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October 31, 2017 [LINK / comment]

Thriller in Houston: Astros stun Dodgers again!

With Clayton Kershaw on the mound for the Dodgers in Game 5 on Sunday night (going against Dallas Keuchel of the Astros, just like in Game 1), it looked like the visiting team would take a 3-2 lead in the World Series. But once again, just like in Game 2 (see previous post), the proverbial "Flying Fickle Finger of Fate" (from "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In") changed everything. The Dodgers scored three runs in the top of the first inning, and added another run in the fourth. But the Astros responded with a four-run rally in the bottom of that inning, capped by a three-run homer by Yuli Gurriel, and the home fans immediately became a big factor in the game once again. The Dodgers responded with three runs in the top of the fifth, and then the Astros did the same in the bottom of the inning. Home runs were going every which way out of Minute Maid Park: Bellinger for the Dodgers and Altuve for the Astros in the fifth. It was an incredible back-and-forth slugfest. In the seventh inning, George Springer's home run tied it for the Astros, and then the home team took the lead for the first time on a double by Altuve. Then Carlos Correa hit an extremely high pop fly to left field that landed in the second row of seats, only 315 feet away. The Dodgers scored once in the eighth, and then Brian McCann hit a solo homer to give the Astros their three-run lead back. That seemed like enough of a cushion, but then Yasiel Puig hit a line drive homer to virtually the same place that Correa's homer had gone, but with a much different trajectory. Down to their final out, the Dodgers' Chris Taylor (yes, that Chris Taylor!) hit an RBI single to send it into extra innings. In the top of the tenth, the Dodgers could only manage a single, and with Kenley Jansen on the mound, it seemed certain that the game would go at least another inning. But he hit Brian McCann with a pitch and then walked George Springer, after which Alex Bregman hit a walk-off RBI single to left center field. And the crowd went wild!!!

Thus the Astros won Game 5 by a score of 13-12, the second-highest score in World Series history. (In Game 4 of the 1993 World Series, the Blue Jays beat the Phillies, 15-14.) In tonight's Game 6, the Astros had a 1-0 lead until the sixth inning, when the Dodgers staged a rally. Stay tuned, sports fans!

In Game 3 (Friday), the Astros capitalized on the momentum from their stunning Game 2 victory with a big rally in the second inning. Yuli Gurriel led off with a homer, and his racially-tinged taunt toward the Dodgers' starting pitcher Yu Darvish got headlines, and a five-day suspension effective at the beginning of next year. After the Astros scored three more runs, Darvish was taken out in his shortest outing in the major leagues. The Astros' Lance McCullers pitched into the sixth inning, and his replacement Brad Peacock had a rocky beginning, allowing a second run to score in that inning on a wild pitch. But then he settled down and went the rest of the game to get a record-setting 3 2/3-inning save as the Astros held on to win, 5-3.

In Game 4 (Saturday), the Astros scored first with a solo home run by George Springer in the sixth inning, but the Dodgers tied it 1-1 in the top of the seventh. In the top of the ninth, the Dodgers suddenly exploded with a five-run rally, three of which were charged to the Astros' closing pitcher Ken Giles, who didn't even get a single out. In the bottom of the ninth, Alex Bregman hit a solo homer, but it didn't really matter as the Dodgers still won, 6-2, thus evening the series at two apiece.

I should have mentioned that at the beginning of Game 2 in Los Angeles, the Dodgers had their long-time broadcast announcer Vin Scully throw out the first pitch, and then Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Yeager joined him near the mound. That was a pretty touching moment, I have to admit. Scully retired after the 2016 season, and possibly wishes he could have stuck around for this most successful year for the Dodgers since 1988.

Nats pick Martinez as new manger

In Our Nation's Capital, meanwhile, the Nationals front office announced that Dave Martinez had signed a three-year contract as the team's new manager. Details to follow...


October 26, 2017 [LINK / comment]

Thriller in L.A.: Astros stun Dodgers!

After the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Astros on Tuesday night, it seemed like smooth sailing for the home team. In the bottom of the first inning in Game 1, a guy named Chris Taylor* swung at the first pitch thrown by Dallas Keuchel and knocked it way up into the left field bleachers. Welcome to "La-La Land"! But Keuchel held firm for the next few innings, and the Astros tied it 1-1 on a home run by Alex Bregman in the fourth inning. That showed that Clayton Kershaw isn't perfect, at least. But in the bottom of the sixth, Chris Taylor drew a walk and the phenomenal Justin Turner got yet another huge clutch hit, a two-run homer that ended up being the decisive run-scoring play of the game. Kershaw gave up just three hits while striking out 11 batters over seven innings. Dodgers 3, Astros 1.

But last night's game changed everything. The Astros had their new ace Justin Verlander on the mound, and were really counting on him to prevent the Dodgers from gaining a 2-0 series lead. The game unfolded as a virtual carbon copy of Game 1, except that Houston scored first. Once again, in the bottom of the sixth inning Chris Taylor drew a walk and the very next batter hit a home run to give the Dodgers a 3-1 lead. (This time it was Corey Seager.) Verlander finished the inning, but was in line for what seemed to be a probable Houston loss. But the Astros weren't dead, and in the top of the eighth, Alex Bregman hit a ground-rule double to the right field corner, just out of reach of the diving Yasiel Puig, who threw then his glove down in anger. Bad karma? Carlos Correa batted in Bregman, and the score was 3-2 going into the ninth inning. That's when the leadoff batter (a guy named Marwin Gonzalez) shocked the crowd by hitting a game-tying home run off of the usually-unhittable Kenley Jansen. Maybe it was a mistake to put him on the mound in the eighth inning.

In the top of the tenth inning, things got very weird very fast. Jose Altuve, who had been hitless in five at-bats, hit a leadoff home run, and the next batter Carlos Correa did likewise. Then Yuli Gurriel hit a double, and it seemed like the Dodgers were about to collapse. But a new pitcher and solid defense prevented any more runs. In the bottom of the inning, Yasiel Puig hit a leadoff home run, and all of a sudden Dodger fans came back to life. Ken Giles struck out the next two batters, but then walked a batter, threw a wild pitch, and gave up a game-tying RBI single. This time it was Houston that seemed on the verge of collapse, wasting a two-run lead. It was an incredible reversal of fortune. But in the top of the 11th, Cameron Maybin singled and then stole second base, and the next batter, George Springer, hit a home run to give the Astros a two-run lead once again!! The first two Dodgers batters in the bottom of the inning lined out (to center field and third base), and then Charlie Culberson homered to cut the margin to just one run. Could the Dodgers repeat what they did one inning before?? Well, no. The mighty Yasiel Puig struck out, and the Astros won the game, 7-6. It was the most home runs ever hit during a World Series game (eight altogether), and the first time in major league history that five home runs have been hit during extra innings. (See more on MLB.com.)

The outcome of that game gave a big psychological boost to the Astros, as the series shifts to Houston for the next three games. They have never won a World Series, and have only won a single pennant: for the National League! Since they were swept (by the White Sox) in 2005, Game 2 was the first World Series game the Astros have ever won. As a result, this series will almost certainly return to L.A. for a Game 6, and I wouldn't be surprised if it goes all the way to Game 7. My expectation that it would only take five games for the Dodgers to win it was clearly "off base."

* In my October 17 blog post, I meant to draw attention to Chris Taylor, "a guy" whose name I really should have known. He played for the University of Virginia baseball team, yet another Cavalier to make it big in the big leagues. He was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2014, and was traded to the Dodgers in June 2016. Other former Cavaliers in the majors include Ryan Zimmerman (of course), Brandon Guyer, and Danny Hultzen. (I should make a list...)

World Series stadia

Just like last year, and several years before that, I present the home ballparks of the two World Series teams, for easy comparison. The contrasts between Minute Maid Park and Dodger Stadium are stark and obvious in many ways. Although my diagrams for both those stadiums are up to standard, I still need to tweak the recent alterations to the center field portion of Minute Maid Park. Stay tuned!

Minute Maid Park Dodger Stadium
Dodgers Stadium

Just roll your mouse over the thumbnail images to switch between the respective full-size diagrams.


October 22, 2017 [LINK / comment]

Dusty Baker is dismissed as Nats' manager

The front office of the Washington Nationals announced on Friday that they decided not to renew the contract of Dusty Baker as manager for the 2018 season. The letter from the Lerner family reminded fans of the "One Pursuit" that governs all their actions: to win a World Series for Washington. The letter referred to Baker as "one of the true gentleman in our sport," which may be a backhanded compliment. How many "gentlemen" managers have won the World Series? For every Joe Torre there are at least two guys like Earl Weaver or Billy Martin. As Leo Durocher said, "Nice guys finish last." frown Then there are the guys like Tony LaRussa and Joe Maddon: cold, hard calculators, not warm and fuzzy grandfather figures.

The announcement came as a shock to me, in part since when General Manager Mike Rizzo was asked about Dusty' future soon after NLDS Game 5, he gave his unequivocal support. (That itself was somewhat of a surprise, since I figured there would be a few days of careful reflection before making such a verbal commitment.) This may mean that Rizzo's own job may be on shaky ground, which would be extremely disconcerting to Nationals fans. Who else could have pulled off the deals to acquire Max Scherzer and Daniel Murphy over the past two years, and then patch the gaping hole in the Nats' bullpen with three key acquisitions in the middle of the 2017 season?

Senior Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell noted that the Lerners have been tightwads when it came to choosing managers: "All came inexpensively because they were out of favor or past age 65, such as Davey Johnson and Baker, or else rookies who craved a chance, such as Manny Acta and [Matt] Williams." As a people person, Baker was ideally suited to restoring team spirit after the Bryce Harper - Jonathan Papelbon fight at the end of the 2015 season. But Baker never pretended to be a brilliant tactician, and was merely very good at a time when top notch was required. As Boswell concluded, "Finding a manager better than Johnnie B-plus "Dusty" Baker probably can be done. But good luck trying."

Another Washington Post columnist, Barry Svrluga, is likewise ambivalent about the decision not to bring Dusty back. He writes that it "simultaneously makes some sense and is absolutely jarring." He points to the sky-high expectations placed upon the job candidates (World Series or else!) as perhaps too daunting.

The decision to release Dusty would make more sense if the Lerners were already close to getting a replacement manager. (Maybe they have??) The Washington Post listed six names: Brad Ausmus, Alex Cora, John Farrell, DeMarlo Hale, Dave Martinez, and Eduardo Perez. The first five are current or recent MLB managers or coaches, and Perez is an ESPN analyst.

To me, this is a case of the heart wanting one thing while the head points in a different direction. I have great respect and admiration for Dusty, and was very pleased when the Nats hired him nearly two years ago. (See November 3, 2015 and scroll down.) It is useful to recall that Dusty Baker was actually the second choice of the Nationals' owners after the deal with Bud Black broke down at the last minute.

I made no secret of my doubts about Dusty's judgment in both last year's NLDS and this year's. I was a bit apprehensive when he abruptly took Max Scherzer out in the seventh inning of NLDS Game 3 (immediately after which the Cubs tied the game), and I was extremely dubious when he put Scherzer on the mound as a relief pitcher in the fifth inning of Game 5. (Max proceeded to give up four fatal runs, though he was only partly responsible.) But what do I know? Managers are frequently in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position, and I try to be understanding.

Some of Dusty's sympathizers have argued that a couple clutch RBIs by Harper or Zimmerman in NLDS Game 5 would have changed everything, and that is a valid point. But I think the Nationals were substantially better than the Cubs in most respects, and they really should have won the series in four games at the most.

In any case, I can't express my gratitude to Dusty Baker strongly enough for leading the team to two straight division championships. He took on a thankless job, and gave it all he could. He will be remembered very fondly by Nationals fans for many years to come.

Dusty Baker

Dusty Baker, during the Nats-Pirates game on September 29.

Revolving door managers

The Nats have changed managers with such regularity that it's almost like a revolving door. What is remarkable is that the managerial succession has proceeded in a precise rhythm, with one manager serving exactly two years followed by one who serves two and a half years. If that pattern had continued, Dusty Baker would have continued through the middle of next year.

Year Manager(s) W / L % Final NL East standing Post- season * Departure circumstances,
notes
2005 Frank Robinson .500 5th -- --
2006 Frank Robinson .438 5th -- Retired, age 71.
2007 Manny Acta .451 4th -- --
2008 Manny Acta .366 5th -- --
2009 Manny Acta* / Jim Riggleman .364 5th -- * Fired in mid-season.
2010 Jim Riggleman .426 5th -- --
2011 Jim Riggleman* / Davey Johnson .497 3rd -- * Abruptly quit in mid-season.
2012 Davey Johnson .605 1st lost NLDS Manager of the Year!
2013 Davey Johnson .531 2nd -- Retired, age 70.
2014 Matt Williams .593 1st lost NLDS Manager of the Year!
2015 Matt Williams .512 2nd -- Released
2016 Dusty Baker .586 1st lost NLDS --
2017 Dusty Baker .599 1st lost NLDS Released, age 68.

As this table indicates, the Nats have had two previous NL Managers of the Year: Davey Johnson (2012) and Matt Williams (2014). But how many people remember that Dusty Baker nearly won that honor while managing the Cincinnati Reds in 2010? The winner that year was the very same guy who was the Nationals' first choice to become their new manager in 2016 (see above): Bud Black of the San Diego Padres! He "barely edged Dusty Baker of the Reds, with 16 out of 26 first-place votes, and with 104 total points, compared to 103." See my November 18, 2010 blog post. Wow.

Dodgers win NL pennant

Well, at least the Chicago Cubs avoided being swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Upon returning to Wrigley Field for NLCS Game 3 on Tuesday, they took a 1-0 lead in the first inning thanks to a solo homer by Kyle Schwarber, but after that could only manage seven scattered hits (and no more runs) off of the Dodgers' pitcher Yu Darvish. The Dodgers won, 6-1. On Wednesday night, the Cubs won 3-2 thanks to two solo home runs by Javier Baez and one by Willson Contreras. Both Dodger runs came from solo homers as well. But Game 5 was an unmitigated disaster from the beginning, as Enrique Hernandez hit three home runs, tying an MLB postseason record. He only had 11 home runs for the entire 2017 season, and his batting average was only .215 -- What the heck??? Final score: Dodgers 11, Cubs 1. And thus the National League pennant returns to Los Angeles for the first time since 1988 -- 29 years!

Astros win AL pennant

For ALCS Games 3, 4, and 5 in New York, the Yankees capitalized on home field advantage in decisive fashion, taking a 3-2 ALCS lead and forcing the Astros into a desperate last stand back home in Houston. And the Astros in turn did what they had to do, winning Game 6 by a score of 7-1 to force Game 7 and then beating the Yankees 4-0 last night. It seemed like the Yankees would have a decisive edge with aging giant C.C. Sabathia on the mound against Charlie Morton, who had been roughed up in Game 3. (He gave up 7 earned runs in just 3 2/3 innings!) But in Game 7 he pitched the game of his life, giving up just two hits and one walk over five full innings. Thanks to solo home runs by Evan Gattis and Jose Altuve (of course), as well as a two-run double by Brian McCann, the Astros rose to the challenge and beat the Bronx Bombers 4-0.

In the American League Championship Series, all seven games were won by the home team, the first time that has happened in a seven-game series since 2004. (See my Postseason scores page.) That's when the St. Louis Cardinals took the National League pennant four games to three from none other than the Houston Astros!

I don't usually make predictions, but with the extra rest enjoyed by the Dodgers, and their utterly dominant performance up until now, I just don't see how the Astros can match them in the World Series. I think it will be over by Game 5.

Final match at RFK

The very last professional sporting event ever to be held at RFK Stadium took place today, and D.C. United lost to the New York Red Bull, 2-1. And thus ends the storied career of the very first dual-use "cookie-cutter stadium" from the 1960s. How long will that aging hulk be allowed to stand before the demolition crews arrive? frown I'm sure glad I was able to see a game there late last month.

Suzuki's birthday

Ichiro Suzuki turned 44 today, and he continues to work out at Marlins Park every day even though the season is over for his team. He says he wants to play until he is 50! Happy birthday Ichiro! See miamiherald.com; hat tip to the Canadian baseball blog, Mop Up Duty (via Facebook).


October 17, 2017 [LINK / comment]

Home sweet home field advantage

The 2017 MLB postseason thus far has been marked by the strongest home field advantage since I began keeping track in 2002. In the divisional series, only six of the 19 games were won by the visiting team, and none (0) of the AL & NL Championship Series games have been. (Interestingly, however, the visiting team won the final game of all four divisional series: "there was no joy" in Washington, Cleveland, Phoenix, or Boston. Only in the Cubs-Nationals series did the visiting team win multiple games: 3 out of 5.) So, I went through my Postseason scores page, and tabulated the number of games won by the home team and visiting team for the Divisional series, the League Championship series, and the World Series for each year from 2002 up through 2017, including the Wild Card games since 2012, and then computing the home team winning percentages:

YearPostseason games won by home team
200255.9%
200347.4%
200458.8%
200553.3%
200656.7%
200760.7%
200856.3%
200963.3%
201038.7%
201160.5%
201248.6%
201360.5%
201456.3%
201552.8%
201648.6%
201776.0%

Data for 2017 include the ALCS Games 1-4 and NLCS Games 1 & 2 only.

World Series: 4 scenarios

This matters more than usual this year because of the change in the way that home field advantage for the World Series is determined. Whereas from 2003 until 2016, the league that won the All Star Game got the initial home field advantage in the World Series, beginning in 2017, home field advantage in the World Series goes to the team with the higher regular season winning percentage. The following table shows how the four possible World Series matchups would be affected by the new rules:

Hypothetical
scenario
NL teamAL teamHFA
OLD system
(2003-2016)
HFA
NEW system
(2017- )
1LADHOUHOULAD
2LADNYYNYYLAD
3CHCHOUHOUHOU
4CHCNYYNYYCHC

The American League won the All-Star Game, 2-1, and thus would have had home field advantage for the World Series under the old rules.

ALCS: Yankees even the series

Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS in Houston were razor-thin pitchers' duels, with the exact same score: Astros 2, Yankees 1. Game 2 differed from Game 1 in that the score was tied for most of the game, with the deciding run coming in the bottom of the ninth inning on a wild play at the plate in which Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez couldn't handle the relay throw from right field even though he had plenty of time to tag Jose Altuve out. D'oh!

In contrast, Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS in New York were higher scoring. On Monday the Yankees scored three runs in the second inning thanks to a home run by Todd Frazier, and they added five more runs two innings later. With C.C. Sabathia on the mound, the Astros were in a virtually hopeless position. Not until the ninth inning did they get on the board, and the final score was 8-1. In Game 4 late this afternoon, neither team scored until the sixth inning, when Houston broke it open with a bases-loaded double by Yuli Gurriel. They added a run an inning later, and seemed to be in position to take a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Yankees. But Aaron Judge had other ideas, launching the Yankees' big comeback with a monster home run to center field in the bottom of the seventh, followed by another run, and then four more in the eighth inning. A loss like that can be very disheartening to an up-and-coming team like the Astros, and the pressure will be on their #1 ace pitcher Dallas Keuchel tomorrow when he goes against Masahiro Tanaka.

NLCS: Dodgers take 2-0 series lead

When Clayton Kershaw took the mound in Game 1 in Los Angeles on Saturday, at first there didn't seem to be much doubt that the Dodgers would prevail. But the Cubs took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning, momentarily shocking the home crowd. But the Dodgers tied the game 2-2 in the fifth inning, getting Kershaw off the hook, and took a 3-2 lead one inning later on a solo homer by a guy name Chris Taylor. The Dodgers added two more runs in the seventh inning, and won it, 5-2.

The Cubs also took the initial lead in Game 2 with a solo homer in the fifth inning , but the Dodgers came right back to tie it in the bottom of the inning. The home team won the game in spectacular fashion on a three-run walk-off home run by Justin Turner. Dodgers 4, Cubs 1.

Back at Wrigley Field for Game 3 this evening, the Cubs once again took an early 1-0 lead thanks to a home run by Kyle Schwarber, but as of the eighth inning, the Dodgers are ahead 6-1. That puts them in position to become the first visiting team to win an NLCS (or ALCS) game this year!


October 13, 2017 [LINK / comment]

Nats suffer another NLDS heartbreaker

When the Washington Nationals won Game 4 on Wednesday night to bring the National League Division Series back home, it seemed like they had the Chicago Cubs on the ropes. Stephen Strasburg pitched one of the very best games of his career, striking out twelve batters without allowing any runs (and only three hits) over seven utterly dominant innings at Wrigley Field. After years of doubts as to whether the decision to keep him off the roster in the 2012 postseason (when he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery) would ever really pay off, Strasburg vindicated himself in true superstar fashion. A cosmic convergence of opportunity and a burning desire to win had the Nationals poised for their very first postseason series triumph since the franchise "rebirth" in 2005!

Stephen Strasburg

The heroic Stephen Strasburg at Nationals Park on September 29, when he won his 15th game of the season pitching against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But just like last year, "something (or things plural) utterly improbable and unpredictable decided a high-stakes baseball showdown in NLDS Game 5 on Thursday evening, as the {Cubs} came back from a {4-1} deficit in the top of the {fifth} inning and held on to defeat the Washington Nationals, {9-8}." If that sounds familiar, it's because I copied the text from my October 14 blog post last year and put the appropriate modifications in {brackets}. Four years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals likewise came back from a deep deficit to stun the Nationals in the top of the ninth inning. (In the 2014 NLDS, the Nats were eliminated by the Giants on the road in Game 4, under relatively "normal" circumstances.) I shun superstitious talk of jinxes and curses, but the repeated pattern of "Nightmares on South Capitol Street" does kind of make you wonder what keeps going wrong.

The game got off to a disturbing start when Jon Jay hit a leadoff double, and later scored. Gio Gonzalez was obviously nervous, throwing the ball wildly several times. He finally got out of a bases-loaded jam when Jason Heyward grounded out to first base. In the bottom of the first, Trea Turner hit a leadoff infield single, stole second, and made it to third on a sac fly by Jayson Werth, but was then thrown out at the plate on a ground ball to second base hit by Bryce Harper.

Gio settled down in the second inning, getting three quick outs. Then Daniel Murphy stepped up to the plate and quickly smashed a home run into the right field seats, and the crowd was thrilled. Anthony Rendon then singled, Wieters laid down a perfect bunt along the third base line, and Michael A. Taylor swung at a pitch that was at least at neck level. Sometimes he lacks discipline, but this time he managed to put enough wood on that ball to send it into the left field bullpen. A three-run homer! And the crowd went wild!! After the next two batters struck out, Jayson Werth hit a double to the right-center field gap, and Bryce Harper was intentionally walked. It was a big opportunity for Ryan Zimmerman to get some more runs in, but he struck out.

In the third inning, Gio started having problems again. Kris Bryant hit a leadoff double, and after two more walks, the bases were loaded. Bryant scored on a ground ball hit by Addison Russell, and then a wild pitch by Gio allowed Contreras to score, making it a 4-3 game. Gio has a reputation for not being able to maintain leads, and Dusty Baker rightly decided that was enough pitching for Gio that day. In the fourth inning, Matt Albers got three quick outs.

Fifth inning nightmare

"What's the worst that could happen?" We may have found out in the fifth inning, as Max Scherzer took the mound. I knew that Max was available for emergency relief duty, but this situation just didn't seem to warrant resorting to such extreme measures. (See my Facebook comment below.) As expected, Max Scherzer quickly got two outs, but then he had to battle Willson Contreras to a full count, ultimately giving up an infield single. That's when all hell broke loose. So, just as I did in 2012 (for the ninth inning of NLDS Game 5), here is the complete play-by-play sequence for the Cubs in the bizarre, "stranger-than-fiction" fifth inning:

  1. Kris Bryant grounds out to shortstop.
  2. Anthony Rizzo flies out to center field.
  3. Willson Contreras hits a single to shortstop.
  4. Ben Zobrist hits bloop single to left field.
  5. Addison Russell doubles to left field corner, Contreras and Zobrist score.
  6. Jason Heyward is intentionally walked.
  7. Javier Baez strikes out but reaches base on passed ball*; throw from catcher to 1st base goes into right field, and Russell scores while others advance to 2nd and 3rd.
  8. Tommy La Stella is awarded first base on catcher interference, loading the bases.
  9. Jon Jay is hit by a pitch, Heyward scores, and others advance.
  10. Kris Bryant pops out to shortstop.

* = controversial play; see below.

I simply could not believe what was unfolding before my eyes on TV. Highly-paid professional players were panicking and blundering like Little Leagers. Russell's double gave the Cubs the lead which they would not relinquish, putting the Nats' ace pitcher Max Scherzer in line to become the losing pitcher. Just like in 2012 and 2016, the Nats went from having a comfortable lead to finding themselves in a desperate hole in a virtual blink of an eye.

Matt Wieters

Matt Wieters at Nationals Park on September 29.

Back & forth slugfest

The Cubs added a run in the sixth inning, as Brandon Kintzler gave up a walk and then another RBI double by Addison Russell. After that point, the Nationals finally regained their wits and started displaying their renowned offensive prowess. With two outs, Jayson Werth drew a walk and Bryce Harper doubled. Then Ryan Zimmerman walked, with ball four being a wild pitch, allowing Werth to sprint home to score. The next batter, Daniel Murphy hit a high fly ball that landed right at the left field wall. Harper scored but Zimmerman was held up at third. I wondered why he wasn't waved home, and after watching the MLB TV abbreviated rebroadcast today, I could see it was a combination of Zimmerman's short lead at first and a well-played carom off the wall by Ben Zobrist. With the score now 8-6, Anthony Rendon was intentionally walked, and Matt Wieters came up to bat. Wieters has had a disappointing year since the Nationals signed him last spring, but he did get two hits in the early innings, including that bunt along the third base line. This time he punched a fly ball to the right field corner, and Jason Heyward was just able to get there in time for the third out. It could have been two or three runs for the Nationals...

The Cubs scored again in the seventh inning, as Sammy Solis gave up two consecutive hits -- just like he did in Game 3. Next! Dusty Baker challenged the call on the run-scoring play, arguing that Jon Jay made an illegal slide into second base, but was denied. (See below.) When the Nats came up to bat, Michael A. Taylor drew a leadoff walk and soon the bases were loaded for Bryce Harper. What a moment of suspense that was! Bryce connected on a ball toward the right-center gap, but he didn't get all of it, and he was very disappointed to settle for an RBI sacrifice fly. Ryan Zimmerman then struck out on a bad pitch, as he seems to do too often, unfortunately. That left the score 9-7.

Relief pitcher Ryan Madson (who had come in to finish the seventh inning) had a nice 1-2-3 eighth inning for the Nats. In the bottom of the inning, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon drew walks, and Adam Lind came in to pinch hit for Matt Wieters. Once again, fans in Nationals Park stirred with excitement. Lind has proven an invaluable bench player and all-around utility man for the Nats this year, with several clutch homers and RBIs. This time, however, he grounded into a double play, dousing the flame of fan passion. But then Michael A. Taylor came up and smashed an RBI single into center field, and hopes rose once again. Michael thus became the very first player in MLB history to get four (or more) RBI's in two consecutive postseason games. He is simply amazing! That brought the Nats back to within one run of the Cubs, and Jose Lobaton singled as well. But what could have become a game-changing rally ended when Lobaton was picked off first base by the catcher in yet another controversial play discussed below.

Michael A. Taylor

The hero of Game 4, and would-be hero of Game 5, Michael A. Taylor, at Nationals Park on September 29.

In the top of the ninth inning, the Nats' great new closing pitcher, Sean Doolittle, did his job, getting three quick outs. In the bottom of the ninth, Trea Turner swung at a bad pitch on a 3-1 count and then flew out, wasting a walk opportunity. (That was indeed just awful, as MLB-TV's "High Heat" host Christopher Russo practically screamed his derision this afternoon.) Next came Jayson Werth, who already had a run, two hits, and two walks that day. But in his probable final at-bat as a Washington National, he swung at a high fastball for strike three. That left it up to Bryce Harper, who likewise struck out; see my Facebook comment below. And that was that. Cubs 9, Nationals 8. frown

Most of the Nationals players rose to the occasion at one point or another, and there was some genuinely good baseball mixed in with all the sloppy play. Until the late innings, most of the pitchers did poorly. I was disappointed that Ryan Zimmerman went 0 for 4 plus one walk, striking out three times and leaving seven (7) batters on base. Ouch! The Nats out-hit the Cubs 14 to 9, but just couldn't get enough hits in clutch situations. The game was ridiculously slow, taking 4:37 to complete just nine innings. (The stroke of midnight came somewhere around the seventh inning, so superstitious fans could blame the Nats' misfortunes on Friday the 13th.) Attendance was 43,849, almost the same as in NLDS Games 1 and 2.

Dubious umpire calls

Only sore losers blame defeat on unfair officiating, so I hope I'm not doing that. But in three critical situations, questionable rulings had a huge effect on the course of the game, adverse from the Nationals' point of view.

In the wild and crazy fifth inning, when catcher Matt Wieters was charged with a passed ball on strike three, he ran to the backstop and unwisely threw the ball to try to get Javier Baez out at first. I didn't realized it at the time, but Baez's bat struck Wieters' mask, possibly leaving him a bit dazed. Wieters promptly told the umpire that happened, but was told that it didn't matter. frown But according to the Official Baseball Rules:

Rule 6.03 (comment): If a batter strikes at a ball and misses and swings so hard he carries the bat all the way around and, in the umpire's judgment, unintentionally hits the catcher or the ball in back of him on the backswing, it shall be called a strike only (not interference). The ball will be dead, however, and no runner shall advance on the play.

There is no question that the bat struck the catcher, and that it should have been a dead ball. But in such a case (with a passed ball), the batter could not attempt to reach first base, so it would have been the third out, with the score remaining 5-4. Has this situation never occurred before at all? MLB will have to clarify the rules for next year.

Two innings later (the seventh), Jon Jay made an apparent illegal slide into second base, raising his leg and clearly going after Daniel Murphy, to the left of the bag. Such a violation of the "Chase Utley rule" would have have made the batter (Kris Bryant) out at first on a would-be double play, and the run scored by Kyle Schwarber would not have counted. But for some reason, the umps didn't see it that way, and that run ended up deciding the game. frown

Finally, in the bottom of the eighth inning, the catcher, Willson Contreras tried to pick off Jose Lobaton at first base, and the umpire ruled he was safe. But Joe Maddon challenged the call, and although the video replay did show that Lobaton's foot briefly came off the bag when he slid back in, there was no clear proof that Anthony Rizzo had his glove on him at that precise moment. When the evidence is inconclusive, the original call is supposed to stand, so I was shocked when the review overturned the call. If you want to blame Lobaton for taking too big of a lead for no reason (as Christopher Russo did), go ahead, but changing an umpire's call in such a critical situation with such inconclusive video evidence is very bad. frown

Werth's sad farewell

This was almost certainly Jayson Werth's last game as a National (his seven-year contract has expired), and it was painful to watch the postgame interview with him in such a sad and bewildered state. He couldn't believe what had happened, and neither could we the fans. To his immense credit, he spoke openly and honestly about what that game and that series meant to him, and it was obvious how much he craved winning that series and helping take the Nats all the way to the World Series. Even though his batting and fielding performance was gradually declining over the past couple years, no one could ever doubt his passionate commitment to the team. As he (most likely) bids farewell to Washington in the next few months, let's not forget what he meant for helping turn this franchise from an also-ran motley crew to a championship-caliber "band of brothers." heart

Jayson Werth

Jayson Werth at second base after hitting a single in the sixth inning, at Nationals Park on September 29.

My Facebook reflections

Here are some of my initial observations on Facebook, during and immediately after the game:

(On the "Washington D.C. Baseball - Yesterday & Today" page at the top of the fifth inning:) Shouldn't they be holding Scherzer in reserve until the later innings? He'll only last two or three, right? It seems almost desperate.
(In response to a downcast Nats fan on that same page after the sixth inning:) We're being tested just like the players are, Damien. Down two runs with three innings to go is not that bad.
(On my own timeline, after the final out:) "Don't swing, Bryce," I was thinking. "Take the walk and let Zim have another chance." But swing he did, at an awful inside pitch no less, and that's how the 2017 season ends. There's plenty of blame to go around, but I'm not going to mope around. The Nats are still a great team, overall, and have much to be proud of. We can fix the problems and do better next year!

Comparing four NLDS's

Whereas each of the four times the Nats have made it to the NLDS have been marked by a sudden, crushing, hideous twist of fate (to a greater or lesser extent), each one is unique in terms of the sequence of wins and losses. All four times the Nationals enjoyed home field advantage, but in the 2012 series, the format was changed from 2-2-1 to 2-3 because of the addition of a second wild card team that year. The Nats have faced four different opponents, and went all the way to Game 5 in all years except 2014. They lost the first game in three of the four years, and only had a series lead after Game 1 of 2012 and Game 3 of 2016.

Year Opponent Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4 Game 5
2012 Cardinals W
(3-2)
@
L
(12-4)
@
L
(8-0)
W
(2-1)
L
(9-7)
2014 Giants L
(3-2)
L
(2-1)
W
(4-1)
@
L
(3-2)
@
X
2016 Dodgers L
(4-3)
W
(5-2)
W
(8-3)
@
L
(6-5)
@
L
(4-3)
2017 Cubs L
(3-0)
W
(6-3)
L
(2-1)
@
W
(5-0)
@
L
(9-8)

@ = away game

ALCS Game 1: Astros beat Yanks

In Houston tonight, the Astros edged the Yankees 2-1 in a tense pitchers' duel between Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka. (I keep wondering, shouldn't a guy named "Dallas" be playing for the Rangers?) The Astros put together three hits to scrounge out two runs in the fourth inning, sparked as usual by Jose Altuve, while the Yankees failed to score until the ninth inning. The Yankees' stunning series comeback victory against the Indians in the ALDS Game 5 was at least as disheartening to Cleveland fans as the NLDS Game 5 defeat was to fans in Washington.

Tomorrow the Cubs will begin playing the NLCS against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and I think most readers of this blog know where the Clem family sympathies lie. But I'm also intrigued by the possibility of a rematch of one of the classic rivalries in World Series history: the L.A. Dodgers won in 1963 and 1981, while the Yankees won in 1977 and 1978.




Postseason scores, 2017

Major League Baseball championship series, 2017
World Champions: Houston Astros
Wild Card Games / Divisional series
Oct. 3 - 12
League Championship series
Oct. 13 - 22
World Series
Oct. 24 - Nov. 1
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
NL-C: Chicago Cubs (.568) 3 3 2 0 9    
NL-E: Washington Nationals (.599) 0 6 1 5 8    
    Chicago Cubs 2 1 1 3 1 X X  
    Los Angeles Dodgers 5 4 6 2 11 X X  
NL-wc: ^ Colorado Rockies (.537) 8  
NL-wc: ^ Arizona Diamonbacks (.574) 11   5 5 1 X X
NL-W: Los Angeles Dodgers (.642) 9 8 3 X X    
  Houston Astros 1 7 5 2 13 1 5
  Los Angeles Dodgers 3 6 3 6 12 3 1
AL-E: Boston Red Sox (.574) 2 2 10 4 X    
AL-W: Houston Astros (.623) 8 8 3 5 X    
    New York Yankees 1 1 8 6 5 1 0  
    Houston Astros 2 2 1 4 0 7 4  
AL-wc: ^ Minnesota Twins (.525) 4  
AL-wc: ^ New York Yankees (.562) 8   0 8 1 7 5   Extra-inning game: X
AL-C: Cleveland Indians (.630) 4 9 0 3 2   Win by visiting team: X

See explanatory notes at bottom.
^ : If either of the visiting wild card teams had won, their row positions would have been switched so as to properly align in the subsequent divisional series.

Explanatory notes

(Regular season winning percentages in parentheses.) Boldfaced scores indicate the winning team. Underlined scores denote extra-inning games. Olive-shaded score boxes denote games won by the VISITING team. Higher-seeded teams (those with the initial home field advantage) are shown on the BOTTOM side in each matchup. However, beginning with 2012, each league has TWO wild card teams, competing in a one-game "play-in," and whichever of those two teams that wins in each league is displayed below (after the outcome is known), so as to properly align with the subsequent divisional series scores. Beginning in 2003 and continuing through 2016, the league that won the All Star Game got the initial home field advantage in the World Series; prior to 2003, initial home field advantage in the World Series alternated from year to year. Except for 2002 (the infamous tie), the American League won the All Star Game every year between 1997 and 2009. Beginning in 2017, home field advantage in the World Series goes to the team with the higher regular season winning percentage.


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Baseball books:


See Sources for a brief description of the above books. Also see more specialized books on the Ebbets Field, Wrigley Field, and Yankee Stadium pages.





Coming Attractions

(Includes major revisions, minor revisions, pages with additional diagrams, and future stadiums that are under construction. This is only a rough guide; the sequence is subject to change.)


Stadium construction

With the 2017 opening of the new home of the Atlanta Braves -- SunTrust Park -- no MLB stadiums are currently under construction. The last such lapse occurred from March 2012 (when Marlins Park was completed), September 2014 (when construction on SunTrust Park began). Before that, there was at least one major league baseball stadium under construction continually from September 1986 until March 2012. Both the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays hope to get public funding for a new stadium, but near-term prospects are bleak.


Research department: