August 27, 2021 [LINK / comment]

Nats fall into cellar, bounce back

To the surprise of no one, the newly-rebuilt Washington Nationals struggled throughout this month, and for a while they appeared to be going from bad to worse. After getting swept in a four-game series against the visiting Philadelphia Phillies (see August 5), the Nats chalked up just one victory during the following nine games. They lost seven games in a row from August 8 through August 15, at which point they had fallen into last place, behind the Marlins. Then they bounced back with three consecutive wins and presently have a tenuous hold on fourth place.

From August 6 through 8, the Nationals were nearly swept by the Braves at Truist Park in (or near) Atlanta. Thanks to a pinch-hit double by Ryan Zimmerman and a home run by new catcher Riley Austin, they put three runs on the board in the ninth inning and managed to win the second game of the series (Saturday), 3-2. That late rally helped the Nats' promising new pitcher Josiah Gray avoid a would-be loss; he struck out ten batters over five innings.

After resting on Monday, the Nats headed up to New York City for three games against the Mets. Rain forced a suspension of the first game, which the Mets won 8-7 the next day. Rain also forced a postponement of the second game to Thursday, when a double-header (seven innings each) was played. The Mets won the early game 4-1, with a guy just called up from the Rochester minor league affiliate, Sean Nolin, pitching for the Nats. In the late game, the Nats rallied to tie it 4-4 in the top of the seventh inning, thanks to a clutch two-run single by Andrew Stevenson, but in the bottom of that inning Pete Alonso hit a walk-off home run to win it for the Mets. In a way it was fitting, since he was the champion of the Home Run Derby in Denver last month. Nats' pitcher Kyle Finnegan took the loss.

On Friday the 13th, the Nationals returned home to D.C. and welcomed the division-leading Atlanta Braves to town. There was a rain delay of over three hours, which seems ridiculous, but given the wet forecast for the weekend, they may not have had a choice. The Nats only scored two runs apiece in the first two games, but perked up offensively in the third game on Sunday. Unfortunately, the Braves hit three home runs and won that game (6-5), thus completing the sweep.

The day off on Monday, August 16 seemed to help the Nationals, as they racked up their first double-digit run total in nearly a month when the Toronto Blue Jays came to Nationals Park the next day. Home runs were hit by both Yadiel Hernandez and new catcher Riley Adams, who also doubled and singled. (Adams was traded to the Nationals for pitcher Brad Hand in late July, and he has improved markedly.) On Wednesday both teams hit three home runs, but the Nats came out ahead thanks to a four-run rally in the bottom of the seventh inning. Brad Hand took the loss in the 8-5 final result, and Kyle Finnegan got the save for the Nats.

Then the Nationals spent Thursday flying out west to play the Brewers at American Family Field (not "Miller Park" any more) in Milwaukee. After numerous disappointments on the mound this year, Patrick Corbin had a superlative game, striking out seven batters and giving up only one run over six innings. The Nats' star player (with 2 RBIs) in that game was left fielder Lane Thomas, who was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Jon Lester. (See below.) Much like Riley Adams, Thomas has been hitting much better since he joined the Nationals. He has also played center field, and may end up replacing Victor Robles, whose hitting and base-running struggles are almost legendary. On Saturday the two teams were tied 4-4 until the bottom of the eighth inning, when the Brewers scored five runs thanks mainly to a grand slam by Christian Yelich. (The Brewers slugger has been on the Injured List for most of this season.) Nats' pitcher Javy Rodriguez took the loss in the 9-6 outcome, and lasted a third of an inning. In the Sunday game, the Nats equalled their hosts in terms of hits (9) but just couldn't capitalize on run-scoring opportunities, and lost by a score of 7-3.

Monday the 23rd was yet another travel day for the Nats, as they flew to Miami to play the Marlins. In the Tuesday game Erick Fedde pitched his best game of the year, striking out ten batters over six innings. Home runs by catcher Tres Barrera and Ryan Zimmerman gave the Nationals a much-needed 5-1 victory. On Wednesday Josiah Gray pitched very well for the Nats once again, but his team mates didn't give him any run support until the seventh inning. That's when Josh Bell and Yadiel Hernandez hit back-to-back home runs to give the Nats a 3-2 lead. But in the bottom of the inning, relief pitcher Andres Machado gave up a leadoff triple, and soon the game was tied 3-3. It stayed that way until the tenth inning, when the Nats' Carter Kieboom (automatic runner on second base) was thrown out at home on a single by Riley Adams. So close! The Marlins executed a sacrifice bunt to get their automatic runner to third base, all but guaranteeing a home team victory. Marlins 4, Nats 3.

After flying to New York once again, tonight the Nationals faced the Mets, who have been perhaps even more jinxed than the Nationals over the past month. Thanks to some clutch hits in the third inning, the Nats managed to eke out a 2-1 victory, credited to starting pitcher Paolo Espino. In contrast to what happened two weeks ago, Kyle Finnegan got the save.

Kyle Finnegan

The Nationals' new de facto closer, Kyle Finnegan, at Nationals Park on June 16.

Injury update

The Nationals' fifth starting pitcher, Joe Ross, is out for the rest of the season, but at least for the moment it does not appear that he will need Tommy John surgery, as appeared to be the case at first. If so, it would be his second time. In addition, catcher Alex Avila has been on the injured list for several weeks. Relief pitcher Austin Voth returned to the Nats roster after being placed on the Injured List late in July, and his performance seems more reliable thus far. And, in another chapter of a never-ending tragedy, Stephen Strasburg had surgery to repair thoracic muscles, meaning that he will not only miss the rest of this year, but probably the first part of next year as well. He hardly played at all last year. Sad to say, but his renewed contract in late 2019 after the Nats won the World Series may turn out to be one of the biggest busts in franchise history.

Meanwhile, in L.A. ...

Former National Max Scherzer is doing his best to help his new team (the Dodgers) catch up with the Giants in the NL West race. He has won four of his five starts with Los Angeles, with no losses yet. Last night in San Diego (when the Dodgers won, 4-0) he struck out ten batters, raising his strikeout total to 188 for the year (41 with L.A.), and 2,972 lifetime. If he keeps up this pace, there seems little doubt that he will cross the immortal threshhold of 3,000 Ks some time in the middle of September. The other former National that was traded to the Dodgers in late July, Trea Turner, is likewise keeping up the pace in terms of batting and fielding. With a .320 batting average, he still leads the National League in that category.

Yankees win yet again

On Monday evening, for the first time in 120 years (really???), two teams with nine-game winning streaks faced each other: the New York Yankees and the host Atlanta Braves. The Yankees won 5-1, and beat the Braves again the next day, 5-4. After beating the Athletics twice in Oakland, the Yankees now have a 13-game winning streak and are putting pressure on the AL East Division leaders, the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays have won nine of their last ten games, which is not too shabby.

Orioles finally win

They came very close to losing once again, but thanks to a five-run eighth-inning rally on Wednesday, the Baltimore Orioles just barely managed to beat the visiting L.A. Angels, thus putting an end to their miserable 19-game losing streak. Suddenly pumped up with adrenaline, they clobbered the Angels 13-1 the next day. After losing to the Tampa Bay Rays tonight, the Orioles are now 40-87 for the year (.315), 39 1/2 games out of first place in the AL East. I heard they have one of the best farm systems in the majors, however, and with the anticipated top draft picks for next year, the franchise should improve markedly.

The Nationals' diaspora: (CORRECTED)

I realized that I had omitted the name of a (former) Nationals player who was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in late July: veteran pitcher Jon Lester. My apologies for leaving him out. So here is a corrected version of the table that I included in my August 5 blog post.

Name Position New team With Nats since
Max Scherzer P L.A. Dodgers 2015
Trea Turner SS L.A. Dodgers 2016
Kyle Schwarber LF Boston Red Sox 2021
Daniel Hudson P San Diego Padres 2019
Josh Harrison 2B Oakland Athletics 2020
Yan Gomes C Oakland Athletics 2019
Brad Hand P Toronto Blue Jays 2021
Jon Lester P St. Louis Cardinals 2021

I will try to assemble a corresponding list of newly-acquired Nationals players, since many of them show great promise for the future. Overall, General Manager Mike Rizzo did a great job in getting very good talent in return for all the top stars who were traded away one month ago.