November 9, 2019 [LINK / comment]
On the Road Again: Nats Are the Champions!
Did I mention that "Anything, and I mean anything, can happen in the baseball postseason"? Yes, I believe I did. In spite of the heavy odds stacked against them, the Washington Nationals pulled off two more come-from-behind wins to complete another come-from-behind series victory over the Astros in Houston on Wednesday night, October 30. (Ten days ago already!?) After losing all three games in Washington and facing elimination, they managed to win both Games 6 and 7 in Houston to take the World Series title. It was the first such championship in the history of the franchise (which was born in Montreal 50 years ago), and was the first time since 1924 that Washington, D.C. has claimed the honor.
Stephen Strasburg had the weight of the world on his shoulder in Game 6 on Tuesday night, and he delivered like a true champion, fulfilling the sky-high hopes that he had raised after his debut with the Nationals on June 8, 2010. (Nine years ago already!?) It wasn't easy, though, as he gave up two runs in the bottom of the first inning after the Nats had scored one in the top half. George Springer hit a double on Strasburg's very first pitch, and Alex Bregman hit a solo homer later in the inning to take the lead. The ominous prospect of elimination grew as the score remained 2-1 until the fifth inning. That's when everything changed, as both Adam Eaton and Juan Soto hit solo home runs to give the Nationals a 3-2 lead. The ball Soto hit sailed way up into the second deck in right field, a true tape-measure home run. And the crowd went mild! Much like Game 5 of the NLDS in Los Angeles, the home fans grew nervous, as the momentum shifted in favor of the visiting team. Future Hall-of-Famer Justin Verlander left the game with his team behind, once again failing to deliver in the postseason. Strasburg faced his stiffest test in the bottom of that inning, when the Astros had runners on second and third with just one out. But he got Jose Altuve to strike out on three pitches, and induced Michael Brantley into grounding out to shortstop to end the inning. Two innings later there erupted a big controversy when Trea Turner hit a swinging bunt that almost resulted in runners on second and third with no outs, except that he was called out on interference. Technically he was partly on the inside of the first base line, but the applicable rule says that the player is called out if, in the umpire's judgment, he interfered with the throw. Replays showed he probably would have beat the throw from catcher to first, but it wasn't a reviewable play. The normally calm Dave Martinez objected so vociferously that he was ejected from the game. MLB honcho Joe Torre conferred with the umpires and later said they made the right call. The official explanation of why it took so long to issue a definitive ruling was less than convincing, but in the end it didn't matter because two batters later, Anthony Rendon hit a home run to give the Nats a 5-2 lead! That was huge!! In the ninth inning, Rendon pretty much put the game away with a two-run double, his fifth RBI of the game. In the bottom of the ninth, Stephen Strasburg got one out and was then replaced by Sean Doolittle. After a second out, he gave up a double to Carlos Correa, but it was of no consequence as the Nats won in decisive fashion, 7-2.
Having won an elimination game for the fourth time in the postseason, the Nats prepared to do it again in Game 7 on Wednesday night. Could they somehow win On the Road Again? (Cue Willie Nelson.) To the huge relief of Nationals fans, Max Scherzer was able to start, only three days after a neck muscle spasm rendered him too stiff to walk normally. A shot of cortisone did the trick. When Max gave up a solo home run to in the second inning, it was not unexpected. The question was, would he shrug it off and keep his focus? The answer was YES! He put two more zeroes on the board before giving up an RBI single to Carlos Correa in the fifth inning. Time was running short for the Nationals, who only got one hit (a single by Juan Soto) in the first six innings. The Astros starter Zack Greinke was in total command -- until Anthony Rendon came up to bat in the seventh inning. He swung at a low pitch and sent it up into the Crawford box seats above the scoreboard in left field, narrowing the gap to just one run. Greinke walked Juan Soto and was then replaced by Will Harris. Howie Kendrick came up to bat, and in a moment that Nationals fans will never forget, he smacked the ball into the right field foul pole for a two-run homer to put the Nationals ahead. WOW!!! Patrick Corbin pitched the next three innings for the Nationals, and did just fine, only giving up two hits. In the top of the eighth inning, Juan Soto hit an RBI single, and in the top of the ninth, Adam Eaton hit a two-run single to give the Nats a four-run lead. In the bottom of the ninth, Daniel Hudson induced a popup from George Springer, and then struck out Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley to end the game on a joyous note. [Final score: 6-2.] And that's how the all-but-impossible outcome happened: The Nats Are the Champions! (Cue Queen.) For a more complete game wrap-up, see the Washington Post.
When the Nats won World Series Game 6, it was the first time in the history of major professional sports (MLB, NBA, and NHL) that the visiting team had won six consecutive games in a playoff series. When they did it again the next night, they thereby set a new record (seven such games) that may someday be equalled but will never be broken. In only one other World Series in this century has the visiting team won a majority of the games: in 2016, when the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in seven games.
To emphasize the comeback aspect of the 2019 World Series, in none of the seven games did the Nationals have the lead after two innings, and in all but one game (#2) the Astros were ahead at that point. In the aggregate, the run totals for the first four innings were Astros 17, Nationals 6. In contrast, the aggregate score for the final five innings was Nationals 27, Astros 13. The total aggregate score was thus 33-30 in the Nats' favor, an indication of how evenly the series was matched.
One final note: It was the first time since 2014 (when the San Francisco Giants beat the Kansas City Royals in seven games) that none of the World Series games went into extra innings.
[UPDATE / Another final note: Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell opined that the Nationals' race to grab a postseason berth and then make it all the way was the biggest such upset in MLB history. Bigger than the 1969 Mets even? Well, like that play at first base when Trea Turner was called out, it's a matter of judgment. ]
Strasburg named World Series MVP
There wasn't much doubt that Stephen Strasburg made more of a difference in game outcomes than any other Nationals player. And thus he was named World Series MVP. Strasburg made history by becoming the first pitcher to win five games in a single postseason: NLDS Games 1 and 5, NLCS Game 3, and World Series Games 2 and 6. Strasburg is usually very serious, and it was nice to see a big grin on his face after the Game 7 triumph, when he was awarded the MVP trophy. Max Scherzer's postseason record was 3-0 with two no-decisions. Strasburg's overall postseason ERA was a miniscule 1.98, and he led the team in innings pitched, with 36. Scherzer pitched 30 total innings, with a 2.40 ERA. Anibal Sanchez was next in line among the starters with a 2.50 postseason ERA, while Patrick Corbin struggled and ended up with 5.79. FUN FACT: The same guy who was starting pitcher in the Nats' final regular season home game, Joe Ross, was also the starting pitcher in the Nats' final postseason home game: World Series Game 5. Among the top two relievers, Sean Doolittle had a 1.74 ERA over 10 1/3 innings, while Daniel Hudson had a 3.72 ERA over 9 2/3 innings. The consistent, solid pitching by the starters took the pressure off the Nats' otherwise feeble bullpen, and rather remarkably, there was only one blown save in 7 save opportunities during the postseason, and that was by Patrick Corbin.
On the hitting side, the biggest contributors were Juan Soto, who led the team with three home runs and a batting average of .333 during the World Series, followed by Anthony Rendon, who led the team with 8 World Series RBIs (Soto had 7). Rendon and Adam Eaton had two homers each, while four others had one home run each. Ryan Zimmerman's homer may have been the most important one, as it put the Nationals on the board in Game 1, sparking the unexpected surge that gave his team a precious victory on the road. For the postseason as a whole, Anthony Rendon led the team with 15 RBIs and a .328 batting average. Juan Soto led the team with five home runs.
Dave Martinez vindicates himself
I have often been critical of Nats' Manager Dave Martinez, but after what his team just accomplished, I feel compelled to humbly retract my previous harsh judgments. What do I know? I know he had a weak bullpen to work with during the regular season, but I was still perplexed why he kept putting in less-reliable relievers (such as Wander Suero) during clutch situations. Well, Dave showed he knew how to keep things under control in the postseason, and the players seemed to respond very well to his leadership. Maybe it just took a while for his managerial approach to "gel." In any case, he really should have been considered for Manager of the Year, but the three National League candidates are Craig Counsell (Brewers), Mike Shildt (Cardinals), and Brian Snitker (Braves).
Victory celebrations in D.C.
I really wanted to drive up to Washington to be part of the big parade last Saturday, but (as you can probably imagine) I've been so swamped with various tasks lately that I just didn't have enough energy to do it. The weather was almost perfect, with clear skies and mild temperatures, encouraging a big turnout that probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The sight of Ryan Zimmerman holding up the Commissioner's Trophy alongside Manager Dave Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo was supremely gratifying. Ryan has worked hard his whole 15-year career for this moment, which he most assuredly deserved.
Then on the south portico of the White House, Kurt Suzuki put on a "Make American Great Again" hat, for which President Trump hugged him, and Ryan Zimmerman held up a "Trump 45" Nationals jersey, saying some good things about the President. On the other hand, Sean Doolittle declined to attend, on the grounds that President Trump has been dividing the country, and a few others likewise did not show up. I can respect all those players' individual expressions. It was an awkward situation that was handled about as well as could be expected.
[In my previous blog post] I should have mentioned another peripheral incident from Game 5: President Trump was booed after the announcer called attention to his presence.
Karma from a young fan
You know all those corny baseball movies where the hero slugger promises to hit a home run for a hospitalized child? Well, reality and fantasy came close to merging this year. Perhaps one reason why fortune seemed to smile on the Nationals more often this October than in their previous four postseason quests is a young fan named Parker Staples. He's a ten-year old cancer patient who lives in Waynesboro, Virginia, not far from where I live. After getting to know Nats pitcher Sean Doolittle through the Make a Wish Foundation, he threw out the first pitch at the May 24 game in Nationals Park against the Marlins, and the Nats ended up winning, 12-10. That broke a five-game losing streak and marked the beginning the big upturn that made baseball history. Parker made a return appearance to Nationals Park before Game 3 of the NLCS, and after the World Series was invited to join in the victory parade in Washington. It sounds like it was scripted in Hollywood, and the best part of all is that he is now cancer free! See WJLA.com. You just can't make this stuff up.
Congratulations to the World Champion Washington Nationals!
Misc. web page updates
Aside from the obvious updates on the Postseason scores page, there have been numerous updates to the Washington Nationals page, which now includes batting averages and ERA data for the Nationals regular players. The table of historical head-to-head matchups shows that the Nationals' cumulative historical win-loss record for regular season games (2005-2019) is now 1222-1206, or 50.3%. After flirting with the 50% threshold for over a year, the finally broke through that barrier some time in mid-season. (For postseason games, including their 12-5 record this year, their cumulative record is now 19-17, or 52.8%.) One negative piece of new information on that page is that the average home attendance at Nationals Park this year was only 27,861, the lowest since 2011. I'll bet it jumps back above 30,000 next year!
In addition, World Series information has been added to the Annual baseball chronology page, and the Baseball chronologies page, which has a decade-by-decade summary. Thanks to the Nationals, the National League won a majority of World Series contests (6 to 4) during a decade for the first time since the 1960s. (Next year we begin a new decade!)
Finally, the Nationals Park and Minute Maid Park pages have been updated with 2019 World Series information. Other stadium information pages are likely to be updated soon as well.
Rendon wins Silver Slugger
Even though he was once again passed over in favor of Nolan Arenado for the All-Star Game, Anthony Rendon was awarded the 2019 Silver Slugger trophy for the third base position. "Tony Two-Bags" led the majors with 126 RBIs during the regular season (postseason statistics are not considered for such awards), with a batting average of .319 and 34 home runs. It was a fitting honor, which may raise his market value as he explores offers from other teams as a free agent. I dearly hope he signs a new contract with the Nationals, but it's more likely that Stephen Strasburg will get a renewed contract offer first, and the odds are probably against both players returning to the Nats next year. I'm going to try not to worry about it.
The mail bag
I have had numerous congratulatory messages on Facebook and via e-mail, but thus far have been unable to answer more than a handful of them. Rest assured, now that I have gotten all this baseball record-keeping behind me, I will get around to responding as best as my limited time permits. Thanks very much for all the kind words, and thanks for your understanding!