September 23, 2022 [LINK / comment]

60!!! Aaron Judge ties Babe Ruth

With two weeks left to play in the regular season, it was almost inevitable that Aaron Judge was going to reach the fabled 60-home run plateau. The fact that he did so at home in (New) Yankee Stadium and as part of such a dramatic comeback win on Tuesday night was icing on the proverbial cake. As the first batter in the bottom of the ninth inning, with the Yankees behind the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates 8-4, there didn't seem to be much risk in pitching to Judge. Well, on a 3-1 pitch he crushed that ball, which sailed over the inner section of seats in left field, landing several rows into the bleachers beyond. BOOM!!! He thus tied Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs, which he hit in 1927. We can expect Judge to tie Roger Maris's record of 61 any day now, and probably surpass it by the end of the month. Right now Judge leads the American League in batting average (.316) and RBIs (128) as well as home runs, and has an excellent chance to win the AL Triple Crown.

Perhaps more importantly, that homer by Judge sparked an incredible rally that culminated with a walk-off grand slam hit by Giancarlo Stanton. Final score: Yankees 9, Pirates 8. Does this mean that old Bronx Bombers' magic is back? The Yankees have bounced back from an awful August (10-18, virtually the same as the Washington Nationals), and are 12-6 so far in September. They are several games behind the Houston Astros in the race for the best American League record, and several games ahead of the Cleveland Guardians, so there is little doubt that they will end up as the #2 seed in the AL.

After a slump in August, the Phillies' Kyle Schwarber has improved lately, and just reached the 40-home run mark for the first time in his career. His team mate Bryce Harper has returned to the lineup after missing several weeks due to a broken thumb, but this year has been pretty much a washout for him -- relatively speaking. Paul Goldschmidt (with 35) is tied for fourth place in the National League home run race, and his chances of winning the NL Triple Crown are dwindling fast.

The Nationals struggle to matter

As the first MLB team to be officially eliminated from playoff contention, the Washington Nationals have been challenged by the lack of any clear motivation other than salvaging pride. The Nats 6-5 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis on September 7th was one of those ugly meltdowns that you would just as soon forget about. Having shaken off the 4-1 loss on Tuesday, they were enjoying a 5-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning. But for whatever reason, closing pitcher Kyle Finnegan just couldn't get outs, and the home team scored five times to win the game. It wasn't even a closing situation, and Finnegan may not have been used to being used in that role. He had not pitched for several days, and apparently just needed some practice. It didn't work. But no matter, the Nats bounced back with an 11-6 win on Thursday afternoon, as the young left fielder Alex Call went 4 for 5 at the plate, hitting a home run and getting 5 RBIs.

The Nats' "warm streak" came to an abrupt end in Philadelphia over the weekend of September 9th-11th, as they were swept by the Phillies. Patrick Corbin went nearly seven innings on the mound but took the loss in the 5-3 Friday game. On Saturday, Joey Meneses homered to give the Nats an early 2-0 lead, but Erick Fedde was replaced in the fifth inning after giving up four runs (including a homer by Bryce Harper), and the home team won the game, 8-5. Sunday's game featured an agonizing rain delay of more than three and a half hours, setting a record for Citizens Bank Park. The game resumed in the third inning, and the Nats quickly took a 4-1 lead, but then Erasmo Ramirez and other relief pitchers gave up multiple runs, as the Nats lost, 7-5.

The Nationals then hosted the Baltimore Orioles in a two-game series in Washington, and the visitors won both of those games. On Tuesday the Nats took the lead on a two-run rally in the third inning, but then fell behind after starting pitcher Cory Abbott was replaced by Hunter Harvey. Final score: Orioles 4, Nats 3. In the Wednesday game, the Nats once again took an early lead (this time 2-1) thanks to solo homers by Riley Adams and Luke Voit (as well as fine pitching by Patrick Corbin), but then Mason Thompson gave up four runs in the seventh inning, as the Orioles won it, 6-2. That one hurt.

Friday the 16th marked a big turnaround for the Nationals, as the Miami Marlins came to town. Josiah Gray gave up four runs in the second inning, while the Nats failed to score at all until the seventh inning. That's when the amazing Joey Meneses smashed a ball that bounced off the top of the center field wall and was deflected by the center fielder, rolling over 100 feet along the warning track in right-center field. Meneses (age 30) is not the fastest runner, but he managed to circle the bases and score an inside-the-park home run, the first by a Nationals player since Michael A. Taylor did so in September, 2017. (That was actually an inside-the-park grand slam!) Anyway, the Nats scored four runs in that inning and one more in the eighth inning (on an RBI double by Ildemaro Vargas), and held on to win it, 5-4. On Saturday afternoon, the Nats scored exactly one run in each of the first five innings, four of them on home runs -- by Lane Thomas, Luke Voit, Victor Robles, and Alex Call. Closing pitcher Kyle Finnegan kept his cool and got the save for the second day in a row. On Sunday the Nats just couldn't overcome the Marlins' pitching ace Sandy Alcantara, losing by a score of 3-1.

On Monday the Nats flew down to Atlanta, and starting pitcher Cory Abbott was simply outmatched by the Braves' Kyle Wright. Joey Meneses broke out of the minor slump by hitting 4 for 4, but it wasn't enough as the Nats fell, 5-2. On Tuesday the much-improved Patrick Corbin took the mound, but he had to leave due to back spasms before the first inning was over. The Nats bullpen did a fine job covering for him, but the Braves still won it, 3-2. On Wednesday afternoon Paolo Espino went four innings, giving up two runs, and the bullpen came through once again, not allowing any more runs by the Braves. The Nats were behind 2-1 in the top of the seventh when Joey Meneses hit yet another clutch home run with a man on base, putting the Nats ahead. That 3-2 victory was a big shot in the arm for the beleaguered Nationals.

Throughout September, the Nationals have benefited greatly by amazing defensive plays at shotstop by CJ Abrams, as well as by Joey Meneses and some of their other outfielders. Those players are clearly motivated to land a starting role on the team next spring. After resting on Thursday, the Nats begin a weekend series in Miami against the Marlins.

Spoiler alert!

As the NL East Division race heats up, the other five MLB division races are pretty much decided already, with leads of at least seven games over the second-place teams in all cases. The Atlanta Braves briefly took sole possession of first place ahead of the New York Mets in the NL East, only to drop back again. The Nats play three more games against the Braves (next week), followed by a four-game series against the Phillies, and then wrapping up the season with three games against the Mets in New York. Given that only one and a half games separate the Mets and Braves right now, it is safe to say that the Nationals will have a decisive role in determining the divisional championship this year.