August 25, 2015 [LINK / comment]
Welcome home to Washington?
Well, it's complicated. Back home in D.C. after a lousy road trip (3-7), the Washington Nationals were in desperate need of a lift from the home fans as they faced the Milwaukee Brewers last Friday night. So my wife and I headed up to Our Nation's Capital to do our part, our spirits buoyed by perfect, sunny weather. We arrived early to make sure we got the Nats ball cap freebies, courtesy of Miller Lite. After listening to the band playing in the Scoreboard Deck area, I spent some time snooping around and taking photos, including this one:
We had "Mezzanine" seats in the second deck, down the third base line. It was a great vantage point, but probably farther away from home plate than the third-deck "Gallery" seats I usually get. There are two disadvantages with second-deck seats: Fewer concession stands means fewer choices for food and beverages, and the closed "Club Level" sections prevents fans from moving around the stadium. In the top of the first inning, we had a view of when Yunel Escobar collided with a fan while chasing a pop foul ball. Escobar had to leave the game, and missed the next two games while his strained neck muscles healed.
In the second inning, the Nats took a 1-0 lead, thanks to a walk and stolen base by Ian Desmond, followed by a clutch RBI single by Jose Lobaton. But the Brewers came right back with two runs in the third inning. In the fifth inning, Gio got into a jam, giving up a run to Jonathan Lucroy with Adam Lind on third base and two outs. That's when Domingo Santana (just acquired in a trade with the Houston Astros*) hit the left foul pole for a two-run home run, completely changing the complexion of the game. I'm not sure I had ever seen a ball hit the foul pole before, and we had a great view of that (unfortunate) event. They let Gio finish the inning, but he was clearly done for the night.
* (One of the guys for whom Domingo Santana was traded, Mike Fiers, threw a no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers on August 16. It was the Astros' first individual no-hitter since 1993. (See MLB.com.) The other guy in that trade was Carlos Gomez.)
In the sixth inning, Bryce Harper hit a solo home run to close the gap to 5-2, briefly raising hopes. But in the top of the seventh inning, relief pitcher Doug Fister gave up a walk and four hits, all of which ended up scoring (one unearned), and Tanner Roark came in to finish things. But he gave up a hit, and a Brewers' pinch hitter was given first base on catcher's interference, a bizarre play. Even more bizarre was the next play, when Jean Segura hit a sac fly to Bryce Harper in right field, but Jose Lobaton couldn't handle the throw from Harper, and another run scored. That made it 10-2, and hundreds of Nats fans began to leave the stadium. In the bottom of the seventh, Michael Taylor hit a solo homer, but only one other National reached base [for the rest of the game]. Final score: Brewers 10, Nationals 3.
One bright spot was when Trea Turner, just called up from the minors, replaced Ian Desmond at shortstop in the seventh inning. In his first MLB at-bat that inning, he almost beat the throw on what would have been a single, and the Nationals challenged the call but lost. In the top of the eighth, he was part of a 4-6-3 double play. Big things are expected of this rookie.
On Saturday night, things went much better, as rookie pitcher Joe Ross delivered another fine performance, going seven innings to get the win in a 6-1 game. Michael Taylor and Anthony Rendon (who seems to be getting better after returning from the DL) both hit home runs to provide the offensive support. It was the third game in a row in which Taylor homered. On Sunday, Jordan Zimmermann was so-so on the mound, but he had plenty of run support thanks to home runs by Rendon (again) and Wilson Ramos. J-Zimm got the win in a 9-5 slugfest.
And so, it was the first time since late June that the Nationals won two series in a row. Combined with tonight's triumphant 8-3 victory over the San Diego Padres (featuring Ryan Zimmerman's fifth career grand slam!), the Nats have now won three games in a row for the first time since July 11-18 (spanning the All-Star Game). Denard Span returned to the lineup tonight, and it was the first time all year that the Nats had their entire starting roster together. Maybe they will finally start playing the championship-caliber ball that most people had expected of them. On the dark side, the Mets have gotten hot lately, winning five straight games. Both teams have relatively easy schedules for the rest of the season, so it will probably come down to the six remaining head-to-head games between them: the Mets in Washington September 7-9, and the Nats in New York October 2-4.
Nats beat Rockies twice
The Nationals followed up their big 15-6 win over the Colorado Rockies last Tuesday with a 4-1 victory last Wednesday. Stephen Strasburg went seven full innings, and got the win thanks to a clutch two-run [triple]
single by Jayson Werth in the top of the eighth. But [in the next day's game] the Nats couldn't complete the sweep, as Max Scherzer gave up three runs to the Rockies, who prevailed 3-2. At least the Nats won the series.
Awful events while I was away...
As I departed on my Great Baseball Road Trip of 2015, the Nationals were kind of limping along, with high hopes for a big improvement after Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Anthony Rendon returned to active duty. They were nine games over .500, three games ahead of the Mets in the NL East race, and with every reason to expect another postseason berth. Instead, they just about collapsed, even with those three sluggers back in the lineup, and for an entire month (July 18 to August 18), only once did they win two consecutive games. They hit rock bottom in California, winning the first game against the L.A. Dodgers, but then losing the next two, and then getting swept in four games by the S.F. Giants. To paraphrase a cliche, "It just doesn't get any worse than this..."
The Nationals did manage to take two out of three games from the Mets (July 20-22, at home) and the Marlins (July 28-30, away), but they lost series to the Pirates (July 23-26, away), the Mets (July 31-August 2, away), and the Rockies (August 7-9, home). They also split a four-game series against the Diamonbacks at home, August 3-6. It was a steady decline, during which the Mets caught up with them in the standings on August 2, and took the division lead the next day. The Mets weren't doing all that great, it was just that the Nationals kept losing.
So what the #$@&! went wrong? Neither Zimmerman nor Werth nor Anthony Rendon were at their best for the first few weeks after returning in late July. Bryce Harper's rate of home runs has slowed noticeably, but he's still in contention for the NL MVP Award. Michael Taylor continues to get amazing clutch hits, and is a potential candidate for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Danny Espinosa has also continued to do big things in the batter's box and on defense, having a career-best year, and it's a shame he has been relegated to the bench now that the first-stringers are all healthy. Ian Desmond has slowly improved his batting performance while cutting down on errors, but it may be too late to save his career with the Nationals. Meanwhile, the starting pitchers seemed to crumble, especially their aces Max Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann. The exception was Stephen Strasburg, who threw twelve strikeouts on August 8 (a 6-1 win over the Rockies), his first outing after spending several weeks on the disabled list. Oddly enough, he and Joe Ross have been the only two reliable starting pitchers for the Nats this month. Gio Gonzalez had several consecutive solid outings after the All-Star break, but lasted only two-plus innings against the Rockies on August 15.
One could also mention the criticism leveled at manager Matt Williams, who keeps making questionable bullpen moves that end up costing the Nats the game. Until the recent upturn, there were rumors about whether he might get replaced, but I think that's a hasty judgment. We'll find out in the remaining five weeks of the regular season whether Williams is the best man to lead the Nationals. If they don't make the playoffs, or at least come very close, I think Mike Rizzo ought to look elsewhere.
Nationals Park tweak
Based on things I noticed during my visit, I updated the Nationals Park diagrams with some slight adjustments to the lower deck, including gray lines for the "creases" for the first time. (The upper deck is gradually curved, and therefore has no such creases.) I also paid more attention to such details as the terraced table-seating areas in the "Red Porch," the TV camera "wells" (see photo at the top), and the sections where there are two more rows of seats in back, rather than platforms for handicapped fans. There angled bends near the left- and right-field corners are slightly farther from home than before, adding a bit to the foul area.