October 18, 2019 [LINK / comment]
Nationals sweep the Cardinals, win the pennant!
Believe it or not, the team that was near the bottom among all major league teams on May 23 (19-31, .380) emerged triumphantly to claim the National League crown for the first time in franchise history. Yes, sports fans, the Washington Nationals finally overcame their star-crossed reputation and lived up to their true potential. Best of all, the Nats got to share the celebration with the home crowd in Nationals Park, in sharp contrast to last year, when the visiting team won the final (deciding) games in all seven postseason championship series. (See the postseason scores page.) This year the visitors won the final games in three of the four divisional series.
With a 3-0 series lead, some feared that the Nats might get complacently overconfident as Game 4 against the St. Louis Cardinals got underway in Nationals Park. Not hardly! The Nats' Patrick Corbin struck out the first three batters he faced, while the Nats scored seven (7) runs in the bottom of the first inning. Trea Turner led off with a single, and next seven batters either hit safely, reached base on an error, or advanced a runner on a sacrifice. The Cardinals' Dakota Hudson was removed from the game having only gotten one out, replaced by Adam Wainright. It seemed the game was pretty much over by then, and the home fans were buzzing in gleeful anticipation. But Patrick Corbin started running into trouble, giving up a solo home run to Yadier Molina in the fourth inning, and then giving up three runs in the fifth inning. He was lucky they didn't close the gap to only a run or two. Corbin departed after getting twelve strikeouts, and the often-shaky Nats bullpen took over after that. Fortunately, Tanner Rainey, Sean Doolittle, and Daniel Hudson only gave up one more hit over the final four innings, so even though the Nats didn't score again, they still won by a 7-4 margin. Center fielder Victor Robles caught an easy fly ball for the final out, and the team members exulted on the field while the fans went wild! Howie Kendrick was named MVP of the National League Championship Series, and he said it was the greatest moment of his entire career.
The 2019 NLCS almost had an air of inevitability around it, with the Nationals feeling they could beat any adversary after overcoming the mighty L.A. Dodgers. In that sense, it was a bit like the 2004 World Series, when the Boston Red Sox cruised on their mojo-infused momentum from having made the historic comeback against the New York Yankees in the ALCS. In both cases, the St. Louis Cardinals were the victims, and for the Nationals that was doubly significant since it was the Cardinals who killed their dreams in the ninth inning of the 2012 NLDS.
And thus, just a few days from now, the first World Series to take place in Our Nation's Capital since 1933 will get underway. It's almost too good to be true, especially for Nationals fans who have watched their team snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in multiple postseason runs. During the ritual champagne soaking in the clubhouse afterwards, Juan Soto was served sparkling grape juice, since he will not turn 21 until October 25. (That happens to be the date of Game 3, in D.C.!)
Accordingly, the Nationals Park page has been updated with the 2019 World Series information and a couple more large-sized photos I took during the two games I saw there this year. There is also a new diagram for a proposed (by me) temporary expansion, prompted by the severe shortage of tickets. (Upper deck seats are going for $740 on the resale market, I heard. ) In the "good old days" (1920s and 1930s), ballparks such as Wrigley Field and Navin Field (later Tiger Stadium) used to be expanded with big bleacher sections for the World Series, and I don't see any reason why a modest-scale expansion like that could not be done. I think they could squeeze in bleacher sections in the plaza on the north side and behind the mezzanine seats on either side of the big scoreboard in right-center field. I estimate an additional 1,500 fans could be accommodated that way.
Long road to the top
The Nationals' manager Dave Martinez said after NLCS Game 4, "Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places." Indeed, the Nats' first two months of this season were very "bumpy." After careening off a (figurative) cliff and hitting rock bottom in late May of this year, the Nationals began a long climb back up to the top. Only three teams in major league history made it to the World Series after being 12 or more games under .500 as of May 23, and only one of them -- the 1914 Boston Braves -- won it all. The 2019 Washington Nationals were hotter than blazes from late May until late July, when their postseason prospects became serious. They ended the regular season with an eight-game winning season, and they are 8-2 in the postseason thus far. The chart below has been added to the Washington Nationals page, which also has the scores of each postseason Nats game:
What turned it around? Was it Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Anibal Sanchez getting and staying healthy? Was it Howie Kendrick finally getting over the torn Achilles tendon that took him out of the 2018 season? Perhaps newly-acquired "cast-off" Gerardo Parra and his "Baby Shark" mojo? Could it have been veteran Asdrubal Cabrera or relief pitcher Daniel Hudson, both acquired during mid-season? Perhaps it was all of the above.
Here's a sobering thought to ponder as the World Series approaches: Of the five other teams that swept the league championship series since 2002 (when I started keeping track of postseason scores), all five went on to lose the World Series: Detroit in 2006 and 2012, Colorado in 2007, Kansas City in 2014, and the New York Mets in 2015. What's more, in only one of those series (Kansas City in 2014) did the losing team win more than one game.
Yanks avert elimination
In ALCS Game 3 in New York, the Houston Astros beat the Yankees with a few clutch hits and a dazzling pitching performance by Gerritt Cole. The fierce typhoon-like storm that swept up the east coast forced a one-day postponement of Game 4, and the Yankees made so many errors (4), it seemed they had just given up. The Astros won that one easily, 8-3, thus taking a 3-1 series lead. Game 5 tonight was rather unusual. The Astros scored a run in the first inning off a wild pitch, an ominous sign that James Paxton was losing it. But in the bottom of the inning, Justin Verlander gave up two home runs: one to D.J. LeMahieu, who was an All Star this year, and one (with two runners on base) to Aaron Hicks, who hit only 12 homers all year. That gave the Yankees a 4-1 lead, and for the remaining eight innings, neither team scored a single run! Very strange. So, the series will return to Houston tomorrow night, with no travel day because Games 4 and 5 were postponed.