June 23, 2021 [LINK / comment]

Red-hot Nationals surge into third second place

I picked a very good day to see a ball game in Washington one week ago. Actually, my old friend Dave Givens picked that particular date, an afternoon game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Day games are always more fun. The weather was perfect, and the Nats were on a roll. Once again, I underestimated the traffic delays crossing the 14th Street bridge into Washington, and we passed through the gates just as the first pitch had been thrown. In the second inning, Yan Gomes smashed a line drive solo home run to left field, after which neither team scored for the next four innings. In the bottom of the seventh, Juan Soto drew a walk and then Josh Bell homered to right field, adding two insurance runs that proved to be the winning margin.

Nationals Park from 3B UD, June 16, 2021

It was "a beautiful day in the neighborhood" of South Capitol Street in Washington on Wednesday one week ago.

Paolo Espino

Paolo Espino was masterful for five solid innings, getting his very first major league win at age 34. (He also did pretty well this afternoon, getting a save in a tense back-and-forth slugfest against the Phillies.)

Josh Bell & Juan Soto, June 16, 2021

A gleeful Juan Soto greets Josh Bell, who had just hit a home run.

The bullpen buckled a little bit, giving up six hits and one run in the final three innings, but they got the outs when they absolutely had to. Usual closing pitcher Brad Hand relieved Kyle Finnegan in the eighth inning, and labored through five outs to earn the save. After the first two batters were out in the ninth inning, the next two singled, raising the tension level in the stands, but then Adam Frazier hit an infield dribbler for the final out. [Final score: Nats 3, Pirates 1.] SWEEP! Even though it was a smallish crowd by normal standards [16,781 attendance], that game signified a steady "return to normalcy," with live fans providing stimulative feedback to the players. I was a bit surprised that there were relatively little few warnings about covid-19, and although stadium employees were wearing masks, hardly any fans did.

What was perhaps a bit strange was the large number of players with whom I was not familiar. That's partly due to the fact that some of them started with the Nats last year, when none of us could actually attend games. In the montage below, I photographed seven of the players for the first time. (I was hoping to see third baseman Starlin Castro -- one of the heroes in today's game -- but he took emergency leave to deal with some kind of family problem.) The first nine players constituted the Nationals' starting lineup on June 16, and the last one (Josh Harrison) is the usual second baseman but only played in the final two innings, at third base.

Nationals lineup on June 16, 2021

TOP ROW (L to R):
Kyle Schwarber (LF), Trea Turner (SS), Juan Soto (RF), Josh Bell (1B), Yan Gomes * (C)

Luis Garcia * (2B), Jordy Mercer (3B, 1B), Victor Robles (CF), Paolo Espino * (P), Josh Harrison (3B; played in the 8th & 9th innings, but no at-bats)

Underlined names indicate players who are new to the Nationals' roster this year.
* Asterisks indicate players who joined the Nationals last year, when taking photos was not possible.

Several of the above photos have been incorporated (in very small size) on the Washington Nationals page.

Nationals pitchers, June 16, 2021

Six of the Nationals' pitchers, including the entire regular starting rotation, came out of the dugout to congratulate their team mates on the victory: Joe Ross, Stephen Strasburg*, Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer*, Erick Fedde (#23), and Jon Lester. In the upper right are Josh Bell, Alex Avila, Yan Gomes, and Ryan Zimmerman (#11).

* Then on the Injured List; Scherzer returned to the active roster on June 22.

Showdown with Mets

After a day off on Thursday, the Nationals welcomed the New York Mets to town. Erick Fedde had one of his best outings ever, striking out six batters over seven innings without giving up a run. Neither team scored until the bottom of the ninth, when Ryan Zimmerman hit a clutch single that advanced the runner on first to third base, after which Yan Gomes got the game-winning RBI with a single. That made it five wins in a row! The Nats' winning streak came to an end on Saturday afternoon, as their starting pitcher Joe Ross gave up all five runs to the Mets in a truncated seven inning double-header game. But in the second game, Jon Lester was superb for six innings as his former Cub team mate Kyle Schwarber hit two home runs in a 6-2 victory. On Sunday Patrick Corbin was the Nats' starting pitcher, and he repeated what Lester had done, giving up just [two] runs over six innings on the mound. The Amazing Kyle Schwarber hit three more home runs, but two of them were solo shot, so the Nats' victory margin (5-2) was smaller than you might expect. He thus tied a major league record for hitting five home runs in a two-day span. For this superhuman achievement, he was named as the National League Player of the Week!

Way to go, Kyle Schwarber!!!

Thus, the Nats beat the first-place Mets three games out of four, coming to within three games of the division leaders. The NL East race is becoming extremely tight!

Showdown with Phillies

After resting on Monday, the Nats headed to Philadelphia to confront the Phillies. Back from the Injured List, Max Scherzer pitched five innings, getting eight strikeouts, and thanks mainly to Yan Gomes, who got two RBIs, the Nats won in a nail-biter of a finish, 3-2. This afternoon, Erick Fedde had a rough outing, giving up five runs over four innings, but [thanks to yet another Kyle Schwarber home run (with two on base)] the Nats came right back to tie it, 5-5. Both teams had grand slams over the next inning, including one by Josh Bell, and after more back-and-forth drama, the Nats finally won it 13-12 thanks to a clutch 2-run single by Starlin Castro in the ninth inning. Once again, Brad Hand [OOPS: The photo caption above is correct: Paolo Espino] got the save -- just barely!

That means the Nats (35-36) are now ahead of the Phillies [34-37] in the NL East, and pending the result of the Mets-Braves game later tonight, the Nats may end up in sole possession of second place. [UPDATE: The Braves lost! The Nats] have won nine out of their last ten games, and with the momentum on their side, anything is possible as the middle of the season approaches.