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June 16, 2021 [LINK / comment]

Nationals struggle to climb out of NL East "cellar"

The Washington Nationals just emerged from two series against the respectively highest-ranked teams in the two leagues -- the Tampa Bay Rays and the San Francisco Giants, and in some respects they performed surprisingly well for a last-place team. But since it's been a while since my last baseball blog post, let's first do a quick rundown of the last month...

On Friday, May 7, the Nationals arrived in New York City to face the Yankees, and thanks to home runs by Josh Bell, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, and Juan Soto, they overcame the hosts, 11-4. It was tied 3-3 until they Nats scored six runs in the eighth inning. It was a great way to rebound after being swept at home by the Braves, but the momentum was ruined by a blown save in Saturday's game. Max Scherzer pitched 7 1/3 solid innings and exited the game with a 2-1 lead. But in the bottom of the ninth, Nats' closer Brad Hand walked the leadoff batter and gave up two singles, thus tying the game. In the tenth inning, the Nats went back ahead, 3-2, but then the Yankees scored twice to win it in walk-off fashion. Final score: 4-3. Why Davey Martinez kept Hand on the mound after having blown the save an inning before is a mystery to me. In the Sunday game, Kyle Schwarber hit a two-run homer in the seventh inning to tie the game 2-2, but Brad Hand gave up the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning, as the Yankees emerged with a series win.

Next came a home series against the Phillies, who won on Tuesday May 11 by a score of 6-2. It was a close game (3-2) until relief pitcher Kyle Finnegan gave up three runs on three hits and two walks in the eighth inning. On Wednesday, Jon Lester was in line for the win after pitching six innings of one-run ball, but Brad Hand blew the save in the ninth inning and then gave up the go-ahead run in the top of the tenth inning. He took the loss in a most unfortunate 5-2 defeat for the Nats. On Thursday the 13th both Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell hit two-run homers in the first inning, and the Nationals hung on to win it, 5-1. Patrick Corbin struck out nine batters over seven full innings on the mound, a big improvement for him.

Then the Nationals flew to Arizona to play the last-place Diamondbacks. The 17-2 victory on Friday May 14 marked their highest score of the season thus far. Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, and Andrew Stevenson all homered, and Max Scherzer pitched five innings to get an easy win. But on Saturday Joe Ross had a tough time on the mound, giving up three runs in the first inning, and eight altogether over four innings. The Nats lost that one, 11-4. In Sunday's game, Erick Fedde had a much better outing, with seven innings of shutout pitching. Yadiel Hernandez homered, and Trea Turner went three for four at the plate in the 3-0 victory.

On Monday May 17th the Nationals began a four-game series at Wrigley Field, against the Cubs, who were in the midst of an upsurge after a slow start to the season. Former Cub Jon Lester took the loss for the Nats in the 7-3 game. On Tuesday Patrick Corbin started but got a no-decision after reliever gave up two runs in the sixth inning. The Cubs won that one too, 6-3. Wednesday's game went much better, as Max Scherzer got the win after pitching five innings in a 4-3 victory. Juan Soto's solo homer in the fifth inning proved to be the decisive score of the game. On Thursday the Nats took a 2-0 lead in the first inning thanks to homers by Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, but Joe Ross gave up four runs (two unearned, thanks to errors by Starlin Castro) and was charged with the loss in the 5-2 final score.

The Nationals haven't had much to brag about so far this season, but the three-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles over the weekend was a small step in the right direction. The series opener on Friday was marked by the return of Stephen Strasburg after being on the Injured List for over a month. His last game was April 13, when he was pulled during the fifth inning in an ugly loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. His sore shoulder seems to be healed, as he went five and a third innings without giving up any runs in a 4-2 victory over the O's. Josh Bell got three hits that night, and Kyle Schwarber doubled twice; both those players have been showing signs of improvement after a disappointing first month with the Nationals. On Saturday night, Jon Lester had a rough first inning, as the Orioles scored four runs. But the Nats immediately came back and got three runs of their own. In the fourth inning, tied the game 6-6, and then Ryan Zimmerman came up to bat with two runners on base. Boom! He launched a home run that gave the Nats a 9-6 lead that they would not relinquish. Final score: Nats 12, Orioles 9. On Sunday, Patrick Corbin pitched just well enough, and a Kyle Schwarber home run boosted the home team in a 6-5 win that completed the sweep. Brad Hand gave up a home run in the top of the ninth, another nerve-wracking performance.

I checked my Washington Nationals annual pages and found that only twice in the 16 years that the Nationals and Orioles have played each other (2006-2020) have the Nationals come out ahead in their interleague series: 2007 (4-2) and 2018 (5-1). The Orioles have prevailed in eight of those years, and in five of those years they have split evenly. Including this year, the cumulative total in head-to-head matchups is 35 wins for the Nats and 45 wins for the Orioles.

On Tuesday May 25th, the Nationals welcomed the Cincinnati Reds to town, with a special pre-game ceremony honoring their former closing pitcher Sean Doolittle, who now pitches for the Reds. Max Scherzer took the mound for the Nats and once again performed superbly, striking out nine and giving up just two runs (both homers) over seven innings. Unfortunately, his team mates failed to score any runs until the ninth inning, when Josh Bell hit a solo homer to cut the visiting team's lead in half. And that was it. Final score: Red 2, Nats 1. The Wednesday night game was halted in the middle of the fourth inning, and after a three-hour wait, they decided to suspend the game until Thursday afternoon. Very annoying for the fans!!! The Nats eventually won that one, 5-3. Because of the double-header, the originally-scheduled game was cut to seven innings, and the Nats lost it, 3-0.

After the Friday game was rained out, the Nats began a series against the visiting Milwaukee Brewers with another double-header on Saturday. Patrick Corbin gave up all four runs in the afternoon game, while all the Nats could manage was a solo homer by Kyle Schwarber. In the nightcap, Jon Lester pitched solidly for almost six innings, but the bullpen faltered and the Nats lost again, 6-2. On Sunday Max Scherzer took the mound and did his job, striking out ten batters while giving up just two runs over six innings. His team mates failed to score at all, however, and then 3-0 loss sealed a series sweep at the hands of the Brew Crew.

The Nats then flew to Atlanta to play the Braves, losing the series opener 5-3. Joe Ross took the loss once again. The next day (June 1st), however, the Nats ended their losing streak even though Stephen Strasburg had to exit the game in the second inning due to a tight shoulder or back muscle. He may be out for another few weeks, a big blow to the Nats' hopes of a mid-season rebound. But the bullpen rallied and kept the Braves under control while Ryan Zimmerman and Juan Soto led a big offensive campaign in the 11-6 win. The Nationals also won the next day, 5-3, thanks to solid pitching by Jon Lester and homers by Juan Soto and Yan Gomes. But in the series finale, the offense fell flat again, and the Nats lost, 5-1. Patrick Corbin took the loss.

The Nationals flew to Philadelphia on Friday, June 4th, and beat the Phillies 2-1 in a classic pitchers' duel in which Max Scherzer (nine strikeout) came out on top. The Nats lost on both Saturday (5-2 final score, loss charged to Joe Ross) and Sunday (12-6 final score, loss charged to Austin Voth).

After a much-needed day of rest (and airline travel), Nats arrived in St. Petersburg, Florida. The first-place Tampa Bay Rays beat them in the first game, 3-1, but the Nationals bounced back in the second and final game of the series with a much-needed 9-7 extra-inning victory. Ryan Zimmerman homered twice, and Juan Soto homered as well, but those heroic feats were almost squandered by the bullpen. The Nats scored twice in the tenth inning, after which Brad Hand blew the save (once again), and in the eleventh inning Starlin Castro doubled in the go-ahead run and later scored himself. Whew!

Back in Washington at long last, Thursday night's game against the Giants was rained out, so the four-game series began on Friday instead. Max Scherzer had to leave the game in the first inning, due to a pulled groin muscle. It was a bad omen, but nevertheless the bullpen pulled together in one of their best performances ever. Sadly, the Nats just couldn't get hits when they needed them, and they lost, 1-0. On Saturday afternoon, Kyle Schwarber homered in the first inning, while Erick Fedde had a great outing, striking out seven batters in five innings. Final score: Nats 2, Giants 0. On Saturday night, a newby by the name of Jefry Rodriguez took the mound for the Nats, and did just fine, pitching four scoreless innings. Neither team scored until the eighth inning, when the Giants got two runs and the Nats came back with one run. Final score: 2-1. On Sunday, Joe Ross finally delivered a top-notch performance, striking out nine batters over eight innings. It was an amazing turnaround compared to his earlier outings this year. Two more home runs by Kyle Schwarber were more than enough to seal the 5-0 victory, as the Nats earned a split with the top National League team. If things had gone just a little bit different, the Nats could have swept all four of those games!

On Monday, the Nats and Pirates were locked in a close game with the score at 2-2 until Kyle Schwarber hit a solo homer to take the lead. Yes, he did it again!! Last night, Yan Gomes hit a grand slam in the first inning (the 67th in team history), giving the home team a 5-0 lead, and the Nationals went on to beat the Pirates 8-1. Patrick Corbin had another fine outing, after struggling earlier in the season, and came within two outs of pitching a complete game. The Nats will go for a series sweep later this afternoon, and I'll be there!

Pythagorean winning percentages

An article in the latest edition of the Society of American Baseball Research Journal compared the actual winning percentages to the Pythagorean-predicted winning percentages over the past century-plus. So, I set out to make those computations for the Washington Nationals, extracting the annual run totals for each year since 2005. (I have kept annual spreadsheets with the scores and home attendances for all Nats' games since the very beginning.)

Wash. Nats winning pct 2005-2021

NOTE: This table will be updated at the end of the 2021 season; the preliminary version displayed only included games through June 9, when the actual winning percentage was 43.1% and the Pythagorean-predicted winning percentage was 44.3%.

Two more no-hitters!

The pace at which no-hitters are occurring this year is rather stunning. On May 18, Spencer Turnbull of the Detroit Tigers no-hit the Mariners in Seattle, and the very next night, Corey Kluber of the New York Yankees no-hit the Texas Rangers in Globe Life Field. That makes six (6) no-hitters so far this year! None have been registered in June, as far as I know, but the rising trend of no-hitters has gotten widespread attention.

Baseball in Washington

I happened to be in Washington on June 6, when the Nationals were out of town, but I drove past venerable old RFK Stadium on the way downtown, and took a few photos in the mid-afternoon, including this one. Lighting conditions would be better in the morning. RFK Stadium is now essentially vacant, and may be demolished some time in the next year or two. With so many great baseball, football, and soccer games having been played there, it's sad to contemplate RFK Stadium's eventual demise.

RFK Stadium, Capitol, Washington Mon. 2021

RFK Stadium, U.S. Capitol, and Washington Monument, as seen from East Capitol Street on the east of the Anacostia River, June 6, 2021.

June 23, 2021 [LINK / comment]

Red-hot Nationals surge into third second place

I picked a very good day to see a ball game in Washington one week ago. Actually, my old friend Dave Givens picked that particular date, an afternoon game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Day games are always more fun. The weather was perfect, and the Nats were on a roll. Once again, I underestimated the traffic delays crossing the 14th Street bridge into Washington, and we passed through the gates just as the first pitch had been thrown. In the second inning, Yan Gomes smashed a line drive solo home run to left field, after which neither team scored for the next four innings. In the bottom of the seventh, Juan Soto drew a walk and then Josh Bell homered to right field, adding two insurance runs that proved to be the winning margin.

Nationals Park from 3B UD, June 16, 2021

It was "a beautiful day in the neighborhood" of South Capitol Street in Washington on Wednesday one week ago.

Paolo Espino

Paolo Espino was masterful for five solid innings, getting his very first major league win at age 34. (He also did pretty well this afternoon, getting a save in a tense back-and-forth slugfest against the Phillies.)

Josh Bell & Juan Soto, June 16, 2021

A gleeful Juan Soto greets Josh Bell, who had just hit a home run.

The bullpen buckled a little bit, giving up six hits and one run in the final three innings, but they got the outs when they absolutely had to. Usual closing pitcher Brad Hand relieved Kyle Finnegan in the eighth inning, and labored through five outs to earn the save. After the first two batters were out in the ninth inning, the next two singled, raising the tension level in the stands, but then Adam Frazier hit an infield dribbler for the final out. [Final score: Nats 3, Pirates 1.] SWEEP! Even though it was a smallish crowd by normal standards [16,781 attendance], that game signified a steady "return to normalcy," with live fans providing stimulative feedback to the players. I was a bit surprised that there were relatively little few warnings about covid-19, and although stadium employees were wearing masks, hardly any fans did.

What was perhaps a bit strange was the large number of players with whom I was not familiar. That's partly due to the fact that some of them started with the Nats last year, when none of us could actually attend games. In the montage below, I photographed seven of the players for the first time. (I was hoping to see third baseman Starlin Castro -- one of the heroes in today's game -- but he took emergency leave to deal with some kind of family problem.) The first nine players constituted the Nationals' starting lineup on June 16, and the last one (Josh Harrison) is the usual second baseman but only played in the final two innings, at third base.

Nationals lineup on June 16, 2021

TOP ROW (L to R):
Kyle Schwarber (LF), Trea Turner (SS), Juan Soto (RF), Josh Bell (1B), Yan Gomes * (C)

Luis Garcia * (2B), Jordy Mercer (3B, 1B), Victor Robles (CF), Paolo Espino * (P), Josh Harrison (3B; played in the 8th & 9th innings, but no at-bats)

Underlined names indicate players who are new to the Nationals' roster this year.
* Asterisks indicate players who joined the Nationals last year, when taking photos was not possible.

Several of the above photos have been incorporated (in very small size) on the Washington Nationals page.

Nationals pitchers, June 16, 2021

Six of the Nationals' pitchers, including the entire regular starting rotation, came out of the dugout to congratulate their team mates on the victory: Joe Ross, Stephen Strasburg*, Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer*, Erick Fedde (#23), and Jon Lester. In the upper right are Josh Bell, Alex Avila, Yan Gomes, and Ryan Zimmerman (#11).

* Then on the Injured List; Scherzer returned to the active roster on June 22.

Showdown with Mets

After a day off on Thursday, the Nationals welcomed the New York Mets to town. Erick Fedde had one of his best outings ever, striking out six batters over seven innings without giving up a run. Neither team scored until the bottom of the ninth, when Ryan Zimmerman hit a clutch single that advanced the runner on first to third base, after which Yan Gomes got the game-winning RBI with a single. That made it five wins in a row! The Nats' winning streak came to an end on Saturday afternoon, as their starting pitcher Joe Ross gave up all five runs to the Mets in a truncated seven inning double-header game. But in the second game, Jon Lester was superb for six innings as his former Cub team mate Kyle Schwarber hit two home runs in a 6-2 victory. On Sunday Patrick Corbin was the Nats' starting pitcher, and he repeated what Lester had done, giving up just [two] runs over six innings on the mound. The Amazing Kyle Schwarber hit three more home runs, but two of them were solo shot, so the Nats' victory margin (5-2) was smaller than you might expect. He thus tied a major league record for hitting five home runs in a two-day span. For this superhuman achievement, he was named as the National League Player of the Week!

Way to go, Kyle Schwarber!!!

Thus, the Nats beat the first-place Mets three games out of four, coming to within three games of the division leaders. The NL East race is becoming extremely tight!

Showdown with Phillies

After resting on Monday, the Nats headed to Philadelphia to confront the Phillies. Back from the Injured List, Max Scherzer pitched five innings, getting eight strikeouts, and thanks mainly to Yan Gomes, who got two RBIs, the Nats won in a nail-biter of a finish, 3-2. This afternoon, Erick Fedde had a rough outing, giving up five runs over four innings, but [thanks to yet another Kyle Schwarber home run (with two on base)] the Nats came right back to tie it, 5-5. Both teams had grand slams over the next inning, including one by Josh Bell, and after more back-and-forth drama, the Nats finally won it 13-12 thanks to a clutch 2-run single by Starlin Castro in the ninth inning. Once again, Brad Hand [OOPS: The photo caption above is correct: Paolo Espino] got the save -- just barely!

That means the Nats (35-36) are now ahead of the Phillies [34-37] in the NL East, and pending the result of the Mets-Braves game later tonight, the Nats may end up in sole possession of second place. [UPDATE: The Braves lost! The Nats] have won nine out of their last ten games, and with the momentum on their side, anything is possible as the middle of the season approaches.

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