July 31, 2014 [LINK / comment]
The Wild, Wild West! Baseball road trip 2014
I may not have set any records as far as number of stadiums, but I definitely covered more highway miles than in any of my previous baseball-focused road trips. Altogether, I tallied 6,861 miles over the course of six weeks, venturing far into the desert southwest. During these two months, I saw two Major League stadiums for the first time -- Globe Life Park in Arlington and Chase Field in Phoenix -- as well as one new collegiate stadium: TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. I also visited a few small-town ballparks along the way, including one that was just a stone's throw from the Mexican border. Finally, I attended three MLB games, two of which were in stadiums I had previously seen.
[UPDATE: My visit to the home of the Rangers in Arlington, Texas on June 24 was curtailed because my father was not feeling up to a full-fledged tour, so I just walked around the outside of the fortress-like stadium. Fortunately, that coincided with a special children's event when many people were milling around, so I managed to slip inside the main gates for a few minutes. That saved me some travel bucks, so I felt obliged to buy some souvenirs in the team store. I also photographed the "Dallas" Cowboys' semi-new home, AT&T Stadium, about a half mile away. In Phoenix, Arizona the very next evening (1,077 miles away!), I saw the Cleveland Indians come close to shutting out the Diamondbacks, with the only run for the home team coming in the bottom of the ninth, when Miguel Montero hit an RBI single. Final score: 6-1. See MLB.com. This was one day after the D-backs won 9-8 in spectacular walk-off fashion, getting a run in the bottom of the 14th inning after tying the game with two runs in the bottom of the 11th. Credit for the win goes to Aaron Hill for his clutch RBI drive into the left-center gap. I was lucky to see the dramatic finale of that game on TV in my motel room. The Indians were neck-and-neck with the Royals in late June, on the verge of contending in the AL Central, but have since fallen back.]
Nationals move into first place
Just before I left town in the middle of last month, the Washington Nationals had shown signs of improvement, and by the All-Star break they were sharing first place with the Atlanta Braves. Jordan Zimmermann was supposed to make the trip to [ Minneapolis ]
Kansas City (where the American League won the Midsummer Classic), but he had strained his bicep and was replaced on the National League roster by Tyler Clippard. Actually, the two best Nats pitchers this year have been Tanner Roark (now 11-6) and Doug Fister (10-2), who was on the DL until mid-May. His presence has been a huge benefit to the team. Likewise, the return in June of Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper to the active roster (after recovering from thumb injuries) has helped the Nats greatly. With a full, healthy lineup at last, the Nats started to produce runs on a consistent basis, while the bullpen generally held the lead in the late innings of most games. Since the All-Star break, the Nationals have taken sole possession of first place in the NL Eastern Division.
It was in that context that I saw the Nats play in Cincinnati against the Reds last Sunday afternoon. It was only my second game at Great American Ballpark, and the previous time (2004) the team now known as the Nationals was still playing in Montreal, as the Expos. How time flies! The weather that day was threatening, and indeed I had to brave terrible thunderstorms that morning in Kentucky on my way up to Cincinnati. But the sun came out just as the game was scheduled to begin (1:10), and they got the whole nine innings done with barely a sprinkle. It was a pitcher's duel early on, as Doug Fister put on a masterful performance. In the fifth inning a single by Nats' second baseman Danny Espinosa sparked a big rally. Reds' pitcher Mat Latos got shaky, walking two batters and hitting another one with a pitch. The rally was capped when Adam LaRoche hit a two-run single to left field, making it 3-0. The next batter, Ian Desmond hit a towering fly ball to center field that was caught right in front of the fence. A few more feet and it would have been a 6-0 game. In the ninth inning, Anthony Rendon batted in an insurance run that proved to be very useful. In the bottom of the ninth, Aaron Barrett took the mound, but he gave up singles to the first two batters and was immediately replaced by the regular closing pitcher Rafael Soriano. The very next batter, Devin Mesoraco, doubled to deep left-center field, making it a whole new ball game, with the score 4-2. Oh, no, here we go again... Fortunately, Soriano settled down and got the next three batters out to end the game. Whew!
Before and during the game, I made note of several details that had escaped my notice the last time I was inside GABP ten years ago. For one thing, there is a disjuncture between the lower deck main grandstand and the lower deck in left field, where the "pitch" (slope) is steeper. Also, the upper deck bleachers in left field are shaped slightly irregularly. Minor diagram fixups to come...
Royals climb into contention
One nice surprise of the 2014 season is that the Kansas City Royals have made themselves into a contending team. They're 54-52 right now, just five games behind the AL Central leading Detroit Tigers. I saw the Royals play the Cleveland Indians last Friday night, when it was very hot and muggy. The home team took and early lead, but then the visitors tied it. The crucial play in the game was when the slugging star Billy Butler (who was pinch hitting, after being benched) came through with a dramatic two-run homer deep into the bullpen in left field. And I captured the event on camera! The Royals held on to win, 6-4.
Virginia makes it to CWS finals
The University of Virginia Cavaliers made a great effort in the 2014 College World Series in Omaha, making it to the final three-game series for the first time, but ended up a close #2. In Game 1 was a blowout victory by Vanderilt, but U.Va. tied the series in Game 2. In the deciding game, the game was tied 2-2 in the eighth inning when Vanderbilt's John Norwood hit a solo home run that proved to be the deciding play. See ncaa.com. The U.Va. Cavalier baseball team deserves great credit for fighting back and going all the way to the final out. "So close, and yet so far!"
I was hoping my travel plans might coincide with the CWS schedule, but it just didn't work out. I made a point on my return trip (en route to Kansas City) to stop at beautiful, modern TD Ameritrade Stadium for the first time. It replaced the venerable Rosenblatt Stadium south of downtown Omaha in 2011. (See blog posts from June 2011 and August 2009, when I stopped there briefly.) Strangely, however, Omaha's minor league team (the Storm Chasers, the AAA affiliate of the K.C. Royals) does not play there but instead at a smaller ballpark several miles southwest of Omaha. Go figure.