- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

You know what will be the biggest baseball media event in spring training next year? The fielding drills by the Detroit Tigers’ pitchers.

It is one of the first drills they work on in spring training — coming off the mound to field a bunt — and teams work on it so much that everyone is sick of doing or watching it after a couple of days.

Yet here you had the Detroit Tigers fielding bunts in the World Series as if they had never done it before.

And it won’t be just in Detroit. In every camp next February, there will be a little extra attention on those drills. You can bet managers and coaches will invoke the names of Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney and the record number of errors that were made by Detroit pitchers.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland even spoke about how the errors that haunted the Tigers were a staple of their spring training workouts.

“We worked at it all spring, and we haven’t worked on it since until we had that week off [before the Series],” he said. “We did a pretty good job all year long. We had the week off, so we had to put some drills in. In the American League, you don’t handle a lot of bunts and stuff. We knew we were going to do that this series, so we worked on it during the time frame we were off, and quite frankly we didn’t execute it during the World Series.”

This is a new one in the designated hitter debate — the lack of bunting in the American League because pitchers don’t hit now becoming a fielding advantage for the National League. Will that now become the new strategy for the NL in interleague play? Bunting like mad because AL pitchers can’t field?

Who knew that it would be the Tigers’ pitchers who would be their downfall, and who could have known it wouldn’t have been the pitching that did them in? It was pitching that led the Tigers to the World Series with great young, arms like Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman, and it clearly was the direction of Leyland that led them there as well.

But in the Series itself, it also was pitching that gave the St. Louis Cardinals their 10th World Series championship after outstanding performances by Jeff Weaver, Albert Reyes and Jeff Suppan. It also clearly was the direction of Tony La Russa that managed to get the Cardinals turned around after limping into the postseason with just an 83-79 record.

“Since the first game against San Diego, it was the way our pitching rose to the occasion, front end and back end,” La Russa said. “It’s tough to score when you’re facing good pitching.”

Leyland said “Dave Duncan and the Cardinal pitching staff probably did the best job of anybody all year of pitching to us. And they really hadn’t seen us that much. They did a tremendous job.”

Duncan has been La Russa’s pitching coach and right-hand man since their days in Oakland.

So back here in Washington, what can Nationals fans take from this World Series for their hopes of their own franchise?

The most obvious would be that three years ago, the Tigers were the worst team in baseball, having lost 119 games, so it is possible for teams to make great strides and change from losers to winners. But in order to do that, you need two things — pitching and the right manager.

Right now the Nationals have neither.

The Nationals’ managing search was a source of amusement at the World Series by those in the industry. Just as saying goodbye to Frank Robinson was mishandled by a franchise that believes it operates in a vacuum, so has been its effort to hire a manager.

So far, it appears there are as many candidates who don’t want to manage the team as there are who do, which is one of the byproducts of the Nationals’ refusal to address anything concerning their managing search, as if they are really keeping secrets from other teams. Joe Girardi made it appear he would rather be a Yankees announcer than manage the Nationals and spun it in a way that made it seem like he turned down the job, when in fact sources familiar with the situation have said he was never among the favorites to begin with.

But, by all means, put some more sandbags around the bunker at RFK Stadium.

The second ingredient the Nationals are lacking is pitching. The Tigers had good young arms like Bonderman and Mike Maroth three years ago who were learning how to pitch while they were losing. The Nationals can’t name one pitcher they can count on to open the season. John Patterson remains a question mark coming back from surgery, and while they acquired several young arms in trades during the season that show some promise, that is all they have shown so far — promise.

That’s why whomever the Nationals hire as their manager will have to know how to handle pitchers — someone who can nurture young arms and knows how to handle a bullpen and doesn’t panic when they are learning on the job.

Manny Acta, one of the candidates interviewed who hasn’t dropped out yet, has the earmarks of becoming a good major league manager by all accounts. Yet it remains puzzling why they haven’t seemingly considered someone who was on their payroll briefly this season who has a legendary reputation for handling young pitchers and working a staff, as La Russa said, from the front end and the back end.

Maybe when all is said and done, someone in the bunker might finally figure out that they haven’t really found anyone better than Davey Johnson.

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