Nats’ May in review: Fighting and fighting and battling
The Nats went 16–14 in May and managed to pick up a game and a half on the 14–15 Mets. The Nats faced a much tougher schedule than they had in April—every team they played in May other than the Tigers ended the month with at least a .500 record (and the Tigers’ winning percentage was .471). The Nats finished the month with a 32–21 record, leading the division by two games over the second place Mets.
The month began with the Nats on the road, playing the third game of a 3-game set with the Cardinals. They won, giving them a sweep over the Cards. Next they faced the world champion Royals in Kansas City, and they took two of three. At that point they had won five of the first six games on a tough 10-game road trip. But their biggest challenge was still ahead of them in Chicago, where they had a 4-game series against the red hot Cubs, who at that point had a 20–6 record.
In the first game Joe Ross pitched well, allowing 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks in 6-2/3 innings, but the Nats managed only 2 hits against Cubs starter Hendricks (and 3 altogether) and lost the game 5–2. In the second game, Max Scherzer gave up 4 homers and 7 runs in 5 innings, and the Nats lost 8–6. The third game was a similar story, with Gio Gonzalez giving up 5 runs in 5-2/3 innings, and the Nats losing 8–5. In the final game, facing Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, the Nats finally seemed to have a chance to win, as they took a 3–1 lead into the 7th inning behind Tanner Roark‘s pitching. In the bottom of the 7th, the Cubs picked up two runs to tie it, and the game went to extra innings. The Nats had several opportunities to win. Their leadoff hitter reached base in the 9th and 10th innings, and they managed to load the bases in the 10th and 12th. But they weren’t able to score and Baez hit a walk-off homer in the 13th, with the Nats losing 4–3, the Cubs sweeping the series, and the Nats slipping into second place in the NL East.
The most notable aspect of the series was how Joe Maddon managed to shut down Bryce Harper, who was walked or hit by a pitch in 14 of his 19 plate appearances, including in all 7 of his plate appearances in the final extra-inning game. Ryan Zimmerman, who batted behind Harper, failed to protect Harper as he went 2 for 19 in the series. The ultimate insult came in the 10th and 12th innings of the final game, when Harper was intentionally walked in both innings to load the bases with two outs, only to have Zimmerman make the final out of each inning. Other opponents followed suit, as Harper was walked 15 times in the next 8 games. By that point, Harper’s timing was so messed up, batting only .195 through his first 16 games in May, that opposing pitchers finally began pitching to him again.
After the road trip, the Nats faced the Tigers at home. Stephen Strasburg won the first game as news came out that the Nats had signed him to a 7-year, $175 million contract extension. They lost the second game, but the third game was truly remarkable. Scherzer pitched a complete game and struck out 20 batters, tying record (with Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood, and Randy Johnson) for strikeouts in a 9-inning game. He faced 33 batters and threw 119 pitches, of which 96 were strikes, while allowing 6 hits and no walks. He gave up two home runs, however, making it a close game with the Nationals winning 3–2. The home runs were a persistent problem for Scherzer this month, as he gave up 10 home runs in his 6 starts during May.
The next and final series of the homestand was a 4-game set against the Marlins, including a Saturday day-night doubleheader. They won the first games, regaining the NL East lead. They then split the doubleheader and lost the finale the next day, splitting the series. Between games in the doubleheader, Nats owner Ted Lerner picked up the option for a 2-year extension on GM Mike Rizzo‘s contract, keeping him in Washington through 2018.
The next road trip began in New York with the Nats’ first series against their main rivals, the Mets. The Nats lost the first game—a pitching duel between Scherzer and Noah Syndegaard. They won the second game against an uncharacteristically wild Bartolo Colon and Mets bullpen, drawing 11 walks and 8 hits en route to a 7–1 Nats victory. In the third game, Strasburg pitched well and the Nats beat up on Matt Harvey, winning 9–1. They finished their road trip taking two of three against the Marlins.
Back in Washington, they had another 3-game set against the Mets. This time New York took two of three. This was followed by a 4-game set against the Cardinals, which they split. Back on the road in Philadelphia for the last 2 games of the month, the Nats won both games.
The Nats starters contributed to their success—their 3.70 ERA during May was 6th in the National League, and after park adjustment their ERA was 9% better than the league (an ERA– of 91), which was 5th behind the Cubs, Giants, Dodgers, and Braves. Their fielding independent pitching, or FIP, was Gonzalez struggled with a 5.23 ERA in May, but the other four starters all had ERAs below 4.00.
The relief pitching was outstanding, with the Nats relievers leading the NL in May in ERA (2.76) in ERA– (68), in RE24 (15.75), in FIP (2.82), and in FIP– (71). Their 9 meltdowns was the second lowest total in the NL.
The offense also contributed, with the Nats ranking 4th in the NL in runs with 133 and in weighted runs created (wRC+) with 101. They were 3rd in slugging percentage (.431) and 1st in home runs (43), even while Harper slumped with a .200 average and .363 slugging percentage. Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Wilson Ramos, and especially Daniel Murphy made up the slack. The team’s on-base percentage of .327 was 6th in the NL and a 20-point improvement from their April figure.
18–12 (4.43 R/G – 3.67 RA/G)
For the second consecutive month, this award goes to the NL Player of the Month, who this time is Daniel Murphy (.416/.424/.673, 29 G, 7 HR, 17 R, 23 RBI, 1.7 fWAR). (Harper had taken the award in April.)
Most valuable starting pitcher:
Stephen Strasburg (5–0, 3.11 RA/9, 6 G, 37-2/3 IP, 11.9 K/9, .285 opp OBP, 1.0 RA9-WAR).
Most valuable relief pitcher:
Yusmeiro Petit (0–0, 2.08 RA/9, 8 G, 13 IP, 7.6 K/9, .275 opp OBP, 4.22 RE24, 0.3 RA9-WAR, 2 of 5 inherited runners scored, 1 shutdown, 0 meltdowns).
Ben Revere (.170/.225/.266, –0.6 fWAR in 23 games and 102 plate appearances).
Best start this month:
Max Scherzer (May 11, 3–2 win over the Tigers) got 20 strikeouts in a complete game, tying the major league record for strikeouts in a 9-inning game, allowing 2 runs, 6 hits, and no walks, for a game score of 87.
Tanner Roark (May 14, 7–1 loss to the Marlins at home) gave up 7 runs on 8 hits in 5 innings, with 3 walks and 5 strikeouts. His game score was 25.
- Joe Ross (May 5, 5–2 loss to the Cubs in Chicago) gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks with 9 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings (game score 63).
- Max Scherzer (May 17, 2–0 loss to the Mets in New York) gave up 2 runs on 3 hits and 3 walks with 10 strikeouts in 6-1/3 innings (game score 66).
- Tanner Roark (May 25, 2–0 loss to the Mets at home) gave up 2 runs (1 earned) on 5 hits and 2 walks with 5 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 64).
- Max Scherzer (May 27, 6–2 loss to the Cardinals at home) gave up 5 runs on 3 hits and 5 walks, which unfortunately were all bunched together, while striking out 6 in 7 innings (game score 53).
Jonathan Papelbon (May 8, 4–3 loss to the Cubs in 13 innings in Chicago). It wasn’t the prettiest performance—in two innings he gave up a single, a double, and a walk, and avoided giving up the winning run when Heyward was thrown out at home. But Papelbon did pitch scoreless 11th and 12th innings and gave the Nats opportunities to win, which they unfortunately weren’t able to take advantage of. (Win probability added .263).
Jonathan Papelbon (May 3, 7–6 loss to the Royals in Kansas City). With the Nats leading 6–4, Papelbon was called on to close it out in the bottom of the 9th. He gave up two singles and a stolen base, when Moustakas hit a one-out single to tie the game. After a fly-out and another single, Cain delivered the walk-off run with another single, the fifth in the inning. (WPA –.911)
Clint Robinson (May 9, 5–4 win over the Tigers at home). Called on to pinch hit with one out in the bottom of the 9th, with the bases empty and the score tied 4–4, Robinson hit a walk-off homer (WPA .424).
Jayson Werth (May 21, 3–2 loss to the Marlins in Miami). The Nats had entered the top of the ninth trailing 3–1, but after three singles and a walk the score was 3–2, and the Nats had the bases loaded with no outs. Werth hit a weak grounder to third. Prado stepped on third base to force out Michael A. Taylor, then threw home in time for the catcher to apply the tag to Murphy (WPA –.504). Jose Lobaton followed with a groundout to give the Marlins the win.