April 1, 2013 [LINK / comment]
Play ball! The 2013 season begins
Well, here we are in the glorious month of April, and Our National Pastime is back in action! (Given the chilly weather, it must be said that this is not an April Fool's joke!)
Harper, Strasburg lead Nats win
The Washington Nationals got all the runs they needed today from Bryce Harper, who hit solo home runs in the first and fourth innings. He is the youngest Major League player to hit two homers in an Opening Day game. It's quite an accomplishment, as the Marlins' starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco is known for not allowing many home runs. It added a spark of jubilation to the big crowd, eager to put last years' NLSD Game 5 behind them and make history in the 2013 season.
Nats' starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg lived up to his sky-high expectations, showing sharp command and blazing speed. The Marlins' Juan Pierre singled in the first inning, jarring some nerves, and only a diving grab by Ryan Zimmerman prevented a run from being scored. After that, Strasburg retired 19 batters in a row. Three hits and no runs allowed over seven innings; not a bad outing! Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano got the relief job done to preserve the shutout. See MLB.com. 45,274 fans were there in Nationals Park, the biggest regular-season game attendance in history.
Opening Night in Houston
Opening Night provided quite a surprise, as the lowly Houston Astros defeated their cross-state rivals (the Texas Rangers) by a score of 8-2. It was the Astros' first game as an American League club, and this may be a signal that they won't be a doormat for the rest of the AL Western Division after all. I was pleased that two former Washington Nationals players had a big role in that win: Justin Maxwell hit two triples, with two RBIs and two runs, and made a terrific lunging catch in the dark recess of left center field at Minute Maid Park. It was a carbon copy of the play by Roger Bernandina last August. And designated hitter Rick Ankiel pinch-hit a three-run homer to give the Astros a commanding lead. It was a good start for the Astros' new manager, Bo Porter, who was the Nationals' third base coach last year.
I was paying close attention to Minute Maid Park during that game, and couldn't detect any changes such as the rumored lengthening of the left field dimension. That may come next year. I did notice some details that I need to correct on my diagram, however, so stay tuned...
Soaring expectations for the Nats
A year ago, the Washington Nationals were an up-and-coming team of uncertain potential, and all of a sudden this year they are widely regarded as the best team in baseball. What a strange sensation this is, almost like an April Fool's joke. According to Sports Illustrated, "The Nats will win 100 games this year and take their playoff run a few steps farther, winning the World Series." Oh, no, the infamous Sports Illustrated cover curse! The fact that it's the April 1 issue with Strasburg on the cover only adds to the element of doubt. Well, I'm not going to worry about that. It's going to be one hell of a fun year, that's all I can say.
We finally have MLB TV with our cable service, but I only managed to see a few spring training games here and there. Henry Rodriguez had a good outing in the game with the Yankees on Friday, and was rewarded with a spot on the team roster. Ryan Zimmerman showed gradual improvement, and even hit three home runs in a game last week. (See MLB.com.) He is still rather cautious with his throwing arm, and I don't blame him. He is smart enought to make sure his shoulder fully heals from the surgery he had last October.
Here is the starting lineup:
- Denard Span (CF)
- Jayson Werth (RF)
- Bryce Harper (LF)
- Ryan Zimmerman (3B)
- Adam LaRoche (1B)
- Ian Desmond (SS)
- Danny Espinosa (2B)
- Wilson Ramos (C)
- Stephen Strasburg (P)
It's a bit of a surprise that Wilson Ramos is playing rather than Kurt Suzuki, who did quite well as a replacement catcher late last summer. Ramos spent almost the entire season on the DL, and is no doubt very eager to get back into the swing of things.
Some of the Nationals' hardware collected during 2012: Silver Slugger awards to Stephen Strasburg (left) and Ian Desmond (right), Rookie of the Year to Bryce Harper (top), and Golden Glove to Adam LaRoche. Not pictured is the silver slugger bat won by Adam LaRoche. (Taken at the "Nats Fest" convention in January.)
Recently I was enjoying watching Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series game, when the Cardinals were visiting the Nationals. (The first eight innings were enjoyable, at least.) The ninth inning was a bitter pill to swallow, but the first several innings were quite a thrill. Close but no cigar. After watching today's 2-0 victory over the Marlins, I'm glad to see that Bryce Harper hasn't lost any of his "Natitude" from last year.
The (cracked) crystal ball
Personally, I think all those prognostications about who is going to win in the postseason series are ridiculous. It's one thing to make an educated prediction about how varous teams will do over the course of the 162-game regular season, but once October rolls around, all bets are off. So, for what's it worth, here are my regular season divisional predictions:
|National League Eastern Division
||American League Eastern Division
||Toronto Blue Jays
|Atlanta Braves (WC)
||Tampa Bay Rays (WC)
||New York Yankees
|New York Mets
||Boston Red Sox
|National League Central Division
||American League Central Division
|St. Louis Cardinals
||Chicago White Sox
||Kansas City Royals
|National League Western Division
||American League Western Division
|San Francisco Giants
||Los Angeles Angels
|Los Angeles Dodgers (WC)
||Texas Rangers (WC)
|San Diego Padres
More extended contracts
The San Francisco Giants signed their young catcher Buster Posey to a nine-year contract, but club policy is not to disclose dollar amounts. Wow! See MLB.com. Also, the Detroit Tigers signed Justin Verlander to five more years (with a vesting option for 2020), at a salary of $28 million a year, and the Cardinals signed Adam Wainwright to a five-year extension that will reportedly be worth a total of $97.5 million. The Giants and Tigers are both well positioned to make another postseason bid this year; the Cardinals are much less certain of that.
Veterans Stadium update
The Veterans Stadium page has been updated with the entry portals displayed for the first time. Also, there is a new upper-deck diagram version that shows what is under the roof: a skybox level at the top of the upper deck, and two big video screens that were added in the 1980s more or less. Note that the roof was rather small and ordinarily there would have been no need for an upper-deck diagram version. Another new detail is the "seam" in the grandstand, similar to those found in Shea Stadium.
More baseball movies
Turner Classic Movies observed Opening Day appropriately, with a whole slew of baseball movies. One of them I had not seen before: The Kid From Left Field (1953). It was the first time I had a good look at the interior and ramps of L.A.'s Wrigley Field. See TCM.com.
The mail bag
Speaking of Wrigley Field, the Cubs are planning another major series of renovations to the "Friendly Confines," but it's almost entirely in the stadium "innards," with improved concourse facilities, a possible new video scoreboard (ugh), etc. Since it is being proposed as an economic development project, there are negotiations to see whether the city of Chicago will pay for some of that. See MLB.com; hat tip to Mike Zurawski.
I learned from Jonathan Karberg that Busch Stadium (the new one, of course) will host an exhibition soccer match between Manchester City and Chelsea on May 23. The "pitch" (playing field) is expected to be slightly askew, not quite parallel to the first base line. See stltoday.com
A fan named Trepye questioned what I wrote about the shorter dimensions in Citi Field helping the Mets last year, calling my attention to an AP story. "Of the 46 home runs this year that would not have cleared the old wall, 21 were hit by New York, according to figures compiled by the team." There were 155 home runs, compared to an average of 116 during the first three seasons of Citi Field's existence. So, I changed the text on the Citi Field page accordingly.
April 5, 2013 [LINK / comment]
Nationals sweep the Marlins
The Washington Nationals' first and second games were all about pitching, as Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez shut out their opponents, with a little help from their friends in the bullpen. On Wednesday night, Gio went six innings with barely a hitch, but his most memorable contribution to the 3-0 victory was the home run he hit in the fifth inning, only the second of his career. Ryan Zimmerman got his first hit of the year, a triple, but was unable to score. On Thursday afternoon, the Nationals' offense finally kicked into high gear, as they beat the Marlins 6-1 to complete the sweep. Justin Ruggiano hit a home run for the Marlins, who barely avoided being shut out in three consecutive games. [With much more run support than he was used to getting last year, Jordan Zimmermann earned his first win of 2013. Jayson Werth hit a three-run homer, and Ryan Zimmerman went three for three at the plate, with one walk.] Among the sluggers for the Nationals, only Adam LaRoche has yet to connect. See MLB.com.
On the west coast in Oakland, meanwhile, former National Michael "Beast" Morse (now with the Seattle Mariners) hit his fourth home run, but the Athletics still beat the Mariners. Morse now leads the majors in homers. (See MLB.com.) Maybe the Nats' front office should have kept him after all.
Tonight in Cincinnati, meanwhile, the Nationals are not faring quite as well -- to put it mildly! Well, at least for one day, the Nationals had the best record in the majors (3-0), just like they did throughout September last year.
Nationals' head-to-head matchups
Following up on my research from last month, I finished calculating the win-loss records against each team for the entire eight-year history of the Nationals, going back to 2005. The compiled records clearly show that the Nats have consistently been bested by their divisional rivals in Philadelphia and Miami, losing more than six out of ten games. They're fairly close to an even record with the Braves and Mets. Outside the NL East, what stands out relative to what might be expected is the Nats' poor record against the Colorado Rockies [33.9%] and San Diego Padres [35.4%].
|Opponent||Nationals' WINS, |
|Nationals' LOSSES, |
|Nationals' winning percentage, |
|Total number of games|
The above figures pertain to regular season games only. Just to be sure, I checked my figures against baseball-reference.com, and made a couple corrections. Including the 2012 postseason games, the Nationals' all-time record against the St. Louis Cardinals would be 25-32. Eight full 162-game seasons would equal 1,296 games, but two Nationals games were canceled because of rain -- one each in 2008 and 2011 -- which is why the total is only 1,294 games.
Tables of head-to-head matchups for each year from 2005 to 2012 will appear soon on the Washington Nationals page.
April 8, 2013 [LINK / comment]
Nationals struggle in Cincinnati
Evidently, the road to the postseason this year may not be as easy for the Nationals as some of us thought. Friday night, they suffered the worst defeat in their eight-year history residing in Washington, as the Cincinnati Reds shut them out 15-0. Previously, their worst defeat was on June 19, 2007, when the Detroit Tigers beat them 15-1. I think it's safe to say that 15-0 record will last for a long time. Werth, Harper, Zimmerman, and LaRoche all went hitless. Dan Haren's debut as a pitcher for the Nationals was not exactly auspicious, as he gave up four home runs to the Reds. Henry Rodriguez came in as a relief pitcher and gave up a two-out home run with the bases loaded to Xavier Paul. Groan...
Would it be mean for me to mention that Henry Rodriguez gave up a grand slam in Cincinnati in May of last year? That was when Joey Votto cleared the bases in the bottom of the ninth, winning the game. H-Rod didn't last long as closer after that.
The game on Saturday afternoon went much better, but this time closing pitcher Rafael Soriano blew the save opportunity, and the game went into extra innings. Reds closing pitcher Aroldis Chapman got three quick outs in the top of the 10th inning, and things looked bleak. Thankfully, Ian Desmond homered into the upper deck in left field to take back the lead in the 11th inning, 6-5, redeeming himself after committing two costly errors, and then Wilson Ramos added an insurance run with a blast on top of the bullpen canvas beyond center field. [It proved to be the decisive run, as relief pitcher Craig Stammen gave up a run in the bottom of the 11th, but then got the third out to win the game, 7-6.] The moral of that game? The Reds should have kept their closer Aroldis Chapman in for another inning!! There was talk that he might join the pitching rotation before the season started, so he ought to be able to last more than one inning.
The rubber match game on Sunday was likewise close and exciting most of the way, but manager Davey Johnson kept Stephen Strasburg in for one inning too long. I was surprised that Strasburg was allowed to bat in the top of the inning, with a runner in scoring position. He's good as a hitter as far as pitchers go (Silver Slugger 2012!), but a pinch hitter would be have better luck. A questionable throw to home plate by second baseman Danny Espinosa allowed the Reds to score the go-ahead run, and then two more crossed the plate after that. The Nats batters just couldn't put it together, and they fell, 6-3. See MLB.com.
So, the Nats (4-2) have fallen into third place, behind the Braves, who are 6-1, and the Mets, who are 5-2. Overall, that series in Cincy was a rude slap in the face to the Nationals. Reality check time.
Speaking of the Braves, I should mention that Justin Upton hit his sixth home run tonight, surpassing Michael Morse for the lead in the majors. Justin and his brother B.J. Upton stunned the Chicago Cubs on Saturday by each hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, converting a 5-4 loss into an improbable 6-5 victory. See MLB.com. "How about that?!"
Riverfront Stadium update
To mark the "occasion" of the Nats' first road trip of 2013, the Riverfront Stadium diagrams have been revised. They now show the structural members protruding from the rear of the upper deck. There are entry portals in the lower deck, but not the upper deck. Why not? Because Riverfront Stadium was the only stadium of the cookie-cutter era to feature entries that did not cut into the seating rows. It was an artefact of the extra-wide upper-deck concourse, much like PETCO Park in San Diego or some other neoclassical stadiums. Among other changes, the lateral aisle in the lower deck has been moved back about ten feets, and the front row of seats has been moved back a few feet. That had the effect of increasing my estimate of foul territory from 21.3 to 22.5 thousand square feet.
The mail bag
Here are a couple stadium-related news items from Mike Zurawski. In Toronto's Rogers Centre, they have removed the glass from the restaurant in center field, which used to be a cool place to hang out, but which has been vacant in recent years. See theglobeandmail.com. With the Blue Jays making big acquisitions during the off-season, they are hoping for a surge in attendance. Also, they are making plans to replace the fake turf with real grass as soon as the CFL Argos move out; see thescore.com. That could come in 2015..
In Atlanta, local officials have approved a bond issue to finance a new $1 billion football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. They hope to have it built in time for the 2017 season. Since 1992, the have played in the Georgia Dome, where the NCAA basketball championship game just ended. (Louisville came back to beat Michigan.) See ajc.com. I have a hard time seeing the necessity for replacing a stadium that is only 25 years old. Hat tip to Mike Zurawski, once again.
April 10, 2013 [LINK / comment]
Spring migrants begin to arrive
Even though spring weather has been delayed by at least two weeks this year (curse the groundhog!), most of the neotropical migrant birds seem to be arriving as expected. In Lynchburg yesterday afternoon, during the long period between my morning and evening classes at CVCC, I saw two first-of-season birds: Chimney Swifts and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. I brought my new Canon PowerShot SX50 camera in hopes that I might get some good shots in various outdoor locations, and it paid off, as you can see:
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, in Blackwater Creek Park, Lynchburg, April 9.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are usually very active, so it's hard to get one in focus before they move on to a different branch. I also photographed some Yellow-rumped Warblers (both male and female) at that park in Lynchburg, but they were in the shade most of the time, so the results weren't as dramatic as I had hoped.
In addition, I've been checking out Bell's Lane fairly regularly, with mixed results. Tree Swallows and Phoebes have become more common since I first observed them on March 16. East of Staunton, the Great Blue Herons have established a rookery of over a dozen nests, and in Swoope, west of Staunton, there is a Bald Eagle nest which I photographed last month, and this week Vic Laubach took a photo of a baby Eaglet and its parent. I can't wait to get back out to both places.
Tree Swallow, on Bell's Lane, April 6.
One of the more unusual sightings recently was a group of four Blue-winged Teals, on a small pond in a residential neighborhood on the north edge of Staunton, on March 27. I pulled over by the side of the street, and managed to get some very good pictures. Three days later I got some great pictures of a Lesser Scaup on the drainage pond in back of the Target shopping center south of Waynesboro. Finally, on Monday, April 8, I got some good pictures of a male Purple Finch on the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad trail in Staunton. That trail has deteriorated greatly in recent years, with several fallen trees blocking the way and a storm drainage culvert that has become totally clogged, turning the ground above it into an eroded mud pit.
Lesser Scaup (male), south of Waynesboro, March 30.
These photos, and many others I have taken recently, can be seen on the Wild birds, year by year page.
April 15, 2013 [LINK / comment]
Happy Jackie Robinson Day!
It was sixty six years ago today, April 15, 1947, that Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus breaking the color barrier that had plagued major league baseball since its inception. And so, every Major League player donned a uniform with the number 42 on it, in honor of Jackie Robinson. See MLB.com.
The movie 42 debuted in Kansas City last Friday, and racked up huge box office revenues over the weekend. I have heard mostly positive things about it from people who have seen it. Although busy lately, I don't plan to wait long. On a related cinematic note, I recently saw The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), starring Jackie Robinson himself. There is a nice review of that movie by Bill Christopher: "Lights, Camera, Jackie! The Short-But-Distinguished Film Career of Baseball Legend Jackie Robinson." I agree with his assessment of #42's performance as an actor: "Despite a total lack of professional acting experience, Jackie Robinson does a fine job in front of the camera."
I recently learned that Yankee second-baseman Robinson Cano is named after Jackie Robinson, but I guess I should have realized that.
Braves sweep the Nationals
After the Washington Nationals swept the Chicago White Sox in three home games (8-7, 5-2, and 7-4), it looked like they were back on track, putting the losses in Cincinnati behind them. NOT! Welcoming the Atlanta Braves to D.C. on Friday night, they started off just fine, taking a 4-0 lead after two innings. After that, however, they just plain choked, eerily reminiscent of NLDS Game 5 last year. They frittered away a comfortable lead in the late innings, and the Braves scored twice in the top of the tenth, winning 6-4. In fact, the Nationals only scored a single run over the next 26 innings, while the pitchers failed to get outs. Stephen Strasburg struggled and just managed to hold the Braves to scoring just two runs on Saturday, but he had almost no run support, and the Nats lost, 3-1. In Sunday's game, Gio Gonzalez allowed seven runs over five innings, his worst outing since joining the Nationals. The Nationals were badly outplayed and lost, 9-0. See MLB.com. What was particularly disturbing about the first two losses is that errors by Ryan Zimmerman played a key role.
And so, the Nationals not only failed to catch up to the Braves in the NL East race, they fell four games behind their rivals in Atlanta; the Nats' biggest deficit during their brief period in second place last year was just two games. And they have fallen from a 73-72 lifetime record against the Braves (2005 to 2013) to a 73-75 lifetime record. That weekend series was a big disappointment, and contrary to those who say it's still very early in the season and those losses don't really matter, I think what happened does say something about the Nationals' ability to compete and win when it really counts. Hopefully they will learn and do better next time.
But maybe it's not the Nationals' fault, but rather a sign of how good the Braves are. With Justin Upton hitting seven home runs already this year, it's hard to imagine how a team could be playing hotter than the Braves. Michael Morse and three other guys are close behind with six homers, while the Nats' Bryce Harper has five. And the guy who is replacing catcher Brian McCann, somebody named Evan Gattis, has four home runs, playing a key role in many of their 11 wins. Where do these people come from? The Braves could turn out to be the team to beat this year, knocking the Nationals off their pedestal.
Thanks in part to the blowout losses to the Reds (15-0) and the Braves (9-0), the Nationals' total ERA has risen to 4.27, 20th in the majors. So much for their vaunted starting rotation and bullpen! The number one team in ERA? The Atlanta Braves, with an amazing 1.82. See MLB.com.
Fortunately, the Nationals did get themselves back on track this evening, trouncing the Miami Marlins 10-3. The Nats scored four times in the first inning, and twice each in the third, fourth, and fifth innings. Ryan Zimmerman looked like he was limping early in the game, but later smashed a ball over the deep left-center field fence, his first home run of the year, so he must be OK. Pitcher Jordan Zimmermann pitched a complete game, and earned his third win of the season, enjoying much more run support than he got last year.
Zack Greinke on the DL
The Dodgers will have to do without their new ace pitcher Zack Greinke for at least several more weeks, as he suffered a broken collarbone after Carlos Quentin of the Padres assaulted him in retaliation for being hit by a pitch. Greinke could have retreated in the face of superior bulk, but evidently felt his honor was at stake, or something like that. See MLB.com.
And speaking of disabled, the Yankees are hanging in there, despite having almost half of their starting lineup out of action. Ironically, that was the situation the Nationals found themselves in one year ago, and yet they managed to surge to the top of the NL East.
The mail bag
I learned from Brandon Henderson and Matt Ereth that a college football game will be played in Busch Stadium III this coming fall. Southeast Missouri State University will play against Southern Illinois University on September 21. Contrary to my earlier supposition, however, the gridiron is going to be aligned diagonally, so as to minimize trampling of the infield area. See the news article and the football seating chart (both MLB.com). Also, Jonathan Karberg tells me that Busch Stadium is hosting a soccer match this month. Perhaps of more interest to baseball fans, Mike Zurawski reports that construction on the "Ballpark Village" next door to Busch Stadium is underway, and should be completed by Opening Day 2014. See ballparkdigest.com.
And via Facebook, there is a cute decision-making flow chart purporting explain how people choose to be fans of which MLB teams at bloggerstobenamedlater.com.
April 17, 2013 [LINK / comment]
Nationals overcome the Marlins
After the shellacking they received from the Atlanta Braves last weekend, the Washington Nationals were desperate to shake it off and get back to winning. They couldn't have picked a better opponent for that task than the Miami Marlins, whose ranks were decimated by owner Jeffrey Loria during the offseason. But the Marlins are no pushovers, and sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton pack a big punch. On Tuesday, Dan Haren pitched OK, but another error by Ryan Zimmerman opened the door to a four-run inning by the Marlins, and the Nats fell to the Fish, 8-2. Three Nationals players were out of the lineup due to illness: Bryce Harper, Denard Span, and Danny Espinosa. That had a big effect.
In tonight's game, the Nats got going early for a change, with two runs in the first inning. Ross Detwiler pitched splendidly over seven innings, and the only run scored by the Marlins was on a questionable call by the ump at the plate. Bryce Harper went four for five, while Kurt Suzuki homered and tripled, and the final score was 6-1. So the Nationals at least won the series, and their record is now back up to 9-6, an even .600 -- about where they finished the 2012 season. But they are still 3 1/2 games behind the Braves...
Surprises in the standings
The Braves' incredible ten-game winning streak was finally broken today, as they fell short in a 1-0 pitchers' duel. Surprisingly, the team that beat them was the Kansas City Royals, who are in a tight race with the Detroit Tigers for first place in the AL Central Division. How about that! Early-season interleague play is hard to get used to. Another surprising over-achieving team is the Colorado Rockies, leading the NL West with a 10-4 record. They missed some games due to freak April snow storms in Denver.
We Nationals fans are a little perturbed by the way the 2013 season has begun, but the fans of the Cincinnati Reds must be quite upset. Yesterday's game with the Phillies was suspended because of rain in the middle of the ninth inning, and when play resumed this afternoon, the Reds managed to score the winning run on an RBI single by Jay Bruce. In the evening game, they trounced the Phillies, 11-2, and thereby climbed over .500 for the first time in a while.
Another disappointing team is the L.A. Angels, in a race with the Houston Astros for the bottom of the AL West. At the top of that newly-expanded division are the Oakland A's, with a 12-4 record, second only to the Braves in the majors.
Elsewhere in the American League, the Yankees are chasing the Red Sox, while the two teams that I had picked to finish on top -- the Blue Jays and the Rays -- are at the bottom of the standings. Go figure.
Speaking of the Red Sox, their game with the Rays on Monday began early, at 11:00 AM, to avoid interfering with the Boston Marathon. Who would have thought that the annual running race would be the target of a terrorist attack? The Red Sox and the Rays were getting on the buses that would take them to the airport when the two bombs went off just before 3:00 PM. Prayers and sympathy go out to the people of Boston who were victimized by the attack, especially to the families of those who lost their lives or their limbs.
There's a very good chance I'll see the new movie about Jackie Robinson, 42, in the next couple days. In the mean time, I added it to the Baseball in the Movies page, which now includes a column with my rankings for each movie that I have seen (or can remember). My favorites? Field of Dreams (1989) and Fever Pitch (2005). I may reconsider some of those rankings later on...
Putting in my own rankings was prompted by April Whitzman at the MLB "Fancave", who did likewise.