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August 6, 2018 [LINK / comment]

Birding in July: not bad!

Mid-to-late summer is usually one of the dullest times of the year for bird enthusiasts, but occasionally you run across some nice surprises. On the morning of the Fourth of July (Wednesday), I went to Bell's Lane for the first time in a while, and saw two unusual species: a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that darted past me into some big bushes, and a Warbling Vireo in a sycamore tree near the beaver pond. I had a hard time placing the song of the latter but eventually figured it out. Unfortunately, they both eluded my camera lens, but I was more than consoled when a Green Heron posed for me at the beaver pond in perfect light not far away. Some juvenile and adult female Wood Ducks were also there, along with quite a few adult and juvenile Tree Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. I had a distant view of a Willow Flycatcher, but but not see or hear any Yellow Warblers or Eastern Bluebirds. The apparent lack of breeding success of those two species in the prime habitat offered by Bell's Lane is cause for concern. Finally, I was amused by a Brown Thrasher taking a dust bath in the middle of the road.

Montage 04 Jul 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Goldfinch (M), Eastern Kingbid, Green Heron, Indigo Bunting (M), Northern Rough-winged Swallow (J), Wood Duck (F), Mallard (J), and in center, Willow Flycatcher and Brown Thrasher. (July 4, 2018)

Determined to take advantage of the spectacular weather, on Tuesday July 10 I went back to three locations near West Augusta that I have been monitoring for the VABBA project. The Chimney Hollow trail was obstructed by several fallen trees, but at least I had a nice view of an Acadian Flycatcher there. At Braley Pond I spotted a Pine Warbler and Northern Parula, as well as some Indigo Buntings and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. On the Dowell's Draft trail / fire road (which I had explored for the very first time on June 30), I saw even more Northern Parulas, two of which are pictured here, but none of the Prairie Warblers which I had seen there on June 30. Ovenbirds and Worm-eating Warblers were seen or heard at multiple locations.

Montage 10 Jul 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Indigo Bunting (M), Northern Parulas (M), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Worm-eating Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, and Pine Warbler. (July 10, 2018)

A couple days later, fellow Augusta Bird Club member Penny Warren asked me how to get to the Dowell's Draft trail, and I ended up joining her and Ann Cline for another visit there, on Saturday July 14. After a slow start, the excursion turned out to be a big success. Near the second stream crossing just past the second "hot spot" from my first visit, I thought I heard a Prairie Warbler song, and eventually we not only saw one but got some good photographs of it! (Ann's were better than mine, so I put them on the ABC website.) According to VABBA criteria, the repeated observation of a singing male in one location indicates probable breeding. We also saw a Black-throated Green Warbler (F or J?), among other warblers, and had amazing closeup views [and photos] of a Northern Parula. We did the rounds on Bell's Lane after we returned to Staunton, and saw a family of Eastern Kingbirds about 15 feet away, as well as families of Green Herons and Cedar Waxwings at or near the beaver pond. We will almost definitely have a regular field trip to Dowell's Draft in early September, as long as there is no pipeline construction activity, that is.

Montage 14 Jul 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Black-throated Green Warbler (F or J?), Eastern Phoebe, Northern Parula, Green Heron, Cedar Waxwing, Louisiana Waterthrush, Eastern Kingbirds (adult & juvenile), and Prairie Warbler. (July 14, 2018)

The skies were cloudy one week later (July 21), but I had some good luck with birding anyway. After trying unsuccessfully to find a way into the Shenandoah National Park via Sawmill Run east of the town of Dooms (north of Waynesboro), I caught a glimpse of a large bird perched in a dead tree along Rt. 611, so I did a U-turn. I was astonished to have a nice view of a Broad-winged Hawk, and snapped a couple photos before it flew away. Then I headed to the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, where I had nice views of an Eastern Towhee and a Scarlet Tanager, and brief glimpses of an Ovenbird and Wood Thrush. Taking a stroll on the trail east from the Humpback Rocks parking lot, I heard and eventually saw a Wood Thrush and a Hooded Warbler, and heard a Cerulean Warbler or two in the tree tops. Unfortunately, the light was inadequate for good quality photos. I also heard a Barred Owl in the distance, the first in many months for me.

Montage 21 Jul 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Eastern Towhee (M), Indigo Bunting (M), Hooded Warbler (M), Broad-winged Hawk, Wood Thrush, and Scarlet Tanager (M). (July 21, 2018)

Finally, on the afternoon of July 28 (Saturday) I went to Bell's Lane and saw most of the expected species, and then just south of the Ford farm entrance (the high point), I saw something odd eating a caterpillar on the road, and soon realized to my astonishment that it was a male Blue Grosbeak. Even in the most familiar places, you never know what you're going to find! Fortunately I got some decent photos of it, but could never determine whether it has a mate or offspring. Other highlights: Orchard Oriole, Great Blue Heron, Solitary Sandpiper (my first one of the "fall" migration season, which begins early for shorebirds), and lots of American Goldfinches, some gathering thistle down for their nests.

Montage 28 Jul 2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-winged Blackbird (M), Indigo Bunting (M), Blue Grosbeak (M), Solitary Sandpiper, Orchard Oriole (F or J?), Great Blue Heron, and American Goldfinch (M). (July 28, 2018)

All in all, July was not a bad month at all! More photos of some of the birds in the montages above can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.


August 9, 2018 [LINK / comment]

Highlights from a few "recent" day trips

Now that school has resumed for many people (way too early, I think) it's a good time for a "what I did on my summer vacation" exercise. And so I present a brief summary of various day trips that Jacqueline and I have taken to various places in the region over the past nine months or so. (There have been no long-distance or overseas trips to report on this year, and the last blog post I did about travel was on October 6, 2017: "Washington weekend in review.") Last weekend, as described in the final section below, we went to the small towns of Brownsburg and Goshen in Rockbridge County, about 25-30 miles south of here. But the following summary will proceed in chronological order, beginning with our trip to Lexington last November. The other big highlights for this year are Charlottesville (March and April) and Washington, D.C. (including Arlington), in May.

This is another case of me trying to get caught up with various website chores lately. Part of what took so much time for this particular task (travel photos) was figuring out a smooth transition to incorporating higher-resolution photos on my Chronological photo gallery page. Since last year I have begun posting higher-resolution photos: 1200 x 800 pixels, rather than 600 x 400 pixels as I had been doing since 2008 or so. (That's when I got my first high-quality digital camera.)

Nov. 26, 2017: Lexington

On the last Sunday last November, Jacqueline and I drove down to the quaint and historic small city of Lexington, our first visit there in at least a decade. Given that it's only about 45 miles away, I'm surprised we don't go there more often. It happened to be Thanksgiving weekend, so the town was devoid of students and thus very quiet. Our first stop was at Grace Episcopal Church, which had been renamed from "Robert E. Lee Memorial Church" in August, just three months before we visited. (See religionnews.com.) After a fine lunch at Macado's Restaurant, we strolled along the streets of downtown Lexington. The brick sidewalks have a number of embedded engraved stones which bear the names of famous alumni of VMI, such as General George S. Patton. We stopped briefly at Stonewall Jackson House, which is near the Red Hen Restaurant, which gained national notoriety last month (July) after President Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was refused service there.

Washington and Lee University

Washington Hall, the center of Washington and Lee University.

Next we explored the Washington and Lee University (WLU) campus, which was one of our primary destinations. Our first stop was Lee Chapel, where Lee's body is interred, and we were very impressed by the history of the building and the institution. Lee customarily sat in the front pew on the left, we learned. The chapel is not used for regular religious services any more, however. Directly across from the chapel, perched along a long slope, is the defining structure of the University, Washington Hall. In back of it is the main quad, surrounded by classic brick buildings of a similar architectural style. But space is limited, as a steep slope further west descends into a wooded ravine, on the other side of which some of the athletic facilities are located. We then passed the James Graham Clyburn Library, which reminded me of Clemons Library at the University of Virginia, since both are relatively modern and built on steep slopes such that the ground level on one side is at least three floors below that of the other side.

Virginia Military Institute 2017

The Stonewall Jackson barracks at Virginia Military Institute. (NOTE: Other photos from Lexington can be seen at the 2017 Chronological photo gallery.)

Immediately to the north of WLU is Virginia Military Institute (WMI), renowned as the "West Point" of the South. There the architectural style is likewise distinctive: tan-colored fortress-like structures with parapets all along the rooftops. It's not just for show, as the cadets of VMI did indeed defend their institution from invading Yankee forces in June 1864, but were soon overcome. VMI buildings were burned by the conquering Union Army. I tried to find out whether the VMI museum and visitor center was open, but there was no one to ask. (We should have inquired at the southern gate where we entered.) I was fascinated by the arrangement of the buildings around the central field where the cadets train, and took lots of photos. This apparently raised suspicion, as we were questioned by security officers, just to make sure. Finally, we drove over to the football stadium to take some more photos, and were soon on our way home. We stopped for a quick libation at Devil's Backbone Brewing, located a few miles north of town, the first time we had been there. Passing through a historical site at Church Hill, a few miles farther to the north along Route 11, we learned that it was the birthplace of Sam Houston, leader of the Texas independence movement. Nearby was the former site of Liberty Hall Academy, which was founded in 1777 and was the origin of Washington College and (eventually) Washington and Lee University. In sum, it was a very enjoyable and educational day for us.

March 23: Highland County

We didn't get out much during the winter months, other than a drive up to the Weyers Cave area on January 23 (when I took a great closeup photo of an American Kestrel), and January 24, when we went to the JMU Arboretum in Harrisonburg. In fact, we missed this year's Highland County Maple Festival, which we try to attend almost every year, but we at least made it to Highland County one week later, on March 23. It was a bright and sunny day, just after one of the big storms we had, and all that white made for some dazzling photos. Unfortunately, there were no craft vendors at all in Monterey, and several of the stores we had hoped to browse were closed that day. So, after buying some bottles of hard cider at the Big Fish Cidery, we drove north toward the town of Blue Grass, crossed into West Virginia for a few miles and then returned to the Old Dominion, stopping at the McDowell Battlefield for a few minutes before proceeding home to Staunton.

Monterey Big Fish Cidery

Monterey's Big Fish Cidery

March 26: Charlottesville

Three days later we drove to Charlottesville to buy tickets for the Don Felder - REO Speedwagon - Styx triple concert on April 4; see my July 19 blog post. Then we went over to nearby Davenport Field (home of the UVA Cavaliers baseball team), where I took some photos of the recently-enlarged grandstand. It was another sunny day, perfect for photos! Then we spent about an hour at the Ivy Creek Nature Area on the north side of town. We used to go hiking along the steep trails there when we lived in Charlottesville in the 1990s. Next we headed downtown to see the controversial Robert E. Lee statue, which had been covered in black for a few months but was uncovered that day. The plastic fences and warning signs around the statue were clear signs that vandalism and/or violence was a real possibility. After more window shopping and sightseeing, we returned home.

Robert E. Lee equestrian statue

The Robert E. Lee equestrian statue in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), downtown Charlottesville. Virginia appeals courts have blocked the City Council's attempt to remove that statue and put it elsewhere.

Charlottesville City Hall

Charlottesville City Hall, featuring the likenesses of three presidents who once lived in that area: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

May 26: Our Nation's Capital

On May 26 we drove up to Northern Virginia to see Jacqueline's brother Roberto, who was visiting the United States for the very first time! Along with her sister Gloria's family, we did some sightseeing in and around Washington. On the Virginia side of the Potomac River, we spent a couple hours at Arlington National Cemetery. It was Memorial Day weekend, and I was afraid that traffic would be intolerable, but it wasn't nearly as bad as I had expected. We saw the Kennedy gravesites (JFK, RFK, & EMK) but were unable to get into the Lee Mansion because of construction activity there. We did quite a bit of walking through sections of the cemetery that I had not previously visited.

John and Jacqueline Kennedy gravesite

John and Jacqueline Kennedy gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.

In Washington, I saw the National Museum of African-American History for the first time since construction on it was completed last year. Then we drove along Constitution Avenue past the Federal Triangle buildings, and took a slight detour so that I could see (and photograph) Capital One Arena, the home of the Washington Capitals hockey team. They had just advanced to the Stanley Cup NHL finals, and a week or so later, they emerged triumphant and the whole city of Washington went nuts in the championship celebration. In the Eastern Market area, we saw the Marine Barracks and had dinner at a Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant called "Las Placitas," and went back home. Finally, we drove past Nationals Park, which was festooned with banners heralding the upcoming MLB All Star Game, and nearby Audi Field, which was then in the final stages of construction. It hosted the inaugural match of the D.C. United soccer team last month.

National Archives building

The National Archives building in Washington. (All photos that day were taken with my iPhone.)

June 10: Manassas battlefield

Two weeks later (June 10), we returned to Northern Virginia and I took my brother-in-law Roberto (and niece Shary) on a visit to the Manassas battlefield. Roberto is fascinated by the American Civil War, but unfortunately the visitor center there had no books in Spanish for sale, merely a one-page typewritten summary of what happened in the two battles that took place there. Nevertheless, Roberto really enjoyed seeing it for himself and imagining the clashing armies. In light of all the recent heated partisan fury over the proper way to remember the Civil War, the battlefield assumed greater significance.

Manassas battlefield cannons

Roberto Jacobs inspects one of the cannons at the Manassas battlefield on June 10. A closeup photo I took of that monument shows the inscription, which must be in honor of Union soldiers from the way it reads:

"In memory of the patriots who fell at Bull Run.
July 21, 1861"

Aug. 4: Brownsburg and Goshen

Finally, last Saturday we drove south and west of Staunton, pausing in Middlebrook and other scenic spots along the way. A mile or so before the town Brownsburg, I was surprised to see a large brick building with a cemetery in back, and learned after stopping that it is the New Providence Presbyterian Church, founded in 1746. The attached three-story building in back is devoted to religious education but is not, as I originally surmised, the site of Brownsburg Academy, which the church built in town during the 1830s. In Brownsburg itself, we took a look at the historic homes and visited the museum which featuring quilts, household items, and artisan products from the 19th Century. The lady there was very friendly.

Brownsburg Museum

Brownsburg Museum.

From Brownsburg we headed west, and I was thinking about finding the location of the set of the 2005 movie War of the Worlds (in which I was cast as an extra!), but the roads were confusing and I decided it was more important to get to the other primary destination, which was the incredibly scenic Goshen Pass. The Maury River cuts through a mountain ridge, and with all the recent rains, the water that day was unusually high. I stopped there during a birding venture last summer, but otherwise we had not been there in almost fifteen years! I convinced Jacqueline that it would be a good picnic spot for the near future, but we were hungry and decided to go straight to the town of Goshen, where we had a nice lunch at a local restaurant. Then we headed northeast, bought some fresh tomatoes and other veggies at a produce stand in the town of Craigsville. (The canteloupe is incredibly tasty!) Finally, we stopped for a few minutes at Augusta Springs, which is one of the renowned birding locations in this area, but not much was happening, so we went home.

Goshen Pass, Maury River

The Maury River passing through the Goshen Pass. (Taken with my iPhone.)

The next day (August 5) we went for a vigorous hike along the Shenandoah Mountain trail, the same place where I had led an Augusta Bird Club field trip on May 26. There weren't many scenic photo ops, but I did take one of all the trees being cut near Braley Pond to make way for the pending Atlantic Coast Pipeline. I posted it on the Chronological (2018) photo gallery, along with many more photos that are available for your enjoyment and/or edification. And now I'm officially up to date with recent travelogues ... another one from three years ago will be posted soon!


August 12, 2018 [LINK / comment]

Nationals fight hard, but lose another heartbreaker

The narrative for this blog post, and perhaps the very fate of the Nats' 2018 season, was changed completely by one swing of the bat at Wrigley Field tonight. I was going to write about how the Nats bounced back from a heartbreaking 3-2 loss against the Cubs on Friday afternoon, after starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson had a no-hitter going in the sixth inning but loaded the bases on walks and had to be replaced. Sammy Solis immediately gave up a two-run single to Jason Heyward, and the game was tied. The Cubs took the lead in the seventh inning when they loaded the bases with three singles and newly-acquired veteran Greg Holland walked Anthony Rizzo, who thus earned his 75th RBI. The Nats had a potential rally in the eighth inning when Bryce Harper and Juan Soto both walked, but Soto was then picked off at first base after taking way too big of a lead. In this case, a simple rookie mistake had deadly consequences.

After that grievous defeat, Saturday's game was a huge uplift for Nats fans. Bryce Harper singled and Ryan Zimmerman homered in the first inning, and all of sudden the spring was back in the team's (collective) step. Tanner Roark pitched one of his best games of the year, giving up only one run until the eighth inning, when the Cubs scored a second run. By then the Nats had scored nine runs, thanks to a homer by Daniel Murphy and a second homer by the Ryan Zimmerman, who tied his career-best with six RBIs for the day. The Cubs scored two more in the ninth, but it didn't matter. Final score: Nats 9, Cubs 4.

So when the Nats had Max Scherzer on the mound tonight and took an early 1-0 lead, there was reason to hope that this series really would mark the turning point that would put the Nats back into the divisional race again. As usual, Max delivered one of his masterpieces, striking out eleven batters over seven innings and retaking the lead in strikeouts (227) in the majors from Boston's Chris Sale, who has 219. (See below.) But the Cubs had Cole Hamels on the mound, recently acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers. Both ace pitchers went seven full innings in one of the best pitchers' duels this year. I was nervous when Koda Glover took the mound for the Nats in the eighth inning, but he only gave up one hit before getting three outs. (Javier Baez seemed to reach first base on an infield single, but the Nats challenged the [safe] call and won, thus ending the inning.) In the top of the ninth, Trea Turner hit a one-out triple down the left field line, and former Nat Brandon Kintzler walked Juan Soto and Bryce Harper (the latter intentionally) to load the bases. Ryan Zimmerman made the Cubs pay for it, smashing a two-run single up the middle. So with a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning, Ryan Madson came on as the Nats' closing pitcher, a role with which he is not comfortable. Having just replaced Daniel Murphy at second base, Wilmer Difo misplayed a high-bouncing ball hit by Jason Heywood. It was ruled a hit, but the missed chance at an out rattled Madson, who then hit two batters with pitches (getting Kyle Schwarber to pop out in between them), loading the bases with two outs. Ordinarily, any decent manager would have changed pitchers, but Dave Martinez didn't have any good alternatives in the bullpen. A young pinch hitter named David Bote came up to bat in the classic fantasy-world baseball situation, and with one strike away from victory, Madson threw a low fastball down the middle, and Bote smashed that sucker way over the center field wall. Just like that, the game was over, 4-3.

So instead of being 4 1/2 games behind the Braves and Phillies (in a virtual tie for the NL East lead right now), the Nats are now 5 1/2 games back. With seven more weeks to go this season, there is still a non-negligible chance the Nats can put together enough wins to climb back and win the division. But can they muster enough self-confidence and determination to bounce back from another gut-wrenching heart-breaking loss? Anything is possible, but in the real world of what is probable, what happened tonight will most likely be regarded as one of the last nails in the Nats' 2018 coffin.

Earlier this month Nationals were on a pretty good run in a home stand in which they won seven out of ten games. The followed up their historic 25-4 win over the Mets on July 31 with a 5-3 win the next day. Once again, recently-acquired Tommy Milone rose to the occasion and gave up only one run over seven innings. Then the Cincinnati Reds came to town, and the Nats took three out of four games in that series. They won 10-4 on August 2 thanks in part to early home runs by Trea Turner and Bryce Harper, but most of the runs came later in the game. The Friday night game was postponed until Saturday (August 4) afternoon due to rain, but Gio Gonzalez faltered once again, and was replaced in the fourth inning. Final score: Reds 7, Nats 1. But the Nats bounced back in the nightcap, winning 6-2, and won the Sunday finale as well, 2-1. Tanner Roark got a much-deserved win, going seven innings.

Next the Atlanta Braves came to town, a real divisional showdown and test of the Nationals' mettle. With a depleted staff, the Nats resorted to Jefry Rodriguez as their starting pitcher on Tuesday (August 7) afternoon, and he came through like a champion, giving up just one run in five innings. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman hit back-to-back homers, and it really seemed like the old championship-bound Nats were their true selves again. Final score: Nats 8, Braves 3. With Max Scherzer on the mound for the second game that day, the Nats were in a great position to gain ground. Juan Soto hit a solo homer (his 13th!) and Ryan Zimmerman went three for three, but none of those hits resulted in runs. The Braves won that game, 3-1. The next day Tommy Milone gave up seven runs over six innings, quite a sharp contrast to his two previous successful outings, and the Nats lost, 8-3. In the series finale on Thursday, the Nats' prospects seemed grim as the recently-shaky Gio Gonzalez took the mound, but he somehow pulled himself together and pitched his best game of the year, being charged with only one run over seven innings. Nats 6, Braves 3. The Nats really needed to win three out of four games in that series, but at least they held their own.

Nats shuffle bullpen

With the return of Sean Doolittle doubtful any time soon, and with his replacement Kelvin Herrera likewise on the disabled list, the Nats' front office got desperate this month. But the first order of business was parting ways with malcontent Shawn Kelley, who was traded to the Oakland A's. Brandon Kintzler likewise seemed to have personality issues with the club, and the Nats traded him to the Cubs -- who then used him against the Nationals in this weekend series! Greg Holland, a former standout pitcher, was released by the Cardinals late in August, and the Nationals acquired him in a trade. Coming after the July 31 deadline, all of these trades were made after clearing waivers, meaning that other eligible teams had the opportunity to extend competing offers. Finally, the Nats activated Koda Glover, who had some bad outings as a reliever last year. It was later learned that he was suffering from a sore shoulder without telling the manager. (See July 1, 2017 blog post.) Somewhat to my surprise, Koda has done alright in the two games in the Cubs series.

How about those Red Sox?

As we look forward to the 2018 postseason, it is hard to imagine a team that has been more dominant than the Boston Red Sox during any regular season over the past decade. Last weekend they had a big showdown against the New York Yankees in Fenway Park, winning the first three games by a combined score of 23-9. Steve Pearce homered three times on August 2, and once more the next day. In the Sunday night game, they did to the Yankees what the Cubs did to the Nationals tonight. (The parallels between those two games is fascinating: broadcast by ESPN, in a historic funky ballpark filled with once-long-suffering fans.) With the Yankees ahead 4-1, closing pitcher Aroldis Chapman walked the bases loaded, and with two outs, J.D. Martinez hit a two-run single to make it a 4-3 game. Then the tying run scored on a throwing error by the third baseman, and it went into the tenth inning. Andrew Benintendi bounced a slow single up the middle to score the runner from second base, and Fenway Park erupted with joy. It was a crushing blow to the Bronx Bombers. The Red Sox swept the Yankees four games straight, taking a nine-game lead, all but guaranteeing themselves a smooth path to the AL East divisional championship.

Since then the Red Sox have won all but one of the seven games they have played, taking two out of three games against the Blue Jays in Toronto and sweeping the Orioles in Baltimore. The Friday night game was a real slugfest, and the Orioles took the lead at one point but quickly squandered it; the Red Sox won 19-12. After that, the lowly Orioles (currently 35-84, .294) really didn't stand much of a chance. In the Sunday finale (won by the Red Sox, 4-1), Chris Sale marked his return from the DL by striking out twelve batters, temporarily surpassing Max Scherzer for the MLB lead in that category.

How do they do it? The Red Sox currently have the highest team batting average in the majors (.270) as well as the most number of RBIs (628). On the pitching side, they have the second best team ERA (3.50) in the majors, after the Houston Astros. With outfielders Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and pitcher Chris Sale on the All-Star Game starting roster, it's no wonder. Right now, it will be hard for any teams in the American League to stop the Red Sox and Astros from going to the League Championship Series, and perhaps beyond.

Thus, the Red Sox are soaring into the stratosphere, standings-wise, with a record of 85-35 (.708). It would be a monumental accomplishment indeed to keep up such a high rate of winning, but would it really matter? Since the turn of the century, the highest regular season winning percentage was recorded by the Seattle Mariners (.716) in 2001; they lost the ALCS to the Yankees, however. The next-highest was recorded by the St. Louis Cardinals (.648) in 2004; they advanced to the World Series but were then swept by the Boston Red Sox, the AL wild card team that year! Moral of the story: regular season win-loss records don't count for as much as you might think. Just ask the 2012 Washington Nationals; they amassed a 98-64 record (.605) but were eliminated in the first round!

Juvenile jocks are jerks

The ideal of a professional athlete as role model is occasionally marred by reality. Back in the 1990s Saturday Night Live had a skit in which a little boy's dream of meeting his favorite baseball player is answered when one of them pops out of his bedroom closet, and then another, and so on. Before you knew it, the bedroom was full of cigar smoke, beer, and foul language, and the young fan's innocence was forever lost. You had to be there. Such humor often serves a purpose because many people lacking in self-awareness tend to lose their sense of proportion when expressing moral outrage. I bring this up as a commentary on the mini sports scandal that erupted late last month when some journalists went digging through the Twitter archives of various professional athletes. Among them was the Washington Nationals' young shortstop Trea Turner, who made some racist tweets when he was a teenager, and the sports world went up in arms. Turner rightly apologized; 'nuff said.

There was a possible case of bad karma two weeks ago (July 29) in Atlanta, whe the Braves' 25-year old pitcher Sean Newcomb was within one strike of recording a no-hitter against the L.A. Dodgers. He was on the very threshold of glory, but then Chris Taylor spoiled the party by hitting a single. It so happens that Newcomb was among those identified as having used racist language in cyberspace, and the guilt may have come back to haunt him. Having thrown 134 pitches, Newcomb was replaced and then the newest Dodger star, Manny Machado hit an RBI single. The Braves still won that game, 4-1.

Wrigley Field surprise update!!??

Wrigley Field

While watching the Nats-Cubs game on Friday, I made the rather belated discovery that the dugouts at Wrigley Field moved toward the respective foul poles during the winter off-season. Later I learned that most of the lower deck had been demolished and rebuilt during the winter, in part to provide space for new batting practice areas. If I had been keeping up with my e-mail like I should, I would have known that. Both Joe Duider and Jeff Stark alerted me to the latest Wrigley Field renovations back in April, when the news was "fresh." Interestingly, several rows of seats on the third base side have built on metal risers, and the dugout itself is retractable, in order to accommodate football games. When they played a college football game at Wrigley Field in 2010, they couldn't even use one end zone because the back line was within a couple feet of the brick wall in right field. See bleedcubbieblue.com. Of course, I made the necessary change to the current-year Wrigley Field diagram, and while I was at it, made a few more tweaks to the earlier year diagram variants.

More ballpark construction news

But that's not all! I was aware that the Rangers' future ballpark was a done deal, but I had no idea that construcion on it was so far along. Mike Zurawski informed me recently that there is a live webcam at MLB.com, and it shows that two decks have already been built. Because "Globe Park II" overlaps with the existing parking lot on the south side of Globe Park I, they are doing the same thing the Cardinals did when building Busch Stadium III: All the land where center field and left field will eventually sit remains in use for parking until the final phase of construction begins. The new stadium will have a retractable roof, so they will build large support pylons in that land, as well as the grandstand itself.

Mike also told me about something that I noticed during the first series of the season when the Nats played the Reds in Cincinnati. They have added a new party deck behind the right field corner of Great American Ballpark; it's called the "Budweiser Bowtie Bar." It seems to be an extension of the glassed-in restaurant at the end of the grandstand on that side, connecting with the rear corner of the bleachers in back of the bullpen. Diagram update pending...

More news courtesy of Mike: In the Tampa Bay area, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg finally unveiled actual plans for a new stadium in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa. I have long been skeptical of such talk, but this seems pretty serious. To my surprise, the seating capacity would be only about 28,000, not including standing-room-only. Estimated cost: $892 million. Ouch! See fieldofschemes.com

There will be more news to come soon. I can almost guarantee it! wink


August 13, 2018 [LINK / comment]

Nats bounce back, then get another punch in the gut

The Nationals faced a big test in St. Louis tonight, and at the very least they proved that they aren't going to let some stupid outrageous twist of fortune get them down. Nevertheless, the end result was the same as the night before in Chicago: an agonizing loss on a walk-off home run by the home team. In fact, the Nats bounced back three times in this game. Twice they took the lead on home runs by Bryce Harper (#29) and Juan Soto (#15), but then the Cardinals staged a devastating four-run rally in the bottom of the eighth inning, and it seemed like Doomsday once again. But thanks to a series of clutch singles by Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, and Matt Wieters in the ninth inning, the Nats tied the game 6-6 and were in position to take the lead again with runners on second and third with only one out. But then Wilmer Difo grounded out, and Adam Eaton struck out. I knew that was their one big chance to win the game, and they blew it. In the ninth inning, Koda Glover came in as closing pitcher, a sign of just how desperate the Nats' bullpen is right now. On a 3-1 count he threw a fastball to Paul DeJong, who hit the ball into the left field bullpen to end the game. And the crowd went wild, yadda, yadda...

So after enduring heartbreaking losses in three of their last four games, will the Nationals bounce back once again? I say yes. Gio Gonzalez starts Tuesday night, and with any luck, he'll pitch as well as he did last week.

Walk-off grand slams

I'm still in a state of shock from what happened in Chicago last night, when David Bote's bases-loaded home run abruptly turned a 3-0 Nats victory into a 4-3 loss. According to MLB, "[O]nly six pinch-hitters on record dating back to 1925 had hit an 'ultimate grand slam,' a walk-off shot with the bases loaded and his club down by three runs. And Bote's pinch-hit ultimate slam was only the third on record to come when his team was down to its final out." I think I heard that it was the very first in which the batter already had two strikes against him. Out of curiousity, I checked my Washington Nationals page, and found that the Nationals have had four walk-off grand slam home runs in their nearly 14-year history:

The hashtag ( # ) symbol indicates that the grand slam reversed what would have been a loss, as opposed to one that was hit when the game was tied.

Zimmerman: NL Player of the Week!

Ryan Zimmerman was rewarded for his recent offensive surge by being named National League Player of the Week. From August 6-12 he had an average of .476, with three home runs and twelve RBIs. Since returning from disabled list on July 20, he has had a .354 batting average. J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox won the honors on the AL side. See MLB.com.

It's really amazing how Zimmerman has gotten over his back problems and resumed his former All-Star level of performance. (The same is true to a lesser extent with Daniel Murphy.) Zimmerman was on the disabled list for over two months, and didn't play any games from May 10 through July 19. He and his team mates sure better stay healthy for the rest of the year, as there just isn't any margin for error left.

Great American Ballpark update

Great American Ballpark

As noted yesterday, I updated the main Great American Ballpark diagram, which now shows the new elevated party deck just beyond the right field corner. That change doesn't affect the lower-deck diagram, and I decided for the time being to use the "full-size" diagram (which shows the adjacent buildings, etc.) to show what the ballpark was like previously. I may add an original (2003) diagram, since the "Pilot House" and fake riverboat beyond center field were not added until a few years later. They were not present when I first saw a game there in 2004.

While I was at it, I also redid the principal "grand view" photo, which is now high-resolution (1200 x 800 pixels rather than 600 x 450 as before). However, I still need to do some coding work before that photo will display full size on that page; in the mean time, you can just click on the image below. Eventually, most of my stadium pages will feature at least one high-resolution photo. Also, it now conforms to the standard aspect photographic ratio (3 x 2 rather than 4 x 3 as before). In order to achieve that, I managed to splice together elements of two different photos I took from the same position. If you look real hard, you might notice the "seams." (See my July 31, 2014 blog post.)

Great American Ballpark grand view

Great American Ballpark "grand view," at the end of the game on July 27, 2014. Final score: Nats 4, Reds 2. (Too bad it was such a cloudy day.) Click on the image to see it full size.


August 14, 2018 [LINK / comment]

New page: Stadium construction!

I realized to my horror that I had not updated the "Stadium construction" portion in the right column of my Baseball blog page in over a year, when construction is in fact already well underway on the Texas Rangers' future home, "Globe Life Park II." That prompted me to follow through with an idea that I hatched a few years ago: Stadium construction (chronology), a timeline showing when it was that various MLB stadiums were under construction. The page itself is subject to considerable revision, so please stay tuned.

I relied on my own blog posts to find out when groundbreaking occurred on the more recent MLB stadiums. I'll have to look up the rest of them elsewhere.

* Woefully belated recognition (March 30) in this blog.

Baseball Stadium construction

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: PNC Park (Pittsburgh, Aug. 2000), Citi Field (Queens, NY, Oct. 2008), Nationals Park (Washington, DC, Aug. 2007)

And after scrutinizing the Baseball blog page for other errors, I deleted Candlestick Park, Comiskey Park, and Marlins Park from the list of stadiums for which I do not yet have photos, because I now do have such photos. I could have deleted Braves Field from that list, since I took some photos of what is left of it (Nickerson Field) two years ago, but that doesn't really count. I also added Andrew Owen to the list of photographic contributors; he sent me photos of SunTrust Park back in April.

Website maintenance chores

For the record, I have also updated the following baseball-related pages:

Stadium chronology: Including a link to SunTrust Park, etc.

Stadium chronology, annual: Including Wrigley Field renovation work, etc.

Stadium milestones: Including All Star games, etc.

Stadium names: Including "Guaranteed Rate Field" and a couple other details.

My ballpark visits: Including Three Rivers Stadium, which I saw twice, once from close range. Also enhancing some high-resolution photos.

Football use (of baseball stadiums): smile???

Other baseball pages will be updated soon...

Nationals lose again

The Nationals did show some spunk in the game against the Cardinals tonight, but not until the latter innings, and so they fell short once again, 6-4. Gio Gonzalez had decent command of the ball, but the Cardinals' pitcher John Gant hit a two-run homer in the third inning -- his very first hit in the major leagues! (Since his debut in 2016, he has gone 0 for 30.) What's more, it's the first time in his career that Gio has given up a home run to the opposing pitcher. When outrageously improbable things like that happen, you really don't have a chance. Bryce Harper hit a two-run homer (his 30th) in the eighth inning, sparking a small rally, but Adam Eaton struck out with runners on second and third to end the inning. So now the Nats are back down to an even .500 record for the year, eight games behind the Braves, who have surged ahead of the Phillies. Before long all the Nats will have left to hope for this season is a wild card berth. Should it be considered a good thing that they have outscored their opponents 550 to 484 this year?


August 17, 2018 [LINK / comment]

Keep hope on artificial life support!

As the Nationals' slim hopes for making it to the postseason steadily decline, it's important for fans to keep the rational and emotional components in balance. There's a vast space between the cheerleading "fan boys" who veer between euphoria and despondency on one hand, versus the clinical sabermetric analyst who relies on numbers to derive some kind of "objective" probability via the scientific method. I think the commentators on MASN TV manage to strike a pretty good balance, especially the MLB veterans F.P. Santangelo (Expos, etc.) and Ray Knight (Reds, Mets, etc.). "F.P." stands for "Frank Paul," I just found out from my Baseball Encyclopedia. F.P. has been away this week, but before that he struck a guardedly upbeat tone, explaining what the Nationals needed to do to get back on track. He is realistic without being pessimistic.

I mention this as a background to an opinion column by Barry Svrluga that appeared in Tuesday's Washington Post, after the Nats lost two consecutive games via a walk-off home run. Just before midnight "was convinced the Washington Nationals were going to make the playoffs, and be dangerous once they got there." And then came that utterly improbable game-winning grand slam by David Bote, and Svrluga's hopes instantly collapsed. But even after the loss in St. Louis on the following night, he still thought the Nats could pull off a late-season comeback and make it into the postseason. But after the Nats lost a second and then a third game to the Cardinals (the final score was 4-2 on Wednesday), is there any reason to hold out hope? Yes, but such hopes have to be weighed against the overwhelming unlikelihood of a successful outcome.

For what it's worth, the Nationals ended their latest losing streak and won two in a row. In the finale of the four-game set, Tanner Roark came through big time once again, going six innings and earning the win in a 5-4 victory. Justin Miller pitched the seventh and eighth innings without a hitch, and then Koda Glover (!) came in as closing pitcher. There was some drama and two Cardinals reached base, but he kept his cool and got the third out -- and his first save of this season. Bryce Harper continued his hot streak, getting three hits in five at-bats, with three RBIs. Thus, the Nats barely averted being swept in four games, and raised their win-loss record back up to 61-61.

After a late night plane ride home to D.C. and very little rest, the Nats welcomed the Miami Marlins to town this evening. Ryan Zimmerman hit a solo homer in the second inning, and Bryce Harper got three more hits and two more RBIs, raising his total to 79. The puts him in sixth place in the National League, which is not bad for a guy who was in a slump for the first half of the year! Max Scherzer got his 16th win of the year as the Nats cruised to an 8-2 victory. Since the Braves lost again, that brings the Nats up to "just" seven games behind in the NL East race. You never know...

NL Rookie of the Year race

Until last week, I was convinced that the Nationals' 19-year old phenom Juan Soto had a clear path to winning the Rookie of the Year award for the National League. But then I started hearing about the Braves' Ronaldo Acuña, and the unbelievable five-game home run streak he just achieved. Obviously, it's going to be a tight race between those guys for the next six weeks. See MLB.com Soto has hit 15 home runs, is batting .293 (after a mini-slump this week), and has amassed 44 RBIs in only 78 games. Acuña's numbers are very similar: 19 homers, .288 average, and 43 RBIs.

On Wednesday in Miami, Acuña was intentionally hit by a pitch thrown by the Marlins' Jose Urena, who rightly received a suspension for it. Such MLB "hazing" traditions for keeping rookie hotshots humble are just stupid, and should not be tolerated.

Riverfront Stadium update

Riverfront Stadium

Continuing with the recent focus on Cincinnati, I have updated the Riverfront Stadium diagrams. (It was fairly high in my "to-do" list anyway, so it was a logical choice.) One obvious enhancement is the more precise rendering of the horizontal beams that protrude a few feet beyond the rim of the roof. That is also a characteristic of RFK Stadium, Angel (Anaheim) Stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Veterans Stadium, and Olympic Stadium (in Montreal). But the main change involved shifting the entire field relative to the stadium surrounding it. It wasn't easy, but there was a very good reason for it.

I have long been skeptical about the supposed 51 foot distance to the backstop in Riverfront Stadium reported by Philip Lowry's Green Cathedrals. My own estimate based on photographs was 60 feet, which is the old "standard" backstop distance. (Nowadays, 50-52 feet is the "new normal.") I learned from one of the news items published by the Cincinnati Enquirer about the conversion of "Cinergy Field" into an compacted, all-grass ballpark in 2001 that the diamond was moved back ten feet, and the new backstop distance was 49 feet. That implies that it had been 59 feet previously, so that is what I'm going with. Modifying the diagrams thusly raised my estimate of foul territory from 22,500 square feet to 23,300 square feet. That relieves a nagging doubt I had had about that stadium.

Finally, I should have explained some of the changes that I made to the Great American Ballpark diagrams (other than the adding the "Budweiser Bow Tie" party deck beyond the right field corner) when I did that a few days ago, so here goes. I also made corrections to the tapered "bleacher" section in right field, and to the "riverboat" observation deck beyond center field. I also added a bit of detail to the first-deck diagram, showing where the open areas are in the main concourse. That is based partly on my photos, and partly on my imperfect memory, so I may need to make further corrections to that after I visit "GABP" again...


August 17, 2018 [LINK / comment]

Birding in the dog days of August

I have only had three bird outings of any significance this month, and although I made a few satisfying "discoveries," I didn't see any more of that Blue Grosbeak which showed up on Bell's Lane on July 28.

On August 4, Jacqueline and I took a day trip south through the small towns of Middlebrook and Brownsburg, and birding was a lower priority. The two highlights were a Red-tailed Hawk perched on a fence post not far from the road, and a Grasshopper Sparrow that was only about 20 feet away. Unfortunately, it was in a bad position relative to the sun, so the photos I took were full of harsh glare. My camera battery died, to my chagrin, so there wasn't much point to doing much birding in the picturesque Goshen Pass or Augusta Springs locations which we visited on the return leg of our drive home.

Montage_04Aug2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-tailed Hawk, American Goldfinch, Grasshopper Sparrow, and a Chipping Sparrow flanked by two views of a Red-tailed Hawk; not the same one seen at the top left. (August 4, 2018)

The very next day, Jacqueline and I went for a hike on the Shenandoah Mountain trail, retracing the steps of the Augusta Bird Club field trip which I led there back on May 24. As expected, bird activity was pretty subdued, but we did see a family of Scarlet Tanagers flittering about. (I believe the one below is a juvenile, based on the frazzled appearance, especially the tail.) Other highlights were an Eastern Wood Pewee singing nearby and a Black-throated Blue Warbler -- the only warbler (other than an Ovenbird) that we saw that day! A surprise rain shower forced us to hurry back, or else I might have seen or photographed more birds.

Montage_05Aug2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Broad-winged Hawk, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Eastern Wood Pewee, Scarlet Tanager, and Red-eyed Vireo. (August 5, 2018)

The next few days were rather rainy, curtailing outdoor activity. But it was mild and sunny on Wednesday, so I went out to Bell's Lane and had some nice surprises: a Willow Flycatcher and Yellow Warbler, both of which of have seemed scarce in that area this summer. I also saw a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, an Indigo Bunting (they aren't singing much if it all any more), Red-tailed Hawk (juv.), a family of Eastern Phoebes , dozens of swallows of various kinds, many Goldfinches, a Wood Duck, and best of all, a Pied-billed Grebe! This area is on the southern fringe of its breeding range, and we hardly ever see them in the summer. One of the Phoebes had the yellowish tint characteristic of that species in the colder months, making me think for a minute that it might be a Great Crested Flycatcher.

Montage_15Aug2018

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Willow Flycatcher, Red-tailed Hawk (juv.), Pied-billed Grebe, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Phoebes, and in center, a Yellow Warbler -- probably a female or juvenile. (August 15, 2018) Several other photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.

Yesterday, we saw an Osprey flying over Barrenridge Road on the west side of Fishersville, as well as Goldfinches and Cedar Waxwings here and there. Today we had a hummingbird at our back porch feeder for the first time this year! Presumably they will be regular visitors until late September or so.


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