Nationals fight hard, but lose another heartbreaker
The narrative for this blog post, and perhaps the very fate of the Nats' 2018 season, was changed completely by one swing of the bat at Wrigley Field tonight. I was going to write about how the Nats bounced back from a heartbreaking 3-2 loss against the Cubs on Friday afternoon, after starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson had a no-hitter going in the sixth inning but loaded the bases on walks and had to be replaced. Sammy Solis immediately gave up a two-run single to Jason Heyward, and the game was tied. The Cubs took the lead in the seventh inning when they loaded the bases with three singles and newly-acquired veteran Greg Holland walked Anthony Rizzo, who thus earned his 75th RBI. The Nats had a potential rally in the eighth inning when Bryce Harper and Juan Soto both walked, but Soto was then picked off at first base after taking way too big of a lead. In this case, a simple rookie mistake had deadly consequences.
After that grievous defeat, Saturday's game was a huge uplift for Nats fans. Bryce Harper singled and Ryan Zimmerman homered in the first inning, and all of sudden the spring was back in the team's (collective) step. Tanner Roark pitched one of his best games of the year, giving up only one run until the eighth inning, when the Cubs scored a second run. By then the Nats had scored nine runs, thanks to a homer by Daniel Murphy and a second homer by the Ryan Zimmerman, who tied his career-best with six RBIs for the day. The Cubs scored two more in the ninth, but it didn't matter. Final score: Nats 9, Cubs 4.
So when the Nats had Max Scherzer on the mound tonight and took an early 1-0 lead, there was reason to hope that this series really would mark the turning point that would put the Nats back into the divisional race again. As usual, Max delivered one of his masterpieces, striking out eleven batters over seven innings and retaking the lead in strikeouts (227) in the majors from Boston's Chris Sale, who has 219. (See below.) But the Cubs had Cole Hamels on the mound, recently acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers. Both ace pitchers went seven full innings in one of the best pitchers' duels this year. I was nervous when Koda Glover took the mound for the Nats in the eighth inning, but he only gave up one hit before getting three outs. (Javier Baez seemed to reach first base on an infield single, but the Nats challenged the [safe] call and won, thus ending the inning.) In the top of the ninth, Trea Turner hit a one-out triple down the left field line, and former Nat Brandon Kintzler walked Juan Soto and Bryce Harper (the latter intentionally) to load the bases. Ryan Zimmerman made the Cubs pay for it, smashing a two-run single up the middle. So with a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning, Ryan Madson came on as the Nats' closing pitcher, a role with which he is not comfortable. Having just replaced Daniel Murphy at second base, Wilmer Difo misplayed a high-bouncing ball hit by Jason Heywood. It was ruled a hit, but the missed chance at an out rattled Madson, who then hit two batters with pitches (getting Kyle Schwarber to pop out in between them), loading the bases with two outs. Ordinarily, any decent manager would have changed pitchers, but Dave Martinez didn't have any good alternatives in the bullpen. A young pinch hitter named David Bote came up to bat in the classic fantasy-world baseball situation, and with one strike away from victory, Madson threw a low fastball down the middle, and Bote smashed that sucker way over the center field wall. Just like that, the game was over, 4-3.
So instead of being 4 1/2 games behind the Braves and Phillies (in a virtual tie for the NL East lead right now), the Nats are now 5 1/2 games back. With seven more weeks to go this season, there is still a non-negligible chance the Nats can put together enough wins to climb back and win the division. But can they muster enough self-confidence and determination to bounce back from another gut-wrenching heart-breaking loss? Anything is possible, but in the real world of what is probable, what happened tonight will most likely be regarded as one of the last nails in the Nats' 2018 coffin.
Earlier this month Nationals were on a pretty good run in a home stand in which they won seven out of ten games. The followed up their historic 25-4 win over the Mets on July 31 with a 5-3 win the next day. Once again, recently-acquired Tommy Milone rose to the occasion and gave up only one run over seven innings. Then the Cincinnati Reds came to town, and the Nats took three out of four games in that series. They won 10-4 on August 2 thanks in part to early home runs by Trea Turner and Bryce Harper, but most of the runs came later in the game. The Friday night game was postponed until Saturday (August 4) afternoon due to rain, but Gio Gonzalez faltered once again, and was replaced in the fourth inning. Final score: Reds 7, Nats 1. But the Nats bounced back in the nightcap, winning 6-2, and won the Sunday finale as well, 2-1. Tanner Roark got a much-deserved win, going seven innings.
Next the Atlanta Braves came to town, a real divisional showdown and test of the Nationals' mettle. With a depleted staff, the Nats resorted to Jefry Rodriguez as their starting pitcher on Tuesday (August 7) afternoon, and he came through like a champion, giving up just one run in five innings. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman hit back-to-back homers, and it really seemed like the old championship-bound Nats were their true selves again. Final score: Nats 8, Braves 3. With Max Scherzer on the mound for the second game that day, the Nats were in a great position to gain ground. Juan Soto hit a solo homer (his 13th!) and Ryan Zimmerman went three for three, but none of those hits resulted in runs. The Braves won that game, 3-1. The next day Tommy Milone gave up seven runs over six innings, quite a sharp contrast to his two previous successful outings, and the Nats lost, 8-3. In the series finale on Thursday, the Nats' prospects seemed grim as the recently-shaky Gio Gonzalez took the mound, but he somehow pulled himself together and pitched his best game of the year, being charged with only one run over seven innings. Nats 6, Braves 3. The Nats really needed to win three out of four games in that series, but at least they held their own.
Nats shuffle bullpen
With the return of Sean Doolittle doubtful any time soon, and with his replacement Kelvin Herrera likewise on the disabled list, the Nats' front office got desperate this month. But the first order of business was parting ways with malcontent Shawn Kelley, who was traded to the Oakland A's. Brandon Kintzler likewise seemed to have personality issues with the club, and the Nats traded him to the Cubs -- who then used him against the Nationals in this weekend series! Greg Holland, a former standout pitcher, was released by the Cardinals late in August, and the Nationals acquired him in a trade. Coming after the July 31 deadline, all of these trades were made after clearing waivers, meaning that other eligible teams had the opportunity to extend competing offers. Finally, the Nats activated Koda Glover, who had some bad outings as a reliever last year. It was later learned that he was suffering from a sore shoulder without telling the manager. (See July 1, 2017 blog post.) Somewhat to my surprise, Koda has done alright in the two games in the Cubs series.
How about those Red Sox?
As we look forward to the 2018 postseason, it is hard to imagine a team that has been more dominant than the Boston Red Sox during any regular season over the past decade. Last weekend they had a big showdown against the New York Yankees in Fenway Park, winning the first three games by a combined score of 23-9. Steve Pearce homered three times on August 2, and once more the next day. In the Sunday night game, they did to the Yankees what the Cubs did to the Nationals tonight. (The parallels between those two games is fascinating: broadcast by ESPN, in a historic funky ballpark filled with once-long-suffering fans.) With the Yankees ahead 4-1, closing pitcher Aroldis Chapman walked the bases loaded, and with two outs, J.D. Martinez hit a two-run single to make it a 4-3 game. Then the tying run scored on a throwing error by the third baseman, and it went into the tenth inning. Andrew Benintendi bounced a slow single up the middle to score the runner from second base, and Fenway Park erupted with joy. It was a crushing blow to the Bronx Bombers. The Red Sox swept the Yankees four games straight, taking a nine-game lead, all but guaranteeing themselves a smooth path to the AL East divisional championship.
Since then the Red Sox have won all but one of the seven games they have played, taking two out of three games against the Blue Jays in Toronto and sweeping the Orioles in Baltimore. The Friday night game was a real slugfest, and the Orioles took the lead at one point but quickly squandered it; the Red Sox won 19-12. After that, the lowly Orioles (currently 35-84, .294) really didn't stand much of a chance. In the Sunday finale (won by the Red Sox, 4-1), Chris Sale marked his return from the DL by striking out twelve batters, temporarily surpassing Max Scherzer for the MLB lead in that category.
How do they do it? The Red Sox currently have the highest team batting average in the majors (.270) as well as the most number of RBIs (628). On the pitching side, they have the second best team ERA (3.50) in the majors, after the Houston Astros. With outfielders Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and pitcher Chris Sale on the All-Star Game starting roster, it's no wonder. Right now, it will be hard for any teams in the American League to stop the Red Sox and Astros from going to the League Championship Series, and perhaps beyond.
Thus, the Red Sox are soaring into the stratosphere, standings-wise, with a record of 85-35 (.708). It would be a monumental accomplishment indeed to keep up such a high rate of winning, but would it really matter? Since the turn of the century, the highest regular season winning percentage was recorded by the Seattle Mariners (.716) in 2001; they lost the ALCS to the Yankees, however. The next-highest was recorded by the St. Louis Cardinals (.648) in 2004; they advanced to the World Series but were then swept by the Boston Red Sox, the AL wild card team that year! Moral of the story: regular season win-loss records don't count for as much as you might think. Just ask the 2012 Washington Nationals; they amassed a 98-64 record (.605) but were eliminated in the first round!
Juvenile jocks are jerks
The ideal of a professional athlete as role model is occasionally marred by reality. Back in the 1990s Saturday Night Live had a skit in which a little boy's dream of meeting his favorite baseball player is answered when one of them pops out of his bedroom closet, and then another, and so on. Before you knew it, the bedroom was full of cigar smoke, beer, and foul language, and the young fan's innocence was forever lost. You had to be there. Such humor often serves a purpose because many people lacking in self-awareness tend to lose their sense of proportion when expressing moral outrage. I bring this up as a commentary on the mini sports scandal that erupted late last month when some journalists went digging through the Twitter archives of various professional athletes. Among them was the Washington Nationals' young shortstop Trea Turner, who made some racist tweets when he was a teenager, and the sports world went up in arms. Turner rightly apologized; 'nuff said.
There was a possible case of bad karma two weeks ago (July 29) in Atlanta, whe the Braves' 25-year old pitcher Sean Newcomb was within one strike of recording a no-hitter against the L.A. Dodgers. He was on the very threshold of glory, but then Chris Taylor spoiled the party by hitting a single. It so happens that Newcomb was among those identified as having used racist language in cyberspace, and the guilt may have come back to haunt him. Having thrown 134 pitches, Newcomb was replaced and then the newest Dodger star, Manny Machado hit an RBI single. The Braves still won that game, 4-1.
Wrigley Field surprise update!!??
While watching the Nats-Cubs game on Friday, I made the rather belated discovery that the dugouts at Wrigley Field moved toward the respective foul poles during the winter off-season. Later I learned that most of the lower deck had been demolished and rebuilt during the winter, in part to provide space for new batting practice areas. If I had been keeping up with my e-mail like I should, I would have known that. Both Joe Duider and Jeff Stark alerted me to the latest Wrigley Field renovations back in April, when the news was "fresh." Interestingly, several rows of seats on the third base side have built on metal risers, and the dugout itself is retractable, in order to accommodate football games. When they played a college football game at Wrigley Field in 2010, they couldn't even use one end zone because the back line was within a couple feet of the brick wall in right field. See bleedcubbieblue.com. Of course, I made the necessary change to the current-year Wrigley Field diagram, and while I was at it, made a few more tweaks to the earlier year diagram variants.
More ballpark construction news
But that's not all! I was aware that the Rangers' future ballpark was a done deal, but I had no idea that construcion on it was so far along. Mike Zurawski informed me recently that there is a live webcam at MLB.com, and it shows that two decks have already been built. Because "Globe Park II" overlaps with the existing parking lot on the south side of Globe Park I, they are doing the same thing the Cardinals did when building Busch Stadium III: All the land where center field and left field will eventually sit remains in use for parking until the final phase of construction begins. The new stadium will have a retractable roof, so they will build large support pylons in that land, as well as the grandstand itself.
Mike also told me about something that I noticed during the first series of the season when the Nats played the Reds in Cincinnati. They have added a new party deck behind the right field corner of Great American Ballpark; it's called the "Budweiser Bowtie Bar." It seems to be an extension of the glassed-in restaurant at the end of the grandstand on that side, connecting with the rear corner of the bleachers in back of the bullpen. Diagram update pending...
More news courtesy of Mike: In the Tampa Bay area, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg finally unveiled actual plans for a new stadium in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa. I have long been skeptical of such talk, but this seems pretty serious. To my surprise, the seating capacity would be only about 28,000, not including standing-room-only. Estimated cost: $892 million. Ouch! See fieldofschemes.com
There will be more news to come soon. I can almost guarantee it!