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October 3, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Soto did it! Nationals win miracle wild card comeback

Heretofore, the three deciding/elimination postseason games at Nationals Park (2012, 2016, and 2017) have each been marked by some outrageously improbable, hideous twist of fate that sealed the losing team's doom. (Obviously, the visitors won.) The same thing happened this year's National League wild card game between the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, but this time the shoe was on the other foot, and fate finally smiled on the long-tortured Nats.

The game started off on an ominous note, as Max Scherzer gave up a two-run homer to Yasmani Grandal before any outs had been recorded, and in the second inning Eric Thames hit a lead-off homer to take a 3-0 lead. The Brewers aptly exploited Max's well-known weak spot, his penchant for challenging hitters with hittable fastballs. But he kept his cool after that, and the Nationals hung in there and eventually came back to win the National League wild card game in truly miraculous fashion. Trea Turner hit a two-out solo home run in the third inning, but neither team scored for the next four innings. The Brewers' Brandon Woodruff pitched four innings, while Max Scherzer pitched five innings, followed by Stephen Strasburg in the very first relief appearance in his career. He was nearly flawless for the next three innings. In the bottom of the eighth, Victor Robles struck out and Michael A. Taylor (recently called up from the minors) pinch hit for Strasburg. Knowing Michael's history of striking out on bad pitches, I groaned and dreaded the worst. But he proved me wrong, and drew a full count after which he was (according to the umpire) hit by a pitch and took first base. Replays showed the ball bounced in a way that could only result from contact with the bat, but the reviewers said it was inconclusive, so the Nats caught a break. He might have walked had it been called a foul, but we'll never know. Anyway, Trea Turner then came up and struck out, followed by Ryan Zimmerman coming in to pinch hit for Adam Eaton. Had the Nats lost, it might well have been Ryan's very last at-bat as a National, but something told me he was not going to end his career in vain. Well, he proved me right, getting a single that put Taylor on third base. Then the fearsome Anthony Rendon came up and walked to load the bases. It was clearly not Josh Hader's best day on the mound. (He had 37 saves this year.) The next batter was 20-year old Juan Soto, the youngest cleanup hitter in postseason baseball history, in the most pivotal moment of his two-year MLB career. I had a good feeling. Juan not only has the muscle of a champion slugger, he has the poise and smarts of a veteran, and boy, did he live up to his soaring reputation! He lined a single to the right fielder Trent Grisham, who misplayed the bounce, and before you knew it three runs had scored to give the Nats the lead! Juan Soto tried for third but was caught in a rundown for the final out, but it didn't really matter. Daniel Hudson successfully closed the game in the ninth inning, giving up one hit and a long fly ball to center field that Victor Robles caught for the final out. It was one of the Nats' biggest late-inning comebacks ever, and fans in Nationals Park erupted in a state of euphoria unlike any other game that has been played there.

Accordingly, I have updated the Washington Nationals page with data on that game, etc. I took photos of several "new" Nats whom I had not seen before, such as Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, et al.

Nationals win in a glorious anti-climax

I was at the Nationals' final regular season game of the year, hosting the Cleveland Indians on Sunday afternoon. My old friend Dave Givens and I had good seats in the middle deck about half way toward the left field pole. We got nice "puffy vests" as a giveaway to the first 20,000 (?) fans, but I was frustrated at the meager selection and high price of postseason T-shirts in the Nats Fan Store. Contrary to my low expectations (given that it was a game of no real significance), it turned out to be exciting and jubilant. The weather was almost ideal, and the Nationals were not slacking off at all. Trea Turner led off the bottom of the first with a single, and after two outs, he made it home on an RBI double hit by Juan Soto. The Indians tied it 1-1 on a solo homer by Francisco Lindor in the third inning, but that was their only run scored during the six innings that Joe Ross pitched. He struck out eight batters, and only allowed four hits, in one of his best outings in a long time. In the bottom of the third, Kurt Suzuki hit a two-run homer while I was in the concourse buying pizza and adult beverages, and that was the Nats' only home run that day. In the middle innings, manager Dave Martinez began substituting bench players for the starters, and to my surprise, Michael A. Taylor (replacing Juan Soto) started a rally in the sixth inning with a single. After Matt Adams flew out, Victor Robles walked, Brian Dozier singled, Wilmer Difo singled, and then Gerardo Parra (cue "Baby Shark" theme song) smashed a two-run double to give the Nats a 7-1 lead. In the seventh inning, Aaron Barrett (who had missed three years due to elbow surgery and associated problems) came in as a relief pitcher, and even though he gave up two singles, a walk, and a wild pitch, only one run scored. Erick Fedde pitched the last two innings without allowing a base-runner, while the Nats staged another rally in the eighth inning, capped by an RBI single by Gerardo Parra. Final score: Nats 8, Indians 2. It was a thoroughly enjoyable triumph, as the Nationals closed the 2019 regular season with eight wins in a row!

Nationals Park from 1st base 2nd deck 2019

Top of the third inning at Nationals Park on September 29, with Carlos Santana (not the Latin jazz/rock guitarist) at bat.

Nationals - Indians 29 Sep 2019

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Mike Clevinger crouches before pitching, Gerardo Parra hits an RBI single, Juan Soto hits a two-run double, the scoreboard heralds the upcoming wild card game, Brian Dozier hits a single, and Francisco Lindor passes second base after hitting a no-doubt solo home run to the middle deck in right field.

 Nationals - Indians faces 29 Sep 2019

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Juan Soto, Aaron Barrett, Gerardo Parra, Ryan Zimmerman, Andrew Stevenson, Nats' starting pitcher Joe Ross, Francisco Lindor, and Indians' starting pitcher Mike Clevinger.

 Nationals jersey giveaway 29 Sep 2019

Post-game Nationals jersey giveaway (L to R): Sean Doolittle, Austin Voth, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Gerardo Parra, Wander Suero, Erick Fedde (front), Fernando Rodney, Stephen Strasburg, and Victor Robles.

NL Divisional series begin

This evening the National League Divisional Series get underway, as the Atlanta Braves hosted the St. Louis Cardinals, followed by the L.A. Dodgers hosting the Washington Nationals. The eastern game was close and low-scoring until the ninth inning, when the visitors all of a sudden scored four runs and the home team responded in the bottom of the ninth with one run too few. (Ouch!) L.A. 7, Atlanta 6. The Postseason scores page has been updated accordingly...

In the game just getting underway on the west coast, Walker Buehler starts for the Dodgers, and Patrick Corbin starts for the Nationals. With the highest win-loss record in the National League (106-56), the Dodgers are clearly favored to at least reach the World Series, if not win it. (They were the National League pennant winners in both 2017 and 2018.) But I saw the Nationals defeat the Dodgers when Buehler started for them on July 28, so there is every reason to hope for the same outcome this time. I say the Nats have an even chance to make it to the NLCS, and maybe even go further... Play ball!!

October 6, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Both NL Divisional Series were split 1-1 *

The Washington Nationals are right where they want to be, as confident underdogs playing before a friendly home crowd and facing an vaunted opponent that they were able to size up during the regular season. But the way the National League Divisional Series got started, they could have been in a very deep hole right now. In the first inning of Game 1, Patrick Corbin walked four Dodger batters, and was lucky that only one run scored. The Dodgers scored one more in the fifth inning, and an error by first baseman Howie Kendrick was partly responsible for that. To his credit, Corbin only had one earned run over six innings, but he got no run support, while the Nats' bullpen crumpled once again. In the seventh inning, the Dodgers scored two runs on a single by Max Muncy while Fernando Rodney was on the mound, and an inning later they hit two solo home runs off of Hunter Strickland, more or less icing the cake. Final score: L.A. 6, Nationals 0. It was the Nats' first loss after nine consecutive victories, including the Wild Card Game against the Milwaukee Brewers.

The next "evening" (the dead of night here in the east), the Dodgers had Clayton Kershaw on the mound, but the Nats managed to get the bases loaded. Howie Kendrick atoned for the errors of the previous night by hitting an RBI single, but then Ryan Zimmerman popped out on the first pitch he saw and Kurt Suzuki struck out to end the inning. In the second inning, Kershaw hit the first batter (Victor Robles) with a pitch, and soon he scored on an RBI single by Adam Eaton. Anthony Rendon batted in Eaton with a double, and all of a sudden the Nats were ahead 3-0. How many people expected that? The Nats' current ace pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, had a superlative outing on the mound, just three days after pitching three innings of relief against the Brewers. He struck out ten batters over six innings, and in fact had a perfect game going into the fifth inning. The Nats' former closing pitcher Sean Doolittle gave up a solo homer, making it a 3-2 game, but then the Nats retook a two-run lead Ryan Zimmerman hit a leadoff double and later scored on an RBI single by Asdrubal Cabrera. (The latter's base-running goof cut short what could have been an even bigger rally.) In the bottom of the eighth, fans on both sides gasped when Max Scherzer came out of the bullpen to pitch in relief. I often criticize manager Dave Martinez for his pitching decisions, but this move worked out brilliantly. Scherzer struck out the side, keeping the two-run cushion intact. In the bottom of the ninth, Justin Turner led off with a ground-rule double, but Daniel Hudson struck out the next batter and Cody Bellinger popped out. Curiously, Hudson intentionally walked Max Muncy and unintentionally walked Will Smith to load the bases. Nats fans grimaced in extreme anxiety, but Hudson struck out Corey Seager on a 2-2 count to end the game. Whew!

As Game 3 gets underway with the much-improved veteran Anibal Sanchez pitching for the Nats, there is every reason to expect that the Nationals will end up the winners of this divisional series. Max Scherzer is due to pitch tomorrow night, and if it goes to Game 5 on Wednesday, Stephen Strasburg will be ready to go. Here are some of the key figures from the Dodgers-Nationals game I saw on July 28:

Nationals, Dodgers faces 28 Jul 2019

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Brian Dozier, Stephen Strasburg, Walker Buehler, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Will Smith, Matt Adams, and Gerardo Parra.

In Atlanta, the Cardinals took Game 1 by a score of 7-6, after a strange sequence of events. Last year's NL Rookie of the Year [Ronald Acuña] played as though he were still a rookie, disdaining to run on a long ball that he thought he had homered, and which would have been an easy double. But he [only made it to first and] failed to score that inning, and that one run ended up proving decisive. Much of the blame goes to the Braves' bullpen, which gave up four runs to St. Louis in the top of the ninth. The Braves responded with three runs, but it wasn't quite enough. But in Game 2, their starting pitcher [Mike] Foltynewicz cruised through seven shutout innings, only allowing three hits, and the Braves won it, 3-0, evening the series.

* In St. Louis this evening, the Cardinals had a 1-0 lead going into the ninth inning, whereupon the Braves pounced with a three-run rally, winning the game to take a 2-1 series lead just as I was finishing this blog post. Atlanta's chances of making it to the NLCS just skyrocketed.

Yanks & Astros lead AL Divisional Series 2-0

The matchups on the American League side seem much more imbalanced. In New York, the Yankees trounced the Minnesota Twins 10-4, mainly by switching pitchers at key moments to thwart Twins' rallies. The Yankees only had one more hit than the Twins (8 vs. 7), but they made much better use of them. In the second game the Yankees scored seven runs in the second inning, thanks in part to a grand slam by Didi Gregorious. After that the outcome wasn't really in doubt; final score 8-2. Pitching, pitching, pitching.

In Houston, the Astros easily defeated the Tampa Bay Rays by a score of 6-2 in Game 1, with Justin Verlander giving up only one hit over seven innings. Game 2 was much closer, as Garrett Cole struck out 15 batters over 7 2/3 inngs. In both games, the Rays' only runs scored came in the late innings. Thus, both the Yankees and Astros now lead the respective AL Divisional Series 2-0.

Just in case the website of MLB, ESPN, and all the major networks are down, you can keep up with the Postseason scores page, which is being updated at least once a day. smile

October 9, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Nats, Cards, Rays survive; Yankees oust the Twins

Monday was an unusual situation in that all four playoff games posed the threat of elimination to the home teams. Three of them actually rose to the occasion and survived -- the Nationals, Cardinals, Rays -- while the Minnesota Twins failed.

In Washington, the Nationals had their backs against the wall, after another meltdown by the "relief" pitchers on Sunday night. That game started on a buoyant note, as Juan Soto smacked a two-run homer in the first inning. Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez truly rose to the occasion, throwing four scoreless innings before the Dodgers got on the scoreboard. But for some reason, manager Dave Martinez decided to replace Sanchez with Patrick Corbin in the sixth inning, and all hell soon broke loose. Corbin had two outs with one runner on base, but then seemed to flinch every time he had two strikes on a batter. He was either just missing the strike zone for a walk, or else lobbing an easy pitch which the Dodgers batters eagerly swung at. Before you knew it, the Nats' slim 2-1 lead had turned into a 5-2 deficit, and Corbin's confidence was shattered. So, Dave Martinez brought in the extremely unpredictable Wander Suero from the bullpen, and almost immediately Justin Turner smashed a three-run home run to make it an 8-2 game. It appeared that once again, Nationals Park was the scene of an agonizingly cruel, sudden twist of fate. The Nats' rallied in the bottom of the sixth, but a base-running blunder by Howie Kendrick stopped it at just two runs scored. Hunter Strickland pitched in the top of the ninth inning, and gave up [a home run to Russell Martin, scoring] David Freese. (Old Nats fans like me remember the role Freese played in the ninth-inning horror show in the 2012 NLDS Game 5 against the Cardinals.) Final score: Dodgers 10, Nationals 4.

On that somber note, down two games to one in a five-game series, the Nationals' vaunted starting pitcher Max Scherzer had his postseason MLB career on the line in Game 4 on Monday night. Nats fans soon cringed when he gave up a solo home run to Justin Turner in the first inning, exposing his weak spot for all the world to see. But contrary to my fears, he settled down after than and seven complete innings, giving up just three more hits and no more runs. The Nats tied it in the third inning on a sac fly by Anthony Rendon, and then took the lead in the fifth inning when Rendon hit an RBI single. Three batters later, with two runners on base, Ryan Zimmerman stepped up to the plate and hit one of the biggest home runs of his 14-year career. And the crowd went wild! An inning later, Rendon hit another RBI sac fly, and leading 6-1, the Nats could shake their anxiety and cruise through the late innings. And that's how they evened the series two games apiece.

As Game 5 of the NLDS approaches in Los Angeles this evening, with Stephen Strasburg on the mound, the Nats have every reason to feel confident that they have a better-than-even chance to prevail over the Dodgers and make it to the National League Championship Series for the first time. Tune in tomorrow, sports fans!

In my October 3 blog post, I had a montage of faces of some of the Nationals and Indians players who were conspicuous that day. Here are some other Nats players, most of whom did not play that day but were participating in the postgame autographed jersey lottery. Included here are four of the pitchers in the top starting rotation in the major leagues this year, measured by strikeouts at least:

Nationals faces 29 Sep 2019

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Anibal Sanchez, Patrick Corbin, Sean Doolittle, Stephen Strasburg, Michael A. Taylor, Kurt Suzuki, Max Scherzer, and Asdrubal Cabrera -- wearing a "Baby Shark" headband! (During and after the game against the Cleveland Indians on September 29.)

In Saint Louis, the Braves took Game 3 by a score of 3-1, and were in position to win the series in Game 4, except that they blew a precious opportunity in the late innings. Ronald Acuña hit a leadoff triple, but the next three batters were out, stranding the go-ahead run on third base. Simply inexcusable. In the tenth inning, the Cardinals won the game on a sac fly to left field, and the home town fans exulted at the comeback. Cards 5, Braves 4. In the first inning of the Game 5 in Atlanta tonight, ... Well, let's not go there. What an agonizing disappointment.

In Saint Petersburg (across the Bay from Tampa), the Rays exploded (figuratively speaking), and cruised to a 10-3 win over the seemingly invincible Astros. To the surprise of many, the Rays evened the series with the Astros the next day, winning 4-1. Somehow they got to [Justin] Verlander, who was replaced during the fourth inning, but the Rays held on to their lead until the end. Game 5 will be tomorrow night.

And finally, in Minneapolis (more or less across the Mississippi River from Saint Paul), the Twins tried to bounce back against the New York Yankees, but just couldn't get going. They succumbed to the Yankees in three straight lopsided games.

All the scores are on the Postseason scores page.

October 10, 2019 [LINK / comment]

How about Howie?! Nationals come back to win NLDS!

Maybe, just maybe, the Washington Nationals' bad habit of crushing disappointment in the postseason is behind them. And maybe being the underdogs this time worked to their advantage. Whereas they were favored to win in their four preceding appearances in the National League Divisional Series (2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017), this time the L.A. Dodgers were the heavy favorites. Just like in the National League Wild Card Game against the Milwaukee Brewers, fate finally smiled on the long-tortured Nats.

The game started off on an ominous note, as Stephen Strasburg gave up a two-run homer to Max Muncy before any outs had been recorded, and in the second inning Enrique Hernandez hit a lead-off homer to take a 3-0 lead. (That sentence is virtually identical to the one I wrote describing the early part of the NL Wild Card Game; only the names have changed.) Just like Max Scherzer, however, Strasburg collected his wits like a pro and hung in there through six total innings without giving up any more runs. Even though the Nats didn't score while he was pitching, he at least kept the game close enough to give the Nats a realistic chance at a comeback. And indeed they did! In the sixth inning, Anthony Rendon hit a leadoff double and then scored when Juan Soto singled. In the seventh inning, Kurt Suzuki was hit in the face by a pitch thrown by Walker Buehler, and had to come out of the game. Two outs later, Trea Turner walked, and Clayton Kershaw came in as a relief pitcher. Adam Eaton struck out. Kershaw remained on the mound in the eighth inning, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto hit back-to-back home runs to tie the game 3-3, forcing a stunned Kershaw out of the game. Patrick Corbin, who had a meltdown in NLDS Game 3, redeemed himself by getting four outs as a relief pitcher, and the game went into the tenth inning. That's when the "magic" started. Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly, who had baffled the Nats with a devastating combination of knuckle curve balls and fast balls in the ninth inning, gave up a lead-off walk to Adam Eaton. That was followed by a Anthony Rendon ground-rule double, obliging Kelly to intentially walk Juan Soto. (I tell you, that slugging combination of Rendon and Soto reminds me a lot of Maris and Mantle!) Next up was Howie Kendrick, a former Dodger who had something to prove. A sac fly or a hard ground ball would have been enough to score a run, but it was [not] enough for Howie! He hit a long fly ball that just cleared the center field fence for a grand slam, his second as a National. WOW!!! That gave the Nationals a 7-3 lead, and the 54,000+ fans in Dodger Stadium started streaming out in dejected silence. Sean Doolittle pitched a flawless bottom of the tenth inning, aided by a diving catch of a short fly ball in center field by Michael A. Taylor to end the game. What a fairy-tale happy ending! smile

Howie Kendrick

The hero of the NLDS Howie Kendrick, at Wrigley Field on August 5, 2017.

Cardinals advance to NLCS

What happened in Atlanta yesterday evening was an unimaginable gut blow to Braves' fans, who have endured numerous disappointing losses in the NL Divisional Series over the past two decades. The St. Louis Cardinals scored ten (10) runs in the first inning, setting a postseason MLB record, and the game was essentially over after the first 20 or minutes. Somehow the Braves' pitcher Mike Foltynewicz crumpled, after having performed so well in NLDS Game 2. Final score: 13-1. You never know...

So, the Nationals will head to St. Louis for the first two games of the National League Championship Series on Friday and Saturday. The Cardinals have one of the best organizations in baseball, and they know how to win when it really counts. But if you match up the talent player for player, I think the Nats have an edge. Add to that the sky-high mojo the Nats have built from their amazing regular season comeback, the Wild Card Game comeback, and the NLDS comeback, I'd say the Nats have a big advantage. But I'm not counting on anything, and the series could easily go to six or seven games.

Can Rays upset Astros?

Game 5 of the ALDS will take place in Houston tonight, as the Tampa Bay Rays try for a historic upset against the top-seeded Astros. The winner will then face the Yankees on Saturday in Game 1 of the ALCS.

October 14, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Nationals take a 3-0 NLCS lead, D.C. fans are ecstatic

After four agonizingly disappointing postseason attempts over the last decade, the Washington Nationals finally made it to the National League Championship Series, and they made the most of it in St. Louis over the weekend. Since their "big three" starting pitchers were worn out from the Clash of Titans with the L.A. Dodgers, Aníbal Sánchez took the mound on Friday night. I've been observing his steady improvement ever since he returned from the Injured List in May, and after Game 1, it's pretty clear that he now ranks alongside Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. To the amazement of all (and to the delight of Nats fans), Sanchez had a no-hitter going into the eighth inning, spoiled by pinch hitter Jose Martinez, who singled. Offensively, the Nats got on the scoreboard in the second inning thanks to doubles by Howie Kendrick and Yan Gomes -- one of the few truly clutch hits Gomes has had this year. In the seventh inning, Adam Eaton hit a one-out triple, and one out later Kendrick batted him in. Final score: Nats 2, Cards 0.

Anibal Sanchez

Aníbal Sanchez, after the final game of the regular season on September 29.

Late on Saturday afternoon, with the shadows covering more and more of the field at Busch Stadium, Max Scherzer started for the Nationals. Having grown up in the St. Louis area, it was familiar territory for him, and he pitched like he felt as if he were right at home. In fact, he almost duplicated the superlative pitching feat of Sanchez the night before, not giving up any hits until the seventh inning. He threw 11 strikeouts altogether. In the third inning Michael A. Taylor stunned the crowd with a solo home run, giving the Nats a slight but vital psychological edge as the game progressed. In the eighth inning, Adam Eaton hit a two-run double to give the Nats a 3-0 lead. In the bottom of that inning, Sean Doolittle was handling relief duties fairly well until a line drive by Jose Martinez (once again, pinch hitting) sailed over Michael A. Taylor's head in center field. Taylor misjudged it, but it was scored a double. That was the only run scored by the home team in St. Louis, as the Nats won again, 3-1.

Those two victories put the Nationals in a commanding position, with a very real chance to win the series back home in Washington. That made me wonder how the other teams that have begun seven-game series with two wins on the road have fared after that, so I checked my Postseason scores page, which goes back to 2002, and here is what I found:

Year Series winner Series loser Wins-losses
2002 SF STL [4-1]
2006 DET OAK 4-0
2007 COL ARI 4-0
2012 DET NYY 4-0
2014 KC BAL 4-0

Counting this year, that makes six league championship series that started off with two victories by the visiting team. (It has not happened in any World Series during that time period.) Of the five such series thus far, four of them ended up as sweeps and one ended up as a four-games-to-one outcome. That's not very encouraging for the Cardinals.

This evening, back home in Our Nation's Capital, the Nationals were well-prepared for Game 3. Stephen Strasburg was pitching, and he fully lived up to expectations, striking out an even dozen batters over seven innings. The Nats' Adam Eaton sparked a rally with a clutch RBI single in the third inning, followed by RBI doubles by Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick (two-run). With a 4-0 lead, Strasburg could cruise without too much pressure. Two innings later it was 6-0, and then 7-0. The Cardinals finally got on the board in the seventh inning, but the Nats responded in kind on an RBI single by Ryan Zimmerman. The final outcome was utter devastation for the visiting team which had wrought so much sorrow there seven years before: Nats 8, Cards 1. The 43,675 fans crammed into Nationals Park whooped in jubilation, eager for the next monumental chapter in D.C. baseball history -- perhaps as early as Tuesday night.

ALCS: Yankees, Astros split two

In Houston, meanwhile, the New York Yankees came very close to repeating what the Nationals had done in St. Louis -- taking a 2-0 series lead on the road. In Game 1 (Saturday), Astros pitcher Zack Greinke (acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade on July 31) gave up three runs, two of which were solo homers in the sixth inning, after which he departed. It got worse after that, and the Yankees won, 7-0. Game 2 was more of a pitchers' duel, but an odd one in which the Astros' Justin Verlander went against a series of Yankee relief pitchers. The Astros tied it 2-2 in the [fifth inning], and then won the game on a home run by Carlos Correa in the 11th inning. Final score: Astros 3, Yankees 2.

I noticed that Sports Illustrated featured the Astros' two top pitchers (Gerritt Cole and Justin Verlander) on their cover last week, perhaps another installment of the "SI Curse." There was also an article about the Atlanta Braves moving to the northern suburbs where most of their fans live, and perhaps they suffered from that curse as well.

October 18, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Nationals sweep the Cardinals, win the pennant!

Believe it or not, the team that was near the bottom among all major league teams on May 23 (19-31, .380) emerged triumphantly to claim the National League crown for the first time in franchise history. Yes, sports fans, the Washington Nationals finally overcame their star-crossed reputation and lived up to their true potential. Best of all, the Nats got to share the celebration with the home crowd in Nationals Park, in sharp contrast to last year, when the visiting team won the final (deciding) games in all seven postseason championship series. (See the postseason scores page.) This year the visitors won the final games in three of the four divisional series.

With a 3-0 series lead, some feared that the Nats might get complacently overconfident as Game 4 against the St. Louis Cardinals got underway in Nationals Park. Not hardly! The Nats' Patrick Corbin struck out the first three batters he faced, while the Nats scored seven (7) runs in the bottom of the first inning. Trea Turner led off with a single, and next seven batters either hit safely, reached base on an error, or advanced a runner on a sacrifice. The Cardinals' Dakota Hudson was removed from the game having only gotten one out, replaced by Adam Wainright. It seemed the game was pretty much over by then, and the home fans were buzzing in gleeful anticipation. But Patrick Corbin started running into trouble, giving up a solo home run to Yadier Molina in the fourth inning, and then giving up three runs in the fifth inning. He was lucky they didn't close the gap to only a run or two. Corbin departed after getting twelve strikeouts, and the often-shaky Nats bullpen took over after that. Fortunately, Tanner Rainey, Sean Doolittle, and Daniel Hudson only gave up one more hit over the final four innings, so even though the Nats didn't score again, they still won by a 7-4 margin. Center fielder Victor Robles caught an easy fly ball for the final out, and the team members exulted on the field while the fans went wild! Howie Kendrick was named MVP of the National League Championship Series, and he said it was the greatest moment of his entire career.

The 2019 NLCS almost had an air of inevitability around it, with the Nationals feeling they could beat any adversary after overcoming the mighty L.A. Dodgers. In that sense, it was a bit like the 2004 World Series, when the Boston Red Sox cruised on their mojo-infused momentum from having made the historic comeback against the New York Yankees in the ALCS. In both cases, the St. Louis Cardinals were the victims, and for the Nationals that was doubly significant since it was the Cardinals who killed their dreams in the ninth inning of the 2012 NLDS.

And thus, just a few days from now, the first World Series to take place in Our Nation's Capital since 1933 will get underway. It's almost too good to be true, especially for Nationals fans who have watched their team snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in multiple postseason runs. During the ritual champagne soaking in the clubhouse afterwards, Juan Soto was served sparkling grape juice, since he will not turn 21 until October 25. (That happens to be the date of Game 3, in D.C.!)

Accordingly, the Nationals Park page has been updated with the 2019 World Series information and a couple more large-sized photos I took during the two games I saw there this year. There is also a new diagram for a proposed (by me) temporary expansion, prompted by the severe shortage of tickets. (Upper deck seats are going for $740 on the resale market, I heard. frown) In the "good old days" (1920s and 1930s), ballparks such as Wrigley Field and Navin Field (later Tiger Stadium) used to be expanded with big bleacher sections for the World Series, and I don't see any reason why a modest-scale expansion like that could not be done. I think they could squeeze in bleacher sections in the plaza on the north side and behind the mezzanine seats on either side of the big scoreboard in right-center field. I estimate an additional 1,500 fans could be accommodated that way.

Long road to the top

The Nationals' manager Dave Martinez said after NLCS Game 4, "Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places." Indeed, the Nats' first two months of this season were very "bumpy." After careening off a (figurative) cliff and hitting rock bottom in late May of this year, the Nationals began a long climb back up to the top. Only three teams in major league history made it to the World Series after being 12 or more games under .500 as of May 23, and only one of them -- the 1914 Boston Braves -- won it all. The 2019 Washington Nationals were hotter than blazes from late May until late July, when their postseason prospects became serious. They ended the regular season with an eight-game winning season, and they are 8-2 in the postseason thus far. The chart below has been added to the Washington Nationals page, which also has the scores of each postseason Nats game:

Nats winning pct 2019

What turned it around? Was it Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Anibal Sanchez getting and staying healthy? Was it Howie Kendrick finally getting over the torn Achilles tendon that took him out of the 2018 season? Perhaps newly-acquired "cast-off" Gerardo Parra and his "Baby Shark" mojo? Could it have been veteran Asdrubal Cabrera or relief pitcher Daniel Hudson, both acquired during mid-season? Perhaps it was all of the above.

Here's a sobering thought to ponder as the World Series approaches: Of the five other teams that swept the league championship series since 2002 (when I started keeping track of postseason scores), all five went on to lose the World Series: Detroit in 2006 and 2012, Colorado in 2007, Kansas City in 2014, and the New York Mets in 2015. What's more, in only one of those series (Kansas City in 2014) did the losing team win more than one game.

Yanks avert elimination

In ALCS Game 3 in New York, the Houston Astros beat the Yankees with a few clutch hits and a dazzling pitching performance by Gerritt Cole. The fierce typhoon-like storm that swept up the east coast forced a one-day postponement of Game 4, and the Yankees made so many errors (4), it seemed they had just given up. The Astros won that one easily, 8-3, thus taking a 3-1 series lead. Game 5 tonight was rather unusual. The Astros scored a run in the first inning off a wild pitch, an ominous sign that James Paxton was losing it. But in the bottom of the inning, Justin Verlander gave up two home runs: one to D.J. LeMahieu, who was an All Star this year, and one (with two runners on base) to Aaron Hicks, who hit only 12 homers all year. That gave the Yankees a 4-1 lead, and for the remaining eight innings, neither team scored a single run! Very strange. So, the series will return to Houston tomorrow night, with no travel day because Games 4 and 5 were postponed.

October 22, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Nationals & Astros begin World Series 2019

As an upstart "Cinderella" team with a history of postseason misfortune, the Washington Nationals are clearly the underdogs going up against the Houston Astros, who host Game 1 of the 2019 World Series tonight. The Astros won it all just two years ago, and they boast a starting lineup and pitching rotation that ranks very high by historical standards. For their part, the Nats "are just happy to be here," but that does not mean that they are satisfied with their first National League pennant or that they aren't worthy competitors.

Tonight Max Scherzer will go up against Gerritt Cole, who leads the American League in strikeouts (326) and ERA, and is the odds-on favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award. Tomorrow night it will be Stephen Strasburg against Mad Max's former team mate on the Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander. And it's just possible that another former Tiger, Anibal Sanchez, will end up facing Verlander in one of the later games in this series. I predict it will go at least six games, but it's anybody's guess who will emerge victorious.

Comparing the ballparks

Just like last year, and several years before that, I present the home ballparks of the two World Series teams, for easy comparison. Also just like last year, the contrasts between the two stadiums -- Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium -- are very sharp.

Minute Maid Park Dodger Stadium
Nationals Park

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

Astros beat Yanks in a thriller

Game 6 of the ALCS was a real thriller, as the visiting New York Yankees came back to tie the game 4-4 in the top of the ninth inning thanks to a two-run homer by D.J. Lemahieu. Could this be another one of those miraculous postseason twists of fate? Nope. The Astros did likewise in the bottom of the ninth, as diminuitive slugger Jose Altuve hit a walk-off homer to beat the Yankees 6-4 and thereby win the series 4 games to 2. And the crowd went wild! I would have had mixed feelings about a possible Nationals vs. Yankees World Series matchup...

October 25, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Nationals shock the Astros in Houston, twice

By now everyone knows the cliché, so to avoid repetition, I'll render it in Spanish: Houston, Ud. tiene un problema. I tend to be cautious in my prognostications of sporting contests, and I evidently underestimated my favorite team, the Washington Nationals. Most people are talking about the big clutch hits by the Nats' sluggers, but what really made the difference in both games, I think, was the grit and determination of the two starting pitchers, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

Game 1 started off on an optimistic note with a leadoff single by Trea Turner, but he didn't get across the plate. In the bottom of the first, the Astros got the first two runners on base via a walk and a single, after which Max Scherzer struck out the next two batters. But number five in the lineup, Yuli Gurriel, smacked a two-run double to give the home team an early lead. In the second inning, Ryan Zimmerman smacked a home run just left of dead center field, in a location that would have rolled up the slope that used to be in center field of Minute Maid Park. Now I'm glad they got rid of "Tal's Hill"! smile That gave the Nats a big lift, and two innings later, the then-20-year old Juan Soto crushed a ball to the opposite field (left center), and it landed on top of the platform where the train tracks are situated. It was estimated that it would have traveled 417 feet, but I think it might have gone farther. All of a sudden it was a tie game, and the psychological aspect of the game immediately changed. One inning later, the Nats launched a three-run rally, thanks to an RBI single by Adam Eaton and a two-run double by Juan Soto -- his third RBI of the night! Max Scherzer got through the fifth inning, tired but not broken. In spite of the adversity, the Astros' ace pitcher Garret Cole stayed on the mound for two more innings. In the bottom of the seventh, George Springer hit a solo homer for the Astros, and and in the eighth he hit an RBI double, but that was as close as they came to narrowing the gap. Final score: Nats 5, Astros 4 -- a big upset.

Then on Wednesday night both teams scored two runs in the first inning. For the Nationals, Anthony Rendon knocked a two-run double that bounced off the scoreboard wall in left field, but none of the next three batters could get him home. In the bottom of the first, Jose Altuve doubled but was later caught stealing at third base, a huge play for the Nats' catcher Kurt Suzuki. Then Michael Brantley singled and Alex Bregman hit a home run to tie the game. The score remained 2-2 for the next five innings, a textbook pitchers' duel between Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander. Then in the seventh inning there was something of a miracle when Kurt Suzuki hit a lead-off homer to left field. That clearly rattled Verlander, and before you knew it Nats were scoring left and right. They added six runs in that inning, three more in the eighth (featuring an Adam Eaton homer), and one more in the ninth (featuring a Michael A. Taylor homer). Fans in Houston could not believe their eyes, and most of them were gone by the time the game ended. Martin Maldonado hit a solo homer in the bottom of the ninth, a token gesture of resistance. Somehow the underdog Nationals had not only won both games in Houston, but had done so in stunning fashion.

Those two victories put the Nationals in a commanding position, with a very real chance to win the series back home in Washington. That is just like the NLDS, and in fact, that sentence was copied from my October 14 post, which indicated that the visiting team has not won the first two games in any World Series at least as far back to 2002; see the Postseason scores page. I'll find out later when the last time it happened...

Game 3 is about to get underway in Washington tonight, and the atmosphere in Nationals Park must be absolutely electric. I wish I could afford to buy a ticket, but they were going for well over $700 the last time I checked. They'll have three chances to win two games in Washington and thus earn the ultimate championship, which would unleash a celebration unlike anything the city has seen in years. Go Nats!!!

Juan Soto

Juan Soto hits a two-run double in the final regular-season game (against the Cleveland Indians) at Nationals Park, September 29. Today, October 25, is his 21st birthday!

October 29, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Astros shock the Nationals in Washington, thrice*

Full of vim and vigor after winning their first two World Series games in Houston last week, and with soaring hopes as they returned home, the Washington Nationals instead collided head on with cold, hard reality over the weekend. Whereas they started the series with at best a 30 percent chance of winning it all, after Game 2 those odds had risen to perhaps 70 percent. They could either win two of three games at home or else win just one game and then count on Stephen Strasburg to win Game 6. That is exactly what they are hoping for tonight, but since they failed to win any games at home, this will be a do-or-die elimination game. So now the shoe is on the other proverbial foot: Washington, you have a problem.

Game 3 on Friday night was a litany of missed opportunities for the Nats hitters, who went 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position. Two singles to start the second inning, and nothing. Bases loaded in the third inning, another zero. In the fourth inning Ryan Zimmerman got a leadoff walk and after an out scored the Nats first run on a triple by Victor Robles. But he never got past third, and in spite of multiple situations with runners on second after that, the Nats didn't score any more runs. On the mound, Anibal Sanchez struggled a bit, giving up way too many hits, but at least he didn't implode. He made it into the sixth inning before being replaced, but took the loss in a 4-1 final result.

In Game 4, there were high hopes for high-priced starting pitcher Patrick Corbin, especially since he was going up against an unknown rookie, Jose Urquidy. But the Astros scored twice in the first inning, and took a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning when Robinson Chirinos hit a towering two-run homer way up into the left field seats. The Nats' only run came on a ground ball out to first base hit by Juan Soto. The Nats only managed four hits in the entire game, which was as many runs as the Astros scored in the seventh inning, when Alex Bregman hit a grand slam. (The aged reliever Fernando Rodney was pitching.) It was about as dispiriting result as one could imagine. Final score: Astros 8, Nationals 1.

The Nats still had hopes since Max Scherzer was expected to start Game 5, but when it was learned on Sunday afternoon that he had been scratched, hopes quickly dimmed. Joe Ross started in an emergency situation, and he did about as well as could be expected. The line score looked a lot like the one from Game 4, but the Astros scored two runs each in the second and fourth innings instead of the first and fourth. The Nats' only run came in the seventh inning, when Juan Soto hit a homer that just cleared the fence in front of the Red Porch in left-center field. That closed the gap, but then the Astros scored three more runs in the final two innings to make the final score an ugly 7-1. That game will remain famous for two peripheral incidents: a Nats player in the first row of the Red Porch seats blocking an Astros home run ball with his chest while holding on to two (2) beers, and two ladies wearing yellow shirts flashing pitcher Gerrit Cole in hopes of distracting him. It didn't work, and they have been indefinitely banned from baseball games.

What happened to Max Scherzer?

News that ace pitcher Max Scherzer would not be able to pitch Game 5 was a bitter blow to Nats fans who were dismayed by Games 3 and 4, hoping to avoid a three-game sweep. On Sunday morning he woke up with sharp spasms in his neck muscles, and could hardly move his head or shoulders. The latest word is that he is doubtful for the rest of the series, which means that if the Nats can pull off a win tonight in Game 6, they will have to rely on an awkward combination of pitchers in a possible Game 7. Prospects aren't good, obviously, but the Nationals have overcome steeper odds in making improbable comebacks this year, so it's still anyone's guess who will be crowned champion. Anything, and I mean anything, can happen in the baseball postseason!
Go Nats!!!

* For you folks in Rio Linda, that's an archaic way of saying "three times."

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