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September 30, 2021 [LINK / comment]

Red-hot Cardinals grab a wild card spot

By the beginning of September, three teams in the National League had essentially claimed a berth in the 2021 postseason: the San Francisco Giants and L.A. Dodgers fighting it out neck and neck in the West Division, and the Milwaukee Brewers who were dominant in the Central Division. For most of the month, the Atlanta Braves clung to a small lead over the Phillies in the NL East, and just tonight they finally clinched the division title. Waiting in the wings as contenders for the second wild card slot early in the month were the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds, while as of September 12, the St. Louis Cardinals were estimated to only have a 5 percent chance of making the playoffs. But then the Cardinals won 17 games in a row, surging ahead of the Padres and Reds to take the second NL wild card spot. It was an incredible late-season burst, somewhat reminisiscent of the 1969 New York Mets. The Cardinals finally lost a game on Wednesday night (to the Brewers), but they then beat the Brewers on Thursday. Now all that's left to decide in the National League is the West Division championship, but the Giants are virtually assured of winning.

Four-way wild card race in AL

In contrast to the National League, the race for the two wild card slots in the "Junior Circuit" is still wide open as the final weekend of regular season play is about to begin. The amazing Tampa Bay Rays clinched the AL East title a week ago, and yesterday they claimed top seed in the American League, getting home field advantage until the World Series. There was likewise little doubt that either the Chicago White Sox or the Houston Astros would win their respective divisions (AL Central and AL West), but there has been a great deal of volatility as far as the wild card slots. The New York Yankees have gone through big ups and downs, losing seven games in a row in mid-month, after a 13-game winning streak in late August. They recovered late in the month, and now have the inside track in the AL wild card race. The Boston Red Sox had been contending with the Toronto Blue Jays for the second wild card spot, but both teams began to flag somewhat late in the month. The Oakland Athletics looked promising for much of the 2021 season, but they have had a poor month. Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners seemingly came out of nowhere to tie the Red Sox in the wild card race, one game behind the Yankees. The Mariners have accomplished almost as big a surge as the Cardinals, winning nine of their last ten games. The Blue Jays are one game behind those two teams. So everything comes down to who wins their respective final regular season series this weekend.

As is customary, the postseason scoreboard begins to appear on the first day of October at the bottom of my baseball blog page. (Since the regular season extends into October this year, that scoreboard is only provisional at this point.)

Max Scherzer tops 3,000 strikeouts

It was a painfully bittersweet moment for Washington Nationals fans when their former ace pitcher Max Scherzer threw his 3,000th career strikeout on September 12. He threw eight perfect innings, including nine strikeouts, against the visiting Padres before giving up a single to Eric Hosmer in the top of the ninth inning. Scherzer was then relieved, and the Dodgers soon completed an 8-0 shutout victory. After striking out five batters in a rare mediocre outing against the Padres yesterday, he now has 3,020 strikeouts altogether, seven more than his former team mate (with the Detroit Tigers) Justin Verlander, who has not been healthy enough to pitch for the Houston Astros this year. Scherzer remains at 15 wins for the year, with just four losses. Since joining the Dodgers at the beginning of August he has won seven games and lost none. Until recently, he led the majors in ERA, but Corbin Burnes (of the Milwaukee Brewers) just took the lead in that category. Ironically, Burnes was the pitcher who followed Max Scherzer in the 2021 All-Star Game, and in fact he was the one who took the loss. Here is a quick look at Max Scherzer's career:

From Until Team Strikeouts
2008 2009 Arizona Diamondbacks 240
2010 2014 Detroit Tigers 1,081
2015 2021 Washington Nationals 1,610
2021 2021 Los Angeles Dodgers 89
2008 2021 TOTAL 3,020

Nationals show some improvement

After two straight "hellish" months (8 - 18 in July and 7 - 20 in August), the Washington Nationals performed just a little better in September, with a record of 10 wins and 16 losses. After enduring a second seven-game losing streak this year (August 28 - September 4), they won almost every other game for the next two weeks, and they even won three games in a row, two of which were against the Marlins in Miami, on September 21 and 22; that was the only series they won this month. Losing series to the Mets (Sept. 3-6), Braves (Sept. 7-9), and Reds (Sept. 23-26) was understandable, but they really should have won more of the series against the Pirates (Sept. 10-12), Marlins (Sept. 13-15 and Sept. 20-22), and Rockies (Sept. 17-19 and Sept. 27-29). They managed to avoid getting swept by any of those teams, at least. Back home in D.C. this weekend after a long road trip, the Nationals will face the Boston Red Sox, who are highly motivated, needing at least two wins if they are going to take a wild card slot. After the last regular season game is completed on Sunday, I will update the Washington Nationals page with data for September (including October).

One of the most amazing statistics from this year is that the Nationals are actually leading the National League with a .249 team batting average. How can that be when they have lost so many games? Partly it is the poor pitching, with a 4.79 team ERA (ranking 24th out of 30 MLB teams) and the second-most home runs given up of all MLB team: 241. (The Orioles "lead" with 247 home runs given up.) Somehow the Nationals pitchers have tied a record (14) for most number of grand slams given up in one season. Will they break that record this weekend? But it is also partly the failure to provide run support when pitchers do have good outings. The Nationals batters have been notoriously weak in clutch situations, leaving many runners on base.

Another weakness of the Nationals is their failure to score in extra innings. According to my calculations, they have won only two extra-inning games this year, while they have lost eleven. (This includes games lasting eight or nine innings in double-header games that last seven innings under the special rules instituted last year.)

Among the many positive developments is that Juan Soto has fully recovered from his mid-season injury, and now has 29 home runs and a .318 batting average. He briefly had the highest average in the majors this week, but former National Trea Turner (now with the Dodgers, batting .325) reclaimed the number one position in that category. Soto has 94 RBIs, and with a little luck can break into the triple digits during this final weekend.

It is also worth pointing out that several of the newly-acquired players have performed exceptionally well. Josh Rogers, who was designated for assignment by the Orioles early in the year, has really blossomed with the Nationals since being called up at the beginning of September. In five starts, he has a 2.73 ERA, 19 strikeouts, and a 2-1 record. Former Cardinal Lane Thomas is batting .285 and has hit seven home runs; he is now the regular center fielder, replacing the disappointing Victor Robles, whose days with the Nationals may be numbered. Two young catchers show great promise as sluggers: Keibert Ruiz (part of the mega-trade with the Dodgers) and Riley Adams. Meanwhile, veterans Ryan Zimmerman, Alcides Escobar, Josh Bell, and Yadiel Hernandez are also hitting well on a regular basis.

All these things point to a big improvement for the Nationals next year. But how big??? Are the Lerners going to put down some big bucks to acquire first-class pitchers in order to become contenders once again, or will the "rebuilding" process take two or more years?

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