Ted Leavengood: Guts and artistry

Beneath the frustrating 9-6 loss to Joey Votto and the Reds, beneath the implosion of Henry Rodriguez, there were glimpses in Cincinnati of the team the Nationals are becoming. The weather Sunday was miserable thing and losing when the team scores six runs was a bitter blow, one that knocked Washington out of first place for the first time since the earliest days of the season. But it was a gutsy performance nonetheless after the bitter loss of Wilson Ramos on Saturday to come back and jump on Bronson Arroyo for four runs and 11 hits.

And there were moments during the Cincinnati series -- like the first three innings on Friday night - when some amazing new thing looked like it was emerging. There was the sudden three-run lead in the top half of the first inning Friday. That was different. But it was Ian Desmond’s play in the hole, and then Danny Espinosa’s scoop play behind second base, that suddenly catapulted the level of play to another level. The moves were ballet-like in their precision and best of all they erased any semblance of threat in the bottom of the first.

Then Gio Gonzalez put on a show when he struck out six of the seven batters he faced in the second and third innings. The second frame was the most impressive. After a leadoff double, Gonzalez lost any trace of his often jocular demeanor. He struck out the next three batters with nothing but fastballs and grim determination. He repeated the performance by striking out the side in the third inning, after Espinosa homered to give the Nationals an unheard of 6-0 lead.

Those three innings were a virtuoso performance that brought together every skill the Nationals possess - exceptional fielding, major league best pitching and, for the first time, offensive thunder. It was a demonstration of what Washington fans have in store over the coming years.

Watching Desmond, Espinosa and Gonzalez brought to mind something I heard Bob Wolff, the Hall of Fame sports announcer, say earlier in the week. Wolff did the “NBC Game of the Week” with Joe Garagiola back in the 1960s. His legendary career included such famous sports moments as Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series and he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame for his work at Madison Square Garden.

But he got his start in Washington, D.C., as the first television announcer for the Washington Senators, starting in 1947 and running through 1961. Wolff said that when he called the old Senators’ games in the 1950s, the team was woeful, behind more often than not. Washington was rarely anything other than a cellar-dweller in the American League, so how did Wolff maintain fan interest?

He could not to call attention to the score that was too often lopsided against the Senators, or quote the player’s statistics that were mostly abysmal. Wolff knew he had to entertain the fans and he did that by focusing the fan’s attention on what he called the sheer “artistry” of the athletes playing. Artistry, like the symphony of motion between Desmond and Espinosa behind second base over the weekend.

Professional athletes can be that good, the level of exceptional talent on display in modern baseball just that rare a commodity. Do the math. There are 30 teams and the talent is drawn from not just from 300 million Americans, but numerous other countries, as well. When Desmond plants in the hole, and in one motion jumps and rifles a perfect throw across the diamond to Adam LaRoche, or when Espinosa backhands a ball behind the bag and in one motion scoops it to Desmond covering, there is an art form on display, a one-in-a-million talent.

On Saturday, Jordan Zimmermann staked a claim to that same level of exceptional talent, pitching a masterpiece that gave him a rare win behind a 2-1 nailbiter. He got no more support than usual, but he made it work. Guts and artistry, that is what we saw writ large in Cincinnati.

These are not Wolff’s Nationals. They are winning on a pace to put up the best record for any Washington baseball team in almost 80 years. But with players like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Desmond, Gonzalez and Zimmermann, there is truly rare talent to be seen at Nationals Park. And who would quibble when players like Josh Hamilton are on pace to hit 80-plus home runs. Baseball is an art form, a symphony of motion and competition that is so unique at times it must be seen to be believed.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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