February 8, 2021 [LINK / comment]
The Nationals in 2020: Lousy season ends well
As of the middle of August -- my last blog post summarizing the Washington Nationals' games -- one fourth (15) of their regular-season games had been completed. It was then that Starlin Castro, the Nats' new slugging second baseman, broke his wrist, ending his season and casting a shadow on the Nats' chances for contending. After that they went through an up-and-down phase for the next ten games, winning one day and losing the next. They peaked at a .440 winning percentage on August 23, and then went straight downhill until September 4, bottoming out at a .333 record. From then until September 20 they played well some days but not other, stuck in last place in the NL East. But somehow they pulled themselves together for the last week of regular season play, winning seven of their last nine games. Because of the need to make up all the games postponed due to covid-19, they played four double-headers during the last two weeks of September, including eight games during a five-day stretch. Talk about exhausting! The following paragraphs will describe the above-mentioned phases in sequential fashion, emphasizing the turning points and other highlights. (These are briefly summarized in the "memorable moments" section of the Washington Nationals annual (2020) page.)
During their "up-and-down" phase (Aug. 14 - 24), the Nationals won a series vs. the Orioles in Baltimore (2 games to 1), split a pair in Atlanta, and then came up a game short in a five-game home series with the Marlins. The second game on Aug. 22 was a makeup, with the Nationals as the "visitors." It was on that day that it was announced that Stephen Strasburg's injury was worse than expected, meaning that he would probably not return for the rest of the year.
Aug. 24 was the beginning of a prolonged slump, as the Nats lost a pair to the Phillies at home -- thereby falling in last place in the NL East -- and then began a long, agonizing road trip. The first game of the series against Red Sox in Boston went extremely well (10-2 final score), with 11 strikeouts by Max Scherzer over six innings, and home runs by Juan Soto, Howie Kendrick, and Josh Harrison. But then the Nats lost the next two games, as Austin Voth went only two innings on Aug. 30; the Washington Post headline read "Nats can't overcome another Voth dud." Ouch! The Nats also lost all four games against the Phillies in Philadelphia, being shut out on both Sept. 1 and 2, and coming up one run short (6-5) in the final game of that series. Then came four games against the first-place Braves in Atlanta, and the Nats were lucky to get a 2-2 series split, ending their losing streak at seven games. Thus they wound up with a 3-11 record from Aug. 24 to Sept. 6.
Returning home to D.C. on Sept. 7 provided a brief respite, as the Nats beat the Tampa Bay Rays in two straight games. Max Scherzer had another fine outing (7 innings) in the 6-1 win on the first day. The surprise star of the Sept. 8 game was 32-year old journeyman infielder Brock Holt, signed as a free agent in late August. (He had been let go by the Milwaukee Brewers.) But then the Atlanta Braves won three games out of four, with the Nats' only win coming in extra innings (12) on Sept. 11; the final score was 8-7.
Back on the road, the Nationals split a pair with the Rays. In the latter game (Sept. 16) Daniel Hudson blew a save opportunity in the 9th inning, but then the hot rookie prospect Luis Garcia hit a 2-run homer in the 10th to give the Nats a precious 4-2 victory. It also gave them a 3-1 season advantage over the soon-to-be American League Champions in Tampa Bay! Further south in Miami the next day, the Nats shut out the Marlins 5-0, with one of Erick Fedde's best outings of the season: six strikeouts in six innings. But then the Marlins won the next three games, the last of which (Game 1 on Sept. 20) being the most painful. The home team scored two unearned runs while Max Scherzer was pitching in the sixth inning, and that's all they need to win. But in the secon game that day, the Nats bounced back with five home runs, winning 15-0. It was their biggest win all year.
That game may have been the trick that finally got the Nationals in the groove during the last week of the regular season. Back in Washington they beat the Phillies three games straight, including an eight-inning "extra" inning double-header game on Sept. 22. Juan Soto hit his 13th and final home run of 2020, and in the eighth inning, Yadiel Hernandez hit a 2-run walk-off homer as the Nats overcame a deficit to win 8-7. It was the Nats' only walk-off homer of the year. The Phillies won the final game of the series, but their postseason chances were essentially doomed, thanks to the Nats. Then the New York Mets came to town in a showdown to see if the Nats could climb out of last place in the division. The 3-2 loss on Sept. 24, but then they won the final three games of the season. In the finale on Sept. 27, the Mets scored two runs in the top of the 1st inning, but the Nats scored five in second & six in the third, winning 15-5.
Thus, the Nats ended the season tied with the Mets for last place with a 26-34 record (.433), the first time since 2011 that they finished below .500. Overall it was a bleak year, if you can even call the ten-week stretch a "year," but winning seven of the last nine games was a mark of redemption. The Nationals gradual improvement in September was due in no small part to fine performances by several young replacement players. Howie Kendrick did not play after the first week of September, due a a strained hamstring, and Adam Eaton and also missed the last few weeks due to a fractured index finger. Those two guys were the real spirit-raisers in the dugout that helped make the Nationals world champions in 2019. The one big bright spot for the Nationals was the amazing Juan Soto, who led the National League in batting average (.351), and Trea Turner was not far behind.
The chart above is now included on the Washington Nationals page, which will soon be updated with 2021 roster information, etc.
Rizzo, Martinez get new contracts
One of the big uncertainties hanging over the Nationals was whether the current leadership would continue beyond the 2020 season. In light of what Mike Rizzo has accomplished since he became general manager in 2009 (when the Nats were almost at their nadir), it seemed strange that the Lerner family which owns the Nationals was taking so long to nail down a contract. Finally, on Sept. 5, they did so, with a three-year extension that includes a salary raise of undetermined amount.
Likewise, on Sept. 25, Manager Davey Martinez received a one-year contract extension. Some doubts about his judgment regarding pitchers, etc. still linger, but it's hard to argue with success, so he is getting another chance. You can't deny that he has earned strong loyalty and trust from his top players such as Max Scherzer, and that counts for a lot. As soon as the season ended, he began an overhaul of the Nationals' coaching staff, putting in guys that he knew from his days with the Chicago Cubs. Now that the management situation is cleared up, the Nationals are primed to make another big championship drive in the 2021 season!
Memorial Stadium update
In reviewing the chronological log of diagram updates, I noticed that Baltimore's Memorial Stadium was among the most outdated ones. Not since 2013 have I updated those diagrams, so as a prelude to finishing the "final three" -- Griffith Stadium, Forbes Field, and Yankee Stadium -- I took care of that. So, what exactly changed? Overall, the stadium is about ten feet longer than before, and a few feet narrower. There is a new lower-deck diagram showing where the concrete pillars that support the upper deck are located. Additional details in the scoreboards and other structures at the north end of the stadium are included as well. The profile is now rendered more accurately, raising the top row by about eight feet. It also shows that the playing field was 10-15 feet below the level of the surrounding land, which was inclined slightly -- higher toward the north. There is also a new 1964 version, showing the inner fence (built in 1958), the upper-deck extensions, and the added rows of box seats, but not the new scoreboards, center field bleachers, the external pedestrian ramps, or the closer-in outfield fence that was built in the mid-1970s. Those features are included in the 1986 diagram. The "combined" (football plus baseball) diagram indicates the years in which those various changes took place. Finally, there is a "site today" map / diagram, rendered at half the scale of the other diagrams, so that you can see the entire jumbo-sized block of land on which the stadium once stook, and how it looks today. Also, as is generally the case, you can compare to new diagram version to the old (2013) version by clicking on the diagram image on that page.
One remaining puzzle is the distance behind home plate before the new box seats were added in 1961; Lowry's Green Cathedrals gives a distance of 78 feet (20 more than was the case thereafter), but I'm pretty sure that the extra rows accounted for more than 20 feet. My diagram indicates a pre-1961 backstop distance of about 82 feet. Stay tuned...
Tampa Bay: the capital of sports!
By now every single sports fan in America knows that Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their second Super Bowl title last night. (It was his seventh such title, eclipsing his former team's total of six.) I was rooting for the Kansas City Chiefs, who did not even score a touchdown in the 31-9 defeat, but I salute the champions nonetheless. While most of the attention has focused on Brady's amazing career, I would like to point out the singular situation in which a lesser-sized metropolitan area has come to dominate (or nearly so) the world of professional sports in the United States. Not only did the Tampa Bay Rays win the American League Championship last October, but the Tampa Bay Lightning won the NHL Stanley Cup trophy (succeeding the St. Louis Blues) in late September. Boston has been dominant in football as well as baseball for many years, off and on, and you might say that Washington briefly dominated sports, as the NHL Washington Capitals became champions in 2018 and the MLB Washington Nationals did so in 2019, along with the WNBA Washington Mystics.