Nationals continue amazing upward surge
Most people had fairly low expectations for the Washington Nationals this year, and the first half of the season seemed to bear those out. Since the All-Star break in mid-July, however, they have attained one of the highest winning percentages in the major leagues (23-15, or .605), keeping pace with the red-hot, NL-leading Atlanta Braves. With today's razor-thin victory over the Yankees in New York, the Nats are now tied with the New York Mets for 4th place in the National League East Division -- believe it or not! Now that the fall semester is underway, let's see if I can get caught up with the happenings over the past two and a half weeks...
Phillies dominate Nats
After sweeping the Reds in Cincinnati (see August 7), the Nats traveled to Philadelphia, but because of heavy rain on August 7, they played a double-header the next day. Their hopes of extending their four-game winning streak were quickly dashed in the afternoon game, but in the second game, Joey Meneses hit two home runs, while Ildemaro Vargas hit another one, helping the Nats to edge the home team, 5-4. On August 9, however, the recently-acquired pitcher Michael Lorenzen went a full nine innings without giving up any hits; he threw 124 pitches and walked four batters. It was the first time the Nationals had suffered a no-hit loss since they began playing in 2005, and I had the misfortune to watch most of it on TV. PHI 7, WSH 0. In the final game of that series, the Nats out-hit the Phillies 10 to 6, but only went 2 for 15 with runners in scoring position, so they lost, 6-2. The Phillies beat the Nats by wide margins in three games out of four.
Nats sweep the A's
Back in D.C. on Friday August 11, the Nationals got back on track hosting the Oakland Athletics, who have had the lowest win-loss record in the majors for most of this season. It was a veritable clash of cellar-dwellers! Home runs by Keibert Ruiz, Ildemaro Vargas, and Jake Alu (a recent call-up from the minors) assured an 8-2 win by the home team in the opening game. On Saturday, the A's were ahead 2-1 going into the bottom of the 8th inning, when Lane Thomas batted in the tying run. One inning later, Keibert Ruiz hit a walk-off homer for the first time in his career! In the Sunday game the A's had an even bigger lead: it was 7-2 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Trevor May took the mound to finish it off, but he walked two batters and gave up three hits, while an error by the shortstop extended a very improbable Nats rally that culminated with a walk-off Texas Leager single by rookie Jeter Downs, as the Nats scored six ninth-inning runs to win it. Final score: WSH 8, OAK 7. That must have been excruciatingly painful for the long-suffering fans of the A's.
Nats beat the Red Sox
After a day of rest, the Nationals welcomed the Boston Red Sox to town. Josiah Gray took the loss in the first game even though the Nats staged an impressive 4-run rally in the 3rd inning. Final score: BOS 5, WSH 4. In the second game, Keibert Ruiz hit a 3-run homer in the 8th inning to retake the lead, and Stone Garrett added a solo homer, as the Nats won it, 6-2. In the "rubber match" game on Thursday Joey Meneses batted in 5 runs on two doubles, leading the Nats to a 10-7 victory. Rookie reliever Robert Garcia gave up 6 runs to the Red Sox in the 7th inning, but it didn't affect the outcome.
Nats edge the Phillies
On Friday August 18, the Phillies arrived in Washington, and all heck soon broke loose. In the top of the 4th inning the visitors scored 6 runs, as young pitcher Joan Adon was simply overwhelmed. Hopes seemed faint at best, but the Nationals somehow mustered the will to bulldoze their way back into the game, matching the Phillies with 6 runs of their own, as CJ Abrams hit a 3-run homer. Crazy, right? The game then settled down, and the Nats won the game, 8-7! Guess who the losing pitcher was? Michael Lorenzen, the same guy who threw a no-hitter against the Nats on August 9!! That's what you call sweet revenge. In the Saturday afternoon game, Jake Irvin pitched his very best game yet with the Nats, striking out 7 batters and not allowing any runs over six innings. But in the 8th inning, the Nats' Cory Abbott gave up eight (8) runs, and the Phillies won it, 12-3. Crazy again, right??
On Sunday, the series shifted 170 miles north to Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, marking the annual Little League World Series series. (There is a table on that page showing all the past MLB games played there; next year the Yankees and Tigers will face each other in that remote, picturesque ballpark.) This year the Nationals were the nominal "home" team, even though the venue is located in the Phillies' region. The Nats jumped to an early 4-0 lead in the first inning, and neither team scored until the 9th inning, when the Phillies staged a rally. Kyle Finnegan came in to relieve Mason Thompson, and quickly gave up a home run but then got the final out to save the 4-3 Nats' victory.
Nats edge the Yankees
After resting on Thursday, the Nationals headed to Bronx, New York to face the last-place Yankees. In the 3rd inning, Carter Kieboom, just returning to the majors after missing all of last year due to injury, surprised everyone by hitting a home run in his very first at bat! Ben Rortvedt of the Yankees did likewise in the bottom of that inning, and the game remained tied until the top of the 8th when CJ Abrams also hit a solo homer. Those three swings of the bat accounted for all the scoring in that game, which the Nats won, 2-1. Perhaps angered by that result, the Yankees bounced back the next day with a massive onslaught led by Aaron Judge. He hit THREE (3) home runs, including a grand slam in the 2nd inning. It was a mediocre outing by starting pitcher Mackenzie Gore, combined with an exhausted Nats bullpen. In the 7th inning, D.J. LeMahieu hit a line drive home run over the head of right fielder Stone Garrett who hit the wall awkwardly while trying to catch the ball, and he fell over in agony. The trainer, Manager Davey Martinez, and several players gathered around him while the medical crew prepared to take him to a hospital. Today we learned that he broke his fibula (the rear lower bone) on his left leg, and will almost certainly miss the rest of this season. The score was 9-0 in the top of the 9th inning with two outs and a count of 3-2 on Dominic Smith, who proceeded to hit a solo home run. Thus, the Nationals managed to avoid being shut out in a very discouraging game.
In today's game, Aaron Judge kept inflicting misery on the Nationals, with yet another home run (solo) in the first inning: that's four in just two days! After the Nats tied it in the top of the 3rd inning, Gleyber Torres hit a 2-run homer that just squeaked over the fence in the left field corner, and it looked like the Nats' pitcher Patrick Corbin was about to cave in. But he hung in there and kept getting out of jams, as he has done so many times this year, and finished six innings without giving up any more runs: a "quality start"! Then in the top of the 7th the Nats staged a rally capped by a two-run homer by Alex Call that put the Nats on top, 4-3. And then CJ Abrams hit another homer! He stood in the batter's box to proudly watch that ball sail over the fence, drawing ire from fans in the Bronx. Then Giancarlo Stanton homered to narrow the gap in the bottom of the 8th, Joey Meneses hit a high-bouncing infield single to bat in a run in the top of the 9th, after which the Nats' closing pitcher Kyle Finnegan took the mound. Heavy mist turned to light rain as the Yankees staged an extremely tense and dramatic two-out rally: Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single, and Harrison Bader hit a long fly ball to the warning track in front of the Nats' bullpen left of center field, and somehow Alex Call managed to catch it after making an awkward turn. Game over! Nats 6, Yankees 5. Alex Call may not have very good offensive numbers (batting average of .202), but he did hit a walk-off home run earlier this year, and he often gets clutch hits. He hustles like hell in center field, and that kind of competitive spirit can really lift a team sometimes. (Remember Gerardo Parra -- Mr. Baby Shark?)
When you look at all the narrow margins of victory amassed by the Nationals recently, and take into account the unusual circumstances that often accompanied those wins, you realize that simple good luck may have played a big role in their steady climb in the standings. The "scrappy Nats" somehow seem to keep bouncing back from adversity and finding creative ways to pull victory out of the jaws of defeat. I'm not denigrating their highly-motivated performances at all, but a realistic outlook suggests that they may not be able to sustain this pace of wins for much longer. In any event, they are virtually assured of a winning record in August, the first winning month since June 2021, the "Kyle Schwarber month." (See the Washington Nationals page.)
Nats extend Martinez's contract
The Washington Nationals front office announced that Manager Davey Martinez's contract has been extended for another two years. I sometimes criticize him for the way he handles his pitchers, apparently stubbornly sticking to his pregame plans no matter what, but you have to give him a lot of credit for helping to rebuild the Nationals, whose future now is looking a lot brighter.
Dylan Crews: future superstar?
In the 2023 MLB draft held in July, the Nationals got Dylan Crews, a star outfielder/slugger from LSU, and he quickly lived up to the hype about his future potential. In just 14 games with the Nationals' low Class A affiliate in Fredericksburg, he's been hitting home runs left and right (5 altogether), with a .355 batting average. As a result, he is being promoted to the Class AA team in Harrisburg, PA; see the Washington Post. His performance and career trajectory remind me of Bryce Harper, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him reach the majors during the first half of next year.
There was big news today about the ailing Stephen Strasburg's future with the Nationals, but I will wait until the situation becomes more clarified before commenting on it.