July 1, 2021
After stumbling a bit in Miami over the weekend (see below), the Washington Nationals have drawn closer to their rivals the New York Mets in the race for the National League East title. On Monday they played the first of three makeup games against the Mets necessitated by the postponement of the scheduled early April series in Washington. Since the #5 starting pitcher Erick Fedde was placed on the Injured List, Paolo Espino was tapped to fill in for him, and just like in the game I saw on June 16, he rose to the occasion again and got the win. Kyle Schwarber hit yet another leadoff home run in the bottom of the first inning, and the #2 batter Trea Turner did likewise. In the second inning, Gerardo "Baby Shark" Parra, recently called up from the minor leagues, hit his first MLB homer of the year, and in the fifth inning, Schwarber hit a second solo homer. In the top of the eighth inning, the Mets closed the gap with two homers of their own, but in bottom of the inning, Ryan Zimmerman hit a long three-run homer into the Red Porch seats, securing the Nats' 8-4 win. That brought the Nats to within three games of the Mets in the NL East race.
Believe it or not, for the first eleven days of the month, Kyle Schwarber did not hit any home runs. Then manager Davey Martinez decided to move him into the leadoff spot, which seemed strange for a batter known more for power than batting average or speed. Well, it turned out to have worked out very well, to say the least! For the rest of the month, Schwarber made history becoming just the third player ever to hit 16 home runs within an 18-day period. The other two, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, have big asterisks next to their records, and one may easily conclude that Schwarber really stands alone in this regard. [With 25 home runs this year, he now ranks #4 in the major leagues, one behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Blue Jays) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (Padres), and three behind the Angels' incredible slugging pitcher Shohei Ohtani, who has hit five more homers in the last seven games.] Perhaps the most jaw-dropping aspect of Schwarber's hot streak is that seven of those 16 homers were in the first inning! He hit two home runs in three games over that span, and three home runs in one game. He hit home runs in ten games overall between June 12 and 29, nine of which the Nationals won. I happened to see (on June 16) one of the nine games during that period in which Schwarber did not homer. Here's a quick listing:
("@" = away)
|June 23||5th||13||@ PHI||12|
|June 24||1st||7||@ MIA||3|
|June 24||2nd||"||@ "||"|
|June 25||3rd||2||@ MIA||11|
Last Thursday the Nationals flew down to Miami to play Marlins, almost coinciding with the apocalyptic collapse of that condominium building north of Miami beach. Joe Ross had one of his best nights on the mound this year, allowing just two runs over seven innings. Two more home runs by Kyle Schwarber proved to be decisive in the Nats' 7-3 win. The first one landed several rows up in the upper deck near the right field corner, and the second one landed just beyond the center field fence, in a spot that would have been in play before they shortened the center field dimension a few years ago. In Friday's game, pitcher Jon Lester was just awful, and he later expressed deep frustration over not being able to command the ball. He was replaced during the third inning, by which time the Marlins were way ahead. Kyle Schwarber's home run was of little consequence. Final score: Marlins 11, Nats 2. On Saturday, Patrick Corbin completed six innings on the mound, but the Nats only scored two runs, losing in a close one. Sunday was Max Scherzer's turn to pitch for the Nationals, and he came through once again. Home runs by Trea Turner and Josh Bell (both with one runner on base, both in the sixth inning) gave the Nationals the winning edge in the 5-1 final score. Thus ended the 2-2 series split.
On Tuesday night the Nats welcomed to town the Tampa Bay Rays, who until recently had been leading the AL East Division. (The Red Sox pulled ahead last week.) Joe Ross was effective once again, but the real difference was -- surprise? -- another leadoff home run by Kyle Schwarber. Trea Turner then doubled and Juan Soto homered, giving the Nats a 3-0 lead before an out had been made. Victor Robles homered in the second inning, and then the Nats just kind of took it easy. Closing pitcher Brad Hand took the mound in the ninth inning, and promptly gave up a home run to Mike Zunino, making it a 4-3 ball game, but then the next three Marlins batters flew out or lined out to end the game. On Wednesday the big star was Trea Turner, who singled, doubled, homered, and (in the sixth inning) tripled to the right field corner to complete his third career "cycle," tying the all-time MLB record for that rare accomplishment. Two Washington Nationals, Brad Wilkerson (2005) and Cristian Guzman (2008) previously hit for the cycle. In the fifth inning, Jordy Mercer hit his first home run with the Nationals, and Starlin Castro did so one inning later. Jon Lester got the win even though he gave up five runs over five innings on the mound. Final score: 15-6. That put the Nationals (40-38) two games over .500 for the first time this year, and brought them to just two games behind the Mets.
For the month of June, the Nationals finished 17-9, an amazing improvement over their 11-17 performance in May. If ever one man made a decisive difference in a team's fortunes, this was it: Kyle Schwarber! The latest hard data and assorted useful factoids have been posted on the Washington Nationals page.
Long-time Washington Post sportswriter Tom Boswell has retired as of the end of June, and today's paper featured a series of tributes to him by colleagues and various sports notables, along with his final column, "The joy of sports can't quite be explained, but you can happily spend a lifetime trying." For most of his career in Washington, he was without a hometown baseball team to report on, but since the arrival of the Nationals in D.C. in 2005 he has relished covering first-hand the grandest sport of them all. I will miss his thoughtful and uplifting observations about the Washington Nationals and other sporting teams.