September 29, 2019
The Washington Nationals were in a bit of a slump for roughly the first half of September, but gradually got [hot] again, clinching an NL wild card berth on Tuesday night.
After beating the Miami Marlins on Friday September 20, the Nationals had a comfortable 4-0 lead on Saturday night, and once again the bullpen caved in, as the Marlins scored four runs in the eighth inning. It ruined Stephen Strasburg's chance at getting 20 wins for the first time in his career, and the game went into extra innings. That's when the Marlins bullpen caved in, as the Nats scored six runs in the top of the tenth to win it, 10-4. "Over and out!" On Sunday, Austin Voth had a superb outing on the mound, giving up just one run over five innings, but once again the Marlins scored four runs in a latter inning; the seventh, this time. The Nats failed to respond, and that's how their near-sweep of the Marlins ended, with a 5-3 loss.
Even though the Nationals were ahead in the NL wild card race as the Phillies came to Washington on Monday evening, they had reason to be nervous. The Milwaukee Brewers were closing the gap rapidly, while the Philadelphia Phillies (in fourth place) seemed to relish the role of spoiler. It was a rare five-game series, made necessary by the postponement of a rained out game earlier in the season. The Chicago Cubs were still in contention for the wild card spot, and the Nats needed at least a series win against the Phillies. On Monday, Patrick Corbin had a solid six-inning outing on the mound, while three Nats homered: Adam Eaton, Yan Gomes, and Trea Turner. Final score: Nats 7, Phillies 2. On Tuesday afternoon, Joe Ross was tapped as starting pitcher, and even though he was pulled after just four innings, he lived up to expectations as the Nats won again, 4-1. In the evening, Max Scherzer had a bit of a hard time, but in his typical determined fashion, he stayed in for six full innings even though he gave up four runs. He was rescued from a possible loss by Trea Turner, who hit a grand slam in the sixth inning, and in spite of a late solo home run by Bryce Harper the Nats won again, 6-5. The players gathered on the field after the game to watch the end of the Cubs game on the video scoreboard, and once that was over, the Nationals celebrated clinching a wild card spot. On Wednesday, Anibal Sanchez had one of his best outings of the year, giving up just two runs over seven innings, and thanks to home runs by Howie Kendrick and Brian Dozier, the Nats prevailed once again, 5-2. That was four wins in a row, but it wouldn't count as a sweep unless the Nats could win the finale on Thursday. That game was a hell of a showdown, and Stephen Strasbur was ready for it. He struck out ten batters while only allowing one run over six innings, while Michael A. Taylor (a one-time starting player who spent most of this year in the minor leagues) went three for four including a clutch home run. And that's how the Nationals won, 6-3, thereby beating the Phillies in a rare (and perhaps unprecedented for the franchise) five game sweep!
Finally, the Cleveland Indians arrived in Washington on Friday, hoping to grab one of the two AL wild card spots from the Tampa Bay Rays. (The Oakland A's had already clinched.) In other words, they were motivated! But the Nationals were also motivated, but in this case merely the desire to stay ahead in the wild card race in order to get home field advantage. Austin Voth put in another fine performance as pitcher, and Trea Turner homered once again (his fourth one this week!) to put the Nats on top early. But the biggest contributor to that game came was Gerardo Parra who hit a home run and went three for three, as the Nats cruised to a 8-2 victory. The Indians were thereby eliminated from postseason contention. On Saturday, the Indians seemed listless early on, and the Nats scored nine runs in the second inning, including a grand slam by Gerardo Parra -- he of "Baby Shark" fame.
As an indication of how well they are doing, the Nationals currently enjoy a seven-game winning streak, whereas before this week their longest such streak this year was just five games. Well, better late than never! No other team currently has such a long winning streak, and if the Nats prevail again today, that would certainly make a nice way to end the season.
Nevertheless, having clinched home-field advantage in Tuesday's wild card game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Nationals really won't have much at stake in this afternoon's regular-season finale against the Indians. Max Scherzer had been slated to start today, but instead he will be given the responsibility as starting pitcher on Tuesday. And so today's game will most likely be an uneventful snooze-fest, as various rookies and under-utilized bench players get a chance to prove themselves for the postseason. But one thing is for sure, win or lose: It will be a joyous occasion at the end, as the Nationals will get a huge round of applause for making it to the postseason against all odds. Few people back in mid-May would have expected their fortunes to turn so sharply upward.
On a more somber note, there is a very real possibility that this may be Ryan Zimmerman's final regular season game in major league baseball. It's hard to imagine him signing with any team other than the Nationals. In any event, I will be there!
[UPDATE: Yes, they did! It was a wonderful day at Nationals Park, and the Nationals kept up their momentum through the very end, beating the Indians, 8-2. Details to follow tomorrow...]
During the first game of the series in St. Louis on September 16, the Nats' beleaguered manager Dave Martinez had to leave in the middle of the game last week because of chest pains, and underwent a cardiac catheterization procedure in a local hospital. He rested a couple days and then returned to duty when the Nats played in Miami, and he seems to have recovered. I join other Nats fans in wishing him all the best.
In preparation for another October full of thrills, chills, and spills, I have updated the Postseason scores page with a projected set of matchups for the wild card games and divisional series games. The only question yet to be decided is whether the Milwaukee Brewers will grab the NL Central title from the Cardinals, who would in that case face the Nationals in the wild card game.