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September 4, 2019 [LINK / comment]

A history of rock music, Part III:   from O to W

Following up on my previous not-quite-fair-and-balanced self-review, "A history of rock music, Part II: from H to N" (on June 11, ending with "N is for Neil Young"), here is Part Three of my incredible musical odyssey through the alphabet. Each of the sections below covers one of the weekly open mic nights hosted each Wednesday by Fritz Horisk at Queen City Brewing in Staunton.

O is for Ozark Mountain Daredevils: On June 19, I was on the letter "O," and there was less than zero probability that I would perform songs by any other group than my sentimental favorite, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Since they aren't as well known here in the east as they are in their midwestern "homeland," I took a couple minutes to explain their origins and defiantly idiosyncratic career paths. In particular, after their two big hits ("If You Want To Get To Heaven" and "Jackie Blue"), they turned their backs on the commercial rock star world and focused on developing their own unique style, blending folk, bluegrass, and rock musical styles. I played five songs altogether that night, including an extra "encore" song that each of us did. Even though this material was very familiar to me, Craig Austin's percussion helped me out a lot!

* : first time in public; ( # ) = with harmonica

Andrew Clem, Craig Austin at QCB

Yours truly, accompanied by Craig Austin at Queen City Brewing on June 19. (Photo courtesy of Fritz Horisk.)

P is for Pink Floyd: One week later, on June 26, I made a 180-degree turn in musical genres, covering some challenging songs by one of the very best British rock bands, Pink Floyd. Until two years ago, I only knew a couple songs by them, but all of a sudden I became almost obsessed with learning and mastering their songs. In fact, now they're one of my specialites. The weather was beautiful, so we played outside on the patio, and the friendly crowd kept getting bigger as the night progressed. It was a very interesting and enjoyable evening of music, as all the performers excelled in the creativity department. At the time, I didn't have a Pink Floyd shirt, so I wore a Police T-shirt, since that would have been another logical choice for the letter "P." The first two songs went pretty well, while the latter two were marred by a couple flubs:

* = first time in public; ( # ) = with harmonica

Q is for Queen: In his Facebook post summarizing the July 3 open mic event, Fritz Horisk characterized the music as "fantabulous," and I have to agree. There was a nice-sized turnout in spite of the stormy weather, and once again the musicians put on quite a varied and interesting show. I was on the letter "Q" in my weekly alphabetical progression, which left very litte choice for me other than to play songs by Queen. (Alternatives included Quarterflash, of which I know exactly one song, and Queensrÿche, of which I know none at all.) Now you might think it simply absurd for a solo acoustic musician to even attempt songs by one of the most daring exemplars of the glamor/progressive rock genre, but if you had been there that evening, I am quite sure you would have been convinced otherwise. To my surprise, I came pretty close to nailing all four songs, and the audience reaction was overwhelmingly appreciative. I was grateful for the rousing applause. Would I dare to attempt something like that a second time? I'm not really sure. But in any event, that was a nice feather in my cap.

* = first time in public; ( # ) = with harmonica

R is for Rolling Stones: July 10 was another night when there wasn't much doubt what I was going to play. The only other group beginning with the letter "R" whose songs I play is REO Speedwagon, and I only know a couple of those. The problem was not choosing the group but rather choosing which songs by that group (Rolling Stones) to play. There were a lot of songs I hated to leave out, such as "Gimme Shelter." I got off to a good start with a song I only learned recently, after learning that it ("Street Fighting Man") was one of the Stones' favorite opening songs. It has a cool bass riff after each refrain, and I pulled that off very well. Overall, it went pretty well after that, but could have been a little better.

* = first time in public; ( # ) = with harmonica

S is for Supertramp: One week later (July 17) I did four songs by that enigmatic British group from the 1970s, Supertramp. (Among the most likely alternatives were Seals & Croft, Sheryl Crow, Simon & Garfunkle, and Steve Goodman.) Two of the songs were first-timers for me, and all four sounded very good. The audience response was very positive, but as Fritz noted right after I played, the crowd noise level was rather high. Supertramp is among my signature specialties that hardly anyone else I'm aware of even plays. Aside from their creative melodic styles, I enjoy playing Supertramp songs because I get to play harmonica of most of them -- usually recreating the saxophone part.

* = first time in public; ( # ) = with harmonica

T is for Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers): The very next week (July 24) I was at it again, but I arrived a bit late so I was only eligible to do three songs. I could have played Three Dog Night, but there really wasn't much doubt that I was going to pay tribute to the late, great Tom Petty. The atmosphere playing outside was just about ideal, and the crowd response was very nice. All three songs I had performed before, and they sounded fine:

( # ) = with harmonica

U is for U2: On the last Wednesday of the month, July 31, there wasn't much doubt that I was going to do songs by U2. (Uriah Heep was the only other choice, and I hardly ever play those songs.) It was a somewhat underwhelming evening, not living up to my expectations. Since turnout was low, extra time was available, so each of us was allowed two "encore" songs. It occurred to me (too late) that I should probably learn their song "Desire," in which Bono plays harmonica.

* = first time in public; ( # ) : with harmonica

V is for Van Halen (??!!) After making it to Queen City Brewing seven weeks in a row, I actually skipped a week before returning on August 14. (I was busy preparing to teach in the fall semester, and the songs by the "default" group [ -- there being no other real choice -- were more challenging than usual, thus requiring more practice.]) As with Queen and perhaps the Grateful Dead, it was probably a stretch for me to take on Van Halen's hard rock material, but I came through intact, and people really liked it. Obviously, all four songs were "first-timers" for me. A lot of folks were singing along on "Dancing in the Street" and "You Really Got Me," which was nice. Whew!

* = first time in public

Yours truly -- the host!

The next week, August 21, I set aside my alphabetical odyssey because, for the very first time, I was the host of the open mic event! Imagine that. Fritz Horisk was on vacation, and asked me to take over for him, and since I have a complete set of musical equipment (microphone, amplifier, speakers, speaker stands), I was ready to go. (Fritz lent me his microphones since he always provides for extra performers, just in case.) I wasn't sure how many people would show up, but we had a nice-sized turnout. For the first time, my friend from church Matthew Poteat made an appearance at the QCB open mic night, and he played one song, an original. Several other regulars were there as well, including John Dull, Craig Austin, Dianne Byrer, Melissa Hudson, Christina Dubay, and Den Frumen. A regular audience member named Ron Rammelkamp led the females in an a capella rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Anyway, not being bound by the alphabet, I was able to mark the 50-year anniversary of two big events that took place in the summer of 1969: the Woodstock music festival and the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, which happened just a few days after the release of David Bowie's first hit single. Of course, I had to play an Ozark Mountain Daredevils song. After everyone had played (including one extra song each), I closed the evening with a Beatles song (just like Fritz often does) and one of my crowd-pleasing favorites, the first hit single by Billy Joel.

@ written by Joni Mitchell
* = first time in public; ( # ) : with harmonica

"Return to normalcy"?

W is for (The) Who: Finally, last week (August 28), I resumed my alphabetical fixation by tackling the letter "W" -- The Who, of course. I did pretty well on the first one, but missed some of the special guitar parts on "Magic Bus." Who knows, maybe no one noticed. The last two songs sounded very good, and I was happy how it all went.

* = first time in public; ( # ) : with harmonica

Tonight I was on the letter "X," which was quite a challenge, but I'll put off doing a review of that (and revealing the group/groups) until after I finish the whole alphabet.

September 20, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Braves clinch NL East while Nationals slog ahead

By beating the San Francisco Giants 6-0 tonight, the Atlanta Braves officially claimed the National League East Division title for the second year in a row. There really hasn't been much doubt about that outcome for well over a month. During the three months when the Washington Nationals were the hottest team in baseball (see August 31), the Braves managed to stay at least five games ahead of the challengers, and have kept up the pace while the Nationals slumped in September. With a record of 95-60, the Braves are now four games behind the league-leading L.A. Dodgers, and have an outside chance of claiming home field advantage through the NLCS. With a balanced, high-performing mix of eager rookies and seasoned veterans, the Braves might finally break through the invisible barrier that seems to continually thwart them in the early stage of the MLB postseason, time and again. (Much like the Nationals in their four postseason appearances!) For their part, the Nationals are in a three-way dogfight for one of two wild card slots, with ten games left to go. So as we prepare for another thrilling, cardiac arrest-inducing October, let's review how this month has gone for the Nats.

Mets almost sweep the Nats

After completing a sweep of the Miami Marlins on the first of the month, the Nationals suddenly fell flat against the visiting New York Mets. On September 2, Joe Ross had another shaky outing as pitcher, as the Mets scored seven runs during the first four innings. Were it not for a three-run homer by Asdrubal Cabrera in the bottom of the ninth, the Nats would have been shut out.

The following night's game featured one of the most improbable reversals of fortune that I can ever remember. Max Scherzer pitched a full six innings for the first time since returning from the Injured List in late August, but he was burned with a four-run Mets rally in the fourth inning. (That darned Wilson Ramos again!) The Nats struggled to catch up in the later innings, but all hope seemed lost when the Mets scored five runs in the top of the ninth. The score was 10-4, and many fans streamed out of Nationals Park. Mets Manager Mickey Callaway decided to take out Seth Lugo, who had just pitched in the eighth inning, and give some of the other relievers some practice. Bad move! Victor Robles led off with a single, and soon the Nats scored two runs and had the bases loaded with just one out. Things were getting interesting, and then Ryan Zimmerman came in as a pinch hitter. He is famous for his walk-off home runs, and even though that wasn't going to happen with a four-run deficit, he came pretty close to delivering in one of the most dramatic ways you can imagine: he smashed a double to right-center field, and two more runs scored! Next up was Kurt Suzuki, and to the delight and amazement of Nats fans everywhere, he smashed a home run to left field, putting the Nationals over the top, 11-10. It was the biggest ninth-inning comeback win ever by the Nationals, and indeed for the franchise including the Montreal Expos.

The next day (an afternoon getaway game) Anibal Sanchez pitched for the Nats, but he gave up seven runs over five-plus innings. The Nats had a three-run rally in the bottom of the sixth, but that was all the comeback they had in them. And thus the Nationals lost a series for the first time since August 9-11 -- which was also against the Mets.

Braves almost sweep the Nats

Next the Nationals flew down to Atlanta, in one last chance to close the gap with their division rivals the Braves. (They were seven games back at that point.) Stephen Strasburg pitched on September 5, and he did well enough but got no run support during the six innings on the mound. Only a two-run homer by Victor Robles in the ninth inning staved off a shutout. Braves 4, Nats 2. The next night Patrick Corbin likewise pitched a solid game, but the Nats didn't get on the scoreboard until the eighth inning, when Ryan Zimmerman hit a three-run home run. Braves 4, Nats 3. The Saturday night game seemed to be a long-shot since the young pitcher Austin Voth filled in as a starting pitcher, but he did better than expected. I questioned the manager's decision to replace him in the fifth inning, but the first reliever -- Aaron Barrett -- created quite an emotional scene. In his first major league appearance in four years (due to multiple surgeries on his throwing arm), he finished the inning without giving up any hits or runs. This was one of those exceptions to the "no crying in baseball" rule. In the later innings, the Nats closed the gap, but once again the Braves clung to the lead and won it, 5-4. On Sunday Max Scherzer had a superb outing, striking out nine over six innings while only giving up one run. The Nats hit four home runs, including two by Yan Gomes (who has had a disappointing year), and Asdrubal Cabrera went four for five at the plate. And thus the Nationals avoided being swept, with a resounding 9-4 victory.

Nats rebound, beat Twins

In their first-ever game in Target Field on September 10, the Nationals seemed hopelessly confused. Anibal Sanchez pitched for seven innings, but his team ended up being shut out, [5-0].** Things quickly turned around the next day, however, as Stephen Strasburg did just fine on the mound, while both Ryan Zimmerman and Trea Turner hit home runs. In fact, both Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick went three for four at the plate, a reassuring sign that those veteran sluggers have still got it. The Sunday game was even better, with four Nationals hitting home runs and Patrick Corbin having another solid outing on the mound. The Nats won it easily, 12-6, the first time they have won on consecutive days this month.

** [CORRECTION; originally "5-2"]

Braves pull away from Nats

The very next day (Friday the 13th!) the Nats were back in D.C. for a three-game home stand against the Atlanta Braves -- again, and once again they lost the opening game of the series, 5-0. Max Scherzer gave up some big run-scoring hits, while the Nats could hardly get a man on base. (I almost went to see that game in person, since they were giving away Anthony Rendon bobbleheads, but the weather was dismal, and I'm kind of glad I didn't.) The next night's game ended up even worse, even though Austin Voth threw a spectacular game, giving up just one run over five and two-thirds innings. Once again, the bullpen collapsed, and recriminations started flying around among Nats fans. Final score: Braves 10, Nats 1. Fortunately, Anibal Sanchez pitched a great game on Sunday and the Nats' bats started heating up. Howie Kendrick led the way with a home run and two singles, as the Nats won it, 7-0. Another near-sweep averted!

Nats are flummoxed by Cardinals

The very next day (Monday the 16th), the Nats flew to St. Louis, where the first-place Cardinals were lying in wait. Stephen Strasburg pitched OK, but all the Nats could manage on offense was a homer by Anthony Rendon and an RBI by Victor Robles. Tuesday's game went much better, as Patrick Corbin struck out eleven batters and gave up just two unearned runs over six innings, while Howie Kendrick homered again and came a triple shy of hitting for the "cycle." Nats 6, Cards 2. But in the series finale on Wednesday, the Cards got the best of Max Scherzer, who tried his best to finish the seventh inning, but ended up giving up a two-run home run, and the Cardinals won it, 5-1.

In Miami tonight, the Nationals prevailed over the Marlins 6-4, thanks to two solo homers by Trea Turner and a clutch three-run homer by Asdrubal Cabrera. Anibal Sanchez pitched fairly well until the sixth inning, at which point he seemed to lose his command. Wander Suero came in to relieve him, and soon allowed both inherited runners to score. But the Nats were still ahead, and padded their lead with Turner's second homer in the top of the seventh inning. Daniel Hudson gave up three hits over the final two innings, but none of those runners scored.

The other division races

With my focus on the Washington Nationals, I tend to neglect races outside the National League East, but there is drama in some of the other divisions. The New York Yankees and L.A. Dodgers have clinched their divisions (AL East, NL West), and the Houston Astros about to clinch the AL West. The Minnesota Twins and St. Louis Cardinals lead their divisions by a few games, so the main question at this point is who will take the two wild card spots in each league. I am constantly amazed by the consistent performance of the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays, who are vying for the AL wild card game with the Cleveland Indians. Even with a meager payroll, a small fan base, and seriously outmoded stadiums, those teams continue to compete on a true championship level.

Meanwhile, the Nationals' one-game lead over the Brewers in the NL wild card race is tenuous indeed, and much depends on the unusual five-game home series against the Phillies next week. Everything may boil down to the final weekend, and I hope to see at least one of the Nats' games in D.C. against the Cleveland Indians.

The Cy Young and MVP races

Despite their recent struggles (8-10 this month), the Nationals have two pitchers in contention for the Cy Young Award (Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg), while Anthony Rendon is probably ahead in the "race" for the National League MVP Award. Including Patrick Corbin, the Nationals undoubtedly have the best top three pitchers in the major leagues right now, and that threesome recently achieved something that no three pitchers from the same team had ever accomplished before: All three of them have struck out at least 224 batters this year. Strasburg has 235 strikeouts and Scherzer has 233; if he hadn't missed most of July and August, Max would have had way over 300 strikeouts by now. What a shame... Among hitters, meanwhile, the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger has gone way downhill at the plate this month, while the Brewers' Christian Yelich broke a knee cap on a foul tip a couple weeks ago, putting his MVP candidacy in doubt. Anthony Rendon had a couple off-games, so his average has dipped to .328, but he is still within one of the NL leader in RBIs, Freddie Freeman, who has 120.

Will RFK Stadium soon be gone?

D.C. government officials recently announced that they plan to demolish RFK Stadium within the next two years. It costs too much to maintain the structure, which is crumbling and no longer fit to host professional sports. It's too bad they can't find a way to "mothball" it, so as to preserve the last true "cookie-cutter" stadium from the 1960s and 70s as an architectural monument of sorts. I wish they could at least rearrange the lower deck for one last nostalgic baseball game there, but I suppose that is a far-fetched scenario.

RFK Stadium farewell montage

A montage of photos I took at the next-to-last Nationals game at RFK Stadium, on September 22, 2007. Notice a youthful Ryan Zimmerman, then completing his second full year with the Nationals.

September 29, 2019 [LINK / comment]

Nationals cruise toward October as wild cards

The Washington Nationals were in a bit of a slump for roughly the first half of September, but gradually got [hot] again, clinching an NL wild card berth on Tuesday night.

Nats can't sweep Marlins

After beating the Miami Marlins on Friday September 20, the Nationals had a comfortable 4-0 lead on Saturday night, and once again the bullpen caved in, as the Marlins scored four runs in the eighth inning. It ruined Stephen Strasburg's chance at getting 20 wins for the first time in his career, and the game went into extra innings. That's when the Marlins bullpen caved in, as the Nats scored six runs in the top of the tenth to win it, 10-4. "Over and out!" On Sunday, Austin Voth had a superb outing on the mound, giving up just one run over five innings, but once again the Marlins scored four runs in a latter inning; the seventh, this time. The Nats failed to respond, and that's how their near-sweep of the Marlins ended, with a 5-3 loss.

Nats sweep Phillies: five straight!

Even though the Nationals were ahead in the NL wild card race as the Phillies came to Washington on Monday evening, they had reason to be nervous. The Milwaukee Brewers were closing the gap rapidly, while the Philadelphia Phillies (in fourth place) seemed to relish the role of spoiler. It was a rare five-game series, made necessary by the postponement of a rained out game earlier in the season. The Chicago Cubs were still in contention for the wild card spot, and the Nats needed at least a series win against the Phillies. On Monday, Patrick Corbin had a solid six-inning outing on the mound, while three Nats homered: Adam Eaton, Yan Gomes, and Trea Turner. Final score: Nats 7, Phillies 2. On Tuesday afternoon, Joe Ross was tapped as starting pitcher, and even though he was pulled after just four innings, he lived up to expectations as the Nats won again, 4-1. In the evening, Max Scherzer had a bit of a hard time, but in his typical determined fashion, he stayed in for six full innings even though he gave up four runs. He was rescued from a possible loss by Trea Turner, who hit a grand slam in the sixth inning, and in spite of a late solo home run by Bryce Harper the Nats won again, 6-5. The players gathered on the field after the game to watch the end of the Cubs game on the video scoreboard, and once that was over, the Nationals celebrated clinching a wild card spot. On Wednesday, Anibal Sanchez had one of his best outings of the year, giving up just two runs over seven innings, and thanks to home runs by Howie Kendrick and Brian Dozier, the Nats prevailed once again, 5-2. That was four wins in a row, but it wouldn't count as a sweep unless the Nats could win the finale on Thursday. That game was a hell of a showdown, and Stephen Strasbur was ready for it. He struck out ten batters while only allowing one run over six innings, while Michael A. Taylor (a one-time starting player who spent most of this year in the minor leagues) went three for four including a clutch home run. And that's how the Nationals won, 6-3, thereby beating the Phillies in a rare (and perhaps unprecedented for the franchise) five game sweep!

Will Nats sweep Indians?

Finally, the Cleveland Indians arrived in Washington on Friday, hoping to grab one of the two AL wild card spots from the Tampa Bay Rays. (The Oakland A's had already clinched.) In other words, they were motivated! But the Nationals were also motivated, but in this case merely the desire to stay ahead in the wild card race in order to get home field advantage. Austin Voth put in another fine performance as pitcher, and Trea Turner homered once again (his fourth one this week!) to put the Nats on top early. But the biggest contributor to that game came was Gerardo Parra who hit a home run and went three for three, as the Nats cruised to a 8-2 victory. The Indians were thereby eliminated from postseason contention. On Saturday, the Indians seemed listless early on, and the Nats scored nine runs in the second inning, including a grand slam by Gerardo Parra -- he of "Baby Shark" fame.

As an indication of how well they are doing, the Nationals currently enjoy a seven-game winning streak, whereas before this week their longest such streak this year was just five games. Well, better late than never! No other team currently has such a long winning streak, and if the Nats prevail again today, that would certainly make a nice way to end the season.

Nevertheless, having clinched home-field advantage in Tuesday's wild card game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Nationals really won't have much at stake in this afternoon's regular-season finale against the Indians. Max Scherzer had been slated to start today, but instead he will be given the responsibility as starting pitcher on Tuesday. And so today's game will most likely be an uneventful snooze-fest, as various rookies and under-utilized bench players get a chance to prove themselves for the postseason. But one thing is for sure, win or lose: It will be a joyous occasion at the end, as the Nationals will get a huge round of applause for making it to the postseason against all odds. Few people back in mid-May would have expected their fortunes to turn so sharply upward.

On a more somber note, there is a very real possibility that this may be Ryan Zimmerman's final regular season game in major league baseball. It's hard to imagine him signing with any team other than the Nationals. In any event, I will be there!

[UPDATE: Yes, they did! It was a wonderful day at Nationals Park, and the Nationals kept up their momentum through the very end, beating the Indians, 8-2. Details to follow tomorrow...]

Martinez in the hospital

During the first game of the series in St. Louis on September 16, the Nats' beleaguered manager Dave Martinez had to leave in the middle of the game last week because of chest pains, and underwent a cardiac catheterization procedure in a local hospital. He rested a couple days and then returned to duty when the Nats played in Miami, and he seems to have recovered. I join other Nats fans in wishing him all the best.

Postseason scenarios

In preparation for another October full of thrills, chills, and spills, I have updated the Postseason scores page with a projected set of matchups for the wild card games and divisional series games. The only question yet to be decided is whether the Milwaukee Brewers will grab the NL Central title from the Cardinals, who would in that case face the Nationals in the wild card game.

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