MAGIC NUMBER: 11

September 18, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Braves sweep the Nationals

The Washington Nationals had a perfect opportunity to pretty much wrap up the race for the National League Eastern Division title over the weekend, and they whiffed three times in a row. In head-to-head matchups between division rivals, each victory yields a double bonus in terms of the magic number. The first two games were high-tension affairs, with the outcome decided at or near the very end. On Friday night, the Nats' Ross Detwiler faced the Braves' Kris Medlen, one of the big surprises in Atlanta this year. Detwiler labored for the first five innings with a high pitch count, and then exited after the sixth having given up just one run. Bryce Harper hit a solo home run in the sixth inning to tie it. Then an ugly twist of fate transpired in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Braves got runners on first and third, Ian Desmond fielded a ground ball hit to shortstop, and chose to throw home rather than attempt a double play, which was unlikely because the infielders were playing in. The ball sailed wide of the catcher, and the game was over. Final score: 2-1.

On Saturday, the Nats came charging back and took a 4-0 lead after two innings, but then the Braves [regained their composure after committing some errors and gradually fought their way back.]* Edwin Jackson had a fine outing, but a bad call by the umpire at first base set the stage for a crucial game-tying home run by Jason Heyward in the sixth inning. Replays showed that Adam LaRoche's foot was on the bag when he caught the ball. It was the first time that manager Davey Johnson had been ejected this year, which ought to tell you something about the validity of his complaint. Then in the bottom of the eighth inning, [...]* Nats' relief pitcher Ryan Mattheus evidently cracked under the pressure, giving up a single and two walks to load the bases, before an inside pitch nicked the jersey of Andrelton Simmons, thus giving the Braves a 5-4 lead. [In the top of the ninth inning, Chad Tracy hit a pinch-hit single for the Nats with one out, and pinch-runner Eury Perez stole second base and advanced to third on a throwing error. A sac fly or single would have tied the game, but the next two batters struck out to end the game.]* That game, broadcast by FOX-TV, was a big disappointment. See MLB.com.

On Sunday night, broadcast by ESPN, Gio Gonzalez tried hard but failed to get his 20th win of the season. Many full counts and foul balls raised his pitch count in the early innings, and he left after five innings with a 2-0 scoring deficit. The Nationals seemed dispirited after the first two losses, and could only manage a single run scored, in the sixth inning. The Braves put three more runs on the board in the seventh inning, and won 5-1. And that's how the team with the best record in baseball was swept in three games straight.

As a result, the Nats' magic number to clinch the division remains unchanged at 11. After the Braves' win over the Miami Marlins last night, they are now just five games behind the Nationals. You gotta give them credit for showing a lot of competitive zeal, while the Nats are being excessively cautious trying to protect their lead. After a day or rest and sober reflection, the Nats returned home to D.C. and welcome the L.A. Dodgers to town this evening.

Orioles chase the Yanks

The division race in the AL East is getting more and more exciting, as the Orioles now only a half game behind the Yankees. With regard to high hopes among Baltimore fans this year, I recently wrote on Facebook:

I used to be an Orioles fan when I lived in D.C., and then turned against them when their owner Peter Angelos tried to prevent Washington from getting a franchise in the 1990s and early 2000s, and since 2005 I have been getting over my grudge. I'm happy the O's are doing so well, and am excited about a possible Baltimore-Washington World Series. If that happens, they should make Peter Angelos throw out the first pitch!

The mail bag

The new outfield fences in Citi Field, which make it easier to hit home runs, seem to have paid off for the New York Mets, even if their position in the standings don't immediately reflect it. See ballparkdigest.com; hat tip to Mike Zurawski. More news from Mike soon.

My brother Dan recently stopped at the site of Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, and chatted with a contractor who was doing work in the neighborhood. That plot of land was vacant for many years, but over the past decade or so it has been transformed into a residential development. The guy had vivid memories of seeing the Athletics play there in the 1960s, and recalled that when sitting in the upper deck, "no matter where you sat there was a pillar in your way."

* Text corrected.