July 13, 2018
Hopes that the Washington Nationals might recover from their early season failures ("Forget April!") and live up to their potential slowly faded during June and were pretty much dashed by the end of the month. Every time a flicker of hope surfaces, they resume a grim spiral downward into mediocrity. With the midpoint of the season already past, the Nats' chances of snapping out of it and winning the NL East are probably less than one in ten right now. With solid rosters full of eager, fresh talent, the Phillies and Braves will fight it out until October, most likely.
Ironically, the June swoon came just when some of their big slugging stars from last year finally returned to the lineup. Anthony Rendon is finally starting to display All-Star quality slugging and fielding, but not in time to get selected for this year's All Star game. Daniel Murphy took a long time to regain his former hitting form, while Trea Turner has had big ups and downs. On the other hand, Ryan Zimmerman -- "face of the franchise" -- is still on the DL, and there is some confusion over whether it's just an oblique strain or if he also injured his calf muscle.
So what went wrong? First and foremost, the Nats' vaunted pitching rotation fell apart. The team's ace, Max Scherzer, only won one game in June (on the fifth, against Tampa Bay), and was charged with three losses even though he only gave up a total of five runs. How many runs did the Nats score in those three games? ZERO!!! The fact that he has remained a ferocious competitor in spite of the lack of run support from his team mates is a testament to his sportsmanship. Among other starting pitchers, Gio Gonzalez has reverted to his often-inconsistent ways, getting flustered by adversity. The once-solid Tanner Roark is having his worst year since joining the Nats in 2013, losing tonight against the Mets to bring his record down to 3-12. (He probably still harbors a grudge that he didn't get a chance to pitch at all in last year's NLDS.) Steven Strasburg has been on the disabled list for over a month now, while Jeremy Hellickson just came from the DL and did well on Tuesday, helping to beat the Pirates. After a stellar first two months, the Nats' pitching rotation is in shambles.
But we can't just blame the pitchers. At the plate this year, the Nats are incredibly inconsistent, racking up double-digit scores one day and then getting shut out a few days later. In fact, the Nats have been shut out ten times this year already, three more than in all of 2017. Tonight's game against the Mets (a 4-2 loss) was a perfect example of how the Nats keep wasting golden opportunities: they were 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position. Whether it's lack of leadership under the new manager (Dave Martinez) or some hard-to-fathom angst undermining team spirit, the poor results are painfully obvious.
Given that the Baltimore Orioles are having one of their worst seasons in team history (currently with a 28-69 record), the Nats really should have swept them in Washington from June 19-21. But perhaps because of a lengthy rain delay (almost three hours) on June 20, the Nats just couldn't find their rhythm, and the O's shut them out, 3-0. So, the Nats settled for winning two out of three. That gave the Nats a 5-1 win-loss record over the Orioles this year, better than they usually seem to do against their neighbors to the north.
The Philadelphia Phillies then came to town, as the Nats were clinging to second place in the NL East. Tanner Roark had another lousy outing, and the Phillies grabbed second place in dramatic fashion, spanking the Nats 12-2. They widened their lead the next evening, and on Sunday the 24th had a lead going into the late innings. But this time Rendon, Harper, and Murphy rose to the occasion, winning 8-6 and narrowly avoiding what would have been a humiliating sweep at home.
Did that big win turn things around for the Nats? Nope. Over the next two days in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Nats failed to score a single run against the third place Rays, and only got five total hits. Gio Gonzalez gave up six runs in one-plus innings (final score 11-0) and then Max Scherzer got tagged for the loss in a 1-0 game. Just disgusting.
So it wasn't much surprise that the Nats would have a rough go in the subsequent four-game series in Philadelphia. But they actually did OK, scoring a total of 25 runs to the Phillies' 18. The problem was that most of the Nationals' runs were in the second game (Friday the 29th), when they won 17-7. Rookie Juan Soto homered twice, and five other Nats hit four-baggers as well. It was a huge triumph that raised hopes of finally getting the team back on track -- except that in the other three games the Nats lost by one-run margins. Argh-h-h-h-h!
The Nats began their most recent home stand with three games against the Boston Red Sox, and even with three home runs to support him, Max Scherzer couldn't get the win. Boston 4, Washington 3. The next day starting pitcher Tanner Roark had another meltdown, giving up nine runs in an 11-4 loss. Then the Red Sox spoiled the 4th of July festivities in Washington, in a 3-0 loss in which starting pitcher Erick Fedde (Who??) only lasted one inning. Reliever Mark Grace kept things under control for the next four innings, but there was no offense to entertain the jam-packed Nationals Park on that special day.
NOTE: Two years ago I presented a table summarizing all the 4th of July baseball games played by the Nationals since the franchise "rebirth" in 2005. Their cumulative July 4 record was then 7-4, and now it's 8-5.
With that misery behind them, the Nats welcomed the Miami Marlins to town on July 5. This time Jeremy Hellickson had, shall we say, a rather more difficult time on the mound. He gave up seven runs in the first two innings (one unearned), and two more in the fourth inning. Down 9-0, there wasn't much for the Nats to hope for. But in the bottom of the fourth, Trea Turner hit a solo homer, and that small spark lit a firestorm of runs. Over the next three innings, the Nats scored 13 more runs, capped by a grand slam by Trea Turner that gave his team a 10-9 lead in the sixth inning. Believe it or not!!! But then the Marlins closed the gap with three runs in the eighth inning, and only the cool head of closing pitcher Sean Doolittle kept the Nats' 14-12 lead intact through the end of the game. It was the Nats' biggest comeback win every, surpassing the equally improbable 13-12 win (after a 9-1 deficit) in late April 2015.
That set the stage for a rare (for this year) event: the Nationals won the next game, the first consecutive wins by the team since June 5 and 6. The 3-2 victory on July 6 was largely due to the Nats' valuable utility player Mark Reynolds, who hit a walk-off home run -- the first one by a Nats player this year, in fact. The next day (Saturday) featured another offensive explosion by the Nats, as they won, 18-4. Mark Reynolds was the star once again, hitting two more home runs, and racking up 10 runs batted in, tying the franchise record in that departement which Anthony Rendon had set last year (April 2017). It also got Max Scherzer his 12th win of the year. But the next day the Marlins bounced back with a 10-2 win, thus ending the Nats' winning streak at a modest three.
On July 9 in Pittsburgh, a rookie named Jefry Rodriguez was pitching for the Nats, another sign of how badly depleted their pitching staff is. He gave up six runs over five innings, while the Nats only managed three. On Tuesday, a homer by Anthony Rendon and four hits by Daniel Murphy powered the Nats to a 5-1 win. On Wednesday afternoon, Gio Gonzalez had one of his best outings of the year, giving up just two runs over six innings. It could have been worse, but he kept his cool and got out of multiple jams. What's more, he hit a leadoff double, but the next three batters were out to end the inning -- another horrendous example of how the Nats keep screwing up this year. Pirates 2, Nats 0.
While the Nationals were playing against the Baltimore Orioles last month, a new relief pitcher appeared for the first time: Kelvin Herrera, who was acquired from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for three minor league prospects. Like last year, the Nationals are in desperate need of better relievers. In 27 games for Kansas City this year, Herrera had a 1.05 ERA with 14 saves and 22 strikeouts and two walks allowed. (MLB.com) But what the Nats really need is another starting pitcher and perhaps a catcher who can hit the ball with some regularity. Neither Matt Wieters nor Pedro Severino have done much for the Nats this year, and third-string catcher Spencer Kieboom is still too young to be an everyday player. (I suppose one could say the same thing about the young Juan Soto, but that's another story!)
You have to admire Jayson Werth's determination to stay in the game even after his contract with the Nationals expired last year. He was playing minor league ball in the Seattle Mariners' organization, but there just wasn't any room for him, and he decided to retire. He visited Nationals Park earlier this month, and the Nationals announced there will be a special Jayson Werth Day in September. As I have said before, he deserves enormous credit for helping transform the Nationals from an also-ran team into perennial championship contenders.
Read 'em and weep: I updated the Washington Nationals page with data for the first half of the year. At the end of June (coincidentally the exact midpoint in terms of number of games), the Nats' record was 42-39, and now it's back to an even .500: 47-47.
While going through my accumulated newspaper clippings recently, I noticed a news item from three months ago that a Toronto Blue Jays game scheduled for April 16 had to be postponed one day because falling ice from the huge CN Tower next door had punctured the roof of Rogers Centre, necessitating quick repairs. One of the young Toronto stars, Yangervis Solarte, homered that day as the Blue Jays beat the Royals. That drew my attention because Solarte was the guy whose home runs decided the game outcome in the series last month (June 15-17) when the Nats were swept in Toronto.
Many thanks to Andrew Owen, who sent me some fine photos of the (almost) new home of the Atlanta Braves, SunTrust Park. I noticed for the first time that the back rows of the middle deck around the infield consists of double-width table seating. No doubt other details are yet to be discovered. I will update that page soon with said photos and perhaps a diagram update. Who knows, maybe I'll even get there myself later this year...
And so, of course, I had to update the SunTrust Park diagram, and as usual, it took me a lot longer than expected. There are now separate upper deck and lower deck variants, and I may add a second deck variant as well. I decided that there are four main decks, since there is significant overhang between the very top level and the level immediately below it. Among all MLB ballparks, only Miller Park has four distinct decks extending all the way around between the foul poles; Dodger Stadium has four decks around the infield only. There will probably be another update or two in the future, once I get a chance to inspect it on my own.
On a side note, I noticed that Georgia State Stadium (the rebuilt version of Turner Field), has the football gridiron laid out along what used to be the third base line, rather than the first base side as I had previously surmised. See Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia State University; minor diagram update pending...