Nationals hit rock bottom, finally bounce back
This has been a trying month for fans of the Washington Nationals. Whereas they started the 2019 season on virtually the same track as the year before (with a 12-16 record in their first month compared to 13-16 in April 2018; see the Washington Nationals page), unlike May 2018 (when they went 19-7) this year they have continued to stumble throughout May. Tonight's game in Cincinnati will determine whether May is slightly better or slightly worse than April. Indeed, they were doing so badly last week (with a five-game losing streak), that it could have ended up much worse. But this week they achieved a three-game winning streak for the first time this year, and indeed have won five of their last six games -- a minor miracle.
On May 14, the Nats returned home from a bleak road trip to face the New York Mets. Once again, the Nats lost the opening game of the series as Jeremy Hellickson gave up five runs over five innings, and lost, 6-2. But with Patrick Corbin on the mound the next day, the Nats got going offensively as Anthony Rendon (just back from the Injured List) went three for four at the plate and Victor Robles homered for the second day in a row. Final score: Nats 5, Mets 1. In the final game of that series, Thursday afternoon, starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez was replaced in the second inning due to an arm injury. But somehow the bullpen managed to do an adequate job this time, while newly-acquired Gerardo Parra was the hero once again, going 3 for 3, including a home run. The Nats held on to win, 7-6, and that is how they won their first actual series in almost a month!
But the good vibes from that flicker of hope didn't last long. The Chicago Cubs came to town on May 17, and Max Scherzer had a fair outing, giving up three runs over six innings. He was in line for the win, but then the bullpen came in, and yadda, yadda, yadda... Final score: Cubs 14, Nats 6. The next day Stephen Strasburg only allowed two runs over eight innings (one earned), and the Nats won 5-2. A homer by Brian Dozier (a disappointment since he joined the team this spring) and three RBIs by Juan Soto made the difference. In the final game of that series (May 19), Jeremy Hellickson only lasted three innings. In spite of home runs by Howie Kendrick and Anthony Rendon, the Cubs won that game, 6-5. Hellickson was put on the Injured List after the game; ever since the May 3 game against the Phillies when he was abruptly pulled during the sixth inning after throwing nine strikeouts, things have gone downhill for him.
The Nats then headed up to Queens, New York for a four-game series against the Mets. On May 20 Patrick Corbin had a rare off day on the mound, giving up four runs over five innings, and the Mets won it, 5-3. The next day Erick Fedde pitched in lieu of the ailing Anibal Sanchez, and did a fine job, giving up just one run in five innings. But then the bullpen came in, ... Final score: Mets 6, Nats 5. On Wednesday Max Scherzer pitched even better than the time before, blanking the Mets over six innings. Thanks to a first-inning solo homer by Adam Eaton, he left with his team ahead, but then the bullpen came in. The relievers got three quick outs in the seventh inning, but Kyle Barraclough got in trouble in the eighth inning, and manager Dave Martinez called in the usual closer Sean Doolittle -- and all hell broke loose. The Mets hit a bases-loaded double followed by an intentional walk (to ex-Nats catcher Wilson Ramos!) and then a home run (by Rajai Davis), thus scoring 6 runs in the eighth inning. That was four more than they needed to win. And if that wasn't dispiriting enough, on Thursday May 23, the Nats wasted a heroic three-run comeback to take the lead in the top of the eighth inning, when the Mets did likewise in the bottom of the inning. The Nats' promising but inconsistent relief pitcher Wander Suero was one strike away from getting the third out when Carlos Gomez hit a three-run homer, and the Mets won the game, 6-4.
And thus the Nats got swept in a four-game series for the first time since August 13-16, 2015, playing against the Giants in San Francisco. For anyone who had previously imagined that things just couldn't get any worse for the Nationals, they did get worse. What was especially galling was that the Mets themselves had just been swept in four games by the last-place Miami Marlins! May 23 will no doubt be remembered as when the Nats hit rock bottom in 2019.
On that somber note, the Nats returned home on Friday May 24, welcoming the Marlins to D.C. It was a crazy, back-and-forth game in which rookie Kyle McGowin only lasted four innings. The Nats finally took the lead in the eighth inning thanks to home runs by Juan Soto and Matt Adams, and Sean Doolittle got the save even though he gave up a solo home run in the ninth inning. Nats 12, Marlins 10. On Saturday afternoon, Patrick Corbin returned to his normal fine form, going nine full innings without giving up any runs. It was the Nats' first complete-game shutout since April 9, 2018 (by Max Scherzer). Yan Gomes hit a three-run double in the fourth inning, providing a big safety cushion for Corbin. Final score: Nats 5, Marlins 0. On Sunday Erick Fedde pitched five solid innings once again, not giving up any runs this time, and thanks mainly to the bat of Howie Kendrick, the Nats won it, 9-6. It was the first time all year that the Nationals had won three games in a row. On Monday afternoon (Memorial Day), the Nats were in great position to take a four-game sweep as Max Scherzer took the mound, but once again the offense let him down. The Nats were ahead 2-1 when he left after six innings, but errors by Matt Adams (seventh inning) and Trea Turner (eighth inning) resulted in the Marlins tying the game and then taking the lead, as they won the finale, 3-2. [Turner broke a finger while trying to bunt in early April, and after seven weeks on the Injured List, he is slowly getting going again.]
Next, the Nationals headed south to Atlanta for a short two-game series. On Tuesday, Stephen Strasburg was again masterful, striking out 11 Braves batters over seven innings. Howie Kendrick homered once again (his ninth this year), and both he and Trea Turner got three hits. In the bottom of the eighth, Kyle Barraclough gave up a two-run homer, but Sean Doolittle struck out three batters while only allowing one hit in the ninth inning, as the Nats held on to win, 5-4. In the Wednesday night game, something truly amazing happened: starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, who had lost six games without any wins during the first two months, was almost flawless and had a perfect game going into the sixth inning. It probably helped that the Nationals had already built a 14-0 lead by then, an extremely comfortable "cushion." But then Ozzie Albies hit a single with one out, and Sanchez's bid for history was stopped cold. (He used to pitch for the Braves.) Dave Martinez replaced him in the seventh inning, being cautious since Sanchez had just returned from the Injured List. So what do you think happened after that? Of course, reliever Kyle McGowin gives up a grand slam to Austin Riley! McGowin stayed in for the final two innings without further damage. Nats 14, Braves 4, Washington's second biggest victory of the year. (They beat the Phillies on April 10, 15-1.)
And so, the Nats have now won five of their last six games for the first time this season, as they head to Cincinnati for a three-game series against the last-place Reds. Patrick Corbin will be on the mound, looking for his sixth win of the season.
The ill fortunes of the Washington Nationals this year raises the question of whether the team can get a collective grip and contend once again for the NL East title this year. Fans wonder whether the Nats can somehow still make postseason, but at eight games below .500 (24-32) and nine games behind the first-place Phillies, that is obviously a long shot.
Rating the new Nationals
This year's Washington Nationals has been revamped since last year, and the new players have had some notable "hits" as well as misses.
|Patrick Corbin||Starting pitcher (L)||A|
|Anibal Sanchez||Starting pitcher (R)||D|
|Jeremy Hellickson||Starting pitcher (R)||C|
|Kyle Barraclough||Relief pitcher (R)||C|
|Brian Dozier||Second baseman||C|
|Yan Gomes||Starting catcher||C|
|Curt Suzuki||Backup catcher||B|
Not included on the list is Victor Robles, who played during the latter part of the 2018 season. He is considered a rookie this year, as was his slugging buddy from the Dominican Republic, Juan Soto last year.
Who's to blame for the Nats' woes?
"Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan."
(Count Galeazzo Ciano, 1942)
Disappointed fans and sports analysts are quick to pin the blame whenever a team performs as far below expectations as the Nationals have this year. Lacking in the finer points of baseball strategy and tactics, I generally hesitate to criticize managers, but my reticence as been sorely tested with Dave Martinez. With that in mind, I tend to share Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell's conclusion that, while the Nationals probably have other problems to tackle, at the top of the list is the team's manager. To Boswell, it seems that Martinez just lacks any awareness that he must push and motivate his players into performing better. That plus the frequent lapses of judgment about whether or when to replace the pitcher add up to a failing grade. Another Washington Post columnist, Barry Svrluga, expressed similar thoughts.
So, who could replace Martinez? Former Yankee manager Joe Girardi is among the possibilities often mentioned. Former Nats coach Bo Porter may be interested, but Dusty Baker would probably refuse an offer even if Mike Rizzo were desperate enough to go back begging. I think it would help immensely to bring back Jayson Werth in some kind of coaching capacity, to see whether he might eventually become a managerial candidate. Ryan Zimmerman's status with the team next year is in doubt, and some have suggested some kind of front office or coaching role for him if the Lerners decide that he isn't worth the $18 million he would be owed if his contract option is taken.
But beyond the manager himself, there is also the hard-to-define quality of team spirit that seems to be lacking with the Nationals this year. The loss of Jayson Werth, Daniel Murphy, and Bryce Harper meant that no one was left to get the guys in the dugout fired up when they needed to be.
R.I.P. Bill Buckner
Former MLB star player Bill Buckner passed away at the age of 69 this week. He started with the L.A. Dodgers in 1969, and later went to the Chicago Cubs for a few years before becoming a member of the Boston Red Sox in 1984. With 2,715 hits, 174 home runs, and a .289 batting average over his long career, he deserves to be remembered for all the big things he accomplished on the field. Unfortunately, baseball -- like life in general -- is sometimes very cruel. Read about his legacy at MLB.com.
Three Rivers Stadium update
Continuing with my recent detour from my main objective of "tackling" the remaining stadiums (Griffith, Yankee, and Forbes Field) by doing minor touch-ups of certain "cookie-cutter" stadiums, I made an update to the Three Rivers Stadium diagrams. Nothing really huge changed, but it took longer than expected to resolve some nagging puzzles, and is definitely a needed improvement. The most significant changes since the last such update (on Dec. 9, 2014) are:
- The entry portals and adjacent stairs in the upper deck are now more accurate and detailed than before.
- The entry portals in the lower deck are likewise more accurate, and the dugouts do not extend as far out from home plate as they did before.
- There is no longer a gap between the outfield fence and the seating sections that were added in 1975. (One of the photos taken by former major leaguer Jerry Reuss clearly shows that the fence was flush against the wall.)
- There are now separate diagrams for the first and second decks, rather than a single lower-decks diagram as before. The second "deck" was only about 6 or 7 rows, smaller than the ten-row standard I usually apply for considering a mezzanine level a full-fledged deck. Plus, it was actually above a luxury suite / press box level, and was thus the third level, which means that what I labeled as the "third deck" was actually the fourth level. Both those diagrams shows more detail (partly conjectural in the main concourse), including arrows show which way was up in the access ramps around the stadium perimeter.
- All diagram versions now show the four main pedestrian access bridges by which fans got to and from the parking lots, etc.
As is usually the case, you can compare the new version to the old version (in this case, from 2014) by clicking on the diagram image on that page.
Like Riverfront Stadium, the dugouts at Three Rivers Stadium were ground-level, i.e., not "dug-out" at all. Ever wonder what other MLB stadiums had that characteristic? Well, here's a preliminary listing:
- Three Rivers Stadium
- Riverfront Stadium
- Jack Murphy Stadium
- Olympic Stadium
- Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (until 1974)
- Dolphin (Hard Rock) Stadium
- Exhibition Stadium