Monday, July 13, 2009

Day 6 - The Final Day of the Baseball Trip - Braves vs. Nationals

So the day had come, our final day of our baseball trip. We stayed in another Comfort Inn in Greencastle, PA (I think Comfort should start being a sponsor of my blog), which is right along the Penn - Maryland border. Our hotel clerk (I think his name was Bob) late Friday evening was a Korean War veteran who had family and friends on Long Island, so we struck up a conversation with him. Nice man.

Since we got in so late (again), we stumbled out of bed Friday morning just in time for the continental breakfast. We were the only ones there at 9:30 in the morning. So, we headed off the D.C. for the last game of our trip, the Atlanta Braves vs. the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park (notice no sponsor - Yea!). We decided to leave early because we knew traffic in D.C. on the July 4 weekend would be crazy and we also knew that we had to find someplace to park in the city. So, we got there early and found a reasonable ($10 for the day) parking garage that was open until 3:00 am. Now where do we go?

Easy, go to the Air and Space Museum. Tieff had never been there and I had been there twice over the years and it's a great place to go. First, you have to stand on a line to get in and go through security. It's not bad though, it moves and I think in our case it was no longer than 30 minutes (I think it was less actually). Once past security, the picture to my left is the first thing you see in the open area.

Now, I have this knack of running into people I know over the years in places not even located in New York. This is happened on the ferry from New London to Orient Point, in the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory in Shelburne, Vermont and other places such as Penn Station at 2:00 in the morning (several times). So, as we passed through security on that Friday, I heard "Gary!". I was like what are the chances, so I ignored it. Again, I hear "Gary!". Again, I ignore it. Finally, I hear "GARY!", I look and there is my colleague, Jen Gundlach, the Vice Dean for Academic Affairs for Hofstra Law School (where I work) and a terrific person. We hugged and laughed about how we were both here. She told me she was here to visit family and friends (she used to teach at American University Law School before going to Hofstra) and I told her and her family about our trip. Her son thought it was so cool, he gave me a fist bump. Too funny!

I love the Air and Space Museum! To me, that is the first destination anyone should go to when they are in D.C. I grew up loving planes, especially World War II planes. When he was in the Air Force stationed in England, my brother would draw World War II planes, send them to me in the mail and I would hang them up on my wall in my bedroom. So for me, the best exhibit in the Air and Space Museum is the World War II exhibit, as pictured with that B17 Flying Fortress mural to the left. In that exhibit is a glass case listing of ALL the World War II aircraft by country with miniature replicas of each plane. There are several World War II planes there as well on exhibit, including a P51 Mustang and a Messerschmidt ME 109, including the engine for it (damn that was huge!).

Also, they have a World War I exhibit which features a WW I Collectibles glass case montage which features Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel, fighting the Red Baron. It also includes the Snoopy and the Red Baron game AND the Milton Bradley "Dogfight" Game, both of which I had growing up! When you're eight years old, who knew they would be collectibles! Yeah, just like baseball cards. Sigh. There are a lot of other great exhibits, including the Naval exhibit and the Space exhibits of course. Anyway, after touring the entire wonderful museum which will take you a good two hours (and it is a GOOD two hours), I got a couple of little planes for my two sons, Matthew and Jonathan and left for the Nats game.

We decided to walk from the Air and Space Museum to Nationals Park. My guess is this took 20-30 minutes and got a little help in the location from a D.C. police officer parked in his car. Once we got to Nationals Park, another very friendly D.C. police officer saw me taking a picture of the stadium and offered to take a picture of me with the stadium, which is pictured at the beginning of this article. I guess he saw the Notre Dame shirt I was wearing, and he figured I was from out of town. But he couldn't have been nicer. We went into the Nats Team Store where the staff there couldn't have been any nicer as well. We noticed some Braves' jerseys out on display, since the Braves were in town. There was another rack of other team jerseys. We moved the jerseys around so that the Mets' jerseys stood at the front. :-)

As for Nationals Park itself, which opened last year, well the Red Porch restaurant area and the unique hat look to it stood out. We thought an Uncle Sam hat would rise up every time a Nats player hit a home run (alas, not the case). The second impression once I got a look at the field is that unlike PNC Park, which is very intimate, Nationals Park is really big. Too big. Now here is the kicker. It only seats 41,888. It sure seems a lot bigger than that. It is definitely a pitchers park. The dimensions are 332 down the left field line, 377 in left center, 402 in dead center field, 375 in right center and 335 down the right field line. It doesn't seem that large, but it plays bigger. Unless you're Adam Dunn and no park, including Yellowstone National, can keep your moonshots from leaving the field. Now, don't get me wrong, it's a nice park, but it's kind of plain. No uniqueness to the outfield. They had a live band playing in the picnic area, which I thought was great. The picnic area is expansive, but it needs more chairs and the concessions are not that great outside of Ben's Chili Bowl (which I had to pass on due to an upset stomach) and a neat little gelato stand a little down the ways in the second deck (which I definitely didn't pass on).

As for the game itself, we got treated to another wild affair. The Nats are the worst team in baseball. Often bad baseball teams are the result of a pitching staff that consists of retreads and young pitchers who could use some more seasoning in the minors, but are the best the team has to offer at the moment. Such is the case with one Ross Detwiler, a lefthander out of Michigan State. Detwiler was picked in the first round of the 2007 draft and was rushed up to the big leagues this year. Detwiler has struggled this year with a 6.40 ERA and has given up 69 hits in only 52 innings pitched. Detwiler is not the first to experience struggling as a rookie. Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz struggled as rookies to name a few. Detwiler could eventually be good. But right now, he is not good at all.

That night was no different for Detwiler. However, it was the Nationals who jumped on the Braves early. Nyjer Morgan, who was just traded to the Nats the day before, singled, stole second and scored on a Josh Willingham single. The Braves would score a run in the second to tie the game at one. However, the Nationals would score again in the second on an infield RBI single by Detwiler and then a single by Nick Johnson that scored Detwiler. However a Chipper Jones RBI double and a Yunel Escobar single brought the Braves fans to their feet and the game was tied at three.

By the way, is there any hitter with a prettier swing from either side of the plate than Chipper Jones? Seriously, the guy is just a great hitter and that comes from a great swing.

But the game was not tied for long. Adam Dunn, pictured here, hit a rocket off Braves starter Kenshin Kawakami over the right center field fence and put the Nats up 4-3. It was Dunn's second home run of our trip, as he had hit one on Sunday vs. the Orioles. Dunn would be the center of a mini argument that I had with a Nationals fan in the top of the fourth. After Chipper Jones tied the game at four with a single, Yunel Escobar hit an absolute shot on a line to left field. Dunn immediately realized it was going to be over his head, and turned his back and ran. The ball hit off the track and short hopped the wall for a RBI double. The Braves were now ahead 5-4. The fan in front of me yelled "A real left fielder would have caught that. I had to respond, which I did with "Cmon, be serious. Willie Mays would not have caught that ball (and he wouldn't have)." He responded in kind and we had a discussion, with Tieff even chiming in that there was no chance for anyone to catch that (Tieff later said to me in Tieffspeak as I call it "That was a missile!").

Now think about this for a second. Most corner outfielders are in the majors are built like Dunn, or Willingham (pictured here) or in the Braves case that night Matt Diaz (an adventure himself in left) and Jeff Francouer. They are power guys, possess usually a good arm, but are short on speed. In fact the only corner outfielder I thought who remotely had a chance of catching it (but wouldn't have) when he was the Pirates left fielder was Morgan. Also a ball hit to left field is going to get up on an outfielder quicker than in center (at least from my experience of playing the outfield over the years in softball). So not even a left fielder that possesses the range of a center fielder is going to catch a shot like that. I will give the rabid Nats fan credit. He was the one who made the great Joel Hanrahan comment that I used in my posting of Monday's game.

Ok, enough of corner outfielder talk. Let's get to something very relevant to today's news. Manny Acta was fired as manager of the Nationals after yesterday's game. Everyone saw this coming and many of the Nats fans, including the rabid guy in front of me I got into an argument with wanted him fired. If there ever was a game that was used as evidence for Acta being fired, this was it.

Acta replaced Detwiler in the middle of the fourth inning with Tyler Clippard (who once had a cup of coffee with the Yankees). Clippard gave up the "missile" to Escobar but struck out the next two batters to end the inning. Clippard then retired the Braves in order in the fifth. The Nats tied up the game in the bottom of the fifth as Kawakami hit Willingham with a pitch, then threw a Christian Guzman grounder back to him into center field. Kawakami's night ended as Bobby Cox brought in Brooke Logan. Logan gave up a RBI groundout to Bard before getting out of the inning.

Now here's where it gets interesting. In the top of the sixth, Clippard got the first batter, Martin Prado, out. So Clippard has now retired six Braves in a row. Acta comes out and relieves him with Sean Burnett! Reason - the old take the righty out, Clippard, and bring in a lefty, Burnett, to face two lefties. Problem - the first batter Burnett faces is Chipper Jones, who is a switch hitter and a lifetime .312 hitter against lefties. Nice! Jones hits Burnett's first pitch on a line to right center where only a great racing catch by Morgan saves it from being at least a double. Then Brian McCann just gets under one and flies out to deep center. So Burnett throws batting practice fodder and barely gets out of the inning while Clippard is somewhere in the clubhouse scratching his head saying "What did I do?"

Wait, it gets better! Acta then pinch hits for Burnett in the bottom of the sixth. So Acta uses Burnett for two batters that Clippard could have faced instead and pinch hits for Burnett in the sixth. One reliever wasted. But it still gets even better!! Acta brings out the well traveled Jesus Colome for the seventh. Now Colome is well traveled because he is the living embodiment of Nuke LaLoosh. Million dollar arm. Five cent head. Colome was once a top prospect with the Oakland A's and was touted as their future closer. Problem was, and still is, Colome doesn't know exactly where his mid 90's fastball is going. Thus he has a career average of four plus walks per nine innings. Tonight would be no different. Colome walked two batters, then Brooks Conrad (pictured here), a rookie just called up from the minors, deposited a fat Colome fastball over the right field fence. Braves take an 8-5 lead.

In the eighth, after the Nats cut the lead to 8-6, Acta replaces Colome with another well traveled pitcher, lefty Ron Villone. Villone also shows why he is well traveled by giving up a double, a walk, then after a sacrifice, an intentional walk. Villone is replaced with even another well traveled reliever, Julian Tavarez. Tavarez also immediately shows why he too is well traveled by walking the first batter he faces, Matt Diaz. Braves up 9-6. Bobby Cox sends up the left handed hitting Garrett Anderson to pinch hit for Jeff Francoeur. Now here's where Acta really could have used Burnett, but since he wasted him in the sixth, Acta decides not to burn a sixth reliever, lefty Joe Beimel. Anderson hits an absolute bullet to right field, but Willingham was standing right there to make the catch. Since Willingham has a gun for an arm, Jones doesn't even try to tag on him as Willingham fires a one hopper to home. Tavarez escapes the eighth. Acta burned through five relievers in the span of two plus innings. That was more than enough evidence for me to see Acta be relieved of his duties. Also it was further evidence of my previous statement in the eighth paragraph about the Nats.

Give the Nationals credit though, they didn't go gently in that good good night. After a scoreless top of the ninth for the Braves (as Acta used his sixth reliever, Beimel), the Nationals threatened against Braves co-closer Rafael Soriano. Soriano promptly walked the first two batters he faced, before getting Dunn on a sky high popup to third and striking out Willingham. Christian Guzman though smacked a double to right center, plating two runners and the Nats were down 9-8 with the tying run on second. But Soriano got Josh Bard to ground out to Casey Kotchman and the Braves held on for the 9-8 win. It was our second straight exciting 9-8 game as we had watched the Mets beat the Pirates the day before 9-8 in extra innings. What are the chances of that?

We stayed around for the fireworks show after the game. Strangely, you had to move to the third base side to see them, so those, like us, who had first base side tickets and remained had to walk to the third base side to see them. We decided (or more to the point, I decided for us) to stand in the aisle instead of getting a seat, so that we could leave ahead of the others that had stayed out of the 33,982 that attended the game. That was by far the largest crowd of any game that we saw during our trip. It's also proof that if the Nats become a winning team, there is more than enough of a fan base in D.C. for them to succeed.

After the nice fireworks show, we took the 30 minute walk back to our car and headed home. A long five hours plus drive awaited us, and I didn't get back into my house till about 4:30 am Saturday morning. The trip had ended but the memories will always remain. More on that in my next post.

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