Forget April! Nats climb into first place (briefly)
I had guarded expectations for the Nationals this year, figuring that they would probably win the NL East pennant but that it wouldn't be as easy as the last couple years. But after they won the first four games of the 2018 season, and did so in spectacular fashion, I wondered if I was being too cautious. Then they lost five games in a row, and pretty much stunk for the rest of the month. Perhaps my initial caution was valid after all?
Much as I would like to pretend that April never happened, it is important to at least draw some tentative lessons. First of all, what accounted for the abrupt turnabout when they first fell into the slump? That's easy. In their second game at Atlanta on April 3, the Nats scored three runs in the top of the first inning thanks to a homer by Ryan Zimmerman, seemingly cruising toward another victory. But then A.J. Cole took the mound and proceeded to give up runs at a lightning pace: For some reason, rookie manager Dave Martinez kept him in for nearly four full innings, by which time the Nats were way behind, 10-5. Cole hit his first homer in the majors, but it didn't matter. Final score: 13-6. The next day, Max Scherzer lost his first (and thus far only) game of the season, thanks to weak bats and errors on defense.
Would things get better for the Nationals as they played their first home series back in D.C.? Nope. They got swept by the Mets, in spite of decent pitching and two homers by Bryce Harper, and the five-game losing streak put them below .500 all of a sudden. Then they showed life and almost swept the Braves (April 9-11) but lost the final game in 12 innings. That led to a very disappointing three-games-to-one series loss against the Rockies (April 12-15), in which poor hitting and a shaky bullpen were primarily to blame.
On the road again, the Nats parlayed a sudden 6-run explosion in the 8th inning on April 16 into a win against the Mets in Queens, the first start by Jeremy Hellickson, acquired by the Nats during spring training. They took two out of three in that series, but then lost the next two series by the same margin, against the Dodgers (April 20-22) and the Giants (April 23-25). The final game in San Francisco witnessed another offensive outburst by the Nats, as second-stirng first baseman Matt Adams hit a homer and batted in six runs, while Trea Turner went five for six.
In their next home stand, the Nats lost two close games to the Diamondbacks, and then won one thanks mainly to another solid outing by Gio Gonzalez, who pitched seven complete innings. That may have marked the real turning point in their season, as the finished the month of April with two victories, the second being against the Pirates.
So, the Nationals finished the month with a 13-16 record (including two games in late March), in fourth place. It was pretty darned shabby, and a lot of it had to do with the bad vibes that emanated from that April 3 game in Atlanta. But no one can deny that injuries had a lot to do with the Nationals' poor offensive output. In fact, it was that very same jinxed day that Adam Eaton suffered a bone bruise on his left ankle, and much like last year, his spectacular early season batting came to an abrupt end. Fortunately, he seems to be on the mend and may return soon. Meanwhile, Daniel Murphy took longer than expected to recuperate from the surgery on his knee last October, and even though he recently resumed playing in the minor leagues, there are deep concerns that he may not be 100% for at least another month. After all he did for the Nats in the last two years, his absence is just devastating. His replacement, Howie Kendrick, also got injured, another deep blow since he did so well for the Nats in the second half of last year. By a stroke of luck, the backup replacement, Wilmer Difo, has risen to the occasion by playing solid defense and getting a number of clutch hits. That kid shows great promise. Finally, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and Matt Wieters have spent significant time on the disabled list, and even though Rendon is now back, he is far from his best level of playing.
Seven Days In May, again
The Nats began in the merry month of May by completing a sweep the Pirates in a four-game series. To complete the conquest of Pennsylvania, the Nats then won two out of three games from their division rivals, the Phillies. The Nats were on the verge of losing the final game of that series, on May 6, but scored twice in both the eighth and ninth innings. The Phillies' closing pitcher, Hector Neris, was totally in effective, walking in the tying run, and giving up the game-winning hit to Wilmer Difo, who was mobbed by his teammates in a jubilant frenzy.
The Nationals' upsurge coincided with the sudden breakout of Matt Adams, who hit seven home runs during the first "seven days in May." (That's the name of a political movie from the early 1960s, and hence appropriate for Washington.) Adams is a beefy journeyman player who played for five years in St. Louis before being traded to the Braves just over a year ago. The Nats signed him as a free agent just before Christmas, and boy are they getting their money's worth! (In tonight's game again the Rays, he hit his 13th homer of the year.)
Why do I say "Seven Days In May, again"? Because it was almost exactly 50 years ago that Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard pulled off an even bigger home run streak: From May 12 through May 18, 1968, "Hondo" hit ten (10) home runs in 20 at bats!!! Too bad the rest of his team couldn't support his prodigious efforts and get more actual wins. (I had the pleasure of briefly chatting with Howard while getting his autograph at the SABR convention in Washington several years ago.)
Southwestern road trip
On May 7, the Nats began a series against the Padres in San Diego, winning the first two games but getting edged 2-1 in the finale. That set them up for a daunting visit to Phoenix, where the Diamondbacks were then in first place. Even though the Nationals were rather weak at the plate once again, their championship-caliber pitching rotation rose to the occasion again, and the D-Backs scored only one run in the first three games of that series. In the finale on Sunday, May 13, the Nats hit four home runs, including two by Mark Reynolds (not even expected to make the team until late in spring training), one by Bryce Harper and one by Trea Turner. Final score of that triumph: 6-4.
That marked the beginning of a sharp decline in the D-Backs' fortunes, and one would think that it would set the stage for a successful showdown with the L.A. Dodgers, who arrived in Washington for a three-game series that began on May 19. (This was following a very wet week in which the Nats played the Yankees to a six-inning tie in a game that was suspended.) But once again, weak bats and a shaky bullpen foiled the Nats hopes and they were swept at home. In the second game on May 19, Max Scherzer struck out 13 batters and was in line for the win, but the Nats' closing pitcher Sean Doolittle uncharacteristically blew the save and lost the game, as the Dodgers won, 5-4. Good karma returned in the series against the Padres which began on May 21. The 19-year old Juan Soto hit a home run in his first at bat as a starting MLB player (on the first pitch, in fact!), and Mark Reynolds hit two more home runs. The next day Bryce Harper homered and Michael A. Taylor hit a walk-off RBI to give the Nats a 2-1 win. The Padres avoided a sweep with a 3-1 win on May 23.
The Nats headed to Miami on May 25, and got back into their groove again, with three straight multi-home run games that helped them sweep the Marlins. Then they flew north to Baltimore and swept the Orioles in three games, including two shutouts. In the finale on Wednesday, May 30, Max Scherzer won his 150th game of his career (and the ninth of this season) and struck out 12 batters, while Bryce Harper hit his 18th home run, briefly tied for the lead in the majors. More importantly, the Nats moved ahead of the Braves into first place in the NL East, and were ten games over .500 for the first time this year. Few people (other than hard-core stats nerds like me) recognized the historical significance of that win: It put the Nationals at an even .500 win-loss record for the first time since the end of their inaugural 2005 season: 1,079 wins and 1,079 losses. They really should have maintained that in the four-game series in Atlanta, but instead they are now 1,080 - 1,082 over the course of their 13 1/3-season lifetime as a (reborn) team.
The Nats finished their road trip in Atlanta with a pivotal showdown against the first-place Braves. On the final day of May (Thursday), Tanner Roark gave up four runs, not up to his usual high standards, and the Braves won, 4-2. On the first of June, Stephen Strasburg threw one bad pitch and the Braves hit a three-run homer that was all they needed to win. Final score: 4-0. Then on Saturday, Gio Gonzalez gave up three runs and was in line for the loss, whereupon that youngster Juan Soto tied the game in the eighth inning with a solo home run. The game went all the way to the 14th inning, and with his bench reserves depleted, Dave Martinez was so desperate that he had Max Scherzer pinch hit. "Mad Max" is about as fiercely competitive as anyone in the major leagues these days, and wouldn't you know it, he knocked a single up the middle! Then Wilmer Difo came up to bat and smashed a triple to deep right-center field, as Scherzer sprinted around the bases to take the lead. Difo then scored, and the Nats won a huge psychological challenge by a score of 5-3. On Sunday (June 3), the score was tied 2-2 going into the ninth inning, and the Nats hoped to win in extra innings again, which would have evened the four game series and put them back into first place, but Tanner Roark gave up a home run to a rookie named Charlie Culberson, and the Braves prevailed, 4-2.
The Nationals had a 19-7 record for May, their best monthly win-loss record since June 2005, when they were 20-6. (Yes, in their inaugural year!) The following highlights from the first two months of this year have been extracted from the recently-updated Washington Nationals page:
- March 31, 2018 -- Brian Goodwin hits grand slam ; WSH 13, CIN 7 @
- April 1, 2018 -- Bryce Harper homers twice as Nats sweep Reds; WSH 6, CIN 5 @
- April 16, 2018 -- Behind 6-1, Nats score 6 runs in 8th inning plus one more in 9th; WSH 8, NYM 6 @
- April 25, 2018 -- Matt Adams homers, with 6 RBIs; Trea Turner gets 5 hits as Nats break out of slump; WSH 15, SF 2 @
- May 7, 2018 -- Matt Adams homers twice, his 7th homer in the first seven days in May; WSH 8, SD 5 @
- May 21, 2018 -- Juan Soto homers in his first MLB at-bat as a starter; Mark Reynolds homers twice; WSH 10, SD 2
- May 30, 2018 -- Bryce Harper hits 18th homer (tied MLB lead), Max Scherzer gets 120th strikeout (MLB lead); WSH 2, BAL 0 @
2018 memorable moments
"@" = away game
MLB returns to Latin America
For the first time since 1999, MLB returned to Monterrey, Mexico last month. In a three-game series from May 4 through 6, the "visiting" L.A. Dodgers won the first game but lost the next two to the "San Diego" Padres, who are once again seeking to expand their fan base South of the Border. (Did this have anything to do with recent tensions between the United States and Mexico over the Trump administration's push to build a big new wall along the entire border?) In that May 4 game, four Dodgers pitchers threw a combined no-hitter. But the Padres got convincing wins the next two days.
While watching one of those games, I noticed that the bullpens were beyond the fences in right field and left field, rather than along the foul lines as before. So, I did some checking and found out that additional renovations had been made to Estadio Monterrey, and of course I had to draw an updated diagram for it.
And a couple weeks earlier, on April 17 and 18, big league baseball returned to Puerto Rico, as the Cleveland Indian vs. Minnesota Twins series in Hiram Bithorn Stadium; the text on that page has been updated accordingly. (Did this have anything to do with recent tensions in Puerto Rico over the Trump administration's alleged failure to respond adequately to the damage caused by Hurricane Maria last year?) It was the first game Hiram Bithorn Stadium since the Mets and Marlins played there June 28-30, 2010, in a promotional series.
I also updated the Anomalous stadiums page, which now has a single line for each separate game, for the sake of clarity. Further revisions to that page are likely in the near future.
All Star Game draws nigh!
Voting for the All Star Game 2018 is underway, Last year, three Nationals positions players made the starting lineup (Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, and Bryce Harper), and one other probably should have: Anthony Rendon. This year, however, three of those players have spent much or all of the first two months on the disabled list, the the fourth (Bryce Harper) is batting only .230, in spite of his league-leading 18 home runs. Harper may yet make it, but it would be a terrible shame if none of the Nats qualified for that honor in the very year that the All Star Game returns to the Nation's Capital for the first time in nearly a half century. As for pitchers, well, that's pretty obvious: Max Scherzer will almost certainly be the NL starting pitcher. Three other Nats pitchers (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Sean Doolittle) are worthy of becoming ASG honorees as well.
Audi Field nears completion
Two and a half blocks southwest of Nationals Park, the future home of the D.C. United soccer team is scheduled to open next month. I passed by what will soon become Audi Field two weekends ago, and snapped a couple quick photos. Supposedly, it is almost completed, but it looks to me like they'd better hurry!
Capital One Arena visit
On that same day, I got my first look at Capital One Arena in at least a decade, if my memory serves. I wanted to at least share a token experience with all the hoopla in Our Nation's Capital over the great success of the National Hocky League Washington Capitals, whose playoff fortunes over the past decade have been extremely frustrating. A few days after I took these photos, the Caps won two games at home over the Vegas Golden Knights (an expansion franchise that only began playing last fall!), and the Caps now enjoy a 3-1 series advantage. Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals will be in Las Vegas on Thursday, and if the home team wins, the series will return to D.C. for Game 6 on Sunday. Go Caps!
RFK Memorial Stadium
What we usually call "RFK Stadium" is actually "Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium" (officially renamed in January 1969(, and since it was fifty years ago today that Bobby Kennedy died, this is a fitting occasion to emphasize the Memorial part. RFK Stadium
New stadium for Rangers
Thanks to Mike Zurawski for sending me news several months ago about the Texas Rangers' future home, which will apparently also be called Globe Life Field." Weird. See lonestarball.com and MLB.com (the latter link is from Clifford "Bucky" Nance).
Baker Bowl football!
Thanks to Paul Johnson for sending me a photo of Baker Bowl during a football game. It shows very clearly 12 rows of bleachers extending about 15-20 feet past the right field foul pole, so I was able to more accurately render the football diagram variant on that page. Paul wrote an article for the 1985 Bill James Baseball Abstract, and it is available online at: baseballthinkfactory.org.
With yet another lengthy blog hiatus, I have a lot of e-mail to catch up on, including other news items from Mike Zurawski, Bruce Orser, and others. I appreciate your patience, as always...