MAGIC NUMBER: 2

September 29, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Nationals get closer to clinching

After nine straight days of back-and-forth win/loss cycles, their highest alternating stretch this year, the Washington Nationals finally won two games in a row, thus getting the best of the host Philadelphia Phillies in the three-game series. After a lackluster performance by Ross Detwiler on Monday (6-3 loss), Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, and Kurt Suzuki hit home runs for the Nats on Tuesday, taking advantage of the cozy dimensions in Citizens Bank Park. John Lannan overcame his past disappointments against the Phillies and got the win, his fourth of the year. Final score: Nats 8, Phillies 4.

The hits just kept coming on Thursday night, with home runs by Bryce Harper (#21) and Michael Morse (#14 and #15) that provided the needed scoring margin, as the Nationals won, 7-3. That game was of special note because Gio Gonzalez got his MLB-leading 21st win of the year. He'll probably get a shot at win #22 back in Washington next week. See MLB.com

In St. Louis last night, in sharp contrast, Edwin Jackson had his worst outing of his career. He gave up nine runs (eight earned) in only one and a third innings, after which he was replaced by Tom Gorzelanny. It's too bad, because the Nats had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, thanks again to Bryce Harper's hustle. The Nats added a dignity run in the seventh inning, as Roger Bernadina, but the Cardinals added three more runs in the eighth inning, a black eye for relief pitcher Michael Gonzalez. Final score: Cards 12, Nats 2.

That lopsided defeat didn't really matter, though. In Atlanta, the Mets beat the Braves 3-1, thanks to a home run in the seventh inning by Lucas Duda. Classic situation: late in the game, two runners on base, two outs, count of 3-2. Bam! It wasn't a very good way to celebrate "Chipper Jones Night," marking his last regular season series in Turner Field.

Thanks to the Mets, the Nationals' magic number is now down to just two (2), and the odds are they will clinch the NL Eastern Division this weekend in St. Louis -- perhaps even today! With a 95-62 record and five games left to play, they (and the Cincinnati Reds) still have a slim chance at reaching the 100-win mark for the season.

The Nationals' big sluggers

In today's Washington Post, columnist Tomas Boswell discusses the Nationals' (largely unrecognized) emergence as a true offensive powerhouse team. Early in the season everyone was marvelling at the pitching rotation, but since late June (when they pummeled the Rockies), the Nationals have "scored more runs than any team in baseball." Oddly, as Boswell notes, there are no real superstars on the team, though Bryce Harper could easily become one in the future. But the first five batters in their lineup have all had seasons with more than 30 home runs, and four of them have more than 20 home runs this year alone: Adam LaRoche (32), Ian Desmond (25), Ryan Zimmerman (24), and Bryce Harper (21). Jayson Werth and Michael Morse would almost certainly be in that group if they had not missed most of this season due to injuries. The Nationals rank #8 in the majors in total home runs (184), but they are #1 in the National League. But beyond home runs, as Boswell observes, almost the entire Nationals lineup can hit for extra bases in clutch situations, meaning that opposing pitchers are under relentless pressure to prevent anyone from reaching base.

Another Nationals Park update

The Sportsman's ParkNationals Park* diagrams have been updated -- yes, once again -- with a number of corrections and detail enhancements, mainly based on my latest visit there last Saturday. I also inspected more closely other photos I've taken there over the years. (I know, I just updated it on September 3. But since I've been to more games there than to any other stadium, can you blame me for wanting to get it as accurate as possible?) So that you can see what has been changed, I have left intact the "proposed alternative" version diagram for the time being. I may just delete it in the near future, however.

The biggest change is in the position of the Red Porch restaurant / Red Loft bar, beyond left-center field. That structure is now about eight feet back and ten feet to the right of where it was before. Since people often ask me "how I do this," I thought it might be good to give a specific example. Prior to the June 20 game (Nats 3, Rays 2) I took a photo from the bend on the left side of the home bullpen in right field, in the front row. I mainly wanted to examine how much space there was between the front edge of the seating section and the padded fence. (Answer: about three feet.) But I just noticed that the fence points toward the left of the circular display on top of the Red Loft, whereas my diagram previously indicated it would intersect well to the right of that point. That implied that either than the Red Loft is farther back than I had estimated, or that the angle of the outfield fence was wrong. Checking other photos confirmed the first alternative, so I made that change. "And now you know ... the rest of the story!" (Apologies to the late great Paul Harvey.)

Other changes of note: the front edge of the second deck is about half as far from the right field fould pole (four feet) as it was before, thus covering almost all of the bullpen. Also, the curved upper-deck portion of the grandstand near the right field foul pole has been reoriented slightly, the PNC Diamond Club and adjacent seating areas (some with tables) are depicted more accurately in the lower-deck diagram version, and both tunnel entrances for handicapped patrons have been moved about ten feet. That page now has a full-view diagram for the first time. It is the tallest of all such diagrams, because the triangular office building on the southwest side and the parking garages on the north side of the stadium extend out quite a ways in both directions. The garages are separate structures, but comprise an integral whole in the stadium complex.

* The Nationals Park page is now sponsored by my good friend David Givens, a natural gas industry analyst who appeared on C-SPAN a few months ago.

Another no-hitter!

Congratulations to Homer Bailey of the Cincinnati Reds for throwing a no-hitter in PNC Park last night. The Reds scored one run in the top of the first inning, and no other runs were scored for the rest of the game! Only two Pirates reached base: Clint Barmes, who benefited from an error by third baseman Scott Rolen in the third inning, and Andrew McCutchen, who drew a walk in the seventh inning. That makes seven no-hitters this year (including three perfect games), tying the record set in 1990 (and tied in 1991). It's the first no-hitter in PNC Park; there were three no-hitters at Three Rivers Stadium, and none at all in the 70-year history of Forbes Field. See MLB.com, and my blog post of June 15.

Management shakeups

The above MLB.com story notes that Chris Speier is serving as the Reds' acting manager while their actual manager Dusty Baker recovers from a minor stroke. It would be a shame if the manager's health issues affects how well the team plays in the postseason.

On the north side of Ohio, the Cleveland Indians (66-91) have fired their mild-mannered manager Manny Acta, who used to manage the Nationals. Given the nose-dive his team took after a rather promising early season this year, that's not a surprise. The Indians replaced him with Sandy Alomar, a bench coach. To Acta's credit, the players say the team's poor performance this year was not his fault; see MLB.com. Perhaps he is an example of Leo Durocher's aphorism: "Nice guys finish last."

Finally, the struggling Houston Astros (52-105) have named Bo Porter as their new manager, effective next year. Tony DeFrancesco has served as interim manager since August 19, when Brad Mills was fired. DeFrancesco was passed over for the permanent position, but will remain with the Astros organization. See MLB.com. Porter is currently the Nationals' third base coach, and gained attention in a dispute with the Miami Marlins earlier this month.

One might question whether Bobby Valentine will manage for the Red Sox (69-88) next year. Does an old veteran like him have the patience for a long-term rebuilding effort? I would think the Pirates' (76-81) manager Clint Hurdle might be at risk after their disappointing second half this year, and perhaps Ozzie Guillen's job in Miami (67-90) is less than 100% secure.

Pennant race nears end

The amazing 2012 season is in the final home stretch, with most of the drama on the American League side. The Tigers surged two games ahead of the slumping White Sox, but then lost last night, so their lead is down to one game. Triple Crown contender Miguel Cabrera (42 HR, 133 RBI, .327 AVG) is obviously a big part of the Tigers' success, along with pitcher Justin Verlander. On the East Coast, the Orioles and Yankees remain in a fierce neck-and-neck race, with the Bronx Bombers one game ahead. In the Western Division, the Rangers seem to be coasting to a third straight title, with the A's three games in back. The Texas star Josh Hamilton has 43 home runs, one more than Miguel Cabrera.

Contrary to what I wrote on Tuesday, the L.A. Angels and Tampa Bay Devil Rays are not yet out of the wild card picture. They will each need supernatural intervention (from above or from below) in order to reach postseason competition, however.