July 31, 2018
The way most people saw it, the four-game series in Miami was a do-or-die moment of truth for the Washington Nationals. As the non-waiver trading deadline approached, the unthinkable worst-case scenario of trading Bryce Harper -- the de facto "face of the franchise"* -- loomed as a very real possibility. Ironically, they were playing against one of their main trading "targets": Marlins' catcher J.T. Realmuto.
In the first two games, the Nats came out with guns blazing, winning by lopsided margins. On Thursday, Tommy Milone pitched as an emergency starter after Steven Strasburg was put on the disabled list once again, this time because of a pinched nerve in his neck. (He later had an injection that seemed to help, so he may not be out for that long.) Milone started his pitching career with the Nationals in September 2011 and made history by hitting a home run in his very first major league at bat -- on the first pitch, no less! This time he held his own and left after five innings with the Nats behind, 3-2. The Nats' early runs came on back-to-back homers by Trea Turner and Juan Soto in the fourth inning. Ryan Zimmerman tied the game with an RBI double in the sixth inning, and Trea Turner put the Nats two runs ahead with a triple in the seventh inning. He then scored on an RBI double by Bryce Harper. In the ninth inning, the Nats piled on more runs, starting when Matt Wieters hit a bases-loaded double. Final score: 10-3.
In Friday's game, the Nats took an early lead, and the amazing Juan Soto homered for the third consecutive day! (He has 13 total now.) Max Scherzer went eight full innings on the mound, giving up just one run and striking out eleven batters. That put him at an even 200 strikeouts for the year thus far, and Scherzer thus became the fourth pitcher in history to strike out at least 200 batters in seven consecutive seasons. (The others are Walter Johnson, Roger Clemens, and Tom Seaver.) Not a bad way to celebrate his 34th birthday! The Nats added five more runs in the eighth inning, winning by a score of 9-1.
On Saturday, Gio Gonzalez had one of his best outings of the year, giving up only one run over seven innings pitched. Unfortunately, however, the Nats' bats fell silent -- until Daniel Murphy hit a clutch game-tying single in the top of the ninth. With one out and a runner on third base, the Nats were in position to take the lead and win their fourth game in a row. But Mark Reynolds flew out and Michael A. Taylor grounded out, and the game went into the tenth inning. The Nats went down 1-2-3, and closing pitcher Kelvin Herrera took the mound. All of a sudden, things got weird. Magneuris Sierra laid down a perfect bunt single, Miguel Rojas reached base on catcher's interference, and Brian Anderson singled to load the bases with nobody out. In desperation, the Nats brought in Bryce Harper from center field to set up a five-man infield, but it backfired. J.T. Realmuto hit a pop single down the right field line, which probably would have been caught had there been three outfielders, but with nobody out, it probably didn't change the outcome of the game. And thus the Nats lost a heartbreaker, 2-1.
On Sunday, Jeremy Hellickson took the mound, but he fell short of his recent solid performances, giving up five runs and being replaced in the fifth inning. The Nats only managed to get two hits: an infield single by Bryce Harper in the first inning, and a single by Matt Adams in the ninth inning. For a team that had so much on the line, it was a stunningly weak exhibition. It's as if they just gave up. Final score: 5-0. Attendance in that four-game series was likewise pathetic, peaking at 12,112 in the Sunday finale. It's a shame that more folks in Miami aren't enjoying that climate-controlled (and taxpayer-funded) marvel, Marlins Park. (Diagram tweak pending.)
* The semi-official "face of the franchise" is Ryan Zimmerman, who has a contract with a no-trade clause extending for a few more years. But Bryce Harper is far better known to the outside world, and since his rookie year in 2012, he has been primarily responsible for making the Nationals into perennial postseason contenders.
Frankly, I was extremely anxious about the Bryce Harper situation in the days and hours leading up to the deadline at 4:00 this afternoon. On [Monday], word spread that Harper was available for a trade, and I cringed. Then late this morning General Manager Mike Rizzo announced that Bryce Harper would not be traded after all, and [that] the front office had full confidence in the team. Whew! Still, I wasn't 100% sure and nervously watched the clock as all the MLB trade alerts kept popping up on my iPhone. The Nats' only trade was letting relief pitcher Brandon Kintzler go to the Cubs in exchange for a minor league pitcher. I get the sense that there were some personality issues there.
I know that many people think that the Nats might as well cash in on whatever Harper is worth now, since his chances of signing with the Nationals again after this year are probably only 50-50 at best. But baseball teams aren't just machines to be taken apart and reassembled at will; they are living organisms that thrive (or not) based on that ephemeral quality known as team spirit. What's more, a big part of team spirit comes from the fan base, and for the Nationals to have let Harper go would be terribly demoralizing to Nats fans everywhere. In strict dollars-and-sense terms, that would have seriously degraded the value of the Nationals franchise, and Mike Rizzo and the Lerner family are to be commended for recognizing that.
One of the biggest last-minute surprise trades was the Pittsburgh Pirates getting pitcher Chris Archer from the Tampa Bay Rays. (I saw him pitch in Toronto in August 2015, when the Blue Jays beat the Rays.) The Pirates have been winning a lot lately, and can't be discounted as potential postseason contenders.
The Milwaukee Brewers, who fell out of first place in the NL Central Division earlier this month, are determined to retake the lead. (After tonight's win, they are tied with the Cubs.) Last week they got Kansas City Royal star slugger Mike Moustakas in a trade, and today they acquired second baseman Jonathan Schoop from the Baltimore Orioles. I occasionally watch Orioles games on MASN, and Schoop has been one of their biggest clutch hitters this year -- after Manny Machado (now with the Dodgers), of course.
The Atlanta Braves, who likewise lost their first-place standing recently, got outfielder Adam Duvall and four pitchers, most notably Kevin Gausman.
And finally, the Philadelphia Phillies (currently one half game ahead of the Braves) acquired two former Nats players: infielder Asdrubal Cabrera from the Mets and catcher Wilson Ramos from the Rays. He is injured, however, and his years with the Nationals were full of lengthy periods on the disabled list (such as when he suffered hurt his knee in late September 2016, just before the NLDS), so the value of Ramos is a question mark. Still, I was hoping the Nats would find a way to get him.
So, how would the Nationals react to the announcement by Rizzo this morning? Pretty well, I'd say! The Nats returned to D.C. for a home stand, welcoming the New York Mets. Trea Turner's leadoff single sparked a seven-run rally in the first inning, capped by a three-run double hit by Tanner Roark to the gap in left-center field. Tanner went on to pitch a nearly-flawless game, giving up just one run in seven innings, which makes two stellar outings in a row for him. That had to feel good. The game unfolded in a very unusual fashion: the Nats scored exactly three runs in each of the next four innings! Home runs by Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman were a big part of that offensive surge. The score was 19-0 after five innings, and by the eighth inning the Mets' bullpen was so worn out that they put veteran slugger Jose Reyes on the mound as a "relief pitcher." But the Nats showed no mercy, racking up six more runs, thanks to home runs by Matt Adams and Mark Reynolds, and an RBI triple by Wilmer Difo.
The only sour note in the spectacular one-sided slugfest was when Shawn Kelley came in as a relief pitcher in the top of the ninth: the first two Mets batters reached base on hits, and after an RBI ground-out, Austin Jackson hit a two-run homer. Kelley was angry about something, and threw down his glove in disgust. Thus, the Nats' 24-run lead shrank to 21 runs. More details are at the Washington Post. Final score: Nats 25, Mets 4!!! The last time a team scored that many runs in a game was in 2007, when the Texas Rangers beat the Baltimore Orioles, 30-3.
Tonight's game set new records for the Nats, both in terms of the number of runs scored (25) and the run differential (25 - 4 = 21). That is true for both the Nationals as a "reborn" team (since they began playing in D.C. in 2005) and for the franchise, which began as the Montreal Expos in 1969. The Expos' highest scoring game was in Denver on April 28, 1999, when they beat the Colorado Rockies, 21-9. In both cases, the Nationals' previous records were set on April 30 last year, also against the Mets: the final score then was 23 - 5, an 18-run difference. The Nats' previous high score this year (17) was on June 29 in Philadelphia: Nats 17, Phillies 7. The Nats' previous biggest run differential this year (13) was on April 25 in San Francisco: Nats 15, Giants 2.
And so, the Nats finished the month back at an even 53-53, with a 10-14 record in July itself. Thus far, the Nats have only had a winning record in one month this year: May. Pretty hard to believe. I updated the Washington Nationals page accordingly. One factoid that is worth highlighting is that the Nats' aggregate run total in games this year is 484 to 426 for their opponents. Given their .500 win-loss record, that's a sign that they're wasting a lot of runs in easy wins while losing a lot of crucial close games.
In Cooperstown, New York on Sunday, six former players were officially inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Chipper Jones was especially emotional in his speech, partly because his wife was just about to have a baby boy. They named him "Cooper." I have seen Jones and Guerrero play, but I'm not sure about the others. (Numbers below were from the Washington Post print edition; a link to the article was not immediately available.)
# : Played entire career with one team; Hoffman nearly did so. For the other players, the team indicated is the one they played on for the most number of years.
* Chosen by a special "veterans committee."
NOTE: A few corrections were made to the text on the following day.