Braves clinch NL East while Nationals slog ahead
By beating the San Francisco Giants 6-0 tonight, the Atlanta Braves officially claimed the National League East Division title for the second year in a row. There really hasn't been much doubt about that outcome for well over a month. During the three months when the Washington Nationals were the hottest team in baseball (see August 31), the Braves managed to stay at least five games ahead of the challengers, and have kept up the pace while the Nationals slumped in September. With a record of 95-60, the Braves are now four games behind the league-leading L.A. Dodgers, and have an outside chance of claiming home field advantage through the NLCS. With a balanced, high-performing mix of eager rookies and seasoned veterans, the Braves might finally break through the invisible barrier that seems to continually thwart them in the early stage of the MLB postseason, time and again. (Much like the Nationals in their four postseason appearances!) For their part, the Nationals are in a three-way dogfight for one of two wild card slots, with ten games left to go. So as we prepare for another thrilling, cardiac arrest-inducing October, let's review how this month has gone for the Nats.
Mets almost sweep the Nats
After completing a sweep of the Miami Marlins on the first of the month, the Nationals suddenly fell flat against the visiting New York Mets. On September 2, Joe Ross had another shaky outing as pitcher, as the Mets scored seven runs during the first four innings. Were it not for a three-run homer by Asdrubal Cabrera in the bottom of the ninth, the Nats would have been shut out.
The following night's game featured one of the most improbable reversals of fortune that I can ever remember. Max Scherzer pitched a full six innings for the first time since returning from the Injured List in late August, but he was burned with a four-run Mets rally in the fourth inning. (That darned Wilson Ramos again!) The Nats struggled to catch up in the later innings, but all hope seemed lost when the Mets scored five runs in the top of the ninth. The score was 10-4, and many fans streamed out of Nationals Park. Mets Manager Mickey Callaway decided to take out Seth Lugo, who had just pitched in the eighth inning, and give some of the other relievers some practice. Bad move! Victor Robles led off with a single, and soon the Nats scored two runs and had the bases loaded with just one out. Things were getting interesting, and then Ryan Zimmerman came in as a pinch hitter. He is famous for his walk-off home runs, and even though that wasn't going to happen with a four-run deficit, he came pretty close to delivering in one of the most dramatic ways you can imagine: he smashed a double to right-center field, and two more runs scored! Next up was Kurt Suzuki, and to the delight and amazement of Nats fans everywhere, he smashed a home run to left field, putting the Nationals over the top, 11-10. It was the biggest ninth-inning comeback win ever by the Nationals, and indeed for the franchise including the Montreal Expos.
The next day (an afternoon getaway game) Anibal Sanchez pitched for the Nats, but he gave up seven runs over five-plus innings. The Nats had a three-run rally in the bottom of the sixth, but that was all the comeback they had in them. And thus the Nationals lost a series for the first time since August 9-11 -- which was also against the Mets.
Braves almost sweep the Nats
Next the Nationals flew down to Atlanta, in one last chance to close the gap with their division rivals the Braves. (They were seven games back at that point.) Stephen Strasburg pitched on September 5, and he did well enough but got no run support during the six innings on the mound. Only a two-run homer by Victor Robles in the ninth inning staved off a shutout. Braves 4, Nats 2. The next night Patrick Corbin likewise pitched a solid game, but the Nats didn't get on the scoreboard until the eighth inning, when Ryan Zimmerman hit a three-run home run. Braves 4, Nats 3. The Saturday night game seemed to be a long-shot since the young pitcher Austin Voth filled in as a starting pitcher, but he did better than expected. I questioned the manager's decision to replace him in the fifth inning, but the first reliever -- Aaron Barrett -- created quite an emotional scene. In his first major league appearance in four years (due to multiple surgeries on his throwing arm), he finished the inning without giving up any hits or runs. This was one of those exceptions to the "no crying in baseball" rule. In the later innings, the Nats closed the gap, but once again the Braves clung to the lead and won it, 5-4. On Sunday Max Scherzer had a superb outing, striking out nine over six innings while only giving up one run. The Nats hit four home runs, including two by Yan Gomes (who has had a disappointing year), and Asdrubal Cabrera went four for five at the plate. And thus the Nationals avoided being swept, with a resounding 9-4 victory.
Nats rebound, beat Twins
In their first-ever game in Target Field on September 10, the Nationals seemed hopelessly confused. Anibal Sanchez pitched for seven innings, but his team ended up being shut out, [5-0].** Things quickly turned around the next day, however, as Stephen Strasburg did just fine on the mound, while both Ryan Zimmerman and Trea Turner hit home runs. In fact, both Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick went three for four at the plate, a reassuring sign that those veteran sluggers have still got it. The Sunday game was even better, with four Nationals hitting home runs and Patrick Corbin having another solid outing on the mound. The Nats won it easily, 12-6, the first time they have won on consecutive days this month.
** [CORRECTION; originally "5-2"]
Braves pull away from Nats
The very next day (Friday the 13th!) the Nats were back in D.C. for a three-game home stand against the Atlanta Braves -- again, and once again they lost the opening game of the series, 5-0. Max Scherzer gave up some big run-scoring hits, while the Nats could hardly get a man on base. (I almost went to see that game in person, since they were giving away Anthony Rendon bobbleheads, but the weather was dismal, and I'm kind of glad I didn't.) The next night's game ended up even worse, even though Austin Voth threw a spectacular game, giving up just one run over five and two-thirds innings. Once again, the bullpen collapsed, and recriminations started flying around among Nats fans. Final score: Braves 10, Nats 1. Fortunately, Anibal Sanchez pitched a great game on Sunday and the Nats' bats started heating up. Howie Kendrick led the way with a home run and two singles, as the Nats won it, 7-0. Another near-sweep averted!
Nats are flummoxed by Cardinals
The very next day (Monday the 16th), the Nats flew to St. Louis, where the first-place Cardinals were lying in wait. Stephen Strasburg pitched OK, but all the Nats could manage on offense was a homer by Anthony Rendon and an RBI by Victor Robles. Tuesday's game went much better, as Patrick Corbin struck out eleven batters and gave up just two unearned runs over six innings, while Howie Kendrick homered again and came a triple shy of hitting for the "cycle." Nats 6, Cards 2. But in the series finale on Wednesday, the Cards got the best of Max Scherzer, who tried his best to finish the seventh inning, but ended up giving up a two-run home run, and the Cardinals won it, 5-1.
In Miami tonight, the Nationals prevailed over the Marlins 6-4, thanks to two solo homers by Trea Turner and a clutch three-run homer by Asdrubal Cabrera. Anibal Sanchez pitched fairly well until the sixth inning, at which point he seemed to lose his command. Wander Suero came in to relieve him, and soon allowed both inherited runners to score. But the Nats were still ahead, and padded their lead with Turner's second homer in the top of the seventh inning. Daniel Hudson gave up three hits over the final two innings, but none of those runners scored.
The other division races
With my focus on the Washington Nationals, I tend to neglect races outside the National League East, but there is drama in some of the other divisions. The New York Yankees and L.A. Dodgers have clinched their divisions (AL East, NL West), and the Houston Astros about to clinch the AL West. The Minnesota Twins and St. Louis Cardinals lead their divisions by a few games, so the main question at this point is who will take the two wild card spots in each league. I am constantly amazed by the consistent performance of the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays, who are vying for the AL wild card game with the Cleveland Indians. Even with a meager payroll, a small fan base, and seriously outmoded stadiums, those teams continue to compete on a true championship level.
Meanwhile, the Nationals' one-game lead over the Brewers in the NL wild card race is tenuous indeed, and much depends on the unusual five-game home series against the Phillies next week. Everything may boil down to the final weekend, and I hope to see at least one of the Nats' games in D.C. against the Cleveland Indians.
The Cy Young and MVP races
Despite their recent struggles (8-10 this month), the Nationals have two pitchers in contention for the Cy Young Award (Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg), while Anthony Rendon is probably ahead in the "race" for the National League MVP Award. Including Patrick Corbin, the Nationals undoubtedly have the best top three pitchers in the major leagues right now, and that threesome recently achieved something that no three pitchers from the same team had ever accomplished before: All three of them have struck out at least 224 batters this year. Strasburg has 235 strikeouts and Scherzer has 233; if he hadn't missed most of July and August, Max would have had way over 300 strikeouts by now. What a shame... Among hitters, meanwhile, the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger has gone way downhill at the plate this month, while the Brewers' Christian Yelich broke a knee cap on a foul tip a couple weeks ago, putting his MVP candidacy in doubt. Anthony Rendon had a couple off-games, so his average has dipped to .328, but he is still within one of the NL leader in RBIs, Freddie Freeman, who has 120.
Will RFK Stadium soon be gone?
D.C. government officials recently announced that they plan to demolish RFK Stadium within the next two years. It costs too much to maintain the structure, which is crumbling and no longer fit to host professional sports. It's too bad they can't find a way to "mothball" it, so as to preserve the last true "cookie-cutter" stadium from the 1960s and 70s as an architectural monument of sorts. I wish they could at least rearrange the lower deck for one last nostalgic baseball game there, but I suppose that is a far-fetched scenario.