June 8, 2015 [LINK / comment]
Nationals in a slump, fall into second place
For nearly an entire month, the Washington Nationals were the hottest team in baseball, but of course all good things must come to an end. Just as the lousy month of April (10 wins, 13 losses) ended with three straight victories, the merry, merry month of May (18 wins, 9 losses) ended with three straight defeats -- and rather ugly ones at that.
Plunk! Reds sweep Nats
The Nats suffered a humbling comeuppance on the banks of the Ohio River during the last weekend of May. On Friday the 29th Stephen Strasburg left the game during the second inning, because of some kind of injury. It was the shortest outing of his career. Rookie pitcher Taylor Jordan took over on the mound, and did just fine for the next four innings -- until the Reds scored three runs. Final score: 5-2. The Cincinnati Reds pitcher Tony Cingrani plunked Bryce Harper in the back, causing him to miss a day. In the Saturday game, the Nats had a 5-4 lead going into the eighth inning, and starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez was plunked, twice. Then the Reds scored four runs off Casey Janssen, a veteran relief pitcher acquired from Toronto during the off-season. It was his worst outing of the year. Final score: 8-4. On Sunday the 31st, Tanner Roark (resuming his role as a starting pitcher after being nudged aside into the bullpen this spring) pitched well enough for six innings, giving up just two runs. He stood up for his teammates by a retaliatory plunking of Joey Votto, and that was that. But the Reds once again staged a big late-inning rally, with six runs in the seventh, mostly off Aaron Barrett, who took the loss.
A curious footnote to that forgettable weekend: Joey Votto was awarded a walk by the umpire even though he had only taken three balls. Somehow, nobody seemed to notice. !!?? See MLB.com
If the Nats had swept that series instead of being swept, they would have had a record-setting 21-6 win-loss record for May. The Nationals' best month ever was June 2005, when they went 20-6 (76.9%). They (barely) exceeded 70% one other time, in September 2014, when they went 19-8. I updated the Washington Nationals page with monthly data for May, as well as head-to-head data for for the first two months of 2015, as well as cumulative head-to-head data for 2005-2014.
Before that series, from May 22 to 24, the Nats had edged the Phillies in two out of three games. Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez dominated in their starts, while Stephen Strasburg struggled again, giving up five runs in less than four innings on the mound. The bats were starting to cool off just a bit, a sign of a worrisome trend.
Blue Jays outscore Nats
In their second interleague series of the year, the Nats got off to a good start against the Toronto Blue Jays. Playing back home in D.C. on Tuesday afternoon (June 2) as a makeup for the rainout on Monday night, Jordan Zimmermann was in total command, going eight innings without giving up a run. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman got clutch RBIs, and the Nats won, 2-1. But in the night game, their ace pitcher Max Scherzer was startled when the Blue Jays got two home runs off him, and he took the loss in a 7-3 defeat. On Wednesday, rookie Taylor Jordan gave up four runs in the first inning, but manager Mike Williams nevertheless kept him in the game for five more innings. Final score: 8-0. Talk about "cruel and unusual punishment"! In that regard, I recently posted on Facebook:
Maybe Matt [Williams] was sending a signal to [Mike] Rizzo to get more bucks to bring back Clippard or otherwise fortify this suddenly-weak pitching staff. Poor Taylor Jordan was sacrificed to make a point, I'll bet
Cubs get back at Nats
At Wrigley Field from May 25 to 27, the Nationals took two out of three games from the Cubs, and neither team scored more than three runs. In all three games, the Nats' pitchers had quality starts, with five, seven, and seven innings pitched, respectively. The May 27 showdown between Max Scherzer and the Cubs' new ace Jon Lester was a true classic, and the 3-0 victory marked the climax (and, unfortunately, the end) of the Nationals' hot streak.
So the Cubs arrived in Washington on Thursday, June 4, and they were ready to get revenge. For some reason, Gio Gonzalez had poor command in the first inning, with multiple walks, and the Cubs scored twice. That turned out all they needed, as the Nats fell, 2-1. The Nats lost a challenge to an out call at second base in the fourth inning, and were thus unable to challenge an even more obvious blown call by an umpire when Bryce Harper reached first base on an infield hit in the sixth inning -- but not according to the ump. Argh-h-h-h!!! That game put them into second place (behind the Mets) for the first time since May 17. In Friday night's game the Nats took a 3-0 lead in the second inning, thanks to a huge home run by Danny Espinosa. The ball landed three rows beyond the visitors' bullpen in left field, about 440 feet, I figure. Tanner Roark did fine for the first five innings, but gave up two home runs in the top of the sixth and had to be replaced. He still got the win, though, and the Nats were back in first place. Then on Saturday, the Nats put rookie pitcher Joe Ross on the mound, and he did surprisingly well. He was perfect for the first three innings, and left after six innings, having given up four runs. But the only offense the Nats could manage was a homer by Wilson Ramos and another one by Bryce Harper in the ninth inning. Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel, who has been the Nats' nemesis over the years, beat them once again. Cubs 4, Nats 2. On Sunday, before a capacity crowd of 40,939, Jordan Zimmermann had an uncharacteristically poor outing. Ian Desmond homered to take the lead, but the Cubs piled on more runs and won the game, 6-3. Thus, the Cubs won the regular season series against the Nationals, four games to three. Those two teams might just face each other again during the postseason in October...
Meanwhile in Phoenix, Arizona, the Diamondbacks staged a nice comeback rally against the New York Mets on Saturday night, and added some insurance runs in the eighth inning to win, so Mets fell back into second place again. But on Sunday they beat the D-backs, and thereby claimed first place, with a half-game lead.
So now the Nationals have lost eight of their last ten games, and have a so-so 30-27 record, as they head to New York to play the Yankees in another two-game series. Both teams have been struggling lately, having a hard time living up to expectations. Ryan Zimmerman has been in a bad slump lately, and was given the day off on Sunday to rest.
Harper & Scherzer: NL Player & Pitcher of the Month
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Bryce Harper was chosen as the National League Player of the Month. Not only that, but Max Scherzer was chosen as pitcher of the month, the first time that teammates had won those honors since May 2008. (That was when Milwaukee's Ryan Braun and CC Sabathia were chosen.) See MLB.com. On MASN last week, they had an interesting factoid: Bryce Harper almost became the third player in history have ever led the major leagues in home runs, RBIs, and walks through the month of May. The only two are Babe Ruth (19, 44, 42: 1928) and Ted Williams (15, 55, 40: 1942). Pretty impressive company! Harper (18, 43, 43) was just one behind the leader in RBIs, Giancarlo Stanton. Harper had his 19th homer in the game on Sunday, when the Nats lost to the Cubs.
Werth breaks wrist again
One of the big factors explaining the Nationals' downhill trajectory was the news that Jayson Werth suffered a broken wrist once again, after getting hit by a pitch. Fortunately, it's not as bad as the fracture he suffered while diving to make a catch in May 2012. That caused him to lose three months' of playing time. But still, it's a dirty rotten shame that he has to miss at least two months again.
Get well soon, Jayson!
What's ailing Strasburg?
At the top of the list of most Nationals' fans worries is Stephen Strasburg. What is wrong with him??? In today's Washington Post, Adam Kilgore explores the enigma behind the former ace's cloudy future. The official line is that he has a muscle strain in his neck, but know one seems sure how that happened. The coaches are working with Strasburg to help his pitching mechanics, but there seems to be some kind of psychological problem holding him back. His speed and control seem OK, but he just doesn't seem to be able to outwit batters. More often than not, they seem to expect what pitches he's going to throw.
Bring back Clippard!
Coupled with the minor injury to Doug Fister, the vaunted Washington pitching staff all of a sudden looks rather weak. Rookies are starting games over and over again! Last Tuesday's Washington Post suggested one solution to the Nats' recent bullpen woes: Bringing back Tyler Clippard!
Petco Park renovations
In my blog post of May 21, I neglected to mention one other ballpark renovation this year: Petco Park in San Diego. They have removed several rows of seats in both levels in left field, with that room being made available for standing tables. The upper deck seems to have been truncated by several feet, leaving less overhang. There is also a big new video board, measuring about 62 feet high by 124 feet wide, exceeded only by the display screens at Kauffman Stadium and Safeco Field. See MLB.com; link courtesy of Mike Zurawski.
So, of course I've been busy making revisions to the Petco Park diagrams.
Tal's Hill to be removed
The Houston Astros announced that "Tal's Hill" in center field of Minute Maid Park will be removed before next year, and in its place will be new seating section. See the Houston Chronicle (hat tip to Mike Zurawski), which ran an online poll on the question. I voted NO, of course.
Do you agree with the decision to get rid of "Tal's Hill"?
No (45%, 3,274 Votes)
Yes (42%, 3,013 Votes)
Don't care (13%, 936 Votes)
Total Voters: 7,223
Misc. ballpark news
In Harlem, they have rebuilt the old stairway the fans used to descend en route to the Polo Grounds, with a historical marker; see nydailynews.com. Hat tip to Mike Zurawski.
D.C. United stadium deal!
Today in Washington, the D.C. Government and D.C. United finalized an agreement to build a new soccer stadium, to be located in the Buzzards Point area a few blocks southwest of Nationals Park. They had already reached a tentative deal, but a few details had to be worked out to ensure that the D.C. Council would give its approval. There had been delays in completing the negotiations, because of hesitation by some officials in D.C., but the pace quickened after rumors of a possible deal with Virginia were publicized last month. According to the Washington Post, "The project is expected to cost around $286.7 million and is expected to open for the 2018 Major League Soccer season." Also see dcunited.com. That means that RFK Stadium will become vacant two years from now.
Miller Park visit
Kansas City-area D.J./videographer Scott Rhodes recently went on a road trip up north, seeing games in Milwaukee and the north side of Chicago (Wrigley Field). He took a great photo of Miller Park, and graciously consented to it being used on my Miller Park page.
In addition, Scott is now sponsoring the Kauffman Stadium and K.C. Municipal Stadium pages, promoting his Rockin' Planet Radio online station: rockinplanetradio.com. Thanks and best wishes, Scott!
Belated thanks also go out to James Bigham, who made a donation via PayPal earlier this year. I appreciate all expressions of support for this Web site, whether it's money, news tips, stadium observations, photographs, or just a friendly word.
Speaking of road trips, I'm making travel plans to see some new (for me) ballparks in the next few weeks...