Nationals' regular season ends on a high note
I just had to see one more Nationals game this year, but the lousy weather this past week forced me to choose the date with care. The forecasts said the rain would taper off by Saturday morning, and that the skies should clear by the afternoon. NOT! I realized as we were driving up to D.C. that the forecasts had been revised, and the radio was full of reports of traffic accidents due to cars slipping on wet pavement. Not a good omen at all. After getting burned on parking during my last visit on June 29, I decided to take Metro into the city. That entailed extra hassles because of the massive repair work following a major accident last year. Nevertheless, I arrived at Nationals Park [an hour and a half] before the 4:05 scheduled game time, and decided to buy cheap tickets for the upper deck, which is sheltered from rain by the roof.
My first objective was to go to the rooftop bar at the brand-new Hampton Inn and Suites, which offers a great view of the field at Nationals Park. (Much like the rooftop seats at Wrigley Field, but about six stories higher!) I had seen a photo taken from there in the Washington Post a couple weeks ago, and I was all excited to take such a photo myself, but I was told that the rooftop bar was closed because of the continuing drizzle. Given that conditions for taking photos were so bad, I suppose it wouldn't have been worth the effort. But as I took photos during the game, I could see that there were in fact bar patrons on the roof! Perhaps it was decided that the drizzle wasn't so bad. [As it turned out, conditions remained about the same throughout the game: chilly, breezy, and misty.]
The Marlins had out-scrapped the Nats in the Friday night game, winning 7-4, and there was some anxiety among Nats fans about clinching the second playoff seed which would ensure home field advantage. On the plus side, their best two pitchers were on the mound: Tanner Roark [on Saturday] and Max Scherzer [on Sunday]. On the negative side, many of their best players are still suffering various aches and pains, and of course Wilson Ramos is out of the picture entirely now.
Before going up to my seat in the upper deck, I took some photos of some of the players from in back of the lower deck, where one of the TV cameras is. Roark had a bit of trouble early on, as the Marlins had two runners on base in each of the first three innings. But thanks mainly to some fine defense, nothing came of it, while the Nats took an early 1-0 lead.
In the middle of the fifth inning, I went down to get an adult beverage (Goose Creek IPA) and a "Nats Dog," figuring that with the bottom of the lineup coming up to bat, I had plenty of time. NOT! Just as I made my purchase, I heard a huge roar from the crowd and realized to my utter dismay that I had missed seeing Trea Turner hit a solo home run into the left field bullpen. Ar-r-rgh-h-h!!! It was his 13th home run of the year, and as the Washington Post noted, Turner is the very first player in (Expos-Nationals) franchise history to get at least 100 hits with fewer than 100 games played. This kid is setting some unbelievable records, and promises to be a huge part of the team for years to come.
The Marlins put a run on the board in the sixth inning, on another walk by Christian Yelich,* who stole second base and then scored on a single by Chris Johnson. Dusty Baker was taking no chances, so he replaced Tanner Roark with Blake Treinen, who quickly got the third out. Over the next three innings, Shawn Kelley, Mark Rzepczynski, and Mark Melancon shut the Marlins down, allowing only one hit and one walk between them. A special moment came when future Hall-of-Famer Ichiro Suzuki came up to pinch hit in the seventh inning, and I almost felt bad for him when he grounded out to Ryan Zimmerman at first base.
* I should perhaps remind folks that it was Christian Yelich who hit that long fly ball to left-center field on the final game two years ago, when Steven Souza Jr. made a leaping catch for the final out, preserving Jordan Zimmermann's historic no-hitter.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, it was announced on the main scoreboard that the Giants had beaten the Dodgers, which meant that the Nationals would get home field advantage in the NLDS, regardless of the last two games in Washington. That drew a big cheer from the crowd. It was then that Danny Espinosa got his second single of the game, but he was soon called out when pinch-hitter Chris Heisey popped out to foul territory on the first base side; Danny didn't bother getting back to first, evidently thinking there were already two outs. Not good. And so, the Nationals prevailed 2-1 in a strange sort of pitchers' duel in which neither starter made it to the sixth inning. Wei-Yin Chen took the loss for the Marlins. Official attendance was 31,635, but I would be surprised if 20,000 fans were actually present, as bad weather probably discouraged many season ticket holders from making the trip. "Phantom fans!"
In stark contrast to the game I saw, this afternoon's game took place in beautiful weather, and was quite a slug-fest, with the Marlins repeatedly catching up or narrowing the gap every time the Nats built a lead. Max Scherzer seemed to be in control, enjoying a 3-0 lead, but left the game after five innings with the score tied 5-5. Amazingly, Scherzer batted in four of those five runs, hitting singles up the middle with runners on second and third in both the second and fourth innings. His shot at getting the symbolic 20th win of the season was in jeopardy, but Bryce Harper doubled and soon scored on an RBI groundout by Wilmer Difo. Then Danny Epinosa hit a two-run homer to give the Nats a 3-run lead again. In the eighth inning both teams scored two more runs, and the Nats held on to win it, 10-7."All's well that ends well."
Wrapping up 2016
So, the Nationals end the 2016 regular season with a 95-67 record (.586), tied with the Texas Rangers for the second highest percentage in the majors. In their previous two division championship years there record was 98-64 (in 2012) and 96-66 (in 2014). This year they finished the season with a seven-game lead over the Mets, whereas in 2014 they had a 17-game lead and in 2012 they had a 4-game lead (over the Braves in both years). I have updated the monthly and annual statistics on the Washington Nationals page, including the head-to-head win-loss records for each of the teams they faced this year. There are also a few new mini-photos of players I took yesterday. [NOTE: My attendance figures don't match what was reported on MASN, so I'll have to make some corrections in that.]
In that rough final game today, Scherzer's ERA climbed from 2.82 to 2.96. Nevertheless, with a best-in-the-majors 20-7 record and 284 strikeouts (30 more than the #2 pitcher in that category, former team mate Justin Verlander of the Tigers), he has to be considered a leading candidate for the National League Cy Young Award. Tanner Roark ended up with the highest ERA among Nats' pitchers this year: 2.83. Kyle Kendricks and Jon Lester of the Cubs have much lower ERAs compared to Scherzer, but also far fewer strikeouts and innings pitched.
In today's game, Daniel Murphy had a pinch-hit at-bat, hoping to retake the lead in the NL batting competition from D.J. LaMahieu of the Colorado Rockies, but he flew out. Meanwhile, his rival LaMahieu played it safe and sat out the last two games of the year, finishing with a batting average of.3478, compared to Murphy's .3465. No Ted Williams, he. (.406!) I think the choice of league MVP should reflect not just raw numbers (which are often influenced by ballpark-specific factors such as altitude), but the psychological effect on winning that a player exhibits. "No guts, no glory." Murphy all the way!
Wild card races end
In Atlanta, the Braves beat the Tigers for the second day in a row, thus spoiling Detroit's hopes of making it as a wild card team. So, there will be no makeup game against the Indians in Detroit tomorrow, and no tie-breaking games either. In New York, the Orioles beat the Yankees, while in Boston the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox. They both ended up with 89-73 records, but the Blue Jays have the edge in head-to-head matchups, so they will get the coveted fourth seed. In the National League, likewise, the Giants ended up with the same record as the Mets (87-75), but came up short in head-to-head matchups with the Mets. [The Giants swept the Dodgers, to the surprise of many, so the Cardinals basically had no chance in that race.]
On Tuesday the Toronto Blue Jays will host the Baltimore Orioles in the AL wild card game, and a day later the New York Mets will host the San Francisco Giants in the NL wild card game. On Thursday the American League Division Series will begin, with the Boston Red Sox at the Cleveland Indians and the AL wild card winner at the Texas Rangers. On Friday the National League Division Series will begin, with the L.A. Dodgers at the Washington Nationals and the NL wild card winner at the Chicago Cubs. The table of the 2016 postseason matchups shown at the bottom of the baseball blog page (and on the Postseason scores since 2002 page) is now updated.
If the past is prologue, the Nats have their work cut out for them going up against the Dodgers, who they only beat in one of six games this year. The Nats' starting (and winning) pitcher in that one game (July 20)? None other than left-hander Gio Gonzalez, much derided lately! It's worth noting that the Dodgers did not face Max Scherzer at all this year. In the one game Tanner Roark pitched against them (June 21), the Dodgers were shut out until the eighth inning. Getting home field advantage in the NLDS was obviously very important for the Nats. If they make it to the NLCS, presumably facing the Cubs, the prospects are likewise daunting: the Cubs beat them in four out of seven games this year.