September 29th, 2014 / Author: Mark
In what has to be one of the most memorable games in the history of the Washington Nationals, Jordan Zimmermann no-hit the Miami Marlins in front of 35,000-plus at Nationals Park on Sunday afternoon. Zimmermann’s no-no was a dominating 1-0 performance, as the “Ace of Auburndale” struck out ten in notching his 14th win of the year.
But, as is the case with all such games, Zimmermann’s no-hit bid was not without drama. With two outs in the ninth inning, Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich hit a screaming line drive into the gap in left-center field for what seemed a sure-thing double. But defensive replacement Steven Souza made a spectacular catch to preserve Zimmermann’s brilliant outing.
“He’s got it. He’s got it. It’s a no-hitter,” MASN play-by-play announcer Bob Carpenter screamed into his microphone in calling Souza’s heroic snag. As the 35,000-plus at Nationals Park stood for a sustained ovation, Souza and Zimmermann were mobbed on the field.
“Total domination, all day long, from Jordan Zimmermann,” color analyst F.P. Santangelo concluded, “and it ends on the most unbelievable play you can possibly imagine.”
“He probably couldn’t have been more out of position,” right fielder Jayson Werth said of Souza, “”I was just thinking to myself, `It is not optimal to be Steven Souza right now, because as soon as you come into the game, every time, the ball’s going to find you. I had a feeling something crazy would happen. But not that crazy, that’s for sure.”
“The one thing on my mind is, no matter how I’m going to get there, I’m going to get there,” Souza said of the play. “Getting there, I kind of blacked out.”
Zimmermann, meanwhile, could hardly believe what Souza had done. When Yelich hit the ball, Zimmermann thought he’d just seen his no-hit bid end in failure. “I don’t think anyone in the stadium expected Souza to get to that,” Zimmermann said.
Given how Zimmermann pitched, all the Nationals needed was a single run, which they tallied on an Ian Desmond home run in the second inning. The Nationals notched eleven hits off of Marlins pitching, all of them against Miami starter Henderson Alvarez.
The Wisdom Of Section
129 131: There are 162 games in a season, 81 of them at home. Of those 81, it’s possible to draw lots for perhaps 25 of them among a group of four season ticket holders. Add one or two here and there, and you have maybe 28 games that you can see. But if you’re stupid, or unlucky, you have to buy extra seats for the last game, because you drew wrong . . .
That’s the way it was for us in Game 162, but a push from CFG partisan Mike (“hey, it’s the last game, so what the hell, let’s go,” he said), and Shaaaazam, “the wisdom of Section 1-2-9″ turns into “the wisdom of Section 1-3-1.” For all of that, we might as well have been on Mars. Sitting ahead of us was a young woman nursing a baby and behind us was a family sporting Atlanta Braves jerseys . . .
“Where the hell are we, Bangladesh?” Mikey asked in the fifth inning. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, “we’re obviously in Atlanta.” The baby was cute, and just as he was about to wail, the young woman fed him, hiding herself modestly, and off he went to dream land. She turned and smiled, chagrined. “That special sauce,” I said, helpfully, “always does the trick . . .”
By about the 6th inning it was becoming clear that something special was happening, but no one around us was going to say anything. Two rows ahead, a young man was keeping score, and quite meticulously. I tapped him on the shoulder: “There was a walk, right?” He turned and smiled. “Yes, just one. Otherwise . . .” and thought twice about it and put his index finger to his lips . . .
In the 7th, Mikey motioned to the board. I nodded. In the 8th, which might have been the next time we talked, he added this. “People seem to be getting the idea.” The crowd was starting to stand at every strike out, line-out and ground out. And by the 9th inning at every pitch . . .
And all I could think was: “oh please, please, please . . .”
I texted my wife, who was some 75 miles away: “Oh, my God.” She told me later that she turned to a friend and showed her her telephone, with the text message. Her friend raised her eyebrows — what’s happening? “There’s a no-hitter. My husband is watching a no hitter . . .”
Mike repeated my text, unbidden, after two outs in the 9th. “Oh my God,” he said. “One more, just one more.” And when Yelich hit the ball you could hear the breath go out of the section, followed by a storm of ecstasy just a heartbeat later. The man who was keeping score, two rows away, turned around to look at me. “Cross it off your list,” he said . . .
“You ever seen one of these?” Mike asked. “Never,” I said, “and I never, ever, thought I would . . .” And one moment later, I against texted my wife, on cue: “I saw that . . .”
September 27th, 2014 / Author: Mark
Somewhere here soon, and actually any minute now, Nats skipper Matt Williams will tell the Washington sports press that he doesn’t care whether the Nationals face the Pirates (and, well, perhaps the Cardinals) or the Giants in the playoffs — “they’re both good teams.” That’s fine for Matt, but the rest of us should have a decided preference: Let’s play the Giants.
It’s not that we don’t like the Pirates (we love them, and if the Nats weren’t in the playoffs . . .), it’s that of the two teams that the Nats are likely to face in the playoffs first round, the Giants are (arguably) the easier opponent. They’ve had an inconsistent September (swept by the Padres and dumped by the Dodgers) and, with the exception of Madison Bumgarner (and Jake Peavy) their pitching is a mess.
The Giants know it. Having backed into the playoffs, Giants skipper Bruce Bochy is now juggling his starting staff to make certain San Francisco puts Bumgarner on the mound on Wild Card Wednesday, no matter who the Giants face. Which means that, if the Giants were to win, the Nationals would face either Ryan Vogelsong, Jake Peavy or Tim Hudson in the first game of the N.L. Division series — while Bumgarner sits.
San Francisco will enter the playoffs with the worst pitching stats of any of the five N.L finishers, with a so-so team ERA (at 3.52), a habit of giving up big runs to small teams and a back of the rotation that has been absolutely shelled.
The Giants lost to the Padres 4-1 last night at home, but gave up eight runs to them on Thursday, in a game the franchise said it had to win. Earlier in the month, the McCoveys were outscored by the Friars in a three game set, 16-2.
But our argument doesn’t have as much to do with the Giants as it does with the Pirates. Pittsburgh is red hot (they’ve won nine of their last eleven), their line-up is that much more formidable and their starting rotation is tougher than San Francisco’s. Pittsburgh is the N.L.’s big secret: they can hit, they can pitch, they’re patient at the plate and they’re fast.
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September 25th, 2014 / Author: Mark
The simple truth is this: if you write a story on your blog about the New York Yankees (even on a blog that is focused on the Washington Nationals), people will read it. Not just some people, a lot of people. Put simply: a lot more people are willing to read about the Yankees than about the Nationals.
How do we know that? Because we tried it. Earlier this season we posted a pic of a baseball card of Joe DiMaggio on CFG’s “Facebook” page and received five times as many views as a normal posting. Yes, it’s a “single data point” (as they say in Washington), but it’s compelling. But why?
“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” General George Patton told his troops during World War Two. “Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in Hell for a man who lost and laughed.” Patton’s right of course, which explains the appeal of the Gothams — and why people are paying so much attention, just now, to Jeter.
There’s no way to prove this, but we believe it’s true: if the Yankees had spent the last twenty years in last place, Jeter wouldn’t be getting the kind of attention he is now. And if the Yankees weren’t the Yankees (if, say, they were the Mets), they wouldn’t be America’s teams. The Yankee are the Yankees because they’re winners.
Yes, yes, yes. Of course. Jeter’s retiring and he’s had a great career, but we doubt if as many people would be paying attention to Jeter if he’d spent twenty years with the Astros, or even the Cubs. Face it: the Braves, Cubs and Dodgers (or anyone else, for that matter) aren’t America’s team, the Yankees are. And there are statistics to prove it.
Then too, it’s not as if Jeter didn’t have something to do with those five World Series rings he owns. We would even claim that while it’s likely that many, many baseball fans agree with what Keith Olbermann said the other day, people remain fascinated by him (and his Yankees) because . . . well, he’s a Yankee.
And, for the record here, in part, is what Olbermann said: “Contrary to what you have heard, Derek Jeter is not the greatest person in human history. He did not invent baseball, he did not discover electricity, he is not the greatest shortstop who ever lived.”
We agree with the gist of this, while noting that extolling the greatness of people is a current media fixation, a kind of art form. Talk show host Larry King once said that he thought there was no musician who ever lived who was better than Michael Jackson. One of the guests on his program furrowed his brow, shook his head — and offered this: “Well, there’s Mozart.”
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September 22nd, 2014 / Author: Mark
The Nationals completed an impressive four game sweep of the Marlins on Sunday afternoon in Miami 2-1, behind a strong seven inning outing from righty Stephen Strasburg. The Nats righty struck out five while giving up three hits and no runs, keeping Washington ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the race for the best record in the National League.
“Really important, a good road trip for us against some teams that has been playing well especially here in a place where they play very good at home,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said, following the victory. “We won some close ones and pitching was good, that certainly will keep you in any ballgame.
This was Strasburg’s 13th win of the year and, with just seven games left in the season (three against the Mets, four against Miami), the Washington ace seems to be peaking at just the right time. Strasburg threw 84 pitches, 55 of them for strikes. “Just have to keep the train rolling,” Strasburg said following his strong outing.
With Strasburg on his game, the Nats needed just two runs to subdue the Marlins, and got both of them in the top of the 5th inning on a lead-off double from Jose Lobaton, an RBI triple from Nate Schierholtz and an Anthony Rendon double to left. Washington victimized Miami starter Nathan Eovaldi, who gave up seven hits in six innings.
Washington’s bullpen once against provided a solid performance. Craig Stammen provided a no hit, no run 8th inning, while Rafael Soriano (making a rare appearance in a save situation), gave up a single run in preserving the Nationals victory.
Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: With less than a week to go in the regular season, now might be a good time to check this year’s attendance figures — which are down from last year. Baseball has drawn 155,000 fewer fans to this point this year than to a similar point in 2013, a relatively insignificant per game decline. Still . . .
Washington has contributed to this, with a fall-off of 1,065 fans per game. That’s a marginal difference and well in line with the standard in baseball, where attendance figures lag performance by a year. Given the Nationals run to the playoffs in the 2014 campaign, we can expect the team’s attendance to go back up in 2015 . . .
Not to worry. It was going to be difficult for the franchise to outdraw last year’s totals, which were the best since 2005, the Nationals first year in D.C. Then too, the franchise’s attendance figures continue to be solid, putting them just ahead of the middle of the pack in the MLB. They currently rank 12th in attendance per game . . .
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September 21st, 2014 / Author: Mark
Sloppy play and a slow start weren’t enough to deny the Nationals their 90th win of the season, or starter Jordan Zimmermann his 13th, as Washington rallied to edge the Marlins in Miami on Saturday night, 3-2. The win, coupled with a Dodgers loss against the Cubs, lifted the Nats 2.5 games ahead of Los Angeles for the best record in the National League.
Starter Zimmermann was once again the ace of the game, throwing six innings of five hit baseball while striking out four. The victory for Zimmermann marked the Nationals tenth consecutive win with “the Ace of Auburndale” on the mound. Zimmermann soldiered on after taking a pitch off his shoulder in the sixth inning — a dangerous line drive that threw ripples of fear through the Nats dugout.
“It happened so fast,” Zimmermann said, after the Nationals victory. “I saw the ball coming and thought that it was stopped. I just tried turning and lift my shoulder. I was lucky enough that it hit my shoulder and not my face. It’s a little sore, pretty tight right now but it will be fine. It’s not going to affect me.”
The victory also marked the return of third sacker (and, now, left fielder) Ryan Zimmerman, who had missed 55 games, to the line-up. Zimmerman’s contribution was immediate. The “face of the franchise” was 2-3 on the night, with a single (in his first at bat in the second inning), and a triple in the 7th that scored Ian Desmond. “It was fun to be out there and be part of the team and be out with the guys in a really good win,” Zimmerman said.
Miami scored a single run in the first inning on four hits, including an RBI single from rookie Justin Bour. The Marlins scored their second run in the fourth, after Reed Johnson led off with a double to center field. Denard Span retrieved the ball off the wall, but overthrew cutoff man Asdrubal Cabrera. Backing up the play, Jordan Zimmermann overthrew Anthony Rendon at third, which allowed Johnson to score.
“I knew I overthrew the first cutoff guy, but I thought the ball was gonna get caught,” Denard Span said of the unusual two error play. “I turned my head and all of a sudden I heard the crowd roaring. I was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ Next thing you know, he was rounding third.”
All of Washington’s runs were scored during a 7th inning rally that began with an Ian Desmond single. Desmond then scored on a Ryan Zimmerman triple, with Zimmerman then ruled out at home on a Wilson Ramos fielder’s choice. But second sacker Asdrubal Cabrera kept the inning going with a triple that scored Ramos. Cabrera, in turn, scored on a Denard Span single.
The three run 7th inning held up, with the Nationals bullpen closing out the game. Aaron Barrett and Tyler Clippard closed down Miami in the 7th and 8th innings, with Drew Storen keeping the Marlins off the board in the 9th (with the help of a game ending double play), notching his ninth save.
Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The Braves season was still alive last week, but their skid just goes on and on. Last night the Braves were upended in Atlanta by the suddenly dangerous Metropolitans, who shut out the Tomahawks, 2-0. Atlanta is 4-13 in the month of September. Which means that the Braves “tragic number” is two: if they lose today, and the Pirates win, the Braves will be out of the post-season . . .
“I thought we had good at-bats up and down the lineup,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, after last night’s loss. Really? The Braves were 2-10 with runners in scoring position. And. And don’t look now, but the Mets and Marlins have an outside chance of catching the Braves for second place in the National League East, which would just about do-in the Cobb County faithful . . .
And, ah, wouldn’t that be a shame . . .
Meanwhile, the Braves of the West (otherwise known as the Oakland Athletics) continue their imitation of a demolition derby. It’s getting really ugly, which means that it’s nearly impossible to avert your eyes. We tune in every night to watch the A’s, just so we can see how they’ll screw up this time. The A’s are 6-12 in September, and continue to find new ways to lose . . .
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September 19th, 2014 / Author: Mark
The pitching of southpaw Gio Gonzalez, timely hitting from left fielder Bryce Harper, shortstop Ian Desmond and second sacker Asdrubal Cabrera and a five run fourth inning propelled the Nationals past the Miami Marlins on Thursday night, 6-2 — as Washington continued their late-in-the-season dominance of the N.L. East.
Gonzalez notched his ninth win of the season, providing his sixth successive quality start in a row. The Washington southpaw dominated Miami hitting with a snappy fastball, while allowing six hits over seven innings and striking out five. This was the lefty’s third win in his last four starts.
“I just think he’s got a better feel,” Nats skipper Matt Williams said of Gonzalez’s recent success. “You look back to not too long ago, where his slot was a little bit off and he was losing control of the fastball up and away to righties. He didn’t have a feel for his curveball. But he’s got that back, which is important for him. If he can do that, he can roll through the lineup.”
The Nationals scored five of their six runs in the fourth inning off of Miami starter Brad Hand. The D.C. rally began with a Anthony Rendon single, who then stole second. With two outs, Wilson Ramos doubled, and Washington stroked four successive singles: from Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper, Asdrubal Cabrera and Kevin Frandsen.
“That’s the way we play the game,” Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond noted after the victory. “Why change now? I think it’s kind of ingrained in our minds now the way that we’re supposed to go out there and go about our business.” Rendon and Harper were the sparks for the Nats offense, with Rendon notching a two hit night, while Harper was 3-4.
“We had a big inning and Gio pitched well, kept them at bay, bullpen came in and shut it down, and it was an all-around team effort,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said. “A good win for us.” Craig Stammen and Rafael Soriano came on in relief of Gonzalez and shut down the Miami offense in the eighth and ninth innings.
“With this team that we’re playing, these guys are going to the playoffs, we’ve got to play perfect baseball,” Miami manager Mike Redmond said after his team’s defeat. “We can’t give extra outs. We’ve got to take advantage and we’ve got to score runs when we can, and we weren’t able to do that.”
Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We yak and yak about how great the Pittsburgh outfield is (with Marte, McCutchen and Polanco), but it might be that Miami’s is every bit as good — so long as Giancarlo Stanton is healthy and not recovering from an HBP in some Miami hospital . . .
Stanton is good enough to overawe everyone else in the game, not simply because he can hit (his final numbers on the season will be .288 with 37 home runs to go along with a .950 OPS, which leads all of baseball), but because he has a howitzer for an arm . . .
Because baseball is Stanton obsessed (prior to his injury, the hottest debate was whether he should be the MVP), we tend to overlook left fielder Christian Yelich and center fielder Marcell Ozuna. Yelich has been on fire since the All Star break, with a .316/.398/.394 slash line over 231 second-half at-bats. Yelich has had a solid year, with nine home runs, 54 RBIs and 89 runs . . .
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September 17th, 2014 / Author: Mark
The Baltimore Orioles defied the odds-makers, pundits and baseball analysts, sweeping to their first American League East title since 1997, with an 8-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Tuesday night. The victory gave the O’s a 91-60 record on the year, second best in all of baseball.
This is not where the O’s were supposed to be. As the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays retooled in the off-season (with the Yankees spending wildly to rebuild their outfield and pitching staff), the Orioles made do with a late signing of outfielder Nelson Cruz, a decision that brought nearly unanimous hoots of derision from baseball experts.
But the Orioles, who suffered in-season injuries to catcher Matt Wieters and All-World third baseman Manny Machado (as well as the suspension of home run powerhouse Chris Davis), mixed and matched and scratched their way to victory after victory, matching the third best ERA in the American League to the best long-ball hitting team in the majors.
But Baltimore’s pitching and hitting tell only a part of the story. The unsung hero of the O’s 2014 campaign might well be G.M. Dan Duquette, whose mid-summer moves kept the O’s alive when they should have been fading. Duquette shuffled players back and forth to Triple-A Norfolk, getting key starts from journeyman infielder Jimmy Paredes, trading for Bosox reliever Andrew Miller and then swapping two minor leaguers for Alejandro De Aza and Kelly Johnson.
Nearly all of this handiwork was on display in Baltimore last night. Paredes was 2-3 with an RBI while playing third, De Aza stroked a triple and notched three RBIs, Miller provided a two-batter bridge to Tommy Hunter who pitched the 9th, Steve Pierce (released, then re-signed by Duquette back in April) hit his 18th home run of the season — and the O’s laughed their way to an 8-2 victory.
But this is hardly the trash heap O’s. Baltimore boasts perhaps the best outfield in baseball, as well as one of the American League’s favorites for MVP. Cruz, De Aza and Pierce hold down left field, steady veteran Nick Markakis is in right and potent and potential MVP Adam Jones mans center. Nelson Cruz is the DH, and he has 39 home runs on the year — best in the junior circuit.
And then there’s Buck Showalter, now the favorite to win the Manager of the Year Award, not least for shaping (with Duquette) the almost famous “Baltimore Shuffle” — the up-to-the-majors, down-to-Triple-A moves that have characterized the team’s handling of the pitching staff all year. Somehow, it’s all worked out.
And here’s how: Wai-Yin Chen (the underrated Japanese import) is 16-4, Miguel Gonzalez has won seven of his last ten outings, Chris Tillman has been brilliant (a 3.29 ERA and 1.22 WHIP), and the Baltimore bullpen has the fourth best ERA in the American League.
And last night Buck Showalter handed the ball to the up-and-down Ubaldo Jimenez, an unusual act of confidence in a starter who’s been inconsistent — at best. And how did Jimenez react? He threw an improbable five innings of two hit baseball.
“You get older, you want to get a good angle and a good seat and see good people get a return for what they put into it and what they’re trying to achieve,” Showalter told the press after last night’s clincher. “And this is a huge step, to get a chance now. We’ve got to figure out a way to win 11 games.”
Which is to say: in our opinion, the always-underrated O’s are not simply the best team in the fast eroding American League Least, they’re the class of the American League — and our pick as the team to beat in the post-season.