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Examining the local pro scene on the “Slowest Sports Day”

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The dearth of pro sports games the day after the All-Star Game seems the perfect time to give an assessment of the local pro sports scene.

Washington Nationals – The Nationals should be very pleased that they’re tied for 1st place heading into the second half of the season. The first half of the season contained its fair share of drama, starting with “Hustlegate” involving first-year skipper Matt Williams and Bryce Harper. Harper ironically injured his thumb on a “hustle” play heading face-first into a base to avoid a tag, missed significant time, and still hasn’t gotten his stroke back. Injuries to catcher Wilson Ramos and Ryan Zimmerman as well as a light-hitting bench contributed to an often anemic and power-starved lineup that left Nationals starters and relievers little margin for error. Fortunately for the Nats, the pitching staff has given up the fewest runs in the NL thus far (326), keeping the team in many games and buying the lineup time to start producing.

With his team healthy, Matt Williams will be tasked with finding the right starting lineup going forward given Harper’s slow start back from injury, Denard Span’s offensive inconsistency, and Danny Espinosa’s plummeting batting average. Ryan Zimmerman’s stint in left field upon his return from the disabled list adds to the different looks that the Nats’ second-half offense could have. Additionally, hot-hitting minor league outfielder Steven Souza (.371 BA, 14 HR, 62 RBI and 21 SB at the break) is an intriguing option to consider for a squad whose production often stalled and thus squandered some outstanding pitching performances.

DC United – As the local soccer focus shifts from Brazil back to RFK Stadium, the Nats’ former co-tenants there are also eyeing a playoff spot. DC United is just two points out of first place and has 9 wins thus far, or triple what the team won in last year’s MLS disaster. Fabian Espindola has produced at a top level (7 goals, 8 assists), as has keeper Bill Hamid.

No matter what happens on the field, the interest of DC United fans will be focused on the process underway by team officials as well as developers and city officials to gain approval for a new stadium at Buzzard Point. After a hearing by the DC Council June 26th, a consultant was scheduled to analyze the city’s role in the project and report back September 12th. Stay tuned…

Washington Redskins – RGIII, healthy knee? We will see. Other than that, fans can’t wait to see the difference DeSean Jackson can make in the passing attack. It’s up to Jim Haslett to show improvement on the defensive side of the ball to Jay Gruden (who worked on Haslett’s staff in the UFL). On special teams, just about anything would be an upgrade over what happened last year. With a first year coach and the Redskins being the Redskins, who can say how this year will turn out.

Washington Capitals – I could rival Tolstoy on the number of words describing my thoughts and frustrations brought about by the Capitals from Pollin and Poile to Leonsis and McPhee. The non-renewal of George McPhee’s services as general manager should have occurred long before his sixteenth chance at things, and I fear it didn’t occur before this despite the recent roster and playoff debacles because Caps owner Ted Leonsis wanted to keep his self-styled anti-Snyder persona intact by having never actually fired one of his GMs.

As if so many seasons of squandering Alexander Ovechkin’s prime aren’t bad enough, Leonsis’ “new” hire felt like a poke in the eye for many fans seeing a golden opportunity for change. Leonsis not only hired someone in Brian MacLellan who has never run an organization before but someone who actually worked under McPhee for 13 seasons! That’s right; the club which has failed so completely at developing talent to put around Ovechkin (or at least keep it in house like Varlamov) or attracting free agents to do the same is going with a key part of that management to lead them forward!

Worse, Leonsis passed on former Penguins GM Ray Shero. For detractors who say Shero wouldn’t necessarily have turned the team in Stanley Cup contenders, at least he was at the helm of a team that made two Stanley Cup Finals and won one of them. (For now, we’ll skip the details of the mandatory Malkin suspension in those Finals that the NHL magically waived.) Plus, Shero has shown the ability to attract free agents and build around a core of young stars, something that the Caps obviously need.

Moreover, it’s something that Alex Ovechkin deserved, especially after he’s been the driving force that’s led to scores of sellouts for Ted’s arena, only to receive no such support from management as what Shero brought to Pittsburgh. Even if it didn’t work out, a gesture of hiring a Cup winner to build around Ovie now was so much more clearly the way to go than hiring a no-experience guy on the cheap were Leonsis trying to show Ovie and the fanbase that winning a Stanley Cup was a top priority. Given that Ted’s other major tenant is finally on the upswing and could start serving up Caps-like sellouts themselves, I’m skeptical that building a legit Cup contender will be a priority for the remainder of Ovechkin’s local career, which is a shame.

Washington Wizards – Ted’s other front office holdover from the Pollin era appears to have finally tapped into the “success breeds success” notion. Following the ‘Zards’ best playoff showing since the franchise was spreading Bullets Fever, GM Ernie Grunfeld has had an extremely productive offseason. After re-signing Marcin “The Polish Hammer” Gortat to a 5-year, $60 million contract, Grunfeld held firm on his offer to versatile vet Trevor Ariza.

When Ariza and the Wizards couldn’t agree on terms, Grunfeld traded Ariza to Houston and received a trade exception. Soon after, it was announced that the Wizards had signed Paul Pierce to a two-year deal worth $10 million. This move spoke volumes to long-suffering Wizards fans. It showed that the team could attract a title winner and likely Hall of Famer with something left in the tank thanks to last year’s playoff performance and the young nucleus of John Wall and Bradley Beal. (See, Ted, this is where McPhee needed to sink or swim shortly after you declared the rebuild to be over.)

In addition, this move showed that the team was planning to be in position to attract another big free agent (or two) down the road, which Pierce’s team-friendly contract terms versus Ariza’s potential deal is designed to maximize. It could be any available star who could make a difference, but the worst-kept secret in the NBA is the Wizards’ hope that Seat Pleasant’s Kevin Durant gets homesick when he hits free agency. Lebron’s return to Cleveland did nothing but stoke those hopes, and at least the Wizards appear to be positioning themselves to mature on the court while remaining flexible enough for future impact signings.

Grunfeld’s activity has continued with the acquisitions of front court players Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair (five seasons after 2009’s haste-makes-waste offseason in which Grunfeld passed on Blair in the 2nd round despite the team’s desperate need for a strong rebounder). It now falls to Coach Randy Wittman to make the pieces of this talented roster fit and complement the skill sets of Wall and Beal, which many fans will start spending money and time to see in person.

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