Nationals honor "Employee #11," end losing streak
NOTE: This post is a couple days behind schedule because I've been feeling under the weather this week. Today I found out why: a positive covid test result! I took the test after getting a notification on my "Covidwise" phone app that I had been close to someone with the dreaded disease last weekend, almost certainly at one of the baseball games I was at. That'll teach me! Don't worry, my symptoms have been fairly mild, and frankly I was surprised by the test result.
Over the last weekend, many present and past members of the Washington Nationals paid tribute to their long-time de facto leader, Ryan Zimmerman. I was at the game on Friday night with my old friend Dave Givens, but my determined efforts to arrive early were thwarted by a big festival around the National Mall in Washington. "It's always something!" At least I had a pre-paid parking permit at the lot south of Audi Field (bought via spothero.com), so once I got there it was just a ten minute walk. We sailed through the turnstiles using the new-fangled tickets on our cell phones (my first time using that system), got our "Employee 11" Ryan Zimmerman T-shirts inside the gate, and soon made it up to our seats during the top of the first inning.
Coincidentally, it was almost exactly a year earlier that I had last seen a game at Nationals Park, and the very same guy as last year was on the mound once again as starting pitcher: Paulo Espino. Back then, he was an emergency replacement called up from the minors, but now he is on the starting rotation, having been promoted from bullpen duty. He did very well, finishing five innings while only allowing two earned runs. There was an unearned run in the top of the third inning, thanks to a bad throw to first by rookie shortstop Luis Garcia. The highlight of the day from the Nats' point of view was that Josh Bell hit two home runs, but only one was with a runner on base.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, the Nationals added two runs, thanks to a sac fly by Maikel Franco and an RBI double by Luis Garcia. That gave the Nats a 5-3 lead, raising hopes that their losing streak was about to end. But they kept wasting run-scoring opportunities, going only 2 for 11 with runners in scoring position. And then "karma" struck...
In the top of the ninth inning Matt Vierling hit his second home run of the night to give the Phillies a 6-5 lead. In the bottom of the inning, down to their last out with two runners on base, Nelson Cruz hit a ground ball to shortstop, but Didi Gregorious threw it off line and Cesar Hernandez scored the tying run. The game went into the tenth inning, when the Phillies scored two runs on a very controversial play. J.T. Realmuto hit a hard ground ball up the middle that just got past shortstop Luis Garcia, who was charged with obstructing the runner (Rhys Hoskins), who was really the one who should have been charged with interference. Hoskins was thrown out at the plate (not even close), but that was nullified by the umps. Davey Martinez rightly argued the call and got thrown out of the game. In the bottom of that inning, with two outs and a two-run deficit, a little-known pinch-hitter named Ehire Adrianza surprised me with a two-out RBI double, keeping hopes for a comeback alive. But then Cesar Hernandez grounded out to end the game, as the Nats lost 8-7. It was the first time I had seen the new extra-inning "ghost runner" in person, and it is just plain weird. I sure hope they get rid of that rule next year, but apparently the players' association insisted on it as a condition for restarting baseball in March. Even though the Nats lost, they played a good game against a worthy opponent, so I can't complain. Just a couple quirky things changed the outcome for the worse.
I went sightseeing in Washington on Saturday morning, and it was much cooler and windier than the day before. My second stop was Howard University Hospital, which is where Griffith Stadium used to stand. Since my previous visit a few years ago, I learned that there is a baseball home plate placque embedded in the floor as a historical marker, but the lady at the front desk told me there's no visitors on Saturday, so I was out of luck.
On Saturday afternoon, I made sure to get to Nationals Park early. I snagged cheap parking at the marina (two blocks southwest of Audi Field) and waited in line for nearly an hour to get one of the cheap five-buck tickets in the upper deck: Section 402. It was the first time I had availed myself of that nice accommodation to budget-minded fans. After lunching on pupusas (a Salvadoran specialty) I watched the ceremony for Ryan Zimmerman from in back of the lower deck. It was quite an emotional ceremony, with a red carpet for all the former Nationals players to walk on. Ryan Zimmerman's family was there, including his wife Heather, his three kids, his father Keith and his mother Cheryl, who is in a special wheelchair because she suffers from multiple sclerosis, a.k.a. MS. (It was for her that Ryan started the ziMS Foundation.) Most of the Lerner family was there, including the patriarch founder Ted and his son Mark, who has assumed responsibilities as "managing principle owner."
What made that afternoon so special was the presence of so many former Nationals players, some of whom have been retired for several years or more. There was some confusion when the announcer (Dan Kolko) briefly started talking about Jordan Zimmermann, who for some reason apparently did not walk up to the stage from the dugout. Danny Espinosa sported a Texas-sized cowboy hat. Besides the ones shown below, Laynce Nix and perhaps one or two other players was (or were) also present. You can see when they played on the Washington Nationals page. Two former Nationals also recorded video tributes to Ryan: Bryce Harper (now a Phillie) and Trea Turner (now a Dodger). Two current Nationals made a brief appearance at the ceremony: Juan Soto, who shook hands with the Lerners, and Sean Doolittle, who has been on the IL for over a month. Doolittle also recorded a video tribute.
It was clear from what all those players said that the affection and friendship they felt for Ryan was genuine. "No crying in baseball"? Well, there are exceptions to every rule. After all the speeches were over, it was time for the ritual #11 jersey removal and uncovering the new Ryan Zimmerman name, located not far from the name of Jayson Werth, who was the first National to be be honored on the "Ring of Fame." In front of the stage were Ryan's two Silver Slugger award trophies and his Golden Glove, along with the Nats' 2019 World Series trophy. It was the very first time I had seen it in person. I'm not sure exactly when that "Employee #11" expression got started, but I assume it was in an interview with Ryan being his typically modest self.
TRUE STORY: After the ceremony I got on the elevator heading to the upper deck, and I noticed a couple tall guys standing in back. One of them had a hat, shirt, beard, and blonde pony tail just like one of the Nationals you see in the photos above. That ultra-zoom shot I had taken of him left no doubt in my mind. Yes, it was Jayson Werth himself!! The other people were facing forward, but I offered my hand as he exited at the suite level, and he shook it. All I could think of to say was "You da man!" I was trying to play it cool and be low-key, figuring that he would have been annoyed by people asking for a photo or making a big fuss. A guy standing next to me likewise realized who it was and he too got a quick handshake. Indeed, a woman in that elevator freaked out and started screaming his name when she realized who she had just missed seeing.
The Saturday game was much different than either of the games on Friday: It was a classic pitchers' duel, and the Nats' starter Josiah Gray once again lived up to his high promise. The first inning was nerve-wracking, as he gave up a single, hit a batter, and then a walk to load the bases with two outs. Fortunately, he struck out Alec Bohm to get out of the jam. Believe it or not, for the next five innings that he pitched, the only Phillies to reach base did so as the result of an error (on shortstop Luis Garcia) and a wild pitch strikeout. NO more hits, and NO more walks!!! Unfortunately, the Phillies' pitcher Aaron Nola was even better, giving up only four singles and a walk over eight innings, while strking out eight Nats batters. Gray had a high pitch count, and was replaced in the seventh inning by Erasmo Ramirez, who gave up a home run to the second batter he faced: Yairo Muñoz. In the bottom of the ninth, Juan Soto got a lead-off walk, but the next two batters grounded and flew out, leaving it all up to Lane Thomas, pinch-hitting for Yadiel Hernandez. And guess what? The promising young star came through in the clutch with an RBI single to send it into extra innings! For some reason, Davey Martinez left Reed Garrett (who?) in to pitch a second innning as a reliever, and everything fell apart. The first batter, Rhys Hoskins, hit an RBI single, followed by a walk and another single before Andres Machado was brought in to prevent further damage. It's a miracle that the Phillies failed to score any more runs, but it didn't matter since all three Nats either flew out or lined out to left field in the bottom of the inning to end the game. Final score: 2-1.
The lineups for the two games I saw were fairly similar; all but two of the photos below were taken on Friday night.
The Washington Nationals page now has photos for nearly all of the regular position players and pitchers.
Having been swept by the Atlanta Braves earlier in the week, and having lost the first four out of five games in the weekend series, the Nationals were in jeopardy of setting an inglorious record. Five-game series are quite rare, and I'm almost sure that the Nationals have never been swept in such a series. Fortunately, the very same rookie pitcher who had endured such a brutal "baptism" a week earlier, Jackson Tetreault, put on a masterful display, allowing no runs and only two hits over seven innings. In the second inning, Juan Soto hit a three-run homer, and in the fifth inning Maikel Franco (a former Phillie) homered as well. Thus, the Nationals finally beat the Phillies, 9-3, and their second eight-game losing streak of the season was over.
After a day of rest, the Nationals headed to Baltimore for a two-game series against the Orioles. They won the first game 3-0 thanks to a rock-solid outing by Erick Fedde, who went six innings on the mound. In the top of the ninth, Lane Thomas hit a home run over the high scoreboard in right field to add an insurance run. The Wednesday game was the exact opposite, however. Patrick Corbin was the victim of circumstance, while Austin Hays became the sixth Oriole player in history to hit for the cycle. Final score: O's 7, Nats 0.
Can anybody beat the Yankees?
It would be remiss of me not to call attention to the spectacular year the New York Yankees are having: with a 52-18 record thus far, they are almost assured of a postseason berth, and could easily set some historic records by the end of the season. And speaking of records, Aaron Judge currently leads the majors with 27 home runs, well ahead of Yordan Alvarez (Astros), who has 22. If he keeps it up, Judge could threaten Roger Maris's non-PED era home run record of 61. This weekend the Yankees welcome the Astros to town, a possible ALCS championship series preview.
As for the Atlanta Braves, their winning streak came to an end at 14 games last week. Nevertheless, they have won four of their last five games, and are now only four games behind the New York Mets in the NL East. That would have seemed very unlikely early this month. This weekend they face stiff competition as they welcome the L.A. Dodgers to town. Meanwhile, the Nationals, who could not stop the Atlanta juggernaut last week, are playing against the Texas Rangers (the former Washington Senators!) in Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.