August 22, 2018 [LINK / comment]
With two ugly losses to the Miami Marlins over the weekend (see below), it was obvious that the last realistic hope for making it to the postseason had ended for the Nationals. Even so, the news that the Nationals had traded Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs, and Matt Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals (where he had played before) came as quite a shock. Because they took place after July 31, both transactions were contingent upon clearing waivers, which means that other teams could make an offer before the deal was finalized. From a rational point of view, the mini-"sell-off" makes sense for the Nationals, who will save a chunk of money that they would have owed to Murphy. See MLB.com.
Team co-owner Mark Lerner wrote an open letter to Nats fans, and it was quite appropriate. He confessed to having based on emotion his decision to stand pat (rather than trade away some of the big stars) at the end of July, but that the long-term interests of the team demand a frank reappraisal. It's a relief that the owners regard their investment in the Nationals franchise as more than just a business venture, and I applaud all they have done to give D.C.-area fans a championship-caliber team for the past few seasons. Now if they could only put more emphasis on getting a top-of-the-line manager to make the best use of all that pricey talent they have been acquiring...
The acquisition of Murphy (as a free agent) on the night before Christmas 2015 (belated blog post) was one of the biggest coups ever by General Manager Mike Rizzo. Murphy made an almost immediate splash in D.C.: In May 2016 he broke a Nationals record, getting 44 hits in a single month, with a batting average of nearly .400. I'll never forget the June 29 game I saw in which he hit two home runs, helping to beat his former team (the Mets) 4-2. In July 2016, he was named NL Player of the Month, and in November he won the 2016 National League "Silver Slugger" award for the second base position. He batted .347 in 2016 and .322 in 2017, slipping a bit late in the season when he injured his knee. It was that bad knee that kept him from playing for the first half of the 2018 season, and by the time he was back in his usual groove, it was too late for the Nationals. But more than his exceptional batting skills, it was Murphy's buoyant personality that provided the spark for many Nats victories over the past two and a half years. At a time when leadership is wanting in the Nats dugout (no more Dusty Baker, no more Jayson Werth), the departure of Daniel Murphy will be hard for the Nats to absorb.
Farewell, and thanks for all you did, Daniel! You will be missed!
As for Matt Adams, he played a valuable role filling in for Ryan Zimmerman at first base and for Adam Eaton in left field. In fact, for a while back in May, people were wondering if Zimmerman's job might be in jeopardy because of how well Adams and Mark Reynolds (the other utility player often seen at first base) were batting. But Zimmerman has been on quite a tear lately; see below!
Perhaps we'll eventually get a better idea of what went wrong with the Nationals this year, but most people would agree that the shaky bullpen bore a large share of the responsibility for the many close losses. The Nats really should have swept the Cubs from August 10 to 12, but two of those games were lost in the ninth inning under outrageous circumstances. And then in St. Louis the same thing happened on August 13 when Koda Glover served as emergency closing pitcher. Getting better relief pitchers has been a high priority for Mike Rizzo for the last couple years, so why wasn't he more successful? Tuesday's Washington Post provided an in-depth look at the personal tensions that have been rising this year. Rumors of discontent among relievers at the way they were being used (or not used) by rookie manager Dave Martinez spread last month, a bad sign. When Shawn Kelley threw down his glove in anger near the end of the historic 25-4 win over the Mets on July 31 (after giving up a home run that was essentially meaningless), that showed there were some seriously bad vibes in the bullpen. Added to that, losing closer Sean Doolittle and setup man Kelvin Herrera to injury spelled disaster. So it's partly just bad luck, but a lack of leadership is almost certainly to blame as well.
On Saturday, the Nats were in a back-and-forth contest with the Marlins, pinning their hopes on rookie pitcher Jefry [sic] Rodriguez. He went five innings and allowed just two earned runs, but an error by Daniel Murphy cost two unearned runs. After Andrew Miller gave up a home run in the top of the ninth, the Marlins had a 5-4 lead. It looked bleak, but Adam Eaton knocked a solo homer to right field to send the game into extra innings. But Koda Glover gave up three hits and two runs in the top of the tenth, and the Nats failed to respond. Final score: 7-5.
In the rubber game of that series on Sunday, it was all up to Gio Gonzalez, who has often pitched well this year, but this was one of his "off" days. With two outs in the third inning, he gave up a walk, a single, and a double, as the Marlins took a 3-0 lead. Two innings later he seemed to lose his composure again, and was replaced by Greg Holland, being charged with eight earned runs. Tommy Milone pitched for the rest of the game, but he gave up three home runs as the Marlins reached double digits. Their pitcher Jose Ureña (recently suspended for intentionally pitching at Braves' rookie Ronald Acuña) accomplished the first complete game of his career, giving up only two hits -- and none after the third inning! Thus, the Nationals were beaten by a score of 12-1, one of the biggest embarrassments in team history. Those two losses were especially galling, as Miami (last place in the NL East) had been on a six-game losing streak.
Monday was a rest day, made especially painful by the memory those two losses. It was in this context that Mike Rizzo decided to cut his losses and unload Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams.
So how would the Nats respond to the miserable performance and the shock of losing two key players? With a heroic comeback win, that's how! Tanner Roark was pitching, but a rain delay of nearly two hours cut his evening short at just three innings. After Mark Grace took the mound, the Phillies staged a four-run rally in the top of the sixth, but the Nats immediately bounced back, scoring five runs in the bottom of the inning. A leadoff bunt single by the amazing Juan Soto was that spark that lit this desperately-needed rally, and a home run by Andrew Stevenson (the first of his career) was the biggest exclamation point. Wilmer Difo and Ryan Zimmerman also homered as the Nats piled on four more runs in the late innings, and thus beat the Phillies, 10-4. Worth mentioning is that Matt Wieters got three RBIs; he has been disappointing as a batter since joining the Nationals last year, but he has improved markedly over the last month or so.
Tonight marked the return of the often-fragile Steven Strasburg from the disabled list, and things did not begin on a positive note. He gave up three runs in the first inning, and two more before exiting the game at the end of the fourth inning. The Nats had the game tied 5-5 at that point, but the Phillies added runs in the sixth and seventh inning. A leadoff triple by Wilmer Difo in the eighth inning narrowed the gap to one run, but when Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon both flew out in the bottom of the ninth, Nats' hopes faded. That's when Juan Soto (did I mention that he is amazing?) worked a long count, and somehow knocked a double into the right field corner. So Ryan Zimmerman steps into the batter's box, and Nats fans wondered if the guy who was once called "Mr. Walk-off" would live up to his name. Yes, he did!!! It took an umpire video review to make sure, but there was no doubt that the ball he hit bounced off the rail above the wall in right field, thereby giving the Nats a most dramatic victory. It was Ryan's first walk-off homer in more than three years, believe it or not. See for yourself on the newly-updated Washington Nationals page.
Tomorrow afternoon, Max Scherzer will pitch for the Nationals, who have a good reason to hope for a sweep of the Phillies. It would be nice if the Nats could at least move into second place late in the season...
Once again, I neglected to pay heed to the "Little League Classic" game, played at historic (BB&T Ballpark at) Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Last year my attention was distracted by the solar eclipse, and this year it was a weekend "mini-vacation." Anyway, the "visiting" New York Mets beat the "home team" Phillies 8-2, spoiling the latter's chance to move into first place ahead of the Braves. Next August the Chicago Cubs will play the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third MLB Little League Classic pennlive.com The Anomalous stadiums page has been duly updated, but frankly I'm a little skeptical of making this sort of quasi-exhibition game a routine thing. A "major league" game at a venue that seats only 2,500? I don't think so. Accordingly, chances that I will do a diagram for Bowman Field are low at this point, and in retrospect I probably shouldn't have bothered to do one for Fort Bragg Field two years ago, inasmuch as 90% of the grandstand for that special Braves-Marlins game was only temporary.
The Williamsport Crosscutters are a "Class A Short Season Affiliate" (see milb.com) of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Here's an excellent closeup view you're not likely to get by watching a game on TV: