April 21, 2017 [LINK / comment]
Baseball is back: Opening
Day(s) Week(s) 2017!
My, how time flies! Somehow, nearly three weeks of the 2017 baseball season have gone by already. It was "Opening Day" for six teams on Sunday April 2, and home teams used their advantage in each case. The Tampa Bay Rays surprised the visiting Yankees with a crowd-pleasing win, and the Arizona D-backs did likewise to the visiting Giants, and the St. Louis Cardinals did to the visiting Cubs. But since then the Yankees have gradually recovered, while the Cardinals languish in last place in the National League Central, and the Giants aren't doing much better. There are a number of surprises, such as how well the Colorado Rockies and Arizona D-backs are doing.
The World Champion Chicago Cubs (!!??) have been struggling for some reason, perhaps due to the loss of Dexter Fowler to the arch-rival Cardinals. But they have also managed some incredible late-game comebacks. Tonight in Cincinnati, for example, Anthony Rizzo hit a game-tying 3-run homer in the top of the ninth, and the Cubs went on to win in 11 innings.
Nats start on a good note
The Nationals started the season red hot, then stumbled a bit in the second week, but have since won their last five games to put them back into first place. Opening Day in Our Nation's Capital (April 3) rattled some fans' nerves, as the Miami Marlins took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning. But Bryce Harper hit a solo homer in the sixth inning, and newly-acquired Adam Lind hit a two-run pinch-hit homer in the seventh inning to give the Nats the lead for good. After an insurance run, the final score was Nats 4, Marlins 2. And Stephen Strasburg got the win! The Nats won the second game of the series 6-4, thanks to a homer by Ryan Zimmerman, but lost the third game in spite of three homers -- all solo shots. Marlins 4, Nats 3 in ten innings.
Then on April 7 the Nats began a brief road trip to Philadelphia, perhaps a bit overconfident. Three home runs gave them a big lead, but the bullpen faltered and the Phillies almost tied the game in the ninth inning. Nats 7, Phillies 6. Undoubtedly, the low point of the season occurred on April 8 when Jeremy Guthrie started for the Nats, and proceeded to give up 10 runs without even finishing the first inning! Final score: 17-3, tied with June 19, 2007 (Detroit won 15-1) for the worst margin of defeat in Nats history. Guthrie is a former star pitcher for the Kansas City Royals who struggled with some physical problems last year, and his career is in grave jeopardy. That debacle really deflated Nats' spirits, and it carried over into the next day, when the Phillies were about to win 3-0 when none other than Ryan Zimmerman hit a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth inning. It seemed like one of those storybook comebacks, but in the end it didn't matter, as relief pitcher Koda Glover gave up the winning run to the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth.
But perhaps Zimmerman's heroic effort paid off psychologically, as the Nats roared back the next day (at home in Washington), beating the St. Louis Cardinals 14-6. Utility player Stephen Drew, filling in for the ailing Trea Turner, was the slugging hero that day, getting 4 RBIs. Three home runs the next day keyed the Nats to an 8-3 victory, but errors and suddenly-silent bats doomed their attempt at a series sweep the next day, as the Cards won 6-1.
After a day of rest, the Nats welcomed the Phillies to Washington on April 14, and the game went to the tenth inning, when Daniel Murphy (who had homered earlier) hit a double to left field, allowing Bryce Harper to score all the way from first base. Nats 3, Phils 2. One of the photos of Harper sliding into home head first was a classic. That guy is a maniac competitor! The Phillies came back to win it 4-2 on Saturday April 15, but the Nats won the rubber match game on Sunday, as Bryce Harper hit home runs in both the 3rd and 9th innings: yes, the first Nats walk-off homer of the year! Final score: 6-4.
Then the Nats headed south to Atlanta, where the Braves had already won their first six games in brand-new SunTrust Park, in addition to their exhibition game win over the Yankees. (I need to check on winning streaks for newly-inaugurated MLB ballparks.) The Nats won the Tuesday night game 3-1, thanks to clutch hits by Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper, as well as near-flawless pitching by Max Scherzer, who threw seven shutout innings. Wednesday night was a blowout of historic proportions, making up for the lopsided defeat at the hands of the Cardinals the previous week. Bryce Harper hit a solo homer in the first inning, and then hit a grand slam in the second inning! But that's not all!! Ryan Zimmerman also hit a grand slam later on, only the second time in Nats history that they hit two grand slams in one game. (That happened in Milwaukee on July 27, 2009, when Josh Willingham hit two grand slams in the Nats' 14-6 victory over the Brewers.) On Thursday, the Nats completed the sweep thanks to another homer by Zimmerman (his fifth), some amazing defensive plays by Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, and Adam Eaton, and superb pitching by Stephen Strasburg. It was a tense, close match, and this time the Nats bullpen hung on. Final score: 3-2.
Tonight in New York, the Nats pulled off a similarly harrowing and dramatic win against the Mets. Bryce Harper homered in the first inning (again!), and Jose Lobaton surprised everybody with a solo homer that gave the Nats back the lead. But the Mets tied it 3-3 in the sixth inning, and the game went into extra innings. That's when Bryce Harper hit a one-out double, and before you knew it the bases were loaded and relief pitcher Jeurys Familia walked in a run as Trea Turner, in his first plate appearance since returning from the disabled list (hamstring) got an RBI without having to swing the bat. Shawn Kelley got three quick outs to get the save. Final score: 4-3.
Since the Marlins also lost tonight, the Nats (11-5) now have a three-game lead in the NL East. No other team has a five-game winning streak right now. How long can they keep this up?
Nats make modest acquisitions
The Nationals had two significant roster vacancies to fill during the 2016-2017 off-season, and the front office did their job well in both cases. In place of Ben Revere in center field, will be Adam Eaton, formerly of the Padres. In place of Wilson Ramos behind home plate will be the former star catcher for the Baltimore Orioles, Matt Wieters.
The Washington Nationals finally got former Orioles catcher Matt Wieters to sign on the dotted line. It's just a one-year contract, so his future depends on how well the Nats do this year -- as in how far they get in the postseason... Wieters replaces Derek Norris, who had been acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres. Norris is now playing with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The pitching rotation will remain virtually the same, although the fifth spot was a question mark as Joe Ross failed to make the 25-man roster after spring training. Ross was finally called up this week, and after giving up two runs in the first inning he pitched against the Braves in Atlanta earlier this week, he regained his composure and ended up getting credit for the win.
As a precautionary move, the Nats pushed Max Scherzer toward the bottom of the pitching rotation, to give him more time to heal his finger which suffered a stress fracture last year. Instead, Stephen Strasburg is the Nats' premier pitcher for the time being. Scherzer has pitched fine so far, going either six or seven innings in all three games he started. Likewise, except for April 8 (see above) and April 10, Nats starters have lasted at least six innings in every game. That is a very solid performance
But the big failure was in the relief pitcher department. Mike Rizzo couldn't get any big-name closing pitchers to come to terms, leaving the Nats to make do with what they already had. As spring training came to a close, it was announced that Blake Treinen will serve as closing pitcher. After reviewing my previous blog posts on him (June 9, 2014 in particular), I remembered that Treinen went to South Dakota State! Treinen showed occasional signs of promise but flinched when it really counted, and was officially demoted this week. In his place, Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley will alternate in the role of closing pitcher. That's fine with me; I don't think such a big deal should be made over who is going to be the closer.
I have updated the Washington Nationals page to reflect the new roster.
Other transactions of note
The Cleveland Indians demonstrated their firm goal of making it to the World Series again by signing free agent Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year contract, with an option for a fourth year (2020). He had been with the Toronto Blue Jays since July 2009, when he was acquired in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds. He has hit an average of 39 home runs over that past five years, during which time his batting average has been in the .270 range. He will give the Indians a good chance to win back-to-back AL pennants for the first time in franchise history. The Indians are presently in first place in the American League Central, but all five teams are within two games of them.
U.S.A.! U.S.A.! World Baseball Classic champions!
For the first time since the event began in 2006, Team U.S.A. won the World Baseball Classic championship. And it all took place in Dodger Stadium, the scene of some memorable baseball triumphs and tragedies from yesteryear. Washington Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark played a key role in winning the penultimate game. Another Nat star, Daniel Murphy, was on the U.S. WBC roster, but didn't get much playing time. I paid a brief visit to Marlins Park just a few days before one of the first rounds of WBC games was played there.
New labor deal
The small but very real possibility of a lockout was averted on last month, as the 30 franchise owners and Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. One key part of the deal is that the World Series will no longer be tied to the All-Star Game, as first reported by The Associated Press. Instead, the pennant winner with the better regular-season record will get home-field advantage
Stadium changes for 2017
I saw the
Atlanta Cobb County Braves' brand-new Sun Trust Park in the televised exhibition game against the New York Yankees, and I was fairly impressed. Brick walls in the outfield!!?? (Padded, of course.) Thanks to a big comeback rally in the sixth inning, they actually beat the Yankees. I had a much better look at it during the Nationals' three-game series with the Braves. One downside from the players' perspective: the lights are affixed to the rim of the roof, as at Target Field, and the relatively low position seems to blind outfielders trying to catch fly balls. Anyway, with help from photos sent by Mike Zurawski, I should get the diagram completed by the end of the month.
In Houston, the Astros unveiled the renovations to Minute Maid Park, with a new center field bar area, perched atop a vine-covered wall. It occupies land on which the big slope known as "Tal's Hill" used to be. I thought that slope added lots of fun and excitement to the game (plus some nostalgia), and I think what they have done is a shame. Anyway, I made a preliminary update for the "standard" diagram, based on some artists' renderings at MLB.com, but I won't change the rest of the diagram variants (lower deck, etc.) until I see better photos or video images.
And finally, the Chicago Cubs have finished the next big step of their renovations to Wrigley Field, and now the bullpens have been moved to beneath the bleachers in left- and right-center fields. Three additional rows of seats have been added where the bullpens used to sit, further shrinking the already-tiny foul territory in the Friendly Confines. As with Minute Maid Park, I have already made an initial diagram update to reflect that change, but further tweaks are likely...
Finally, the St. Louis Cardinals have completed the big "Ballpark Village" project on the north side of Busch Stadium (III). See ballparkdigest.com; hat tip to Mike Zurawski.
Raiders will move to Vegas, baby!
Earlier this month the NFL announced that the Oakland Raiders will move to Las Vegas, presumably for the 2019 season, but maybe 2020 if stadium financing arrangements and construction take longer than expected. It's a shame that the franchise owners couldn't do more to help Oakland, after all the financial inducements that were made to pave the way for Los Angeles to get a new football stadium. Inevitably, the cloud of gambling will taint the Raiders for the foreseeable future. (To quote Claude Rains from Casablanca, "I am shocked ... shocked! ... that gambling is taking place!") Will the Oakland A's follow suit in moving to Las Vegas? If so, maybe Pete Rose can become a part owner of the franchise! If they do stay in Oakland Coliseum while trying to get a decent new home, I hope they demolish that monstrous "Mount Davis" that hangs over center field.
Comiskey Park photos!
One more thing: I received some great photos of old Comiskey Park in Chicago from Al Kara, who submitted some photos of a football game at Guaranteed Rate Field (a.k.a. "U.S. Cellular Field," a.k.a. "New Comiskey Park." Here's one of them:
Coincidentally, I was watching an Orioles-White Sox AL Championship Series game on MASN a month or two ago, and noticed the reduced dimension markers (e.g., 341 feet to the foul pole, rather than 347), so I started work on a 1983-1985 diagram variant. For the final five years (1986-1990), home plate was moved back to where it had been before 1983.
"Series won't be same without McCarver"
If you think this blog is failing to keep up with regular updates, some web programmer at MLB.com really must be asleep at the wheel. Up through the early months of this year, the very same headline was appearing (near the bottom) just about every day since mid-2015, when it was still true. The text read as follows: "Tim McCarver played in three World Series and has been an announcer for an incredible 23 more, leaving big shoes to fill as he revealed this will be his last season with FOX." Sheesh. Wake up, somebody!