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October 12, 2021 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ September in review: ‘They battled all year long’

The Nationals finished the season that none of us anticipated, going 10-21 in September and the first three days of October to end the season in last place in the National League East with a 65–97 record. (In the rest of this article, I will refer to the “month of September” as including all of the regular season games played in September and the first three days of October.)

While I can’t say that the Nats were playing quality baseball, the month did have its high points. Juan Soto led the majors in monthly WAR (Fangraphs version) with 2.2. His .545 monthly on-base percentage was the highest by any MLB player since July 2016, when Votto had a .549 OBP. Beyond that, the Nats played an unusual number of exciting, closely fought games. Five games went to extra innings; six were decided with walk-off runs. Eleven games were determined by a margin of a single run. And in 18 of the 31 games, the win or loss was assigned to a relief pitcher, mostly indicating games where the lead changed after the starter left the game. Unfortunately for the Nats, most of these walk-offs and bullpen games were won by their opponents, but at least the Nats’ offense kept things competitive.

While the new limits on roster size have cut back on September call-ups, several players debuted with the Nationals this month. Relief pitcher Alberto Baldonado, age 28, was a minor league free agent who made his major league debut on September 2 and pitched 14 games by the end of the season. Starting pitcher Josh Rogers, age 27, was signed by the Nats in June after the Orioles had released him. He moved directly into the rotation beginning September 4 and made six starts for the Nats. Finally, starting pitcher Joan Adon, age 23, made his MLB debut on October 3, the last day of the season. Adon has been with the Nats’ organization since signing in the Dominican Republic in 2016.

September began with the Nats at home playing the final game of a three-game set against the Phillies—they had lost the first two. It was rained out on the first, but the teams played it on the second. The Nats led 6 to 0 after five innings and 6 to 3 after seven, but the bullpen and sloppy defense gave up the lead for a 7 to 6 loss, giving the Phillies a sweep.

Next came five games in four days against the Mets. In the opener, the Nats scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie it, but lost the game in the tenth. The next day there was a doubleheader. In the first game, the Nats came all the way back from a 9–0 deficit to tie the game in the bottom of the seventh and send it to extra innings, but ultimately lost 11–9. Behind newcomer Rogers, they came back to win the second game and split the doubleheader. The next game was tied 6–6 going into the eighth when the bullpen fell apart for a 13–6 loss. In the final game, the Nats were trailing 3–2 going into the bottom of ninth, but scored the tying and winning runs on singles by Andrew Stevenson and Carter Kieboom, ending the series with the Mets taking three of five. The Nats were 2–6 on the home stand.

The next road trip began in Atlanta. In the first game, the Nats rallied in the seventh, scoring four runs to tie the game 5 to 5, only to see the bullpen give up the go-ahead runs in an 8 to 5 loss. In the ninth inning, Braves’ closer Will Smith hit Soto with a pitch that the Nats players thought was intentional. So in the second game, Nats’ starter Sean Nolin was ejected after retaliating against Freddie Freeman, leaving it to the bullpen to get 26 outs. The bullpen held up and the Nats got a 4 to 2 win, but the next night the extra work caught up with them when they lost 7 to 6 in 10 innings.

The next stop was a three game series in Pittsburgh. In the first game, the bullpen failed again, getting walked off after the Nats went into the bottom of the ninth with a 3 to 2 lead. They split the next two games with the Pirates and ended the road trip with a 2–4 record.

In the next home stand, the Nats lost two of three to the Marlins. In the third game, the Nats took a 6 to 4 lead into the ninth but gave up four runs to lose 8 to 6. They then lost two of three to the Rockies. In the first game, they took an 8 to 7 lead into the ninth but gave up two runs for the loss in the game that officially eliminated them from any post-season possibility.

Their final road trip began with a three-game series in Miami. In the first game, the bullpen gave up a three run lead, sending the game into the 10th inning with the score tied 7 to 7. In the top of the 10th, a couple of base running errors kept the Nats from scoring. Luis Garcia was the designed runner and Lane Thomas led off with a double to right field. But Garcia went back to second to tag and thus failed to score the go-ahead run. I’ll describe the other basepath blunder below in the section entitled “Choke.” In the bottom of the inning, the Marlins got a walk-off win after scoring their designated runner on a stolen base and a wild pitch. The Nats won the next two games to win the series.

The next stop was Cincinnati, where the Nats won the first game, then dropped three in a row, with the losses in games two and three coming as walk offs. The road trip ended with three games in Colorado. The Nats won the first game, then dropped the next two, with the final game a six-hour marathon (four hours of playing time interrupted by a two-hour rain delay). They were 4–6 on the road trip.

The final three game series came at home against the Red Sox, who were desperately fighting for a playoff spot. Nationals Park was packed with some of the largest crowds of the season. The Red Sox mostly pitched around Juan Soto and won the first game and were leading the Nats 1 to 0 in the second game going into the bottom of the eighth. But then the Nats managed to load the bases, bringing Soto up with one out and the Sox needing to throw him strikes. The crowd cheered when Soto sent a fly into deep center field, but he didn’t get all of it and the Nats had to settle for a game-tying sacrifice fly. In the top of the ninth, though, the Nats’ bullpen gave up four runs, and the Nats’ two-run rally in the bottom of the ninth fell short in their 5 to 3 loss. After battling all month with the Marlins for fourth place, the Nats slipped into last place in the division.

Next came the final game of the season. Adon pitched well in his major league debut, and the Nats took a 5 to 2 lead into the seventh inning. Then the bullpen failed again, allowing the Sox to tie it in the seventh and take a 7 to 5 lead in the ninth. Davey Martinez started Alex Avila (who had previously announced his retirement) and Ryan Zimmerman (who hasn’t announced his plans for next season). He lifted the players late in the game, giving the capacity crowd an opportunity to give each of them a heartfelt standing ovation. The Red Sox clinched their wild card spot while the Nats headed into the hot stove league.

During September/October, the Nationals continued to hit well. Their .260 batting average ranked fourth in the National League, their .352 on-base percentage ranked second, and their .422 slugging percentage ranked seventh. The comprehensive offensive metric, weighted runs created (wRC+) was 107, ranking fifth in the NL. Base running, however, was a problem—according to Fangraphs they were 5.1 base-running runs below average in the month, which was last in the NL.

Pitching—especially relief pitching—was the Nats’ big problem. The starters’ ERA in August was 4.66, ranking 8th of the 15 NL teams. The starters’ fielding independent pitching (FIP) was 5.11, which ranked 11th. The relievers were worse. Their ERA was 6.27, ranking last in the NL, as was their 5.64 FIP. The relief corps was charged with 16 losses and 12 blown saves, with both totals leading all of MLB. The relievers had 37 meltdowns—by far the most in the majors—and managed 26 shutdowns (12th in the NL). The starting pitching was mediocre, but the relief pitching was awful.

Record:

10–21 (.323)

Pythagorean Record:

13–18 (4.74 R/G – 5.71 RA/G)

September MVP:

Juan Soto (.373/.545/.637, 7 HR, 23 R, 24 RBI, 203 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR).  With a strong final month, Soto ended the year as a solid MVP candidate, leading the National League position players in Baseball-Reference WAR for the year while tied for second in the FanGraphs version of WAR. As of September 23, Soto looked like he was headed for a truly historic month (and possibly winning the batting championship) with a slash line in the month’s first 22 games of .473/.608/.838. But his batting fell to earth during his last nine games (.107/.395/.107), which might turn out to cost him the MVP award.

Most valuable pitcher:

Josh Rogers (2–2, 3.28 RA/9, 6 GS, 35⅔ IP, 5.6 K/9, .320 opp OBP, 1.1 RA9-WAR). I’m kind of skeptical that Rogers will be able to maintain his effectiveness as the league adjusts, but at least for this month his work was a pleasant surprise.

Most valuable relief pitcher:

This month figuring out the best relief pitcher seems like an intractable problem, but I’ll go with Tanner Rainey (0–1, 6.35 RA/9, 6 G. 5⅔ IP, 17.5 K/9, .292 opp OBP, 0.17 RE24, –0.1 RA9-WAR, 2 shutdowns, 1 meltdown). I’ll admit the statistics don’t really support this award, but when he started striking out a lot of opposing batters after missing the first half of the month, it seemed to me that he had regained some of his promise.

Worst month:

Carter Kieboom (.175/.254/.204, 0 HR, 9 R, 4 RBI, 27 G, 24 wRC+, –1.0 fWAR). He seems to be rapidly playing himself out of a job. Several pitchers also had really bad months—Alberto Baldonado (8.44 RA/9, 6 meltdowns, 4 blown saves), Erick Fedde (1–0, 8.88 RA/9), Kyle Finnegan (1–4, 7.71 RA/9, 4 meltdowns, 2 blown saves), and Austin Voth (9.53 RA/9, 3 meldowns, 2 blown saves).

Best start this month:

Josh Rogers (September 15, 8–6 loss to the Marlins at home) pitched 5 scoreless innings on 1 hit and 1 walk and striking out 6 for a game score of 70.

Worst starts:

A tie between Erick Fedde (September 4, 11–9 loss to the Mets at home) who gave up 7 runs on 9 hits and 1 walk in 3 innings with 2 strikeouts, for a game score of 20, and Patrick Corbin (September 18, 6–0 loss to the Rockies at home) who gave up 6 runs on 10 hits and 3 walks in 4 innings with 5 strikeouts, also for a game score of 20.

Tough losses:

  • Paolo Espino (September 13, 3–0 loss to the Marlins at home) gave up 1 run on 6 hits and 3 walks in 6 innings, while striking out 6, for a game score of 59.
  • Patrick Corbin (September 28, 3–1 loss to the Rockies in Denver) gave up 2 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks in 6 innings, while striking out 9, for a game score of 58.

Cheap win:

  • Josiah Gray (September 27, 5–4 win over the Rockies in Denver) gave up 3 runs on 4 hits and 3 walks in 5⅓ innings, while striking out 4, for a game score of 49.

Best shutdown:

Alberto Baldonado (September 4, 11–9 win over the Mets at home). It was the first game of a double header when Baldonado got the call to pitch in the top of the seventh, the Nats trailing 9 to 7. It was Baldonado’s second major league appearance. He retired the side, and the Nats scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh to send it to extra innings. In the eighth, the Mets of course had a designated runner at second. Baldonado got a fly ball to left, a strikeout, and a pop fly to keep the Mets scoreless (Win probability added/WPA +.325). In the ninth Kyle Finnegan gave up a leadoff two-run home run, and the Nats remained scoreless in the bottom of the inning for the loss.

Worst meltdown:

Kyle Finnegan (September 15, 8–6 loss to the Marlins at home). In the top of the eighth, the Nats were ahead 5 to 4. There were two outs and a runner had just reach first base when Finnegan got the call for a four-out save. He got a strikeout to end the inning, and the Nats got an insurance run from a solo Josh Bell homer in the bottom of the inning. In the top of the ninth, Finnegan gave up a walk, a single, a wild pitch (advancing the runners to second and third), and a one-run single. With the Nats’ lead down to one run and runners at the corners, Finnegan got a grounder for the first out. He then got another ground out, but it scored the runner from third, tying the game. With two outs, the next batter, Jesus Sanchez, hit a home run putting the Marlins ahead 8 to 6. He then gave up another double before getting the final out. He faced nine batters and gave up 4 hits (including a home run) and a walk. (WPA –.767)

Clutch hit:

Riley Adams (September 3, 6–2 loss to the Mets at home). In the bottom of the ninth, the Nats were trailing 2 to 1 with one out and Andrew Stevenson on first when Adams came to bat. He doubled to right-center, driving in Stevenson to tie the game, and advanced to third on a bad throw. (WPA +.614) The Nats were unable to score him, though, and the Mets scored four in the top of the tenth to win the game.

Choke:

Josh Bell (September 20, 8–7 loss to the Marlins in Miami). In the top of the tenth with the score tied 7 to 7, the Nats had loaded the bases with one out. Josh Bell grounded sharply to the first baseman, who threw out Luis Garcia at home. The catcher then tried throwing to first for the double play, but his bad throw hit Bell in the back as he was stepping through the bag. The umpire ruled Bell out on interference for running inside the base line—the same play that nabbed Trea Turner in Game Six of the 2019 World Series. (WPA –.357)

Favorite defensive plays:

  • Lane Thomas covered a lot of ground and made a sliding catch to rob Lindor of a hit.
  • Josh Rogers chased down a ball hit along the first base line, then made a glove flip to just beat out the runner.
  • Alcides Escobar made a diving stop and a quick throw to get the lead runner at second.

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