Ok, so its been a while (and admittedly too long) since my last Nats blog post. Grad school and work have gotten the best of me over the past few years, but with the former now completed, I hope to contribute to the DC Sports Guys more frequently. Plus, I promised Kevin that I'd have something to say about the Nats (as you'll see below, I certainly do), so here goes.
Yesterday afternoon, Washington Nationals fans saw something they haven't seen since baseball returned to Washington in 2005. A promising team with a +.500 record in June. Coming into Thursday's game against Seattle, the last time the Nationals had played .500 ball this late in the season (and yes, I know its only June) was 2005, when the team was leading the NL East heading into the All-Star break and despite a precipitous fall in the second half, still managed to finish at 81-81 on the season, albeit in last place.
Thursday afternoon's game was a good one, with the Nats completing a three-game sweep of Seattle, a similarly young team with a similar record to the Nats, on Layne Nix's walk-off sac fly in the bottom of the ninth. Walk-off wins have become a regular occurrence at Nats park in recent weeks, with Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos both recording walk-off home runs during the Nats recent winning streak.
To provide some further perspective, I attended two of last week's games at Nationals Park, Tuesday's come-from-behind win against St. Louis and Thursday's game, when the Nats blew a lead yet won the game on Espinosa's 10th inning jack. Having attended many Nats games over the past few years, I noticed something different during both of those games. More fans in the seats, paying attention and getting on their feet for key pitches and at-bats. It was the first time in a while that I sensed that the Nationals are starting to establish an identity, and fans really began to embrace this.
So as you are reading this, you're probably thinking that things are looking up for the Nats. Indeed, over the long run they probably are. But unless you've been living under a rock for the past 15+ hours, you have undoubtedly heard the news of manager Jim Riggleman's abrupt resignation over his contract status following yesterday afternoon's win.
Riggleman, who took over for a fledgling Manny Acta in 2009, had a contract that was set to expire at the end of this year, with a team option for the 2012 season. Reports have differed thus far, but most signs seem to indicate that Riggleman was earning a roughly $600,000 salary for serving as the Nats skipper. With anger swelling and his team playing well, Riggleman appeared to choose yesterday as his day to issue an ultimatum to GM Mike Rizzo. Saying that he would not join the team on its trip to Chicago this weekend unless his contract status was discussed, Riggleman followed through and tendered his resignation following the game.
Another fitting moment for the Washington Nationals. As with the come-and-gone excitement of Stephen Strasburg's debut last year (followed by his prompt exit to have Tommy John surgery), Riggleman's departure couldn't have come at a worse time. The Nats now go into the final stretch of interleague play (a 6 game road trip against the White Sox and Angels) uncertain of who their on-field leader will be for the remainder of the season.
Over the past half a day, various stories have surfaced and rumors have swirled over which side is to blame in this debacle. Rizzo has already made statements to the media asserting the selfish nature of Riggleman's departure as a classic case of "me first, team second" attitude. Riggleman, who spoke to reporters immediately following his resignation, claimed that he was "too old to be disrespected" and said that he merely wanted to have a conversation about his contract status over the next few days. Clearly, Rizzo wasn't ready to have that conversation.
Riggleman is a baseball veteran, having managed the Cubs, Padres and Mariners prior to taking over the Nats on-field operations in 2009. Riggleman has compiled a lifetime record of 662-824 (note, just one undefeated 162-0 season away from .500!) and appears to be one of those guys who is an admirable replacement manager, a one or two year sustainer, but not a long-term hire like a LaRussa, Leyland or Girardi. He stuck by his guns, made his decision, and felt that he had done all that he could to deserve a longer-term contract with the Nats. Yet in this day in age, even long-term manager contracts are not really that lengthy, and often times don't work out. Rizzo reacted in a way that a responsible GM should, not responding to an ultimatum that could have had adverse consequences for a team roster that he has put together himself over the past few years.
Time will tell what happens with the Nats, but for now, its on to Chicago to attempt to keep the ball rolling.