October 3, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Soto did it! Nationals win miracle wild card comeback
Heretofore, the three deciding/elimination postseason games at Nationals Park (2012, 2016, and 2017) have each been marked by some outrageously improbable, hideous twist of fate that sealed the losing team's doom. (Obviously, the visitors won.) The same thing happened this year's National League wild card game between the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, but this time the shoe was on the other foot, and fate finally smiled on the long-tortured Nats.
The game started off on an ominous note, as Max Scherzer gave up a two-run homer to Yasmani Grandal before any outs had been recorded, and in the second inning Eric Thames hit a lead-off homer to take a 3-0 lead. The Brewers aptly exploited Max's well-known weak spot, his penchant for challenging hitters with hittable fastballs. But he kept his cool after that, and the Nationals hung in there and eventually came back to win the National League wild card game in truly miraculous fashion. Trea Turner hit a two-out solo home run in the third inning, but neither team scored for the next four innings. The Brewers' Brandon Woodruff pitched four innings, while Max Scherzer pitched five innings, followed by Stephen Strasburg in the very first relief appearance in his career. He was nearly flawless for the next three innings. In the bottom of the eighth, Victor Robles struck out and Michael A. Taylor (recently called up from the minors) pinch hit for Strasburg. Knowing Michael's history of striking out on bad pitches, I groaned and dreaded the worst. But he proved me wrong, and drew a full count after which he was (according to the umpire) hit by a pitch and took first base. Replays showed the ball bounced in a way that could only result from contact with the bat, but the reviewers said it was inconclusive, so the Nats caught a break. He might have walked had it been called a foul, but we'll never know. Anyway, Trea Turner then came up and struck out, followed by Ryan Zimmerman coming in to pinch hit for Adam Eaton. Had the Nats lost, it might well have been Ryan's very last at-bat as a National, but something told me he was not going to end his career in vain. Well, he proved me right, getting a single that put Taylor on third base. Then the fearsome Anthony Rendon came up and walked to load the bases. It was clearly not Josh Hader's best day on the mound. (He had 37 saves this year.) The next batter was 20-year old Juan Soto, the youngest cleanup hitter in postseason baseball history, in the most pivotal moment of his two-year MLB career. I had a good feeling. Juan not only has the muscle of a champion slugger, he has the poise and smarts of a veteran, and boy, did he live up to his soaring reputation! He lined a single to the right fielder Trent Grisham, who misplayed the bounce, and before you knew it three runs had scored to give the Nats the lead! Juan Soto tried for third but was caught in a rundown for the final out, but it didn't really matter. Daniel Hudson successfully closed the game in the ninth inning, giving up one hit and a long fly ball to center field that Victor Robles caught for the final out. It was one of the Nats' biggest late-inning comebacks ever, and fans in Nationals Park erupted in a state of euphoria unlike any other game that has been played there.
Accordingly, I have updated the Washington Nationals page with data on that game, etc. I took photos of several "new" Nats whom I had not seen before, such as Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, et al.
Nationals win in a glorious anti-climax
I was at the Nationals' final regular season game of the year, hosting the Cleveland Indians on Sunday afternoon. My old friend Dave Givens and I had good seats in the middle deck about half way toward the left field pole. We got nice "puffy vests" as a giveaway to the first 20,000 (?) fans, but I was frustrated at the meager selection and high price of postseason T-shirts in the Nats Fan Store. Contrary to my low expectations (given that it was a game of no real significance), it turned out to be exciting and jubilant. The weather was almost ideal, and the Nationals were not slacking off at all. Trea Turner led off the bottom of the first with a single, and after two outs, he made it home on an RBI double hit by Juan Soto. The Indians tied it 1-1 on a solo homer by Francisco Lindor in the third inning, but that was their only run scored during the six innings that Joe Ross pitched. He struck out eight batters, and only allowed four hits, in one of his best outings in a long time. In the bottom of the third, Kurt Suzuki hit a two-run homer while I was in the concourse buying pizza and adult beverages, and that was the Nats' only home run that day. In the middle innings, manager Dave Martinez began substituting bench players for the starters, and to my surprise, Michael A. Taylor (replacing Juan Soto) started a rally in the sixth inning with a single. After Matt Adams flew out, Victor Robles walked, Brian Dozier singled, Wilmer Difo singled, and then Gerardo Parra (cue "Baby Shark" theme song) smashed a two-run double to give the Nats a 7-1 lead. In the seventh inning, Aaron Barrett (who had missed three years due to elbow surgery and associated problems) came in as a relief pitcher, and even though he gave up two singles, a walk, and a wild pitch, only one run scored. Erick Fedde pitched the last two innings without allowing a base-runner, while the Nats staged another rally in the eighth inning, capped by an RBI single by Gerardo Parra. Final score: Nats 8, Indians 2. It was a thoroughly enjoyable triumph, as the Nationals closed the 2019 regular season with eight wins in a row!
Top of the third inning at Nationals Park on September 29, with Carlos Santana (not the Latin jazz/rock guitarist) at bat.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Mike Clevinger crouches before pitching, Gerardo Parra hits an RBI single, Juan Soto hits a two-run double, the scoreboard heralds the upcoming wild card game, Brian Dozier hits a single, and Francisco Lindor passes second base after hitting a no-doubt solo home run to the middle deck in right field.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Juan Soto, Aaron Barrett, Gerardo Parra, Ryan Zimmerman, Andrew Stevenson, Nats' starting pitcher Joe Ross, Francisco Lindor, and Indians' starting pitcher Mike Clevinger.
Post-game Nationals jersey giveaway (L to R): Sean Doolittle, Austin Voth, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Gerardo Parra, Wander Suero, Erick Fedde (front), Fernando Rodney, Stephen Strasburg, and Victor Robles.
NL Divisional series begin
This evening the National League Divisional Series get underway, as the Atlanta Braves hosted the St. Louis Cardinals, followed by the L.A. Dodgers hosting the Washington Nationals. The eastern game was close and low-scoring until the ninth inning, when the visitors all of a sudden scored four runs and the home team responded in the bottom of the ninth with one run too few. (Ouch!) L.A. 7, Atlanta 6. The Postseason scores page has been updated accordingly...
In the game just getting underway on the west coast, Walker Buehler starts for the Dodgers, and Patrick Corbin starts for the Nationals. With the highest win-loss record in the National League (106-56), the Dodgers are clearly favored to at least reach the World Series, if not win it. (They were the National League pennant winners in both 2017 and 2018.) But I saw the Nationals defeat the Dodgers when Buehler started for them on July 28, so there is every reason to hope for the same outcome this time. I say the Nats have an even chance to make it to the NLCS, and maybe even go further... Play ball!!
October 6, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Both NL Divisional Series were split 1-1 *
The Washington Nationals are right where they want to be, as confident underdogs playing before a friendly home crowd and facing an vaunted opponent that they were able to size up during the regular season. But the way the National League Divisional Series got started, they could have been in a very deep hole right now. In the first inning of Game 1, Patrick Corbin walked four Dodger batters, and was lucky that only one run scored. The Dodgers scored one more in the fifth inning, and an error by first baseman Howie Kendrick was partly responsible for that. To his credit, Corbin only had one earned run over six innings, but he got no run support, while the Nats' bullpen crumpled once again. In the seventh inning, the Dodgers scored two runs on a single by Max Muncy while Fernando Rodney was on the mound, and an inning later they hit two solo home runs off of Hunter Strickland, more or less icing the cake. Final score: L.A. 6, Nationals 0. It was the Nats' first loss after nine consecutive victories, including the Wild Card Game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
The next "evening" (the dead of night here in the east), the Dodgers had Clayton Kershaw on the mound, but the Nats managed to get the bases loaded. Howie Kendrick atoned for the errors of the previous night by hitting an RBI single, but then Ryan Zimmerman popped out on the first pitch he saw and Kurt Suzuki struck out to end the inning. In the second inning, Kershaw hit the first batter (Victor Robles) with a pitch, and soon he scored on an RBI single by Adam Eaton. Anthony Rendon batted in Eaton with a double, and all of a sudden the Nats were ahead 3-0. How many people expected that? The Nats' current ace pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, had a superlative outing on the mound, just three days after pitching three innings of relief against the Brewers. He struck out ten batters over six innings, and in fact had a perfect game going into the fifth inning. The Nats' former closing pitcher Sean Doolittle gave up a solo homer, making it a 3-2 game, but then the Nats retook a two-run lead Ryan Zimmerman hit a leadoff double and later scored on an RBI single by Asdrubal Cabrera. (The latter's base-running goof cut short what could have been an even bigger rally.) In the bottom of the eighth, fans on both sides gasped when Max Scherzer came out of the bullpen to pitch in relief. I often criticize manager Dave Martinez for his pitching decisions, but this move worked out brilliantly. Scherzer struck out the side, keeping the two-run cushion intact. In the bottom of the ninth, Justin Turner led off with a ground-rule double, but Daniel Hudson struck out the next batter and Cody Bellinger popped out. Curiously, Hudson intentionally walked Max Muncy and unintentionally walked Will Smith to load the bases. Nats fans grimaced in extreme anxiety, but Hudson struck out Corey Seager on a 2-2 count to end the game. Whew!
As Game 3 gets underway with the much-improved veteran Anibal Sanchez pitching for the Nats, there is every reason to expect that the Nationals will end up the winners of this divisional series. Max Scherzer is due to pitch tomorrow night, and if it goes to Game 5 on Wednesday, Stephen Strasburg will be ready to go. Here are some of the key figures from the Dodgers-Nationals game I saw on July 28:
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Brian Dozier, Stephen Strasburg, Walker Buehler, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Will Smith, Matt Adams, and Gerardo Parra.
In Atlanta, the Cardinals took Game 1 by a score of 7-6, after a strange sequence of events. Last year's NL Rookie of the Year [Ronald Acuña] played as though he were still a rookie, disdaining to run on a long ball that he thought he had homered, and which would have been an easy double. But he [only made it to first and] failed to score that inning, and that one run ended up proving decisive. Much of the blame goes to the Braves' bullpen, which gave up four runs to St. Louis in the top of the ninth. The Braves responded with three runs, but it wasn't quite enough. But in Game 2, their starting pitcher [Mike] Foltynewicz cruised through seven shutout innings, only allowing three hits, and the Braves won it, 3-0, evening the series.
* In St. Louis this evening, the Cardinals had a 1-0 lead going into the ninth inning, whereupon the Braves pounced with a three-run rally, winning the game to take a 2-1 series lead just as I was finishing this blog post. Atlanta's chances of making it to the NLCS just skyrocketed.
Yanks & Astros lead AL Divisional Series 2-0
The matchups on the American League side seem much more imbalanced. In New York, the Yankees trounced the Minnesota Twins 10-4, mainly by switching pitchers at key moments to thwart Twins' rallies. The Yankees only had one more hit than the Twins (8 vs. 7), but they made much better use of them. In the second game the Yankees scored seven runs in the second inning, thanks in part to a grand slam by Didi Gregorious. After that the outcome wasn't really in doubt; final score 8-2. Pitching, pitching, pitching.
In Houston, the Astros easily defeated the Tampa Bay Rays by a score of 6-2 in Game 1, with Justin Verlander giving up only one hit over seven innings. Game 2 was much closer, as Garrett Cole struck out 15 batters over 7 2/3 inngs. In both games, the Rays' only runs scored came in the late innings. Thus, both the Yankees and Astros now lead the respective AL Divisional Series 2-0.
Just in case the website of MLB, ESPN, and all the major networks are down, you can keep up with the Postseason scores page, which is being updated at least once a day.
October 9, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nats, Cards, Rays survive; Yankees oust the Twins
Monday was an unusual situation in that all four playoff games posed the threat of elimination to the home teams. Three of them actually rose to the occasion and survived -- the Nationals, Cardinals, Rays -- while the Minnesota Twins failed.
In Washington, the Nationals had their backs against the wall, after another meltdown by the "relief" pitchers on Sunday night. That game started on a buoyant note, as Juan Soto smacked a two-run homer in the first inning. Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez truly rose to the occasion, throwing four scoreless innings before the Dodgers got on the scoreboard. But for some reason, manager Dave Martinez decided to replace Sanchez with Patrick Corbin in the sixth inning, and all hell soon broke loose. Corbin had two outs with one runner on base, but then seemed to flinch every time he had two strikes on a batter. He was either just missing the strike zone for a walk, or else lobbing an easy pitch which the Dodgers batters eagerly swung at. Before you knew it, the Nats' slim 2-1 lead had turned into a 5-2 deficit, and Corbin's confidence was shattered. So, Dave Martinez brought in the extremely unpredictable Wander Suero from the bullpen, and almost immediately Justin Turner smashed a three-run home run to make it an 8-2 game. It appeared that once again, Nationals Park was the scene of an agonizingly cruel, sudden twist of fate. The Nats' rallied in the bottom of the sixth, but a base-running blunder by Howie Kendrick stopped it at just two runs scored. Hunter Strickland pitched in the top of the ninth inning, and gave up [a home run to Russell Martin, scoring] David Freese. (Old Nats fans like me remember the role Freese played in the ninth-inning horror show in the 2012 NLDS Game 5 against the Cardinals.) Final score: Dodgers 10, Nationals 4.
On that somber note, down two games to one in a five-game series, the Nationals' vaunted starting pitcher Max Scherzer had his postseason MLB career on the line in Game 4 on Monday night. Nats fans soon cringed when he gave up a solo home run to Justin Turner in the first inning, exposing his weak spot for all the world to see. But contrary to my fears, he settled down after than and seven complete innings, giving up just three more hits and no more runs. The Nats tied it in the third inning on a sac fly by Anthony Rendon, and then took the lead in the fifth inning when Rendon hit an RBI single. Three batters later, with two runners on base, Ryan Zimmerman stepped up to the plate and hit one of the biggest home runs of his 14-year career. And the crowd went wild! An inning later, Rendon hit another RBI sac fly, and leading 6-1, the Nats could shake their anxiety and cruise through the late innings. And that's how they evened the series two games apiece.
As Game 5 of the NLDS approaches in Los Angeles this evening, with Stephen Strasburg on the mound, the Nats have every reason to feel confident that they have a better-than-even chance to prevail over the Dodgers and make it to the National League Championship Series for the first time. Tune in tomorrow, sports fans!
In my October 3 blog post, I had a montage of faces of some of the Nationals and Indians players who were conspicuous that day. Here are some other Nats players, most of whom did not play that day but were participating in the postgame autographed jersey lottery. Included here are four of the pitchers in the top starting rotation in the major leagues this year, measured by strikeouts at least:
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Anibal Sanchez, Patrick Corbin, Sean Doolittle, Stephen Strasburg, Michael A. Taylor, Kurt Suzuki, Max Scherzer, and Asdrubal Cabrera -- wearing a "Baby Shark" headband! (During and after the game against the Cleveland Indians on September 29.)
In Saint Louis, the Braves took Game 3 by a score of 3-1, and were in position to win the series in Game 4, except that they blew a precious opportunity in the late innings. Ronald Acuña hit a leadoff triple, but the next three batters were out, stranding the go-ahead run on third base. Simply inexcusable. In the tenth inning, the Cardinals won the game on a sac fly to left field, and the home town fans exulted at the comeback. Cards 5, Braves 4. In the first inning of the Game 5 in Atlanta tonight, ... Well, let's not go there. What an agonizing disappointment.
In Saint Petersburg (across the Bay from Tampa), the Rays exploded (figuratively speaking), and cruised to a 10-3 win over the seemingly invincible Astros. To the surprise of many, the Rays evened the series with the Astros the next day, winning 4-1. Somehow they got to [Justin] Verlander, who was replaced during the fourth inning, but the Rays held on to their lead until the end. Game 5 will be tomorrow night.
And finally, in Minneapolis (more or less across the Mississippi River from Saint Paul), the Twins tried to bounce back against the New York Yankees, but just couldn't get going. They succumbed to the Yankees in three straight lopsided games.
All the scores are on the Postseason scores page.
October 10, 2019 [LINK / comment]
How about Howie?! Nationals come back to win NLDS!
Maybe, just maybe, the Washington Nationals' bad habit of crushing disappointment in the postseason is behind them. And maybe being the underdogs this time worked to their advantage. Whereas they were favored to win in their four preceding appearances in the National League Divisional Series (2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017), this time the L.A. Dodgers were the heavy favorites. Just like in the National League Wild Card Game against the Milwaukee Brewers, fate finally smiled on the long-tortured Nats.
The game started off on an ominous note, as Stephen Strasburg gave up a two-run homer to Max Muncy before any outs had been recorded, and in the second inning Enrique Hernandez hit a lead-off homer to take a 3-0 lead. (That sentence is virtually identical to the one I wrote describing the early part of the NL Wild Card Game; only the names have changed.) Just like Max Scherzer, however, Strasburg collected his wits like a pro and hung in there through six total innings without giving up any more runs. Even though the Nats didn't score while he was pitching, he at least kept the game close enough to give the Nats a realistic chance at a comeback. And indeed they did! In the sixth inning, Anthony Rendon hit a leadoff double and then scored when Juan Soto singled. In the seventh inning, Kurt Suzuki was hit in the face by a pitch thrown by Walker Buehler, and had to come out of the game. Two outs later, Trea Turner walked, and Clayton Kershaw came in as a relief pitcher. Adam Eaton struck out. Kershaw remained on the mound in the eighth inning, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto hit back-to-back home runs to tie the game 3-3, forcing a stunned Kershaw out of the game. Patrick Corbin, who had a meltdown in NLDS Game 3, redeemed himself by getting four outs as a relief pitcher, and the game went into the tenth inning. That's when the "magic" started. Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly, who had baffled the Nats with a devastating combination of knuckle curve balls and fast balls in the ninth inning, gave up a lead-off walk to Adam Eaton. That was followed by a Anthony Rendon ground-rule double, obliging Kelly to intentially walk Juan Soto. (I tell you, that slugging combination of Rendon and Soto reminds me a lot of Maris and Mantle!) Next up was Howie Kendrick, a former Dodger who had something to prove. A sac fly or a hard ground ball would have been enough to score a run, but it was [not] enough for Howie! He hit a long fly ball that just cleared the center field fence for a grand slam, his second as a National. WOW!!! That gave the Nationals a 7-3 lead, and the 54,000+ fans in Dodger Stadium started streaming out in dejected silence. Sean Doolittle pitched a flawless bottom of the tenth inning, aided by a diving catch of a short fly ball in center field by Michael A. Taylor to end the game. What a fairy-tale happy ending!
The hero of the NLDS Howie Kendrick, at Wrigley Field on August 5, 2017.
Cardinals advance to NLCS
What happened in Atlanta yesterday evening was an unimaginable gut blow to Braves' fans, who have endured numerous disappointing losses in the NL Divisional Series over the past two decades. The St. Louis Cardinals scored ten (10) runs in the first inning, setting a postseason MLB record, and the game was essentially over after the first 20 or minutes. Somehow the Braves' pitcher Mike Foltynewicz crumpled, after having performed so well in NLDS Game 2. Final score: 13-1. You never know...
So, the Nationals will head to St. Louis for the first two games of the National League Championship Series on Friday and Saturday. The Cardinals have one of the best organizations in baseball, and they know how to win when it really counts. But if you match up the talent player for player, I think the Nats have an edge. Add to that the sky-high mojo the Nats have built from their amazing regular season comeback, the Wild Card Game comeback, and the NLDS comeback, I'd say the Nats have a big advantage. But I'm not counting on anything, and the series could easily go to six or seven games.
Can Rays upset Astros?
Game 5 of the ALDS will take place in Houston tonight, as the Tampa Bay Rays try for a historic upset against the top-seeded Astros. The winner will then face the Yankees on Saturday in Game 1 of the ALCS.
October 14, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nationals take a 3-0 NLCS lead, D.C. fans are ecstatic
After four agonizingly disappointing postseason attempts over the last decade, the Washington Nationals finally made it to the National League Championship Series, and they made the most of it in St. Louis over the weekend. Since their "big three" starting pitchers were worn out from the Clash of Titans with the L.A. Dodgers, Aníbal Sánchez took the mound on Friday night. I've been observing his steady improvement ever since he returned from the Injured List in May, and after Game 1, it's pretty clear that he now ranks alongside Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. To the amazement of all (and to the delight of Nats fans), Sanchez had a no-hitter going into the eighth inning, spoiled by pinch hitter Jose Martinez, who singled. Offensively, the Nats got on the scoreboard in the second inning thanks to doubles by Howie Kendrick and Yan Gomes -- one of the few truly clutch hits Gomes has had this year. In the seventh inning, Adam Eaton hit a one-out triple, and one out later Kendrick batted him in. Final score: Nats 2, Cards 0.
Aníbal Sanchez, after the final game of the regular season on September 29.
Late on Saturday afternoon, with the shadows covering more and more of the field at Busch Stadium, Max Scherzer started for the Nationals. Having grown up in the St. Louis area, it was familiar territory for him, and he pitched like he felt as if he were right at home. In fact, he almost duplicated the superlative pitching feat of Sanchez the night before, not giving up any hits until the seventh inning. He threw 11 strikeouts altogether. In the third inning Michael A. Taylor stunned the crowd with a solo home run, giving the Nats a slight but vital psychological edge as the game progressed. In the eighth inning, Adam Eaton hit a two-run double to give the Nats a 3-0 lead. In the bottom of that inning, Sean Doolittle was handling relief duties fairly well until a line drive by Jose Martinez (once again, pinch hitting) sailed over Michael A. Taylor's head in center field. Taylor misjudged it, but it was scored a double. That was the only run scored by the home team in St. Louis, as the Nats won again, 3-1.
Those two victories put the Nationals in a commanding position, with a very real chance to win the series back home in Washington. That made me wonder how the other teams that have begun seven-game series with two wins on the road have fared after that, so I checked my Postseason scores page, which goes back to 2002, and here is what I found:
Counting this year, that makes six league championship series that started off with two victories by the visiting team. (It has not happened in any World Series during that time period.) Of the five such series thus far, four of them ended up as sweeps and one ended up as a four-games-to-one outcome. That's not very encouraging for the Cardinals.
This evening, back home in Our Nation's Capital, the Nationals were well-prepared for Game 3. Stephen Strasburg was pitching, and he fully lived up to expectations, striking out an even dozen batters over seven innings. The Nats' Adam Eaton sparked a rally with a clutch RBI single in the third inning, followed by RBI doubles by Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick (two-run). With a 4-0 lead, Strasburg could cruise without too much pressure. Two innings later it was 6-0, and then 7-0. The Cardinals finally got on the board in the seventh inning, but the Nats responded in kind on an RBI single by Ryan Zimmerman. The final outcome was utter devastation for the visiting team which had wrought so much sorrow there seven years before: Nats 8, Cards 1. The 43,675 fans crammed into Nationals Park whooped in jubilation, eager for the next monumental chapter in D.C. baseball history -- perhaps as early as Tuesday night.
ALCS: Yankees, Astros split two
In Houston, meanwhile, the New York Yankees came very close to repeating what the Nationals had done in St. Louis -- taking a 2-0 series lead on the road. In Game 1 (Saturday), Astros pitcher Zack Greinke (acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade on July 31) gave up three runs, two of which were solo homers in the sixth inning, after which he departed. It got worse after that, and the Yankees won, 7-0. Game 2 was more of a pitchers' duel, but an odd one in which the Astros' Justin Verlander went against a series of Yankee relief pitchers. The Astros tied it 2-2 in the [fifth inning], and then won the game on a home run by Carlos Correa in the 11th inning. Final score: Astros 3, Yankees 2.
I noticed that Sports Illustrated featured the Astros' two top pitchers (Gerritt Cole and Justin Verlander) on their cover last week, perhaps another installment of the "SI Curse." There was also an article about the Atlanta Braves moving to the northern suburbs where most of their fans live, and perhaps they suffered from that curse as well.