August 14, 2015 [LINK / comment]
Northwest by North: Baseball road trip, 2015
In contrast to last year, when I ventured far off into the desert Southwest, for my big baseball sojourn this year I went straight north before turning toward the west. It had been many years since my last visit to Canada, and I was long overdue for a return. I picked an opportune time, in terms of weather and the overall baseball situation. My schedule was dictated by various factors, and the fact that the Blue Jays, Tigers, and White Sox were playing home games on three consecutive days made it just too convenient for me to pass up. I had never been to Toronto before, had been to Detroit (and Comerica Park) only once, and had been to U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago twice before, but had never gotten inside.
(Clockwise from top left): Rogers Centre, Comerica Park, Kaufmann Stadium, Busch Stadium (III), and U.S. Cellular Field.
July 19: Toronto
My first major destination was Rogers Centre in Toronto. (On my way there, the night before, I paid a brief stop at Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo, New York. Although a minor league stadium, it was architecturally innovative and can be considered the original Neoclassical / "Retro" ballpark, predating Camden Yards by four years.) Around noon on Sunday, July 19, I drove into Toronto, and had my first closeup look at Rogers Centre. (I had glimpsed it from far away on the other side of Lake Erie that morning, and likewise while I was in upstate New York in 2000.) It was a warm and sunny day, almost uncomfortably so, in fact. Great for taking photos, and good for beer sales as well, I'm sure. I sampled Labatt's IPA, known as Keith Alexander. It's very good, but not as hoppy as most IPAs.
Since it was Sunday, all the banks were closed, and changing money was a challenge. The concessionaires would accept U.S. dollars at "par value," meaning one-for-one with the Canadian dollar, a.k.a., the "Loonie," named for the bird on the dollar coin. (There is no dollar bill in Canada.) The current exchange rate is about 75 U.S. cents per Canadian dollar, so I was at a disadvantage. There are a range of parking options in downtown Toronto, at least on weekends. I parked about six blocks away and paid $20 for it.
Before settling down into my seat (upper deck on the third base side), I walked all around the stadium, taking lots of photos and making mental notes of details. I made a few minor "discoveries," and after looking at the photos I took, I'm afraid there's going to be another diagram revision for Rogers Centre in the near future. Stay tuned...
Rogers Centre, with the CN Tower beyond. (Two photos "stitched" together, necessitating a few creative alterations.)
The Blue Jays faced the Tampa Bay Rays and their hot young pitcher, Chris Archer. As expected, it was a low-scoring game, and for the first four innings the two teams only had two hits apiece. In the bottom of the fifth, Justin Smoak singled and Chris Colabello homered into the left-center field to give the home team a 2-0 lead. In the eighth inning, rookie phenomenon Josh Donaldson walked, and Jose Bautista hit a home run that just cleared the fence to the left of center field. (See baseball-reference.com.)And that was all the scoring. Final score: Blue Jays 4, Rays 0.
That brought the Blue Jays up to the .500 level (47-47), while bringing the Rays down to that same level. Since July 20, the Rays have continued to flounder, while the Blue Jays have soared, taking possession of first place in the AL East from the New York Yankees. Believe it or not, there might be postseason baseball in Toronto this fall for the first time since 1993 -- when the Blue Jays won the World Series!
Full count: Jose Bautista hits another foul ball, just before launching a home run on the tenth pitch of the at-bat.
It so happened that there was another big sporting event in Toronto that week: the 2015 Pan American Games. (See toronto2015.org.) Canada's baseball team beat the Americans, but there was apparently some controversy in how the game ended. Much of the waterfront area in Toronto was devoted to hosting various competitions, including the new BMO Stadium, home of Toronto FC soccer team. I had a good view of it while driving along the freeway. It is situated approximately where the old Exhibition Stadium once stood. BMO Stadium was expanded during the 2014-2015 off-season; see globalnews.ca. That article mentions that the CFL Toronto Argonauts are expected to move in, but the deal has not been finalized. The Argonauts are supposed to leave Rogers Centre after next year.
July 20: Detroit
The next day I drove back into the U.S.A., but there was a one-hour delay at the border, where customs officials and security personnel were checking each vehicle and passenger very carefully. Then I took a wrong turn driving into downtown Detroit from the north, wasting at least ten minutes. As a result, I didn't get inside Comerica Park until the end of the second inning, just after the Tigers had retaken the lead, 3-2. But the Mariners scored one run each in the fifth and sixth innings, making it 4-3 in favor of the visitors. The play that decided the game came in the bottom of the eighth inning, when Ian Kinsler homered for a second time, batting in Jose Iglesias. That really delighted the beleaguered home town fans. Joakim Soria got three quick outs pitching in the top of the ninth inning, thus getting his 21st save of the season. Final score: Tigers 5, Mariners 4.
In the eighth inning, Ian Kinsler hit a home run (his second of the game), batting in Jose Iglesias to retake the lead.
It was nearly dusk by the time I got inside the stadium, so the photos I took were marred by suboptimal lighting conditions. One thing I noticed after the game was that the back ten or so rows of seats in the lower deck (near the infield) are nice movable wooden seats, allowing fans to get comfortable. Apparently, they installed those seats a few years ago. I noticed a few other details that will necessitate minor revisions to the Comerica Park diagrams in the near future.
Obviously, the Tigers have had a disappointing season, even more so than the Nationals (!), but until late July, there was still a flicker of hope that they might somehow reach the postseason. It was David Price Bobblehead Day, but ironically he was traded to the Blue Jays only about a week later. I suppose it made sense from a business standpoint, but it was sure lousy public relations.
I parked in a lot on the north side of Ford Field (home of the Lions), paying $25. After the game, I drove over to the site on Michigan Avenue where Tiger Stadium once stood, hoping to see some of the recent improvements. In spite of utter indifference from the municipal authorities, a grassroots civic group called the "Navin Field Grounds Crew" has worked diligently to turn that parcel of land into a well-maintained park, complete with flag pole, grass, and a baseball diamond where the old one used to be. Unfortunately, there was a crazy guy yelling something on the sidewalk, and since it's a rather iffy part of town, I only stayed for the minute or so it took to snap this photo:
"Navin Field Grounds Crew" sign, where Tiger Stadium used to be.
July 21: Chicago (south)
On the next day I arrived in the Windy City with plenty of time to spare, thanks to the time zone shift. In fact, I had to wait about 15 minutes just to get into the parking lot, which only cost ten bucks. It was a beautiful afternoon, with clear blue skies, but the shadow of the grandstand already covered about half of the field. Too bad it wasn't a day game. I spent a lot of team exploring the upper deck, including the concourse and exit ramps, which provide fine views of Chicago. My overall first impression of the much-maligned stadium was positive. The "new" roof added in 2003 (when they chopped the top eight rows off of the upper deck looks fine, as if it had been planned that way all along. It's just a shame they have so many luxury suite levels, as it would have been nice to have a better view from the upper deck. I was in the third row, and couldn't see the right field corner below me. Unfortunately, the White Sox enforce a strict form of seating "apartheid," and lowly upper-deck patrons are not allowed into the lower deck, or even into the bleachers. After the game was over, I sneaked into the lower deck and took some quick photos there. There may be a few revisions to U.S. Cellular Field diagrams based on what I saw, but nothing very big.
U.S. Cellular Field left field from upper deck
The Chicago White Sox were on an upswing in late July, but faced a daunting opponent in the St. Louis Cardinals on July 21 and 22. The Cardinals had a win-loss record around .640, several games ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in fact, they still do. Hundreds of Cardinals fans follow their team from city to city, much like "Red Sox Nation," and the interleague matchup was no exception. Several of them were sitting a couple rows in back of me, and as we bantered, I reminded them that when it comes to the postseason playoffs, the regular-season winning percentages don't matter a bit. (That, of course, was one of the lessons learned by the Washington Nationals in 2012 and 2014.)
The Cardinals had a 3-0 lead by the fourth inning, at which point Matt Holliday hit a grand slam to make it a 7-0 game. The White Sox fans were glum, but their team bravely fought back, with two runs in the bottom of the fourth, and three in the bottom of the fifth, when Geovany Soto and Tyler Saladino both homered. I was glad to see former National Adam LaRoche, who singled (0 for 4) as the designated hitter. But nobody scored in the last four innings, and the final score was Cardinals 8, White Sox 5.
Matt Holliday is congratulated by (right to left) Mark Reynolds, Stephen Piscotty, and Kolten Wong after knocking them all in on a grand slam in the fourth inning.
Heading East: Missouri
Coincidentally, the two stadiums I saw on August 10 were the homes of the two teams with the highest winning percentages in the major leagues: the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals. I was thinking about seeing the Royals play against the Tigers that evening, since it was the home debut of recently-acquired pitcher Jose Cueto. (Coincidentally, I had seen him pitch in Washington on July 7, when the Reds beat the Nationals.) But time was not on my side, and I had to make haste, with just a quick "drive-by" of Kauffman Stadium. In the afternoon, I arrived in St. Louis, and took some photos from the top of the Gateway Arch, including some of Busch Stadium. Since the last time I stopped there (August 17, 2011), the "Baseball Village" retail complex (on the site of the previous Busch Stadium) has been completed.
Coincidentally, two of the stadiums I visited (Rogers Centre and U.S. Cellular Field) were built at about the same time (1989 and 1991), at the tail end of the "Cookie-cutter Era" of baseball architecture. Another coincidence was that two of those stadiums are the only ones whose interiors can be seen from high above from an adjacent (or nearby) tower. (There used to be a third such stadium, Olympic Stadium, and a long time ago there was Forbes Field!) Next time I'm in Toronto I'll go up the CN Tower.
The game in Toronto was the first time I had ever seen an MLB game being played on artificial turf. I was too high up in the stadium to notice any big difference in how the ball bounced, but I do recall being appalled by the brown-colored carpet that serves as a "warning track." I asked one of the stadium staffers about plans for putting in grass, and was told that they are still conducting studies to see if it will work. If they go ahead with that, it would be at least two years in the future.
I visited two NFL stadiums during my trip (Ford Field in Detroit, and Edward Jones Field in St. Louis), and also visited two major college football stadiums: the gigantic Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, and Memorial Stadium, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Next door to the world-famous Dakota Dome (in Vermillion, South Dakota), there is construction on a new arena, where the basketball team will move about 16 months from now. As I found out a couple years ago, the Dakota Dome is not well suited to basketball. Finally, I was going to visit Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, but it didn't work out. I did see the minor league Coca-Cola Field (formerly Pilot Field) in Buffalo, however.
It was almost exactly 28 years since my last visit to Canada. Both times I visited an MLB stadium with a retractable roof (Olympic Stadium, Rogers Centre), both times I then proceeded to go west, and both times I stopped in St. Louis on the way back east, ascending the Gateway Arch to take a photo of the baseball stadium below. Of course, now there is a different Busch Stadium there.
And as for recent news concerning the Washington Nationals (Ouch!), I'll leave that for tomorrow...
August 18, 2015 [LINK / comment]
Nationals end awful skid with big offensive outburst
Was this the turnaround that Nats fans have been hoping and praying for? For the Washington Nationals thus far, August has been no better than the dismal month of July, and the continued losses in spite of their replenished roster raise questions about whether they can even make it to the postseason. But rather than delve into the ugly details of the past six weeks right now, let's concentrate on the rare uplifting moment that took place in Denver tonight. (It's still Tuesday in the Mountain Time Zone.)
It all started fine, with a two-run homer by Yunel Escobar in the top of the first inning. But as Nats fans have come to learn over the past week, scoring first doesn't seem to make any difference as far as helping the team win a ball game. Indeed, the Rockies came right back with three runs in the bottom of the inning, thanks in part to errors by pitcher Jordan Zimmermann and shortstop Ian Desmond. Oh, Lord, here we go again... But in the top of the third, Danny Espinosa launched a two-run rally with the first of two doubles, and the game was tied, 4-4. That seemed to help Jordan Zimmermann settle down on the mound, and even though he gave up two more runs, he left the game after six innings with his team ahead, and he got the win. The Nats showed uncharacteristic pluck and determination, taking advantage of opportunities such as scoring on wild pitches, and getting hits with runners in scoring position (6 for 18). Six of the starting lineup players had multiple hits, while Bryce Harper went hitless and yet scored four runs, once for each time he was walked. (Is that a record of some sort?) Three of the players who have struggled lately -- Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ian Desmond -- all had multiple runs or multiple RBIs. Just for good measure, the Nats piled on four runs in each of the last two innings, yielding a final score of 15-6. Hooray!
But is it too late? The Nats are now back up to a humble .500 record, 59-59, and are 4 1/2 games behind the New York Mets in the NL East race.
Comerica Park update
Based on my recent visit to Motown, I have made a few corrections to the Comerica Park diagrams. The most significant change is that the right field fence is about seven feet closer to home than I previously estimated. (The difference is more like ten feet in deep right center.) What gives? After squinting at various photos I took, I realized that the small diagonal portion of the wall in the right field corner is several feet shorter, i.e., the bend near the foul pole is about 335 feet from home rather than 342 feet. I was misled by the 365-foot distance marker in right-center field, which I have concluded exaggerates the true distance by 7 to 10 feet. That is why the 365 box in the diagram now has a red border, to indicate doubt about the accuracy of the marker.
The other noticeable change is that the upper deck in left field now extends about 15 feet farther out than before. If you look at the new panoramic photo on the Comerica Park page (one of ten (10) new photos which I have just added!), you will see that the tip of the upper deck is directly above the "crease" in the lower deck. Dedicated stadium fanatics will notice improved detail in the entry portals, which are slightly bigger than before, and now show more clearly the small staircases on either side of most of those portals. Otherwise, it was mostly just minor corrections. Finally, the text on that page has been updated as well.
Low-level panorama of Comerica Park from the first base side. (Click on the image to see it full-size.) Unfortunately, the other photos I took that evening were under mediocre lighting conditions.
Braves Field centennial
Today marked the 100th anniversary of the first game played in Braves Field, home of the Boston Braves until 1953, when they moved to Milwaukee. I only realized that thanks to the "Old Ballparks" page on Facebook, and it reminded me that I mistakenly indicated in my April 12 blog post that the first game there was April 17. (Anyone who has a copy of the 2006 edition of Green Cathedrals and looks at page 31 will see how I made the mistake.) I'll make note of that when I put an improved version of that table on a separate Web page some time in the future.
August 25, 2015 [LINK / comment]
Welcome home to Washington?
Well, it's complicated. Back home in D.C. after a lousy road trip (3-7), the Washington Nationals were in desperate need of a lift from the home fans as they faced the Milwaukee Brewers last Friday night. So my wife and I headed up to Our Nation's Capital to do our part, our spirits buoyed by perfect, sunny weather. We arrived early to make sure we got the Nats ball cap freebies, courtesy of Miller Lite. After listening to the band playing in the Scoreboard Deck area, I spent some time snooping around and taking photos, including this one:
Nationals Park right field foul pole, scoreboard in back, showing the TV camera well.
We had "Mezzanine" seats in the second deck, down the third base line. It was a great vantage point, but probably farther away from home plate than the third-deck "Gallery" seats I usually get. There are two disadvantages with second-deck seats: Fewer concession stands means fewer choices for food and beverages, and the closed "Club Level" sections prevents fans from moving around the stadium. In the top of the first inning, we had a view of when Yunel Escobar collided with a fan while chasing a pop foul ball. Escobar had to leave the game, and missed the next two games while his strained neck muscles healed.
We had a nice view of the infield action from the Mezzanine level.
In the second inning, the Nats took a 1-0 lead, thanks to a walk and stolen base by Ian Desmond, followed by a clutch RBI single by Jose Lobaton. But the Brewers came right back with two runs in the third inning. In the fifth inning, Gio got into a jam, giving up a run to Jonathan Lucroy with Adam Lind on third base and two outs. That's when Domingo Santana (just acquired in a trade with the Houston Astros*) hit the left foul pole for a two-run home run, completely changing the complexion of the game. I'm not sure I had ever seen a ball hit the foul pole before, and we had a great view of that (unfortunate) event. They let Gio finish the inning, but he was clearly done for the night.
* (One of the guys for whom Domingo Santana was traded, Mike Fiers, threw a no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers on August 16. It was the Astros' first individual no-hitter since 1993. (See MLB.com.) The other guy in that trade was Carlos Gomez.)
Gio Gonzalez barely lasted five innings, giving up five runs (four earned).
In the sixth inning, Bryce Harper hit a solo home run to close the gap to 5-2, briefly raising hopes. But in the top of the seventh inning, relief pitcher Doug Fister gave up a walk and four hits, all of which ended up scoring (one unearned), and Tanner Roark came in to finish things. But he gave up a hit, and a Brewers' pinch hitter was given first base on catcher's interference, a bizarre play. Even more bizarre was the next play, when Jean Segura hit a sac fly to Bryce Harper in right field, but Jose Lobaton couldn't handle the throw from Harper, and another run scored. That made it 10-2, and hundreds of Nats fans began to leave the stadium. In the bottom of the seventh, Michael Taylor hit a solo homer, but only one other National reached base [for the rest of the game]. Final score: Brewers 10, Nationals 3.
Bryce Harper hits his 31st home run of the year, still leading the National League.
One bright spot was when Trea Turner, just called up from the minors, replaced Ian Desmond at shortstop in the seventh inning. In his first MLB at-bat that inning, he almost beat the throw on what would have been a single, and the Nationals challenged the call but lost. In the top of the eighth, he was part of a 4-6-3 double play. Big things are expected of this rookie.
Trea Turner takes his position at shortstop in the top of the seventh inning.
On Saturday night, things went much better, as rookie pitcher Joe Ross delivered another fine performance, going seven innings to get the win in a 6-1 game. Michael Taylor and Anthony Rendon (who seems to be getting better after returning from the DL) both hit home runs to provide the offensive support. It was the third game in a row in which Taylor homered. On Sunday, Jordan Zimmermann was so-so on the mound, but he had plenty of run support thanks to home runs by Rendon (again) and Wilson Ramos. J-Zimm got the win in a 9-5 slugfest.
And so, it was the first time since late June that the Nationals won two series in a row. Combined with tonight's triumphant 8-3 victory over the San Diego Padres (featuring Ryan Zimmerman's fifth career grand slam!), the Nats have now won three games in a row for the first time since July 11-18 (spanning the All-Star Game). Denard Span returned to the lineup tonight, and it was the first time all year that the Nats had their entire starting roster together. Maybe they will finally start playing the championship-caliber ball that most people had expected of them. On the dark side, the Mets have gotten hot lately, winning five straight games. Both teams have relatively easy schedules for the rest of the season, so it will probably come down to the six remaining head-to-head games between them: the Mets in Washington September 7-9, and the Nats in New York October 2-4.
Nats beat Rockies twice
The Nationals followed up their big 15-6 win over the Colorado Rockies last Tuesday with a 4-1 victory last Wednesday. Stephen Strasburg went seven full innings, and got the win thanks to a clutch two-run [triple]
single by Jayson Werth in the top of the eighth. But [in the next day's game] the Nats couldn't complete the sweep, as Max Scherzer gave up three runs to the Rockies, who prevailed 3-2. At least the Nats won the series.
Awful events while I was away...
As I departed on my Great Baseball Road Trip of 2015, the Nationals were kind of limping along, with high hopes for a big improvement after Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Anthony Rendon returned to active duty. They were nine games over .500, three games ahead of the Mets in the NL East race, and with every reason to expect another postseason berth. Instead, they just about collapsed, even with those three sluggers back in the lineup, and for an entire month (July 18 to August 18), only once did they win two consecutive games. They hit rock bottom in California, winning the first game against the L.A. Dodgers, but then losing the next two, and then getting swept in four games by the S.F. Giants. To paraphrase a cliche, "It just doesn't get any worse than this..."
The Nationals did manage to take two out of three games from the Mets (July 20-22, at home) and the Marlins (July 28-30, away), but they lost series to the Pirates (July 23-26, away), the Mets (July 31-August 2, away), and the Rockies (August 7-9, home). They also split a four-game series against the Diamonbacks at home, August 3-6. It was a steady decline, during which the Mets caught up with them in the standings on August 2, and took the division lead the next day. The Mets weren't doing all that great, it was just that the Nationals kept losing.
So what the #$@&! went wrong? Neither Zimmerman nor Werth nor Anthony Rendon were at their best for the first few weeks after returning in late July. Bryce Harper's rate of home runs has slowed noticeably, but he's still in contention for the NL MVP Award. Michael Taylor continues to get amazing clutch hits, and is a potential candidate for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Danny Espinosa has also continued to do big things in the batter's box and on defense, having a career-best year, and it's a shame he has been relegated to the bench now that the first-stringers are all healthy. Ian Desmond has slowly improved his batting performance while cutting down on errors, but it may be too late to save his career with the Nationals. Meanwhile, the starting pitchers seemed to crumble, especially their aces Max Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann. The exception was Stephen Strasburg, who threw twelve strikeouts on August 8 (a 6-1 win over the Rockies), his first outing after spending several weeks on the disabled list. Oddly enough, he and Joe Ross have been the only two reliable starting pitchers for the Nats this month. Gio Gonzalez had several consecutive solid outings after the All-Star break, but lasted only two-plus innings against the Rockies on August 15.
One could also mention the criticism leveled at manager Matt Williams, who keeps making questionable bullpen moves that end up costing the Nats the game. Until the recent upturn, there were rumors about whether he might get replaced, but I think that's a hasty judgment. We'll find out in the remaining five weeks of the regular season whether Williams is the best man to lead the Nationals. If they don't make the playoffs, or at least come very close, I think Mike Rizzo ought to look elsewhere.
Nationals Park tweak
Based on things I noticed during my visit, I updated the Nationals Park diagrams with some slight adjustments to the lower deck, including gray lines for the "creases" for the first time. (The upper deck is gradually curved, and therefore has no such creases.) I also paid more attention to such details as the terraced table-seating areas in the "Red Porch," the TV camera "wells" (see photo at the top), and the sections where there are two more rows of seats in back, rather than platforms for handicapped fans. There angled bends near the left- and right-field corners are slightly farther from home than before, adding a bit to the foul area.
August 27, 2015 [LINK / comment]
Nats win third straight series
Thanks to a number of good clutch hits and solid pitching performances, the Washington Nationals beat the San Diego Padres in two out of three games, thus prevailing in their third consecutive series. It was the same margin by which they previously prevailed over the Rockies and the Brewers. In tonight's rubber match game, rookie pitcher Joe Ross once again had a splendid outing, allowing only one hit over six innings, and that "hit" was merely a swinging bunt by Cory Spangenberg that could have been scored an error. He later scored an unearned run. In the fifth inning, the Nats put together some hits, a walk, and a hit-by-pitch to score two runs, thus taking the lead. Yunel Escobar got the Nats' first RBI when his wrist was injured, and left the game at the end of the inning. Later Michael Taylor injured his knee colliding into the center field wall, chasing a long fly ball. Both players are day to day. Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman connected for solo home runs, making the game feel just like the good old days. In the ninth inning, the Nats' new closing pitcher Jonathan Papelbon gave up a run, but still got the save, his fifth with the Nats. Final score: 4-2.
Thanks in good measure to that grand slam on Tuesday, Zimmerman racked up eight more RBIs in the three-game series with the Padres, making a total of 57 so far this year, even though he has only played in 84 games. But he is batting only .224, and he could end up 2015 with the worst batting average of his career. His lowest previously was 2007, when he batted .266.
Nats clinch losing month
Unfortunately, thanks to last night's 6-5 loss to the Padres (in which a promising seventh-inning rally was killed when Yunel Escobar grounded into a double play on a 3-0 count!) the Nationals clinched a losing record for the month of August. They are 10-15 this month, and with just four games to go, the best they can do is 14-15. They were 11-13 last month. The last time the Nats had losing records in two consecutive months was April-May, 2011.
About ten days ago, one of my Facebook friends asked me what I thought the Nationals chances of reaching the postseason were. I replied about fifty-fifty, rather optimistically. Obviously, things have not improved much since then, and with time working against them, it's fair to say that the proverbial "fat lady" is getting ready to sing. According to baseballprospectus.com, the odds that the Nats will make the playoffs have dropped to just 7.7%, 15.9% less than a week ago.
Looking at that day-to-day probability chart, you can see that the turning point for the Nats came at the very end of July. In the space of two weeks, their playoff chances went from about 80% to about 20%. In retrospect, I think it will be said that the 2-1 loss to the Mets in twelve innings at Citi Field on July 31 proved to be the team's undoing. (baseball-reference.com) Up until that point, they had a three-game lead over the Mets, eight games over .500. The Mets' Matt Harvey had a perfect game going into the sixth inning, while Gio Gonzalez was replaced during the fifth inning. The game went to the bottom of the 12th, whereupon lead-off batter Wilmer Flores -- the very same guy who had been seen weeping in the dugout two days earlier after being told that he had been traded -- hit a walk-off home run. After that kick in the gut, the Nats went on to lose the next two games, getting swept by the Mets, who took first place in the division. The July 31 game was an incredible twist of fate, on multiple levels. That's baseball for you.
And so, as we approach September, Nats fans will be constantly glancing at the scoreboard to see how the Mets are doing, and grimacing at the shrinking magic number / elimination number. Tonight in Philadelphia the Mets pulled off another comeback win (in 13 innings) over the Phillies, who had taken a 5-0 lead in the third inning. That makes it seven wins in a row for the division-leading team, who remain 6 1/2 games ahead of the Nationals.
Papelbon joins the Nats
Omitted from my brief review of the Nationals' decline since mid-season on Tuesday was the bullpen situation. In particular, the acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon (via a trade with the Phillies late last month) was supposed to be a big boost to their playoff chances, but it just hasn't worked out that way. The Nats obviously needed a stronger bullpen, but they already had a good closer in Drew Storen, so Papelbon's arrival was more than a bit awkward. At the time I thought it was a good move, but there just haven't been that many crucial save opportunities where Papelbon could make a difference.
Ironically, the kind of pitcher the Nationals really needed was their ex-setup man Tyler Clippard, but he was traded from the Athletics to the Mets in July. "Clipp" made it clear to the Nats front office during the off-season that he wanted to be the closing pitcher, hence the trade by which the Nats acquired Yunel Escobar from Oakland. That worked out very well. Clippard has saved 19 games out of 23 save opportunities with the A's and Mets this year.
MLB Franchise pages
I took the time to make some overdue corrections to the MLB Franchises page. For example, the original owner of the second Washington Senators franchise (1961) was Elwood Quesada, not Robert Short, who acquired the team in 1969. Quesada sold the franchise in 1963, but I'm not yet sure to whom. Also, the owner of the Tampa Bay Rays is Stuart Sternberg, not "Stuart Steinberg."
I also updated the 2013 and 2014 Washington Nationals annual pages with narratives about the latter parts of the seasons.
August 30, 2015 [LINK / comment]
Nats win fourth straight series
With just five weeks left in the regular season, the Washington Nationals are finally starting to play like their lives (or careers) depend on it. Even though Steven Strasburg gave up a three-run home run in the first inning against the Miami Marlins this afternoon, and only lasted four innings, the team battled back with some clutch hits. About time! Jayson Werth got things going with a two-run homer in the third inning to pull within one run of the Marlins, but then the visiting team immediately homered in the fourth inning to make it a 4-2 game. Obviously, Strasburg was having one of those days when something wasn't right, and Doug Fister took his place for the next two innings. In the fifth inning, the Nats put together a string of hits to get three runs, taking the lead, and in the sixth inning, Clint Robinson hit a pinch-hit two-run homer to extend he Nationals' lead. The bullpen did its part, and the Nats emerged with a 7-4 victory.
On Saturday, Ryan Zimmerman got things started with a solo home run, a feat matched by Clint Robinson, while Jordan Zimmerman had his best outing lately, pitching seven solid innings. Final score: Nats 5, Marlins 1. So even though the series started off on a sour note, with the Nationals wasting multiple run-scoring opportunities in a narrow 4-3 loss, they still won the series. It was their fourth consecutive series win, and once again, it was by a margin of two games to one.
Clint Robinson has proved to be a very worthy bench player for the Nationals this year, batting .268 with seven homers, and his success as a rookie at the ripe old age of 30 warms the hearts of all us "old-timers."
However, the New York Mets managed to avert being swept by the visiting Red Sox this afternoon, winning 5-4, so the Nationals remain 5 1/2 games behind in the NL East race. Still five weeks to go...
Arrieta gets no-hitter
In Los Angeles this evening, the Chicago Cubs ended their recent losing streak by beating the Dodgers 2-0, as Jake Arrieta got his first career no-hitter. The Cubs' only runs came on a homer by Kris Bryant in the first inning. That was Arrieta's 17th win of the season, leading the league, and he may be a contender for the Cy Young Award. Not many people would have expected that at the beginning of the season. It's the sixth MLB no-hitter this year. The last no-hitter by a Cub pitcher was in 2008, by Carlos Zambrano. (Whatever happened to him?)
Fan dies in Atlanta
There was another ballpark tragedy on Saturday night, this time in Atlanta, as a Braves fan died after falling over the front edge of the upper deck at Turner Field, landing in the second deck. He was later identified as Gregory Murrey, age 60. Several witnesses said he was yelling at Alex Rodriguez, who was coming up to bat, and tumbled over the railing.
See MLB.com or the Washington Post.
That tragedy cast further gloom on Braves fans, as the Yankees swept the Braves in the three-game series, by scores of 15-4, 3-1, and 20-6.
U.S. Cellular Field tweak
Based on my observations during the game I saw there last month, the U.S. Cellular Field diagrams have been revised ever-so slightly. The field and grandstand are almost exactly the same as before, but details such as the bullpens, the terraced table-seating area in the right field corner, and the exit ramps are more accurate. Also, there is a new "full" diagram version, showing all of the exit ramps and peripheral structures in their entirety.
Although the White Sox didn't win that game I saw (the Cardinals won, 8-5), Chicago fans got to see two of their guys hit home runs, one of which was the second career homer by rookie third baseman Tyler Saladino. He was called up from the Charlotte Knights (the franchise's AAA affiliate) on July 10, and hit home runs on July 19 and July 21 (when I was there). He has hit one more since then. Not a bad start!
As you can see, it was a perfect day for taking pictures outside, but inside the stadium shadows already covered most of the field before play began. I still managed to get several good photos, about a dozen of which you can now see posted on that page. Attendance that day was 29,728, probably including a few thousand "phantom fans" (tax write-offs).
U.S. Cellular Field, southwest panorama. It's a much nicer, sharper photo than the one I took from virtually the same spot five years earlier. Click on the image to see it full size.