August 31, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Hot August nights (& days): Nats surge ahead
The Washington Nationals began their final series of the month against the visiting Miami Marlins, in the thick of a fierce race for the National League East Division title. Thanks to the wins tonight and last night (see below), their record for the month of August was a phenomenal 19-7, even better than their huge comeback month of June, when they had a record of 18-8. So, let's review the superb month, full of sweeps, near-sweeps, and series that should have been sweeps...
Nationals sweep the Giants
The Nationals began the month out west, dropping two out of three games in Phoenix (see August 5), and then sweeping the Giants in San Francisco. On Monday, August 5, Erick Fedde threw six scoreless innings, and the bullpen did its job, as the Nats won, 4-0. The next day Anibal Sanchez did almost as well, and the Nats won again, 5-3. And on Wednesday Joe Ross came through with six scoreless innings, and the Nats completed the sweep with a 4-1 victory. The deciding blow in that game was a three-run homer in the third inning by Gerardo Parra -- who, in a supreme example of ironic karma, had been released by the Giants in May. That'll teach 'em! But the big story of that series (and perhaps of the month as a whole) was the quality of pitching from the lesser-known Nats starters. At a time when Max Scherzer has been ailing, the "rear guard" of the Nats' starting rotation really stepped up to the plate -- or to the pitching rubber, to be more precise.
Nats almost (?) sweep the Mets
Energized by their success in San Francisco, the Nats flew across the continent to New York, where the Mets were ready to pounce. On Friday August 9, Stephen Strasburg took the mound and got through seven innings with a comfortable lead thanks to home runs by Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon, and all seemed well. But then the Mets scored four runs in the top of the ninth, and Sean Doolittle not only blew the save opportunity but took the loss in the 7-6 debacle. That was a real punch in the gut, but the effect didn't last long. Indeed, Juan Soto hit a two-run homer in the top of the first inning the next day. The Mets answered with two solo home runs in the 4th inning, however (one was by ex-Nat Wilson Ramos), and then Juan Soto homered again in the top of the eight to retake the lead. Victory seemed close at hand for the Nats, but then the Mets scored twice in the bottom of that inning and won the game, 4-3. On Sunday once again the resilient Nats bounced right back with a rally (3 runs) in the first inning, and one inning later the Mets duly answered with three runs of their own. The game remained tied until the seventh inning, when Asdrubal Cabrera hit a clutch two-out, two-run double. This time the Nats held on to the lead, and won the game, 7-4. They really should have won the first two games and swept the series, but I suppose they could have just as easily lost that third game as well.
Nationals sweep the Reds
The next day (August 12), Nationals returned home to D.C., where they faced the Cincinnati Reds. Home runs by Matt Adams and Trea Turner (who had 4 RBIs) put the Nats over the top in the 7-6 final score. On Tuesday, Joe Ross only gave up one run in 6 2/3 innings on the mound, while home runs by Juan Soto and Brian Dozier helped the Nats win, 3-1. Then on Wednesday the Nats began a historic offensive surge, scoring ten runs in the fifth inning, with home runs by Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, and Kurt Suzuki. Stephen Strasburg started that rally with a lead-off single, and earned his 15th win of the year. Just to be sure, the Nats added six more runs in the sixth inning, and held on to win, 17-7, thus sweeping the last-place Reds.
Nats almost sweep the Brewers
On Friday August 16th the Milwaukee Brewers came to town, and with Patrick Corbin making a solid, six-inning appearance, the two RBI doubles by Anthony Rendon were all the offense the Nats needed. Final score: 2-1. On Saturday night the Nats were within inches of winning their sixth straight game for the first time this year, when Sean Doolittle had a virtual repeat of the ninth-inning meltdown he had suffered eight days earlier in New York. Once again, he gave up four runs(Christian Yelich, Mike Moustakas, and Ryan Braun all homered), but this time the Nats scored in the bottom of the ninth to send it into extra innings. Both teams scored once in the 13th inning, but the two-run shot by Marcus Thames in the 14th inning was too much for the Nationals. They scored one in the bottom of the inning, and had the tying run on third base when the game ended. Final score: 15-14. But once again, the Nats rebounded from adversity and erupted with eight (8) home runs on Sunday the 18th, tying a record for the Expos-Nationals franchise. Juan Soto and Brian Dozier homered twice. The Nats were ahead 13-0 after three innings, and ended up winning 16-8. (It's games like this one that have many people wondering about the baseballs being "juiced" this year...)
It was obvious that something was wrong with Sean Doolittle, and indeed he went on the Injured List after this series. Much as with Max Scherzer, fatigue from an excessive work load just started to grind him down late in the season.
Nats almost sweep the Pirates
After concluding the 5-1 home stand, the Nats headed northwest to Pittsburgh the very next day. Joe Ross was pitching but had to be replaced in the fourth inning, raising fears about the shaky bullpen. Well, this time they held up just fine, as the Nats belted four more home runs and shut out the Pirates, 13-0. It was their third double-digit score in a row, and added up to 62 runs total over the five preceding games. Would they keep up the momentum the next day? Of course not! Stephen Strasburg exited after seven fine shutout innings, and then the promising-but-inconsistent Wander Suero took the mound. Immediately, things fell apart as he gave up three hits and a walk without even getting one out. Daniel Hudson finished the eighth inning, and the Nats lost, 4-1. On Wednesday the Nats bounced back thanks to some fine pitching by Patrick Corbin (0 runs allowed over 8 innings), and some timely slugging; final score: 11-1. Thursday August 22 marked the much-anticipated return of Max Scherzer from the Injured List after nearly a month, but he showed that he is still not 100% better. He was taken out after just four innings, so he didn't get credit for the 7-1 Nats' win.
Nationals sweep the Cubs
The next day (Friday the 23rd), the Nats flew farther west to Chicago, where they had to play the Cubs in a day game on very little rest. (They checked into their motel at 1:00 AM!) Yet somehow they managed the wherewithal to compete, and in the top of the first inning, Adam Eaton hit a solo homer off the Cubs' pitcher Jon Lester. The Nats kept nibbling away, and Lester had to be replaced in the fifth inning, after which the home team was behind 7-0. In his best outing of the year, Nats starter Anibal Sanchez had a one-hit shutout going into the ninth inning, but he finally ran out of gas and was replaced. Final score: Nats 9, Cubs 3.
On Saturday afternoon, the Nats again scored a run in the first inning, and likewise kept building their lead as the game progressed. Joe Ross struggled to contain the Cubs, but only gave up two runs during his 4 1/3 innings on the mound. The bullpen did its job during the second half of the game, preventing any more Cubs from scoring. Howie Kendrick and Yan Gomes each batted in two runs for the Nats, who won that game, 7-2.
In the final game on Sunday, Stephen Strasburg struck out ten batters over six innings, and was in line for the win, BUT... This time the bullpen blowup blame fell upon the shoulders of Fernando Rodney, who gave up a game-tying two-run homer to Kyle Schwarber in the eighth inning. That blew the save and (it appeared) the Nats' chances of sweeping the Cubs, but the relentless visiting team put together a rally in the top of the eleventh inning, and scored the go-ahead run on a bases-loaded wild pitch. An RBI single by Anthony Rendon padded the cushion, and the Nationals did indeed hold on to win the game, 7-5, thereby sweeping the Cubs, who thereby fell into second place behind the Cardinals in the NL Central Division.
Nats and Orioles split two
The Nationals had Monday off, giving them time to relax and revel in their successful (6-1) road trip. That gave them a big advantage in going against their rather luckless regional rivals, the Baltimore Orioles, but somehow they muffed a big chance. In the first inning, Patrick Corbin gave up two hits and two runs, plus hitting a batter, and that accounted for all of the scoring in the entire game. Somehow the Nats only managed to get four hits in the entire game, so they lost, 2-0. On Wednesday Max Scherzer was pitching, and once again he was taken out before he could qualify for the win by pitching five innings. Manager Dave Martinez is being rightly hyper-cautious with the team's superstar pitcher. Fortunately, the offense woke up, led by Kurt Suzuki, who homered and got four RBIs total. Asdrubal Cabrera and Brian Dozier got three hits each, and the bullpen did OK, as the Nats won, 8-4. Thus, the Nats and Orioles split the two-game series.
Nats beat Marlins twice
After another day of rest (on Thursday), the Nats welcomed the Miami Marlins to Our Nation's Capital, hoping for a chance to gain ground in the NL East Division race. Continued hot hitting by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto kept the Nationals ahead for virtually the entire game until the ninth inning, when it almost turned in to another bullpen disaster. Daniel Hudson gave up an infield single to Harold Ramirez and then a go-ahead home run by Starlin Castro. In an instant, the Nats' one-run lead (5-4) turned into a one-run deficit (6-5), and a dispiriting loss loomed large. But those Nats just refused to quit, and Howie Kendrick led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a single, followed by a Trea Turner walk. After an out and a passed ball, the Nats had runners on second and third with Anthony Rendon up to the plate. In his usual focused but nonchalant way, Rendon poked a single into left field, easily scoring Kendrick and just barely scoring the speedy Turner. A walk-off celebration ensued, as the nervous fans in Nationals Park went wild.
Tonight's game went much more smoothly, as the Nats once again took an early 2-0 lead thanks to back-to-back homers by the "dynamic duo," Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. By amazing coincidence, it was both players' 30th home run! Juan Soto became the seventh player in major league history to hit at least 30 home runs in a season before age 21, and the first since Mike Trout did it in 2012. Meanwhile, Stephen Strasburg pitched his best game of the year, striking out 14 batters over eight innings, while only allowing two hits. Rendon later hit a second home run, as the Nats won it, 7-0. Believe it or not, Rendon now has the highest batting average in the major leagues (.335), is tied with three other players for the most RBIs (109), and is closing what had been a big gap separating him from the top home run hitters; Mike Trout has 43 and Rendon has 31, ranked 22nd in the majors. So even though a Triple Crown is not very likely, Anthony ought to be given due consideration as a candidate for National League Most Valuable Player.
Since May 23, when they hit "rock bottom," the Nationals have won 57 games while only losing 27; that's a 67.9 percent win-loss record, the highest in the majors. The Atlanta Braves have remained just as hot, however, so the Nats are still 5 1/2 games in back of the NL East Division leaders. The difference from one month ago is that the Philadelphia Phillies have dropped back several games, and are now on the fringes of playoff contention. The Nats have a 3 1/2-game lead in the NL wild card race, and unless the Braves cool off in September, the Nats are most likely to face either the Chicago Cubs or the St. Louis Cardinals in the one-game NL wild card contest.
NOTE: I have updated the Washington Nationals page with win-loss and attendance data for August, as well as entries about memorable games, ninth-inning comebacks and/or blown leads, etc. Note that in the table showing the Nationals' postseason appearances (2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017), I have added new columns to accommodate a possible wild card berth this year...
Wrigley Field (LA) tweak
In part to commemorate the Nats' first sweep of the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field since their inaugural year (2005, July 1-3), I have revised the diagrams of the other Wrigley Field -- the one that used to be in Los Angeles! Most of the changes are fairly minor, but the positions of the support beams and entry portals have changed significantly. For that reason, when you click on that diagram, it shows you the previous upper-deck version of the diagram (without the roof), rather than the standard version. I have also taken greater care in rendering the hypothetical expanded version of L.A.'s Wrigley Field, and have added a second, less-ambitious expansion based on a scenario in which the Dodgers would have played there for four years while Dodger Stadium was being built, and the expansion Angels team would play there for several additional years, rather than sharing Dodger Stadium. In that case, Angel Stadium would not have been built until the 1970s. Finally, there is a "site today" diagram.
Charlie Manuel is back
Bryce Harper finally broke out of his long slump two weeks ago, hitting a walk-off grand slam that made him a hero in his new home city. What brought about that sudden change in fortune? I'm guessing it was the arrival in Philadelphia earlier that day of former manager Charlie Manuel, who just became the Phillies' new batting coach. Coincidentally, I was in Charlie Manuel's home town of Buena Vista, Virginia earlier this month, and noticed this sign on the west side of town:
And speaking of Bryce Harper, he recently took a few days off for paternity leave. Congratulations on becoming a father, Bryce!