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September 20, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Braves clinch NL East while Nationals slog ahead
By beating the San Francisco Giants 6-0 tonight, the Atlanta Braves officially claimed the National League East Division title for the second year in a row. There really hasn't been much doubt about that outcome for well over a month. During the three months when the Washington Nationals were the hottest team in baseball (see August 31), the Braves managed to stay at least five games ahead of the challengers, and have kept up the pace while the Nationals slumped in September. With a record of 95-60, the Braves are now four games behind the league-leading L.A. Dodgers, and have an outside chance of claiming home field advantage through the NLCS. With a balanced, high-performing mix of eager rookies and seasoned veterans, the Braves might finally break through the invisible barrier that seems to continually thwart them in the early stage of the MLB postseason, time and again. (Much like the Nationals in their four postseason appearances!) For their part, the Nationals are in a three-way dogfight for one of two wild card slots, with ten games left to go. So as we prepare for another thrilling, cardiac arrest-inducing October, let's review how this month has gone for the Nats.
Mets almost sweep the Nats
After completing a sweep of the Miami Marlins on the first of the month, the Nationals suddenly fell flat against the visiting New York Mets. On September 2, Joe Ross had another shaky outing as pitcher, as the Mets scored seven runs during the first four innings. Were it not for a three-run homer by Asdrubal Cabrera in the bottom of the ninth, the Nats would have been shut out.
The following night's game featured one of the most improbable reversals of fortune that I can ever remember. Max Scherzer pitched a full six innings for the first time since returning from the Injured List in late August, but he was burned with a four-run Mets rally in the fourth inning. (That darned Wilson Ramos again!) The Nats struggled to catch up in the later innings, but all hope seemed lost when the Mets scored five runs in the top of the ninth. The score was 10-4, and many fans streamed out of Nationals Park. Mets Manager Mickey Callaway decided to take out Seth Lugo, who had just pitched in the eighth inning, and give some of the other relievers some practice. Bad move! Victor Robles led off with a single, and soon the Nats scored two runs and had the bases loaded with just one out. Things were getting interesting, and then Ryan Zimmerman came in as a pinch hitter. He is famous for his walk-off home runs, and even though that wasn't going to happen with a four-run deficit, he came pretty close to delivering in one of the most dramatic ways you can imagine: he smashed a double to right-center field, and two more runs scored! Next up was Kurt Suzuki, and to the delight and amazement of Nats fans everywhere, he smashed a home run to left field, putting the Nationals over the top, 11-10. It was the biggest ninth-inning comeback win ever by the Nationals, and indeed for the franchise including the Montreal Expos.
The next day (an afternoon getaway game) Anibal Sanchez pitched for the Nats, but he gave up seven runs over five-plus innings. The Nats had a three-run rally in the bottom of the sixth, but that was all the comeback they had in them. And thus the Nationals lost a series for the first time since August 9-11 -- which was also against the Mets.
Braves almost sweep the Nats
Next the Nationals flew down to Atlanta, in one last chance to close the gap with their division rivals the Braves. (They were seven games back at that point.) Stephen Strasburg pitched on September 5, and he did well enough but got no run support during the six innings on the mound. Only a two-run homer by Victor Robles in the ninth inning staved off a shutout. Braves 4, Nats 2. The next night Patrick Corbin likewise pitched a solid game, but the Nats didn't get on the scoreboard until the eighth inning, when Ryan Zimmerman hit a three-run home run. Braves 4, Nats 3. The Saturday night game seemed to be a long-shot since the young pitcher Austin Voth filled in as a starting pitcher, but he did better than expected. I questioned the manager's decision to replace him in the fifth inning, but the first reliever -- Aaron Barrett -- created quite an emotional scene. In his first major league appearance in four years (due to multiple surgeries on his throwing arm), he finished the inning without giving up any hits or runs. This was one of those exceptions to the "no crying in baseball" rule. In the later innings, the Nats closed the gap, but once again the Braves clung to the lead and won it, 5-4. On Sunday Max Scherzer had a superb outing, striking out nine over six innings while only giving up one run. The Nats hit four home runs, including two by Yan Gomes (who has had a disappointing year), and Asdrubal Cabrera went four for five at the plate. And thus the Nationals avoided being swept, with a resounding 9-4 victory.
Nats rebound, beat Twins
In their first-ever game in Target Field on September 10, the Nationals seemed hopelessly confused. Anibal Sanchez pitched for seven innings, but his team ended up being shut out, 5-2. Things quickly turned around the next day, however, as Stephen Strasburg did just fine on the mound, while both Ryan Zimmerman and Trea Turner hit home runs. In fact, both Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick went three for four at the plate, a reassuring sign that those veteran sluggers have still got it. The Sunday game was even better, with four Nationals hitting home runs and Patrick Corbin having another solid outing on the mound. The Nats won it easily, 12-6, the first time they have won on consecutive days this month.
Braves pull away from Nats
The very next day (Friday the 13th!) the Nats were back in D.C. for a rare three-game home stand against the Atlanta Braves -- again, and once again they lost the opening game of the series, 5-0. Max Scherzer gave up some big run-scoring hits, while the Nats could hardly get a man on base. (I almost went to see that game in person, since they were giving away Anthony Rendon bobbleheads, but the weather was dismal, and I'm kind of glad I didn't.) The next night's game ended up even worse, even though Austin Voth threw a spectacular game, giving up just one run over five and two-thirds innings. Once again, the bullpen collapsed, and recriminations started flying around among Nats fans. Final score: Braves 10, Nats 1. Fortunately, Anibal Sanchez pitched a great game on Sunday and the Nats' bats started heating up. Howie Kendrick led the way with a home run and two singles, as the Nats won it, 7-0. Another near-sweep averted!
Nats are flummoxed by Cardinals
The very next day (Monday the 16th), the Nats flew to St. Louis, where the first-place Cardinals were lying in wait. Stephen Strasburg pitched OK, but all the Nats could manage on offense was a homer by Anthony Rendon and an RBI by Victor Robles. Tuesday's game went much better, as Patrick Corbin struck out eleven batters and gave up just two unearned runs over six innings, while Howie Kendrick homered again and came a triple shy of hitting for the "cycle." Nats 6, Cards 2. But in the series finale on Wednesday, the Cards got the best of Max Scherzer, who tried his best to finish the seventh inning, but ended up giving up a two-run home run, and the Cardinals won it, 5-1.
In Miami tonight, the Nationals prevailed over the Marlins 6-4, thanks to two solo homers by Trea Turner and a clutch three-run homer by Asdrubal Cabrera. Anibal Sanchez pitched fairly well until the sixth inning, at which point he seemed to lose his command. Wander Suero came in to relieve him, and soon allowed both inherited runners to score. But the Nats were still ahead, and padded their lead with Turner's second homer in the top of the seventh inning. Daniel Hudson gave up three hits over the final two innings, but none of those runners scored.
The other division races
With my focus on the Washington Nationals, I tend to neglect races outside the National League East, but there is drama in some of the other divisions. The New York Yankees and L.A. Dodgers have clinched their divisions (AL East, NL West), and the Houston Astros about to clinch the AL West. The Minnesota Twins and St. Louis Cardinals lead their divisions by a few games, so the main question at this point is who will take the two wild card spots in each league. I am constantly amazed by the consistent performance of the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays, who are vying for the AL wild card game with the Cleveland Indians. Even with a meager payroll and a small fan base with seriously outmoded stadiums, those teams continue to compete on a true championship level.
Meanwhile, the Nationals' one-game lead over the Brewers in the NL wild card race is tenuous indeed, and much depends on the unusual five-game home series against the Phillies next week. Everything may boil down to the final weekend, and I hope to see at least one of the Nats' games in D.C. against the Cleveland Indians.
The Cy Young and MVP races
Despite their recent struggles (8-10 this month), the Nationals have two pitchers in contention for the Cy Young Award (Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg), while Anthony Rendon is probably ahead in the "race" for the National League MVP Award. Including Patrick Corbin, the Nationals undoubtedly have the best top three pitchers in the major leagues right now, and that threesome recently achieved something that no three pitchers from the same team had ever accomplished before: All three of them have struck out at least 224 batters this year. Strasburg has 235 strikeouts and Scherzer has 233; if he hadn't missed most of July and August, Max would have had way over 300 strikeouts by now. What a shame... Among hitters, meanwhile, the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger has gone way downhill at the plate this month, while the Brewers' Christian Yelich broke a knee cap on a foul tip a couple weeks ago, putting his MVP candidacy in doubt. Anthony Rendon had a couple off-games, so his average has dipped to .328, but he is still within one of the NL leader in RBIs, Freddie Freeman, who has 120.
Will RFK Stadium soon be gone?
D.C. government officials recently announced that they plan to demolish RFK Stadium within the next two years. It costs too much to maintain the structure, which is crumbling and no longer fit to host professional sports. It's too bad they can't find a way to "mothball" it, so as to preserve the last true "cookie-cutter" stadium from the 1960s and 70s as an architectural monument of sorts. I wish they could at least rearrange the lower deck for one last nostalgic baseball game there, but I suppose that is a far-fetched scenario.
A montage of photos I took at the next-to-last Nationals game at RFK Stadium, on September 22, 2007. Notice a youthful Ryan Zimmerman, then completing his second full year with the Nationals.
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:
Sign honoring hometown hero Charlie Manuel, in Buena Vista, Virginia; August 10, 2019.
And speaking of Bryce Harper, he recently took a few days off for paternity leave. Congratulations on becoming a father, Bryce!
August 5, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nats' slump continues in Arizona
The Washington Nationals' series in Arizona ended up exactly opposite of what had been expected: They won on the day when an emergency replacement pitcher was starting, and they lost on the days when two of their (usually) top-line pitchers were starting. After Joe Ross's disastrous outing against the L.A. Dodgers on July 27 (six earned runs over 4 2/3 innings in a 9-3 loss), his chances against the Arizona Diamondbacks last Friday seemed bleak. But somehow he rose to the challenge and only allowed one hit (and no runs) over 5 1/3 innings. The newly-reinforced Nats bullpen did not allow any further runs or hits, while Matt Adams hit a clutch 2-run single and Juan Soto hit a solo homer. Thus, the Nats won the series opener, 3-0. The Washington Post thinks Ross has earned a spot as the fifth man in the pitching rotation. With Max Scherzer still on the Injured List, that is of vital importance.
On Saturday, in contrast, Stephen Strasburg was pathetically ineffective, not at all the same guy who I saw pitch in Washington on July 28. The Nats scored twice in the first inning, but the Diamondbacks quickly tied it, and then they took a 3-2 lead in the second inning. The D-Backs kept piling on runs, and Strasburg was replaced before he could finish the fifth inning. in a desperation move, manager Dave Martinez had second baseman Gerardo Parra pitch in the eighth inning to save the precious, fragile arms in the bullpen. Parra gave up five runs without getting an out, after which Brian Dozier took the mound and soon gave up a home to Eduardo Escobar, his second of the night. Eventually Dozier got three outs. It was quite an embarrassment, and Anthony Rendon's three-run homer in the top of the ninth barely even mattered. Final score: D-Backs 18, Nats 7.
On Sunday, Patrick Corbin was pitching for the Nats, and somehow he could not get the job done. The Nats took a 2-0 lead in the second inning thanks to a two-run homer by Gerardo "Baby Shark" Parra, but the D-Backs came right back with three runs in the bottom of the inning. The Nats struggled to catch up and finally tied it 5-5 in the top of the sixth, and had the bases loaded with the pitcher up to bat. Much like in the game I saw a week earlier, when Stephen Strasburg hit a bases-loaded RBI single in the bottom of the sixth, I was amazed that Dave Martinez let Corbin bat rather than put in a pinch hitter. This time, it didn't work, as Corbin grounded into a force out to end the inning. Not only that (unlike Strasburg), he couldn't finish pitching the next half inning! It was a huge wasted opportunity that probably changed the outcome of the game, since Wander Suero (who relieved Corbin) gave up a two-run single. The score remained 7-5 until the end of the game.
Thus, as the Nats begin a three-game series against the Giants in San Francisco, they are are tied with the Phillies for second place in the NL East, seven games behind the Braves. For the first time since May 23 (when they hit "rock bottom"), the Nats have only won three of the past ten games. For the first time since May 8, moreover, they have lost three series in a row. Time will soon be a bitter enemy of the Nats, as each game becomes more and more essential to win.
August 1, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nationals fall short vs. Braves
The Washington Nationals had a golden opportunity to gain at least some ground on the Atlanta Braves in the race for the National League division title this week, but they just couldn't "get 'er done." In Monday's game, the Nats' #3 pitcher, Patrick Corbin, was up against Dallas Keuchel, the mega-star recently acquired as a free agent by the Braves. The Nats took an early 2-0 lead, but the Braves came back and tied it in the sixth inning. In the bottom of the inning, with the bases loaded and on a 2-0 count, Anthony Rendon calmly smashed the ball way up into the left field seats for his third career grand slam. He is simply amazing with his methodical approach at the plate, smacking balls every which way. That gave the Nats a 6-2 lead, and the only additional score was when Charlie Culberson hit a solo homer off Sean Doolittle in the ninth inning. Otherwise, the bullpen did their job efficiently and without angst, for a change.
On Tuesday the Nats were in a bind, since Max Scherzer went back on the Injured List, so Erick Fedde was given starting pitching duties. He did OK at first, and got out of a jam in the second inning (giving up just one run), but things fell to pieces in the third inning when the Braves scored four more. Since the manager Dave Martinez was determined to give his bullpen a rest, he kept Fedde in for another inning, and the Braves scored four more runs. Javy Guerra then came in as a reliever, remaining through the seventh inning, when the Braves scored two more runs. That made the score 11-1, but then the Nationals staged a comeback with seven runs in the last three innings, yielding a more respectable final score: 11-8.
That left the outcome of the series up to the series finale on Wednesday, and with Anibal Sanchez on the mound, the Nats seemed to stand a very good chance of prevailing. He got out of a jam in the second inning, only allowing one run, and when Juan Soto tied the game with a solo homer in the bottom of the inning, the Nats' prospects seemed bright. But the Braves kept chipping away, and had a 4-1 lead after six innings. [Perhaps the decisive play in the game was in the bottom of the sixth, when Trea Turner doubled to the left-center gap. Howie Kenrick, who had just walked, was waved home by the third base coach Bob Henley, and was tagged out by at least five feet. With nobody out, that seems like a dumb move by the coach. Turner never scored either. In the eighth inning Matt Adams (who had rested two days after getting hit in the foot by a pitch on Sunday) hit a solo homer to right field, which was a big psychological lift.] In the bottom of the ninth, the Nats loaded the bases with no outs, and Kurt Suzuki came through with a clutch single to make it a one-run game. Gerardo Parra then grounded into a double play, tying the game, and Brian Dozier struck out, sending it into extras. In the top of the tenth Nats' closer Sean Doolittle gave up a home run to Josh Donaldson, a crushing blow. The Nats got two runners on base with one out in the bottom of the tenth, but neither Adam Eaton nor Anthony Rendon could get them home, so the Braves won it, 5-4.
That put the Nationals 6 1/2 games behind the Braves, and only 1/2 game ahead of the Phillies in the NL East. [The Nats went 15-10 for the month of July (see the Washington Nationals page), losing five of the last seven games, so their win-loss record is now 57-51 (.528) as they head to Arizona and then San Francisco.]
Nats beef up bullpen
On the final day of the summer trading season, the Nationals acquired three pitchers: Hunter Strickland (Mariners, 8.10 ERA), Roenis Elias (Mariners, 4.40 ERA), and Daniel Hudson (Blue Jays, 3.00 ERA). Strickland's numbers aren't impressive, but he is remembered in Washington as the guy who "beaned" Bryce Harper in 2017, starting a big brawl between the Nats and the Giants. In October 2014, also with the Giants, he became the first MLB reliever in history to give up six home runs in a single postseason. It seems to me that those modest acquisitions will do little (!) to change the Nats' bullpen situation. Overall, there weren't many big transactions this week, the main exception being the Houston Astros getting ace pitcher Zack Greinke from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
A few more photos
Here are some more photos from the game on Sunday that might be of interest.
Beyond the "Red Porch" and west parking garage at Nationals Park are new condominium buildings. The one on the left features small trees and a swimming pool [on the roof], while the one on the right is apparently in the final stages of preparation.
I later noticed in this photo of Walker Buehler walking toward the dugout after being replaced in the sixth, that none other than Clayton Kershaw was there.
Clayton Kershaw, in the dugout.
I noticed in some of the photos a tribute to recently-deceased Dodger Don Newcombe (see February 25) on the team's uniforms: the nickname "Newk" and the number 36 on their right sleeves.
With more and more accidents involving stray foul balls striking spectators in the lower decks of other stadiums, Nationals Park was one of the first ones to extend the protective netting most of the way down to the left and right field corners. It affects visibility only a little, and is on balance a positive development.
The recently-extended net down the first base line at Nationals Park.
From the position I was in, I couldn't get a good photo of Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo, the TV announcers for Nationals games, but I had better luck with the radio announcers:
Charlie Slowes (left) and Dave Jageler (right), radio announcers for the Nationals.
July 29, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nationals crush the Dodgers, avoid being swept
If there was one absolute must-win game for the Nationals this year, yesterday's series finale against the L.A. Dodgers was it. Having lost the first two games of the series (see below), the Nats desperately needed to avoid losing a fourth consecutive game as the NL East division-leading Atlanta Braves headed to Washington. The daunting challenge weighed heavily on my mind as I drove north and east toward Washington yesterday morning, but I was confident that with Stephen Strasburg as the starting pitcher, the Nationals had a very good chance of prevailing. I went for the first time with a friend named Matthew and his son Julian, and we parked on the south side of Audi Field, which opened as the new home of the D.C. United soccer team about a year ago. (I previously saw it in the latter stages of construction.)
Since the temperatures were expected to reach the mid-90s, we chose seats based on proximity and shade: the back of the second deck on the first base side. The location suited us fine, but I forgot about the restricted visibility. Indeed, we missed seeing a couple extra-base hits into the right field corner. I noticed that they are adding an extra level to the roofs on top of the parking garages (right center in the photo below), which will probably further reduce the view of the Washington skyline. The new condo buildings across N Street from those parking garages are open.
Nationals Park, in all its glory, during the first inning. (All photos in this blog post are from the Nationals-Dodgers game on July 28, 2019.)
Stephen Strasburg got off to a great start, striking out the first two batters and inducing a groundout by the third batter. The bottom of the first inning featured a dramatic moment in which Adam Eaton (the second batter) struck out and then complained to the umpire about the called second strike, which should have been ball four, and was promptly ejected from the game. Manager Dave Martinez then voiced his objection to the umpire, and he was ejected from the game as well! That probably helped boost the team's fighting spirit.
Adam Eaton walks away after striking out and being ejected from the game in the first inning, while Dave Martinez objects to the umps. He was ejected as well.
Neither team scored during the first four innings, and the Nats recorded the only two hits. In fact, Strasburg had a perfect game going until the fifth inning, when A.J. Pollock smashed a double into the left field corner. He later scored. But the Nationals bounced right back to take the lead in the bottom of the inning, with a hit by Gerardo Parra and a home run over the scoreboard in right field by Brian Dozier. [Each time Parra came up to bat, they played his theme song, the cute but intensely annoying "Baby Shark."] An inning later the Nationals unleashed a four-run rally on three singles, two walks, and an errant throw to home plate by the first baseman, Joc Pederson. I was amazed that Dave Martinez let Strasburg bat rather than put in a pinch hitter, since his pitch count was almost as high as the temperature -- in the nineties. But Strasburg hit an RBI single, validating the decision. The Nats scored four more runs in the eighth inning, giving them a ten-run lead, but the Dodgers made a token comeback in the ninth inning. Relief pitcher Michael Blazek gave up two walks, got two outs, and then a home run to Corey Seager. That made the final score slightly less lopsided: 11-4. In short, it was a wonderful afternoon of baseball in Our Nation's Capital.
Coincidentally, both starters threw exactly 100 pitches, but that is where the similarity ended. Strasburg got nine strikeouts [with no walks and just two hits] over seven innings, whereas Buehler struck out just three batters over five and a third innings. It's worth pointing out that Stephen Strasburg's superlative performance on the mound and in the batter's box yesterday was strikingly similar to the July 18 game, in which the Nats beat the Braves by the very same score: 11 to 4! It provides a nice margin of safety for the Nationals as their ace pitcher Max Scherzer deals with a lingering tight back.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Anthony Rendon hits an RBI single in the fifth inning; Stephen Strasburg throws his 100th and final pitch to Will Smith (who flew out) in the seventh inning; "Screech" celebrates the Nationals' 56th win of the year; Joc Pederson, Max Muncy, and Cody Bellinger converge on a "Texas League" base hit by Anthony Rendon in the sixth inning; and Juan Soto "rehearses" (in the fourth inning) a home run that he would later hit (in the eighth inning).
I managed to get photos of a few of the new Nationals players, as well as Matt Adams, who played with the Nats for much of last year but was traded away before the game I saw in September. Miniature photos of them are now shown on the Washington Nationals page. I didn't get photos of others who did not play, however: Yan Gomes, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, or Fernando Rodney. And since Manager Dave Martinez was ejected early in the game, I never got a good photo of him.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Brian Dozier, Stephen Strasburg, Walker Buehler, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Will Smith, Matt Adams, and Gerardo Parra.
Since the Atlanta Braves lost to the Phillies on Sunday, the Nationals regained one of the two games they had lost in the NL East standings, and are now 5 1/2 games in back.
On our way out of Nationals Park, I noticed a primitive-looking sign for a new craft brewery: Bardo's Beer Garden. Since it is located under the Frederick Douglass bridge, I assume the name Bardo is a play on the name of French actress Brigitte Bardeaux.
The first two games
In the first game of the series (mentioned in my Friday blog post), the Nats rallied to tie in the seventh inning and almost took the lead. But the Dodgers came right back in the eighth inning, as Justin Turner hit a three-run homer off Kyle Barraclough, who had just recently returned to the active roster and was obviously not ready for prime time. Another managerial goof by Dave Martinez, I'd say. The Nats rallied in the ninth inning, but still lost, -2. [CORRECTED]
The outcome of Saturday's game almost seemed like a foregone conclusion, as relief pitcher Matt Grace took the mound as a starter for just the second time in his career, [facing the legendary Clayton Kershaw]. To my amazement, he went two innings without allowing any batter to reach base. But for some strange reason, Dave Martinez replaced him with Joe Ross in the third inning, and all hell broke loose. The first batter he faced, young catcher Will Smith (not the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"), hit a solo home run, and three more Dodger runs scored in the fourth inning. Smith ended up with six RBIs in that game, almost single-handedly winning it for the Dodgers. Final score: L.A. 9, D.C. 3.
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