October 14, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nationals take a 3-0 NLCS lead, D.C. fans are ecstatic
After four agonizingly disappointing postseason attempts over the last decade, the Washington Nationals finally made it to the National League Championship Series, and they made the most of it in St. Louis over the weekend. Since their "big three" starting pitchers were worn out from the Clash of Titans with the L.A. Dodgers, Aníbal Sánchez took the mound on Friday night. I've been observing his steady improvement ever since he returned from the Injured List in May, and after Game 1, it's pretty clear that he now ranks alongside Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. To the amazement of all (and to the delight of Nats fans), Sanchez had a no-hitter going into the eighth inning, spoiled by pinch hitter Jose Martinez, who singled. Offensively, the Nats got on the scoreboard in the second inning thanks to doubles by Howie Kendrick and Yan Gomes -- one of the few truly clutch hits Gomes has had this year. In the seventh inning, Adam Eaton hit a one-out triple, and one out later Kendrick batted him in. Final score: Nats 2, Cards 0.
Aníbal Sanchez, after the final game of the regular season on September 29.
Late on Saturday afternoon, with the shadows covering more and more of the field at Busch Stadium, Max Scherzer started for the Nationals. Having grown up in the St. Louis area, it was familiar territory for him, and he pitched like he felt as if he were right at home. In fact, he almost duplicated the superlative pitching feat of Sanchez the night before, not giving up any hits until the seventh inning. He threw 11 strikeouts altogether. In the third inning Michael A. Taylor stunned the crowd with a solo home run, giving the Nats a slight but vital psychological edge as the game progressed. In the eighth inning, Adam Eaton hit a two-run double to give the Nats a 3-0 lead. In the bottom of that inning, Sean Doolittle was handling relief duties fairly well until a line drive by Jose Martinez (once again, pinch hitting) sailed over Michael A. Taylor's head in center field. Taylor misjudged it, but it was scored a double. That was the only run scored by the home team in St. Louis, as the Nats won again, 3-1.
Those two victories put the Nationals in a commanding position, with a very real chance to win the series back home in Washington. That made me wonder how the other teams that have begun seven-game series with two wins on the road have fared after that, so I checked my Postseason scores page, which goes back to 2002, and here is what I found:
Counting this year, that makes six league championship series that started off with two victories by the visiting team. (It has not happened in any World Series during that time period.) Of the five such series thus far, four of them ended up as sweeps and one ended up as a four-games-to-one outcome. That's not very encouraging for the Cardinals.
This evening, back home in Our Nation's Capital, the Nationals were well-prepared for Game 3. Stephen Strasburg was pitching, and he fully lived up to expectations, striking out an even dozen batters over seven innings. The Nats' Adam Eaton sparked a rally with a clutch RBI single in the third inning, followed by RBI doubles by Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick (two-run). With a 4-0 lead, Strasburg could cruise without too much pressure. Two innings later it was 6-0, and then 7-0. The Cardinals finally got on the board in the seventh inning, but the Nats responded in kind on an RBI single by Ryan Zimmerman. The final outcome was utter devastation for the visiting team which had wrought so much sorrow there seven years before: Nats 8, Cards 1. The 43,675 fans crammed into Nationals Park whooped in jubilation, eager for the next monumental chapter in D.C. baseball history -- perhaps as early as Tuesday night.
ALCS: Yankees, Astros split two
In Houston, meanwhile, the New York Yankees came very close to repeating what the Nationals had done in St. Louis -- taking a 2-0 series lead on the road. In Game 1 (Saturday), Astros pitcher Zack Greinke (acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade on July 31) gave up three runs, two of which were solo homers in the sixth inning, after which he departed. It got worse after that, and the Yankees won, 7-0. Game 2 was more of a pitchers' duel, but an odd one in which the Astros' Justin Verlander went against a series of Yankee relief pitcher. The Astros tied it 2-2 in the , and then won the game on a home run by Carlos Correa in the 11th inning. Final score: Astros 3, Yankees 2.
I noticed that Sports Illustrated featured the Astros' two top pitchers (Gerritt Cole and Justin Verlander) on their cover last week, perhaps another installment of the "SI Curse." There was also an article about the Atlanta Braves moving to the northern suburbs where most of their fans live, and perhaps they suffered from that curse as well.
October 10, 2019 [LINK / comment]
How about Howie?! Nationals come back to win NLDS!
Maybe, just maybe, the Washington Nationals' bad habit of crushing disappointment in the postseason is behind them. And maybe being the underdogs this time worked to their advantage. Whereas they were favored to win in their four preceding appearances in the National League Divisional Series (2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017), this time the L.A. Dodgers were the heavy favorites. Just like in the National League Wild Card Game against the Milwaukee Brewers, fate finally smiled on the long-tortured Nats.
The game started off on an ominous note, as Stephen Strasburg gave up a two-run homer to Max Muncy before any outs had been recorded, and in the second inning Enrique Hernandez hit a lead-off homer to take a 3-0 lead. (That sentence is virtually identical to the one I wrote describing the early part of the NL Wild Card Game; only the names have changed.) Just like Max Scherzer, however, Strasburg collected his wits like a pro and hung in there through six total innings without giving up any more runs. Even though the Nats didn't score while he was pitching, he at least kept the game close enough to give the Nats a realistic chance at a comeback. And indeed they did! In the sixth inning, Anthony Rendon hit a leadoff double and then scored when Juan Soto singled. In the seventh inning, Kurt Suzuki was hit in the face by a pitch thrown by Walker Buehler, and had to come out of the game. Two outs later, Trea Turner walked, and Clayton Kershaw came in as a relief pitcher. Adam Eaton struck out. Kershaw remained on the mound in the eighth inning, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto hit back-to-back home runs to tie the game 3-3, forcing a stunned Kershaw out of the game. Patrick Corbin, who had a meltdown in NLDS Game 3, redeemed himself by getting four outs as a relief pitcher, and the game went into the tenth inning. That's when the "magic" started. Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly, who had baffled the Nats with a devastating combination of knuckle curve balls and fast balls in the ninth inning, gave up a lead-off walk to Adam Eaton. That was followed by a Anthony Rendon ground-rule double, obliging Kelly to intentially walk Juan Soto. (I tell you, that slugging combination of Rendon and Soto reminds me a lot of Maris and Mantle!) Next up was Howie Kendrick, a former Dodger who had something to prove. A sac fly or a hard ground ball would have been enough to score a run, but it was [not] enough for Howie! He hit a long fly ball that just cleared the center field fence for a grand slam, his second as a National. WOW!!! That gave the Nationals a 7-3 lead, and the 54,000+ fans in Dodger Stadium started streaming out in dejected silence. Sean Doolittle pitched a flawless bottom of the tenth inning, aided by a diving catch of a short fly ball in center field by Michael A. Taylor to end the game. What a fairy-tale happy ending!
The hero of the NLDS Howie Kendrick, at Wrigley Field on August 5, 2017.
Cardinals advance to NLCS
What happened in Atlanta yesterday evening was an unimaginable gut blow to Braves' fans, who have endured numerous disappointing losses in the NL Divisional Series over the past two decades. The St. Louis Cardinals scored ten (10) runs in the first inning, setting a postseason MLB record, and the game was essentially over after the first 20 or minutes. Somehow the Braves' pitcher Mike Foltynewicz crumpled, after having performed so well in NLDS Game 2. Final score: 13-1. You never know...
So, the Nationals will head to St. Louis for the first two games of the National League Championship Series on Friday and Saturday. The Cardinals have one of the best organizations in baseball, and they know how to win when it really counts. But if you match up the talent player for player, I think the Nats have an edge. Add to that the sky-high mojo the Nats have built from their amazing regular season comeback, the Wild Card Game comeback, and the NLDS comeback, I'd say the Nats have a big advantage. But I'm not counting on anything, and the series could easily go to six or seven games.
Can Rays upset Astros?
Game 5 of the ALDS will take place in Houston tonight, as the Tampa Bay Rays try for a historic upset against the top-seeded Astros. The winner will then face the Yankees on Saturday in Game 1 of the ALCS.
October 9, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nats, Cards, Rays survive; Yankees oust the Twins
Monday was an unusual situation in that all four playoff games posed the threat of elimination to the home teams. Three of them actually rose to the occasion and survived -- the Nationals, Cardinals, Rays -- while the Minnesota Twins failed.
In Washington, the Nationals had their backs against the wall, after another meltdown by the "relief" pitchers on Sunday night. That game started on a buoyant note, as Juan Soto smacked a two-run homer in the first inning. Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez truly rose to the occasion, throwing four scoreless innings before the Dodgers got on the scoreboard. But for some reason, manager Dave Martinez decided to replace Sanchez with Patrick Corbin in the sixth inning, and all hell soon broke loose. Corbin had two outs with one runner on base, but then seemed to flinch every time he had two strikes on a batter. He was either just missing the strike zone for a walk, or else lobbing an easy pitch which the Dodgers batters eagerly swung at. Before you knew it, the Nats' slim 2-1 lead had turned into a 5-2 deficit, and Corbin's confidence was shattered. So, Dave Martinez brought in the extremely unpredictable Wander Suero from the bullpen, and almost immediately Justin Turner smashed a three-run home run to make it an 8-2 game. It appeared that once again, Nationals Park was the scene of an agonizingly cruel, sudden twist of fate. The Nats' rallied in the bottom of the sixth, but a base-running blunder by Howie Kendrick stopped it at just two runs scored. Hunter Strickland pitched in the top of the ninth inning, and gave up [a home run to Russell Martin, scoring] David Freese. (Old Nats fans like me remember the role Freese played in the ninth-inning horror show in the 2012 NLDS Game 5 against the Cardinals.) Final score: Dodgers 10, Nationals 4.
On that somber note, down two games to one in a five-game series, the Nationals' vaunted starting pitcher Max Scherzer had his postseason MLB career on the line in Game 4 on Monday night. Nats fans soon cringed when he gave up a solo home run to Justin Turner in the first inning, exposing his weak spot for all the world to see. But contrary to my fears, he settled down after than and seven complete innings, giving up just three more hits and no more runs. The Nats tied it in the third inning on a sac fly by Anthony Rendon, and then took the lead in the fifth inning when Rendon hit an RBI single. Three batters later, with two runners on base, Ryan Zimmerman stepped up to the plate and hit one of the biggest home runs of his 14-year career. And the crowd went wild! An inning later, Rendon hit another RBI sac fly, and leading 6-1, the Nats could shake their anxiety and cruise through the late innings. And that's how they evened the series two games apiece.
As Game 5 of the NLDS approaches in Los Angeles this evening, with Stephen Strasburg on the mound, the Nats have every reason to feel confident that they have a better-than-even chance to prevail over the Dodgers and make it to the National League Championship Series for the first time. Tune in tomorrow, sports fans!
In my October 3 blog post, I had a montage of faces of some of the Nationals and Indians players who were conspicuous that day. Here are some other Nats players, most of whom did not play that day but were participating in the postgame autographed jersey lottery. Included here are four of the pitchers in the top starting rotation in the major leagues this year, measured by strikeouts at least:
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Anibal Sanchez, Patrick Corbin, Sean Doolittle, Stephen Strasburg, Michael A. Taylor, Kurt Suzuki, Max Scherzer, and Asdrubal Cabrera -- wearing a "Baby Shark" headband! (During and after the game against the Cleveland Indians on September 29.)
In Saint Louis, the Braves took Game 3 by a score of 3-1, and were in position to win the series in Game 4, except that they blew a precious opportunity in the late innings. Ronald Acuña hit a leadoff triple, but the next three batters were out, stranding the go-ahead run on third base. Simply inexcusable. In the tenth inning, the Cardinals won the game on a sac fly to left field, and the home town fans exulted at the comeback. Cards 5, Braves 4. In the first inning of the Game 5 in Atlanta tonight, ... Well, let's not go there. What an agonizing disappointment.
In Saint Petersburg (across the Bay from Tampa), the Rays exploded (figuratively speaking), and cruised to a 10-3 win over the seemingly invincible Astros. To the surprise of many, the Rays evened the series with the Astros the next day, winning 4-1. Somehow they got to [Justin] Verlander, who was replaced during the fourth inning, but the Rays held on to their lead until the end. Game 5 will be tomorrow night.
And finally, in Minneapolis (more or less across the Mississippi River from Saint Paul), the Twins tried to bounce back against the New York Yankees, but just couldn't get going. They succumbed to the Yankees in three straight lopsided games.
All the scores are on the Postseason scores page.
October 6, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Both NL Divisional Series were split 1-1 *
The Washington Nationals are right where they want to be, as confident underdogs playing before a friendly home crowd and facing an vaunted opponent that they were able to size up during the regular season. But the way the National League Divisional Series got started, they could have been in a very deep hole right now. In the first inning of Game 1, Patrick Corbin walked four Dodger batters, and was lucky that only one run scored. The Dodgers scored one more in the fifth inning, and an error by first baseman Howie Kendrick was partly responsible for that. To his credit, Corbin only had one earned run over six innings, but he got no run support, while the Nats' bullpen crumpled once again. In the seventh inning, the Dodgers scored two runs on a single by Max Muncy while Fernando Rodney was on the mound, and an inning later they hit two solo home runs off of Hunter Strickland, more or less icing the cake. Final score: L.A. 6, Nationals 0. It was the Nats' first loss after nine consecutive victories, including the Wild Card Game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
The next "evening" (the dead of night here in the east), the Dodgers had Clayton Kershaw on the mound, but the Nats managed to get the bases loaded. Howie Kendrick atoned for the errors of the previous night by hitting an RBI single, but then Ryan Zimmerman popped out on the first pitch he saw and Kurt Suzuki struck out to end the inning. In the second inning, Kershaw hit the first batter (Victor Robles) with a pitch, and soon he scored on an RBI single by Adam Eaton. Anthony Rendon batted in Eaton with a double, and all of a sudden the Nats were ahead 3-0. How many people expected that? The Nats' current ace pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, had a superlative outing on the mound, just three days after pitching three innings of relief against the Brewers. He struck out ten batters over six innings, and in fact had a perfect game going into the fifth inning. The Nats' former closing pitcher Sean Doolittle gave up a solo homer, making it a 3-2 game, but then the Nats retook a two-run lead Ryan Zimmerman hit a leadoff double and later scored on an RBI single by Asdrubal Cabrera. (The latter's base-running goof cut short what could have been an even bigger rally.) In the bottom of the eighth, fans on both sides gasped when Max Scherzer came out of the bullpen to pitch in relief. I often criticize manager Dave Martinez for his pitching decisions, but this move worked out brilliantly. Scherzer struck out the side, keeping the two-run cushion intact. In the bottom of the ninth, Justin Turner led off with a ground-rule double, but Daniel Hudson struck out the next batter and Cody Bellinger popped out. Curiously, Hudson intentionally walked Max Muncy and unintentionally walked Will Smith to load the bases. Nats fans grimaced in extreme anxiety, but Hudson struck out Corey Seager on a 2-2 count to end the game. Whew!
As Game 3 gets underway with the much-improved veteran Anibal Sanchez pitching for the Nats, there is every reason to expect that the Nationals will end up the winners of this divisional series. Max Scherzer is due to pitch tomorrow night, and if it goes to Game 5 on Wednesday, Stephen Strasburg will be ready to go. Here are some of the key figures from the Dodgers-Nationals game I saw on July 28:
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Brian Dozier, Stephen Strasburg, Walker Buehler, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Will Smith, Matt Adams, and Gerardo Parra.
In Atlanta, the Cardinals took Game 1 by a score of 7-6, after a strange sequence of events. Last year's NL Rookie of the Year [Ronald Acuña] played as though he were still a rookie, disdaining to run on a long ball that he thought he had homered, and which would have been an easy double. But he [only made it to first and] failed to score that inning, and that one run ended up proving decisive. Much of the blame goes to the Braves' bullpen, which gave up four runs to St. Louis in the top of the ninth. The Braves responded with three runs, but it wasn't quite enough. But in Game 2, their starting pitcher [Mike] Foltynewicz cruised through seven shutout innings, only allowing three hits, and the Braves won it, 3-0, evening the series.
* In St. Louis this evening, the Cardinals had a 1-0 lead going into the ninth inning, whereupon the Braves pounced with a three-run rally, winning the game to take a 2-1 series lead just as I was finishing this blog post. Atlanta's chances of making it to the NLCS just skyrocketed.
Yanks & Astros lead AL Divisional Series 2-0
The matchups on the American League side seem much more imbalanced. In New York, the Yankees trounced the Minnesota Twins 10-4, mainly by switching pitchers at key moments to thwart Twins' rallies. The Yankees only had one more hit than the Twins (8 vs. 7), but they made much better use of them. In the second game the Yankees scored seven runs in the second inning, thanks in part to a grand slam by Didi Gregorious. After that the outcome wasn't really in doubt; final score 8-2. Pitching, pitching, pitching.
In Houston, the Astros easily defeated the Tampa Bay Rays by a score of 6-2 in Game 1, with Justin Verlander giving up only one hit over seven innings. Game 2 was much closer, as Garrett Cole struck out 15 batters over 7 2/3 inngs. In both games, the Rays' only runs scored came in the late innings. Thus, both the Yankees and Astros now lead the respective AL Divisional Series 2-0.
Just in case the website of MLB, ESPN, and all the major networks are down, you can keep up with the Postseason scores page, which is being updated at least once a day.
October 3, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Soto did it! Nationals win miracle wild card comeback
Heretofore, the three deciding/elimination postseason games at Nationals Park (2012, 2016, and 2017) have each been marked by some outrageously improbable, hideous twist of fate that sealed the losing team's doom. (Obviously, the visitors won.) The same thing happened this year's National League wild card game between the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, but this time the shoe was on the other foot, and fate finally smiled on the long-tortured Nats.
The game started off on an ominous note, as Max Scherzer gave up a two-run homer to Yasmani Grandal before any outs had been recorded, and in the second inning Eric Thames hit a lead-off homer to take a 3-0 lead. The Brewers aptly exploited Max's well-known weak spot, his penchant for challenging hitters with hittable fastballs. But he kept his cool after that, and the Nationals hung in there and eventually came back to win the National League wild card game in truly miraculous fashion. Trea Turner hit a two-out solo home run in the third inning, but neither team scored for the next four innings. The Brewers' Brandon Woodruff pitched four innings, while Max Scherzer pitched five innings, followed by Stephen Strasburg in the very first relief appearance in his career. He was nearly flawless for the next three innings. In the bottom of the eighth, Victor Robles struck out and Michael A. Taylor (recently called up from the minors) pinch hit for Strasburg. Knowing Michael's history of striking out on bad pitches, I groaned and dreaded the worst. But he proved me wrong, and drew a full count after which he was (according to the umpire) hit by a pitch and took first base. Replays showed the ball bounced in a way that could only result from contact with the bat, but the reviewers said it was inconclusive, so the Nats caught a break. He might have walked had it been called a foul, but we'll never know. Anyway, Trea Turner then came up and struck out, followed by Ryan Zimmerman coming in to pinch hit for Adam Eaton. Had the Nats lost, it might well have been Ryan's very last at-bat as a National, but something told me he was not going to end his career in vain. Well, he proved me right, getting a single that put Taylor on third base. Then the fearsome Anthony Rendon came up and walked to load the bases. It was clearly not Josh Hader's best day on the mound. (He had 37 saves this year.) The next batter was 20-year old Juan Soto, the youngest cleanup hitter in postseason baseball history, in the most pivotal moment of his two-year MLB career. I had a good feeling. Juan not only has the muscle of a champion slugger, he has the poise and smarts of a veteran, and boy, did he live up to his soaring reputation! He lined a single to the right fielder Trent Grisham, who misplayed the bounce, and before you knew it three runs had scored to give the Nats the lead! Juan Soto tried for third but was caught in a rundown for the final out, but it didn't really matter. Daniel Hudson successfully closed the game in the ninth inning, giving up one hit and a long fly ball to center field that Victor Robles caught for the final out. It was one of the Nats' biggest late-inning comebacks ever, and fans in Nationals Park erupted in a state of euphoria unlike any other game that has been played there.
Accordingly, I have updated the Washington Nationals page with data on that game, etc. I took photos of several "new" Nats whom I had not seen before, such as Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, et al.
Nationals win in a glorious anti-climax
I was at the Nationals' final regular season game of the year, hosting the Cleveland Indians on Sunday afternoon. My old friend Dave Givens and I had good seats in the middle deck about half way toward the left field pole. We got nice "puffy vests" as a giveaway to the first 20,000 (?) fans, but I was frustrated at the meager selection and high price of postseason T-shirts in the Nats Fan Store. Contrary to my low expectations (given that it was a game of no real significance), it turned out to be exciting and jubilant. The weather was almost ideal, and the Nationals were not slacking off at all. Trea Turner led off the bottom of the first with a single, and after two outs, he made it home on an RBI double hit by Juan Soto. The Indians tied it 1-1 on a solo homer by Francisco Lindor in the third inning, but that was their only run scored during the six innings that Joe Ross pitched. He struck out eight batters, and only allowed four hits, in one of his best outings in a long time. In the bottom of the third, Kurt Suzuki hit a two-run homer while I was in the concourse buying pizza and adult beverages, and that was the Nats' only home run that day. In the middle innings, manager Dave Martinez began substituting bench players for the starters, and to my surprise, Michael A. Taylor (replacing Juan Soto) started a rally in the sixth inning with a single. After Matt Adams flew out, Victor Robles walked, Brian Dozier singled, Wilmer Difo singled, and then Gerardo Parra (cue "Baby Shark" theme song) smashed a two-run double to give the Nats a 7-1 lead. In the seventh inning, Aaron Barrett (who had missed three years due to elbow surgery and associated problems) came in as a relief pitcher, and even though he gave up two singles, a walk, and a wild pitch, only one run scored. Erick Fedde pitched the last two innings without allowing a base-runner, while the Nats staged another rally in the eighth inning, capped by an RBI single by Gerardo Parra. Final score: Nats 8, Indians 2. It was a thoroughly enjoyable triumph, as the Nationals closed the 2019 regular season with eight wins in a row!
Top of the third inning at Nationals Park on September 29, with Carlos Santana (not the Latin jazz/rock guitarist) at bat.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Mike Clevinger crouches before pitching, Gerardo Parra hits an RBI single, Juan Soto hits a two-run double, the scoreboard heralds the upcoming wild card game, Brian Dozier hits a single, and Francisco Lindor passes second base after hitting a no-doubt solo home run to the middle deck in right field.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Juan Soto, Aaron Barrett, Gerardo Parra, Ryan Zimmerman, Andrew Stevenson, Nats' starting pitcher Joe Ross, Francisco Lindor, and Indians' starting pitcher Mike Clevinger.
Post-game Nationals jersey giveaway (L to R): Sean Doolittle, Austin Voth, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Gerardo Parra, Wander Suero, Erick Fedde (front), Fernando Rodney, Stephen Strasburg, and Victor Robles.
NL Divisional series begin
This evening the National League Divisional Series get underway, as the Atlanta Braves hosted the St. Louis Cardinals, followed by the L.A. Dodgers hosting the Washington Nationals. The eastern game was close and low-scoring until the ninth inning, when the visitors all of a sudden scored four runs and the home team responded in the bottom of the ninth with one run too few. (Ouch!) L.A. 7, Atlanta 6. The Postseason scores page has been updated accordingly...
In the game just getting underway on the west coast, Walker Buehler starts for the Dodgers, and Patrick Corbin starts for the Nationals. With the highest win-loss record in the National League (106-56), the Dodgers are clearly favored to at least reach the World Series, if not win it. (They were the National League pennant winners in both 2017 and 2018.) But I saw the Nationals defeat the Dodgers when Buehler started for them on July 28, so there is every reason to hope for the same outcome this time. I say the Nats have an even chance to make it to the NLCS, and maybe even go further... Play ball!!
September 29, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nationals cruise toward October as wild cards
The Washington Nationals were in a bit of a slump for roughly the first half of September, but gradually got [hot] again, clinching an NL wild card berth on Tuesday night.
Nats can't sweep Marlins
After beating the Miami Marlins on Friday September 20, the Nationals had a comfortable 4-0 lead on Saturday night, and once again the bullpen caved in, as the Marlins scored four runs in the eighth inning. It ruined Stephen Strasburg's chance at getting 20 wins for the first time in his career, and the game went into extra innings. That's when the Marlins bullpen caved in, as the Nats scored six runs in the top of the tenth to win it, 10-4. "Over and out!" On Sunday, Austin Voth had a superb outing on the mound, giving up just one run over five innings, but once again the Marlins scored four runs in a latter inning; the seventh, this time. The Nats failed to respond, and that's how their near-sweep of the Marlins ended, with a 5-3 loss.
Nats sweep Phillies: five straight!
Even though the Nationals were ahead in the NL wild card race as the Phillies came to Washington on Monday evening, they had reason to be nervous. The Milwaukee Brewers were closing the gap rapidly, while the Philadelphia Phillies (in fourth place) seemed to relish the role of spoiler. It was a rare five-game series, made necessary by the postponement of a rained out game earlier in the season. The Chicago Cubs were still in contention for the wild card spot, and the Nats needed at least a series win against the Phillies. On Monday, Patrick Corbin had a solid six-inning outing on the mound, while three Nats homered: Adam Eaton, Yan Gomes, and Trea Turner. Final score: Nats 7, Phillies 2. On Tuesday afternoon, Joe Ross was tapped as starting pitcher, and even though he was pulled after just four innings, he lived up to expectations as the Nats won again, 4-1. In the evening, Max Scherzer had a bit of a hard time, but in his typical determined fashion, he stayed in for six full innings even though he gave up four runs. He was rescued from a possible loss by Trea Turner, who hit a grand slam in the sixth inning, and in spite of a late solo home run by Bryce Harper the Nats won again, 6-5. The players gathered on the field after the game to watch the end of the Cubs game on the video scoreboard, and once that was over, the Nationals celebrated clinching a wild card spot. On Wednesday, Anibal Sanchez had one of his best outings of the year, giving up just two runs over seven innings, and thanks to home runs by Howie Kendrick and Brian Dozier, the Nats prevailed once again, 5-2. That was four wins in a row, but it wouldn't count as a sweep unless the Nats could win the finale on Thursday. That game was a hell of a showdown, and Stephen Strasbur was ready for it. He struck out ten batters while only allowing one run over six innings, while Michael A. Taylor (a one-time starting player who spent most of this year in the minor leagues) went three for four including a clutch home run. And that's how the Nationals won, 6-3, thereby beating the Phillies in a rare (and perhaps unprecedented for the franchise) five game sweep!
Will Nats sweep Indians?
Finally, the Cleveland Indians arrived in Washington on Friday, hoping to grab one of the two AL wild card spots from the Tampa Bay Rays. (The Oakland A's had already clinched.) In other words, they were motivated! But the Nationals were also motivated, but in this case merely the desire to stay ahead in the wild card race in order to get home field advantage. Austin Voth put in another fine performance as pitcher, and Trea Turner homered once again (his fourth one this week!) to put the Nats on top early. But the biggest contributor to that game came was Gerardo Parra who hit a home run and went three for three, as the Nats cruised to a 8-2 victory. The Indians were thereby eliminated from postseason contention. On Saturday, the Indians seemed listless early on, and the Nats scored nine runs in the second inning, including a grand slam by Gerardo Parra -- he of "Baby Shark" fame.
As an indication of how well they are doing, the Nationals currently enjoy a seven-game winning streak, whereas before this week their longest such streak this year was just five games. Well, better late than never! No other team currently has such a long winning streak, and if the Nats prevail again today, that would certainly make a nice way to end the season.
Nevertheless, having clinched home-field advantage in Tuesday's wild card game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Nationals really won't have much at stake in this afternoon's regular-season finale against the Indians. Max Scherzer had been slated to start today, but instead he will be given the responsibility as starting pitcher on Tuesday. And so today's game will most likely be an uneventful snooze-fest, as various rookies and under-utilized bench players get a chance to prove themselves for the postseason. But one thing is for sure, win or lose: It will be a joyous occasion at the end, as the Nationals will get a huge round of applause for making it to the postseason against all odds. Few people back in mid-May would have expected their fortunes to turn so sharply upward.
On a more somber note, there is a very real possibility that this may be Ryan Zimmerman's final regular season game in major league baseball. It's hard to imagine him signing with any team other than the Nationals. In any event, I will be there!
[UPDATE: Yes, they did! It was a wonderful day at Nationals Park, and the Nationals kept up their momentum through the very end, beating the Indians, 8-2. Details to follow tomorrow...]
Martinez in the hospital
During the first game of the series in St. Louis on September 16, the Nats' beleaguered manager Dave Martinez had to leave in the middle of the game last week because of chest pains, and underwent a cardiac catheterization procedure in a local hospital. He rested a couple days and then returned to duty when the Nats played in Miami, and he seems to have recovered. I join other Nats fans in wishing him all the best.
In preparation for another October full of thrills, chills, and spills, I have updated the Postseason scores page with a projected set of matchups for the wild card games and divisional series games. The only question yet to be decided is whether the Milwaukee Brewers will grab the NL Central title from the Cardinals, who would in that case face the Nationals in the wild card game.
September 20, 2019 [LINK / comment]
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.
A montage of photos I took at the next-to-last Nationals game at RFK Stadium, on September 22, 2007. Notice a youthful Ryan Zimmerman, then completing his second full year with the Nationals.
September 4, 2019 [LINK / comment]
A history of rock music, Part III: from O to W
Following up on my previous not-quite-fair-and-balanced self-review, "A history of rock music, Part II: from H to N" (on June 11, ending with "N is for Neil Young"), here is Part Three of my incredible musical odyssey through the alphabet. Each of the sections below covers one of the weekly open mic nights hosted each Wednesday by Fritz Horisk at Queen City Brewing in Staunton.
O is for Ozark Mountain Daredevils: On June 19, I was on the letter "O," and there was less than zero probability that I would perform songs by any other group than my sentimental favorite, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Since they aren't as well known here in the east as they are in their midwestern "homeland," I took a couple minutes to explain their origins and defiantly idiosyncratic career paths. In particular, after their two big hits ("If You Want To Get To Heaven" and "Jackie Blue"), they turned their backs on the commercial rock star world and focused on developing their own unique style, blending folk, bluegrass, and rock musical styles. I played five songs altogether that night, including an extra "encore" song that each of us did. Even though this material was very familiar to me, Craig Austin's percussion helped me out a lot!
- Standing On the Rock ( # )
- Leatherwood ( # )
- * Spaceship Orion
- If You Want To Get To Heaven ( # )
- = = = = =
* : first time in public; ( # ) = with harmonica
Yours truly, accompanied by Craig Austin at Queen City Brewing on June 19. (Photo courtesy of Fritz Horisk.)
P is for Pink Floyd: One week later, on June 26, I made a 180-degree turn in musical genres, covering some challenging songs by one of the very best British rock bands, Pink Floyd. Until two years ago, I only knew a couple songs by them, but all of a sudden I became almost obsessed with learning and mastering their songs. In fact, now they're one of my specialites. The weather was beautiful, so we played outside on the patio, and the friendly crowd kept getting bigger as the night progressed. It was a very interesting and enjoyable evening of music, as all the performers excelled in the creativity department. At the time, I didn't have a Pink Floyd shirt, so I wore a Police T-shirt, since that would have been another logical choice for the letter "P." The first two songs went pretty well, while the latter two were marred by a couple flubs:
- Us and Them
- Comfortably Numb ( # )
- Wish You Were Here
- * Shine On You Crazy Diamond ( # )
* = first time in public; ( # ) = with harmonica
Q is for Queen: In his Facebook post summarizing the July 3 open mic event, Fritz Horisk characterized the music as "fantabulous," and I have to agree. There was a nice-sized turnout in spite of the stormy weather, and once again the musicians put on quite a varied and interesting show. I was on the letter "Q" in my weekly alphabetical progression, which left very litte choice for me other than to play songs by Queen. (Alternatives included Quarterflash, of which I know exactly one song, and Queensrÿche, of which I know none at all.) Now you might think it simply absurd for a solo acoustic musician to even attempt songs by one of the most daring exemplars of the glamor/progressive rock genre, but if you had been there that evening, I am quite sure you would have been convinced otherwise. To my surprise, I came pretty close to nailing all four songs, and the audience reaction was overwhelmingly appreciative. I was grateful for the rousing applause. Would I dare to attempt something like that a second time? I'm not really sure. But in any event, that was a nice feather in my cap.
- * We Are the Champions
- * Killer Queen
- * Crazy Little Thing Called Love ( # )
- * Bohemian Rhapsody
* = first time in public; ( # ) = with harmonica
R is for Rolling Stones: July 10 was another night when there wasn't much doubt what I was going to play. The only other group beginning with the letter "R" whose songs I play is REO Speedwagon, and I only know a couple of those. The problem was not choosing the group but rather choosing which songs by that group (Rolling Stones) to play. There were a lot of songs I hated to leave out, such as "Gimme Shelter." I got off to a good start with a song I only learned recently, after learning that it ("Street Fighting Man") was one of the Stones' favorite opening songs. It has a cool bass riff after each refrain, and I pulled that off very well. Overall, it went pretty well after that, but could have been a little better.
- * Street Fighting Man ( # )
- * Mixed Emotions
- * Brown Sugar ( # )
- = = = = =
- Ruby Tuesday
* = first time in public; ( # ) = with harmonica
S is for Supertramp: One week later (July 17) I did four songs by that enigmatic British group from the 1970s, Supertramp. (Among the most likely alternatives were Seals & Croft, Sheryl Crow, Simon & Garfunkle, and Steve Goodman.) Two of the songs were first-timers for me, and all four sounded very good. The audience response was very positive, but as Fritz noted right after I played, the crowd noise level was rather high. Supertramp is among my signature specialties that hardly anyone else I'm aware of even plays. Aside from their creative melodic styles, I enjoy playing Supertramp songs because I get to play harmonica of most of them -- usually recreating the saxophone part.
- The Logical Song ( # )
- * Give A Little Bit
- * Breakfast In America ( # )
- Take the Long Way Home ( # )
* = first time in public; ( # ) = with harmonica
T is for Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers): The very next week (July 24) I was at it again, but I arrived a bit late so I was only eligible to do three songs. I could have played Three Dog Night, but there really wasn't much doubt that I was going to pay tribute to the late, great Tom Petty. The atmosphere playing outside was just about ideal, and the crowd response was very nice. All three songs I had performed before, and they sounded fine:
- A Woman In Love ( # )
- Into the Great Wide Open
- Here Comes My Girl ( # )
( # ) = with harmonica
U is for U2: On the last Wednesday of the month, July 31, there wasn't much doubt that I was going to do songs by U2. (Uriah Heep was the only other choice, and I hardly ever play those songs.) It was a somewhat underwhelming evening, not living up to my expectations. Since turnout was low, extra time was available, so each of us was allowed two "encore" songs. It occurred to me (too late) that I should probably learn their song "Desire," in which Bono plays harmonica.
- * Where the Streets Have No Name
- With Or Without You
- Pride (In the Name of Love)
- * Sunday, Bloody Sunday
- = = = = =
- New Year's Day ( # )
- In God's Country
* = first time in public; ( # ) : with harmonica
V is for Van Halen (??!!) After making it to Queen City Brewing seven weeks in a row, I actually skipped a week before returning on August 14. (I was busy preparing to teach in the fall semester, and the songs by the "default" group [ -- there being no other real choice -- were more challenging than usual, thus requiring more practice.]) As with Queen and perhaps the Grateful Dead, it was probably a stretch for me to take on Van Halen's hard rock material, but I came through intact, and people really liked it. Obviously, all four songs were "first-timers" for me. A lot of folks were singing along on "Dancing in the Street" and "You Really Got Me," which was nice. Whew!
- * And the Cradle Will Rock
- * Dancing in the Street
- * You Really Got Me
- * Panama
* = first time in public
Yours truly -- the host!
The next week, August 21, I set aside my alphabetical odyssey because, for the very first time, I was the host of the open mic event! Imagine that. Fritz Horisk was on vacation, and asked me to take over for him, and since I have a complete set of musical equipment (microphone, amplifier, speakers, speaker stands), I was ready to go. (Fritz lent me his microphones since he always provides for extra performers, just in case.) I wasn't sure how many people would show up, but we had a nice-sized turnout. For the first time, my friend from church Matthew Poteat made an appearance at the QCB open mic night, and he played one song, an original. Several other regulars were there as well, including John Dull, Craig Austin, Dianne Byrer, Melissa Hudson, Christina Dubay, and Den Frumen. A regular audience member named Ron Rammelkamp led the females in an a capella rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
Anyway, not being bound by the alphabet, I was able to mark the 50-year anniversary of two big events that took place in the summer of 1969: the Woodstock music festival and the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, which happened just a few days after the release of David Bowie's first hit single. Of course, I had to play an Ozark Mountain Daredevils song. After everyone had played (including one extra song each), I closed the evening with a Beatles song (just like Fritz often does) and one of my crowd-pleasing favorites, the first hit single by Billy Joel.
- * Woodstock -- Crosby, Stills, & Nash @
- Country Girl ( # ) -- Ozark Mountain Daredevils
- Space Oddity ( # ) -- David Bowie
- = = = = =
- A Day In the Life -- The Beatles
- Piano Man ( # ) -- Billy Joel
@ written by Joni Mitchell
* = first time in public; ( # ) : with harmonica
"Return to normalcy"?
W is for (The) Who: Finally, last week (August 28), I resumed my alphabetical fixation by tackling the letter "W" -- The Who, of course. I did pretty well on the first one, but missed some of the special guitar parts on "Magic Bus." Who knows, maybe no one noticed. The last two songs sounded very good, and I was happy how it all went.
- * I Can See For Miles
- * Magic Bus
- Behind Blue Eyes ( # )
- * Won't Get Fooled Again
* = first time in public; ( # ) : with harmonica
Tonight I was on the letter "X," which was quite a challenge, but I'll put off doing a review of that (and revealing the group/groups) until after I finish the whole alphabet.
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