Nationals finish big first month with a BANG!
After a very successful road trip and a big victory at home in Nationals Park this afternoon, the Washington Nationals now have a 17-8 record, the best in the major leagues right now. The team's slugging stars are firing on all cylinders, while the starting rotation of pitchers remains very solid and reliable. Their one glaring weakness, as we all knew before the season started, is with the relief pitchers.
On Friday, the Nats returned to Washington after a ten-game road trip, full of optimism (if not energy) while the visiting New York Mets were on a six-game losing streak. That game marked a turn in the two teams' recent fortunes. Max Scherzer gave up five runs over six innings, and even though the Nats made a valiant comeback attempt (with two home runs by Ryan Zimmerman), the bullpen let them down again, and the Mets won, 7-5.
On Saturday, Stephen Strasburg (who had taken a couple days of paternity leave earlier in the week) went seven innings and gave up just three runs, but the same scenario as before played out, and the Nats lost, 5-3. Ryan Zimmerman hit his 11th home run of the season, tying the MLB leader in that department.
But the Sunday game was truly one for the record books. After the Mets scored a run in the top of the first, fears of an embarrassing sweep arose among Nats fans. But the team quickly lifted their spirits with a five-run rally. Starting pitcher Joe Ross just didn't have it, giving up a run (or two) in all four innings he pitched. He was replaced by Matt Albers, a veteran who was acquired by the Nats fairly recently. He is one of the few bright spots in the bullpen lately. Thanks to phenomenal slugging by several players, especially Anthony Rendon, the Nats ended up with a 23-5 victory over the Mets, six runs more than the team's previous high mark of 17, in Baltimore on May 20, 2011. (The Montreal Expos, the Nats' franchise predecessors, once scored 21 runs, in 1996.)
Rendon's historic day
Until today, Anthony Rendon was having a pretty lousy month, far below the expectations people had of him. All of a sudden, his batting stats are about where they should be, thanks to one of the most prodigious slugging performances any player has ever had in a single day. He drove in two runs with a single in the first inning, hit a solo homer in the third inning, hit a three-run homer in the fourth inning, hit a bases-loaded double in the fifth inning, hit a single in the seventh inning, and hit another solo homer in the eighth inning. Believe it or not!!! Rendon thus became the first major league player ever to hit three home runs and ten runs batted in with six hits in six at-bats. MLB.com. Rendon surpassed the previous team records of hits and RBIs in a game. For the latter record, Josh Willingham had eight RBIs on July 27, 2009, which is when he hit two grand slams. Of note is the fact that his three-run double came very close to being a grand slam, hitting the right-center field scoreboard about three feet from the top.
The Nats' offensive explosion was perhaps exaggerated by the fact that the Mets simply gave up and decided not to put their bullpen under any more pressure. The last two innings were pitched on an emergency basis by reserve catcher Kevin Plawecki.
Zimmerman's hot month
Perhaps the unseasonably warm weather in April had something to do with Ryan Zimmerman's hot bat. There is little doubt that he will be named NL Player of the Month, since he leads the league in batting average (.420), RBIs (29), and is tied for the lead in home runs with 11. In Saturday's game with the Mets, Zimmerman crushed a home run way over the visitors' bullpen in left-center field, traveling an estimated 470 feet. After years of frustration with various health issues, he is finally living up to his potential as a slugger. The MASN announcers noted how relaxed at the plate he seems to be, exuding confidence.
Harper's runs record
Until a few days ago, Bryce Harper was having almost as hot a first month of the season as Ryan Zimmerman's ended in record-breaking fashion. (Likewise for Daniel Murphy, whose batting average has fallen from .400+ to the merely excellent .330 range.) After Harper scored four runs today, his total number of runs scored in April climbed to 32, overtaking the MLB record set by Larry Walker in 1997. See MLB.com.
Eaton badly injures knee
In Saturday's game, Adam Eaton was batting in the bottom of the ninth inning and hit an infield single to the shortstop. In his furious zeal to beat the throw, his leg jammed awkwardly into first base and he immediately crumpled over in severe pain. You could tell it was a serious injury. MRI tests revealed he has a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which will take at least six months to heal. Chances that he will return this year are almost zero, which is a dirty rotten shame. Eaton was aquired from the Chicago White Sox in a trade for young Nats pitchers, and he had been doing very well. He is an inspirational, well-liked figure in the clubhouse, and his team mates expressed their grief that he will be out for several months. See MLB.com
Nats triumph in tough road trip
It's hard to remember now, but the Nationals were struggling to stay in first place when they went to Atlanta on April 18 to begin their long road trip. After sweeping the Braves, who had won their first six games at brand-new SunTrust Park (see below), the Nats proceeded to do likewise to the Mets in Citi Field, with three straight wins. Daniel Murphy's grand slam proved decisive in the Nats' 6-3 victory on April 23 (Sunday); it was the Nats' third grand slam this year. Then the Nats flew west to Denver, where they hit a bump in the road with an 8-4 loss. But they quickly recovered the next day and proceeded to wallop the Rockies by scores of 15-12, 11-4 and 16-5. The offensive output was simply unbelievable. But a win's a win, and after Thursday, the Nats were sitting pretty having won nine out of their last ten games.
Weak spot: the bullpen
Everyone knew that the Nats' biggest vulnerability was their bullpen. The April 25 game in Denver illustrated the problem most clearly, when they Nats nearly threw away what had been a 10-run lead over the Rockies. Koda Glover gave up two runs in the seventh iining, and Joe Blanton gave up four runs in the eighth inning. The game shouldn't have been close at all.
And to top it off, Koda Glover, has been put on the disabled list with an impinged hip. Overall, he has been one of the Nats' better relief pitchers, and may end up as the regular closer later this season. Confidence in Blake Treinen has almost disappeared, although he did get three quick outs in the ninth inning of today's 23-5 massacre. (Not exactly a save situation.)
I updated the Washington Nationals page with all the latest factoids about the team.
NEW: SunTrust Park diagram!
In observance of the official opening of the new "home of the Braves," I posted a preliminary diagram for SunTrust Park a few days ago. (Previously all I had on that page was a partial image derived from Marlins Park, which seemed like an appropriate starting-point template, since it has a similarly slender amount of foul territory.) Of course there will eventually be lower-deck and upper-deck (no roof) diagram variants as well. Besides watching the Nats-Braves games on TV, I also relied upon photos and rendering at ajc.com (Atlanta Journal-Constitution); thanks to Mike Zurawski for the link.
Even though I remain deeply skeptical about the need for a brand-new stadium, I must admit that SunTrust Park has many attractive features. I like the fact that it has a large second deck and a relatively modest-sized lower deck. It features a large roof that provides shade for most of the upper deck (depending how you define it), and the stadium lights are built into the front edge of the roof, just like at Target Field in Minneapolis. That probably explains why the roof is at least 20 feet higher than the grandstand itself. The brick wall in right field is a very nice touch, as are the high-rise buildings beyond center field. It almost makes you feel like you're in downtown Atlanta, rather than the far-off suburbs of Cobb County. With any luck, I'll get down to see a game there in the next few weeks, after which I'll have all the information I need to do a fully accurate diagram.