Nationals nearly sweep the Braves
The Washington Nationals came within eight outs of sweeping the Atlanta Braves last night, leading by a score of 5-1, thanks to home runs by Danny Espinosa and Pudge Rodriguez. But then starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (who had chalked up 11 strikeouts!) had to be replaced after two runners got on base in the seventh inning, and relief pitcher Sean Burnett just couldn't "get 'r done." Before you knew it, the bases were loaded and Martin Prado hit a grand slam to tie the game 5-5. In the bottom of the tenth, an RBI single by Brian McCann won the game, as Doug Slaten was tagged with the loss. See MLB.com. After managing to climb back to a .500 win-loss record for the first time since May 2, the Nats fell below that mark once again.
From the Braves' point of view, it was fitting payback for the night before. Atlanta was leading 3-1 going into the ninth inning, whereupon Alex Cora hit a two-run single to tie the game, sending it into extra innings. In the top of the eleventh, Ian Desmond hit a two-run double to take the lead, and Jayson Werth followed up with a hit a two-run homer that was mere icing on the cake. Final score: Nats 7, Braves 3. That was one of the Nationals' biggest comeback wins of this season.
Well, it was sweet while it lasted. Two extra-inning games in two consecutive nights was rather unusual, to say the least. The Nats have won five out of seven extra-inning games this year, which is a good sign that they can pull together as a team in the clutch. They also managed to win a two series in a row for the first time this season, another positive sign.
Last weekend, the Nationals took two of three games from the Florida Marlins, in spite of mediocre batting. In fact, they struck out seventeen (17) times last Friday night, a team record, winning on a sac fly by Adam LaRoche in the top of the tenth inning. Hopes that they might sweep the Marlins fizzled on Sunday afternoon, as the Fish flummoxed the D.C. 9 by a score of 8 to 0.
The road trip started off on a bleak note, as the Philadelphia Phillies swept the Nats three games straight. In none of those games did the Nats even mount a serious challenge.
Perhaps the proudest accomplishment of the Nationals yet this year was defeating the World Champion San Francisco Giants in three games out of four, in a home series from April 28 to May 2. The final game of the series was an amazing pitchers' duel between two starting pitchers -- Madison Bumgarner (0-4) and Tom Gorzelanny (0-2) -- who had not yet won a game this season. Thanks to a timely 7th-inning rally, the Nats took a 2-0 lead and held on to beat the Giants, 2-0. Fittingly, it was Military Appreciation Night in Washington, on the day after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALS. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
Tonight, the Nationals begin another home stand, welcoming the Florida Marlins to town. The Nats are currently in fourth place (6.5 games behind the Phillies) in the NL East, hoping to close the gap with the second-place Marlins (3.0 behind). A wild card spot is not entirely out of the realm of possibilities...
UPDATE: For the third night in a row (is that a record?), the Nats battled into extra innings, and tonight they came up short, with the same final score as the night before: 6-5. Roger Bernadina, who was recently called up from the minors, is quickly establishing himself as a starting player, going 3 for 5 with two RBIs and an unbelievable diving catch in center field. Laynce Nix blasted a home run into the upper deck in right center field, as well as a clutch RBI double, but it wasn't quite enough for a win.
Great pitching, lousy batting
With a record of 18-19, it's hard to complain about the Nationals' performance, overall. True, it's not as good as they were doing a year ago, when they were 20-15 -- at .571, their peak percentage of the 2010 season -- but's not bad considering that their star player has been injured for over a month. (See below.) To the surprise of many, the team's strong point has continued to be pitching, especialy the starting rotation. Until May 5, every single starting pitcher for the Nationals had gone at least five full innings, a consecutive streak of 30 games unmatched by any other team. That was the day John Lannan gave up six runs in the third inning to the Phillies, who went on to win, 7-3. The streak almost came to an end on April 23, when the Pirates scored five runs (four earned) off Livan Hernandez in the first inning, but he shook it off and went on to pitch five more innings anyway. (The Nats still lost.)
Meanwhile, the Nationals have recorded horrible offensive statistics over the first quarter (sic weeks) of the 2011 season. The team batting average is currently only .222, dead last among all 30 Major League teams. Jayson Werth, who signed a seven-year contract werth worth $126 million (see Dec. 6), is batting only .226. Granted, he is leading the team with six home runs, but is only tied for third on the RBI department. Werth was recently advised by his agent Scott Boras to focus on his speed, and just getting on base. Whatever may be his hangup in the batter's box, Werth is at least proving his worth (soon-to-be-exhausted cliché!) defensively, making a large number of diving catches in right field. Pudge Rodriguez only recently climbed above .200, but he has had quite a few clutch hits, which help to compensate. The other catcher, Wilson Ramos, was batting over .300 until recently, living up to the high expectations engendered from his 2010 rookie season. One of the pleasant surprises is Laynce (pronounced "Lance") Nix, who is batting .282 with four home runs, second among the Nats.
Ryan Zimmerman gets surgery
Probably the biggest piece of bad news faced by the Nationals this year is the abdominal injury to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He was batting .357 when he slid head-first into second base last month, aggravating a a torn abdominal muscle that had bothered him during spring training. He took a few days of rest, but doctors determined that it wasn't going to heal on its own, so he went under the proverbial knife to repair the damage. He is now recovering from arthroscopic surgery and has begun rehabilitation. See MLB.com. His absence is very acutely felt. With any luck, Z-man will be playing again next month, but nothing is certain. Get well, soon, Ryan!!!
Just think if the Nationals had the use of Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg right now. They'd be legitimate contenders for the postseason. Once Bryce Harper joins the team -- next year, presumably -- the sky's the limit!
Bryce Harper's vision
In the minors, meanwhile, future Nats' star slugger Bryce Harper has hit safely in 16 straight games, and is leading his league in various categories. He had a slow start this season, and it seems that the vast improvement is a matter of vision. Harper had his eyes examined last month, and has started wearing contact lenses, which have helped his hitting immeasurably, to the benefit of the Hagerstown Suns. See the Washington Post. Bruce Orser continues to follow Harper's progress very closely...
Livan in legal trouble
The Nats' most reliable starting pitcher, Livan Hernandez, is being investigated for his apparent ties to a Puerto Rican drug dealer Angel Ayala Vazquez. According to ESPN, Vazquez had a Porsche, a Lamborghini, and other expensive properties registered in Hernandez's name, presumably to evade seizure by law enforcement officers.
Sicks' Stadium update
The Sicks' Stadium diagram has been revised slightly, and two new versions of it have been added: the original 1938 configuration and a rather conjectural 1970 configuration with extra enlargements to the various bleacher sections. [It became a moot point when the Seattle Pilots folded and moved to Milwaukee in 1970, becoming the Brewers.] It is based on an apparent artist's rendering I saw a while back somewhere on the Internet. (So, it must be true, right?)
I have been working on Safeco Field, [home of the Seattle Mariners and] the last remaining current MLB stadium whose diagram is not yet up to standard. But by sheer coincidence, Bruce Orser sent me a link to a very informative historical article on Sicks' Stadium by David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman; see sportspressnw.com. I question the dimension data cited in that article, but otherwise it was very helpful. Sicks' Stadium was easier to redo than Safeco Field, in any case.
I will probably add minor league versions of two other temporary single-deck stadiums of that era: Seals Stadium and Jarry Park. (I already did so for K.C. Municipal Stadium.)
Oakland Coliseum renamed
This would have been a good April Fool's Day joke, but it wasn't announced until the end of the month: Oakland Alameda Coliseum will be renamed Overstock.com Coliseum, under the terms of a six-year deal, worth $1.2 million per year. In relative terms, that's chump change, showing how desperate the pro sports business is becoming. Hat tips to Matt Ereth and Mike Zurawski. See fieldofschemes.com and overstock.com itself. How about just plain "What-ever Coliseum"? I'll update that page in the near future; groan...
About 40 miles south, meanwhile, the folks in San Jose are still hoping to get a deal with the Athletics finalized. Oakland A's owner Lew Wolff is working on plans for a new ballpark there, and the San Jose mayor is amenable to the plan, but the relocation decision will ultimately be made by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. He would have to issue a waiver to the San Francisco Giants' territorial rights over San Jose. Perhaps the fact that Selig and Wolff are old fraternity brothers might help smooth things over. See pressdemocrat.com. Take a look at the artist's renderings of the proposed San Jose baseball stadium at sanjose.com. Hat tip to Bruce Orser, who also drew my attention to a set of photographs showing construction progress on the Marlins' future stadium. See MLB.com. Will anyone shed a nostalgic tear toward the end of this season, when the final baseball games are played at Dolphin Stadium? Probably not. Still, the Marlins have won the World Series twice while making that stadium their home, so there is bound to be some recognition.
School's out for summer!
Which means I can once again devote more time to enjoying Our National Pastime, and getting back to refining ballpark diagrams on a regular basis. (How many of you remember Alice Cooper? Watch him belt out that classic hit "School's Out" on YouTube.)