 100 mph and hits homers with ease. Or perhaps it was the game he watched Friday. The Giants lost for the 94th time, with the big blow coming from a 22-year-old Dodgers star. Cody Bellinger’s blast was the difference in a 4-2 win, and the Giants don’t have a Bellinger, or anything close. Otani, 23, is a long shot for a team that very well could finish with the worst record in baseball. Still, he’s the kind of talent that could help pull the Giants closer in a hurry. He’s the  kind of talent they haven’t developed in years, and Bochy certainly sounded a bit wistful as he talked of the power Bellinger has put on display. 

“You call up a guy and he does that — that just doesn’t happen,” he said. “It’s a rare deal.”

The ninth inning of the Dodgers’ clincher reinforced that point for the Giants. They got a homer from Pablo Sandoval, but he’s playing only because Christian Arroyo — the Giants’ best prospect bet this year — is hurt. Ryder Jones, their 23-year-old prospect, struck out to end the night, dropping his average to .180. 

That set off a celebration for Bellinger and the Dodgers. They have won five straight NL West titles, with three of the last four clinched against the Giants. 

“Congrats to them,” Bochy said. “They’ve had a tremendous year across the board, and they’ve played great baseball. They brought some guys up that really did a great job for them. It’s well deserved.”

Bochy said it was not difficult to watch this one. The division has been wrapped up for months, with only a September slide keeping the Dodgers from clinching earlier. 

“We knew what we were facing here,” Bochy said. 

The Giants have two more against the Dodgers and then six more before a long winter. The Dodgers, on the other hand, will host an NLDS series here at Dodger Stadium. Both Bochy and starter Jeff Samardzija made the same observation, that the Dodgers will have a hard time cutting their deep roster down to 25 postseason players. 

That’s a nice problem to have. It’s a foreign one right now for the Giants, who have a serious talent gap and no clear solutions internally. It’s no wonder, then, that Bochy has all of a sudden become so intrigued by a wondrous talent overseas.