The July 4th as well as 81-game benchmarks pass and the Nationals are in first place of the NL East.  Are we printing playoff tickets?  While there are those that will throw out the “63.8% of teams with a lead over 4 games on Independence Day…” postulate, it’s encouraging that this club bounced back from a rough series loss to Atlanta (IT WAS FOUL!  IT WAS FOUL!) to sweep the defending World Series champs.  And not just sweep but outscore the Giants 14-5.  Gems by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann sandwiched Saturday’s hit parade that featured first inning fireworks from Michael Taylor (leadoff home run) and Bryce Harper (2-run HR with a patriotic bat).  Sadly like any picnic that features incredible hamburgers and fantastic hot dogs, there was seven layer dip that spoiled in the sun:  Stephen Strasburg heads back to the Disabled List with a strained oblique.  Rinse and repeat…

Dissecting the Division– the New York Mets begin this week 4 and a half games behind the Nats…and visit San Francisco before coming home for three games with Arizona.  Both teams are hovering around the .500 mark.  Atlanta’s 6 games off the pace– with the opportunity to make up ground.  The Braves final seven games before the All Star Break may be on the road…but they’re against last place teams Milwaukee and Colorado.  Miami and Philadelphia? Enjoy the sushi and cheesesteaks…

Division to Watch– just up I-95 the AL East is tighter than a Tom Jones jumpsuit.  Two games separate the top four teams (sorry, Boston) with the Orioles, Tampa Bay, New York Yankees and Toronto all showing possibilities and limitations on a nightly basis.  Can this rollercoaster race sustain itself over the dog days of summer?  It’s not unusual to have a race this close…

Last Week’s Hero– while Bryce Harper continues his monster season (1.137 OPS), Clint Robinson led the team with 2 HR and 4RBI.  His homer Friday night was the difference.  Robinson’s also walking (13-10 BB to K ratio over the last 30 games).  With at bats available in the absence of Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, he’s made the most of his opportunities in the outfield and at first base.

Last Week’s Humbled– Calvin Coolidge is the new racing President?  Okay, I know he was the Chief Executive when the Senators won the World Series…but seriously.  His second most famous quote (after “the business of America is business”) was “I do not choose to run”.  Worse than the 300-pound William Howard Taft huffing and puffing in the outfield we now have a man known for saying little and running less.  Plus the mascot looks more like Coolidge’s predecessor, Warren G. Harding.  Nothing like the Teapot Dome Scandal to ruin the middle of the 4th inning…

Game to Watch– Saturday in Baltimore Jordan Zimmermann pitches against Miguel Gonzalez.  Two 7-5 pitchers who are both coming off solid starts.  A chance for whichever team won Friday night to lock up the series…so their fans can taunt the other team’s faithful all day Sunday.  Crab cakes with extra Old Bay.  Bring it, hon…

Game to Miss– By default, one of the games with Cincinnati.  Monday‘s matchup between  Doug Fister and Anthony DeSclafani is less than compelling…and there’s an interesting reading at Politics and Prose.  Harvard Professor James Wood discusses his recent work, “The Nearest Thing to Life”, which “explores the beauty and the power of the art of reading”.  Here’s your chance to be well-rounded, kids…

The Nationals eight-game winning streak ended Sunday evening thanks to an 8-5 loss in the second half of a doubleheader.  It was a true doubleheader–two games for one ticket–even though the Nats lineup has had a split-squad feel to it as of late.  Friday’s lineup card included Tyler Moore, Matt den Dekker, Clint Robinson and the quick substitution of Dan Uggla for an injured Yunel Escobar (nothing like replacing the replacement).  Anthony Rendon’s return to the disabled list smacks of 2014 when Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman combined to play 161 games.  Just last week Harper missed 3 games while Denard Span (who began the year on the DL) missed a pair as well.  This when added to the month-plus remaining on Jayson Werth’s stay on the Disabled List, it’s amazing they were able to put together 25 runs over their 6 games last week.  A total that ties the team with Cincinnati for 20th in the Majors.  Thank goodness the Nats’ highly touted rotation threw zeroes on the board for almost a week.

Dissecting the Division– the Nats lead the NL East by two and a half games over the New York Mets–who have gotten hot again (4 straight wins) after giving up the division lead last weekend.  Atlanta ended its five game losing streak with a win Sunday–and stands six games back.  Miami and Philadelphia now that both teams have new managers are officially looking forward to 2016.  And you thought the Presidential election cycle was drawn out…

Last Week’s Hero— Stephen Strasburg came off the Disabled List with a bang– striking out 6 over 5 innings against Atlanta Tuesday before notching a season-high 9 K’s over 7 frames Sunday at Philadelphia (his longest outing since April 19th against the Phillies).  He looks a lot more like the pitcher that lead the NL in strikeouts last year than the guy who had trouble reaching the 5th inning earlier this season.  The key to the new Strasburg might not be his throwing mechanics or his approach to hitters but the fact he shaved his goatee.  Do not underestimate the power of facial hair (or lack thereof).

Last Week’s Humbled– HISTORY IS MADE on the Nats Notebook!  The first non-National wins the award, and with just cause:  Philadelphia‘s a massive mess of a franchise.  Not only do they own the worst record in the majors, their manager jumped ship (will they replace Ryne Sandberg with Ivan DeJesus for nostalgia’s sake?  Would they have to send Sandberg to Chicago with Larry Bowa to complete the circle?) before the weekend (he must have a sweet cookout planned).  The team despite rain in the forecast for Saturday tried to play the 3:05 game (last week’s “Game to Miss”)–and burned Nats starter Gio Gonzalez’s turn in the rotation.  The lefthander pitched one inning before the game was called–creating Sunday’s doubleheader and rotation scramble.  After all, the Phillies were mad that the Nats played “soft rock” during their batting practice in DC this year…if “Holding Back the Years” puts you in a mindset to miscalculate rainouts, you’re missing the point of the power of Simply Red.  I’ll keep…holding on…

Game to Watch– Saturday at 11:05 am Stephen Strasburg pitches against San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner.  Fourth of July.  A morning gametime so you don’t have to skip the pool/bbq/cookout festivities.  Will Strasburg continue his post-DL resurgence?  Bumgarner comes to DC after striking out 8 over 7 and 2 thirds innings in a win over Colorado–and he’s also a beast with his bat:  since the start of 2014 he’s hitting .250 with 6 HR and 18 RBI over 50 games (19 and 58 projected over a 162 game season).  This should be a fun duel in the midday sun.

Game to Miss– so many intriguing matchups.  Every Max Scherzer start is must-see.  One can’t deny the excitement of Fister-Wisler II (“This time it’s Personal”) and the opportunity to enjoy seltzer and salsa at the same time.  I’m curious how Gio Gonzalez bounces back from essentially missing a start–even though Jake Peavy is a shell of what was once a shell of his former self (0-2 with a 9.39 ERA).  That leaves the reliable Jordan Zimmermann– and I’m not missing his duel with Shelby Miller and his 1.94 ERA Tuesday night.  That leaves Sunday’s matchup with San Francisco’s Ryan Vogelsong.  Looks like I’m hiking Teddy Roosevelt Island that day.

Let’s begin this week’s edition with proper deference to the masterpiece that was authored by Max Scherzer Saturday:  WOW.  A near-perfect game.  A complete game for the second time in less than a week (the bullpen is sending Scherzer thank-you notes).  In that heat, too (let the record show Scherzer switched shirts in between innings).  Seven year deals are always tricky things and for all we know Max will be a shell of his former self come 2020–but it’s nice to see a big pickup pay off this early into the deal.  Can’t wait for his next start…

Lost in the glare of the no-hitter and the heatbomb that exploded in DC over the weekend was a sweep of a pretty good Pittsburgh team (even after the brooming the Bucs own the second best record in the National League).  Not just a sweep, mind you–but a 19-3 smackdown.  And the team’s first series win since late May (at the Cubs right before getting swept by Cincinnati).  All of a sudden the preseason favorites find themselves atop the NL East;  Atlanta drops by the district this week fresh off their series sweep of the Mets.  Can the Nats create a cushion?

The Bat is More Powerful than the Hamstring– Thursday’s loss to Tampa Bay saw a collective gasp at Nats Park when Bryce Harper went down with a strained hamstring.  The team’s already missing their #3 and #5 hitters (Werth and Zimmerman) and has had to play without their projected leadoff and #2 hitters (Span and Rendon).  If Harper’s hamstring had been a serious injury…look out.  Instead the rightfielder’s back in the lineup and enjoyed another solid week (6 homers and 18 RBI).  He now ranks second in homers and RBI is tied for the Major League lead in walks.  Don’t worry about him potentially going to the Yankees in 2018 or whenever…enjoy the now.  Because it’s pretty incredible.

Last Week’s Hero– Max Scherzer went through the Pirates lineup like a blowtorch through butter…earning a chocolate syrup bath and NL Player of the Week honors.  He’s eaten up innings (ranking and now leads the majors with a 1.76 ERA.  Also contributing to a 5-2 week was Michael A. Taylor;  the outfielder hit .360 while scoring 9 runs and playing solid defense in center and left (his grab Saturday at the wall preserving the no-hitter as well as the shutout).  He actually walked 3 times last week–and that’s a start.

Last Week’s Humbled– Ian Desmond hit .182 while committing another error (giving him 15 for the season).  June has not been kind to the shortstop (.143, 1 walk and 25 strikeouts).

Game to Watch– A first ever THREE WAY TIE.  Tuesday against Atlanta Stephen Strasburg is slated to come off the disabled list.  I want to know if the time in sick bay helped the man who led the NL in strikeouts last year return to form.  Friday Max Scherzer pitches against Aaron Harang in Philly–Scherzer could be going up against Rudy Stein of the Bad News Bears and I’d watch.  But Thursday the pitching matchup is Doug Fister for the Nats against the Braves Matt Wisler.  A Fister-Wisler matchup has the Seinfeld “seltzer-salsa” comedic potential.

Game to Miss– Adams Morgan is an acquired taste for many in and around the beltway.  It’s a great place to go–until all of a sudden you realize you haven’t visited that neighborhood in years.  Saturday at 3:05 Gio Gonzalez starts against rookie Adam Morgan.  Gio pitched well Sunday against Pittsburgh (scattering 4 hits over 7 scoreless innings) but as of this moment he’s the guy in the rotation who moves the needle the least.  Plus–a 3:05 road game means bailing on the pool.  Not going to happen…as long as I have sunscreen.

A split never tasted so sweet.  Max Scherzer’s complete game one hitter that featured 16 strikeouts Sunday against Milwaukee was pure mastery– and Exhibit A for upcoming free agents (Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg) who wonder what it takes to merit a 210 million dollar contract.  Max’s Masterpiece (T-shirts coming to a store near you) was huge for a limping offense that ranks 22nd in the Majors in hitting and 19th in runs scored.  The 4-0 shutout of the Brewers keeps the Nats one half game behind the New York Mets–who have gone from surprising to sustainable.  Sixty plus games is not a fluke–and while one things the bottom could drop out of the little Big Apple team that could, they appear to be in this NL East race for the long haul.  It’s a division that’s ripe to be taken– the Nationals are the only team with a positive run differential (+2) and there’s a ton of baseball to be played. 

 

Danny’s New Glove– after speculating about potential position changes regarding the team’s hot-hitting infielder, Manager Matt Williams moved Espinosa not to the leftfield but 90 feet to his left.  The Nats newest first baseman went 2-for-10 with one run scored in two games at first…let’s see how he settles in.  In the meantime, there’s always a chance the catchers get hurt so perhaps Danny should take some defensive work behind the plate.

 

Last Week’s Hero– Scherzer’s 16 strikeouts while tossing one-hit ball remains the early season pitching standard.  It also snaps a two game losing streak and somehow obscures Bryce Harper hitting .529 with 2 homers and 5 RBI.  Harper sat out Sunday after being hit by a pitch in Saturday’s win…one hopes he doesn’t become a trending target.

Last Week’s Humbled– Ian Desmond went 1 for 21 at the plate…but the low for the shortstop last week was his throwing error in Tuesday’s game with the Yankees that plated the go-ahead run.  Fourteen errors isn’t ideal–but it feels as though each one comes at a crucial moment.

Game to Watch– Friday against Pittsburgh.  Max Scherzer follows up Sunday’s outing by facing A.J. Burnett–who’s posting an ERA of 1.89 through 13 starts this year.  The Pirates are coming off a sweep of Philadelphia that involved a pair of 1-0 shutouts…and are currently in 2nd place of the NL Central.  They’d lead the NL East.

Game to Miss– Monday or Tuesday in Tampa Bay.  WORST BALLPARK EVER!  Plus, there are NHL and NBA Playoff games to deal with.  And no more Joe Maddon in the Rays dugout.   Like the departure of John McKay from the Buccaneers in 1984, Tampa’s team–win or lose–is just a lot less interesting minus their white-haired field general.

How does “That’s Life” go again?  “Flying high in April–shot down in May”?  The Nationals were flying high in May but got shot down during June’s first week– going 2-5 and losing two more series (running their slide to three straight after winning nine series in a row).  The offense that hummed (ranking 5th in hitting and 7th in runs scored) last month hit a few bumps;  hitting .237 (23rd in majors) and scoring 2.57 runs per game (27th).  While the pitching has also slipped somewhat (team ERA from 16th in May to 22nd this month, opponents batting average from 17th to 21st in June) the flat bats remain the major early culprit.  

You want to put your best bats in the lineup every day while limiting one’s defensive deficiencies…but with the triumvirate of Michael A. Taylor, Tyler Moore and Clint Robinson combining to hit .204 with 3 walks and 14 strikeouts last week one wonders if Sunday’s substitution of infielder Danny Espinosa into leftfield is an isolated incident or a realistic option.

Now that Anthony Rendon’s healthy (after missing the first 53 games of the season with knee and oblique issues) and Yunel Escobar (.325 and on pace to score 84 runs) remains productive, at-bats are beginning to shrink for Espinosa.  That’s a shame because he’s actually having a productive season:  Espi’s second on the team in homers and walks while he’s currently tied for second on the team in runs scored.  As a switch-hitter, he’s fared much better against lefties (.375) than Taylor (.172), Moore (.105) or Robinson (0-2).  Do you put an infielder in the outfield for the next two months while Jayson Werth heals and rehabs?

Last Week’s Hero– Jordan Zimmermann was the leader in the clubhouse until he coughed up 4 runs over 5 innings Sunday.  Instead, it’s back to Bryce Harper (1.012 OPS).  Two major differences over his first 56 games of 2015– patience and power.  Harper’s 48 walks are 13 shy of his career high (over 118 games in 2013) while his .706 slugging percentage outpaces his career high by over 200 points.  Keep the kid healthy…

Last Week’s Humbled– Ryan Zimmerman went 1 for 18 with 1 RBI, was moved to 2nd in the batting order and sat multiple games with a foot injury.  While he remains on pace to hit 14 homers with 97 RBI…they can ill afford his bat drying up with Werth on the DL.  Here’s hoping the extra days off gets Zim back on the right track.

Game to Watch– Tuesday at the New York Yankees.  Max Scherzer is 6-4 with a 1.85 ERA…while Masahiro Tanaka is 3-1 with an ERA of 2.76.  Alex Rodriguez is enjoying a career resurgence.  And there’s no better stage than the bright lights of the Bronx.

Game to Miss– Friday at Milwaukee.  The Brewers pitch Mike Fiers (2-6, 4.06 ERA) while the Nats will likely continue to try to hold their rotation together with duct tape and rubber bands:  Joe Ross (5.40 ERA), A.J. Cole (5.79) and Taylor Jordan (8.44) may represent the future– but the present is less than ideal.  Also Friday– the Women’s World Cup continues with Team USA facing Sweden.  If you’re going to skip a Nats game, do so to support your country.

Love & Mercy premieres Friday with an in-depth look at the Beach Boys Brian Wilson.  Actually–two looks: Paul Dano plays the Wilson of the 60’s that’s about to lose himself thanks to LSD and John Cusack plays the shattered Wilson of the 80’s. The Beach Boys began as a teenage collection of three brothers, one cousin and a high school buddy catching a ride on the surfing music wave but became so much more…and then so much less.

Five Songs that capture the band’s highs and lows…:

“I Get Around”– the perfect marriage of Mike Love on the verses and Brian Wilson on the choruses.  The energy whips you through 2 minutes and 12 seconds of making every light and changing lanes at just the right time.  You’re left wanting to hear the same song–again and again.  No wonder this was the group’s first #1 hit.

“In My Room”– fantastic harmonies about being isolated.  Brian paints a fantastic picture of isolation.  Despite having a tight circle of family and friends…he often felt the need for solitude and the eventual alienation it resulted in  He often knew he was out of step (“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from Pet Sounds)…and here he shuts the door for his own comfort.

“When I Grow Up to Be a Man”– instead of driving fast cars or catching faster waves, the no-longer teenagers focus on “what’s next”.  How will they adjust to the demands of adulthood?  No answers are offered, only more questions (“will my kids be proud or think their old man’s really a square?”).  Brian wrote background vocals that from the second verse on count up “14,15…” through the rest of the song, reaching “30, 31…” in the fade-out.  If only we could get back to “30, 31…”

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”– it wasn’t a #1 hit like “Good Vibrations”…nor was it revered like “God Only Knows”.  But the first track of Pet Sounds set the bar high for the group’s most-famous LP…who else could get away with the lyric “happy times together we’d be spending”?  The Beach Boys at their best were all about possibilities—and this song has Brian on the threshold of happiness.  Even if he never got there, the idea that he could—was pretty nice.

“Kokomo”– hey.  Jefferson Airplane/Starship has their “We Built this City”.  Reduced to a nostalgia act and minus Brian (still under the spell of Eugene Landy) and middle Wilson brother Dennis (the drummer drowned in December 1983), Mike Love combined with a who’s who of 60’s acts (Mamas and the Papas John Phillips, Byrds producer Terry Melcher and “Going to San Francisco” singer Scott McKenzie) to write an insipid tune.  “Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya–Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama”.  They even had Full House actor John Stamos playing bongos in the video.  Instead of rightfully vanishing, the tune stuck and was in the movie “Cocktail”.  Reached number 1.  Brian didn’t sing on the song– although he did contribute vocals to the Spanish-language version.  Even better…

There’s nothing like a collapsed souffle to end a fantastic meal.  How did we go from what was a magical May to the clunker that was last weekend?  Not only losing a series for the first time since April…but getting outscored 21-9 by a Cincinnati team that was spiraling (9 losses in 10 games) towards the NL Central cellar?  The offense that had broken through in May was held to 3 runs a game while hitting .222 against a Reds pitching staff with the 5th highest ERA (2nd highest in May).  The bullpen that was stout for the most part over the previous 47 games coughed up 14 earned runs over 11.2 innings against Cincinnati lineup that scores the 4th least runs in the majors (that’s a 10.20 ERA for those without a calculator).  Stephen Strasburg pitched one inning before going to the disabled list while Bryce Harper missed Saturday’s loss after being hit by a pitch Friday.  Heading into the series most in and around the beltway were sad to see May come to a close–now everybody’s ready to move on.

Strasburg’s Status–  Well…that escalated quickly.  After being limited to less than 5 innings in three of his last four starts, #37 was lifted Friday after pitching to five batters.  Neck tightness is the official reason he went on the disabled list…while some are saying it’s trapezius trouble and others claim it’s a by-product of a spring training ankle injury.  Hopefully he’ll return in two weeks ready to go.

Werth’s Replacement Rotation– Michael A. Taylor started all three games over the weekend in left field– going 2 for 8 with 2 runs scored and 5RBI, accounting for 77% of the team’s production at Great American Ballpark.  Taylor moved to centerfield late yesterday when Tyler Moore pinch-hit for Denard Span (striking out) and went into leftfield.  Moore flied out as a pinch-hitter Saturday evening in his only other at bat during the series.  Clint Robinson went 2 for 6 with a run scored over the weekend…starting in rightfield Saturday for a banged up Bryce Harper while getting pinch-hit opportunities in the other two games.

Last Week’s Hero– Tanner Roark won his first start of the season and tossed 11 innings over two outings despite not being fully in starter form, posting a 2.45 ERA with a K/BB ratio of 4-3.  To top things off he also performed at the plate–notching the highest OPS of the week (1.250), going 2 for 4 with a double.  Sadly, his hit Sunday was 50% of the team’s total.

Last Week’s Humbled– the bullpen trio of Casey Janssen (0-1, 18.00 ERA), Aaron Barrett (0-1, 20.25 ERA) and Matt Grace (0-1, 54.00 ERA) came up short over the weekend.  The pitching staff shell game had to come up empty sooner or later with Doug Fister already on the DL and Stephen Strasburg reaching the 5th inning just once over the last month.  Tanner Roark’s infusion into the rotation thinned out an already taxed bullpen–and Strasburg going just 1 inning Friday was the domino that started the slide.  Good thing the next two night’s starters (Jordan Zimmermann and Max Scherzer) both average over 6 innings per game (Scherzer currently ranks 4th in the majors).

Game to Watch– Monday against Toronto (7:05 first pitch on 1500am).  Jordan Zimmermann takes his 4-2 mark to the mound against former NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.  Who’s ready for the Dickey’s knuckleball?  Feast or famine…but always fascinating.  Meanwhile, Zim has been solid as of late (2-0, 1.35 ERA with a 17-5 K/BB ratio over last three starts).  Plus, it’s a reunion of former Canadian rivals.

Game to Miss– Wednesday the Nats look for somebody to fill in for Stephen Strasburg–and the likely candidate is A.J. Cole from Triple A Syracuse.  He’s made one major league start–allowing 9 earned runs over 2 innings (granted, this was the game where the Nationals rallied to win 13-12 so this may be a good thing he pitches).  Regardless, Mark Buehrle pitches for the Blue Jays;  at 6-4 he’s one of the few pitchers to notch a decision in every start so far this year.  Plus, the NHL Finals begin in Tampa.  Playoff hockey…

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