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September 1, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Vacation 2012: travelogue and photos galore!

Now that summer is essentially behind us and school has resumed, it's a good time to look back on my recent adventures travelling through the Great Midwest. Whereas my trip to the Midwest last year was seriously affected by massive flooding that destroyed vast areas of cropland and shut down major highways, this year it was the opposite extreme: drought, which is pronounced "drouth" by most farmers in that region. (I had forgotten that dialectical quirk.)

During the westbound leg of my trip, my main objective was to see a baseball game at the beautiful confines of Wrigley Field in Chicago. Indeed, I managed to do so on July 19, as recounted on my baseball blog post of August 14. It was just wonderful, something I had wanted to do for a long time. Otherwise, the drive across the Midwestern states was fairly uneventful. I did take the opportunity to stop and take a photo (at night) of the Iowa State Capitol, in Des Moines. I was surprised by the large number of huge wind turbines that have been built in Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa since my last visit, but I didn't get a chance to take a good picture of any.

South Dakota

Once in South Dakota, I spent most of my time playing golf with my father (who actually hit a hole in one while I was there!) and going on various day trips. On Sunday July 22 we went up to Sioux Falls to see an air show, and it was extremely impressive! About 4,000 people were there. For the first time that I can recall, I saw the Blue Angels exhibition team, consisting of four F-18 Super Hornets, performed breathtaking aerobatic maneuvers, zooming right past each other at over 500 mph barely 50 feet above the ground. There was also an F-22 Raptor doing incredible stunts, using its thrust-vector engines that allow it to do very tight turns and slow flight without stalling. The F-22 was in a "race" with a geniune World War II-era P-38 Lightning twin-fuselage fighter plane. My father has fond memories of that plane, and he probably enjoyed seeing it more than the F-18s and F-22, which were of course extremely loud. I also got a good, close look at a B-1 swing-wing supersonic bomber, and talked with one of the pilots about its performance capabilities. One of the very few operational B-1 squadrons is based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, near Rapid City, South Dakota. I also got to see an F-4 Phantom jet, an A-10 Warthog attack jet, and talked with the crew of a multiple-rocket launch system (MRLS) battery. In short, it was a wonderful, exciting day, marred only by the 104-degree heat, which caused some of the spectators to pass out from dehydration. Also, my camera battery died, so I couldn't take any pictures. Argh! frown Perhaps if I had taken fewer pictures of Calvary (Episcopal) Cathedral, which we attended that morning, I would have had more battery power. Oh well.

The longest trip we took while I was out there was too Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge, in the south-central part of the state. I'll discuss that further in a separate blog post on wild birds. On the way, we had lunch at a charming local restaurant in the town of Wagner, which I learned is under the authority of Sioux Indian tribal law, even though it is not within the bounds of an Indian reservation. Later in the day we stopped to take pictures (and watch birds) at Fort Randall Dam, about 15 miles southwest of Lake Andes. Then we headed back home, stopping at other small (mostly declining) towns along the way.

On August 2 my father and I embarked on a tour of Yankton, South Dakota. On the way there, we stopped at the small town of Gayville (stop snickering!), which I learned is the center of a local music venue called Gayville Hall; [see gayvillehall.com]. Once in Yankton, I was impressed by how much bigger and artistic many of the main buildings are compared to my own home town of Vermillion. We stopped at the boyhood home of retired NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, who once took classes from my father at the University of South Dakota; we saw him speak at USD in October 2008. Later we saw Bishop Marty Chapel, [which features] a beautiful, tall stone spire, located at Mount Marty College. There was once a Yankton College in town as well, but it was closed in the [1980s; see yanktoncollege.org]. The facilities today are used as a Federal government prison. Finally, we saw the old Meridian bridge, which was built in 1924 and was closed in 2008, replaced by a [new bridge nearby]. For many decades, it was the only way to get across the Missouri River from southeastern South Dakota into Nebraska. I learned that funds for the old bridge were raised by private equity shares, which is an interesting approach. It was not built by the government.

Fort Randall Dam

Fort Randall Dam, in South Dakota.

Heading back east

On the return leg of my trip, I made an impromptu decision to take U.S. Route 20 across northern Iowa, rather than the usual Interstate 80, located about 50 miles to the south. It was partly because I hadn't seen the real rural countryside of Iowa in many years, and partly because I was thinking about paying a return visit to the "Field of Dreams" movie site, near the town of Dyersville, Iowa. Well, all the small towns and construction detours wasted well over an hour of my precious time, and as a result, my plans to see a White Sox ball game at U.S. Cellular Field that evening fell through. I didn't get to south Chicago until the sixth inning of that game, which was way too late.

The next day, I took a tour of the campus of the University of Notre Dame, located in South Bend, Indiana. I walked around Notre Dame Stadium, and then headed over to the Main Hall, which has a golden dome on top, and beautiful ceiling murals and commissioned paintings of Christopher Columbus (a famous Catholic) along the walls inside. It is a truly beautiful building, and a beautiful campus. Then I drove north into Michigan, thinking I might make it to Detroit to see a Yankees-Tigers game, but finally decided against that. I did, however, spend some time visiting the campus of Hillsdale College, which has gained national prominence in recent years as a bastion of conservative thinking. As I learned, it was founded in 1844 by a group of Freewill Baptists. It too has a beautiful campus. But the main travel objective of that day (August 7) was to see the Twins and Indians play a game at Progressive Field in Cleveland. The home team [was ahead for most of the game, but ended up losing] their 11th game in a row that day.

Notre Dame Main Hall

The Main Hall at the University of Notre Dame.

By the next morning, I was too tired and impatient to do any serious tourist stuff or take photos, so I just drove home through southern Ohio, across West Virginia, and finally into the Old Dominion of Virginia. "Ain't it good, to be back home again!"

Those photos, and many more, can be seen on the new Midwest 2012 photo gallery page. Enjoy!

[NOTE: I made several corrections to this blog post a day later.]


MAGIC NUMBER: 22

September 3, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Nationals withstand Cardinals

The four-game series weekend against the St. Louis Cardinals was another big test for the Nationals, and they passed with flying colors. After the lopsided victories of Thursday and Friday, the Cardinals regrouped and put heavy pressure on the Nats, and came close to earning a series split. On Saturday (broadcast by FOX Sports), the Nats scored four runs in the first inning, apparently headed for another blowout. But their pitcher Jordan Zimmermann just fell apart for some reason (heat and humidity?), and gave up a total of eight runs before he was pulled in the fourth inning. It was his worst outing ever, but the Nats bounced back and retook the lead (9-8) with a three-run rally in the sixth inning. The Nats' bullpen let them down, however, as Sean Burnett gave up the tying run and Drew Storen gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth inning. None of the Nationals batters reached base in the last three innings. Final score: Cards 10, Nats 9.

Sunday's game was less fraught with perilous lead-changes, but was just as tense. Kurt Suzuki homered and later batted in another run for the Nats, while Stephen Strasburg struck out nine Cardinals batters over six innings. But Sean Burnett gave up a two-run homer, thus depriving Strasburg of what would have been his 16th win of the year. Fortunately, clutch RBIs by Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa in the inning put the Nats back on top, with an insurance run that proved decisive when the Cardinals scored one run in the top of the ninth. Final score: Nats 4, Cards 3.

And so, the Nationals earned a 3-1 series win against a very capable opposing team; indeed, the Cardinals are the reigning world champions, Pujols or not. The run totals for the series? Nats scored 31, and the Cards just 14.

Cubbies come to town

This afternoon, the visiting Chicago Cubs played a good, close game against the Nationals but came up just short. Ross Detwiler outdueled Jeff [Samardzija], backed up by Adam LaRoche, who homered in the second inning. Ryan Zimmerman doubled in the [eighth] inning, driving in Bryce Harper from first base, [a key insurance run]. The Nats' closing pitcher Tyler Clippard gave up a run in the ninth inning, but still managed to get his 30th save of the year. Final score: Nats 2, Cubs 1.

As a result, the Washington Nationals have won their 82nd game of the year, officially clinching their first winning season since relocating from Montreal in 2005. It's a nice landmark to recognize, but the team is obviously focused on much bigger and better things...

End is near for Strasburg

After Sunday's game, it was announced that Stephen Strasburg would only get two more starts this year, with the expected final game on September 12 in Citi Field. See MLB.com. I don't have strong opinions on this, but I'm aware that many people are either in strong agreement or disagreement with Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo. I definitely don't want to risk Strasburg becoming one of those flash-in-the-pan pitching superstars like Fernando Valenzuela or Mark Prior. [Two or three great years, and then they're pretty much washed up.] In any case, I think it's clear the team has enough depth to do just fine without [Strasburg], and in fact, the Nats' former ace John Lannan has just been called back up to the majors, and will be filling Strasburg's spot in the rotation. Welcome back, John!

Pennant races get tight

In Atlanta last night, the Phillies had a 7-1 lead over the Braves, but slowly frittered away their edge. With two outs and two men on base with a score of 7-5 in the bottom of the ninth, legendary slugger Chipper Jones stepped up to the plate. Before you knew it, he crushed a ball into the right field seats, turning a certain defeat into a most improbable 8-7 victory. And the crowd went wild! So the Braves kept pace with the Nationals last night, and also today, after they easily beat the Rockies, 6-1. The gap between first and second place in the NL East remains 6 1/2 games.

In New York, the Baltimore Orioles took two of three games from the Yankees over the weekend, and after the O's beat the Jays and the Rays beat the Yanks today, the Bronx Bombers' lead in the AL East has shrunk to only one game. Yikes.

In Detroit, Justin Verlander pitched a great game, leading the Tigers to a third consecutive win over the White Sox. That sweep put them tied with Chicago for the AL Central lead, but they fell a game behind today.

[And how 'about those amazing Oakland A's??? Prior to tonight's game, they had won nine in a row, closing to within three games of the AL Western Division-leading Texas Rangers. They got beat by the L.A. Angels, who are not out of the picture either.]

Speaking of pennant races, I have filled in the current division leaders and wild card teams in the Postseason scores, 2012 table that appears at the bottom of the Baseball archives page, and will appear at the bottom of the Baseball blog page at the end of this month -- or perhaps sooner. I will also be adding the Nationals' current magic number at the top of each baseball blog post this month. smile

Nationals Park update

In observance of this unusually lengthy (and dramatic!) 11-game home stand for the Nationals, I made several minor changes to the Nationals Park Nationals Park diagrams, mostly involving the position of the "Red Porch" and "Red Loft" areas beyond left-center field. Note the Letter "T" which denotes seating sections that feature tables for eating. I plan to do likewise for other stadiums with table-seats (or table-stools) in the future. I also reduced the slope (in the diagram profile) of the portion of the upper deck that wraps around the right field corner. After the game on August 18, I inspected the top row over there and determined that it is only about eight feet higher than the upper concourse in the main part of the grandstand. Also, I added the handicapped-accessible "balcony" that occupies the first three rows of seats in most of the right field upper deck.


MAGIC NUMBER: 19

September 5, 2012 [LINK / comment]

D.C. homer-fest: Nats swat a dozen in two days!

For the second night in a row, the Washington Nationals hit six home runs, the most ever hit by a Washington team in Washington. Too bad it had to be against a team I like, the forlorn Chicago Cubs.

On Tuesday night, Ian Desmond got things started on the right foot with a two-run homer in the first inning, and Jesus Flores hit a solo shot in the second inning. Later in the game, Ryan Zimmerman and Tyler Moore also homered, and Adam LaRoche hit two home runs. Starting pitcher Edwin Jackson (9-9) had a great outing with eight strikeouts, until he gave up three runs in the sixth inning, at which point he exited. Final score: 11-5. See MLB.com and/or the Washington Post.

In tonight's game, Bryce Harper hit two homers for the second time in his brief career (the first time was on August 29), making it a total of 17 for the year. Adam LaRoche hit another one as well, his 28th. Wow! Roger Bernadina, Ian Desmond, and Danny Espinosa were the others to hit four-baggers. Those weren't cheap home runs, either: All but one of those long balls sailed over 400 feet, according to ESPN. They say "Washington has the second-longest average home run distance in the majors this season (404.5 feet)." The Cubs were shut out for eight innings, and they didn't even get a hit until the sixth inning. Starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez got his 18th win by striking out nine batters in seven innings, nearly as good a performance as his complete-game shutout last week. The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo hit a home run in the ninth inning, given up by reliever Craig Stammen. Final score: 9-1.

The Nationals had scored six home runs in a game once before, on May 20, 2011, but that was a road game in Baltimore. Just like tonight and last night, one player homered twice: Jayson Werth. (It's ironic, because he was having a bad year.) I had the numbers right in that blog post, but I neglected to include the fourth player who homered that day: Laynce Nix, who now plays for the Phillies. The Nats of course won that day, 17-5; see the full box score at baseball-reference.com

Unfortunately, there weren't many fans in Nationals Park to see all those home runs: 17,248 on Tuesday evening, and 21,244 tonight. In part that reflected the rainy weather in this region (I'm surprised there were no delays), and partly the fact that the Cubs are not in contention this year.

The Nats are 6-1 on their current home stand so far, and after their awful 1-4 road trip last week, their record at home (42-25) is now better than their record on the road (42-27). The "D.C. 9" remain 7 1/2 games ahead of the Braves, and their magic number has shrunk to 19.

Elsewhere in the majors

In the American League East, the Baltimore Orioles briefly caught up to the New York Yankees yesterday, eliciting gasps of horror all around the Big Apple, but then fell back a game after losing to Toronto tonight. In the AL Central Division, the Tigers are just one game behind the White Sox, and anything's possible. In the AL West, the Angels swept the A's, taking a little pressure of the division-leading Rangers, but putting themselves in contention in the process. They're 7 1/2 games back, and the A's are 5 games back.

In the National League Central Division, the Reds have maintained a big (8 1/2-game) lead over the Cardinals, while the Pirates just ended a losing streak by winning two games, so they're still in the hunt for a wild card spot. In the NL West, the Dodgers still have not gained on the Giants, who remain 4 1/2 games ahead.

The mail bag

Speaking of Toronto, there was a rain delay on Tuesday night, when the retractable roof at Rogers Centre got stuck, leaving much of the field and many fans drenched in a downpour. Watch the video at MLB.com; hat tip to Matt Ereth.

Here are a couple news items from Mike Zurawski: The Dodgers have hired Janet Marie Smith (who oversaw the renovations at Fenway Park) to undertake a renovation of Dodger Stadium, beginning this offseason. It's a "phased construction" project that will stretch over multiple years, and there is no talk of getting money from local governments, thank goodness. See fieldofschemes.com. After the billions they spent on beefing up their roster, it's hard to believe the new owners have that much cash left over. It must be Magic (Johnson). One thing I wish they'd do, frankly, is remove two or three rows of those new box seats that were added in 2007. Those seats are practically underground, and foul territory is way too tight. Dodger Stadium ought to be more like it used to be.

Down in Florida meanwhile, a developer named Darryl LeClair is proposing to build a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, close to the bridge that goes to Tampa, but it doesn't sound very serious. See fieldofschemes.com. Discussions with him and with Hillsborough County (where Tampa is located) are extremely delicate, because the under terms of the Rays' lease on Tropicana Field, they (and perhaps city officials) are evidently prohibited from talking about new stadiums until the lease expires in 2027. That's weird. See fieldofschemes.com again.


MAGIC NUMBER: 18

September 8, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Marlins end Nats' winning streak

Stephen Strasburg's home-game "swan song" (?) for this season was a nightmare, as he gave up five earned runs over three innings. Ryan Zimmerman homered in the bottom of the first to tie the game 2-2, but the Marlins had a solid 6-2 lead from the fourth until the seventh inning. That's when the Nationals woke up and started punishing relief piticher Carlos Zambrano. In the ninth inning, Michael Morse hit a clutch solo home run to tie the game, and it looked like those "never-give-in" Nats were going to pull off another big comeback win. But in the bottom of the ninth, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman failed to advance Jayson Werth, who had drawn a walk, and it was extra innings. Unfortunately, Tyler Clippard could not contain the Marlins, who hit two singles and a triple, followed by an intentional walk and a sacrifice fly to retake the lead, 9-6. Ugh. But wait, it's not over! In the bottom of the inning, the Nats came right back with a double, single, and a double, narrowing the gap to two runs and putting the tying run in scoring position with no outs. Yet another fantasy comeback scripted in Hollywood, right? Wrong. The Marlins' relief pitcher composed himself and struck out three of the next four batters to end the game on a very glum note for the home crowd. Final score: 9-7. frown And that's how the Nats' five-game winning streak came to an end. See MLB.com.

The question mark after "swan song" refers to the equivocal response by manager Davey Johnson as to whether Strasburg would pitch after the upcoming series in Citi Field. The fact that he only lasted three innings may give him one more chance in D.C. this year.

Meanwhile, the Braves beat the Mets 3-0, their third straight shutout and their first game with multiple runs since Wednesday. They are making maximum use of their modest offensive power.

Well, it's time to head up to Washington and see the Nats get back on the winning track. NATITUDE!!!

Nats sweep the Cubs

Perhaps the Nationals got a little overconfident having swept the Cubs in the preceding four-game series. In the Thursday game the Nats won 9-2, making the cumulative series score 31-9. Adam LaRoche homered for the fourth game in a row, and indeed the sixth time in six games, and Kurt Suzuki hit a home run as well. He's starting to come around and become productive at the plate. He was hired primarily for his defensive ability, specifically, being able to throw out would-be base-stealers.

That game was marred by two bench-clearing incidents, which apparently reflected the Cubs' deep frustration. See masnsports.com. Well, blowing off some steam may have helped, as the Cubs beat the Pirates last night, 12-2.

Cleveland Stadium update

I made a number of relatively small changes to the Cleveland Stadium Cleveland Stadium diagrams. The profile is more accurate, and a few details such as lateral walkways are included. Most notably, there is now a diagram showing just the first deck, and one showing the second deck without the roof.

What about League Park? Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time while in Cleveland last month to see what is going on at the historic site. Maybe next time.

The mail bag

Ben Ginter asks: "I am wondering the history behind when teams started to paint their logos behind home plate." That's a very interesting question I had never really thought about. As best as I can figure, here are the teams (and stadiums) which current feature the team logo behind home plate, in no particular order:

  • New York Yankees (Yankee Stadium II)
  • Minnesota Twins (Target Field)
  • Atlanta Braves (Turner Field)
  • Detroit Tigers (Comerica Park)
  • Kansas City Royals (Kauffman Stadium)
  • Pittsburgh Pirates (PNC Park)
  • Cleveland Indians (Progressive Field)
  • Washington Nationals (Nationals Park)
  • San Diego Padres (PETCO Park) *
  • San Francisco Giants (Candlestick Park) *
  • St. Louis Cardinals (Busch Stadium III) *
  • Tampa Bay Rays (Tropicana Field) *
  • Toronto Blue Jays (Rogers Centre) *

From looking through my various baseball stadium books, I found others:

  • New York Yankees (Yankee Stadium)
  • Seattle Mariners (Kingdome)
  • Minnesota Twins (Metrodome)
  • New York Mets (Shea Stadium)
  • Washington Nationals (RFK Stadium)

Norm Proulx wrote me a nice complimentary e-mail message while I was on vacation. I always appreciate such warm sentiments.


MAGIC NUMBER: 15

September 10, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Nats come stormin' back, get a BIG win

It was a bright and sunny afternoon in Our Nation's Capital as I met up with my old friend Dave Givens, but the early innings of the game being played did not reflect the fine weather, from the point of view of us home-team fans. (We were in the upper-deck nosebleed seats, where the roof provides shade.) But the tide of battle started to turn as storm clouds approached from the west, and after a long rain delay, the Washington Nationals pulled off a big comeback victory over the Miami Marlins. After all the angst over the race for the postseason and the end of Stephen Strasburg's season (see below), the final result was a huge relief.

For the first few innings, it looked like the Nationals were heading toward a virtual repeat performance of the night before. In the top of the first inning, the Marlins hit two solo home runs (by Gorkys Hernandez and Giancarlo Stanton), and put another run on the board in the second inning. The Nationals did not get a hit until the third inning, when Jesus Flores smacked a ball into the first row in left field for a home run. Three singles an inning later yielded another run, but then the Marlins scored two more in the top of the fifth, making it 5-2. It was just not Ross Detwiler's day, and Craig Stammen replaced him on the mound after that. In the bottom of the fifth inning, I witnessed something that I will never forget: a home run by Bryce Harper! It was a booming, no-doubt line drive that landed about halfway up the mezzanine level under the scoreboard in right center field. hittrackeronline.com estimates the ball would have gone 444 feet, and I figure it traveled 405 feet horizontally, and landed about 45 feet above the field level. Wow!!!

Unfortunately, the other Nats failed to sustain the momentum, and meanwhile the Marlins got another run in the seventh inning on an error charged to Ryan Zimmerman. I thought he did well just to field the high-hopping ground ball and throw it near first base in time, but Adam LaRoche couldn't scoop it up, allowing the runner to score with two outs. That made it 6-3, and the Nationals' fans started getting restless. As the skies darkened in the eighth inning, fortune smiled just a little bit. Bryce Harper took first base after being hit by a pitch, and on an 0-2 count, Ryan Zimmerman smashed the ball into the seats behind the visitors' bullpen in left-center field. Perhaps the fact that it was "Ryan Zimmerman Bobblehead Day" (I got my freebie souvenir, which was very well made) made the difference. The Nats loaded the bases with two hits and a walk, but Roger Bernadina struck out to end the inning. In any event, the gap was narrowed to just one run.

Tyler Clippard came in as a relief pitcher in the top of the ninth, and struck out three of the four batters he faced, an encouraging sign after the shakiness he exhibited the night before. Then the clouds turned black and fierce winds blew in, with rain that soon turned into a heavy downpour. Fortunately, the grounds crew got the tarp down in quick time, despite the high winds. The crowd quickly evacuated into the concourses, which are rather exposed to the elements in the upper deck, and before you knew it there were hundreds of napkins, straws, and paper bags swirling all around us. It was really scary for a few minutes, and people were screaming. The rain just would not quit, and I could see deep puddles accumulating along the warning tracks. After an hour, most of the 28,860 fans had left, and after two hours there were only a couple thousand at the most. The fact that the Nationals were down by a run really had me wondering if it was worth the risk that the game might be suspended, but I stuck it out, and it paid off big time. Further north, meanwhile, the game in Philadelphia was rained out, and the Braves-Mets game in Citi Field was delayed for a few hours, as two tornadoes were sighted nearby in Queens and Brooklyn. Yikes!

(Non-compensated endorsement: During the lengthy rain delay, I was cold, wet, and hungry, wandering around the main concourse looking for something good to eat. That's when I stumbled upon Ben's Chili Bowl, a locally famous eatery. A hot bowl of tasty chili was exactly what my body needed.)

Finally, after 2 1/2 hours of waiting, play resumed, and Jayson Werth stepped up to the plate. On a 3-2 count, in a steady drizzle, he launched a home run deep into the Red Porch section just left of center field. I was only about 80 feet away, five rows in back of the Nationals' dugout, and I was astounded by the trajectory that ball took. Could it possibly be?? Yes, it was a home run, tying the game, 6-6. And the crowd (or what was left of it) went wild!!! The next three batters struck out, unfortunately, but so did the three Marlins batters in the top of the tenth inning. That's when the big rally got started. Adam LaRoche singled, and so did Ian Desmond, sending LaRoche to third. The Marlins' pitcher Heath Bell intentionally walked Danny Espinosa, who has gained a reputation for being a clutch hitter, and the bases were loaded. Kurt Suzuki grounded into a fielder's choice, with LaRoche being thrown out at home. The next batter was pinch-hitter Corey Brown, recently called up from the minors. On the second pitch he hit a fly ball near the right field line, and as Ian Desmond prepared to tag up on third base, Giancarlo Stanton dropped the ball, allowing the winning run to score easily. Had he caught it, it might have been a close play, but it didn't matter. The Nationals rushed out of the dugout and mobbed the hero, who got a cooler full of ice water dumped on him as a gesture of appreciation. Final score: Nats 7, Marlins 6. smile

It's all about the NATITUDE!!!

Yes, sports fans, in the end it turned out to be a great day to see a Nationals baseball game. Four home runs! What an amazing come-back, in surreal weather conditions. For a full game recap, see MLB.com.

As you can see, one big benefit of the rain delay from my point of view, was the "upgraded" seating that the ushers were kind enough to grant to us hard-core fans. Being able to sit close to the action, I got some great photos of the players:

Nationals Park montage, 8 Sep 2012

Montage of photos from Nationals Park, September 8, 2012, featuring the four Nationals players who hit home runs that day: Jesus Flores, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Jayson Werth. At bottom right, pinch-hitter Corey Brown, who batted in the winning run, gets a congratulatory ice water shower.

Jayson Werth home run

Jayson Werth launches a game-tying home run (diagonal streak in upper right), in the bottom of the ninth inning. Only a few hundred Nats fanatics were left by then.

Nationals celebrate 8 Sep 2012

After Corey Brown's walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the tenth inning, the Nationals celebrate their big win.

Those photos (and perhaps more) will be displayed soon on the Nationals Park page.

Stephen Strasburg is shut down

Overshadowing the game on Saturday was the news that Stephen Strasburg had been shut down for the rest of this season. (NOTE: In my previous blog post, I had the wrong impression from what Manager Davey Johnson had said after the Friday game.) Johnson explained that all the talk about how Strasburg should be handled had become too much of a distraction for Strasburg, who had a poor outing on Friday, and for the rest of the team. I tend to agree with the decision, but I wish there had been some way to gradually throttle back Strasburg, rather than just abruptly jerking him out like that. Strasburg himself expressed frustration, saying he felt like he let the team down going out with that loss on Friday. Well, that's understandable. Washington Post Thomas Boswell wrote that the Nationals must now face another in a long series of challenges, involving psychological fortitude more than anything else. The talent and depth is clearly there, but without the special aura surrounding Strasburg, it's hard to know how the others will perform.

Washington Post columnist Norman Chad strongly dissents from the front office decision to protect their investment. "Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime." I know an opportunity like this might not come again soon, but everything I have observed tells me the Nationals have put together a solid, winning team that will be postseason contenders for years to come. Chad notes that the man for whom Tommy John surgery was named, Tommy John, opined that there was no good reason to shut down Strasburg. He kind of sounds like a grouchy old geezer: "Why, back when I was young, we had to walk to school five miles through snow drifts..."

Another loss, another win

The Nats won seven and lost just three during the ten-game home stand. Attendance has been lagging a bit, but an important milestone was passed on the day I was there: For the first time since 2008 (the inaugural year of Nationals Park), they have exceeded the two-million mark. I learned that from a scoreboard announcement, and confirmed it with my own records: 2,025,106. With ten more home games to go in the regular season, they'll probably end up with about 2.3 million for the year.

Anyone who hoped that the big comeback win on Saturday would regenerate momentum for the Nats was disappointed on Sunday, when the visitors from Miami trounced the home team 8-0. Let's just forget that one, OK? It was the same starting pitcher who had shut out the Nats on August 28, Ricky Nolasco. Over the years, the Marlins have often been a nemesis for the Nationals. For whatever reason, the last-place team in the NL East this year has a 9-9 record with the best team in the division.

Tonight the Nationals began a road trip with a game against the Mets in Citi Field, and all of a sudden their bats woke up again. Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ian Desmond all hit home runs in what used to be a very unfriendly venue for sluggers. Final score: Nats 5, Mets 1, and Gio Gonzalez became the first major league pitcher to reach 19 wins for the season. Better yet, with the Braves' loss to the Brewers tonight, the Nats' magic number has dropped to just 15.


MAGIC NUMBER: 11

September 12, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Nationals sweep the Mets

John Lannan took the mound in place of the shut-down Stephen Strasburg tonight, and he did just fine, as the Washington Nationals shut out the New York Mets 2-0, thereby sweeping the three-game series. In the fourth inning, Ryan Zimmerman crushed a solo home run (his 22nd) into deep left-center field at Citi Field, clearing the original wall in back of the "Party Deck" seats that were installed this spring. Ian Desmond added an insurance run with another home run (his 23rd) in the eighth inning. Desmond has more homers than any other shortstop in the majors, and is almost guaranteed a Silver Slugger award for that position, if not a Golden Glove. Same thing for Zimmerman.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves were swept by the Milwaukee Brewers, so the gap between the Nationals and the Braves in the NL East race has grown from 5 1/2 games to 8 1/2 games, an almost insurmountable barrier this late in the season. The magic number for the Nats to clinch the division title has shrunk to just 11. [The Nationals and Braves both rest tomorrow, and then face each other in a three-game series in Atlanta; Saturday's 4:00 game is sure to be broadcast on FOX-TV.]

[On Tuesday night, pinch-hitter Tyler Moore provided the decisive RBIs with a two-run homer in the seventh inning, thereby preventing knuckle-ball thrower R.A. Dickey from getting his 19th win of the year. The Nats put two more runs on the board in the top of the ninth inning, one of which was batted in by Bryce Harper, who became the first teenager since 1996 to get four hits in one game. (The last one before him? Andruw Jones, then of the Atlanta Braves.) Final score: Nats 5, Mets 3.]

Lock on the postseason?

I don't like to count my chickens before they hatch, but according to coolstandings.com (hat tip to Dave Givens), the Nationals now have a 99.4% probability of winning the National League Eastern Division, and a 0.6% probability of getting a wild card berth, meaning they are absolutely guaranteed to make it to the postseason. I wonder what their forecasts of the Braves and Red Sox were at this time last year?

With a record of 89-54 and 19 games left in the regular season (ten at home), the Nationals have a very good shot at reaching the stratospheric 100-win level for the 2012 season. I wonder how many experts forecast that at the beginning of this season?

Nationals Park photos

I put some new photos from last Saturday's thrilling game on the Nationals Park page, including the one below. More player photos are coming soon as well.

Nationals Park from visitors dugout

Miami Marlins first baseman Carlos Lee and manager Ozzie Guillen appear baffled by the "IGNITE YOUR NATITUDE" scoreboard display. (¿Qué cosa es eso?) It may have seemed incongruous with the Marlins ahead (6-5) and so few fans left after the 2 1/2-hour rain delay, but the way things turned out, it was perfectly fitting.


September 14, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Paul Ryan visits the Shenandoah Valley

GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan paid a visit to the Shenandoah Valley today, and I just couldn't resist the opportunity to see him in person. About two thousand people showed up to welcome the congressman, at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds just south of Harrisonburg. I got my e-tickets (free) online, as we were supposed to do, but folks could also obtain tickets on site. Then we passed through a security checkpoint, which was done fairly efficiently.

The setting was less than ideal, with people standing on an uphill slope, making it hard to see the speakers' platform. In the distance, near a corn field, was a semi-trailer with the slogan "America's Comeback Team," flanked by two green (John Deere!) tractors hitched to hay wagons. The weather was good, but the sun got rather warm during the long wait. About 45 minutes after the scheduled start, a loud fanfare blared from the public address speakers, abruptly cutting off the country music, and a caravan of State Police cars, SUVs, and a big campaign bus rolled up to the fairgrounds. Congressman Bob Goodlatte introduced his colleague from Wisconsin, who brought his mother along.

In his speech, Rep. Ryan called attention to the recent bleak unemployment statistics, noting that four times as many people gave up looking for work in August as the number of new jobs that were created. "That is not what a recovery looks like." Referring to the announcement of "QE-3" monetary injection announced by the Federal Reserve yesterday, he derided the "sugar high" artificial stimulus approach of the Obama administration, in contrast to the pro-growth, business-oriented economic policies which he and Mitt Romney advocate. After praising the natural beauty of the Shenandoah Valley countryside (no feedlot stench today, fortunately), he made a point about what is beautiful about communities in small-town America is that people look out for each other. That was clearly a response to the accusation by many Democrats that Ryan advocates the kind of harsh dog-eat-dog social Darwinism of Ayn Rand.

Ryan then praised the man who tapped him to be Veep, Mitt Romney. Rebutting all the negative things said about him, Ryan declared, "Being a successful businessman is a good thing in this country." It's just too bad that that even needed to be said. Ryan pointed to Romney's past record of public service in fixing up the mess in Salt Lake City and assuring that the 2002 Winter Olympics were a success. He concluded by promising that, if elected, he and Mitt Romney would not duck the tough issues, would not kick the can down the road, and would not blame their predecessors when things go wrong. Instead, they would lead, and take responsibility for their decisions. What a wonderful world that would be compared to the stagnation we now find ourselves in. I just hope the voters of America are paying close attention. Some polls suggest that the presidential race in Virginia is very tight, and Romney almost has to win the Old Dominion if he is to have any chance at beating Obama.

After Ryan finished speaking, I raced back to my car so as to beat the traffic. Ryan was interviewed by the local TV station, WHSV, and then left town.

Paul Ryan, Romney signs

Rep. Paul Ryan speaks to a friendly Republican crowd near Harrisonburg.

That photo, and others I took at the rally, will soon appear on the Autumn 2012 photo gallery page.

Republicans convene in Tampa

The Republican National Convention in Tampa went fairly well, aside from the threat of Hurricane Isaac forcing the cancellation of a few events such as a Lynyrd Skynyrd show. (That's a shame.) I was not pleased that the Republican platform had such rigid position on abortion, but that's hardly a surprise. The surprise appearance by movie legend Clint Eastwood didn't go over too well, from my perspective, but that may be because I wasn't paying close enough attention. With regard to Paul Ryan's speech (see complete text at politico.com), I wrote on Facebook,

I'm really looking forward to Paul Ryan's big speech tonight. Here's the big challenge he faces: Can he win over the independent-minded voters who went for Obama four years ago? To do so, he'll need to acknowledge the fiscal and social policy mistakes that were made between 2001 and 2008.

So, did he meet that challenge? Not really. He obliquely alluded to the fact that fiscal problems predated the Obama administration, but he was less than candid about it. Along those lines, I was recently asked by a Facebook friend whether I thought that Republicans have faced up to the big policy mistakes of the George W. Bush administration. I replied:

I'm pretty sure that most Republicans are truly aware that Bush Jr. messed up, but they're not sure exactly what went wrong, and they find themselves trapped in a party structure (largely built by Bush's "brain," Karl Rove) which makes a fetish out of loyalty and severely punishes anyone who dares to speak his or her own mind. Being unable to share thoughts openly, they remain confused. Very sad.

For the most part, I was pleased by Mitt Romney's choice of Ryan to be his running mate. Ryan is a budget hawk, which ranks very high on my list of criteria, and he is smart and articulate, as well. He reminds me a lot of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was House Budget Committee Chairman during the late 1990s. Ryan has the potential to reach out to independent voters while appealing to the Republican Party's right-wing "Base." But that is what I initially thought about Sarah Palin four years ago, so I ought to be more cautious about expressing opinions prematurely.

From the point of view of many Democrats, Ryan came across as a liar; see washingtonpost.com. That reaction surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn't have.

Democrats convene in Charlotte

The Democrats also had to change their plans due to adverse weather conditions, or at least that's what they said. President Obama was going to give his acceptance speech outdoors at Bank of America Stadium, just like he did four years ago at Invesco Field/Mile High in Denver, but they apparently couldn't get enough people to commit to going, and nothing looks worse than a half-empty stadium. Anyway, the star of the show was former President Bill Clinton, who gave a rousing speech on Wednesday night. (His prominent role in Charlotte was quite a contrast to the absence of former President George W. Bush; a cartoon in the Washington Post by Tom Toles poked fun at this by a "Geo. W. Who?" label on the GOP convention podium. Sigh...) Clinton's speech contained a number of exaggerations and distortions, as recounted by the Washington Post. Thank goodness for the scrutiny of professionals such as Glenn Kessler.

Perhaps the most revealing moment of the Democrats' convention was when the party leaders changed the party platform, which originally had omitted any mention of God or the status of Jerusalem as capital of Israel. After Republican critics seized on that issue, the Democrats tried to fix it, but when they called a voice vote, the Nays were clearly louder than the Yeas, even after repeated attempts. So the chairman simply declared the Yeas to have won, and moved on to the next issue. Talk about railroading!

My column on polarization

After a hiatus of about 14 months, I have resumed writing opinion-editorial columns for the News Leader, based here in Staunton. My first column appeared two Sundays ago, and focused on the menace of political polarization in this country. See newsleader.com.

My next column will deal with the issue of lying by politicians, which -- as noted above -- became a hot issue after Paul Ryan's speech at the Republican convention two weeks ago.

Obviously, I'll also have to resume blogging on a regular basis as this campaign season moves forward.


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.


September 19, 2012 [LINK / comment]

It's fall bird migration season!

Well, here it is the latter part of September, technically the very end of summer. For all intents and purposes, it has been autumn for nearly two weeks, and the steady stream of migrating birds leaves no doubt that the seasons are rapidly changing. I've been meaning to finish a blog post on various summer birding excursions, but I figured the more recent observations are more salient. I'll post a (belated) report of my birding adventures in South Dakota and Virginia tomorrow.

This morning I went to Bell's Lane, and after a slow start I had some good luck finding birds. There was a Great-crested Flycatcher and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak or two in the tree tops along the upstream portion near town, but none of the hummingbirds which I've seen there lately. Catbirds are still plentiful along that part of Bell's Lane, but they'll be leaving in a few weeks. Further east, at the sharp bend, I saw a Kestrel circling overhead, and two Red-tailed Hawks much higher up. As I approached the highland part of Bell's Lane, I saw two large spiders building webs among the wildflowers, and photographed them. Further north, I was pleased to spot at least six few Palm Warblers, alternating between the ground and nearby tree branches. They are early spring / late fall migrants, common in that area. An even better find was a couple Cape May Warblers in the Elm trees. One of them came close, and I photographed it. There was also a big surprise in the biggest Elm tree: a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, the earliest in the fall I have ever seen that species! According to Birds of Augusta County (2008), the earliest sighting (in the Valley) was September 15, 1977. Here is the full list:

  • Great-crested Flycatcher
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
  • Kestrel
  • Red-tailed Hawks
  • Phoebe
  • Bluebirds
  • Mockingbirds
  • Starlings
  • Cardinals
  • Goldfinches
  • Palm Warblers
  • Cape May Warblers
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler, on Bell's Lane, September 19.

Shenandoah River State Park

Last Saturday, September 15, I joined seven other members of the Augusta Bird Club for a field trip to Shenandoah River State Park, which is alternately named in honor of Raymond "Andy" Guest, a former state legislator who passed away a few years ago. Penny Warren led the trip, and we found a pretty good number of migrating birds. Here is my list, which excludes birds others heard or saw:

  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpeckers
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  • Raven
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Bluebird
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
  • Scarlet Tanager (M)
  • Yellow-throated Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireos
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Chipping Sparrows
  • Redstart
  • Pine Warbler
  • Goldfinch

On our way home, we drove along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, and saw a few good birds at Big Meadows, including a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

On my way up to Harrisonburg on September 14, I saw two Bald Eagles flying over the Woodrow Wilson Parkway, on the north side of Staunton near Bell's Lane. One was an adult, and one was immature.

Other recent birding ventures

The rest of this blog post consists of terse descriptions of where and when I've seen birds this month, in (blog-style) reverse chronological order. My records are a little sketchy, so these lists are less than fully accurate. Most of these brief bird outings were either on the way to my teaching job at Central Virginia Community College, in Lynchburg, or on the way back.

September 11, Sweet Briar College

  • Common Yellowthroats
  • Hummingbirds
  • Cedar Waxwings
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Chipping Sparrows

September 11, Blackwater Creek, Lynchburg

  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Yellow-throated Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireos
  • Black & White Warbler
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpeckers
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler

On Saturday, September 8, while I was crossing the Potomac River near the Pentagon on my way to a Washington Nationals game, I saw a Double-crested Cormorant.

September 6, Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch

  • Pileated Woodpecker (south of Afton)
  • Broad-winged Hawks
  • Ospreys
  • Bald Eagles
  • Kestrels
  • Cedar Waxwings

September 6, Rockfish Valley Trail

  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Flicker
  • Kingfisher
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Hummingbirds

September 6, Piney River

  • Redstart
  • Pewee
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker

September 4 (?), Blackwater Creek, Lynchburg

  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Red-eyed Vireos
  • Black & White Warbler
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpeckers
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Chestnut-sided Warblers (!)

In addition, we've had a few Hummingbirds, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Downy Woodpeckers in our back yard, but not much else.


MAGIC NUMBER: 7

September 22, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Nationals sweep the Dodgers (almost)

Well, they almost certainly would have swept the Dodgers if an umpire had been paying attention at a critical moment in the game. The Nationals won 3-1 in the afternoon game,* thanks largely to a solid outing by starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (now 11-8), but the evening game was much different. Starting pitcher John Lannan gave up six runs and was replaced by Chien-Ming Wang after only 3 2/3 innings. Actually, it should have been only five runs. In the fourth inning, with runners on second and third, Ryan Zimmerman snagged a hard-hit ground ball and tagged Adrian Gonzalez for the third out while Matt Kemp was at least ten feet from home plate, but the umpire allowed the run anyway. Highway robbery! The Nats couldn't get anything going until the eighth inning, when Michael Morse hit a solo home run, which sparked a huge rally. A total of six singles, an error, and a home run by Steve Lombardozzi yielded six runs, thus tying the game. Historic comeback, right? Not quite. Tyler Clippard came to the mound in the ninth inning, and almost immediately gave up a home run to Matt Kemp, putting the Dodgers back on top, 7-6. The Nats went down in order in the bottom of the ninth, a huge let down after that stirring comeback effort. Fortunately, they regrouped and won the rubber match game on Thursday, 4-1.

By the way, does that headline above sound familiar? Then, as now, I firmly believe, "umpires have to be held accountable somehow." At least the umpire in question, home-plate umpire Alan Porter, apologized to Nationals Manager Davey Johnson for the blown call; see MLB.com. You can see for yourself the play wasn't even close, and that officiating error definitely affected the outcome of the game. Hopefully, it won't matter in the divisional race.

* The first game of that series, scheduled for Tuesday, was rained out as a nasty storm front passed through the Mid-Atlantic region. Both games in New York (Yankees and Mets) were also rained out.

Brewers beat the Nats

The Milwaukee Brewers arrived in Washington on Friday, and Adam LaRoche gave the Nats an early lead with a two-run homer in the first inning. But the Nats couldn't do much else, and barely clung to a 2-1 lead going into the ninth inning. That's when Tyler Clippard took the mound and promptly gave up three singles and a double, as the Brew Crew rallied to take a 4-2 lead. There was also a passed ball charged to catcher Jesus Flores. The Nats had the heart of their batting order up in the bottom of the ninth, but could only manage a walk. That was an especially bitter defeat to swallow. frown

[CORRECTION: Even with that loss, the Nationals still have the best record in baseball, but just barely. The Nats are 91-59, and the Cincinnati Reds are 91-60.] Because of that loss, the Nationals no long hold sole possession of the best record in baseball; they now share that honor with the Cincinnati Reds (also 91-59). But at least the Braves lost last night, so the Nationals' magic number goes down to just seven, with twelve games left to play. The Nationals rose to the top of the majors on August 7, the memorable day they beat the Houston Astros in extra innings. Since then, with the exception of August 27-28, they have had the highest winning percentage among all 30 major league teams.

I'm sorry to say, but Tyler Clippard has been less and less reliable as closing pitcher in recent months. He lost two games this week, and was at fault for three or four losses by the Nationals in July as well. Manager Davey Johnson said on Friday that Clippard and Drew Storen will be sharing duties as closing pitcher for the ress of the season, which is fitting.

I'm heading up to Washington to watch Gio Gonzalez go for his 20th win of the season, in his second attempt.

The mail bag

The new owners of the Houston Astros are considering changes to Minute Maid Park, either moving back the wall in left field (currently only 315 feet from home plate) or moving the center-field fence closer to home, thereby taking "Tal's Hill" out of play, or even eliminating it. I'm strongly in favor of the former modification, and strongly opposed to the latter. See the Climbing Tal's Hill blog; hat tip to Mike Zurawski. The Astros are leaving the National League after this season, with the worst record in the major leagues. I still think they should have kept them in the NL and moved the Arizona Diamondbacks to the AL instead.

AT&T Park minor update

AT&T Park I have updated the AT&T Park diagrams, with several detail enhancements and minor corrections. The lateral walkway / platform in the upper deck is now shown, and there is a new lower-deck version. As usual, the profile is now more accurate.

The San Francisco Giants have a ten-game lead over the L.A. Dodgers in the National League Western Division, and can clinch the title either today or tomorrow. Once again, we'll be seeing more postseason play in the prettiest ballpark on the west coast this October.


MAGIC NUMBER: 5

September 25, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Nationals get back at Brewers, twice

Facing a talented and desperate opponent in the Milwaukee Brewers in the four-game series, the Washington Nationals twice found themselves on the losing end. And twice they came back on the next day to get sweet revenge, winning by lopsided margins. Those two victories were so similar it was almost like deja vu all over again.

I had the great pleasure to be at the game on Saturday afternoon, when the Nationals batters woke up. Just like last month, the game was sold out, in part because of the postgame concert. (See below.) So, I had to settle for standing room only tickets, which was just as well because I was unaccompanied and was therefore free to wander all over the place and take pictures. (The photos below and a few others will soon appear on the Nationals Park page.) It was also "Pups in the Park Day," when dog owners could bring their pooches to the game. Seeing all those varied canines added a lively atmosphere to the game. But wait, there's more! As part of "Fan Appreciation Month," each fan was given a free poster with a group photo of the Nationals team. The posters were bigger and of better quality than similar items from past years, and I was impressed.

Anyway, the home team got on the board first with three runs in the third inning, thanks to doubles by Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Adam LaRoche. In the fourth inning they scored six runs, capped by a three-run home run by Ryan Zimmerman, his 22nd of the year. Not to be outdone, Ian Desmond hit a three-run home run later that inning, his 23rd of the year. With a 9-0 lead, starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez had plenty of breathing room. Although he did face a couple jams in the early innings, the only two runs he gave up came in the sixth inning. Adam LaRoche contributed a home run of his own (#32) in the sixth inning. Michael Gonzalez (no relation) came in to pitch in the eighth inning, and Christian Garcia pitched in the ninth inning, giving up a two-run homer. Final score: Nats 10, Brewers 4. smile And thus, Gio Gonzalez became the first pitcher in the majors this year to reach the 20-win level. Cy Young Award??!

After circling the main concourse counterclockwise during the first inning, I spent the next few innings in the picnic table area behind the lower deck in right center field. (That's where the dogs were.) I made sure to bring the Washington Post coupons for one-dollar hot dogs and five-dollar beers, but the beer cups were only 12 ounces, not the usual 16-ounce size. (Bargain or ripoff?) I had a pretty good view of Ryan Zimmerman's no-doubt home run to the back of the visitors' bullpen, but couldn't see the high-trajectory ball hit by Ian Desmond until it landed in the seats, about sixty feet in front me. By the sixth inning, I had migrated to the main concourse on the third base side, and had a fine view of Adam LaRoche's homer into right field. By the end of the game, I was on the first base side. Aside from a brief stroll past the Red Loft, I never ascended to the upper decks.

For a complete game wrap-up, see MLB.com or the Washington Post.

It's what we like to call "NATITUDE"!

While peering with my binoculars from the Red Loft, I saw a guy with bushy white hair high up in the press box -- none other than "Mr. Baseball" himself, Bob Uecker!

And speaking of the Brewers, I didn't realize until recently that they adopted a new team logo with an outline of the state of Wisconsin in the background.

Gio Gonzalez pitches in Nationals Park

In the first inning, Gio Gonzalez pitches to Ryan Braun, who hit a single to left field.

Gio Gonzalez after 20th win

Though drenched from a Gatorade shower, starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez was all smiles after getting his 20th win.

Postgame entertainment

As if all the drama of the division race weren't enough, there was a "Nats Live" postgame concert featuring country music star Dierks Bentley. The number of cowboy boots I saw worn by fans suggests that that might have boosted attendance. Bentley was very friendly, played some good kick-ass tunes, and added a verse to one of his songs referring to Gio Gonzalez's 20th win. That was nice. Another song was all about cold beer, which probably raised the sales volume for malt beverages. For a country musician, however, he has an interesting background. According to the Washington Post, "He was president of his dorm and played varsity lacrosse at Lawrenceville Academy, a New Jersey boarding school that now charges $51,000 a year." (???)

After getting myself a "NATITUDE 2012 Postseason" T-shirt and other items at the team store, I exited the stadium from the Home Plate Gate on the southwest side. Just in case a photo or autograph opportunity arose, I waited along with other fans by the players' parking lot for a few minutes before heading home, with a big smile on my face.

Nationals Park Dierks Bentley concert

Dierks Bentley in concert at Nationals Park.

Another loss, another win

I was back home on Sunday afternoon, a bright and sunny day -- a little too sunny, from the Nationals' point of view. Chien-Ming Wang was pitching, and did pretty well over four innings, but two bad-luck plays tipped the game in favor of the Brewers. In the fourth inning Ryan Braun hit a routine fly ball to center field, but Bryce Harper lost the ball in the sun, and the Brewers went on to put two runs on the board. The Nats came back to tie it an inning later, but in the seventh inning, the same thing happened to right fielder Jayson Werth, and three runs were scored. The visitors ended up on top, 6-2.

But then on Monday afternoon, the Nationals batters woke up once again. It was another bright and sunny day -- a little too sunny, from the Brewers' point of view. The home team got on the board first with a run in the first inning, thanks to some base-running hustle by Bryce Harper. Once again, in the fourth inning they scored six runs, capped by a three-run home run by Ryan Zimmerman, his 23rd of the year. The rally got started when center fielder Carlos Gomez lost a fly ball in the sun. (What comes around goes around.) After two more runs in the fifth, the Nats had a 9-0 lead, so starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann had plenty of breathing room. He had a great outing, put his team ahead with an RBI single in the fourth inning, and gave up only one run in 6 2/3 innings on the mound. The bullpen did their job, though Tyler Clippard was charged with an earned run in the eighth inning. But the Nats scored three more in the bottom of that inning. Final score: Nats 12, Brewers 2. smile (Deja vu paragraph!)

By splitting the four-game series, the Nats reduced their magic number to just five, with nine games left to play in the regular season. They play three games in Philadelphia, three games in St. Louis, and then three games back in D.C., against the Phillies again. Remember those ketchup ads from the 70s, with that Carly Simon song? "Anticipation, anticipa-a-tion is making me wait..."

Playoffs come into focus

Yes sports fans, the Washington Nationals continue to have the best record in the majors, 93-60. Believe it or not!!! The fact that they have clinched a postseason berth for the first time is a nice accomplishment, but of secondary importance in terms of their primary quest, which is to win a division title. The Cincinnati Reds (92-61) and San Francisco Giants (89-64) clinched the National League Central and Western Division titles. The Atlanta Braves have a virtual lock on the first wild card spot, and the St. Louis Cardinals are likely to get the second spot.

On the American League side, it's a wide-open free-for-all, with the Orioles hot on the heels of the Yankees, the Tigers chasing the White Sox, and the Athletics still within range of the Rangers. It's a certainty that five of those six teams will make it to the postseason, but nobody knows by which route. Because of their low winning percentages, either the White Sox or Tigers will fall by the wayside nine days from now.


MAGIC NUMBER: 2

September 29, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Nationals get closer to clinching

After nine straight days of back-and-forth win/loss cycles, their highest alternating stretch this year, the Washington Nationals finally won two games in a row, thus getting the best of the host Philadelphia Phillies in the three-game series. After a lackluster performance by Ross Detwiler on Monday (6-3 loss), Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, and Kurt Suzuki hit home runs for the Nats on Tuesday, taking advantage of the cozy dimensions in Citizens Bank Park. John Lannan overcame his past disappointments against the Phillies and got the win, his fourth of the year. Final score: Nats 8, Phillies 4.

The hits just kept coming on Thursday night, with home runs by Bryce Harper (#21) and Michael Morse (#14 and #15) that provided the needed scoring margin, as the Nationals won, 7-3. That game was of special note because Gio Gonzalez got his MLB-leading 21st win of the year. He'll probably get a shot at win #22 back in Washington next week. See MLB.com

In St. Louis last night, in sharp contrast, Edwin Jackson had his worst outing of his career. He gave up nine runs (eight earned) in only one and a third innings, after which he was replaced by Tom Gorzelanny. It's too bad, because the Nats had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, thanks again to Bryce Harper's hustle. The Nats added a dignity run in the seventh inning, as Roger Bernadina, but the Cardinals added three more runs in the eighth inning, a black eye for relief pitcher Michael Gonzalez. Final score: Cards 12, Nats 2.

That lopsided defeat didn't really matter, though. In Atlanta, the Mets beat the Braves 3-1, thanks to a home run in the seventh inning by Lucas Duda. Classic situation: late in the game, two runners on base, two outs, count of 3-2. Bam! It wasn't a very good way to celebrate "Chipper Jones Night," marking his last regular season series in Turner Field.

Thanks to the Mets, the Nationals' magic number is now down to just two (2), and the odds are they will clinch the NL Eastern Division this weekend in St. Louis -- perhaps even today! With a 95-62 record and five games left to play, they (and the Cincinnati Reds) still have a slim chance at reaching the 100-win mark for the season.

The Nationals' big sluggers

In today's Washington Post, columnist Tomas Boswell discusses the Nationals' (largely unrecognized) emergence as a true offensive powerhouse team. Early in the season everyone was marvelling at the pitching rotation, but since late June (when they pummeled the Rockies), the Nationals have "scored more runs than any team in baseball." Oddly, as Boswell notes, there are no real superstars on the team, though Bryce Harper could easily become one in the future. But the first five batters in their lineup have all had seasons with more than 30 home runs, and four of them have more than 20 home runs this year alone: Adam LaRoche (32), Ian Desmond (25), Ryan Zimmerman (24), and Bryce Harper (21). Jayson Werth and Michael Morse would almost certainly be in that group if they had not missed most of this season due to injuries. The Nationals rank #8 in the majors in total home runs (184), but they are #1 in the National League. But beyond home runs, as Boswell observes, almost the entire Nationals lineup can hit for extra bases in clutch situations, meaning that opposing pitchers are under relentless pressure to prevent anyone from reaching base.

Another Nationals Park update

The Sportsman's ParkNationals Park* diagrams have been updated -- yes, once again -- with a number of corrections and detail enhancements, mainly based on my latest visit there last Saturday. I also inspected more closely other photos I've taken there over the years. (I know, I just updated it on September 3. But since I've been to more games there than to any other stadium, can you blame me for wanting to get it as accurate as possible?) So that you can see what has been changed, I have left intact the "proposed alternative" version diagram for the time being. I may just delete it in the near future, however.

The biggest change is in the position of the Red Porch restaurant / Red Loft bar, beyond left-center field. That structure is now about eight feet back and ten feet to the right of where it was before. Since people often ask me "how I do this," I thought it might be good to give a specific example. Prior to the June 20 game (Nats 3, Rays 2) I took a photo from the bend on the left side of the home bullpen in right field, in the front row. I mainly wanted to examine how much space there was between the front edge of the seating section and the padded fence. (Answer: about three feet.) But I just noticed that the fence points toward the left of the circular display on top of the Red Loft, whereas my diagram previously indicated it would intersect well to the right of that point. That implied that either than the Red Loft is farther back than I had estimated, or that the angle of the outfield fence was wrong. Checking other photos confirmed the first alternative, so I made that change. "And now you know ... the rest of the story!" (Apologies to the late great Paul Harvey.)

Other changes of note: the front edge of the second deck is about half as far from the right field fould pole (four feet) as it was before, thus covering almost all of the bullpen. Also, the curved upper-deck portion of the grandstand near the right field foul pole has been reoriented slightly, the PNC Diamond Club and adjacent seating areas (some with tables) are depicted more accurately in the lower-deck diagram version, and both tunnel entrances for handicapped patrons have been moved about ten feet. That page now has a full-view diagram for the first time. It is the tallest of all such diagrams, because the triangular office building on the southwest side and the parking garages on the north side of the stadium extend out quite a ways in both directions. The garages are separate structures, but comprise an integral whole in the stadium complex.

* The Nationals Park page is now sponsored by my good friend David Givens, a natural gas industry analyst who appeared on C-SPAN a few months ago.

Another no-hitter!

Congratulations to Homer Bailey of the Cincinnati Reds for throwing a no-hitter in PNC Park last night. The Reds scored one run in the top of the first inning, and no other runs were scored for the rest of the game! Only two Pirates reached base: Clint Barmes, who benefited from an error by third baseman Scott Rolen in the third inning, and Andrew McCutchen, who drew a walk in the seventh inning. That makes seven no-hitters this year (including three perfect games), tying the record set in 1990 (and tied in 1991). It's the first no-hitter in PNC Park; there were three no-hitters at Three Rivers Stadium, and none at all in the 70-year history of Forbes Field. See MLB.com, and my blog post of June 15.

Management shakeups

The above MLB.com story notes that Chris Speier is serving as the Reds' acting manager while their actual manager Dusty Baker recovers from a minor stroke. It would be a shame if the manager's health issues affects how well the team plays in the postseason.

On the north side of Ohio, the Cleveland Indians (66-91) have fired their mild-mannered manager Manny Acta, who used to manage the Nationals. Given the nose-dive his team took after a rather promising early season this year, that's not a surprise. The Indians replaced him with Sandy Alomar, a bench coach. To Acta's credit, the players say the team's poor performance this year was not his fault; see MLB.com. Perhaps he is an example of Leo Durocher's aphorism: "Nice guys finish last."

Finally, the struggling Houston Astros (52-105) have named Bo Porter as their new manager, effective next year. Tony DeFrancesco has served as interim manager since August 19, when Brad Mills was fired. DeFrancesco was passed over for the permanent position, but will remain with the Astros organization. See MLB.com. Porter is currently the Nationals' third base coach, and gained attention in a dispute with the Miami Marlins earlier this month.

One might question whether Bobby Valentine will manage for the Red Sox (69-88) next year. Does an old veteran like him have the patience for a long-term rebuilding effort? I would think the Pirates' (76-81) manager Clint Hurdle might be at risk after their disappointing second half this year, and perhaps Ozzie Guillen's job in Miami (67-90) is less than 100% secure.

Pennant race nears end

The amazing 2012 season is in the final home stretch, with most of the drama on the American League side. The Tigers surged two games ahead of the slumping White Sox, but then lost last night, so their lead is down to one game. Triple Crown contender Miguel Cabrera (42 HR, 133 RBI, .327 AVG) is obviously a big part of the Tigers' success, along with pitcher Justin Verlander. On the East Coast, the Orioles and Yankees remain in a fierce neck-and-neck race, with the Bronx Bombers one game ahead. In the Western Division, the Rangers seem to be coasting to a third straight title, with the A's three games in back. The Texas star Josh Hamilton has 43 home runs, one more than Miguel Cabrera.

Contrary to what I wrote on Tuesday, the L.A. Angels and Tampa Bay Devil Rays are not yet out of the wild card picture. They will each need supernatural intervention (from above or from below) in order to reach postseason competition, however.


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