July 13, 2018 [LINK / comment]
Forget June, too! The Nationals' slump continues
Hopes that the Washington Nationals might recover from their early season failures ("Forget April!") and live up to their potential slowly faded during June and were pretty much dashed by the end of the month. Every time a flicker of hope surfaces, they resume a grim spiral downward into mediocrity. With the midpoint of the season already past, the Nats' chances of snapping out of it and winning the NL East are probably less than one in ten right now. With solid rosters full of eager, fresh talent, the Phillies and Braves will fight it out until October, most likely.
Ironically, the June swoon came just when some of their big slugging stars from last year finally returned to the lineup. Anthony Rendon is finally starting to display All-Star quality slugging and fielding, but not in time to get selected for this year's All Star game. Daniel Murphy took a long time to regain his former hitting form, while Trea Turner has had big ups and downs. On the other hand, Ryan Zimmerman -- "face of the franchise" -- is still on the DL, and there is some confusion over whether it's just an oblique strain or if he also injured his calf muscle.
So what went wrong? First and foremost, the Nats' vaunted pitching rotation fell apart. The team's ace, Max Scherzer, only won one game in June (on the fifth, against Tampa Bay), and was charged with three losses even though he only gave up a total of five runs. How many runs did the Nats score in those three games? ZERO!!! The fact that he has remained a ferocious competitor in spite of the lack of run support from his team mates is a testament to his sportsmanship. Among other starting pitchers, Gio Gonzalez has reverted to his often-inconsistent ways, getting flustered by adversity. The once-solid Tanner Roark is having his worst year since joining the Nats in 2013, losing tonight against the Mets to bring his record down to 3-12. (He probably still harbors a grudge that he didn't get a chance to pitch at all in last year's NLDS.) Steven Strasburg has been on the disabled list for over a month now, while Jeremy Hellickson just came from the DL and did well on Tuesday, helping to beat the Pirates. After a stellar first two months, the Nats' pitching rotation is in shambles.
But we can't just blame the pitchers. At the plate this year, the Nats are incredibly inconsistent, racking up double-digit scores one day and then getting shut out a few days later. In fact, the Nats have been shut out ten times this year already, three more than in all of 2017. Tonight's game against the Mets (a 4-2 loss) was a perfect example of how the Nats keep wasting golden opportunities: they were 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position. Whether it's lack of leadership under the new manager (Dave Martinez) or some hard-to-fathom angst undermining team spirit, the poor results are painfully obvious.
Nats edge Orioles
Given that the Baltimore Orioles are having one of their worst seasons in team history (currently with a 28-69 record), the Nats really should have swept them in Washington from June 19-21. But perhaps because of a lengthy rain delay (almost three hours) on June 20, the Nats just couldn't find their rhythm, and the O's shut them out, 3-0. So, the Nats settled for winning two out of three. That gave the Nats a 5-1 win-loss record over the Orioles this year, better than they usually seem to do against their neighbors to the north.
Phillies torment the Nats
The Philadelphia Phillies then came to town, as the Nats were clinging to second place in the NL East. Tanner Roark had another lousy outing, and the Phillies grabbed second place in dramatic fashion, spanking the Nats 12-2. They widened their lead the next evening, and on Sunday the 24th had a lead going into the late innings. But this time Rendon, Harper, and Murphy rose to the occasion, winning 8-6 and narrowly avoiding what would have been a humiliating sweep at home.
Did that big win turn things around for the Nats? Nope. Over the next two days in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Nats failed to score a single run against the third place Rays, and only got five total hits. Gio Gonzalez gave up six runs in one-plus innings (final score 11-0) and then Max Scherzer got tagged for the loss in a 1-0 game. Just disgusting.
So it wasn't much surprise that the Nats would have a rough go in the subsequent four-game series in Philadelphia. But they actually did OK, scoring a total of 25 runs to the Phillies' 18. The problem was that most of the Nationals' runs were in the second game (Friday the 29th), when they won 17-7. Rookie Juan Soto homered twice, and five other Nats hit four-baggers as well. It was a huge triumph that raised hopes of finally getting the team back on track -- except that in the other three games the Nats lost by one-run margins. Argh-h-h-h-h!
Red Sox sweep Nats
The Nats began their most recent home stand with three games against the Boston Red Sox, and even with three home runs to support him, Max Scherzer couldn't get the win. Boston 4, Washington 3. The next day starting pitcher Tanner Roark had another meltdown, giving up nine runs in an 11-4 loss. Then the Red Sox spoiled the 4th of July festivities in Washington, in a 3-0 loss in which starting pitcher Erick Fedde (Who??) only lasted one inning. Reliever Mark Grace kept things under control for the next four innings, but there was no offense to entertain the jam-packed Nationals Park on that special day.
NOTE: Two years ago I presented a table summarizing all the 4th of July baseball games played by the Nationals since the franchise "rebirth" in 2005. Their cumulative July 4 record was then 7-4, and now it's 8-5.
Nats wallop the Marlins
With that misery behind them, the Nats welcomed the Miami Marlins to town on July 5. This time Jeremy Hellickson had, shall we say, a rather more difficult time on the mound. He gave up seven runs in the first two innings (one unearned), and two more in the fourth inning. Down 9-0, there wasn't much for the Nats to hope for. But in the bottom of the fourth, Trea Turner hit a solo homer, and that small spark lit a firestorm of runs. Over the next three innings, the Nats scored 13 more runs, capped by a grand slam by Trea Turner that gave his team a 10-9 lead in the sixth inning. Believe it or not!!! But then the Marlins closed the gap with three runs in the eighth inning, and only the cool head of closing pitcher Sean Doolittle kept the Nats' 14-12 lead intact through the end of the game. It was the Nats' biggest comeback win every, surpassing the equally improbable 13-12 win (after a 9-1 deficit) in late April 2015.
That set the stage for a rare (for this year) event: the Nationals won the next game, the first consecutive wins by the team since June 5 and 6. The 3-2 victory on July 6 was largely due to the Nats' valuable utility player Mark Reynolds, who hit a walk-off home run -- the first one by a Nats player this year, in fact. The next day (Saturday) featured another offensive explosion by the Nats, as they won, 18-4. Mark Reynolds was the star once again, hitting two more home runs, and racking up 10 runs batted in, tying the franchise record in that departement which Anthony Rendon had set last year (April 2017). It also got Max Scherzer his 12th win of the year. But the next day the Marlins bounced back with a 10-2 win, thus ending the Nats' winning streak at a modest three.
Nats fall in Pittsburgh
On July 9 in Pittsburgh, a rookie named Jefry Rodriguez was pitching for the Nats, another sign of how badly depleted their pitching staff is. He gave up six runs over five innings, while the Nats only managed three. On Tuesday, a homer by Anthony Rendon and four hits by Daniel Murphy powered the Nats to a 5-1 win. On Wednesday afternoon, Gio Gonzalez had one of his best outings of the year, giving up just two runs over six innings. It could have been worse, but he kept his cool and got out of multiple jams. What's more, he hit a leadoff double, but the next three batters were out to end the inning -- another horrendous example of how the Nats keep screwing up this year. Pirates 2, Nats 0.
Nats acquire Herrera
While the Nationals were playing against the Baltimore Orioles last month, a new relief pitcher appeared for the first time: Kelvin Herrera, who was acquired from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for three minor league prospects. Like last year, the Nationals are in desperate need of better relievers. In 27 games for Kansas City this year, Herrera had a 1.05 ERA with 14 saves and 22 strikeouts and two walks allowed. (MLB.com) But what the Nats really need is another starting pitcher and perhaps a catcher who can hit the ball with some regularity. Neither Matt Wieters nor Pedro Severino have done much for the Nats this year, and third-string catcher Spencer Kieboom is still too young to be an everyday player. (I suppose one could say the same thing about the young Juan Soto, but that's another story!)
Jayson Werth retires
You have to admire Jayson Werth's determination to stay in the game even after his contract with the Nationals expired last year. He was playing minor league ball in the Seattle Mariners' organization, but there just wasn't any room for him, and he decided to retire. He visited Nationals Park earlier this month, and the Nationals announced there will be a special Jayson Werth Day in September. As I have said before, he deserves enormous credit for helping transform the Nationals from an also-ran team into perennial championship contenders.
First half 2018: Numbers don't lie
Read 'em and weep: I updated the Washington Nationals page with data for the first half of the year. At the end of June (coincidentally the exact midpoint in terms of number of games), the Nats' record was 42-39, and now it's back to an even .500: 47-47.
Watch for falling ice!
While going through my accumulated newspaper clippings recently, I noticed a news item from three months ago that a Toronto Blue Jays game scheduled for April 16 had to be postponed one day because falling ice from the huge CN Tower next door had punctured the roof of Rogers Centre, necessitating quick repairs. One of the young Toronto stars, Yangervis Solarte, homered that day as the Blue Jays beat the Royals. That drew my attention because Solarte was the guy whose home runs decided the game outcome in the series last month (June 15-17) when the Nats were swept in Toronto.
SunTrust Park update!
Many thanks to Andrew Owen, who sent me some fine photos of the (almost) new home of the Atlanta Braves, SunTrust Park. I noticed for the first time that the back rows of the middle deck around the infield consists of double-width table seating. No doubt other details are yet to be discovered. I will update that page soon with said photos and perhaps a diagram update. Who knows, maybe I'll even get there myself later this year...
And so, of course, I had to update the SunTrust Park diagram, and as usual, it took me a lot longer than expected. There are now separate upper deck and lower deck variants, and I may add a second deck variant as well. I decided that there are four main decks, since there is significant overhang between the very top level and the level immediately below it. Among all MLB ballparks, only Miller Park has four distinct decks extending all the way around between the foul poles; Dodger Stadium has four decks around the infield only. There will probably be another update or two in the future, once I get a chance to inspect it on my own.
SunTrust Park, home of the Atlanta Braves. (Courtesy of Andrew Owen, April 2018.)
Click on that image to see it full-size.
On a side note, I noticed that Georgia State Stadium (the rebuilt version of Turner Field), has the football gridiron laid out along what used to be the third base line, rather than the first base side as I had previously surmised. See Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia State University; minor diagram update pending...
June 21, 2018 [LINK / comment]
Spring bird migration 2018: a review
Well, here we are in the latter part of June already, and I haven't managed to summarize my birding experiences on this blog since the end of March. So, on the first day of "summer" (the solstice), here's a very brief review what happened in the spring months of April and May. A separate blog post covering birds in June will follow soon.
Throughout April I made periodic visits to Bell's Lane to check on late-lingering winter birds and newly arriving migrants. The last day I saw a Short-eared Owl there was on April 3, and the last Northern Harrier was on April 5. It was on that day that I saw my first Brown Thrasher of the season, but it may have been the same one that had been seen by other folks in that area throughout the winter months. On the beaver pond, I saw two female Hooded Mergansers (but not the Common Mergansers which Penny Warren had reported), as well as three Blue-winged Teals and two pairs of Wood Ducks. At one point, the males engaged in a dramatic "race" across the pond to impress their mates. I also heard and saw a singing male Goldfinch, as well as a gurgling Brown-headed Cowbird. There were even more at the Bell's Lane beaver pond yesterday, 6-8 total I'd say. Plus the same as before, as well as two distant, two singing loudly. In the mini-garden behind our back patio, a male Eastern Towhee showed up several times in late March and early April; we hardly ever see them here in town.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Eastern Phoebe, Brown Thrasher, Gadwall (M), Blue-winged Teal (M), and Wood Ducks (M & F). (Bell's Lane, April 10, 2018)
The highlight of my brief April 12 visit to Bell's Lane was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (M) in back of the Augusta Bird Club kiosk. I got a nice photo showing it pecking a series of small holes in a tree from which to lap up oozing sap. (Technically, they should be called "Saplickers," not "Sapsuckers.") At the beaver pond there were at least six Wood Ducks, plus the Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals and a female Hooded Merganser. Back home, a male Northern Flicker was calling out from a tree top out back. I also saw a Kinglet, but I'm not sure which one it was.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (M), Hooded Merganser (F), Northern Flicker (M), Yellow-rumped Warbler, and in center, Northern Cardinal (M) and White-throated Sparrow. (Bell's Lane and north Staunton, April 12, 2018.
On April 14 I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to Ridgeview Park in Waynesboro. The unquestioned highlight of the day was a Prairie Warbler; I had hoped to see many more warblers, but it was not to be. Aside from those shown below, we also saw Blue-headed Vireos. Afterwards, Peter Van Acker showed us the unfinished trail along the South River, and we walked along it for about a half miles, to North Park. There we saw an Osprey and glimpsed a White-eyed Vireo.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Cedar Waxwing, Prairie Warbler, Pied-billed Grebe, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Osprey, and Brown Thrasher. (April 14, 2018)
On April 18 Jo King led a field trip to McCormick's Mill, and we were delighted to see a Green Heron, the first one of the year for me. Most of us saw a male Ruby-crowned Kinglet flashing his brilliant red crown, but I just couldn't get a good photo. The Osprey was awkwardly positioned toward the sun, hence the poor image quality. Later on I went to Montgomery Hall Park and spotted a House Wren, my first of the year.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Green Heron, House Wren, American Goldfinch, Blue-winged Teal, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Osprey. (April 18, 2018)
On April 22 I went back to Ridgeview Park in Waynesboro, and just like at the field trip, there were lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. But this time I had a nice view of a Palm Warbler, my first of the year. Also seen were Cedar Waxwings, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and a Blue-headed Vireo. At North Park (along the South River), I saw my first Northern Parula and Black-and-White Warbler of the year, as well as an Osprey.
Saturday April 28 was a beautiful day, perfect for the annual Riverfest event in Waynesboro. On my way there, I took a detour to Bell's Lane, where I saw my first Solitary Sandpiper of the year, and heard a Grasshopper Sparrow (FOY) for the first time. Then I made what I had planned to be a brief visit to Madison Run (near Grottoes), but ended up spending an hour and a half there. I saw almost all the "usual suspects," including five first-of-year birds: Broad-winged Hawk, Ovenbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Louisiana Waterthrush (?), and Worm-eating Warbler. I also saw my first Pine Warbler, which I had heard but without seeing at Chimney Hollow on March 31. Other highlights are in the photo montage below.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Ovenbird, Black and White Warbler, Pine Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Blue-headed Vireo. (Madison Run, April 28, 2018)
April 30 was another beautiful morning, so I went out to Augusta Springs, and saw virtually the same set of birds that I had seen along Madison Run on Saturday. Once again, Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere, it seemed. I was thrilled to get a nice closeup of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but to my surprise, there were no Redstarts, Great-crested Flycatchers, or Scarlet Tanagers. It gave me the impression that some of those migrants had delayed their arrival.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Worm-eating Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, White-breasted Nuthatch, hawk, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Ovenbird. (Augusta Springs, April 30, 2018)
Around noon on May 1 I went to Betsy Bell Hill, and almost immediately heard a Wood Thrush singing, my first one of the year. Before long, I had one in view and snapped a quick photo. I also heard a Great Crested Flycatcher (also first-of-year) and Blue-headed Vireo, and likewise eventually spotted both of them in the branches above me. Over at the Bell's Lane beaver pond, I saw a Greater Yellowlegs and Wilson's Snipe, as well as a lingering Blue-winged Teal.
The next day I drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and sure enough there were warblers and other neotropical migrants almost everywhere you looked. BINGO! I saw five species for the first time this year: Scarlet Tanager, American Redstart, Hooded Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, and Indigo Bunting. With all those colors, it was almost like a rainbow. I also briefly saw a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak (also first-of-year) along Coal Road near Big Levels, and a male of that species in our back yard!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Cerulean Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, and Indigo Bunting -- all males. (Blue Ridge Parkway, May 2, 2018)
The next morning (May 3) I went to Montgomery Hall Park, and after a while came across a small flurry of bird activity. I had great views of a House Wren, and poor views of three first-of-year birds: Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia Warbler, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Overhead a Broad-winged Hawk screamed menacingly. Just as I was about to leave, I had a nice view of a Great Crested Flycatcher, and back home I saw a Swainson's Thrush for the first time this year.
Our club picked May 5 as this year's "Big Spring Day," when we do a systematic tally of as many migratory and resident bird species as we can find. I was covering the Chimney Hollow, Braley Pond, and Elkhorn Lake areas, and had pretty good luck. In fact, I woke up to the enchanting song of a Wood Thrush right out back, a very good omen! With the occasional rain and overcast skies, it wasn't good for taking photos, but the weather probably helped boost the number of migrating birds. I tallied 13 warbler species altogether, and came across a female Wild Turkey along Rt. 250. Another nice surprise was seeing Penny Warren and Lisa Hamilton at the store in West Augusta, after we had finished our respective routes. One of the hottest hot spots was along the Johnson Draft trail upstream from Braley Pond (the first time I had hiked that far on it), where I saw several warbler species, most notably Northern Parulas. Another hot spot was near the restroom at the road that leads to Elkhorn Lake, where I saw Blackburnian Warblers, among many others.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Scarlet Tanager, Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Parula, Wild Turkey (F), American Redstart, Spotted Sandpiper, Indigo Bunting, and in center, Blackburnian Warbler -- almost all males. There were so many warblers that day that I had to put the others in a separate "montage" group photo: Yellow-rumped, Black & White, Worm-eating, and Ovenbird, plus Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos. Click on that image to see them. (Western Augusta County, May 5, 2018)
In the morning of May 7 I went to Bell's Lane and finally saw my first Yellow Warbler of the year, as well as some Orchard Orioles, Bobolinks (also first-of-year), Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Wood Ducks, Solitary Sandpiper, and Brown Thrasher. The latter birds were around the beaver pond. Then I headed to Betsy Bell Hill and was amazed to see several Cape May Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Eastern Wood Pewee (all three first-of-year), as well as a Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula and some Yellow-rumped Warblers. I could hear other warblers in the tree tops, but had a hard time seeing or identifying them by species.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Orchard Orioles (first-year male and adult male), Scarlet Tanager, Yellow Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Eastern Wood Pewee, and Red-tailed Hawk. (Bell's Lane and Betsy Bell Hill, May 7, 2018)
Two days later (May 9) I joined Penny Warren on another foray to Betsy Bell Hill, and we were simply overwhelmed. I had never seen so many Bay-breasted Warblers before, and certainly not at such close range! Likewise, I was amazed by how often we heard the staccato song of a Tennessee Warbler (which I had also seen there two days before), but today we only had brief, distant views of that species. We counted 13 warblers altogether (inclduing my first Chestnut-sided Warbler of the year), plus Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, Wood Thrushes, Red-eyed Vireos, Pileated Woodpecker, etc. Just as we were about to leave, I could not believe my eyes when a Red-headed Woodpecker flew past. It was an enchanting, most memorable morning!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Black-throated Green Warbler (M), Bay-breasted Warbler (M), Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (M & F), Chestnut-sided Warbler (M), Black-throated Blue Warbler (M), and in center, Red-headed Woodpecker. (Betsy Bell Hill, May 9, 2018)
On Saturday, May 12, Allen Larner led a field trip to the Shenanadoah Wetlands Bank near Stuarts Draft, under a special arrangement. (Access is strictly limited.) We heard Virginia Rails (one of the target birds) calling from the thick reeds, but never did see any. Among the notable birds that I managed to photograph (see below), we also had glimpses of a Great Blue Heron, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, and Louisiana Waterthrush.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Eastern Towhee, Pileated Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher, and two views of a Veery. (Shenanadoah Wetlands Bank, May 12, 2018)
Almost every spring, I see at least a few warblers and other interesting neotropical migrants in the trees in back of where we live in Staunton. This year was different, however, and I'm pretty sure it's the first year that I have not seen or heard either Yellow-rumped Warblers or Blackpoll Warblers out back. Blackpoll Warblers seemed very scarce in general, and other birders noticed the same thing. But on Thursday, May 17 (a very wet morning), I heard a loud, unusual song out back, and for a long while I was convinced it was a Wilson's Warbler, which I had seen in the same location one year earlier. It took hours of intermittent stalking before I finally realized what it really was: a Northern Waterthrush! It was the best view I had ever had of that species, and luckily I finally managed to get a nice closeup photo showing the characteristic streaked throat which usually serves to distinguish it from a Louisiana Waterthrush. There was also a Swainson's Thrush, a species which I had seen there a week or so ago, as well as a brief appearance by a Great Crested Flycatcher. (I couldn't get a photo of that one, however.) It was a successful day of very local birding!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Swainson's Thrush, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Waterthrush, Gray Catbird, and in center, another view of the Northern Waterthrush. (North Staunton, May 17, 2018)
The rainy spell finally ended on Sunday, May 20, and I saw the Swainson's Thrush out back for the last time, one day after my last sighting of the Northern Waterthrush. As the glorious sun finally reappeared, I made a quick visit to the lower part of Montgomery Hall Park, and saw my first Yellow-billed Cuckoo of the season -- two noisy males, in fact. Other males showing off their vocal talents included Great Crested Flycatcher, Indigo Bunting, and American Redstart (first year). Then I hurried to church.
On May 24 I led a field trip to the Shenandoah Mountain trail, which passes through the Confederate Breastworks on the Augusta-Highland County line. Notwithstanding the name, it is not part of the Shenandoah National Park. The trip was originally scheduled for May 26, but I learned that I had a sudden family obligation that day, so I had to "prepone" the trip and was delighted that so many folks showed up --seven! Among the highlights that I managed to photograph (with only mediocre results) were Black-throated Green Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, and Eastern Wood Pewee. We heard at least two Yellow-billed Cuckoos and eventually glimpsed one of them flying above. We also saw a Scarlet Tanager, Black-throated Blue Warblers, an American Redstart, and an Ovenbird just a few feet away from us! Was there a nest nearby? Three of us went over to the nearby Confederate Breastworks afterwards, and were rewarded with three additional birds, including a Raven that was squawking loudly at a probable Red-tailed Hawk (immature) flying above.
On May 28 I visited Bell's Lane, but had only modest expectations given the overcast skies and rainy forecast. But then I crossed paths with Penny Warren, who told me about some Orchard Orioles, and sure enough I soon heard and saw them all around. I also saw a male Baltimore Oriole chasing a crow, along with a Red-winged Blackbird, a fascinating conflict. Further along the road, I came across three other birders -- Steve Talley, Peter Cooper, and Sanda Howland -- and eventually saw my first Grasshopper Sparrow of the year as well as many other birds. Aside from those pictured here, I saw American Goldfinches and House Finches, and heard a couple Yellow Warblers but only glimpsed one briefly. All in all, not a bad day!
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Willow Flycatcher, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, Orchard Oriole, Grasshopper Sparrow, Cedar Waxwings, Brown Thrasher, and in center, Great Crested Flycatcher. (Bell's Lane, May 28, 2018)
Well, that takes care of that! Most of the narrative text above consists of postings I made to Facebook, edited for context and brevity. Many other photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page. As noted in the opening paragraph, a separate blog post covering birds in June will follow soon...
June 19, 2018 [LINK / comment]
The Nationals fall into another slump
After their big surge in the month of May (19 wins and 7 losses), it seemed that the Nationals had gotten over their injury problems and difficulties in adjusting to a new manager. But the brutal four-game series in Atlanta from May 31 to June 3, in which the Nats almost got swept by the Braves, was a portent of bad things to come.
Leading the way, in a sense, is Bryce Harper, whose batting average has fallen to an awful .213 -- probably disqualifying him from becoming a starting player in the 2018 All Star Game. (Since the game will be played at Bryce's home field, Nationals Park, it is universally assumed that he will compete in the Home Run Derby.) That is entirely because of the 19 home runs he has hit, leading the National League. This month, however, he has only hit one homer, which is another sign of the deep slump he is in. He may be getting anxious about contract negotiations, and he will probably end up getting far less than the $400 for seven years that some people were suggesting six months ago. Anyway, he'll probably snap out of it before long.
Revolving hospital door
One piece of good news is that Anthony Rendon, Adam Eaton, and Daniel Murphy have all returned to active duty after spending weeks on the disabled list. Murphy had not played since last year, and Eaton only played a few games at the beginning of the season. All three men have already made solid contributions in the batter's box, but Murphy's knee is still rather delicate, which affects his fielding and baserunning. Ryan Zimmerman may return by the end of this month, but Matt Wieters will take at least several more weeks to heal. In addition, Steven Strasburg strained an oblique muscle on June 8, and his return is not yet certain. Just yesterday we got the news that Matt Adams broke his little finger while trying to bunt, and that will put him out of action for quite a while. He has been the most valuable reserve player for the Nationals this year, filling in for Ryan Zimmerman at first base and for Adam Eaton in left field.
Mid-June ups and (mostly) downs
After the trip to Atlanta, the Nats returned home to D.C., shook off those losses and beat the Tampa Bay Rays on both June 5 and 6. In the latter game, they had their first double-digit score in over two weeks, winning 11-2 thanks mainly to hits by Anthony Rendon and Michael A. Taylor. That put them in a tie with Atlanta for first place, which they maintained for the next three days but then started backsliding. The Giants beat them 9-5 on June 8, when Steven Strasburg was injured (see above) and had to come out after two innings, and the bullpen just couldn't rise to the occasion. The next day Gio Gonzalez likewise only lasted three and a third innings, but somehow the Nats managed to win, 7-5. (That day was Bryce Harper's only home run this month.) In the Sunday finale of that series, Max Scherzer was on the mound, which generally is a virtual guarantee of a win, but not that day. He pitched fine, giving up just two runs over seven innings, but the Nats only got three hits and lost, 2-0.
Two days later (June 12), the Nats arrived in the Bronx for a showdown with the Yankees. If the Nats were playing better this year, it might have been considered a World Series preview. Tanner Roark pitched well, giving up three runs over six innings, but the Nats' bats were silent again, and they lost, 3-0. It was the first consecutive shutout losses for the Nationals since April 26-27, 2016. (That was at the hand of the Phillies.) The next day the Nats were behind in the late innings, and things looked bleak, but their rookie phenomenon Juan Soto saved the day by hitting his second home run of the day, and the Nats won, 5-4.
That paved the way for what should have been smooth sailing in a series against the Blue Jays in Toronto. But Gio Gonzalez gave up a three-run homer (and the lead) on June 15, and the Nats lost, 6-5. The next day Max Scherzer was pitching, and just like his previous outing, the Nats only managed three hits, and he lost his second game in a row; final score 2-0. Then on Sunday, Tanner Roark had a mediocre outing, lasting only four innings, and the Nats lost, 8-6. Getting swept by a third-place team is not what the Nationals expected!
Yesterday (Monday), the Yankees came to D.C. to finish the game that had started on May 15 but which was suspended in the middle of the sixth inning due to rain, with the score tied, 3-3. Once again that rookie Juan Soto saved the day with a two-run homer, and the Nats held on to win, 5-3. Since the game is officially counted as having taken place on May 15, it created a strange situation in which Soto homered before his major league debut! Then the two teams played the game that had originally been scheduled for May 16, and this time the Yankees won, 4-2. With so many of their starting pitchers ailing, the Nats relied upon Erick Fedde to do the job, and he did OK but not quite well enough. Likewise, tonight the Nats had minor league call-up Jefry Rodriguez pitch, and he struggled to hold the last-place Baltimore Orioles to five runs over five innings. The Nats were behind 5-1 when he left, but the potentially embarrassing defeat was averted when the Nats scored four runs in the bottom of the fifth inning, and four more in the seventh inning. Tonight's hero was Trea Turner, who went four for four, including a home run. He and Michael A. Taylor have been hitting better lately, but Trea in particular has been making some bad base-running mistakes.
Since the Philadelphia Phillies lost tonight, the Nats reclaimed sole possession of second place in the NL East. The three and a half game margin between them and the first-place Braves is not too big to overcome, with over half the season left to play, but it is a worrisome sign that the Nats are going to have to fight like the dickens to get the division title that they were all expecting to win.
In the last two years, the Nats started off hot, with a winning percentage over .700 for at least part of April or May. This year, obviously, has been quite different, as the Nats were below .500 for most of April, and then climbing toward the .600 mark by the final week of May. Now they have slipped back below .550 again, with a 7-9 record thus far this month. The comparison with their win-loss record for the same time last year is not encouaging. (This chart is on the Washington Nationals page.) Dare I ask: Were the 2017 Nats as good as it gets?
Washington: champions of hockey!
Congratulations to the Washington Capitals for winning their first-ever Stanley Cup hockey championship! It was one week ago that they brought home the huge silver cup to the streets of D.C. in a tumultuous parade. They beat the (Las) Vegas Golden Knights after losing Game 1 on the road and then winning the next four games in order: Game 2 in (Las) Vegas, Games 3 and 4 in D.C., and Game 5 in (Las) Vegas again. (Why does the team omit "Las" from "Las Vegas"? Will the soon-to-relocate NFL Raiders do likewise?) Alex Ovechkin and other members of the Capitals brought the Stanley Cup to Nationals Park for the June 9 game against the Giants, perhaps providing the decisive psychological edge in that 7-5 victory.
And so, I have created a new page (Other sports use) that lets you compare how various baseball stadiums were reconfigured for soccer (12), hockey (9), basketball (6), and even tennis (Jarry Park only). One thing that distignuishes such stadiums from those also used for football is that the other sports were only played on a few special occasions, or for just a few years. The big exception is RFK Stadium, where soccer was played for 21 years (1997-2017). But that was because the NFL Redskins had already moved out, and the MLB Nationals only played at RFK for three years (2005-2007) while Nationals Park was being planned or under construction.
In the process of creating that new page, I [realized that I] had failed to mention that Citi Field hosted this year's NHL Winter Classic, so I made a hockey version diagram for that stadium. I also made a hockey version diagram for Tropicana Field after realizing that hockey rinks are about twice as long as basketball courts, so the temporary seats would have to be set up much differently for the two sports..
How many of these erstwhile baseball stadiums can YOU identify? How many of them did you know had once existed in such a configuration?? All nine of those which have hosted a hockey game are shown above, along with five of those which have hosted basketball games, and two of those which have hosted soccer matches. (Some hosted more than one other sport.)
And in the world of basketball, meanwhile, congratulations to the Golden State Warriors, who swept the Cleveland Cavaliers to take their third NBA championship title in the last four years. Would this be a good time to remind everyone how absurd it is to be playing "winter" sports during a summer month? Both the NHL and NBA ought to wrap up their championship series by the end of April, period!
June 5, 2018 [LINK / comment]
Forget April! Nats climb into first place (briefly)
I had guarded expectations for the Nationals this year, figuring that they would probably win the NL East pennant but that it wouldn't be as easy as the last couple years. But after they won the first four games of the 2018 season, and did so in spectacular fashion, I wondered if I was being too cautious. Then they lost five games in a row, and pretty much stunk for the rest of the month. Perhaps my initial caution was valid after all?
Much as I would like to pretend that April never happened, it is important to at least draw some tentative lessons. First of all, what accounted for the abrupt turnabout when they first fell into the slump? That's easy. In their second game at Atlanta on April 3, the Nats scored three runs in the top of the first inning thanks to a homer by Ryan Zimmerman, seemingly cruising toward another victory. But then A.J. Cole took the mound and proceeded to give up runs at a lightning pace: For some reason, rookie manager Dave Martinez kept him in for nearly four full innings, by which time the Nats were way behind, 10-5. Cole hit his first homer in the majors, but it didn't matter. Final score: 13-6. The next day, Max Scherzer lost his first (and thus far only) game of the season, thanks to weak bats and errors on defense.
Would things get better for the Nationals as they played their first home series back in D.C.? Nope. They got swept by the Mets, in spite of decent pitching and two homers by Bryce Harper, and the five-game losing streak put them below .500 all of a sudden. Then they showed life and almost swept the Braves (April 9-11) but lost the final game in 12 innings. That led to a very disappointing three-games-to-one series loss against the Rockies (April 12-15), in which poor hitting and a shaky bullpen were primarily to blame.
On the road again, the Nats parlayed a sudden 6-run explosion in the 8th inning on April 16 into a win against the Mets in Queens, the first start by Jeremy Hellickson, acquired by the Nats during spring training. They took two out of three in that series, but then lost the next two series by the same margin, against the Dodgers (April 20-22) and the Giants (April 23-25). The final game in San Francisco witnessed another offensive outburst by the Nats, as second-stirng first baseman Matt Adams hit a homer and batted in six runs, while Trea Turner went five for six.
In their next home stand, the Nats lost two close games to the Diamondbacks, and then won one thanks mainly to another solid outing by Gio Gonzalez, who pitched seven complete innings. That may have marked the real turning point in their season, as the finished the month of April with two victories, the second being against the Pirates.
So, the Nationals finished the month with a 13-16 record (including two games in late March), in fourth place. It was pretty darned shabby, and a lot of it had to do with the bad vibes that emanated from that April 3 game in Atlanta. But no one can deny that injuries had a lot to do with the Nationals' poor offensive output. In fact, it was that very same jinxed day that Adam Eaton suffered a bone bruise on his left ankle, and much like last year, his spectacular early season batting came to an abrupt end. Fortunately, he seems to be on the mend and may return soon. Meanwhile, Daniel Murphy took longer than expected to recuperate from the surgery on his knee last October, and even though he recently resumed playing in the minor leagues, there are deep concerns that he may not be 100% for at least another month. After all he did for the Nats in the last two years, his absence is just devastating. His replacement, Howie Kendrick, also got injured, another deep blow since he did so well for the Nats in the second half of last year. By a stroke of luck, the backup replacement, Wilmer Difo, has risen to the occasion by playing solid defense and getting a number of clutch hits. That kid shows great promise. Finally, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and Matt Wieters have spent significant time on the disabled list, and even though Rendon is now back, he is far from his best level of playing.
The first-string players for the 2018 Washington Nationals; this is a consensed-size version of the composite photographs displayed on the Washington Nationals page.
Seven Days In May, again
The Nats began in the merry month of May by completing a sweep the Pirates in a four-game series. To complete the conquest of Pennsylvania, the Nats then won two out of three games from their division rivals, the Phillies. The Nats were on the verge of losing the final game of that series, on May 6, but scored twice in both the eighth and ninth innings. The Phillies' closing pitcher, Hector Neris, was totally in effective, walking in the tying run, and giving up the game-winning hit to Wilmer Difo, who was mobbed by his teammates in a jubilant frenzy.
The Nationals' upsurge coincided with the sudden breakout of Matt Adams, who hit seven home runs during the first "seven days in May." (That's the name of a political movie from the early 1960s, and hence appropriate for Washington.) Adams is a beefy journeyman player who played for five years in St. Louis before being traded to the Braves just over a year ago. The Nats signed him as a free agent just before Christmas, and boy are they getting their money's worth! (In tonight's game again the Rays, he hit his 13th homer of the year.)
Why do I say "Seven Days In May, again"? Because it was almost exactly 50 years ago that Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard pulled off an even bigger home run streak: From May 12 through May 18, 1968, "Hondo" hit ten (10) home runs in 20 at bats!!! Too bad the rest of his team couldn't support his prodigious efforts and get more actual wins. (I had the pleasure of briefly chatting with Howard while getting his autograph at the SABR convention in Washington several years ago.)
Southwestern road trip
On May 7, the Nats began a series against the Padres in San Diego, winning the first two games but getting edged 2-1 in the finale. That set them up for a daunting visit to Phoenix, where the Diamondbacks were then in first place. Even though the Nationals were rather weak at the plate once again, their championship-caliber pitching rotation rose to the occasion again, and the D-Backs scored only one run in the first three games of that series. In the finale on Sunday, May 13, the Nats hit four home runs, including two by Mark Reynolds (not even expected to make the team until late in spring training), one by Bryce Harper and one by Trea Turner. Final score of that triumph: 6-4.
That marked the beginning of a sharp decline in the D-Backs' fortunes, and one would think that it would set the stage for a successful showdown with the L.A. Dodgers, who arrived in Washington for a three-game series that began on May 19. (This was following a very wet week in which the Nats played the Yankees to a six-inning tie in a game that was suspended.) But once again, weak bats and a shaky bullpen foiled the Nats hopes and they were swept at home. In the second game on May 19, Max Scherzer struck out 13 batters and was in line for the win, but the Nats' closing pitcher Sean Doolittle uncharacteristically blew the save and lost the game, as the Dodgers won, 5-4. Good karma returned in the series against the Padres which began on May 21. The 19-year old Juan Soto hit a home run in his first at bat as a starting MLB player (on the first pitch, in fact!), and Mark Reynolds hit two more home runs. The next day Bryce Harper homered and Michael A. Taylor hit a walk-off RBI to give the Nats a 2-1 win. The Padres avoided a sweep with a 3-1 win on May 23.
The Nats headed to Miami on May 25, and got back into their groove again, with three straight multi-home run games that helped them sweep the Marlins. Then they flew north to Baltimore and swept the Orioles in three games, including two shutouts. In the finale on Wednesday, May 30, Max Scherzer won his 150th game of his career (and the ninth of this season) and struck out 12 batters, while Bryce Harper hit his 18th home run, briefly tied for the lead in the majors. More importantly, the Nats moved ahead of the Braves into first place in the NL East, and were ten games over .500 for the first time this year. Few people (other than hard-core stats nerds like me) recognized the historical significance of that win: It put the Nationals at an even .500 win-loss record for the first time since the end of their inaugural 2005 season: 1,079 wins and 1,079 losses. They really should have maintained that in the four-game series in Atlanta, but instead they are now 1,080 - 1,082 over the course of their 13 1/3-season lifetime as a (reborn) team.
The Nats finished their road trip in Atlanta with a pivotal showdown against the first-place Braves. On the final day of May (Thursday), Tanner Roark gave up four runs, not up to his usual high standards, and the Braves won, 4-2. On the first of June, Stephen Strasburg threw one bad pitch and the Braves hit a three-run homer that was all they needed to win. Final score: 4-0. Then on Saturday, Gio Gonzalez gave up three runs and was in line for the loss, whereupon that youngster Juan Soto tied the game in the eighth inning with a solo home run. The game went all the way to the 14th inning, and with his bench reserves depleted, Dave Martinez was so desperate that he had Max Scherzer pinch hit. "Mad Max" is about as fiercely competitive as anyone in the major leagues these days, and wouldn't you know it, he knocked a single up the middle! Then Wilmer Difo came up to bat and smashed a triple to deep right-center field, as Scherzer sprinted around the bases to take the lead. Difo then scored, and the Nats won a huge psychological challenge by a score of 5-3. On Sunday (June 3), the score was tied 2-2 going into the ninth inning, and the Nats hoped to win in extra innings again, which would have evened the four game series and put them back into first place, but Tanner Roark gave up a home run to a rookie named Charlie Culberson, and the Braves prevailed, 4-2.
The Nationals had a 19-7 record for May, their best monthly win-loss record since June 2005, when they were 20-6. (Yes, in their inaugural year!) The following highlights from the first two months of this year have been extracted from the recently-updated Washington Nationals page:
2018 memorable moments
- March 31, 2018 -- Brian Goodwin hits grand slam ; WSH 13, CIN 7 @
- April 1, 2018 -- Bryce Harper homers twice as Nats sweep Reds; WSH 6, CIN 5 @
- April 16, 2018 -- Behind 6-1, Nats score 6 runs in 8th inning plus one more in 9th; WSH 8, NYM 6 @
- April 25, 2018 -- Matt Adams homers, with 6 RBIs; Trea Turner gets 5 hits as Nats break out of slump; WSH 15, SF 2 @
- May 7, 2018 -- Matt Adams homers twice, his 7th homer in the first seven days in May; WSH 8, SD 5 @
- May 21, 2018 -- Juan Soto homers in his first MLB at-bat as a starter; Mark Reynolds homers twice; WSH 10, SD 2
- May 30, 2018 -- Bryce Harper hits 18th homer (tied MLB lead), Max Scherzer gets 120th strikeout (MLB lead); WSH 2, BAL 0 @
"@" = away game
MLB returns to Latin America
For the first time since 1999, MLB returned to Monterrey, Mexico last month. In a three-game series from May 4 through 6, the "visiting" L.A. Dodgers won the first game but lost the next two to the "San Diego" Padres, who are once again seeking to expand their fan base South of the Border. (Did this have anything to do with recent tensions between the United States and Mexico over the Trump administration's push to build a big new wall along the entire border?) In that May 4 game, four Dodgers pitchers threw a combined no-hitter. But the Padres got convincing wins the next two days.
While watching one of those games, I noticed that the bullpens were beyond the fences in right field and left field, rather than along the foul lines as before. So, I did some checking and found out that additional renovations had been made to Estadio Monterrey, and of course I had to draw an updated diagram for it.
And a couple weeks earlier, on April 17 and 18, big league baseball returned to Puerto Rico, as the Cleveland Indian vs. Minnesota Twins series in Hiram Bithorn Stadium; the text on that page has been updated accordingly. (Did this have anything to do with recent tensions in Puerto Rico over the Trump administration's alleged failure to respond adequately to the damage caused by Hurricane Maria last year?) It was the first game Hiram Bithorn Stadium since the Mets and Marlins played there June 28-30, 2010, in a promotional series.
I also updated the Anomalous stadiums page, which now has a single line for each separate game, for the sake of clarity. Further revisions to that page are likely in the near future.
All Star Game draws nigh!
Voting for the All Star Game 2018 is underway, Last year, three Nationals positions players made the starting lineup (Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, and Bryce Harper), and one other probably should have: Anthony Rendon. This year, however, three of those players have spent much or all of the first two months on the disabled list, the the fourth (Bryce Harper) is batting only .230, in spite of his league-leading 18 home runs. Harper may yet make it, but it would be a terrible shame if none of the Nats qualified for that honor in the very year that the All Star Game returns to the Nation's Capital for the first time in nearly a half century. As for pitchers, well, that's pretty obvious: Max Scherzer will almost certainly be the NL starting pitcher. Three other Nats pitchers (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Sean Doolittle) are worthy of becoming ASG honorees as well.
Banners heralding the upcoming All Star Game adorn the first base gate at Nationals Park. (Photo taken May 26.)
Audi Field nears completion
Two and a half blocks southwest of Nationals Park, the future home of the D.C. United soccer team is scheduled to open next month. I passed by what will soon become Audi Field two weekends ago, and snapped a couple quick photos. Supposedly, it is almost completed, but it looks to me like they'd better hurry!
Construction on Audi Field drags on... (Photo taken May 26.)
Capital One Arena visit
On that same day, I got my first look at Capital One Arena in at least a decade, if my memory serves. I wanted to at least share a token experience with all the hoopla in Our Nation's Capital over the great success of the National Hocky League Washington Capitals, whose playoff fortunes over the past decade have been extremely frustrating. A few days after I took these photos, the Caps won two games at home over the Vegas Golden Knights (an expansion franchise that only began playing last fall!), and the Caps now enjoy a 3-1 series advantage. Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals will be in Las Vegas on Thursday, and if the home team wins, the series will return to D.C. for Game 6 on Sunday. Go Caps!
Capital One Arena west... (Photo taken May 26.)
RFK Memorial Stadium
What we usually call "RFK Stadium" is actually "Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium" (officially renamed in January 1969(, and since it was fifty years ago today that Bobby Kennedy died, this is a fitting occasion to emphasize the Memorial part. RFK Stadium
The west gate at RFK Stadium, giving you an idea of how close automobiles can come to the seats -- only about 50 feet from the back row! Taken September 22, 2007, one day before the final Nationals game played in that venue.
Robert F. Kennedy memorial. Taken September 30, 2017, during a Georgetown Hoyas football game played in that venue.
New stadium for Rangers
Thanks to Mike Zurawski for sending me news several months ago about the Texas Rangers' future home, which will apparently also be called Globe Life Field." Weird. See lonestarball.com and MLB.com (the latter link is from Clifford "Bucky" Nance).
Baker Bowl football!
Thanks to Paul Johnson for sending me a photo of Baker Bowl during a football game. It shows very clearly 12 rows of bleachers extending about 15-20 feet past the right field foul pole, so I was able to more accurately render the football diagram variant on that page. Paul wrote an article for the 1985 Bill James Baseball Abstract, and it is available online at: baseballthinkfactory.org.
With yet another lengthy blog hiatus, I have a lot of e-mail to catch up on, including other news items from Mike Zurawski, Bruce Orser, and others. I appreciate your patience, as always...
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