July 26, 2013 [LINK / comment]

Nightmare on South Capitol Street:
Harper, Zimmerman save Nationals from doom

The Washington Nationals began the symbolic second half (post-All-Star Game) of the 2013 season clinging to hopes that they could get a new start during the long home stand, and put the disastrous first half behind them. But instead, they lost the first six games, and came perilously close to losing a seventh straight game after squandering a four-run lead. A loss like that would have driven a stake into the team's collective heart, killing the last vestiges of hope for a postseason berth. Fortunately, Bryce Harper had other ideas.

In the first two games of last weekend's series hosting the L.A. Dodgers, the Nationals couldn't have asked for better performances from their starting pitchers. On Friday July 19 Stephen Strasburg allowed only two runs over seven innings, but closing pitcher Rafael Soriano gave up a home run to Andre Ethier in the ninth inning, and the Nats lost, 3-2. That put them into third place, behind the Philadelphia Phillies. On Saturday Gio Gonzalez threw 11 strikeouts, but the Nats only scored a single run, wasting many run-scoring opportunities as usual. In the 11th inning, the usually reliable reliever Craig Stammen gave up two runs to the Dodgers. Final score: 3-1. On Sunday, Jordan Zimmerman had the worst outing of his entire career, giving up seven earned runs in just two innings. Jayson Werth hit two solo home runs, making the final score 9-2. And so, the Dodgers swept the Nationals and surged into first place in the NL West.

On Monday the Pirates arrived in Washington, and by the fourth inning in the first game of the series had taken a 5-0 lead. But the Nats came charging back with two more homers by Jayson Werth and one by Adam LaRoche, making it 5-5. But in the eighth inning Drew Storen threw a wild pitch that allowed a runner to score, and that was that: 6-5. The Pirates' closing pitcher Jason Grilli strained his forearm and had to leave in the bottom of the ninth inning. He was put on the DL, and his absence will be a tough blow to bear. The Pirates are in a fierce race with the Cardinals for the NL Central crown, and can't afford to lose any key players.

On Tuesday, Wilson Ramos ("the Buffalo") hit a home run, but the Nats still lost, 5-1. Rookie Taylor Jordan pitched OK once again, but was overwhelmed.

On Wednesday, Jayson Werth hit yet another homer, a two-run dinger in the bottom of the ninth. That made the score 4-2. With two outs, Wilson Ramos singled and fans got pumped up by a big rally. Then Denard Span came up to bat. Why Davey Johnson didn't put Bryce Harper in to pinch hit, I do not know. What I do know is that the Nats were robbed when Span grounded to the second baseman and the umpire called Ramos out on a tag; replays showed he missed. Double play; final score: 4-2.

On Thursday, the Nats took advantage of multiple errors by the Pirates, and had a four-run lead going into the ninth inning. After so many dismal performances, that really felt nice. Rafael Soriano was brought in, even though it was a non-save situation, because he needed the practice. Indeed! He walked the first two batters, then gave up a double and a single, only getting one out. Davey Johnson noticed he just didn't have command of the ball, so he brought in Ian Krol to relieve Soriano, a very unusual move. Krol has pitched well as a rookie, but he wasn't used to this kind of pressure. He gave up a two-run single that tied the game, 7-7. All across Our Nation's Capital, baseball fans sank into a mortal dread that yet another hideous turn of events was about to transpire. But in the bottom of the ninth, Kurt Suzuki hit a clutch single, Roger Bernadina grounded into a fielder's choice for the second out, and Bryce Harper came up to bat. He worked the count, showing mature patience, as he usually does. Then he got a pitch he liked, a little on the outside, and he belted that thing into the Red Porch seats left of center field. It was Harper's very first career walk-off home run, as the Nationals beat the Pirates, 9-7!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Nationals barely avoided being swept in two consecutive series. Since the Phillies have been on a losing streak as well, the Nats pulled even with them in the standings.

This afternoon, the Nats welcomed the Mets to town, making up a game that was rained out on June 6. (D-Day!) With the momentum from the previous night's dramatic win and with ace pitcher Jordan Zimmermann on the mound, facing off against an unknown Jenrry Mejia, the Nats expected to win. But Daniel Murphy hit a home run in the first inning, and another one after that, plus another RBI later on. Other than the two home runs hit by Murphy, Zimmermann pitched well, and almost got out of the seventh inning before the Mets raised the score to 5-0. Ryan Mattheus (back from a lengthy DL stint) pitched OK in the eighth inning, but had to be replaced by Drew Storen in the ninth. Unfortunately, the increasingly shaky reliever Storen gave up an RBI single and then a three-run homer by Ike Davis. Final score: Mets 11, Nats 0. frown So much for a Nats rebound.

In the nightcap, Nats rookie Ross Ohlendorf faced the Mets' new ace pitcher Matt Harvey, a very bleak and daunting predicament. The stakes were enormous, as the Mets had pulled to within one game of the Nats in the NL East. But somehow Ohlendorf managed to match his adversary in a classic pitchers' duel, getting out of jams thanks to some fine defensive plays by Anthony Rendon and Denard Span. It was 1-1 going into the ninth inning, whereupon Nats closer Rafael Soriano came close to handing the Mets another victory, giving up a double to Andrew Brown, who advanced to third on a wild pitch. In the bottom of the inning, Ryan Zimmerman came to the plate with one out. I had already compiled the list you see below because of Bryce Harper's heroics the night before, and I was thinking to myself, "Wouldn't it be nice if..."

Yes! TWO walk-off homers in two days!! smile

See all the details at MLB.com.

After the night game, it was announced that Drew Storen has been optioned to the Nationals' AAA affiliate in Syracuse, New York. In his post-game interview, Manager Davey Johnson said that's what is best for Storen to learn to relax and not grip the ball so tightly, but I'm not sure. It may be several more weeks at least before we see Storen in a Washington uniform again.

Nats' walk-off home runs

Doing my best to accentuate the positive, I checked my records on Nats games, and compiled a list of all walk-off home runs up to the present. (I previously did so on Sept. 30, 2009.) For those who are curious, the list below has links to my blog posts on the date it happened or shortly thereafter. By definition, the list only includes home games in Washington.

That adds up to 21 walk-off home runs in Washington Nationals history, and I was fortunate to be there for two of them. Almost ten percent; not bad! Not surprisingly, Ryan Zimmerman leads the team with nine (9) walk-off home runs, two of which have been grand slams. Ryan has hit one or two walk-off homers every full year he has played with the Nationals except for 2012 -- the team's very best year, ironically! If my records are correct, no other Washington National player has hit more than one walk-off home run while playing for the Nationals. That is surprising. Jayson Werth hit a walk-off grand slam while he was with the Phillies, beating the Nationals 7-6 on September 19, 2010. A few months later, he signed a contract with the Nats. Smart move!

Among the notable names missing from the list above: Alfonso Soriano, Dmitri Young, Josh Willingham, and Adam LaRoche.

I will add the above table (modified) to the Washington Nationals page in the next few days, updating it in the future as often it becomes necessary.

Hitting coach canned

As another sign of how desperate things have become, the Nationals front office dismissed hitting coach Rick Eckstein, replacing him with minor league coach Rick Schu. Manager Davey Johnson strongly disagreed with the decision, saying (via MLB.com):

It was a shocker... I've experienced a lot of things in my career. I've been traded, released, sold and I've been fired, but today is arguably the toughest day that I've had in baseball. I respect Rick Eckstein. I think he is a great coach. He is one of the best hitting instructors in baseball and he is such a great gentleman and a great man, so it hurts, hurts.

The possibility that Davey Johnson's own job may be on the line is too much to contemplate. Well, you can't fire the high-priced players, so somebody has to take the fall when things go bad. If the move was intended to shake the slumbering Nationals out of their doldrums, it failed to work, as the Nats continued to lose.

Division leaders flinch

In a curious coincidence last weekend, all six of the divisional leaders lost on Saturday July 20: Boston (AL-E), Detroit (AL-C), Oakland (AL-W), Atlanta (NL-E), St. Louis (NL-C), and Arizona (NL-W). Don't they want to be champions?? Meanwhile, two little-noticed lower-tier teams burning with "hunger" scratched their way to the top of the respective divisional standings: the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Wouldn't it be nice if the Nationals could pull off something like that?

AL wins All-Star Game

The American League team blanked their Senior Circuit counterparts 3-0 to win the 2013 All-Star Game in Citi Field on July 16. The AL champion team to-be-determined is thereby entitled its to get the home field advantage in this year's World Series. Will it be Boston? Tampa Bay? Maybe even Oakland.

The lone representative from the Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper, went 0 for 2, but he did make some good catches in left field at least. Nats pitcher Jordan Zimmermann also qualified, but stayed home to let a sore neck heal.

Ryan Braun is suspended

Milwaukee Brewers star slugger Ryan Braun has been suspended for the rest of the 2013 season because of positive drug test results. He has declined to comment, heeding legal advice he has received. See ESPN. It's a shame, and some are suggesting that his 2011 MVP award be taken away. How about his 2007 Rookie of the Year Award?

Rumors are that Alex Rodriguez may be one of the next to go. A-Rod is currently trying to get back into the Yankees lineup after a long DL stint, impatient with the cautious approach of the front office. "Awk-ward!" The acquisition of Alfonso Soriano from the Chicago Cubs may further undermine the mutual confidence between slugger and management. See ESPN.

Amazing game in Boston

There is nothing like the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry in all of professional sports, and the game at Fenway Park broadcast on ESPN last Sunday night lived up to the expectations. It was back and forth all night long, and I do mean all night. (It ended after midnight.) The Yankees took an early lead, then the Red Sox came roaring back to take a 7-3 lead, then the Yankees tied it. Finally, in the eleventh inning, Mike Napoli (the Texas Ranger hero from 2011 World Series) hit his second home run of the night, into the bleachers in center field. And the crowd went wild! See MLB.com.

Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium update

Once again pursuing the "path of least resistance" (too busy or too lazy?), I made a few enhancements to the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium diagrams. There is now a separate upper deck version, showing the entry portals. That was helpful because the roof covered almost the entire upper deck, similar to RFK Stadium, which likewise has a separate upper deck version diagram. Also like RFK, the structural beams that protrude from the perimeter are now shown. The old stadium in Atlanta had a very large foul territory (about 35,900 square feet), but it was even larger than that before the renovations. My pre-1974 estimate is 39,733 square feet.

As the summer progresses, you will notice more and more stadiums with complete information on fair and foul territory, number of seating rows, etc. on the Stadium statistics page.