September 25, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Nationals win National League East Division
It took a few days longer than expected, and the waiting last night was further prolonged by the Mets' amazin' comeback effort against the Phillies (see below), but the champagne was finally uncorked. For the third time in the last five years, the Washington Nationals are the champions of the National League East Division. Read all about it at MLB.com.
On Friday, I expressed hope that "the current leads [would] hold up in tonight's Nats-Pirates and Phillies-Mets games," which would have clinched the NL East title. Not quite! The Mets staged a big late-inning rally to beat the Phillies, while the Pirates tied the game with the Nats in the bottom of the ninth, on a home run off of former Pirate Mark Melancon. (He probably felt weird pitching in his old home ballpark for the first time since being traded in late July.) Two innings later, the Pirates loaded the bases as Nats pitcher Yusmeiro Petit was typically ineffective, and then scored the winning run on a single. Final score: 6-5. That loss really stung for the Nats, as it wasted heroic, clutch home runs by Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos.
So would that misfortune get the Nats' spirits down? Not at all. They charged out of the gates in the first inning on Saturday night, and a two-run single by Steven Drew (making the score 3-0) turned out to be all the runs the Nats needed. Oddly, starting pitcher Joe Ross was replaced after giving up a run during the third inning, and Reynaldo Lopez took charge, pitching into the ninth inning without giving up a run. Final score: Nats 6, Pirates 1.
But the Nationals had to hold off on celebrating until they could be sure that the Phillies had beaten the Mets. As F.P. Santangelo said on MASN, it was like when you were a kid getting up early on Christmas morning, but you can't open the presents until your parents wake up. And as Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers) sang, "The wa-aiting is the hardest part!" With a 10-0 lead by the middle of the game, you would think a win by the Phillies would be a sure thing. And you would be wrong! The never-give-up Mets started racking up runs, and by the end of the eighth inning they had closed the gap to just three runs. A homer in the ninth made it a 10-8 game, and the Mets had two runners on base with just one out. But the Phillies managed to get the last two outs, at which point champagne corks started unpopping in the visitors' clubhouse in PNC Park. YES-S-S-S!!!! (Perhaps wanting to make a point, today the Mets unleashed their full fury on the Phillies, winning by a rather lopsided score of 17-0.)
In this afternoon's game, once again the Nationals scored three runs in the top of the first, but this time the Pirates matched them in the bottom of the first, as the Nats starting pitcher A.J. Cole kept walking batters and giving up hits. He only lasted 2 2/3 innings, just like Joe Ross the day before, but for a different reason. Cole threw a retaliatory ball right at (or behind) Jung Ho Kang, who had pretended to reach for a thrown ball as Bryce Harper was reaching third base on a triple to the right field corner the inning before. That nasty little trick forced Harper to suddenly dive toward the bag, jamming his thumb in the process; he left the game after that. Cole did what he had to do, and he was of course ejected, [after which] a benches-clearing confrontation was unleashed. Kang later hit a homer that gave the Pirates a two run lead, raising tensions further. The climax came in the top of the eighth, when Jayson Werth (the point man in that confrontation) hit a two-run homer to center field, tying the game at 7-7. That was the start of what ended up as a five-run rally that gave the Nats the victory, 10-7. This time Mark Melancon got the save.
Comparing championship runs
The Nationals' inexorable march to a divisional championship bears interesting similarities to the corresponding races in 2012 and 2014, as well as some differences. In all three years, the Nats quickly reduced their magic number until September 12, after which the three years' paths diverge considerably. In 2012, the Nationals remained near or above the .600 mark for most of the season, but the Atlanta Braves were close on their heels until the final week of the season. Not until September 30 did they clinch the title. That was one hell of division race! In 2014, in contrast, the Nationals clinched the title on September 16 in the midst of a hot streak, while the Braves crumbled, ending up 17 games behind in the NL East standings. This year the Nats were on virtually the same trajectory as in 2014, but hit an unexpected "speed bump" in Atlanta (and Miami), delaying their triumph by nearly a week.
Thus far this month, the Nationals have a 13-9 (.591) record, which is better than in September 2012, when they went 17-13 (.567), but nowhere near September 2014, when they went 19-8 (.704); see the Washington Nationals annual history pages. Tomorrow the Nats begin a four-game series at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks, followed by a three game series against the Miami Marlins to end the regular season. What happens this week will determine whether the Nationals or the Dodgers host the first two games of the NLDS.
As the postseason approaches, there are three big health-related questions for the Nationals. First, Is Bryce Harper's thumb hurt that badly? If he can't grip the bat firmly, it could seriously affect his slugging power. Second, Is Stephen Strasburg going to heal in time to serve as a starting pitcher in the NLDS? Right now it seems doubtful. Third, Is Daniel Murphy's muscle strain [in the buttocks!] going to affect his hitting success? He has not played for the last five games, wisely getting rested in preparation for October, while David LeMahieu of the Colorado Rockies has taken a slim lead in the National League batting average race: .349 vs. .347.
R.I.P Jose Fernandez
Baseball fans were stunned to learn that the young ace pitcher for the Miami Marlins, Jose Fernandez, had passed away in a boating accident last night. Something as awful as that was just too much for his team mates to endure, so it was decided that the final game of the Braves-Marlins series in Miami would be canceled, and not made up. The Cuban-born pitcher defected to the United States in 2008, when he was just 16. In his first year with the Marlins, 2013, he was named National League Rookie of the Year. For the next two years, he was plagued by injuries, but this year he was near the top in several measures of pitching performance. He was considered a leading candidate for the Cy Young Award, along with Jake Arrieta and Max Scherzer. At MLB.com, Anthony Castrovince writes about what a great impact his positive spirit had on the Marlins. It is sobering to consider how much he could have accomplished in his career had that tragic accident not happened.
History will record that the last game he ever pitched, on September 20, was a championship-caliber pitchers' duel against Tanner Roark of the Washington Nationals, and that he came away the victor, 1-0.
Vin Scully says goodbye
Legendary Dodgers TV commentator Vin Scully bid farewell to Los Angeles fans in this afternoon's game, retiring after a career that began in Brooklyn, way back in 1950. That's just too far back in time to comprehend. His voice may be fading, but he still has the same gusto and sharpness as always. It was fitting that the L.A. Dodgers clinched the NL West Division in the final game he broadcast from Dodger Stadium.