Today I embarked on my whirlwind tour of the Grapefruit League, which will involve me and my mother attending eight spring training games in six days.
Today’s game featured the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals facing off against the Washington Nationals at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida. Although Space Coast is putatively the home park of the Nationals, no Nats fans were in evidence, as the entire park was filled with Cardinals fans sporting “Eckstein” and “Pujols” jerseys and cheering every ball or strike that went the Cardinals’ way.
We were treated to a rare spring training pitching duel. Redbirds starter Kip Wells looked sharp, going five strong innings and allowing only two runs to “raise” his ERA to 1.06 in five games this spring. But even more impressive were the 5.1 innings pitched by Nats starter Shawn Hill, who allowed only two unearned runs on two hits, and did not allow a hit between the first and the sixth innings. With a spring ERA of 0.93 in five starts, Hill has literally come out of nowhere to blow past established starters Jerome Hill, Jason Simontacchi, and Pedro Astacio to be named the Nats no. 2 starter. And given so-called staff “ace” John Patterson’s history of injury woes, I’m going to go ahead and name Hill the true ace of the Nationals staff as we head toward opening day.
On the Cardinals side, another no-namer who continued to shine brightly today was centerfielder Skip Schumaker, who went 3-5 to raise his spring average to a team leading .405, and showed his desire to make the team by beating out two tough grounders for singles, including a head first slide into first on a ground ball to the 5.5 hole. Schumaker entered camp with no place to play, absolutely buried on the oufield depth chart behind Jim Edmonds, Chris Duncan, Juan Encarnacion, Preston Wilson, So Taguchi, Scott Spezio, and even some guy named John Rodriguez. But anemic spring play by Wilson and Taguchi, injuries to Encarnacion and Edmonds, and Schumaker’s all-out hustle on the basepaths and in the outfield, have put him on the edge of winning a spot on the opening day roster.
Looking toward the negative side, watching him play today made me wonder: is there any regular player in the major leagues worse than Nationals shortstop Christian Guzman? Although Guzman is having a ridiculous spring training, raising his team-leading average to .438 with a 2-3 performance today, this is the same Christian Guzman who was too injured to play a single game last season, and the same Christian Guzman who has a career on-base percentage of .298. Statheads like to talk a lot about “replacement level” players, but the iron-gloved, wildly hacking, power-less, increasingly slow-footed Guzman is so far below “replacement level” that you feel like you could run Frodo Baggins out there and get more for your money. After all, hobbits are pretty spry.
In any case, thanks in large part to 4 errors by the Nats (and two missed plays by Guzman which probably would have been made by any shortstop above A-ball), Washington fell to the Cards 4-2 in ten innings.
On the way back to our car, we noticed a monumental bronze statue off in the distance, right at the main entrance to the stadium. Who could it be we thought? The Nats have only been around for two years…could it be one of the glorious Montreal Expos from days of yore? Andre Dawson? Hall-of-Famer Gary Carter? Maybe even shrine to beloved erstwhile Expos mascot Youppi? But no! It was in fact an enormous statue of Casey from “Casey at the Bat” sporting a handlebar moustache and his “smile of Christian charity.”
Indeed, we decided, who is more fitting a symbol for one of the most hapless organizations in sports than the man who is the ultimate symbol of baseball failure? Sure, hope springs eternal in the human breast when you see a young player on the Nats like Shawn Hill…
But there is no joy in DC, for Christian Guzman still mans short.