August 16, 2017 [LINK / comment]
For a variety of reasons, my baseball road trip this year was less ambitious than last year's, but it was definitely worthwhile. I took AMTRAK out west from Virginia (one way), and as we pulled into Chicago, I saw (and photographed) Guaranteed Rate Field, previously known as "U.S. Cellular Field," and before that "Comiskey Park" (second incarnation). While in the shopping mall that occupies the Union Station building, I bought a Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series championship flag, intending to place it at the grave site of my father. (See below.) I spent a few days in Kansas City, where my brother Dan and I visited the site of Municipal Stadium, but didn't make it to Kauffman Stadium since the Royals were out of town. Next I headed north to South Dakota for a few more days, and then headed back east again.
The timing of my (return trip) visit to Chicago was dictated by the Washington Nationals' schedule, and I had the choice of three consecutive early afternoon games. I was going to buy a ticket over the phone but balked at the $20 service charge. Hell no! Driving into the Chicago area from the northwest late on Saturday morning (August 5), I looked for the PACE terminal in Schaumburg from which buses to Wrigley Field depart, but couldn't find it. So, I took my chances on parking in the "Wrigleyville" neighborhood, as I had done five years earlier, and this time I got lucky big time. Heading east along Irving Park Road (Rt. 19), I saw signs for Cubs parking, and lo and behold there it was just east of the Chicago River -- about two miles west of the stadium. To my utter amazement and delight, both the parking and the shuttle bus were FREE!!! I arrived at Wrigley Field about 20 minutes early, but the last upper-deck tickets had just been sold out, and having learned from five years ago how poor the obstructed-view lower-deck seats can be, I opted for a standing-room-only ticket which cost $39. That would be outrageous were it not for the free parking. In contrast to the hazy, grim lighting conditions during my visit in 2012, this time the skies were mostly bright blue, almost perfect for pitcture-taking.
While the National Anthem was being sung, I walked up the recently-built staircases extending from the west (third base) side of the stadium, and started taking photos from in the lateral walkway of the upper deck on the third base side. I was in perfect position to see Bryce Harper at bat in the top of the first inning. But then some people walked in front of me, just as Bryce launched a solo home run into the new scoreboard above right field. I missed it!
Pitching for the Nationals that day was Edwin Jackson, acquired in a trade last month to fill the void left by Joe Ross, who had Tommy John surgery. The first two Cubs to bat in the first inning both doubled, and Wilson Contreras hit an RBI single, and Alex Avila hit a two-run homer just over the center field wall. Three innings later, the Nats closed the gap by staging a nice two-run rally, thanks to a sac fly by Anthony Rendon (scoring Ryan Zimmerman) [and] an RBI single by Matt Wieters.
To his credit, Edwin Jackson recovered from the first-inning mess and pitched four scoreless innings before he exited, but then the Nats' bullpen reverted to their old ways, giving up two runs in the sixth and one in the seventh. Harper singled and later scored in the eighth inning, and then came up again in the top of the ninth inning, when the Nats had runners on first and second with two outs. Talk about high tension! Unfortunately, the mighty Bryce struck out. I took a photo which shows that the ball skipped in the dirt, so technically Bryce could have tried to run to first, but in the end, it wouldn't have mattered. Final score: Cubs 7, Nats 4.
One day before, the Nats had beaten the Cubs 4-2, thanks to Daniel Murphy's two home runs, and the next day they won 9-4, thanks to Matt Wieter's grand slam and Brian Goodwin's home run, both in the eighth inning. That huge five-run rally tipped the series balance in the Nats' favor.
I spent most of the game in a vacant seat in the very top row of the upper deck near the right field foul pole, along with a few other fans who apparently had "SRO" tickets. But such "Bob Uecker seats" at Wrigley are better than upper-deck seats just about anywhere else, so I was satisfied. I was eager to see Wrigley Field in the brand-new configuration, with the former bullpen areas along the foul lines now occupied by new rows of seats. (The bullpens are now located underneath the bleachers, out of sight.) I am already working on diagram revisions, and a recalculation of foul territory, so stay tuned!
I had pondered continuing straight east to Cleveland, in order to see the reconfigured Progressive Field, but decided to put that off for another year. The next morning I walked around downtown Indianapolis, getting a look at Victory Field for the first time. That's the home of the Indianapolis Indians, and is the third prominent minor league park I have seen. (The others are The Diamond in Richmond, Virginia, and Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo, New York.) I also took some photos of nearby Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL Indianapolis Colts.
I arrived in Cincinnati early in the afternoon, just as the Reds hit three home runs to take a 3-0 lead over the Cardinals in the bottom of the first inning. I visited the site of old Crosley Field, and was surprised to learn that the former building has been replaced by a new "City Gospel Mission," with a detailed historical sign for Crosley Field. I had thought about attending the Cards-Reds game, but I'm glad I didn't, as the mood of the crowd quickly turned sour. The Cards scored four runs in the top of the second and then nine (9) runs two innings later, and the final score was a humiliating 13-3. Ouch! I contented myself with some photos of Great American Ballpark from across the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky. Then I resumed my eastbound drive toward home.
As the July 31 trade deadline approach, most of the attention was directed toward Washington's shaky bullpen. They had acquired Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle in a trade with Oakland in mid-July, and at the last minute, obtained Brandon Kintzler in a trade with Minnesota. Those deals have made a huge impact already, giving the team some much-needed confidence that they can hold onto leads late in the game. But another late July trade has turned out to have almost as dramatic of an effect: the Nats got Howie Kendrick from Philadelphia. He missed several weeks due to injury earlier in the season, and at age 34, his value as a player is a question mark. At first he served as a pinch hitter for the Nats, and has been playing left field since Brian Goodwin went on the disabled list. With a batting average of .341, Kendrick is proving to be invaluable to his new team.
In the second game of a double-header with the Giants at Nationals Park on Sunday evening (a make-up for the rained-out Friday night game), it went into extra innings with a 2-2 score. Having lost the afternoon game (4-2), and having lost Bryce Harper for at least a couple weeks the day before (see below), the outcome of this game would have a crucial psychological impact as the team approaches the final six weeks of the season. In the 11th inning, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman led off with back-to-back singles, and then Anthony Rendon was walked to load the bases with nobody out. All Howie Kendrick had to do to win the game was hit a long fly ball sac fly, but he smacked that ball right out of the park for a grand slam. It was exactly seven days after Matt Wieter's grand slam, and was the fourth walk-off grand slam in Nationals history!!!
I posted that list (extracted from the newly-updated Washington Nationals page) on Facebook, and was reminded by Sean Grogan who the pitcher was when Zimmerman hit the grand slam against the Phillies in : none other than Ryan Madson, one of the newest Nats!
And in last night's game against the visiting L.A. Angels, Kendrick did it again! He hit two solo homers, while Gio Gonzalez had a no-hitter going into the sixth inning. The Nats later got an insurance run, and as usual (of late), the bullpen held on to win the game. Final score: Nats 3, Angels 1.
I was watching in horror late on Saturday night when Bryce Harper slipped on a wet first base, twisted his leg, and fell in agony in the first inning of the game. I've seen enough season-ending injuries on TV to fear the worst, but in this case it seems the Nats have dodged a bullet. MRI tests revealed that there is no damage to Harper's knee ligaments, just a bruise to a bone. Obviously, the Nationals will be extremely cautious as Harper heals for the rest of this month, but hopefully he will be ready to play again by September. With a 14 1/2-game lead in the NL East, the Nationals are focused on October.
On July 27, the Nationals made history by hitting back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs (plus a fifth non-consecutive one) in the third inning. Unbelievable! Altogether they hit eight home runs in that game, beating the visiting Brewers by a score of 15-2. That was the third and deciding game of that series.
In Miami on July 31, Gio Gonzalez had a no-hitter going into the top of the ninth inning, when Dee Gordon spoiled everything. Gio was relieved by Sean Doolittle, who induced Giancarlo Stanton to ground into a double play, then gave up a hit to Christian Yelich, and then got the final out. Whew! Nats 1, Marlins 0.
In the first inning of the game on August 1, Max Scherzer hit his first career home run (in Marlins Park, of all places!), as the Nats took a 6-0 lead over the Marlins. But that big swing apparently aggravated a pinched nerve in his neck, as Max had to come out of the game in the second inning, and the Marlins scored seven runs against the relief pitchers, while the Nats failed to score any more at all. Final score: 7-6. How weird is that? Fortunately, Max was only out of action for a few days.
In Washington on August 9, Ryan Zimmerman hit two more home runs, raising his season total to 27, as the Nats beat the Marlins 10-1. The Nats also won the next day, 3-2, thus taking three of the four games in that series.
[UPDATE: I was so focused on getting this blog post done that I completely forgot the Nationals were playing an afternoon game! Ryan Zimmerman hit a two-run homer (#28!) in the first inning, but the Nats failed to capitalize on run-scoring opportunities after that. Meanwhile, Tanner Roark had a solid seven-inning outing on the mound, but gave up two home runs. And so, the Nats lost to the Angels, 3-2, splitting the two-game series.]
As mentioned above, in Chicago I bought a Cubs 2016 World Series championship flag, for the express purpose of placing at the grave site of my father, Alan L. Clem, who passed away on April 11, 2016 -- seven months before his favorite team finally won the World Series for the first time in over a century. The glorious triumph came just a little too late for my dad to enjoy it...