Skip to content
October 17, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

Nats sweep Cardinals to win pennant: ‘This is a beautiful place’

The Nationals were favorites. The Nats had better starting pitching and a stronger lineup. But the Cardinals had been hot in the second half, had a Cy Young candidate in Jack Flaherty, and hoped that the games could get to the bullpen, where they held the advantage. It turned out the Nats’ starters were up to the challenge and the bullpen did its part, as the Nats swept the series.

Game 1, Friday October 11. It was a cold evening in St. Louis, about 45 degrees at game time. Aníbal Sánchez started for the Nationals, while the Cardinals countered with Miles Mikolas. The Nats struck first, when Howie Kendrick led off the top of the second with a double to deep right-center. Two outs later, Yan Gomes hit a double to the left-center gap, scoring Kendrick and putting the Nats up 1 to 0.

In the bottom of the inning, Marcell Ozuna squared up on a cutter and drove it to deep center where Michael A. Taylor caught it on the warning track. On a warmer night it may have been a home run. It turned out to be the only time the Cardinals would barrel a ball that night. Sánchez mixed up his seven pitches and hit his spots, leading to weak contact and a lot of soft fly balls.

In the fourth, the Cards got their first base runner when Sánchez walked Kelton Wong. Wong stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by Gomes. But Ozuna fouled out to end the inning.

In the fifth, the Nats managed to load the bases on two singles and a walk, but were unable to score a run. In the sixth, Ryan Zimmerman hit a one-out double but was left stranded. In the bottom of the sixth, Cardinals pinch hitter Randy Arozarena was hit by a pitch and stole second. He made it to third before Sánchez got Wong to fly out, ending the inning. Sánchez had not allowed a hit. Meanwhile, Mikolas had also been quite effective, pitching 6 innings and allowing one run on 7 scattered hits and 2 walks (one intentional) while striking out 7. It was still 1 to 0.

In the top of the seventh, Giovanny Gallegos was pitching for the Cards, and Adam Eaton hit a one-out triple. Rendon was intentionally walked, and Andrew Miller was brought in to face Juan Soto, who struck out. Then the Cards brought in John Brebbia to face Kendrick, who singled to drive in Eaton and increase the Nats’ lead to 2 to 0.  In the bottom of the seventh, Sánchez hit Molina with a pitch, but set down the other three batters. He was at 89 pitches after seven innings with a no-hitter still intact.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Tommy Edman led off with a line drive toward first. Zimmerman made a diving catch to snag the ball and keep the no-hit bid alive. After another fly ball out, José Martínez came in as a pinch hitter and hit a short line drive to center that landed for a single, ending the no-hit bid after 7-2/3 innings. Sean Doolittle came in to get the last four outs. He retired all four batters he faced on three ground outs and one strikeout. The Nats won 2 to 0.

Daniel Hudson missed the game that evening but was making some history by becoming the first player to use the paternity leave list in the postseason when he went home for the birth of his daughter. The paternity list had been introduced for regular season games in 2011, and was extended to postseason games in 2016 after Blue Jays reliever Aaron Loup missed some games for the premature birth of his son. Of course a few Neanderthals criticized Hudson for missing the game, but the Nationals defended him. Doolittle was quoted, “If your reaction to someone having a baby is anything other than, ‘Congratulations, I hope everybody’s healthy,’ you’re an a–hole.” Jeff Passan of ESPN wrote a nice article describing Hudson’s experiences.

Game 2, Saturday October 12. It was warmer that it had been the previous evening, but Game 2 was a late afternoon start (3:08 Central time, 4:08 Eastern) that meant the batters and fielders would be battling sun and shadows for the first five or six innings. Max Scherzer took the mound for the Nationals, while Adam Wainwright pitched for the Cardinals.

The Nats offense struck in the top of the third when Taylor, leading off the inning, hit the first pitch into the left-field seats, giving the Nats a 1–0 lead. Other than that, the first six innings of the game were a pitcher’s duel. Besides the Taylor home run, the Nats scattered three singles: by Rendon in the first, Taylor in the fifth, and Trea Turner in the sixth. Meanwhile, Scherzer had held the Cards to two walks and had a no-hitter through six. It was the second time in postseason history that two pitchers had held opponents hitless for 5+ innings in consecutive starts—repeating what Sánchez and Scherzer had previously done for the Tigers in the first two games of the 2013 ALCS.

In the seventh, Wainwright retired the Nats in order, but Scherzer gave up a single to Paul Goldschmidt, ending his no-hit bid. He then struck out Ozuna and got Yadier Molina to ground into a double play, ending the inning. In 7 scoreless innings, Scherzer struck out 11 while giving up 1 hit and 2 walks.

In the top of the eighth, Matt Adams got a one-out pinch-hit single, and Turner followed with another single. Eaton then doubled, driving in two runs and increasing the Nats’ lead to 3 to 0. Wainwright was pulled after 7-1/3 innings and had struck out 11 and given up 3 runs on 7 hits and 1 (intentional) walk.

Doolittle pitched the bottom of the eighth. He struck out Matt Carpenter, then Eaton made a leaping catch of a hard-hit ball from Edman. With two outs, Doolittle gave up a single to Paul DeJong. Then Martínez hit a line drive to center that Taylor misplayed, allowing the Cardinal to score their first run of the series. Doolittle retired Dexter Fowler to get out of the inning.

In the bottom of the ninth, Patrick Corbin came in for a lefty-lefty match-up and got Wong to ground out. Then Hudson retired Goldschmidt and Ozuna, and the Nats won 3 to 1. They left St. Louis leading the series two games to none.

Game 3, Monday October 14. Nationals Park was full and the crowd buzzing as Stephen Strasburg took the mound against Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals ace. The Cardinals threatened first, when Ozuna led off the second with a double. But then Ozuna got caught between second and third when Martínez grounded one back to Strasburg, who ran him down for the fielder’s choice. The Cards weren’t able to take advantage after the base running miscue.

In the top of the third, Rendon made a great play to rob DeJong of a hit. The Nats struck in the bottom of the third. Víctor Robles, returning to the line-up after missing several games with a hamstring injury, led off with a single, and Strasburg bunted him to second. After a Turner strikeout, Eaton singled to drive in Robles. Then Rendon doubled, driving in Eaton. Soto walked, and both runners advanced on a wild pitch. Kendrick then doubled, driving in both runners and putting the Nats up 4 to 0.

The Cardinals pinch hit for Flaherty in the top of the fifth. In the bottom of the fifth, Rendon got a one-out single off Tyler Webb. Brebbia came in to face Kendrick with two outs and Howie doubled, driving in Rendon. Zimmerman followed up with another double, plating Kendrick and putting the Nats up 6 to 0. In the bottom of the sixth, with Brebbia still on the mound, Robles hit a home run to right-center to make it 7 to 0.

Through six innings, Strasburg had held the Cardinals scoreless on 4 hits and no walks, while striking out 9. He was at 90 pitches. The Cardinals led off the top of the seventh with a pair of singles by Martínez and Molina. Strasburg stuck out Edman, then DeJong singled to left. Martínez held up at third until Soto slipped and threw the ball away, which allowed Martínez to score. Strasburg struck out Matt Wieters and Dexter Fowler to get out of the inning. Strasburg’s line for the game was 1 unearned run in 7 innings on 7 hits, no walks, and 12 strikeouts.

In the bottom of the seventh, Kendrick hit a two-out double and Zimmerman drove him in. It was now 8 to 1. Fernando Rodney set down the Cardinals in order in the top of eighth, striking out two. Tanner Rainey finished the game in the ninth, retiring all three batters with two strikeouts. The Nats were now one win away from clinching the pennant and making it to the World Series for the first time in franchise history.

Game 4, Tuesday October 15. It was Ted Lerner‘s 94th birthday. Patrick Corbin was pitching for the Nats, and Dakota Hudson was on the mound for the Cardinals. Corbin struck out the side in the top of the first. Then things started going crazy in the bottom of the inning.

Turner opened the inning with a single to right, and Eaton followed with a double. Rendon hit a sacrifice fly to center to score Turner. Soto then slashed a double into the left field corner, driving in Eaton. Kendrick was intentionally walked, and Zimmerman grounded to third baseman Edman in what should have been the second out, but secon baseman Wong dropped the ball allowing Kendrick to reach second safely and loading the bases. Robles then lifted a short fly into right that had three Cardinals converging but not communicating with each other, and they let it drop in for a hit. With better fielding that would have been the third out, but now it was 3 to 0 with the bases still loaded and one out. Gomes laced a single past the shortstop into left field, plating two more runs. Wainwright came in to relieve Dakota Hudson, and Corbin sacrificed to advance Robles and Gomes to second and third. Then Turner hit another single, driving in two more runs. After one inning the Nats led 7 to 0.

That was it for Nats scoring, as the Cardinals’ bullpen limited the Nats to 3 singles and a walk the rest of the night. Meanwhile Corbin was dealing in the early innings. By the time he recorded his eleventh out, with two outs in the bottom of the fourth, he had struck out 9 while giving up only a single and a walk. The next batter, Molina, however, took Corbin deep and made it 7 to 1.

In the fifth inning, perhaps Corbin was tiring or the Cardinal batters were getting used to his repertoire. Harrison Bader led off with a walk, and Wong singled him to third.  Fowler, pinch hitting, drew another walk and the bases were loaded with no outs. Edman grounded out, driving in a run and advancing the other runners to second and third. Martínez then doubled, driving in two more runs and narrowing the Nats’ lead to 7–4. Corbin struck out Goldschmidt and Ozuna to get out of the inning, but the game was now a lot tighter.

Rainey pitched the sixth and set down all three batters. Doolittle retired the side in the seventh on 9 pitches. He came back in the eighth and retired Martínez and Goldschmidt, but gave up a single to Ozuna. It was time for Daniel Hudson to try to get the last 4 outs.

First Hudson had to get himself out of some trouble, as he hit Molina then walked DeJong, loading the bases with two outs. He managed to get out of the jam without giving up a run, though, when Carpenter grounded out. In the ninth Hudson set down the side in order, with the final out coming on a fly ball to center that was caught by Robles. The Nats won the game 7 to 4 and swept the series.

The series MVP award went to Howie Kendrick, who led the team in runs, runs-batted-in, and extra-base hits (with 4 of each). The Nationals starters as a group were outstanding. The Cardinals hit .141 against the Nats starters, the lowest average ever allowed by a starting rotation in a best-of-seven postseason series. And the bullpen was excellent too, allowing only a single run in 9-1/3 innings of work. Many players contributed to an outstanding series.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
October 11, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

The Nats win the 2019 NLDS: We believed when nobody else believed

The Los Angeles Dodgers were the better baseball team. You might argue that their starting rotation didn’t quite match that of the Nationals, but if that was the case, it was only by the narrowest of margins. Their batters hit 279 home runs, compared to 231 by the Nats. Their bullpen was very good (ranked third in the NL in FIP– and fourth in ERA–), whereas the Nats’ bullpen was awful. They led MLB in defensive runs saved. Their bench was deep and versatile, allowing the team to swap players in and out and gain the platoon advantage.

But despite obvious weaknesses, the Nationals were well suited to upset the 106-win Dodgers in a five-game series. And by repeatedly coming back from behind and “staying in the fight” until the 10th inning of Game 5, that’s exactly what they were able to do.

Game 1, Thursday October 3. With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg having piggy backed to get the win in the Wild Card Game two days earlier, the start for Game 1 in Los Angeles went to Patrick Corbin. Whether he was nervous or was just struggling for command, Corbin issued four walks in the first inning and gave up a run. After that, Corbin settled down and allowed just two singles over the next three innings. In the bottom of the fifth, after striking out the first two batters, Corbin gave up a walk and infield single, placing runners on first and third. He then got Muncy to hit a ground ball that Howie Kendrick was unable to field. It was Kendrick’s second error of the game and put the Dodgers up 2 to 0. Meanwhile the Nats were unable to get anything going against Buehler. Leading off the second, Juan Soto hit a single but was doubled off on a lineout. In the fourth, Buehler gave up three walks but got out of his bases loaded jam. Both starting pitchers went six innings turned it over to their respective bullpens with the Dodgers leading 2 to 0.

Then we got to compare the two teams’ bullpens. The Dodgers brought in Kolarek, a lefty sidewinder, to get Soto out, then Maeda set down five Nats in a row. The Nats had Tanner Rainey face three batters in the seventh; he gave up a walk and a single and was followed by Fernando Rodney, who also gave up a walk and a single before recording the final out. The Nats now trailed 4 to 0. Hunter Strickland got the call in the bottom of the eighth and gave up two home runs.

In the top of the ninth, Trea Turner hit a leadoff double off Joe Kelly—only the Nats’ second hit of the game—before Kelly set down the next three Nats in order. The Nats were throughly outplayed In the 6–0 game, and all of their deficiencies were exposed.

Game 2, Friday October 4. The loss in Game One made it critical for the Nats to win Game Two to avoid falling into a deep hole. The pitching match-up was Strasburg against Kershaw. Trea Turner opened the top of the first with a double. After Adam Eaton popped out, Anthony Rendon walked and Soto was hit by a pitch, loading the bases. A single by Kendrick put the Nats ahead 1 to 0. Then Ryan Zimmerman fouled out and Kurt Suzuki struck out, so the Nats weren’t able to further capitalize on a very shaky first inning by Kershaw.

In the second inning, Víctor Robles was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, and after two outs Eaton singled and Rendon doubled, increasing the Nats’ lead to 3 to 0.

Meanwhile, Strasburg was dominating the Dodgers. He got them out on strikeouts (10 total) and groundouts and didn’t allow a base runner until Will Smith singled with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. Strasburg had pitched three innings in relief in the Wild Card game on Tuesday, so we wondered how long he could last. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, fatigue finally seemed to catch up, as he gave up a single to Beaty and a double to Pederson, followed by a sacrifice fly to Justin Turner. He got out of the inning with lineout to the pitcher, but the Nats’ lead was now 3 to 1.

In the bottom of the seventh, Sean Doolittle took over in relief and struck out Bellinger, but then gave up a home run to Muncy before getting out of the inning. The score was now 3 to 2.

Meanwhile, the Nats hitters were challenging the Dodgers’ bullpen—Báez, Kolarek, May, and Urías—which had taken over in the top of the seventh. Trea Turner and Eaton led off the top of the seventh with singles but were left stranded. In the eighth, Zimmerman’s led off with a double, and Suzuki followed with a walk. Asdrúbal Cabrera singled to drive in Zimmerman, widening the Nats’ lead to 4 to 2. In the eighth inning Robles had to leave the game with a hamstring injury—Michael A. Taylor would take his place in center for the rest of the series.

In the bottom of the eighth, Scherzer was called in to pitch an inning of relief on his “throw day.” He struck out the side. In the bottom of the ninth, Daniel Hudson was called on to get a two-run save. Justin Turner led off with double, but Hudson then struck out Pollock and got Bellinger to pop out to Rendon on a play that actually turned out to be fairly difficult. With two outs and a runner on second, Davey Martinez called for Muncy to be intentionally walked, putting the tying run on base. Hudson then walked Smith on four pitches, loading the bases. After throwing seven straight fastballs away to Seager, Hudson came in with a slider and Seager swung through it, giving the Nats the win.

The decision to issue the intentional walk to Muncy caused the predictable consternation among the analytical community. Joe Posnanski of The Athletic makes the case against the move with his usual elegance, while Ben Clemens of Fangraphs goes through the numbers in excruciating detail (or wonderful, depending on your tastes). My own take is a little more relaxed. With two outs, the Nats’ win probability was very high regardless of the intentional walk—we’re talking 94% without the walk versus 90% with it. The pitcher has one out to get, and if he really feels much more comfortable not facing Muncy, I’m willing to let him face the batter he’s comfortable going after.

Game 3, Sunday October 6. With the series moving to Washington for Games 3 and 4, Aníbal Sánchez faced off against MLB’s ERA leader, Hyun-Jin Ryu. In the top of the first, the Dodgers loaded the bases on a single and two walks, but Sánchez worked out of the jam. In the bottom of the first, Eaton walked and Soto homered, giving the Nats a 2–0 lead. Both pitchers then settled settled in. The Nats led off the bottom of the fourth with a pair of singles, but a double play squelched any rally. In the top of the fifth, Muncy homered to make it 2–1.

Corbin came in in relief in the top of the sixth. He gave up a lead-off single to Belinger and followed it with two strikeouts. Then Freese came in as a pinch hitter and singled. Corbin got ahead of Martin 0–2, but the Dodgers catcher evened the count, then doubled into the left-center gap. The Dodgers went ahead 3–2. Things got worse. Corbin walked Chris Taylor and gave up a double to Kike Hernández, making it 5–2. Wander Suero came in to try to stop the bleeding but immediately gave up a homer to Justin Turner, making it 8–2 Dodgers.

In the bottom of the sixth Kelly was pitching for the Dodgers, and the Nats tried to get back into the game. Rendon and Soto drew walks, followed by a single by Kendrick. Suddenly the bases were loaded with no outs. Kelly threw a wild pitch, and Rendon scored with Soto and Kendrick advancing. Yan Gomes walked, loading the bases again, still with no outs, and when Urías replaced Kelly on the mound, Cabrera came in as a pinch hitter. He hit a fly ball to right, scoring Soto on a sacrifice fly, but when Kendrick tagged to advance to third he hesitated, then failed to return to second, allowing the Dodgers to easily double him up on the way to third. Rather than one out and two base runners, the Nats now had two outs and only a runner at first. The Nats now trailed 8 to 4. Michael A. Taylor popped out to end the inning, but Kendrick’s base running gaffe had killed the rally.

The rest of the game was fairly uneventful. Rodney got into a bases loaded jam in the top of the seventh, but was able to get out of it unscathed. In the top of the ninth Strickland gave up a two-run homer to Martin. Meanwhile, the Dodgers bullpen shut down the Nats’ offense, and game ended as a 10 to 4 triumph for the Dodgers.

Game 4, Monday October 7. Down two games to one, the Nats would need two consecutive wins to salvage the series. Scherzer took the mound for Game 4 facing Rich Hill.

In the top of the first, Scherzer gave up a two-out solo homer to Justin Turner, and the Dodgers jumped to an early 1–0 lead. In the bottom of the third, the Nats evened the score when Rendon hit a sacrifice fly to drive in Taylor. Hill, who was on a short pitch count, left before the end of the inning, and the Dodgers turned to their bullpen.

In the bottom of the fifth with Urías pitching, Trea Turner led off with a single. Eaton sacrificed him over, and Rendon singled to drive him in. The Nats were up 2 to 1. Soto popped out, but Kendrick singled to place runners on first and third with two outs. Báez relieved the left-handed Urías, but Martinez decided to stick with the right-handed Zimmerman rather than going to a left-handed pinch hitter. On the second pitch, a fastball above the top of the zone, Zim got under it and drove it to center for a home run, putting the Nats up 5 to 1.

The Nats added another run in the bottom of the sixth on a Rendon sacrifice fly. Meanwhile, Scherzer managed to shut down the Dodgers after the first inning home run. In the seventh inning, starting to run on fumes, he gave up a single and two walks to load the bases with one out. But Martinez left him in and Scherzer struck out Taylor. Pederson hit a foul ball that came within a couple of inches of being a three-run double, but Scherzer managed to get a ground-out to end the inning. In 7 innings he allowed 1 run on 4 hits and 3 walks, striking out 7.

Doolittle came in for the top of the eighth. The first batter he faced, Muncy, drove a ball into deep center, but a strong wind blowing in knocked it down for Taylor to catch. Doolittle set down all three batters in eighth and also got the first out in the ninth. Hudson came in to get the last two outs, and the Nats won 6 to 1.

Game 5, Wednesday October 9. Back in Los Angeles for the finale, Strasburg was facing Buehler. For the first couple of innings, Strasburg was unable to command his curveball, allowing the Dodgers to sit on his fastball. Pederson led off with a double, followed by a Muncy two-run homer. Leading off the second, Hernández hit a solo home run, and the Nats were down 3 to 0.

Buehler held down the Nationals, and Strasburg settled down and held down the Dodgers. In the top of the fifth, Suzuki led off with a walk followed by a Taylor single. Strasburg was unable to bunt them over, though, and Buehler set down Turner and Eaton to get out of the inning. In the sixth, Rendon led off with a double, followed by an RBI single from Soto, and the Dodgers’ lead narrowed to 3 to 1.

Leading off the top of the seventh, a Buehler fast ball ricocheted off Suzuki’s wrist and hit him in the face, and Suzuki fell to the ground. He was pulled from the game, but we later learned that the injury wasn’t as bad as we initially feared. Buehler got two outs, then walked Trea Turner, and Roberts called in Kershaw to face Eaton. Eaton struck out, and the Dodgers held onto their 3 to 1 lead.

Strasburg had gone six innings and pitched quite well after the two early home runs. His final line was 3 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk in 6 innings, striking out 7. Rainey pitched the bottom of the seventh and retired both batters he faced, then Corbin was called on to retire the lefty Pederson.

Roberts decided to keep Kershaw in to face Rendon and Soto in the top of the eighth, a decision for which he was subsequently vilified. In three pitches, Kershaw gave up home runs to both Nationals hitters, and the game was suddenly tied 3 to 3. Maeda was brought in and got the next three Nats out. Corbin pitched a scoreless bottom of the eighth and Kelly set down the Nats in the top of the ninth. Hudson pitched the bottom of the ninth, and despite a hard hit fly ball by Smith that had the Dodgers prematurely ready to celebrate, Hudson got out of the inning only giving up a single.

Roberts left Kelly in for the top of the tenth, and Eaton led off the inning with a walk. Surprisingly not bringing in Jansen, the Dodgers’ erstwhile closer, Kelly stayed in and gave up a double to Rendon. Soto was intentionally walked, and Kendricks came up with the bases loaded and no outs. After fouling off a curve, Kendrick drove a fastball into deep center for a grand slam, giving the Nats a 7 to 3 lead. In one blow, Kendrick redeemed the three fielding errors and the base running gaffe that had previously tarnished his series record.. In the bottom of the tenth, Doolittle got a strikeout and a groundout, then Michael A. Taylor made a diving catch on a Justin Turner fly ball to end the game and give the Nationals their first-ever NLDS victory.

The Dodgers had outscored the Nationals 22 to 21, outhomered them 9 to 5, and led in OPS .730 to .694. But timely pitching and hitting enabled to Nationals to take advantage of the short series and beat the Los Angeles juggernaut. The next day, the Nationals flew to St. Louis for the NLCS.

Managerial decisions. Rather than focusing on Davey’s interntional walks and the timing of various pitching changes and pinch hitters, I’m going to point to another decision that I considered questionable. The Nats carried Austin Voth on their NLDS roster but Davey never used him. Based on what I’ve seen, Voth seems like a talented young pitcher, and I’d rather have seen him called on to face the Dodgers’ sluggers than Strickland, who gave up 4 runs in 2 innings, or Suero, who gave up two hits and a run while getting only one out. While using Voth probably wouldn’t have changed the outcomes of any of the games, it would be nice to see if Voth could be used to help fill the obvioius, gaping hole in the Nationals’ bullpen.

 

 

 

 

October 2, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

Soto and luck lead to win in 2019 NL Wild Card

After Max Scherzer surrendered a two-run homer to Yasmani Grandal in the first and a solo shot in the top of the first, the Nats trailed the Brewers for the next two and a half hours. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post (who I’ve frequently critizied) wrote a nice column analogizing the Nationals’ come-from-behind win to the way; they had fought from behind all season.

The Nats won with grit, with a hit batsman, with a bloop hit, with a walk and with a rocket of a two-run base hit by Juan Soto, who had been in a 5-for-47 slump that would numb the competitive soul of most 20-year-olds.

The incomparable Joe Posnanski of The Athletic gives a memorably detailed look at “the greatest half-inning in Washington Nationals history.” For example, here is his description of the Ryan Zimmerman at-bat that extended the inning and helped set the table for Juan Soto‘s decisive hit:

And then came what you can call the Flynn Moment of the game. Flynn, you might recall, was the first batter who needed to get a hit so that Mighty Casey could make it to the plate in the moment. Flynn was disparagingly called a “hoodoo” in the poem but he let drive a single, to the wonderment of all.

Flynn, in this case, was Washington Nationals legend Ryan Zimmerman, who is now 35 years old and whose body is roughly 93. He was once a brilliant player in every way — Gold Glove third baseman, terrific hitter, 30-homer guy — but in the last six seasons, he has played fewer than 100 games four times. For Nationals fans, seeing Zimmerman walk to the plate is like seeing a Dylan Thomas poem come to life.

Zimmerman began the at-bat by swinging right through a slider that Hader had mistakenly left up in the zone. Then Hader threw two of his demon pitches, those rising fastballs out of the zone, and Zimmerman somehow laid off. On the fourth pitch, a 97-mph fastball over the inside part of the plate, Zimmerman swung and connected, though to say that he “connected” is sort of like saying that Biff’s face connected with George McFly’s fist in “Back to the Future.” The bat broke in two pieces. The much larger piece of the bat ran away crying. Zimmerman found himself holding a piece of bat that was roughly the same length as a conductor’s baton.

Somehow, though, the ball carried far enough into the outfield to land for a base hit.

I also agree with Posnanski’s verdict on the major controversy of the game—did Hader actually hit Michael A. Taylor with the pitch, for which Taylor was rewarded first base, the first base runner to reach in the decisive bottom of the eighth inning, or did the ball deflect off the knob of Taylor’s bat? Cases like this illustrate a problem with replay, in that they revolve around technicalities made visible by high-resolution replay. The spirit of the situation is that Taylor wasn’t swinging, Hader’s pitch missed way inside off the plate. It would have easily been ball four if it hadn’t hit him, so a hit-by-pitch is the appropriate outcome when it did. regardless of whether it happened to knick the knob of Taylor’s bat. I’ve previously made a similar argument against calling out base runners when they momentarily lose contact with a base after successfully sliding into it. We shouldn’t let the technicalities of replay distort the simple spirit of the plays as they’ve traditionally been called.

Since I’m mentioning articles, here are a few others that I’ve enjoyed reading:

  • Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic provides a nice summary of “a wacky game.”
  • Mark Zuckerman of MASN on Davey Martinez‘s in-game decisions and how they affected the outcome. My main criticism is that I would have started Stephen Strasburg instead of Scherzer, but Strasburg was excellent in relief, so it all worked out fine in the end.
  • Jesse Dougherty and Sam Fortier of the Washington Post on how the Nationals’ 2019 season turned around after a disastrous three-game sweep by the Mets in May.

 

October 1, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ September in review: Stayin’ in the fight

September saw the Nationals in an unfamiliar position—fighting for a wild card position and playing meaningful games into the last week of the season. After a stretch where they went 5–9, by September 16 their margin for the second wild card slot had dropped to 1-1/2 games. But they managed to finish the season strong, going 8–0 in the final home stand against Philadelphia and Cleveland, to go 17–11 for the month. They ended the season with a 93–69 record and a 4 game lead for the top wild card berth, but 4 games behind the Braves for the NL East crown. Their players were generally healthy and lined up for the winner-take-all game.

September began with the Nationals in second place in the NL East, trailing Atlanta by 5-1/2 games. With 7 games to play against the Braves, there was still hope that victories in head-to-head matches might allow the Nats to step back into the divisional race. The odds, however, favored a wild card bid, where the Nats held a strong position, with a 3-1/2 game lead over the Cubs for the first wild card spot and a 7 game lead for the second spot. September would be a much tougher schedule than they had played over most of the summer. The Nats were scheduled to play 28 games in 29 days, 24 of which would be against teams with winning records, including 13 consecutive games against teams that were leading their divisions.

The Nats had won the first two games of a three-game set at home against the Marlins. On the first of September they beat the Marlins to finish their sweep of the series. Next the Mets came to DC. The Nats were soundly defeated in the first game. The second game featured a pitching match between Max Scherzer and Jacob DeGrom, with the Mets holding on to a 5 to 4 lead after eight innings. In the top of the ninth, Roenis Elias and Daniel Hudson along with a Matt Adams error allowed the Mets to score an additional 5 runs, leaving the Nats trailing 10 to 4 in the bottom of the ninth. Then began one of the most unlikely comebacks that I’ve ever witnessed, as the Nationals scored 7 runs in that half inning, capped by a Kurt Suzuki walk-off three-run homer, to beat the Mets. Unfortunately, their unlikely victory did not turn into a harbinger of more wins. They lost the final game against the Mets to lose the series.

Now trailing the division-leading Braves by 7 games, the Nats opened a four-game series in Atlanta that represented their last chance to get back into the divisional race. When the series began, Fangraphs gave the Nats a 5.8% chance of winning the NL East. By the end of the series, that probability had dropped to 0.5% percent, as the Nats lost the first three games by narrow margins (4 to 2, 4 to 3, and 5 to 4), before winning the final game 9 to 4. The Nats starters pitched well, but the hitters simply failed to score enough runs in the first three games.

A feel-good story during the Braves series was when Aaron Barrett returned to the Nationals and pitched a scoreless inning, four years after his Tommy John surgery and three years after a broken humerus that essentially snapped his arm in half and led to a grueling, improbable rehab.

The Nats then traveled to Minnesota, where they won two of three against the Twins, who were in first place in the AL Central race.

Returning to Washington after an early morning flight, the Nats were again matched against the Braves in a three-game series. Now trailing the Braves by 8-1/2 games, no one was really talking about the divisional race any more, especially after the Nats lost the first two games, before bouncing back to win the finale. In an unfortunate accident in the second game, a fastball from Fernando Rodney hit Charlie Culberson of the Braves in the face, causing multiple fractures. The next day, Davey Martinez had to leave the game due to chest pains and ultimately was hospitalized and underwent a cardiac catheterization.

Back on the road, the Nats played three games against the Cardinals, who were leading the NL Central race. The Nats dropped two of three games against the Cardinals, then won two of three from the Marlins in Miami. On September 20, while the Nats were playing in Miami, the Braves clinched the NL East title.

The Nats returned home for their final home stand. It began with a four-day, five-game series against the Phillies, who were technically still in the wild card race. On Monday, the Nats won the first game 7 to 2. The next day was a double-header, and when the Nats won the first game, they eliminated the Phillies from the wild card race. In the second game, the Nats came from behind on a Trea Turner grand slam. Combined with a loss by the Cubs, who had fallen behind the Brewers for the second wild card spot, the Nats clinched a post-season wild-card berth. The series concluded with two more victories, giving the Nats their first five-game sweep in franchise history.

The final series of the season, also played at home, was a three-game series against the 93-win Cleveland Indians, who were still in the race for AL wild card. When the Nats beat the Indians in the first game, the Indians were eliminated from their wild card race. The Nats also won the second game, which gave the Nats home field advantage in the wild card game.

The Nationals’ offense had a very good month, scoring 153 runs in September (first in the NL), or 5.46 runs per game (third in the league). They led the league in batting average (.268) and on-base percentage (.344) and were fourth in slugging (.458). Their 19 stolen bases ranked third in the NL, and they were only caught stealing twice. The Nats’ weighted runs-created relative to league (wRC+) of 105 ranked third in the NL for the month.

The Nats’ starting pitching, while continuing to be a strength, was not as dominant as it had been earlier in the season. The starters’ ERA for September of 3.87 ranked sixth in the NL; taken relative to the league and adjusting for park effects, their ERA– of 86 also ranked sixth. The fielding independent measure, FIP–, was 94 (or 6 percent better than league average), which also ranked sixth. Nats starters gave up 26 home runs during September, tied for most in the NL, but that statistic partly reflected their schedule (the Nats played more games in September than most other teams) and the fact that Nats starters pitched more innings per start than any NL team other than the Mets. The Nats’ home runs per 9 innings of 1.48 was still seventh highest in the league.

As it has been all season, the Nats’ relievers performed below the league average. Their ERA of 4.62 in September ranked ninth in the NL; park-adjusted and relative to the league, the bullpen’s ERA– was 103, or 3 percent worse than average, which ranked tenth. The fielding-independent measure of FIP– was 106, which ranked ninth. Turning to context-dependent measures, their run expectancy based on 24 base-out states (RE24) of –8.70 (or 8.7 runs below the average pitcher) ranked 11th in the NL. And their win-probability added (WPA) of -0.54 also ranked 11th. The bullpen was helped this month by not pitching in many high leverage situations. Their 11 meltdowns in September was tied for fewest in the NL, but their 16 shutdowns was also second fewest.

Record:

17–11 (.607)

Pythagorean Record:

17–11 (5.46 R/G – 4.32 RA/G)

September MVP:

Stephen Strasburg (2–1, 2.40 RA/9, 5 G, 30 IP, 10.8 K/9, .593 opp OPS, 1.3 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable position player:

Trea Turner (.308/.341/.547, 27 G, 123 PA, 6 HR, 24 R, 13 RBI, 6 SB, 0 CS, 125 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR). Honorable mentions go to Howie Kendrick (179 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR in 66 PA) and Asdrubal Cabrera (151 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR in 81 PA).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Daniel Hudson (1–0, 2.53 RA/9, 9 G, 10-2/3 IP, 6.8 K/9, .552 opp OPS, 1.61 RE24, 0.3 RA9-WAR, 3 shutdowns, 0 meltdown).

Worst month:

Matt Adams (.138/.167/.138, 10 G, 30 PA, 1 R, 0 RBI, –25 wRC+, –0.4 fWAR).

Best start this month:

Stephen Strasburg (September 21, 10–4 win over the Marlins in Miami) pitched 7 scoreless innings, giving up 3 hits and 3 walks and striking out 6 for a game score of 74. A bullpen meltdown tied the game and  deprived Strasburg of credit for the win, but the game went to extra innings and the Nats rallied in the 10th for a win.

Worst start:

Joe Ross (September 2, 7–3 loss to the Mets at home) gave up 7 runs on 8 hits and 3 walks in 3-2/3 innings, while striking out 4, for a game score of 18.

Tough losses:

  • Stephen Strasburg (September 5, 4–2 loss to the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 3 runs on 4 hits and 4 walks in 6 innings, while striking out 7, for a game score of 55.
  • Patrick Corbin (September 6, 4–3 loss to the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 2 runs (1 earned) on 3 hits and 6 walks in 5 innings, while striking out 9, for a game score of 58.
  • Austin Voth (September 7, 5–4 loss to the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 2 runs on 3 hits and 2 walks in 4 innings, while striking out 6, for a game score of 52. Obviously the Nats were having problems scoring runs in these games.
  • Anibal Sanchez (September 10, 5–0 loss to the Twins in Minneapolis) gave up 2 runs on 4 hits and 1 walk in 7 innings, while striking out 5, for a game score of 65.
  • Max Scherzer (September 18, 5–1 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis) gave up 5 runs on 7 hits and no walks in 6-2/3 innings, while striking out 11, for a game score of 51. With Max having allowed 2 runs on 4 hits through 6-2/3, Davey Martinez left him in for three more batters, which turned out to be three too many.

Cheap wins:

  • Patrick Corbin (September 12, 12–6 win over the Twins in Minneapolis) gave up 3 runs on 9 hits and no walks with 3 strikeouts in 6 innings, for a game score of 45.
  • Anibal Sanchez (September 20, 6–4 win over the Marlins in Miami) gave up 4 runs (3 earned) on 6 hits and 1 walk with 1 strikeout in 5 innings, for a game score of 41.

Best shutdown: 

Daniel Hudson (September 24, 6–5 win over the Phillies at home in second game of a doubleheader). Hudson entered in the top of the ninth with a one run lead and retired all three batters he faced on a ground out and two fly outs (win probability added .162). He got some nice defensive help from Victor Robles in chasing down the final fly ball.

Worst meltdown:

Fernando Rodney (September 21, 10–4 win over the Marlins in Miami). Entering in the bottom of the eighth to protect a 4–0 lead, Rodney allowed a double, then got a strikeout. He then surrendered another double, a walk, a single, and a third double, which tied the game (WPA –.614). Fortunately, Hunter Strickland was able to put out the fire in the eighth, and the Nats rallied for six runs in the tenth for the win. I couldn’t understand why Martinez left Rodney in to face six batters when he obviously didn’t have his best stuff.

Clutch hit:

Kurt Suzuki (September 3, 11–10 win over the Mets at home). I expect his 3-run walk-off home run, which capped the Nats’ incredible 7-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth, to be shown on highlights for years to come. Suzuki came to bat with one out in the bottom of the ninth, runners on second and third and the Nats trailing 10–8. Edwin Diaz started him off with a slider, which Suzuki swung through. Zuk then laid off two sliders and a fast ball that were out of the zone to get the count to 3–1. He missed another slider for a full count. Then Diaz went after him with three more fastballs. Kurt fouled off the first two, then went deep with the third for the win (WPA .711).

Choke: 

Ryan Zimmerman (September 6, 4–3 loss to the Braves in Atlanta). In the top of the first, the Nationals managed to load the bases against Dallas Keuchel with two singles and a walk. There was still only one out when Zim grounded into a double play to end the potential rally (WPA –.145). Although Zim partially made up for it by hitting a 3-run home run in the eighth, the Nats were still trailing 4–3 and the missed opportunity in the first inning proved costly.

Favorite defensive plays:

September 2, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ August in review: It’s fun when you win

The Nationals went 19–7 in August, one of their best monthly records in team history. While they solidified a lead in the race for the first wild card spot, they gained only one game on the division leading Atlanta Braves, who went 19–9. As the month ended, they remained 5-1/2 games behind in the divisional race, but held a 3-1/2 game lead for the first wild card spot and a 7 game lead for the second spot.

August began for the Nats with a road trip to the west. Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman were on the injured list, and Joe Ross was filling in as the fifth starter. At the trade deadline, the team had added relief pitchers—Daniel Hudson and Hunter Strickland, who began covering high leverage situations, and lefty Roenis Elias, who went onto the injured list after a single appearance with the Nats.

Facing the Diamondbacks in a three-game series in Phoenix, the Nats took the first game 3 to 0, but then were crushed in the second game, 18 to 7. They concluded the series with a 7 to 5 loss. For their next series in San Francisco, the Nats had better fortune, sweeping the Giants in a three game set. The road trip finished with a three-game series in New York against the then red-hot Mets, who had won 13 of their last 14 games and had moved within a half game of the second wild-card spot. The Mets won each of the first two games by a single run, as the Nationals bullpen surrendered leads, first in the 9th inning and then in the 8th inning. The Nats, however, won the finale and avoided being swept in what turned out to be an exciting, hard-fought series. Despite losing two series, the Nats finished the road trip with a winning (5–4) record.

The subsequent home stand began with a three game series against the Reds, which the Nats swept. They won the third game of the series 17 to 7, which began a remarkable offensive stretch. In seven games against the Reds, Brewers, and Pirates from August 14 to 21, the Nats scored 74 runs, plating 11 or more runs in five of the games. After the Reds, the Nats played a three-game series against the Brewers and took two of three. The second game, which the Nats lost in 14 innings, was especially wild. With the Nats holding an 11–8 lead going into the top of the ninth, closer Sean Doolittle gave up 4 runs and the lead (just a week after he blew a similar three-run lead against the Mets). The Nats scored a run in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to extra innings, and the game ended in the 14th inning with the Brewers winning 15 to 14. The next day, Doolittle went on the injured list. The Nats’ record for the home stand was 5–1.

The Nats next went to Pittsburgh where they played four games against the Pirates. The Nats won three of four. Max Scherzer returned after three weeks on the injured list to pitch the finale of the Pittsburgh series. The Nats’ week-long road trip concluded with three games in Chicago against the Cubs, who were leading the Central Division when the series began. The Nats swept the Cubs, knocking them into second place in their division. The Nats’ record on the road trip was 6–1.

Returning home, the Nats played two games against the Orioles. The O’s won the first game, and the Nats won the second. They concluded the month with the first two games of a three-game set against the Marlins, winning both games.

Ending August with a 76–58 record, according to Fangraphs the Nats had a 98% chance of reaching the playoffs, up from 75% at the end of July. On the other hand, their probability of winning the division actually declined slightly, from 15% to 12%, as the Nats only narrowed their gap with the division leading Braves by a single game.

The Nationals’ success in August was fueled by offense. Their 180 runs scored in the month led the National League, and their 6.92 runs scored per game was second only to Astros in MLB. The Nats led the NL for the month in batting average (.292) on-base percentage (.370), slugging (.517), wOBA (.370), wRC+ (125), and stolen bases (26). Interestingly, they ranked only fifth in the NL in home runs with 46. Ranking 14th of 15 NL teams in batter strikeouts, the Nats were able to draw walks and put the ball in play and get extra base hits to drive their offense.

The Nats’ starters were also major contributors. Even with Scherzer spending most of the month on the IL, the Nats starters’ 3.12 ERA for the month led the National League. Their fielding-independent measure (FIP of 3.88) ranked fourth in the NL. Adjusting for park and relative to the rest of the league, the Nats’ starting pitchers’ ERA– of 69 led the NL, and their FIP– of 87 ranked third, behind the Dodgers and Braves.

Despite the personnel changes in the bullpen, the Nats’ relief pitching woes were not over. Their 5.71 ERA for the month ranked 14th of the 15 NL teams, and their ERA– of 125 ranked 13th. Measuring their performance by the fielding-independent metric didn’t help—their FIP– of 126 ranked 13th. They ranked 12th in win probability added (WPA) with –2.11, meaning that the bullpen cost them a little more than two wins compared with an average bullpen. Considering that four of the Nats’ seven losses during the month involved leads blown in the eighth or ninth innings, that certainly seems plausible. A couple of extra wins this month could have made the Nats real competitors rather than long shots for the division championship.

Record:

19–7 (.731)

Pythagorean Record:

19–7 (6.92 R/G – 4.23 RA/G)

August MVP:

Anthony Rendon (.394/.450/.712, 26 G, 8 HR, 23 R, 29 RBI, 189 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR). Honorable mentions go to Juan Soto (181 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR) and Adam Eaton (172 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR).

Most valuable starting pitcher:

Joe Ross (3–0, 1.05 RA/9, 5 G, 25-2/3 IP, 5.6 K/9, .568 opp OPS, 1.6 RA9-WAR). Based on what we saw from him in the first half of the season, this award is frankly kind of stunning, but even though I kept my fingers crossed each time he started, it’s hard to argue with his success this month.

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Daniel Hudson (2–0, 2.51 RA/9, 15 G, 14-1/3 IP, 9.4 K/9, .624 opp OPS, 3.28 RE24, 0.6 RA9-WAR, 6 shutdowns, 3 meltdowns). As the three meltdowns attest, Hudson’s entry into a game didn’t guarantee success. Nevertheless, he stepped into a critical bullpen role and brought the team more success than failure.

Worst month:

Sean Doolittle (0–1, 12.86 RA/9, 8 G, 7 IP, 6.4 K/9, 1.375 opp OPS, –0.6 RA9-WAR, –6.91 RE24, 2 shutdowns, 2 meltdowns). He seemed to have lost the movement on his fastball. Hopefully, his time on the injured list may help him recover his edge.

Best start this month:

Stephen Strasburg (August 31, 7–0 win over the Marlins at home) pitched 8 scoreless innings, giving up 2 hits and no walks and striking out 14, for a game score of 92.

Worst start:

Stephen Strasburg (August 3, 18–7 loss to the Diamondbacks in Phoenix) gave up 9 runs on 9 hits and 2 walks in 4-2/3 innings, while striking out 7, for a game score of 15. This unusual poor outing by the Cy Young contender led to speculation that he was tipping his pitches.

Tough losses:

  • Patrick Corbin (August 27, 2–0 loss to the Orioles at home) gave up 2 runs on 4 hits and no walks in 7 innings, while striking out 9, for a game score of 70. The offense, however, was unable to score a run.

Cheap wins:

  • Stephen Strasburg (August 14, 17–7 win over the Reds at home) gave up 4 runs on 7 hits and 3 walks with 4 strikeouts in 5-2/3 innings, for a game score of 40. In Stephen’s defense, he did contribute to the offensive support that enabled his win, hitting a key RBI single in the 10-run inning that blew the game open.
  • Erick Fedde (August 18, 16–8 win over the Brewers at home) gave up 4 runs on 10 hits and 2 walks with 2 strikeouts in 5 innings, for a game score of 31.

Best shutdown: 

Tanner Rainey (August 17, 15–14 loss to the Brewers at home). Rainey entered the 12–12 game in the top of the tenth and pitched two scoreless innings, getting four strikeouts and two ground outs, while allowing only a walk (win probability added .275).

Worst meltdown:

Sean Doolittle (August 9, 7–6 loss to the Mets in New York). Doo entered the game in the bottom of the ninth with a 6 to 3 lead. He gave up a double to lead-off hitter Davis, followed by a single to Ramos. The third batter he faced, Frazier, took him deep with a three-run homer down the left-field line, tying the game. Panik then singled, becaming the fourth consecutive Met to get a hit off Doolittle. A bunt failed to advance the runner and recorded the first out of the inning. The next batter flied out, but Rosario and Conforto followed with consecutive singles that resulted in the Mets’ walk-off win (WPA –.968).

Clutch hit:

Anthony Rendon (August 30, 7–6 win over the Marlins at home). Rendon came to bat with one out in the bottom of the ninth, runners on first and second, and the Nats trailing 6 to 5. The Marlins catcher allowed a passed ball that advanced the runners to second and third. Rendon then drove a single to left field. Howie Kendrick scored easily, and Trea Turner raced home ahead of the throw for the walk-off win (WPA .458).

Choke: 

I’ll award this one jointly to Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, and Anthony Rendon (August 17, 15–14 loss to the Brewers at home in 14 innings). The Brewers closer, Josh Hader, had taken a 12–11 lead into the bottom of the ninth and allowed a walk, a double by Kurt Suzuki, and a run-scoring single by Victor Robles, tying the game, with the runners advancing to second and third on the throw. The Brewers then issued an intentional walk to Howie Kendrick to load the bases with no outs and the scored tied 12 to 12. A hit, a walk, or a long fly ball could have won the game. In turn, Turner (WPA –.103), Eaton (–.175), and Rendon (–.159) each struck out to send the game to extra innings. I’ll note that Joe Ross actually recorded a worse WPA in the bottom of the 14th of the same game (-.200) when he was sent in as a pinch hitter and struck out to end the game. But cognizant that he was called into an unusual role in that clutch situation, I’ve decided to give this one instead to the three guys at the top of the batting order.

Favorite defensive plays:

August 3, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ July in review: Some of us could use some reinforcements

As the Nationals players enjoyed dancing in the dugout after home runs and they and the crowd got into the Baby Shark phenomenon, the team was playing crucial games that were starting to determine their playoff prospects. In July the Nats went 15–10, solidifying their wild card chances but failing to close the gap with the division-leading Braves.

June began with the Nats in third place in the NL East, one game above .500 and trailing the division-leading Braves by 7 games. They opened a homestand with a three-game series against the Marlins, followed by three games against the Royals. They swept the Marlins and took two of three against the Royals for a 5–1 record on the homestand. They went into the All-Star break with a 47–42 record, now in second place and trailing the Braves by 6 games. Ryan Zimmerman drove in his 1,000th career RBI and the franchise celebrated its 50th anniversary by wearing throwback Expos uniforms.

Two Nationals players were selected for the All-Star team, Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer, but both opted out of the game due to nagging injuries and were replaced by players from other teams. While Rendon was able to return to the lineup after the break, Scherzer wound up on the injured list with mid-back strain and an inflamed bursa sac.

After the break, the Nats’ schedule became more demanding as they faced divisional rivals and other good teams. Their road trip began in Philadelphia, where they topped the Phillies in two of three games. Next was a two-game series against the Orioles in Baltimore, which they split. The road trip concluded with a four-game series against the Braves in Atlanta, which also ended with a split. The second game was especially heart-breaking, with Victor Robles hitting a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth, only to have 42-year-old Fernando Rodney fell apart and gave up the walk-off run when Davey Martinez tried to get him to go two innings for the first time in six years. After the series, Zimmerman went onto the injured list with a recurrence of plantar fasciitis.  The Nats went 5–4 on the road trip.

Returning home, the Nats had a four-game series against the Rockies. The first game was postponed, resulting in a day-night doubleheader in the middle of the series. The Nats won the first game of the series decisively, with Trea Turner hitting for the cycle for the second time in his career (one of only 26 players to have done so). The next day the Nats swept the doubleheader. For the fourth game, Scherzer came back from the injured list, and although he pitched alright, the injury was clearly still bothering him. Ultimately, Rodney gave up the Nats’ lead in the ninth inning for another loss, and Scherzer went back on the IL.

The Nats next faced the Dodgers, who had the best record in the National League. The Dodgers took the series two games to one. The homestand ended with three games against the Braves. Trailing the Braves by 5-1/2 games, the Nats had a chance to make up significant ground by sweeping, or at least winning, the series. After splitting the first two games, the Nats lost the finale in the tenth inning as Sean Doolittle gave up a go-ahead home run. The finale was also the trade deadline, and Mike Rizzo acquired three relief pitchers—Roenis Elias, Daniel Hudson, and Hunter Strickland. To make space, Javy Guerra, Michael Blazek, and Tony Sipp were designated for assignment.

At the beginning of July, according to Fangraphs the Nats had a 60% chance of making the playoffs and a 19% chance of winning the division. By the end of the month, the probability of making the playoffs had gone up to 75%, but the probability of winning the division had slipped to 15% as the Braves’ 14–10 record for the month nearly matched the Nats’ 15–10 record. Other prognosticators were less optimistic about the Nationals’ chances. At the end of July, Fivethirtyeight gave them a 51% chance of making the playoffs, and Baseball Prospectus estimated their chance of making the playoffs at 58%.

The Nationals’ hitters had a very successful month. Their .273 batting average for the month was second in the NL to the Reds. Their .361 on-base percentage led the league, and their .452 slugging ranked fourth. Their overall weighted runs-created (wRC+) was 110, or 10% better than average, and led the NL.

Their starting pitchers led all of MLB in ERA for July, with 2.94, and in relative park-adjusted ERA (ERA–) with 66, or 34% better than average. They also led MLB in fielding-independent pitching (FIP) with 2.97, and in the relative adjusted measure (FIP–) with 67. Behind Scherzer (when healthy), Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez, the Nats enjoyed excellent starting pitching with occasional off days from whoever was their fifth starter at the time.

While the relief pitching was not as atrocious as it had been the first two months of the season, it remained an area of weakness. The relief staff’s July ERA of 4.86 ranked 11th in the NL, and their relative park-adjusted ERA– of 109 was 9% worse than average, ranking ninth in the NL. They ranked 11th in RE24 with –9.11, and 13th in win probability added with –1.74. Had the Nats had an “average” relief staff, they would have won one or two more games this month.

Record:

15–10 (.600)

Pythagorean Record:

16–9 (5.04 R/G – 3.84 RA/G)

July MVP:

Stephen Strasburg (5–0, 1.14 RA/9, 5 G, 31-2/3 IP, 12.5 K/9, .513 opp OPS, 2.0 RA9-WAR). Strasburg was named NL Pitcher of the Month for July. Patrick Corbin (1.95 RA/9, 1.8 RA9-WAR) was the runner up.

Most valuable position player:

Anthony Rendon (.333/.420/.552, 25 G, 4 HR, 14 R, 22 RBI, 148 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Tanner Rainey (0–0, 1.08 RA/9, 10 G, 8-1/3 IP, 13.0 K/9, .619 opp OPS, 3.11 RE24, 0.3 RA9-WAR, 1 shutdown, 1 meltdown).

Worst month:

Javy Guerra (0–0, 8.18 RA/9, 8 G, 11 IP, 5.7 K/9, .838 opp OPS, –0.4 RA9-WAR, –6.01 RE24, 2 shutdowns, 1 meltdown) was designated for assignment at the end of a disappointing month.

Best start this month:

Stephen Strasburg (July 3, 3–1 win over the Marlins in Miami) pitched 7-1/3 scoreless innings, giving up 2 hits and 2 walks and striking out 14, for a game score of 86.

Worst start:

Erick Fedde (July 30, 11–8 loss to the Braves at home) gave up 9 runs on 9 hits and 4 walks in 3-2/3 innings, while striking out 4, for a game score of 7.

Tough losses:

  • None (Nats starters recorded only two losses in July)

Cheap wins:

  • Stephen Strasburg (July 18, 13–4 win over the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 3 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks with 7 strikeouts in 5-1/3 innings, for a game score of 45.
  • Anibal Sanchez (July 20, 5–3 win over the Braves in Atlanta) gave up 3 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks with 4 strikeouts in 5 innings, for a game score of 44.

Best shutdown: 

Sean Doolittle (July 20, 5–3 win over the Braves in Atlanta). Doolittle entered the game with one out in the bottom of the eighth, a runner on first, and the Nats guarding a 4–3 lead. He retired Culberson on a fly ball and Acuna on a strikeout to get out of the inning. The Nats added a run in the top of the ninth, then Doolittle returned in the bottom of the inning to retire all three batters he faced—Swanson, Freeman, and Donaldson (win probability added .238).

Worst meltdown:

Fernando Rodney (July 25, 8–7 loss to the Rockies at home). Rodney, who had pitched both games of the previous day’s doubleheader, was assigned the ninth inning with the Nats holding 7–6 lead. The first batter he faced, former Nat Ian Desmond, drove the ball over the center field wall to tie the game. He then walked Blackmon, struck out Story for the first out, and gave up a single to Dahl that advanced Blackmon to third. Former Nat Daniel Murphy then hit a grounder that was too slow for the Nats to turn a double play and Blackmon scored the go-ahead run (WPA –.816). The Nats then failed to score in the bottom of the ninth and failed in their bid to sweep the Rockies.

Clutch hit:

Juan Soto (July 13, 4–3 win over the Phillies in Philadelphia). The Nats were down to their last out, trailing 3 to 2 with two outs in the top of the ninth. Anthony Rendon then singled, and Soto hit the first pitch he saw, a splitter from closer Hector Neris, over the left-center fence to give the Nats the lead (WPA .740).

Choke: 

Ryan Zimmerman (July 5, 7–4 loss to the Royals at home in 11 innings). In the bottom of the tenth with the score tied 4 to 4, the Nats had runners on first and third with one out. Zimmerman hit a pop fly for the second out (WPA –.186). Victor Robles then grounded out to end the Nationals’ bid for a walk-off win.

Favorite defensive play:

 

 

 

July 2, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ June in review: Winning is the single greatest motivator

After two months of losing, the Nationals turned things around in June and began winning. With the season now half over, there’s a question of whether their improved performance has arrived too late for the divisional race, but a wild-card bid seems still to be very much in play.

June began with the Nationals in fourth place in the NL East, nine games below .500 and nine games behind the division-leading Phillies. They had just played—and lost—the opening game of a 3-game series against the Reds in Cincinnati. They won the last two games to take the series and completed their short road trip with a 4–1 record.

The Nats returned home to face the Chicago White Sox in a two-game series. They won both games, with the second win coming on a walk-off homer by Trea Turner. The Nats then traveled to San Diego to face the Padres. They split the 4-game set against the Padres, then split a two-game series against the White Sox in Chicago. In the NL East divisional race, the red-hot Braves moved ahead of the Phillies.

The Nationals returned home for a scheduled 11-game homestand, where they would face the Diamondback as well as their main divisional rivals, the Phillies and the Braves. Although the Nats were trailing in the NL East by 7.5 games when the homestand began, good performances could potentially help them back into the race. The homestand began with a 4-game series against the Diamondbacks, which they split. Next came a 4-game series against the Phillies, but the first two games were rained out. One of the postponed games would be made up in a doubleheader, and the other was rescheduled for late September. To make matters worse, on the day of the second rain-out, Max Scherzer took a foul ball in the face while taking batting practice—specifically, while practicing bunts—and suffered a broken nose.

The weather finally cleared enough for the Phillies series to begin. In the first game of the day-night doubleheader, Patrick Corbin, who had been struggling his previous three starts, returned to form and led the Nats to a 6 to 2 victory. In the nightcap, Scherzer took the mound with a black eye and a broken nose and shut out the Phillies for seven innings, allowing the Nats to win 2 to 0. The next day the Nats took the finale 7 to 4, sweeping the Phillies and knocking them back in the divisional race.

Next came a three-game series against the division-leading Braves. After playing three games in two days, the Nats’ bullpen was fatigued. The Nats managed to win Game One 4 to 3, relying on Wander Suero to get the save, helped by a dramatic sliding, game-ending catch by Victor Robles. In Game Two, the Nats held a comfortable 8 to 4 lead after six innings, but when Trevor Rosenthal came in to pitch the seventh, he walked the first three batters. Then Tanner Rainey was brought in and walked in a run and gave up a three-run double, tying the game. In the bottom of the seventh, the Nats scored a run to take a 9–8 lead. But in the top of the eighth, Joe Ross gave up four runs on five hits (including a three-run homer), and the Nats wound up losing the game 13 to 9. The next morning, Ross was optioned to Fresno and Rosenthal was released—the Nats conceding his signing was a $7 million mistake. Game Three seemed winnable when the Nats scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh to tie the game 2 to 2. But the game went to extra innings, and the Braves scored two in the top of the 10th. The Nats were able to score one in the bottom of the inning but fell 4 to 3. With the series loss, the Nats dropped to 8.5 games behind.

The month ended with a road trip to Miami and Detroit to face two of the worst teams in baseball. The Detroit series featured the return to the active roster of Ryan Zimmerman, the last of a number of Nationals regulars who had been injured during April and May to return. The Nats swept the Marlins and took two of three against the Tigers.

For the month of June, the Nats went 18–8 and finished with a 42–41 record, in third place in the NL East, 7 games behind the Braves (who went 20–8 in June). According to Fangraphs, the Nats had begun June with a 16% chance of winning the division and a 32% chance of making the playoffs, while they ended June with a 19% chance of winning the division and a 60% chance of making the playoffs. By contrast, the 538 website showed them with a 16% chance of winning the division and a 46% chance of making the playoffs, while Baseball Prospectus gave them a 12% chance for the division and 40% for the playoffs.

Throughout the season, the Nationals’ strength has been their starting pitching, and this continued to be the case in June. The starters’ ERA of 3.52 during the month was second best in the National League (behind the Dodgers), and their park-adjusted ERA relative to league (ERA–) of 79 was also second best in the league. Their fielding independent measure, FIP–, was 91, third best in the league. Their 25.8% strikeout rate was the NL’s best. Furthermore, the starters on average went deeper into games than other teams—their average of 6.1 innings per start led baseball.

The team’s relief pitching, which had been among the worst in baseball during the first two months of the season, rebounded to deliver results that were more like league average. Their ERA– of 101 during June ranked eighth among the 15 NL teams, and their FIP– of 87 ranked fourth. In the situation-dependent measures, they ranked ninth in both RE24 (with –3.06) and win probability added (with –0.29). Their 21 shutdowns ranked tenth, and their 10 meltdowns were the third-fewest in the NL. Overall, while the bullpen still wasn’t a strength for the team, its performance was often acceptable.

The offense, meanwhile, contributed to the Nationals’ winning record but was not among the elite offenses in the league. The Nats’ June on-base percentage of .326 ranked eighth in the NL, while their slugging percentage of .467 ranked fifth. Their 44 home runs during June also ranked fifth. The park-adjusted combined measure of offense relative to league, wRC+, was 101, sixth in the league.

Record:

18–8 (.692)

Pythagorean Record:

17–9 (5.58 R/G – 3.92 RA/G)

June MVP:

Max Scherzer (6–0, 1.00 RA/9, 6 G, 45 IP, 13.6 K/9, .196 opp OBP, 3.0 RA9-WAR) had a month that was phenomenal even by his own standard. Overcoming a slow start in April, Max is making yet another bid for the Cy Young Award. Addendum: Scherzer was named NL Pitcher of the Month for June.

Most valuable position player:

Anthony Rendon (.307/.363/.604, 26 G, 9 HR, 22 R, 24 RBI, 144 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Wander Suero (0–0, 2.77 RA/9, 13 G, 13 IP, 10.4 K/9, .302 opp OBP, 1.17 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 5 shutdowns, 1 meltdown).

Worst month:

Joe Ross (0–1, 36.00 RA/9, 1 G, 1 IP, 0.0 K/9, .667 opp OBP, –0.4 RA9-WAR, –0.66 WPA, 0 shutdowns, 1 meltdown) was called up as a potential starter for the game on the 23rd but then pressed into service as a reliever on the 22nd, and he delivered a disastrous eighth inning, surrendering four runs to go from a one-run lead to a three-run deficit.

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (June 2, 4–1 win over the Reds in Cincinnati) pitched 8 innings, giving up 1 run on 3 hits and 1 walk and striking out 15, for a game score of 86. It was only his third win of the season.

Worst start:

Stephen Strasburg (June 15, 10–3 loss to the Reds in Denver), who gave up 6 runs, 9 hits, and 1 walk in 5 innings, while striking out 5, for a game score of 29.

Tough losses:

  • None

Cheap wins:

  • Stephen Strasburg (June 4, 9–5 win over the White Sox in Chicago) gave up 5 runs on 5 hits and 3 walks with 6 strikeouts in 5 innings, for a game score of 40.

Best shutdown: 

Sean Doolittle (June 30, 2–1 win over the Tigers in Detroit). Doolittle pitched the ninth with a one-run lead. Although he allowed a single and a walk, he recorded a strikeout and two flyball outs to record his 100th career save (win probability added .205).

Worst meltdown:

Sean Doolittle (June 7, 5–4 loss to the Padres in San Diego). After being held scoreless for six innings, the Nats clawed their way back and took a 4–3 lead in the top of the ninth. Doolittle came in to pitch the bottom of the ninth. After striking out Machado, he gave up a triple to Hosmer. He then struck out Franmil Reyes for the second out but gave up a single to Josh Naylor, tying the game. Naylor stole second, and another single from Austin Hedges gave the Padres the win (WPA –.816).

Clutch hit:

Matt Adams (June 27, 8–5 win over the Marlins in Miami). The Nats were trailing 4 to 1 in the top of the sixth when Adams came to bat. There were two outs and runners on first and third, and Adams lofted a hanging slider down the right-field line for a game-tying three-run homer (WPA .327).

Choke: 

Juan Soto (June 23, 4–3 loss to the Braves at home). With the score tied 2 to 2 after nine, the game had gone to extra innings. In the top of the tenth, the Braves took a 4 to 2 lead on a 2-run homer by Camargo. But the Nats came back in the bottom of the tenth and had scored one run and had runners on first and second when Soto came to bat with two outs. Soto grounded out to shortstop to end the game (WPA –.171).

Favorite Defensive Plays:

  • Victor Robles sprinted a long way to make a diving catch at the warning track against the White Sox.
  • Trea Turner made a diving stop to keep a ground ball from going to the outfield, then gunned down the Phillie runner who was trying to score from second.
  • Victor Robles made an even more dramatic catch against the Braves, with two outs in the top of the ninth, the Nats holding a one-run lead, and runners on first and second. A pop-up was hit into no-mans land behind second base, and Robles raced in to make a game-ending, sliding catch.