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July 13, 2018 [LINK / comment]

Forget June, too! The Nationals' slump continues

Hopes that the Washington Nationals might recover from their early season failures ("Forget April!") and live up to their potential slowly faded during June and were pretty much dashed by the end of the month. Every time a flicker of hope surfaces, they resume a grim spiral downward into mediocrity. With the midpoint of the season already past, the Nats' chances of snapping out of it and winning the NL East are probably less than one in ten right now. With solid rosters full of eager, fresh talent, the Phillies and Braves will fight it out until October, most likely.

Ironically, the June swoon came just when some of their big slugging stars from last year finally returned to the lineup. Anthony Rendon is finally starting to display All-Star quality slugging and fielding, but not in time to get selected for this year's All Star game. Daniel Murphy took a long time to regain his former hitting form, while Trea Turner has had big ups and downs. On the other hand, Ryan Zimmerman -- "face of the franchise" -- is still on the DL, and there is some confusion over whether it's just an oblique strain or if he also injured his calf muscle.

So what went wrong? First and foremost, the Nats' vaunted pitching rotation fell apart. The team's ace, Max Scherzer, only won one game in June (on the fifth, against Tampa Bay), and was charged with three losses even though he only gave up a total of five runs. How many runs did the Nats score in those three games? ZERO!!! The fact that he has remained a ferocious competitor in spite of the lack of run support from his team mates is a testament to his sportsmanship. Among other starting pitchers, Gio Gonzalez has reverted to his often-inconsistent ways, getting flustered by adversity. The once-solid Tanner Roark is having his worst year since joining the Nats in 2013, losing tonight against the Mets to bring his record down to 3-12. (He probably still harbors a grudge that he didn't get a chance to pitch at all in last year's NLDS.) Steven Strasburg has been on the disabled list for over a month now, while Jeremy Hellickson just came from the DL and did well on Tuesday, helping to beat the Pirates. After a stellar first two months, the Nats' pitching rotation is in shambles.

But we can't just blame the pitchers. At the plate this year, the Nats are incredibly inconsistent, racking up double-digit scores one day and then getting shut out a few days later. In fact, the Nats have been shut out ten times this year already, three more than in all of 2017. Tonight's game against the Mets (a 4-2 loss) was a perfect example of how the Nats keep wasting golden opportunities: they were 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position. Whether it's lack of leadership under the new manager (Dave Martinez) or some hard-to-fathom angst undermining team spirit, the poor results are painfully obvious.

Nats edge Orioles

Given that the Baltimore Orioles are having one of their worst seasons in team history (currently with a 28-69 record), the Nats really should have swept them in Washington from June 19-21. But perhaps because of a lengthy rain delay (almost three hours) on June 20, the Nats just couldn't find their rhythm, and the O's shut them out, 3-0. So, the Nats settled for winning two out of three. That gave the Nats a 5-1 win-loss record over the Orioles this year, better than they usually seem to do against their neighbors to the north.

Phillies torment the Nats

The Philadelphia Phillies then came to town, as the Nats were clinging to second place in the NL East. Tanner Roark had another lousy outing, and the Phillies grabbed second place in dramatic fashion, spanking the Nats 12-2. They widened their lead the next evening, and on Sunday the 24th had a lead going into the late innings. But this time Rendon, Harper, and Murphy rose to the occasion, winning 8-6 and narrowly avoiding what would have been a humiliating sweep at home.

Did that big win turn things around for the Nats? Nope. Over the next two days in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Nats failed to score a single run against the third place Rays, and only got five total hits. Gio Gonzalez gave up six runs in one-plus innings (final score 11-0) and then Max Scherzer got tagged for the loss in a 1-0 game. Just disgusting.

So it wasn't much surprise that the Nats would have a rough go in the subsequent four-game series in Philadelphia. But they actually did OK, scoring a total of 25 runs to the Phillies' 18. The problem was that most of the Nationals' runs were in the second game (Friday the 29th), when they won 17-7. Rookie Juan Soto homered twice, and five other Nats hit four-baggers as well. It was a huge triumph that raised hopes of finally getting the team back on track -- except that in the other three games the Nats lost by one-run margins. Argh-h-h-h-h!

Red Sox sweep Nats

The Nats began their most recent home stand with three games against the Boston Red Sox, and even with three home runs to support him, Max Scherzer couldn't get the win. Boston 4, Washington 3. The next day starting pitcher Tanner Roark had another meltdown, giving up nine runs in an 11-4 loss. Then the Red Sox spoiled the 4th of July festivities in Washington, in a 3-0 loss in which starting pitcher Erick Fedde (Who??) only lasted one inning. Reliever Mark Grace kept things under control for the next four innings, but there was no offense to entertain the jam-packed Nationals Park on that special day.

NOTE: Two years ago I presented a table summarizing all the 4th of July baseball games played by the Nationals since the franchise "rebirth" in 2005. Their cumulative July 4 record was then 7-4, and now it's 8-5.

Nats wallop the Marlins

With that misery behind them, the Nats welcomed the Miami Marlins to town on July 5. This time Jeremy Hellickson had, shall we say, a rather more difficult time on the mound. He gave up seven runs in the first two innings (one unearned), and two more in the fourth inning. Down 9-0, there wasn't much for the Nats to hope for. But in the bottom of the fourth, Trea Turner hit a solo homer, and that small spark lit a firestorm of runs. Over the next three innings, the Nats scored 13 more runs, capped by a grand slam by Trea Turner that gave his team a 10-9 lead in the sixth inning. Believe it or not!!! But then the Marlins closed the gap with three runs in the eighth inning, and only the cool head of closing pitcher Sean Doolittle kept the Nats' 14-12 lead intact through the end of the game. It was the Nats' biggest comeback win every, surpassing the equally improbable 13-12 win (after a 9-1 deficit) in late April 2015.

That set the stage for a rare (for this year) event: the Nationals won the next game, the first consecutive wins by the team since June 5 and 6. The 3-2 victory on July 6 was largely due to the Nats' valuable utility player Mark Reynolds, who hit a walk-off home run -- the first one by a Nats player this year, in fact. The next day (Saturday) featured another offensive explosion by the Nats, as they won, 18-4. Mark Reynolds was the star once again, hitting two more home runs, and racking up 10 runs batted in, tying the franchise record in that departement which Anthony Rendon had set last year (April 2017). It also got Max Scherzer his 12th win of the year. But the next day the Marlins bounced back with a 10-2 win, thus ending the Nats' winning streak at a modest three.

Nats fall in Pittsburgh

On July 9 in Pittsburgh, a rookie named Jefry Rodriguez was pitching for the Nats, another sign of how badly depleted their pitching staff is. He gave up six runs over five innings, while the Nats only managed three. On Tuesday, a homer by Anthony Rendon and four hits by Daniel Murphy powered the Nats to a 5-1 win. On Wednesday afternoon, Gio Gonzalez had one of his best outings of the year, giving up just two runs over six innings. It could have been worse, but he kept his cool and got out of multiple jams. What's more, he hit a leadoff double, but the next three batters were out to end the inning -- another horrendous example of how the Nats keep screwing up this year. Pirates 2, Nats 0.

Nats acquire Herrera

While the Nationals were playing against the Baltimore Orioles last month, a new relief pitcher appeared for the first time: Kelvin Herrera, who was acquired from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for three minor league prospects. Like last year, the Nationals are in desperate need of better relievers. In 27 games for Kansas City this year, Herrera had a 1.05 ERA with 14 saves and 22 strikeouts and two walks allowed. (MLB.com) But what the Nats really need is another starting pitcher and perhaps a catcher who can hit the ball with some regularity. Neither Matt Wieters nor Pedro Severino have done much for the Nats this year, and third-string catcher Spencer Kieboom is still too young to be an everyday player. (I suppose one could say the same thing about the young Juan Soto, but that's another story!)

Jayson Werth retires

You have to admire Jayson Werth's determination to stay in the game even after his contract with the Nationals expired last year. He was playing minor league ball in the Seattle Mariners' organization, but there just wasn't any room for him, and he decided to retire. He visited Nationals Park earlier this month, and the Nationals announced there will be a special Jayson Werth Day in September. As I have said before, he deserves enormous credit for helping transform the Nationals from an also-ran team into perennial championship contenders.

First half 2018: Numbers don't lie

Read 'em and weep: I updated the Washington Nationals page with data for the first half of the year. At the end of June (coincidentally the exact midpoint in terms of number of games), the Nats' record was 42-39, and now it's back to an even .500: 47-47.

Watch for falling ice!

While going through my accumulated newspaper clippings recently, I noticed a news item from three months ago that a Toronto Blue Jays game scheduled for April 16 had to be postponed one day because falling ice from the huge CN Tower next door had punctured the roof of Rogers Centre, necessitating quick repairs. One of the young Toronto stars, Yangervis Solarte, homered that day as the Blue Jays beat the Royals. That drew my attention because Solarte was the guy whose home runs decided the game outcome in the series last month (June 15-17) when the Nats were swept in Toronto.

SunTrust Park update!

SunTrust Park

Many thanks to Andrew Owen, who sent me some fine photos of the (almost) new home of the Atlanta Braves, SunTrust Park. I noticed for the first time that the back rows of the middle deck around the infield consists of double-width table seating. No doubt other details are yet to be discovered. I will update that page soon with said photos and perhaps a diagram update. Who knows, maybe I'll even get there myself later this year...

And so, of course, I had to update the SunTrust Park diagram, and as usual, it took me a lot longer than expected. There are now separate upper deck and lower deck variants, and I may add a second deck variant as well. I decided that there are four main decks, since there is significant overhang between the very top level and the level immediately below it. Among all MLB ballparks, only Miller Park has four distinct decks extending all the way around between the foul poles; Dodger Stadium has four decks around the infield only. There will probably be another update or two in the future, once I get a chance to inspect it on my own.

SunTrust Park BHP UD pan

SunTrust Park, home of the Atlanta Braves. (Courtesy of Andrew Owen, April 2018.)
Click on that image to see it full-size.

On a side note, I noticed that Georgia State Stadium (the rebuilt version of Turner Field), has the football gridiron laid out along what used to be the third base line, rather than the first base side as I had previously surmised. See Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia State University; minor diagram update pending...


July 15, 2018 [LINK / comment]

June: a month (of birding) to remember!

June may have been forgetable in other ways (such as baseball), but in terms of birding, it was definitely a month to remember! In my never-ending quest to get caught up on documenting my various activities, here is a summary of what I did in June, in chronological order.

On June 2, I went on an Augusta Bird Club field trip around the Swoope area, as part of the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas project. John Spahr led the trip and us tips on how to use the eBird app to submit observations via an iPhone. There are specific codes for different kinds of breeding behavior: male singing, nests being occupied, etc. The big highlight was a Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest very close to the road, and before long I spotted the mother-to-be in the nest. In a nearby tree, two Eastern Wood-Pewees seemed to be preparing a nest. We also saw two Yellow-billed Cuckoos nearby, but I wasn't able to photograph them. It was one of the few times I have seen Red-headed Woodpeckers at two different locations on the same day.

Montage 2 June 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-headed Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Orchard Oriole (1st-yr. male), Willow Flycatcher, Bobolink, Eastern Wood Pewee, Ruby-throated Hummingbird (F) in nest!, American Goldfinch, and in center, Eastern Bluebird. (June 2)

On June 6 (the 74th anniversary of the "D-Day" invasion of France), I led two other Augusta Bird Club members went on a hastily-improvised field trip to Highland County, taking advantage of momentary good weather. (With all the rain, we just couldn't be sure about scheduling such a trip more than a few days in advance.) We succeeded in spotting three main target species. At the Blue Grass cemetery, several Bobolinks were singing and displaying. A few miles north, close to the West Virginia state line, there was a guy with a huge camera on the side of the road, and we figured that he was trying to get a photo of a Golden-winged Warbler, since it was very close to our destination. So we stopped, and sure enough, we saw one after a few minutes. Then we proceeded to the house where Margaret O'Bryan once lived; for many years that has been a regular stop for Augusta Bird Club field trips. We saw the usual variety of warblers up there, including a Chestnut-sided Warbler, but not until we were about to leave did we finally hear and then glimpse a Golden-winged Warbler. We did see a female Yellow Warbler in her nest, very useful photographic data for VABBA. Next, we drove out to Paddy Knob, on the southwest corner of Highland County, right on the West Virginia state line. It was the first time that any of use had been there, and we were trying to follow the directions by Marshall Faintich, a prominent local bird photographer who regularly posts reports of his ventures. We lost track of distance, however, and went a few miles beyond the primary "hot spot" destination. Finally, we did see an elusive Mourning Warbler, and I managed to get a decent photo in spite of obstructing bushes. We also saw Black-throated Blue Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a Least Flycatcher.

Montage 6 June 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Mourning Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Bobolink, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Least Flycatcher, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler (F) in nest!, and in center, Chestnut-sided Warbler. (June 6)

Saturday, June 9th was the Augusta Bird Club's annual spring picnic brunch, for the first time at Humpback Rocks Picnic Area on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The weather was great and attendance was high. Crista Cabe and I led two separate groups on hikes along nearby trails, and a nice variety of birds were heard and seen. Among the highlights were Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, Cerulean Warblers, American Redstarts, and Blue-headed Vireos. I had intended to return to that area to get better photos of Cerulean Warblers, but haven't managed to do it thus far.

Montage 9 June 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood Pewee, Cerulean Warbler, Indigo Bunting, American Redstart, Blue-headed Vireo, and in center, Red-tailed Hawk. (June 9)

On June 16, John Spahr led five other Augusta Bird Club members on a second field trip related to the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas project. (See the June 2 report above.) The main destination was Braley Pond, near the village of West Augusta, but most of the time was spent along the Johnson Draft trail upstream from the pond. That trail turned out to be very rich in terms of likely breeding birds, and a number of Northern Parulas, Worm-eating Warblers, and Indigo Buntings (including a female with nesting material) were heard and/or seen. Afterwards, some of us stopped for lunch at the nearby convenience store, where a Ruby-throated Hummingbird came to a feeder. Finally, we spent a while at the Chimney Hollow trail, where we saw an Acadian Flycatcher and Louisiana Waterthrush, as well as some juvenile Eastern Phoebes.

Montage 16 June 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Northern Parula, Eastern Phoebe, Black-and-white Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, and Indigo Bunting (F & M). (June 16)

On June 23 I went on my first solo venture as part of VABBA. It had rained in Staunton the day before, but apparently it was much heavier in the West Augusta area, as the Chimney Hollow trail was flooded for much of the way. I made it as far as the first stream crossing, but that proved to be totally impassible, so I waited for a while and then turned back. I spotted the Acadian Flycatcher but not much else. Next I went to nearby Braley Pond, where I saw an Ovenbird (male by definition) singing repeatedly near the parking area. As expected, there was a nest in the informational kiosk. At the pond there were two big surprises: a Great Egret and an Osprey.

Montage 23 June 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Great Egret, Indigo Bunting, Acadian Flycatcher, Ovenbird, Osprey, Eastern Phoebe, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird. (Braley Pond, June 23, 2018)

On June 30, I went on a follow-up trip to the same area for VABBA, and started off by taking a look at a trail with which I was not familiar: Dowell's Draft. The trailhead is easy to miss as you drive along the road which heads north toward Elkhorn Lake, which I had covered on Big Spring Day, May 5. If it weren't for VABBA, under which specific rectangular plots of land measuring about three miles by five miles are assigned to volunteer observers, I might not have discovered that trail at all! Dowells Draft happens to be located right next to the pipeline clearing, and I saw many signs along the way, such as "noxious weeds" and "waterbody crossing." I began at about 9:45 and intended to spend under an hour there before going to nearby Braley Pond and Chimney Hollow, but I soon realized that Dowells Draft itself was so thick with birds that it took up my whole day (well, five hours) of birding! One discovery led to another, as I explored that area for the first time. Early on, I had great views of Northern Parulas, Ovenbirds, etc. There is a side trail on the left that connects Dowells Draft to other trails farther north, but instead I continued along the fire road which roughly parallels the pipeline right of way. I was "lured" by the distant song of a Prairie Warbler, and before long I saw at least one and probably two at fairly close range. That species favors semi-open countryside, and the clearing of trees for the pipeline might actually be beneficial for them. Soon I came upon another "hot spot," where several different warbler species were very active, including probable families of Black and White Warblers and American Redstarts. Then I crossed a stream and began a long uphill climb, gaining about 600 feet in elevation. Along the way, I saw Scarlet Tanagers and heard Pine Warblers, among others. As I approached the summit of Chestnut Oak Knob, I decided to turn back since it was already 1:00 PM and I didn't have any food or water with me. (Rather foolish, I admit, but that is not how I had planned my day.) Fortunately, I found blackberries to munch on, and that kept me going. I returned to the trailhead about 3:00, tired but very satisfied with a great day of birding and adventuring.

Montage 30 June 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Northern Parula, Prairie Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Ovenbird, and in center, Indigo Bunting and Red-bellied Woodpecker. (Dowell's Draft, June 30, 2018)

Well, that takes care of that! Most of the narrative text above consists of postings I made to Facebook, edited for context and brevity. (The latter two paragraphs were written from scratch.) Many other photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page. A separate blog post covering birds in [July] will follow soon...


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