August 1, 2023 [LINK / comment]
Birding Out West, Part I: Texas
(This is the first in a four-part series of blog posts about my birding activities while traveling by rail to the Pacific coast for just over two weeks in June. I previously described my visits to baseball stadiums on June 28, and after finishing the posts on birding will write a summary of my general (i.e., non-baseball, non-birding) tourist experiences.)
June 12, eastern Texas: While passing through east Texas on the Sunset Limited train leaving from New Orleans, I saw a Mississippi Kite. It was probably near the city of Beaumont, and there is a small chance it could have been on the Louisiana side of the state line. I didn't have time to do any birding during my brief stay in New Orleans; about sixteen months earlier I had done a fair amount of birding in and around that city. I arrived in Houston in the late afternoon/early evening, and walked about eight blocks from the Amtrak station to the bus stop downtown. Along the way I passed a nice park along a river which I later learned is actually called the Buffalo Bayou. There were dozens of swallows flying around, and I noticed many Great-tailed Grackles in downtown city parks. They are not shy around humans, I noticed. I had forgotten what a loud, hysterical racket they make, but after consulting my trip reports from Mexico City in 2003, I see that I had the same initial impression back then.
June 13, Houston: It was quite hot during the two-and-a-half days I spent in the nation's fourth-largest city. I saw more Great-tailed Grackles in various places during the day. While passing in front of Christ Church Cathedral on my way to a baseball game in downtown Houston on June 13, I noticed a White-winged Dove perched on a tree limb.
June 14, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge: The first major bird outing during my cross-country rail journey was to Anahuac NWR, about 40 miles east of Houston. To get there I rented a car from Enterprise, and everything worked out fine. That location was recommended by my younger brother John, and as usual his birding advice was sound. As I approached the destination I saw a flock of at least 40 Cattle Egrets following a tractor that was mowing grass -- and kicking up insects! The temperature was in the upper 90s when I arrived about noon, and not surprisingly I did not see any other birders during my entire visit. I was disappointed that the visitor center was closed, but fortunately one of the staff people was there accompanying some young visitors, and she was glad to give me some tips. The actual refuge is located about ten miles south and east of the visitor center, and I started by walking along the Willows Trail. There I saw many Cliff Swallows, a Tricolored Heron, and an immature Little Blue Heron. I was a little disappointed, but almost as soon as I began driving on the road leading to the Boardwalk Trail just to the west, I hit the jackpot. Nearly all of the expected wading birds were present, such as Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, as well as both White Ibises and White-faced Ibises -- the latter being a life bird! (Each life bird will be denoted herein by underlines.) Many Common Moorhens were there as well, but I only saw one Purple Gallinule. Both Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Fulvous Whistling Ducks (life bird!) were seen in fair numbers. (That lady had told me I was sure to see plenty of them, but it wasn't until I was almost done with that loop that I saw them.) From the boardwalk I heard a Clapper Rail within 30 yards, but it refused to emerge from the reeds, so I can't definitively claim it as a life bird. One surprise was a Long-billed Dowitcher, considered rare in Anahuac according to the checklist. They are supposed to migrate to the northern tundras of Alaska and Canada. Toward the end of my visit to Anahuac I was startled to hear a PEENT call, and sure enough there was a Common Nighthawk swooping around. (It was only about 4:30 PM!) It perched briefly, providing me with a photo op, but its head was turned the other way, unfortunately. My original plan was to stop at other places within Anahuac and then head southwest to Galveston and loop back up to Houston, but I was running late and didn't want to miss my train to Los Angeles, so I headed straight back to Houston.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Purple Gallinule, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, White Ibis, White-faced Ibis, Common Moorhen, Tricolored Heron, Neotropic Cormorant, Black-necked Stilt, and (center) Fulvous Whistling Duck. (June 14, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge)
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Cattle Egret, Common Nighthawk, Great Egret, Green Heron, Eastern Kingbird, Long-billed Dowitcher, and (center) Snowy Egret and Great-tailed Grackle. (June 14, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge)
June 15, western Texas: While on the train approaching the town of Alpine in western Texas the next day I saw my first-ever Barn Owl, perched on a fence. How bizarre! The maps in my field guides indicate that they are more common in southern and western states, so perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. In southeastern Arizona late in the afternoon I glimpsed a probable Swainson's Hawk, which has a unique pattern under the wings.
As usual, the above photo montages can be seen on the Wild Birds chronological photo gallery page, and additional photos, including some closeup images, will soon be posted there as well in the near future.
NEXT: Birding in Los Angeles, California!
August 7, 2023 [LINK / comment]
Sweep! Nats get revenge in Cincy
One of the low points of this year for the Washington Nationals was when they were swept by the Cincinnati Reds at home in Nationals Park, on July 3-6. Well, this weekend they made up for it by sweeping the Reds in three games at Great American Ballpark. The scores were nearly identical (6-3, 7-3, and 6-3, respectively), but each of the games transpired in dramatically different fashion. On Friday Patrick Corbin gave up two solo home runs in the first inning and another one in the third inning, and was on the hook for the loss until Joey Meneses tied the game 3-3 with a 2-run homer in the 8th inning. Talk about clutch! In the 10th inning, Jake Alu (recently called up from the minors) hit an RBI double, followed by a 2-run homer by Lane Thomas. It was a dramatic comeback win for the "D.C. 9"! On Saturday, Joan Adon took the mound as starting pitcher for the first time in over a year. To the utter amazement of everyone, he retired all of the first 17 batters that he faced, whereupon Luke Maile singled to right field in the 6th inning, ruining Adon's chance at a perfect game. That must have broken his concentration, because he then gave up a single and a home run to bring the Reds back into the game with a 6-3 score. A double in the top of the 9th widened the Nats' lead slightly, taking away Kyle Finnegan's chance for a save. (He did get the save in the other two games.) On Sunday the Nats repaid the Reds for what Patrick Corbin suffered on Friday: the first two batters in the first inning (CJ Abrams and Lane Thomas) both hit solo home runs, and in both cases it was on the first pitch! No other MLB pitcher has started the game by giving up home runs on the first two pitches over the past 50 years. It was the very first time on the mound for the Reds' pitcher Lyon Richardson, quite a brutal initiation into the major leagues! The Nats scored two more runs that inning, but the Reds soon narrowed the gap, and Nats' starting pitcher Jake Irvin was replaced during the 5th inning. Lane Thomas batted in two more runs later in the game, raising his season total for RBIs to 65. (See Washington Post.) It was the Nats' second sweep in the past two weeks, and as the Mets continue to lose (getting swept by the Orioles), the Nats are now only a game and a half behind the Mets in the National Leage East Division.
The Nats' comeback win on Friday was the second such feat in as many days. On Thursday, they were behind the visiting Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 going into the bottom of the 9th, at which point they loaded the bases (on two walks and a single), with nobody out. Alex call grounded to third base for what should have been an easy force out at home, but the throw went wide of the catcher and two runs scored. Thus, the Nats ended up winning that game 3-2, thereby prevailing over the Brewers two games to one in the series.
Interestingly, the Nationals did not have an extra-inning game until June 15 (vs. the Astros), which they won. Since then they have played in four other games that went into extra innings, winning three out of four, i.e. four out of five altogether. Ironically, every one of their extra-inning victories was on the road, and their only extra-inning loss (vs. the Reds, on July 6) was at home. That loss concluded an embarrassing four-game sweep defeat, as noted above.
Another interesting factoid: the Nationals are now 22 1/2 games behind the Braves, which is way too much but is actually a smaller gap than was the case one month ago (24 1/2)!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Cincinnati's Union Station, four blocks south of where Crosley Field once stood; the John A. Roebling bridge across the Ohio River; and the city skyline from the Kentucky side, dominated by the Great American Tower, overlooking Great American Ballpark.
In case you're wondering about all the gratuitous displays of urban scenery in these recent baseball blog posts, it's a subtle way of drawing attention to a new feature on the Baseball cities page, whereby you can see such mini-views of almost all major U.S. cities simply by rolling your mouse over the city names on the map toward the bottom. Is that cool, or what? In some cases, the "montages" are quite deficient (e.g. Phoenix), in some there is merely a skyline (e.g. Atlanta), while for two cities there are no photographic images at all: St. Petersburg-Tampa and San Diego. "Wait 'til next year!"
Who owns the Athletics?
Not the Giants! Across the continent, the Oakland Athletics pulled off a two-game "mini-sweep" of the visiting San Francisco Giants. Attendance on Saturday was 37,553, probably the biggest of the year at Oakland Coliseum, and on Sunday it was 27,381. No doubt most of the "extra" fans were fans of the visiting team, so the unexpected losses must have caused some strange vibes.
The question of who owns the Athletics is important right now because of the ongoing discussions on relocating the franchise to Las Vegas. After learning that Lew Wolff had sold his stake in 2012, I updated the MLB Franchises page to indicate that John Fisher is the owner of the Oakland Athletics, not Lewis Wolff. Fisher acquired a majority stake in the franchise in 2005, at which time Lewis Wolff became a minority owner who served as the de facto chief executive role. (That page also now shows updated 2022 attendance figures for each MLB team, rather than the 2019 figures as shown before.)
August 24, 2023 [LINK / comment]
Nationals continue amazing upward surge
Most people had fairly low expectations for the Washington Nationals this year, and the first half of the season seemed to bear those out. Since the All-Star break in mid-July, however, they have attained one of the highest winning percentages in the major leagues (23-15, or .605), keeping pace with the red-hot, NL-leading Atlanta Braves. With today's razor-thin victory over the Yankees in New York, the Nats are now tied with the New York Mets for 4th place in the National League East Division -- believe it or not! Now that the fall semester is underway, let's see if I can get caught up with the happenings over the past two and a half weeks...
Phillies dominate Nats
After sweeping the Reds in Cincinnati (see August 7), the Nats traveled to Philadelphia, but because of heavy rain on August 7, they played a double-header the next day. Their hopes of extending their four-game winning streak were quickly dashed in the afternoon game, but in the second game, Joey Meneses hit two home runs, while Ildemaro Vargas hit another one, helping the Nats to edge the home team, 5-4. On August 9, however, the recently-acquired pitcher Michael Lorenzen went a full nine innings without giving up any hits; he threw 124 pitches and walked four batters. It was the first time the Nationals had suffered a no-hit loss since they began playing in 2005, and I had the misfortune to watch most of it on TV. PHI 7, WSH 0. In the final game of that series, the Nats out-hit the Phillies 10 to 6, but only went 2 for 15 with runners in scoring position, so they lost, 6-2. The Phillies beat the Nats by wide margins in three games out of four.
Nats sweep the A's
Back in D.C. on Friday August 11, the Nationals got back on track hosting the Oakland Athletics, who have had the lowest win-loss record in the majors for most of this season. It was a veritable clash of cellar-dwellers! Home runs by Keibert Ruiz, Ildemaro Vargas, and Jake Alu (a recent call-up from the minors) assured an 8-2 win by the home team in the opening game. On Saturday, the A's were ahead 2-1 going into the bottom of the 8th inning, when Lane Thomas batted in the tying run. One inning later, Keibert Ruiz hit a walk-off homer for the first time in his career! In the Sunday game the A's had an even bigger lead: it was 7-2 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Trevor May took the mound to finish it off, but he walked two batters and gave up three hits, while an error by the shortstop extended a very improbable Nats rally that culminated with a walk-off Texas Leager single by rookie Jeter Downs, as the Nats scored six ninth-inning runs to win it. Final score: WSH 8, OAK 7. That must have been excruciatingly painful for the long-suffering fans of the A's.
Nats beat the Red Sox
After a day of rest, the Nationals welcomed the Boston Red Sox to town. Josiah Gray took the loss in the first game even though the Nats staged an impressive 4-run rally in the 3rd inning. Final score: BOS 5, WSH 4. In the second game, Keibert Ruiz hit a 3-run homer in the 8th inning to retake the lead, and Stone Garrett added a solo homer, as the Nats won it, 6-2. In the "rubber match" game on Thursday Joey Meneses batted in 5 runs on two doubles, leading the Nats to a 10-7 victory. Rookie reliever Robert Garcia gave up 6 runs to the Red Sox in the 7th inning, but it didn't affect the outcome.
Nats edge the Phillies
On Friday August 18, the Phillies arrived in Washington, and all heck soon broke loose. In the top of the 4th inning the visitors scored 6 runs, as young pitcher Joan Adon was simply overwhelmed. Hopes seemed faint at best, but the Nationals somehow mustered the will to bulldoze their way back into the game, matching the Phillies with 6 runs of their own, as CJ Abrams hit a 3-run homer. Crazy, right? The game then settled down, and the Nats won the game, 8-7! Guess who the losing pitcher was? Michael Lorenzen, the same guy who threw a no-hitter against the Nats on August 9!! That's what you call sweet revenge. In the Saturday afternoon game, Jake Irvin pitched his very best game yet with the Nats, striking out 7 batters and not allowing any runs over six innings. But in the 8th inning, the Nats' Cory Abbott gave up eight (8) runs, and the Phillies won it, 12-3. Crazy again, right??
On Sunday, the series shifted 170 miles north to Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, marking the annual Little League World Series series. (There is a table on that page showing all the past MLB games played there; next year the Yankees and Tigers will face each other in that remote, picturesque ballpark.) This year the Nationals were the nominal "home" team, even though the venue is located in the Phillies' region. The Nats jumped to an early 4-0 lead in the first inning, and neither team scored until the 9th inning, when the Phillies staged a rally. Kyle Finnegan came in to relieve Mason Thompson, and quickly gave up a home run but then got the final out to save the 4-3 Nats' victory.
Nats edge the Yankees
After resting on Thursday, the Nationals headed to Bronx, New York to face the last-place Yankees. In the 3rd inning, Carter Kieboom, just returning to the majors after missing all of last year due to injury, surprised everyone by hitting a home run in his very first at bat! Ben Rortvedt of the Yankees did likewise in the bottom of that inning, and the game remained tied until the top of the 8th when CJ Abrams also hit a solo homer. Those three swings of the bat accounted for all the scoring in that game, which the Nats won, 2-1. Perhaps angered by that result, the Yankees bounced back the next day with a massive onslaught led by Aaron Judge. He hit THREE (3) home runs, including a grand slam in the 2nd inning. It was a mediocre outing by starting pitcher Mackenzie Gore, combined with an exhausted Nats bullpen. In the 7th inning, D.J. LeMahieu hit a line drive home run over the head of right fielder Stone Garrett who hit the wall awkwardly while trying to catch the ball, and he fell over in agony. The trainer, Manager Davey Martinez, and several players gathered around him while the medical crew prepared to take him to a hospital. Today we learned that he broke his fibula (the rear lower bone) on his left leg, and will almost certainly miss the rest of this season. The score was 9-0 in the top of the 9th inning with two outs and a count of 3-2 on Dominic Smith, who proceeded to hit a solo home run. Thus, the Nationals managed to avoid being shut out in a very discouraging game.
In today's game, Aaron Judge kept inflicting misery on the Nationals, with yet another home run (solo) in the first inning: that's four in just two days! After the Nats tied it in the top of the 3rd inning, Gleyber Torres hit a 2-run homer that just squeaked over the fence in the left field corner, and it looked like the Nats' pitcher Patrick Corbin was about to cave in. But he hung in there and kept getting out of jams, as he has done so many times this year, and finished six innings without giving up any more runs: a "quality start"! Then in the top of the 7th the Nats staged a rally capped by a two-run homer by Alex Call that put the Nats on top, 4-3. And then CJ Abrams hit another homer! He stood in the batter's box to proudly watch that ball sail over the fence, drawing ire from fans in the Bronx. Then Giancarlo Stanton homered to narrow the gap in the bottom of the 8th, Joey Meneses hit a high-bouncing infield single to bat in a run in the top of the 9th, after which the Nats' closing pitcher Kyle Finnegan took the mound. Heavy mist turned to light rain as the Yankees staged an extremely tense and dramatic two-out rally: Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single, and Harrison Bader hit a long fly ball to the warning track in front of the Nats' bullpen left of center field, and somehow Alex Call managed to catch it after making an awkward turn. Game over! Nats 6, Yankees 5. Alex Call may not have very good offensive numbers (batting average of .202), but he did hit a walk-off home run earlier this year, and he often gets clutch hits. He hustles like hell in center field, and that kind of competitive spirit can really lift a team sometimes. (Remember Gerardo Parra -- Mr. Baby Shark?)
When you look at all the narrow margins of victory amassed by the Nationals recently, and take into account the unusual circumstances that often accompanied those wins, you realize that simple good luck may have played a big role in their steady climb in the standings. The "scrappy Nats" somehow seem to keep bouncing back from adversity and finding creative ways to pull victory out of the jaws of defeat. I'm not denigrating their highly-motivated performances at all, but a realistic outlook suggests that they may not be able to sustain this pace of wins for much longer. In any event, they are virtually assured of a winning record in August, the first winning month since June 2021, the "Kyle Schwarber month." (See the Washington Nationals page.)
Nats extend Martinez's contract
The Washington Nationals front office announced that Manager Davey Martinez's contract has been extended for another two years. I sometimes criticize him for the way he handles his pitchers, apparently stubbornly sticking to his pregame plans no matter what, but you have to give him a lot of credit for helping to rebuild the Nationals, whose future now is looking a lot brighter.
Dylan Crews: future superstar?
In the 2023 MLB draft held in July, the Nationals got Dylan Crews, a star outfielder/slugger from LSU, and he quickly lived up to the hype about his future potential. In just 14 games with the Nationals' low Class A affiliate in Fredericksburg, he's been hitting home runs left and right (5 altogether), with a .355 batting average. As a result, he is being promoted to the Class AA team in Harrisburg, PA; see the Washington Post. His performance and career trajectory remind me of Bryce Harper, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him reach the majors during the first half of next year.
There was big news today about the ailing Stephen Strasburg's future with the Nationals, but I will wait until the situation becomes more clarified before commenting on it.
August 31, 2023 [LINK / comment]
Stephen Strasburg prepares to retire
It's hard to imagine this tragedy ending any other way, but Stephen Strasburg has by all accounts begun the steps leading to an expected formal announcement of his retirement on September 11. This was disclosed in the Washington Post and other major media outlets one week ago. Ever since July 2020, when the baseball season belatedly got underway, almost every appearance by Strasburg has been accompanied by some news about pinched nerves or sore muscles. It has been a truly grim litany of physical woe, and few people doubted that his career as a pitcher was essentially over. As I noted on March 24 this year, "he could barely make it through one day of spring training before the pain in his side came back ..."
The thing is, Strasburg really doesn't have to do anything, since his contract is guaranteed -- whether he is able to play or not. The way this news was disclosed suggests that both Strasburg and the Nationals owners are maneuvering toward a mutually-acceptable settlement to void the rest of his contract. Presumably, the two sides will negotiate a split of the salary he is owed for the next three years -- at $35 million per year. (In December 2019 he signed a 7-year contract worth $245 million.)
I don't begrudge Strasburg for his bad misfortune, and I try to refrain from criticizing the Nats front office for the decision to extend his contract at a premium price. Given Strasburg's history of injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2010 (his first year), it seemed like a risky move to me, but few people could have foreseen that Strasburg's mega-contract would prove to be almost a complete bust. We'll learn more in the next two weeks, and I expect that Strasburg will reciprocate the trust that the Nationals owners put in him by accepting a big reduction in compensation in exchange for retiring early.
Nationals climb into 4th place!
Even though they lost the final game of their 3-city road trip yesterday and lost in the opening game against the Marlins tonight, the Washington Nationals ended the month of August in sole possession of 4th place in the National League East Division. (One must admit that they were helped in this endeavor by the struggling New York Mets, who are a half game behind the Nats.) It was the first time they have finished a calendar month out of the proverbial cellar since August 2021, as you can see on the Washington Nationals page.
After taking two of three games from the Yankees in New York last week, the Nationals traveled to Miami and did the same thing there to the Marlins. That was a big psychological boost, since the Marlins swept the Nats in 3-game series both in Washington and Miami earlier this year. Last Friday Joan Adon had another superb night on the mound, while Carter Kieboom homered again and Joey Meneses batted in 3 more runs in the 7-4 victory. On Saturday Jake Irvin pitched well again, but his team's weak offense left him on the hook for a loss. Then with two outs in the top of the 9th inning, Jake Alu hit a clutch RBI single up the middle to tie the game, and then the Nats took the lead on a wild pitch. Final score: Nats 3, Marlins 2. The same situation materialized in the 9th inning on Sunday afternoon, but this time the Nats couldn't pull off another magic trick, so they lost, 2-1.
The next day the Nats flew all the way up to Toronto, without a rest day. For some reason Josiah Gray was totally ineffective on the mound, and was replaced after just two innings. Joey Meneses batted in 3 runs, which is all that the Nats scored that day. Blue Jays 6, Nats 3. On Tuesday Mackenzie Gore had a decent outing as pitcher, and thanks to home runs by Carter Kieboom (#3!) and Keibert Ruiz, he was credited with the win. The Nats bullpen buckled but didn't break. Closing pitcher Kyle Finnegan gave up singles to the first two batters, and then walked the bases loaded. Somehow he managed to hold the Blue Jays to just one run scored, and he got the save in the 5-4 victory. Nerves of steel!!! On Wednesday afternoon, Patrick Corbin had one of his frequent off days, as the Nats lost the rubber match game 7-0. Believe it or not, that was the first series loss by the Nationals since August 8-10 in Philadelphia! In any event, by racking up a 5-4 record during that road trip, the Nats finally took 4th place from the New York Mets.
The Nats began a long home stand against the Marlins tonight, but they must be tired from the lack of recent rest days, because almost everyone turned in a lackluster performance. Joan Adon took the loss in the 6-1 outcome. It's a shame, because the Nats were only 4 1/2 games behind the Marlins in the NL East, and had a chance to pull within a half game in this four-game series. Technically, the Nationals are on the outer fringes of the wild card race, but that is a far-fetched prospect. With a 62-73 record right now, it is highly unlikely that they can reach the .500 mark (81-81) by the end of the season, but 70 wins is easily doable. Maybe even 75!?
Oakland Coliseum photos!
I finally updated the Oakland Coliseum page with several corrections to the text and some reformatting, as well as a big batch of gorgeous sunlit photos, including the following montage of scenes around the stadium. The Athletics are still moving ahead with plans to build a new stadium in Las Vegas, but it's not a done deal, and there is perhaps still a chance that a deal can be worked out with the city of Oakland and/or Alameda County.
Various scenes at Oakland Coliseum, June 13, 2023. Roll the mouse over the photo to see yours truly in a selfie.
Note on that page the new map of the San Francisco Bay area, which will soon replace the San Francisco map on the Oracle Park page as well.
Note also that the map indicates a distance of 25 miles (from the edge of the map) to Levi's Stadium, the semi-new home of the "San Francisco" 49ers," who should actually be renamed the "San Jose 49ers," inasmuch as it is located only 6 miles from downtown San Jose. In contrast, downtown San Francisco is about 35 miles away! That got me to thinking about how NFL stadiums compare to MLB stadiums in terms of their proximity to (or distance from) their respective city centers...
New stadium news
Both Kansas City and Chicago are involved in discussions about possible new stadiums, and after taking a closer look at the proposals I will try to set aside my deep skepticism and offer some thoughtful reflections...