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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:

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