Harper's homers lift Nationals into 1st place!
There's no doubt that the astounding comeback victory against the Braves on April 28 marked a decisive turning point for the Washington Nationals. Ever since then, the Nats have steadily climbed from last place in the National League East Division, bypassing one rival after another, and last night they took sole possession of first place. Bryce Harper was the key to that successful drive, hitting ten home runs already this month, with nine more games yet to be played. In recognition of his superhuman performance, he was named National League Player of the Week for two weeks in a row.
The Nationals took three of the four games against the Mets at Citi Field (April 30 - May 3), winning the latter two by razor-thin 1-0 scores. Solid pitching and much improved defense were the keys to victory there. That paved the way for an upbeat home stand, as the Miami Marlins came to town. Yunel Escobar proved his worth by getting five hits in five at-bats in two consecutive games. His batting average is now up to .333. The game on May 5 was a setback, as Stephen Strasburg only lasted three innings, exiting because of a sore arm. It was on the next day, May 6, that Harper came out of his home run "slump" in a big way, hitting three long balls in the Nats' 7-5 win over the Marlins. He thus became the fourth National player to hit three homers in one game:
- Apr. 21, 2006 -- Three home runs by Alfonso Soriano; WSH 7, ATL 3.
- July 7, 2010 -- Adam Dunn hits 3 home runs; WSH 7, SD 6.
- May 29, 2013 -- Ryan Zimmermann hits 3 home runs, but Orioles rally; BAL 9, WSH 6 @
- May 6, 2015 -- Bryce Harper hits 3 home runs, Marlins' rally falls short; WSH 7, MIA 5
According to ESPN, Harper is the youngest player (age 22) to hit three home runs in one game since 1970. But wait, there's more! The very next day he hit two more homers, and so did Danny Espinosa! Jayson Werth, still recovering from surgery earlier this year, also hit a homer, and the Nats easily beat the Braves, 9-2. Then on Saturday April 9, Harper hit one more homer, a two-run ninth-inning walk-off home run to center field, making it six four-baggers in just three days. Un-be-lievable! The final score in that game was 8-6. On Sunday afternoon, the Nats finished their sweep of the Braves with a 5-4 victory. Wilson Ramos hit the go-ahead RBI in the eighth inning.
The Nationals then headed west (southwest, actually) for a seven-game road trip. It got off to a spectacular start in Phoenix as Denard Span hit a lead-off home run, and the Nats built a 10-0 lead after just two innings. They coasted from there on, and beat the Diamondbacks by a score of 11-1, getting Max Scherzer his third win of the season. (He has been victimized by poor run support.) But any thoughts of an easy series were erased the next day, as the D-backs came right back, winning by a score of 14-6. Once again, the fragile Stephen Strasburg had a short, mediocre outing on the mound. The pressure was on for the Nats to win the rubber game on Wednesday, as the Diamondbacks are a below-.500 team. The home team had a 6-5 lead going into the top of the ninth inning, whereupon the Nats loaded the bases. It was all up to that promising but skinny reserve center fielder, Michael Taylor, and he rose to the occasion in a way that will be remembered for a long time. He worked the count and fought off pitches until he got one that he liked, and then BOOM! He just crushed that ball, which sailed over the center field wall at Chase Field, 410 feet away and 25 feet above the ground. It was a carbon copy of the 11th-inning grand slam that Michael Morse hit on June 5, 2011. And so, the Nats won the final game of that series, 9-6. It was a real kick to see the big grin on Taylor's face.
Next the Nationals traveled to San Diego for a four-game series. The Thursday game was delayed by rain for about two hours, only the fifth rain delay in the history of Petco Park. Perhaps that was what threw Doug Fister out of sync, as he gave up seven runs in only two innings, and the Nats lost to the Padres, 8-3. But the visitors from Washington bounced right back with a 10-0 victory on Friday, as Bryce Harper got another home run. On Saturday, May 15, the Nats scored three runs in the first inning, and that was all they needed in a 4-1 victory which earned Max Scherzer his fourth win. On Sunday, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper homered to lead the Nats to a 10-5 victory, as Stephen Strasburg finally had a solid outing on the mound. The Nationals chalked up a 5-2 record on that road trip.
Zimmerman did it again!
Back home in D.C. from their road trip to the Southwest, the Nationals faced one of their biggest challenges of the year thus far: the AL East-leading New York Yankees. The Washington Post had a feature story on the daunting duo of Bronx relief pitchers: Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, both of whom had ERAs of 0.00. Tuesday's game was a back-and-forth slugfest, with homers by Espinosa, Harper, Ramos, and (in the tenth inning) Ryan Zimmerman. Yunel Escobar had just reached base on a single, and all Zimmerman needed was to get a double to get the winning run home. Instead, he worked the count and smashed a line drive to right field that bounced off the foul pole. And the crowd went wild! It was the Nationals' third walk-off home run this year, making it very likely that they'll break their record of four walk-off dingers in one year (2008 and 2010). Also, it was Ryan Zimmerman's tenth career walk-off home run, and his first one since July 26, 2013; see the recently updated Washington Nationals page. Those were the first runs given up by Miller this year.
Washington Post columnist Dan Steinberg wrote about how Ryan Zimmerman got his nickname "Mr. Walk-Off," attributing it to blogger William Yurasko, a frequent contributor to the Facebook group Washington Baseball History, in which I also participate.
The Nats managed to eke out a victory in the second and final game of that series, thanks to homers by Ian Desmond and Tyler Moore. The game was tied 2-2 going into the inning, at which point Denard Span got a clutch RBI single, and that one run was all the Nats needed to win the game, and thus the series. It was their seventh consecutive series win. On the downside, Wilson Ramos failed to get a hit, putting an end to his 19-game hitting streak. Since the Mets lost yet again, that put the Nationals into first place in the NL East, all by themselves.
But back to Bryce Harper, he now has 15 home runs this year, the most in the National League, and just one behind Nelson Cruz, of the AL Seattle Mariners. He still leads the majors in walks, RBIs, and slugging percentage. With one-fourth of the season completed, Harper is on track to reach 60 home runs this year. For more on his exploits, see hittrackeronline.com. It's going to be fun to watch him at the Home Run Derby before the All-Star Game in Cincinnati this year. Will he reach the Ohio River?
Mmeanwhile in Citi Field in New York this afternoon, the Mets finally broke their losing streak, and beat the Cardinals 5-0. The Nats were off today, so they are still a half game ahead in the NL East.
Stanton's long balls
Lest Harper's rampage distract our attention, let's not forget that the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton has been on a tear as well, with multiple tape-measure homers. In Marlins Park, he crushed one to center field that was actually caught bare-handed by a fan standing in the corner of the second deck. (That was an amazing feat in itself!) That ball was estimated to have traveled 478 feat. See the video at MLB.com. A few days before, he had hit a home run that landed on top of the pavilion roof at Dodger Stadium, but my estimate of the distance is about 20 feet less than the "projected 475 feet" that was announced; see the video at MLB.com. Use the Stadiums superimposed page and decide for yourself.
Work on renovating Wrigley Field is steadily progressing, and the bleachers in left field are already full of fans again. The target completion date is July 3, at which point the bleacher capacity will be about 500 more than it was before. Read all about it at bleedcubbieblue.com.
In Cleveland, the upper deck in right field at Progressive Field (ex-Jacobs Field) has been gutted, with fancy new restaurants and whatnot taking the place of the previous rows of seats. The official capacity is now just 36,856, which is 6,549 less than it was ten years ago. It's the same thing that was done to Coors Field in Denver last year.
Finally, the new fences in right-center field at Citi Field seem to be helping the Mets score more runs, but it's uncertain whether it is helping them or their opponents more. Even after watching games on TV, I'm still not sure exactly how the bullpens are aligned now. See this nypost.com article from last November.
RFK Stadium photos
Finally, I recently bought a new printer with a built-in scanner, enabling me to rescan several old photos, yielding much better quality. I now have high-definition versions of those photos (about 1800 x 1200 pixels) which I will make available in some fashion, eventually. While I was at it, I scanned a few "new" photos of RFK Stadium, including this one:
Schoo-oo-ool's out ... for ... summer!