Nats in 2014: two months, two thumbs down
The first two months of the Washington Nationals' 2014 season were a big disappointment, much like the 2013 season as a whole. There is no doubt that injuries have played a big part, and it was disturbing that two of the Nats' best hitters suffered similar injuries: Ryan Zimmerman broke his thumb in early April, and Bryce Harper badly strained a ligament in his thumb just a couple weeks later. Other key members missing in action included Wilson Ramos (injured on Opening Day, and returned in mid-May), Adam LaRoche, and Doug Fister. One should remember, however, that in the storybook year of 2012, the Nats were similarly hobbled and reserve players The first part of the month seemed very promising, as they won seven of their first nine games. Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond hit grand slams on consecutive days against the Miami Marlins, a sign that the "Natitude" of 2012 was back. Well, not quite.
The game in Atlanta on April 11 might have cast an ominous shadow on the Nats' season, as they blew a chance to win it, and ended up losing in extra innings. They were swept by the Braves in that road series, and from then until late in May the Nationals only managed wins in consecutive games in two stretches: April 25-26 vs. the Padres (at home), and April 29-May 1 vs. the Astros and Phillies (on the road). One of the low points of the season was May 9-11, when they were swept by the A's in Oakland, with a total score of 21-4. Ouch! The Nats' new starting pitcher Doug Fister had a terrible debut with his new team when he faced his old team. (Since then, he has proved to be the Nats' most successful starting pitcher.)
Last weekend's series against the Texas Rangers marked what could end up being the start of a big rebound in the team's fortunes, as the Nats won by scores of 9-2 and 10-2. Could this be a real turning point? The Nats held the Rangers to exactly two runs in all three games, but they were shutout by the Texas ace pitcher Yu Darvish. He has some amazing stuff, with pinpoint control. In this week's series, the Nats pounded the visiting Phillies 7-0 and 8-4. Sparkied by the return of slugger Ryan Zimmerman (now playing in left field!), the Nats' bats have come alive at last.
In summary, the Nats ended their first full month four games over .500, and offset that by falling back to an even 27-27 by the end of May -- in third place, behind the Braves and the Marlins. Good grief. Well, things can only get better from now on, right? I updated the Washington Nationals page with data for the first two months of the 2014 season. (Actually, I updated it at the end of April as well, but didn't announce it.)
One of the biggest positive signs from 2014 thus far is how well Danny Espinosa has done, especially on defense, but also at the plate. After his career seemed to be in jeopardy last year, this is a very welcome turn of events. The fifth man in the pitching rotation, Taylor Jordan, had some rough outings, and was sent back to the minors after Doug Fister returned from the DL. Fister will be on the mound this afternoon when the Nationals try to complete a series sweep against the Phillies -- and I'll be there to watch!
After further review ... YES!
Like most baseball fans, I viewed the advent of expanded instant-replay this year with trepidation. Would it cause even more delays in a sport that already seems too slow for many fans? Apparently not. Since each manager can only challenge one call by the umpires per game (and a second one if their first challenge is upheld), it has had little or no effect on the length of most games. It may even save time in some games, since there is now virtually no reason for managers to argue with the umpires anymore. What's more, it introduces a new element of strategy into the game, forcing managers to consider whether taking the chance of having a call on a play early in the game overturned might prevent them from making a more useful challenge late in the game. So, I give a big two thumbs UP to the new instant replay system.
Wrigley Field turns 100
Another major baseball story I neglected to cover was the centennial of Wrigley Field, originally known as "Weeghman Park," and later (1916-1925) as "Cubs Park." The celebration of this milestone in Chicago is a little awkward, because the Cubs were not the original occupants of this beautiful ballpark, which was built for the Federal League Chicago Whales. Another reason for awkwardness is that the Cubs have not won a World Series since they moved into the former home of the Whales. (They had previously won the 1907 and 1908 World Series.) Two years hence, in 1916, the Cubs will mark the centennial of their occupancy of said ballpark.
There must be a dozen or more new books on the "Friendly Confines," just like there were about Fenway Park when the centennial in Boston was observed two years ago. One that caught my eye was written by political columnist George Will: A Nice Little Place on the North Side.
Dodgers & D-backs, down under
In the first official MLB games ever to be played in Australia last March, the L.A. Dodgers beat the Arizona Diamondbacks in three straight games. The huge foul ground didn't really come into play as much as I had thought. They fenced off a large portion of the field between the foul poles and the dugouts, making it not much different than Oakland ("O.co") Coliseum -- based on my eyeball estimates.
I made careful observations of the Sydney Cricket Grounds, watching the recording I had made and pausing at key points when the camera was panning the stadium. It is fascinating, and I will probably make a diagram of it in the next few months, or sooner. Offhand, it bears a lot of resemblance to the Texas Rangers' old hom, Arlington Stadium, being a big circle with different sections added on over the years in a rather hodge-podge fashion.
Well, I thought I had the Metropolitan Stadium diagrams diagrams all finished, and posted new versions on that page, but then realized to my horror that I needed to make further adjustments. False start! Stay tuned for much more baseball news and commentary from your humble blogger/diagrammer in the near future... And please accept my apologies for falling so far behind on my baseball endeavors.