How about them Blue Jays?!
I picked a good time to visit Toronto, just as the Blue Jays were beginning a hot streak that ultimately put them in first place in the AL East Division. Just like last year, when I visited Kansas City at a time when the Washington Nationals were widely expected to go deep into the postseason, few people had hopes for the American League club I was visiting. How things change! At this point, the Blue Jays have a three game lead over the Yankees, and are favored to win a division title for the first time since they won the World Series in 1993.
The big showdown was earlier this week, when the Blue Jays hosted the New York Yankees. The home team won the first game 4-2, and were on the verge of winning the second game. Dioner Navarro hit a solo homer in the bottom of the ninth to tie it, and the Blue Jays then loaded the bases with two outs, but Josh Donaldson struck out. In the top of the tenth, the Yankees took a 6-3 lead thanks to a home run by Greg Bird, and that was the final score. Nevertheless, the Blue Jays came right back on Wednesday and beat the Yankes 4-0, thanks largely to a three-run homer by a former Yankee, Russell Martin. So, taking two out of three in that series gave Toronto a 3.5-game lead in the division.
A key part of the Blue Jays' offense has been Josh Donaldson, acquired from the Oakland A's in a trade last November. He just turned 30 last month, and leads the Blue Jays regular players in batting average (.301), home runs (39), and runs batted in (124). (Chris Colabello is batting .324, but has barely half as many at-bats.) Together with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, the Jays are loaded with slugging power, but their pitching is only average: overall ERA of .377, [ranked 11th] in the majors. Recognizing that weakness, they acquired David Price from the Detroit Tigers in late July -- just a couple weeks after I was in Comerica Park for David Price Bobblehead Day!
Rogers Centre update
Based on my personal observations, including hours of squinting at photos I took while there, the Rogers Centre (ex-SkyDome) diagrams have been revised. (The last diagram update for that stadium was in June 2012!) As so often happens, it was a lengthy, excruciating process to get all the details as accurate as humanly possible. Overall, it's about 10-15 smaller in diameter than before. One key finding concerns the lower deck, which is unique in various ways. As noted on that page, "the patrons gain access directly via the main concourse or via a ramp along the rear of the lower deck in the outer sections." Other details include (of course) the entry portals in the upper deck, the different heights for each separate track platform, and the bullpen mounds. Needless to say, there are boatloads of new photos which I took there on July 19. I also realized why it was hard to reconcile my estimates of the depth of the upper deck based on photos with my diagrams-in-process: the last few rows of seats actually are tucked beneath the platforms upon which the dome wheels roll. (The new upper deck diagram shows this very clearly, when you compare it to the other diagrams.) One missing detail, pending a minor update: the small cranes that suspend the "foul poles" (which are actually yellow nets) from the front edge of the lowest dome section. (See the photo below.) I may eventually create a second-deck diagram for Rogers Centre as well.
Royals win the AL Central
Last year, the Kansas City Royals came from out of nowhere to sneak into the playoffs via the second wild card slot, and stunned everyone with amazing late-inning comebacks to get into the World Series. This year they have played like champions from the very beginning, and tonight became the first team to win a division outright. It's surprising, because their cross-state rivals in St. Louis have a higher winning percentage (.634 vs. .586), but the Cardinals are facing some very tough competition from the Pirates and the Cubs. In fact, both of those probable wild card teams have higher winning percentages (.608 and .586, respectively) than the other two presumed division champions: the Mets (.562) and the Dodgers (.572).
Orioles sweep the Nationals
After getting swept by the Mets two weeks ago, the Nationals were in danger of a collective meltdown, and they lost the first two games of the subsequent series against the Marlins in Miami. But fortunately the Nats showed they have a fierce competitive spirit early on, and they won seven of their next eight games. The Nats swept the Phillies in Citizens Bank Park, a friendly place for home run hitters. Back home in Washington, the Nats beat the Marlins in three out of four games. In the finale, the Nats racked up a 13-3 score, narrowing the gap behind the Mets to just six games. Hopes were high again! Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg were pitching like their old selves, Bryce Harper (M.V.P.! M.V.P.!) had four more home runs during that streak (he's now at 41), while Jayson Werth had a grand slam and other clutch hits. The bullpen actually did their job, but things took a turn for the worse when the Orioles came to town.
Monday night's game was rained out, which may have taken some of the wind out of the Nationals' psychological "sail." On Tuesday they just didn't have any oomph, and Gio Gonzalez threw a couple sloppy pitches that cost the Nats the game, 4-1. On Wednesday, it was a close, hard-fought match, and the Nats took a 3-2 lead. But Max Scherzer gave up a two-run homer to Manny Machado in the seventh inning, and the O's won, 4-3. In the ninth inning, Jonathan Papelbon hit Machado with a pitch and was ejected by the umpire without even a warning. There must be some hard feelings not evident to fans. [This afternoon], the Nats rallied and took a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning, but Blake Treinen gave up a two-run home run to Matt Weiters in the eighth inning, and the Orioles held on to win, 5-4. Suffering two defeats in a row on blown leads is pretty demoralizing, and the Nats don't have much left to fight for except for team pride.
Meanwhile, injuries have come back to plague the Nats again. Ryan Zimmerman is back on the DL, and may not play again this year. With him out of the lineup, any miraculous comeback will be that much harder. Also, Danny Espinosa, who got himself promoted from average utility player to valuable regular infielder, great on offense and defense, is also listed as day to day. But most regretful is that Denard Span, the Nationals' splendid center fielder for the past two years, had a relapse of the back problem that kept him on the DL for most of the season, and he probably won't be seen in a Nats uniform again. His likely replacement, Michael A. Taylor, has been doing very well at the plate, on the base paths, and in center field, and will probably be a regular there next year. We will really miss Denard Span!
But the Nationals still have a tiny flicker of hope left, as the Mets' magic number is now three. If the Nats win nine of their remaining ten games, and the Mets win only two of theirs, there will be a tie in the NL East. (Fat chance!) It would be nice if the Nats could at least stave off elimination until their current (and last) home stand is over. The last home game will be on Monday, when they host the Reds in a makeup game for the rained-out game on July 8. As a loyal fan, I decided I just had to see the "D.C. 9" play one more time this year, so I'm heading up to Our Nation's Capital tomorrow. After all, it's Jordan Zimmermann Bobblehead Day, and Jordan himself will be pitching. It won't be as fun or exciting as the no-hitter which I saw him pitch on the final day of the 2014 regular season, but I figure a big crowd will be a fitting tribute to a great pitcher. Zimmermann will be a free agent after this season, and I just hope the Nationals front office makes him a good offer to keep him on the team next year.
New stadium blog
Take a look at an interesting new blog that recently came to my attention: Abandoned Stadiums, by Ian Harkins. That reminded me, I recently found some old photos I took of the ruins of League Park before the final section of the grandstand was finally demolished several years ago. Stand by!