August 24, 2013 [LINK / comment]
Nats keep bouncing back from total disasters
The last ten days have been filled with so many hideous twists of fate and reassuring comeback performances as to leave a Nats fan completely unhinged. I was in Nationals Park on Thursday afternoon last week (nine days ago), and the home team was so close to a second consecutive sweep you could almost taste it. Maybe, just maybe, the Nats could still sneak into the playoffs as a wild card team after all! But with Rafael Soriano on the mound as closer, anything is possible, and in this case the results were disastrous. But let's start at the beginning. As you can see, I had pretty a good view of the action, to say the least. Getting such a prime ticket was a nice consequence of arriving late, yet again.
Most of the game went pretty good, as the Nats grabbed a lead with a three-run rally in the third inning. In the photo above it was the bottom of the fifth inning, with two outs and the bases loaded: Werth on third, LaRoche on second, and Suzuki on first. A perfect opportunity to score more runs! But who was in the batter's box? Dan Haren, the pitcher. What??? He was already in line for a win, having pitched five innings, so why didn't Davey Johnson put in a pinch-hitter for him? It was the last real scoring opportunity they had in that game. Later on, the Nats really could have used an insurance run or two. Haren hit a lazy fly ball to right center for the third out.
About half of the fans in my section were Giants fans, and I guess that only makes sense since it was next to the visitors' dugout. It was the first time I had noticed that the field slopes down from the infield, and it seemed like the pitcher's mound was actually higher than my seat.
[ADDENDUM: In the top of the ninth, with the Nats ahead 3-1, Rafael Soriano came to the mound as the closer. Fans nervously gritted their teeth when Buster Posey hit a leadoff single, but then Hunter Pence struck out and Pablo Sandoval flew out. Some Giants fans near me got up to leave. (Big mistake!) Soriano had a full count on Roger Kierscheck, but then walked him, and likewise had a full count on pinch hitter Hector Sanchez. (Who?) Actually, one of those balls seemed to catch the top of the strike zone, in which case the game would have been over. Darned umpire. And then, just like it was scripted in Hollywood, Sanchez smashed a ball down the right field line, just barely staying fair as it landed in the second deck. Eegad: a home run! Somehow, the Giants were ahead 4-3 all of a sudden, and the Nats couldn't even get anybody on base in the bottom of the ninth, so that was the final score. See MLB.com. (My apologizes for leaving out these crucial details in the original blog post this morning.)]
It's hard to imagine a more disheartening way to end a ball game. Well, maybe not that hard. Indeed, the game's finale bore an eerie resemblance to what happened the NLDS Game 5 last year, when Drew Storen melted down in the ninth inning. According to the scoreboard, Soriano's ERA jumped from 2.88 before that home run to 3.42 after it. And that's how the Nationals almost swept the Giants!
Braves prevail over the Nats
In the weekend series in Atlanta, all three games were razor close. Friday's game was tied 2-2 after nine innings, and the Braves got a walk-off win in the tenth. Saturday's game was strange, as Stephen Strasburg was ejected in the second inning after hitting a batter and then throwing balls wildly over and behind the next batter, as if begging to be taken out of the game. It's hard to say exactly, but there's little doubt that he was getting back at the Braves for their rude plunking" of Bryce Harper the week before. That put heavy pressure on the bullpen, and relief pitchers ended up throwing the ball in 14 innings altogether. Thanks in part to a home run by Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats had a lead going in the bottom of the ninth, but once again Rafael Soriano failed to close the game. With all the relievers spent, Dan Haren volunteered for relief duty and got his first save of his career. Nats 8, Braves 7. On Sunday, Gio Gonzalez gave up two runs in the first inning, but then settled down and pitched six more scoreless innings. Unfortunately, all the Nats could manage was a single run, so they lost the series, two games to one.
Nats get back at the Cubs
In Chicago, the Cubs trounced the Nats 11-1 on Monday, the third time the Nationals lost by double-digit margins this year. Jordan Zimmermann had yet another awful day on the mound, part of a bewildering downhill trend after a fantastic first half of the year. He's been stuck at 14 wins for about a month now, and what seemed like an easy ride to a 20-win season is now in very serious doubt.
On Tuesday, Dan Haren pitched another great game, continuing his mirror image season trajectory compared to Jordan Zimmermann; bad early on, much better after mid-season. The Nats won that one, 4-2. On Wednesday the Nats benefited greatly from home runs hit by Jayson Werth and Scott Hairston. I had my doubts about Hairston, acquired last month, but he has made some clutch performances, batting as well as fielding. The Cubs scored five runs in the fifth, exposing the weakness of Nats' pitchers, but the visiting team held on to win, 11-6.
On Thursday, the Nats were cruising to an easy win over the Cubs as Stephen Strasburg pitched seven shutout innings. But then he gave up a solo homer in the eighth, and with two outs in the ninth inning (going for his second complete game in three starts), he had a meltdown worthy of Rafael Soriano. Down 4-1, the Cubs strung together some desperate hits, and Nate Schierholtz scored from second after a throw from shortstop Anthony Rendon went wide of first base. That would have been the final out, but instead the Cubs stayed alive. The next batter, Donnie Murphy, placed a hanging curve ball just over the left field wall to tie the game 4-4, and Strasburg was taken out of the game. Yet another kick in the gut! The game went to the thirteenth inning, whereupon Denard Span doubled, then got to third on a sac fly, and then made it to home on a dribbling ground ball hit by Chad Tracy. Drew Storen came in as a reliever, and got his third save of the year. Nats 5, Cubs 4. Whew!
Playing in Kansas City for the very first time last night, the Washington Nationals fell behind 6-0 after two innings, as Gio Gonzalez simply could not get batters out. But the Nats came back with a huge seven-run rally in the fourth inning, thanks two a bases-loaded double by Bryce Harper and a two-run homer into the fountain by Jayson Werth. But Gio gave up another run, narrowing the lead to 8-7, and Davey Johnson took him out. Thankfully, rookie reliever Tanner Roark did much better, going nearly five innings without giving up a run. The Nats had an 11-7 lead going into the bottom of the ninth, and Drew Storen was called in to finish the game. Even though it wasn't a save situation, that was a nice vote of confidence by the manager. But Drew gave up a walk and then a double, and Johnson took him right out of there, replacing him with the shaky Rafael Soriano. As if on cue, Soriano gave up more hits, and before you knew it the Cubs were within one run of tying the game. That's when Bryce Harper saved the day with a diving catch of a fly ball to right field, which could have set the stage for a Royals victory. Instead, Soriano got the next batter to pop out, and the game was over. Nats 11, Royals 10. Whew!!!
Are more violent ups and downs in store over the final five weeks of the season? I'm not sure how much more of this I can take!
Turner Field update, etc.
Seeing those Nats-Braves games on TV got me to thinking I ought to get the Turner Field diagrams up to date, so I went ahead and did so. There were small changes in the grandstand, and a very slight change in the area around the dugouts. There is a new first-deck diagram version, which shows the entry portals.
As with all other recent diagram update, that stadium page now includes a chronology of all past diagram updates. I just can't believe it has been five whole years since the last update of the Turner Field diagrams!
I remembered that Turner Field was featured in the movie Trouble with the Curve (2012), starring Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman. I updated the Baseball in the Movies page with Justin Timberlake's name, previously omitted.
On a related note, I also tweaked the upper-deck diagram of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, making the entry portals a little bit bigger.