October 11, 2014
Ouch, ouch, ouch. It wasn't as traumatic as the sudden collapse at the end of the 2012 NLDS, but this year's defeat was nearly as disheartening for Nationals fans. Two years ago, the team was a young, untested crew "just happy to be here," but this time they were seasoned veterans who were widely favored to go all the way. But, the experts' predictions were foiled, as all those sky-high expectations came crashing to the ground. The San Francisco Giants edged the Washington Nationals three games to one in the National League Divisional Series. Somehow, the momentum from the final six weeks of the season dissipated. For a full wrapup of final game in the series, see MLB.com.
You might say that the entire NL Divisonal Series hinged on which team's pitchers were going to make the biggest blunders. The crucial play in Game 3 (which took place as I was finishing my last blog post) was when Giants' pitcher Madison Bumgarner threw a ball bunted by Wilson Ramos toward third baseman Pablo Sandoval, sailing way over into the bullpen area. That allowed Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper to score, and made possible a third run scored thanks to an RBI single by Asdrubal Cabrera. Bryce Harper added an insurance run in the ninth inning, a home run that bounced past the elevated seats in deep right center field. That really caused the psychological edge to shift in the Nats' favor, making a comeback from an 0-2 series deficit a real possibility. In the bottom of the ninth, Drew Storen, who tragically gave up a game-tying run to the Giants in the top of the ninth inning in Game 2, almost let another one get away. He gave up two hits and one run, but that was the extent of the damage. The 4-1 victory provided a much-needed uplift to the Nationals after the "prolonged agony" of the 18-inning marathon that was Game 2.
Indeed, it looked like Game 4 was heading in the same direction, as Bryce Harper doubled in a run in the fifth inning, and hit a solo homer (McCovey Cove splash!) to tie it 2-2 in the top of the seventh. That erased the nervousness surrounding Gio Gonzalez's fielding error that allowed the Giants to score two unearned runs in the second inning. In sharp contrast to 2012, this time Harper rose to the occasion with his awe-inspiring slugging power. It was the perfect storyline, setting the stage for a historic comeback rally in the late innings.
But the bullpen flinched in the bottom of the seventh inning, and disaster ensued. Matt Thornton, who has served as the Nats' reliable lefty since the end of July, gave up two hits and was quickly taken out. So who did Matt Williams send in to replace him? Rookie Aaron Barrett. WTF?? In a tense situation like that, Tyler Clippard is the man to call. Barrett has shown occasional promising signs, but he has faltered badly more than once this year, and it made no sense at all to put him on the mound. To his credit, he hung tough facing Hunter Pence in the batter's box, but ultimately he walked him, thus loading the bases with just one out. Then Pablo Sandoval steps up to the plate, and before you know it, Barrett throws a wild pitch into the dirt, allowing Joe Panik to score from third. So then he tries to intentionally walk Sandoval, but hurls the ball way over the catcher's head, and Buster Posey dashes for home. Somehow Ramos threw the ball to Barrett in time to tage Posey out, keeping it a one-run game. It was one of the most bizarre sequences of events I can remember...
In the bottom of the ninth, Adam LaRoche flew out, Ian Desmond struck out, and then Bryce Harper showed great self-control by drawing a walk. You know he was tempted to play the hero and swing away, and I was very impressed. Maybe it was a sign of hope... Nah-h. Wilson Ramos grounded out to second, and the Giants poured onto the field, celebrating their series victory. Giants 3, Nats 2. As I wrote on Facebook in a moment of bitterness, "So much for the Nats' top-notch bullpen..."
In the four-game series, the aggregate score was tied: 9-9. It was a very close contest. [I still find it hard to believe that the Nats didn't go farther in the postseason, but for the time being, I'll refrain from drawing deeper lessons. I do think baseball would be better served if the first round (divisional series) were best-of-seven rather than best-of-five, but the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell has a point when he writes that "The Nationals ... must stop resenting the insanely intense version of warped baseball that is played in October."]
And so, in spite of the disappointing conclusion, I am proud to say,
Thanks for a great season, Nationals!
We look forward to an even better 2015!
Perhaps most shocking aspect of the 2014 NLDS was the ice-cold batting of the Nationals. For much of the series, their offense was almost nonexistent, with the team as a whole getting 26 hits in 159 at bats -- a measly .164 batting average. The standout was Anthony Rendon, who went 7 for 19 (.369), while Bryce Harper came in second, hitting .294. Harper accounted for three of the team's four home runs. (Asdrubal Cabrera hit the other.) The team's regular season batting average leader, Denard Span (.302), barely cracked the .100 level. More than anything else, his failure to get on base probably doomed the Nationals' chances of scoring enough runs. But even he got more hits than either Jayson Werth or Adam LaRoche -- only one each. What can explain this uniformly absymal performance?
The Nationals had the same lineup in all four games, and most players were in the games for a full nine innings -- or 18 innings, in the case of Game 2!
* Includes pitchers and pinch hitters.
It is easy to pin blame on Nats' manager Matt Williams for replacing Jordan Zimmermann with Drew Storen in the ninth inning last Saturday night, and for putting in Aaron Barrett in the seventh inning on Tuesday night. For example, Dave Cameron, at www.foxsports.com, mercilessly chastises Williams' multiple bad decisions. Indeed, in the seventh inning of Game 4, why he "didn't call on Tyler Clippard, the team's best relief pitcher" is a complete mystery to me.
After the game, Williams explained that his decisions were based on a pre-set plan. That sounds weird to me. He has every contingency mapped out in advance? I wouldn't make too big of a deal out of those decisions, because the players themselves were not exactly at the top of their games. That was what cost the Nats the series victory. One thing is for sure: Matt Williams' chances of being chosen NL Manager of the Year took a big nose dive after the NLDS.
Surprisingly, not much was made in the sports news media of the relative absence of Ryan Zimmerman from the Nats' lineup. Still recovering from a badly strained hamstring, he pinch-hit once in each of the four games, and didn't spend any defensive time on the field. Even though he didn't play a part in the Nationals' surge toward the NL East championship this year, he remains the heart of the team. Over the years, he has made more clutch hits and defensive plays than any other National, as exemplified by his career number of walk-off home runs: 9, compared to just 2 for second-ranked Bryce Harper; see the Washington Nationals page. A healthy Ryan Zimmerman could have made the difference in this year's postseason.
As for former National Michael Morse, it was too bad that he was unable to play in any of the NLDS games. He has a "strained left oblique," but will rejoin the Giants' roster for the NLCS, which begins in St. Louis tonight. He batted .279 this year, with 16 home runs. Not quite what he accomplished while in D.C., but respectable nonetheless. See MLB.com.
Having dispatched the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS in spite of playing the first two games on the road, the St. Louis Cardinals seemed confident as they welcomed the San Francisco Giants to town for National League Championship Series Game 1. But the Giants got on the board in the second inning, and Madison Bumgarner went seven and two-thirds innings without allowing any runs by the Cardinals. The home team lost, 3-0.
The Giants and Cardinals have dominated the National League over the past decade, each team winning two pennants over the past four years. It's like deja vu all over again...
As for the American League, "and now for something completely different!" It would be hard to find two teams with so little postseason experience. Continuing their stunning postseason hot streak, the Kansas City Royals beat the Orioles in the first two games of the ALCS -- in Baltimore! Game 1 game went to ten innings, and it was the fourth extra-inning victory in this postseason for the Royals, setting a new MLB record. The Royals finally won the slugfest, 8-6.
This evening, the Royals jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first inning, and it was a back-and-forth contest after that. The Royals didn't steal bases as much as expected, but they sure got some clutch hits from Lorenzo Cain (4 for 5 today), Eric Hosmer, and Billy Butler. Mike Moustakas homered in the fourth inning to take a 4-3 lead, and Alcides Escobar hit an RBI double in the top of the ninth to put the Royals on top again. Final score: 6-4. It was very frustrating for Baltimore fans, who have been waiting even longer than Kansas City fans (1983, vs. 1985) to host another World Series.
The Royals now have a 2-0 series lead over the Orioles, hoping that this year's apparent home field dis-advantage won't take place as they return to Kansas City for Game 3 on Monday.
Just in time for today's ALCS game in Baltimore,* I updated the Oriole Park at Camden Yards diagrams. In one of the recent games in Baltimore, I noticed that a home run (which had to be reviewed) landed on the roof of a ground-level seating area in right-center field. It seems to be about five feet deep, whereas the gap between the seats and the outfield fence in deep right center field is about three feet. That area seems to for the use of the grounds crew, but I thought I saw fans sitting out there once or twice. That got me started on making a few minor adjustments to the diagrams. The front edge of the upper-deck platforms for wheelchair patrons now is marked with black lines to indicate a barrier, with gaps at the vertical aisles between seating sections. The upper deck is now about three feet higher than before, but nothing else changed significantly.
* If the Orioles don't win two of the three upcoming games in Kansas City, there won't be any more games in Baltimore this year!
As for the other three ballparks that will host League Championship Series games this year, Kauffman Stadium, Busch Stadium III, and AT&T Park are pretty much up to standard.
As I include lower-deck diagrams on more and more of my pages, the presence (or absence) of entry portals in those lower decks becomes more interesting, to me at least. Most fans prefer stadiums in which the main concourse is at the level of the rear of the lower deck, so as to see what's going on in the game while buying refreshments or heading to the facilities. Among the "neoclassical" stadiums (those built since the early 1990s), here are the ones with that feature:
In some cases (with question marks), there seem to be entry portals in some parts of the lower deck, but not others. Further research is necessary.