September 29, 2014 [LINK / comment]
(Almost) Perfect weekend in Washington!
I was determined to make up for not seeing as many Nationals games in Washington as I had hoped this year, and boy, did I! Not only was the weekend weather almost perfect, starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann indeed came very close to getting a perfect game in the regular season finale yesterday, settling for a "mere" no-hitter. He also came very close to giving up a double in the top of the ninth inning, putting the Nats' lead in jeopardy, but thanks to rookie Steven Souza Jr., who had just replaced Ryan Zimmerman in left field, the ball was caught and the game was won. Yes!!!
I had a seat in the right field second deck, where home runs by Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche often land. Alas, not that day. The Nats stocking caps being given away to early fans seemed out of place on such a warm day, with just a few wispy clouds. Even though outcome of the Sunday game itself was meaningless, since the Nats had already clinched home field advantage on Friday, it really did matter from a psychological standpoint. In sports, as in politics, it's all about the "Big Mo" -- momentum! And so, the game was a nine-inning war of nerves, with manager Matt Williams making multiple changes in the lineup. He has to be considered a top contender for National League Manager of the Year.
The first Marlins batter, Christian Yelich, put some early pressure on Zimmermann, fouling off several pitches and then hitting a line drive to the [right] field corner. Fortunately, Bryce Harper got over there quickly and snagged the ball for an out. Zimmermann's pitch count reached 17 by the third out, and given the low stakes, most people figured he might not last more than five innings.
In the second inning, Ian Desmond hit a solo home run that turned out to be the only run scored in the game. Bryce Harper then doubled on a ground ball to center field, dashing to the base just before the throw. That had us fans thinking we were in store for one of those high-scoring games full of rallies. The next two batters struck out, however, and not much happened offensively after that.
In the third inning, Denard Span hit a double into the right field corner, thereby setting a new team record for number of hits in a season: 184. He was rewarded for his efforts by being taken out of the game, and was replaced in the lineup by Nate Schierholtz. The Nats outfielders changed almost every inning for the rest of the game.
In the fourth inning, Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper singled, but then Wilson Ramos grounded into a double play for the third out.
In the top of the fifth inning, three Marlins batters hit the ball hard, and all three lined out to infielders. Zimmermann gave up a walk (his only one of the day), to Justin Bour, thus spoiling any hopes of a perfect game, but that was it. He knew, and we fans knew, that something special was going on...
The Nationals kept getting hits, and they kept wasting run-scoring opportunities. Kevin Frandsen grounded into a double play in the bottom of the fifth, and in fact, the Nats got two hits but no runs [in the] fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings. The Nats had eleven hits altogether, but the ten that came after Desmond's home run did not yield any runs.
The next challenge came in the seventh inning, when Garrett Jones made it to first after striking out on a wild pitch. But that came to nothing because catcher Wilson Ramos threw him out on a pick-off almost right away, and that ended the inning.
In the eighth inning, Reed Johnson flew out to left fielder (!) Ryan Zimmerman, who stayed in the game longer than any of the starters other than the pitcher and catcher. Justin Bour was out on a pop foul caught by Kevin Frandsen at third base, and J.T. Realmuto struck out. That got the crowd really excited about history in the making, but with just a one-run lead it was a very nervous excitement.
In the ninth inning, Adeiny Hechavarria grounded out to second, and then Jarrod Saltalamacchia came in to pinch hit for Henderson Alvarez. His slugging reputation put some fans on edge, and indeed, he connected on a pitch and sent the ball far into center field (where I couldn't see it), but Michael Taylor caught it for the second out. Whew!
All that led up to one of the most dramatic plays in Nationals history. Zimmermann faced Christian Yelich, who had given him such a hard time in the first inning, and fell behind in the count. Then he put a pitch over the plate that [Yelich] knocked into the left field gap, and Zimmermann cringed in futile agony, sure that his big opportunity had been ruined. But Steven Souza, who had just been put in to replace Ryan Zimmerman, quickly darted out toward the bullpen and with a flying lunge worthy of Superman himself, he grabbed that ball before it hit the ground. And I took a picture of it!!!
And of course, the crowd went wild, the team poured onto the field in exultant, joyous celebration for what Zimmermann had accomplished, with the ritual Gatorade shower, shaving cream pie in the face, etc., etc. What a way to end a regular season! That had to be one of the most spectacular and crucial defensive plays made in Nationals history, and Souza may just have earned himself a spot on the postseason roster. (During the playoffs, they go back to 25 men rather than the expanded 40-man roster used in September.)
Ironically, Marlins starter Henderson Alvarez threw a no-hitter on the last day of the regular season last year! For more on this triumphant finale in D.C., see the Washington Post, and for the "official version" of the day's events, see MLB.com.
While I was watching the Nats Xtra postgame show replayed on MASN this morning, I heard Johnny Holliday say that was the first no-hitter he had ever seen in person. Wow. I have seen close to 50 Major League games in my lifetime, whereas he must have seen several hundred, so I must be pretty lucky in that regard.
Earlier in the weekend...
Thanks largely to another superb outing by starting pitcher Doug Fister, the Nationals won the first game of the series against the Marlins on Friday afternoon, while I was driving up to D.C. Anthony Rendon hit a two-run home run in the first inning, and the two runs scored later on merely provided a safety cushion. The 4-0 victory by the Nats clinched the best record in the National League, meaning that the Nats will enjoy home field advantage in the NLDS and (hopefully) the NLCS as well.
I made sure to arrive on time for the Friday night game, since they were giving team posters to the first 20,000 fans. After Fister's triumph that afternoon, it was easy to write off the night game as pointless, since hardly any regulars even played. But the Nats were actually very competitive and took a 3-1 lead in the first inning, and stayed ahead until the fifth inning. Rookie pitcher Taylor Hill got two outs, but then just lost control of the situation. He hit Casey McGehee with a pitch, gave up two hits, and then intentionally walked Justin Bour to load the bases. That was a big mistake, as J.T. Realmuto lined a ball into the left field corner for a three-run triple. Instead of a 4-2 Nats lead, the visitors were suddenly ahead 7-4. The Marlins extended their lead to 10-7 in the seventh inning, and in the top of the ninth, they got a grand slam off veteran reliever Craig Stammen. (I think it was the first grand slam I had ever seen.) That was disturbing. Final score: 15-7, more runs than any team had scored against the Nats this year. (That was not the worst defeat suffered by the Nationals this year, however; on April 15, Tax Day, the Marlins beat the Nats 11-2.)
In the Saturday afternoon game, which I saw with my old friend Dave Givens, Stephen Strasburg was totally in control, giving up just two hits in six innings, with seven strikeouts. That put him at 242 K's for the season, tied with the Reds' Johnny Cueto for the National League lead, and three ahead of the awesome Clayton Kershaw. A well-placed bunt by Strasburg in the second inning allowed Bryce Harper to score from third. But that was the only scoring until the eighth inning, when the Nats loaded the bases, and Asdrubal Cabrera hit a clutch double to right-center field, getting all three base runners home. Cabrera soon scored to make it 5-0, and that would have been the final score except for fielding errors by both Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon in the top of the ninth. Fortunately, closing pitcher Drew Storen kept his cool, and got the third out. Nats 5, Marlins 1.
Wrapping it up
And so, the Nationals finish the 2014 regular season with a 96-66 record (.593), 30 games over .500, and 17 games ahead of the second-place Atlanta Braves. That's the biggest first-vs.-second place margin since 2008. The Washington Nationals page has been updated with the data for 2014, subject to possible revision later on. I'll have the team-by-team head-to-head records, the daily winning percentage graph, and selected player stats compiled within the next few days.
And on a personal level, I'm pleased that the Nats won 4 of the 5 games I saw this year, much better than their 0-4 record in games I attended last year. I also saw two other games, in Phoenix and in Kansas City, making a total of seven (7) MLB games this year, a personal best! Here's an updated version of last year's table, now including three Nats' games I've seen on the road:
Underlined numbers include one away game (each), three total.
Divisional races decided
Thanks to the Cincinnati Reds, who beat the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates 4-1, the St. Louis Cardinals claimed the NL Central Division title for the second year in a row. The Pirates will host the San Francisco Giants in the NL wild card game on Wednesday night.
The Detroit Tigers won the AL Central Division by beating the Minnesota Twins 3-0. The Tigers were already ahead by one game, so it didn't matter that the Kansas City Royals won their game as well. K.C. will host the Oakland Athletics in Tuesday's wild card game, after the A's limped across the finish line, blanking the Rangers, 4-0. The Seattle Mariners finished the season one game out of the playoffs.
The Nationals will host either the Pirates or the Giants in Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday in Nationals Park, time yet to be announced. The Dodgers will host the Cardinals in the other NLDS, and on the American League side, the Angels will host either the Royals or the Athletics, and the Orioles will host the Tigers. See the Postseason scores page, which now shows the first-round matchups.
It was exactly ten years ago today that Mayor Anthony Williams announced that Major League Baseball would be coming to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2005. "Oh, Happy Day!" (The linked blog post was taken from text that I wrote and posted before I began blogging in a systematic way, in November 2004, hence the "post facto" date stamp of 28 Sep 2005.)
Sunday was Ryan Zimmerman's 30th birthday, and ironically they didn't give him the day off!
Jeter's encore in Boston
Not content with his amazing walk-off RBI finale in New York, Derek Jeter went out with a bang in Boston as well. He hit a high bouncing ball that the third baseman couldn't reach, allowing the runner on third to score. And then he was taken out of the game, finishing his superlative 20-year career on a successful note.
And here's a parallel from Facebook friend Doug Mataconis: "Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter both played their last game on the same date and in the same park. Mantle in 1968 and Jeter today." He's referring to Fenway Park, of course.
[NOTE: Corrections were made, denoted by brackets, about 24 hours later.]