The Nats enter the All Star break as the hottest team in the Major Leagues, having won 28 of 39 to move into the Wildcard lead.  But are they that far removed from the team that started 19-31?  Despite taking four of six, the bullpen that was leaky over the first two months still had issues over the weekend.  And despite the cosmetic changes, the relievers’ ERA remains a big league-worst 6.06 while their 18 blown saves is tied for second-most in the majors (behind the flammable Mets).  While getting a healthy lineup (at one point the second through fifth hitters in order were on the Injured List) was a big factor in the team’s turnaround, it didn’t hurt that they’ve built momentum while facing a slew of sub-.500 teams.  When they come back from their midseason hiatus, they’ll face Philadelphia (one-half game back for the Wildcard lead), while division leading Atlanta and the Los Angeles Dodgers also loom later this month.  It’s a long way to October.  But the road looks much more pleasant than it did a month and a half ago.

Digesting the Division- Atlanta after a 4-2 week leads the NL East with a 54-37 mark as they’re well-represented at the All Star Break by Freddie Freeman, who’s batting .309 with 23 HR and 68 RBI, and Ronald Acuna.  The Nats are 47-42 and six games back while leading the Wildcard.  The #2 Wildcard team is Philadelphia at 46-43 after a 3-3 week; J.T. Realmuto heads to Cleveland on the strength of his 10 homers and 42 RBI.  The New York Mets may be 40-50 but they possess the Home Run Derby champ in rookie Pete Alonso, who also has 30 HR at the break.  The Marlins? At 33-55 they’re on track for another 100-loss campaign despite the solid pitching of All Star Sandy Alcantara.

Harper’s Weekly- a .292 week moves Bryce over the .250 mark, and he’s on pace to hit 29 HR with 112 RBI-although for the record he’s played more than 150 games just twice in his career.  He’s also cutting down on his strikeouts-the pace of 189 is no longer league-leading.

O’s Woes- finally an extended run of success.  The Birds won three straight games last week and have won five of nine to improve to 27-62 (.303-or on a 49-win pace).  John Means (7-4, 2.50 ERA) represents the Orioles at the Midsummer Classic.

Last Week’s Heroes- Max Scherzer struck out 11 over seven scoreless innings while going 1-2 at the plate with a stolen base.  Stephen Strasburg K’d 14 over 7.1 scoreless frames.  Patrick Corbin tossed 14 scoreless frames. Sean Doolittle notched two wins plus one save in relief.  Ryan Zimmerman hit .429 with a pair of RBI while Juan Soto hit .333 with four RBI and four runs scored.

Last Week’s Humbled- Yan Gomes hit 1-for-11 while Matt Adams batted 1-for-10 with five strikeouts. Jonny Venters and Fernando Rodney suffered hiccups out of the bullpen while Austin Voth allowed four runs over 4.1 innings in his third Major League start this year.

Games to Watch- Friday, Saturday and Sunday the Nats face the Phillies.  Max Scherzer is already ticketed to pitch the series finale, and one can easily see Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin starting the Friday and Saturday games in some order.  A potential Wildcard Game preview?  I’ll be locked in for all three.

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The team that entered June nine games under .500 (and Memorial Day 12 games under) finds themselves with a winning record at the start of July–no small feat. The Nats’ 18-8 mark turns the All Star Break conversations from “who should they trade for prospects?” to “can this ridiculous run continue?” and cools off the seat of Manager Davey Martinez considerably.  One major factor in the Nats resurgence was the return to form of three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer: the 1-4 start with an ERA of 4.08 on May 1 was merely a mirage.  The Scherzer we saw in June went 6-0 with an ERA of 1.00 while notching 68 strikeouts to five walks.  He’s notched three straight wins while sporting a black eye from his broken nose to go with the naturally blue and brown ones.  And once again we have to remind ourselves that perhaps the best pitcher of this generation calls Washington, DC his home.  His next start at home is Saturday.  Guess which game I’ll be focusing on below?

Dissecting the Division- Atlanta (50-35) owns a five and a half game lead over second place Philadelphia (44-40) while the Nats (42-41) are seven and a half off of the Braves’ pace. But the story this week is the Melting Mets (38-47) have lost 14 of 20 and their bullpen makes the Nats’ issues miniscule. Was that back to back to back to back blown saves against Philly?  Did Manager Mickey Calloway compare himself to Billy Martin when it came to conduct?  And for the record, I don’t believe Martin hit a member of the press–it was a marshmallow salesman.  To top things off, while honoring the 1969 Miracle Mets the franchise saluted those on that team who had passed away–and tipped their caps to a pair of men who are still living.  Remember the “Natinals”?  The team that shot sausage sandwich showers on fans during misguided promotions?  Nook “What was he thinking?” Logan?  These Mets are those Nats.  Enjoy.

Harper’s Weekly- the former face of the franchise hit 7-of-26 to bring his batting average back to .250. His 15 homers and 59 RBI put Bryce on a pace for 29 & 114.  His strikeouts are down (relatively) as his 101 K’s translate to 195 for the season. And after feasting on the Mets, the Phils aren’t taking water anymore.  For the moment…

O’s Woes- well, they did take two of three from Cleveland.  The first series victory since late April puts the Birds at 24-60 (they lost Monday’s series opener to Tampa Bay).  That their pitching has been a problem is a massive understatement (the 5.74 ERA is the worst in the majors), and the grasping at straws portion of the season includes paying cash to Cleveland for Indians minor leaguer Asher Wojciechowski (8-2 in 15 starts at AAA Columbus) as well as starting rookie Thomas Eshelman (who wears #83, a number that doesn’t inspire longevity) Monday against the Rays.  The Orioles need to go .500 (39-39) in order to avoid another 100-loss season.  They’re currently playing under .300 ball.

Last Week’s Heroes- Max Scherzer didn’t just have a great month: he wrapped up a dominant June with two more spectacular starts, going 2-0 while striking out 24 without issuing a walk.  He also went 2-for-3 at the plate and scored twice.  Did we mention he was voted NL Player of the Week?  Patrick Corbin pitched well in his start while Fernando Rodney, Tony Sipp and Jonny Venters tossed scoreless outings of relief.  Anthony Rendon (along with Scherzer the Nats’ other All Star representative) hit .320 with five RBI and six runs scored.  Matt Adams drove in six while Juan Soto notched eight walks and drive in four.

Last Week’s Humbled- Brian Dozier hit .174.  With Ryan Zimmerman coming off of the Injured List, one can see Howie Kendrick’s starts getting moved to the middle of the infield.  Already feeling the crunch is Michael A. Taylor, who finds himself in AA Harrisburg and hasn’t been the same since Dusty Baker was fired.  Relievers Tanner Rainey and Javy Guerra both posted ERA’s over 20.

Game to Watch- not only is Max Scherzer pitching for the final time before the All Star break, but Saturday’s game will have the Nats wearing powder blue Expos uniforms to honor the 50th anniversary of the start of the franchise.  This will be nice.

Game to Miss- Sunday Patrick Corbin pitches against the Royals, while the Women’s World Cup holds its final. From Team USA’s 13-0 trouncing of Thailand to the nailbiting win over host nation France, this has been one incredible month for the US.  Can they deliver a win over England and a trip to another Final?  One thinks yes.

Things were going oh so well.  A sweep of Philadelphia. A gritty one-run win over first place Atlanta in the series opener.  And then an 8-4 lead after six innings Saturday where Anibal Sanchez didn’t necessarily shine but pitched well enough.  Unfortunately, “bring on the bullpen” is now the four most dreaded words inside the Beltway.  Trevor Rosenthal issued three walks before Tanner Rainey allowed a bases-loaded pass.  And then a three-run double.  While the Nats retook the lead in the eighth, Joe Ross returned the favor by allowing an RBI double and a three-run homer.  Instead of taking two in a row against the division leaders and reaching .500 for the first time since April 23, the Nats wind up falling 13-9 and then go on to lose a series for the first time since May 23.  Instead of an 8-2 or 7-3 jumpstart the season homestand, the 6-4 stretch will have to suffice.  And midseason looms with the Nats now three games under .500.

Dissecting the Division- the Braves now have a six and a half game lead after taking two in a row in DC, while Philadelphia (seven straight losses) is fading at 39-38.  The Mets (37-41) are losing games and winning disdain after Manager Mickey Callaway’s confrontation with a Newsday beat reporter, followed by pitcher Jason Vargas getting after said reporter as well.  Don’t sleep on the last place Marlins, who may be 15 games back but just swept the Phillies.  Before you know, it’ll be 2023 and they’ll be in contend-mode.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce went .263 this past week while seeing time leading off for the slumping Phillies.  He’s now hitting .248 with 13 homers and 52 RBI (projecting to 27 and 109), and for the first time in a while his projected strikeouts total is under 200 (198 as he has 94 over 77 games this year).  Unfortunately, it’s tough to drive in runs from the #1 spot-but sadly he’s the only viable option atop the order for the Phillies at this time.

O’s Woes- the Birds come home from a 1-6 roadtrip and are now 22-56, meaning they’d need to play nearly .500 ball (41-43) to avoid a 100-loss season.  Last week they optioned pitchers David Hess and Dan Straily to AAA Norfolk;  the disastrous duo had posted a combined 3-13 record over 31 starts while allowing 42 homers and posting an ERA of 8.39.  This week the O’s host San Diego-and former face of the franchise Manny Machado.

Last Week’s Heroes- Victor Robles hit .444 with two homers while getting hit by two more pitches (he’s been hit by pitch 12 times this year, tied for second most in the majors). Juan Soto hit .476 with seven RBI.  Sean Doolittle saved a pair of games while tossing three scoreless innings. Max Scherzer struck out 10 over seven innings with a broken nose and a black eye (I have an idea what his 2020 bobble-head will be). Wander Suero tossed four scoreless innings over four games.

Last Week’s Humbled- Trevor Rosenthal’s days are done as a National after allowing three walks without recording an out Saturday; despite his scoreless third of an inning Friday in the win over the Braves the free agent pickup leaves DC with an ERA of 22.74.  Tanner Rainey posted an ERA of 9.82 while Joe Ross allowed four runs in his lone inning of relief.  The top of the order has had issues lately, with Trea Turner batting .250 and Adam Eaton hitting .200.

Game to Watch- like we’re going to pick a non-Scherzer start after last week’s black eye/broken nose gem.  Number 31 pitches twice this week, and is slated to go Sunday at Detroit for the first time since he left the Tigers to sign with the Nats.  He’s also pitching against the guy made superfluous when Max came to DC: Jordan Zimmermann. The last time these two pitched against one another Scherzer struck out 20.  It’s Max See TV.

Game to Miss- Wednesday Patrick Corbin pitches against Miami, but closer to home it’s the Democrats against the Republicans in the Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park.

Half-full or half-empty?  How do you view the last week where the team went 3-3? The 2019 season continues with the Nationals splitting a pair of series against the Chicago White Sox and Arizona.  Not ideal, but after their string of 11 wins in 15 games, somewhat acceptable.  This week the stakes get a little higher as they take on the top two teams in the NL East-beginning with four games against Philadelphia before hosting division-leading Atlanta on the weekend.  At 33-38 and 7.5 games off the pace, the Nats can ill afford a poor showing here.  They’ll be almost 50% through the regular season slate when the Braves leave Sunday, and while they’re almost assured of wrapping up the homestand under .500 it would be a nightmare to be double digits off the pace.  And given the way things turn on a dime in DC, not completely out of the realm of possibility. Buckle up…

Digesting the Division- Atlanta takes a two and a half game lead at 42-30 and the Braves have won nine of ten. They’re also getting free agent pickup Dallas Keuchel to bolster a pitching staff that currently owns the tenth best ERA in the majors.  Philadelphia’s dropped five of seven to slide towards the pack, and the Phillies’ run differential has shrunk to +6.  The New York Mets (34-37, 7.5 GB) remain the driver who can’t find a parking spot on the P1 level, losing three of four at home to St. Louis.  Miami has lost eight of ten and at 25-44 isn’t competing with the Nats, Mets, Phillies and Braves as much as they’re scoreboard-watching with the Orioles–for the first pick of 2020.

O’s Woes- Bad days for the Birds.  A twelfth straight series loss (they haven’t won a series since late April).  A sweep at the hand of the defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.  This week the team is far from Baltimore–and just as far from successful. At 21-50 they’re 22.5 games back in the AL East. Although they are one game better than last year’s 47-115 club at this time.  And while the team is no longer allowing more than two homers per game, they’re still on pace to cough up over 300 this year.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce batted 4-for-20 (.200) while striking out eight times.  While he’s still on pace to post 27 HR with 112 RBI, Harper’s 91 K’s keep him on track to break the 200 mark. But, Harper is hitting .321 against the Nats this year. And he comes back to DC this week with the proverbial chip on his shoulder.

Last Week’s Heroes- Matt Adams made his mark on Father’s Day, belting a grand slam as well as a three-run homer (the best drive of the day was by his dad, Jamie, who came down from Pennsylvania–I hope he didn’t take the Turnpike); Adams hit .308 for the week. Howie Kendrick batted .400 while scoring seven runs and Trea Turner had an on base-percentage of .448. Kurt Suzuki drove in eight runs.  Max Scherzer struck out ten for the fifth time this year and the 87th time in his career, while Javy Guerra notched five scoreless innings over three appearances.

Last Week’s Humbled- Patrick Corbin has been sliding.  In his last three starts, the lefthander is 0-3 with an ERA of 11.37.  He had a rough outing against the White Sox (7 runs over 5 innings).  Kyle Barraclough had an ERA of 20.25 for the week before landing on the Injured List while Wander Suero struggled in spots.  Brian Dozier is hitting .211 and could be the odd man out whenever Ryan Zimmerman is healthy enough to return, as his at-bats at first base will move Howie Kendrick to second more often.

Game to Watch- Wednesday the Nats host Philadelphia with Max Scherzer squaring off against a former Nationals prospect for the second time in a week:  Nick Pivetta (dealt in the trade for Jonathan Papelgon) is 4-1 with an ERA of 5.00 over eight starts this year. It’s the semi-pivotal third game of the series.

Game to Miss- Saturday Patrick Corbin pitches against Mike Foltynewicz in prime time.  Both starters have hit snags in the early season:  while Corbin’s dropped three straight decisions Foltynewicz has an ERA of 5.53.  Stay late at the pool–which closes at 8 p.m. even though it stays light until nine this month. Really?

So they didn’t win their series in San Diego. But back to back wins Saturday and Sunday preserve a split, and four consecutive homers in the victory at the Padres in the series finale give the Nationals hope.  Despite being under .500 over 40% of the way into the regular season, this team is finding its stride recently.  After winning four series over the first two months, the club won four straight series entering their split in San Diego.  Yes, the bullpen has issues-especially in the eighth inning.  But the season is far from over-and the Nats are far from irrelevant.

Dissecting the Division- Philadelphia is far from fading, but the NL East leaders at 37-28 have lost six of ten and remain just one game ahead of Atlanta.  The Braves have won three in a row while moving within one game of the Phillies.  The New York Mets have won two straight and stand five games back while the Nationals at 30-35 remain seven games off the pace.  Miami at 23-40 is all aboard for 2025.

Harper’s Weekly- the former face of the franchise hit .280 last week with one RBI over 25 at bats, and is now batting .251 with 11 homers and 44 RBI-or a pace of .27 & 109 over 162 game season.  His 83 strikeouts keep him on a pace of 206 for the year-and Harper was caught stealing home over the weekend.  Is it 2030 yet?

O’s Woes- the Birds dropped four of six and at 20-65 remain on a pace of fewer than 50 wins. It’s one thing to be 20.5 games out of first place in the AL East; it’s another thing to be more games out of first than you have wins.  But the O’s glass is sometimes half-full, and this week it’s in the form of Pedro Severino:  the catcher is hitting .277 with 8 HR and 18 RBI over 37 games this year-after swatting four home runs in 105 games played with the Nationals. Must be the AL ballparks.

Last Week’s Heroes- Stephen Strasburg went 2-0 while notching his 100th career victory, and Max Scherzer struck out nine over seven innings while snapping a two game losing streak Saturday in San Diego. Tanner Rainey tossed 3.2 scoreless innings over four relief appearances.  Howie Kendrick hit .350 with six RBI and a team-high six runs scored, while Anthony Rendon drove in a team-high 8 RBI and Trea Turner belted a walkoff home run (his first HR since breaking his finger in April) to salvage their sweep of the White Sox.

Last Week’s Humbled- Juan Soto hit .190 while Yan Gomes batted .214.  Gerardo Parra and Michael A. Taylor went hitless in limited action (Parra had seven at bats while Taylor had four at bats).  Relievers Sean Doolittle and Kyle Barraclough posted 6.75 ERA’s while Doo surrendered the game-winning hit Friday in San Diego.

Game to Watch- Friday Max Scherzer pitches against Robbie Ray, as the current ace faces the former Nats prospect that was dealt some time ago.  No time to ask “What if?”- it’s time to ask “What now?”.  Let’s find out…

Game to Miss- Sunday Anibal Sanchez pitches against the Diamondbacks, and while Sanchez has been more than sharp since returning from the Injured List Sunday is the final day of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.  Tiger Woods may have won on that course in 2000, but Brooks Koepka is going for his third straight title-a feat not accomplished since 1905.  I’m headed to the couch… 

 

Out of the ashes from a Memorial Day meltdown against Miami, the Nationals won four of five to all of a sudden win three straight series for the first time all year.  Two series wins on the road. Add in a dominant performance by Max Scherzer (15 strikeouts over eight innings Sunday) and all of a sudden there’s hope.  Despite being seven games under .500. Despite having a bullpen that looks leaky at best. Despite an offense that has been known to underwhelm this year.  But in a division where the leaders have lost four in a row, anything goes.  Four games against the White Sox, four against San Diego and four against Arizona (three teams hovering around the .500 mark) before they face Philadelphia and Atlanta later this month.  Can this be the start of something?

Dissecting the Division- Philadelphia’s four-game losing streak brings the NL East leaders back to earth.  Despite losing both games to the Nats last week, Atlanta’s just one game out of first place thanks to a 16-12 road record (best in the division).  The Mets are 28-31 and five games off the pace while the Nats are seven back at 26-33.  Miami’s printing “2024 contender” T-shirts as we speak.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce is back. The former face of the franchise hit .417 with two homers with nine RBI for the Phillies, bringing his total to .248 with 11 HR and a team-high 43 RBI on the season. Only five strikeouts last week increases his total to 78 over 59 games played (the pace decreases to 214 for the year).  Even though his team is hiccuping, it’s not his fault.

O’s Woes- the Birds own the first overall selection in the 2019 draft, and it appears as though they are on track to repeat the feat next year. The team’s 18-41 mark is the worst in the majors and the same mark they had after 59 games in 2018.  They’re also on pace to allow 334 home runs-which would almost lap the previous mark.  I had a chance to catch Saturday’s loss to the Giants, and while Camden Yards remains a ridiculously great place to watch a game only 19,000 people were on hand to watch a 4:05 game (so there’s no “too early” or “too late” excuses for those who stayed away).  A big chunk of those fans were wearing the orange of the visiting team.

Last Week’s Heroes- Howie Kendrick went 7-for-14 at the plate while driving in five,  Juan Soto scored a team-high nine runs and Anthony Rendon hit .350.  Max Scherzer struck out 21 over 14 innings in his two starts, while Stephen Strasburg K’d 11 over seven frames.  Adrian Sanchez came off of the Injured List to toss six scoreless at the beginning of the roadtrip.

Last Week’s Humbled-  Patrick Corbin-after tossing a complete game in his previous outing-returned to earth by allowing six runs over four innings in a loss to the Reds.  Kyle Barraclough and Kyle McGowin both had issues getting outs.  Adam Eaton hit 1-for-16 while Victor Robles and Yon Gomes posted sub-.200 weeks.

Game to Watch- Sunday Stephen Strasburg goes home, pitching at San Diego.  He’s enjoying a sneaky-sharp season and will either be pitching for his 100th career win or making his first start after reaching that mark.  The Padres counter with Chris Paddack (4-3, 2.40 ERA) in what shapes up as the best pitching matchup of the series.

Game to Miss- Friday Eric Fedde gets his turn against Matt Strahm (10 earned runs over his last 10.1 innings).  It’s the least compelling showdown with a 10 p.m. start to boot.

In light of the eight-way tie (really, an eight-way tie?!?!) at the National Spelling Bee- “Yes, I’d like to spell the word. R-E-S-O-L-U-T-I-O-N’. We dig back into the archives…

Previously appearing on May 30, 2009 on “Preston’s Perspective Blogspot Page”

You always think there will be another opportunity…the excitement of an improbable run often leads one to believe it’s the beginning of something special–and I thought a certain final four appearance would be the beginning of a dynastic run. Unfortunately, sometimes you don’t know when it’s merely a one-shot deal.

Am I referring to the Denver Nuggets appearance in this year’s Western Conference Finals? Georgia Tech’s lethal weapon three that reached the Final Four in 1990? The Seattle Seahawks improbable run behind Curt Warner to the AFC Title game in 1983? Not exactly…I’m referring to my final four appearance in the Fifth Grade Spelling Bee.

The National Spelling Bee takes center stage this week…and just like athletics one has the thrill of victory (this years winning word for Kavya Shivashankar was “laodicean“)…the agony of defeat ( “maecenas” was the word that eliminated second place finisher Tim Ruiter)… with stall tactics (“origin?”…”pronunciation?”…”root”) that would make Dean Smith’s four corner offense appear up-tempo–I was hoping a judge would simply reply “just spell the damn word!”

My one shining moment? In the fifth grade I somehow advanced to the final four at Memorial School in Bedford NH. The fact I even qualified for the finals was an upset in and of itself; similar to the era of one-bid conferences in the NCAA basketball tournament–there were only automatic bids for each homeroom… and in my class stood the UCLA of spellers–defending 4th grade champion Matt Butterick. On his way to Harvard and retiring before the age of 30, somehow he forgot a “c” in excited.  We’re talking on the level of that year’s NCAA Tournament when #1 seeds DePaul and Oregon State lost in the round of 32.  All of a sudden there was a huge window of opportunity for the rank and file spellers of Ms. Mullen’s class.  On another note, I don’t know if there’s any truth to the rumor his loss like Maryland’s to NC State in 1974 spurred the inclusion of at-large qualifiers in future bees.

What followed instead of a glorious march to victory was an ugly battle of attrition…as runner up Mary Bradley and I kept misspelling words with the other unable to spell the next one correctly to wrap things up–like two punch-drunk fighters in the 14th round we staggered towards stupidity. Somehow I survived and advanced– I was NC State two years before Jimmy V cut down the nets–and I’m just thankful I didn’t run around Miss Mullen’s class looking for someone to hug.

The Finals would pit all nine home room winners during lunch recess…and like Syracuse playing the East regional in Albany I had somewhat of a home classroom advantage–the bee was held in Miss Maitland’s room where I took Social Studies–right next door to Mullen’s. I knew the feel of the carpet on my feet…the smell of the chalkboard…the acoustics of the room and how my voice echoed as I spelled words out…this was going to be the start of something special.

Slowly other automatic qualifiers were eliminated…and then there were four:  Dennis Mays, Chris Poppenga, Dave Proulx and myself. Proulx drew “kindergarden” and spelled it “kindergartan”.  The word then came to me-and I quickly slamdunked the word by saying “-den”.  I was ready to make my move! Bring on vacuum and serendipity-but wait! “Kindergarten”? It’s spelled “Kindergarden”–right? What the hell’s a “garten”? Years later I look back and realize I should have asked country of origin… 

Postscript–Dennis Mays wound up winning on “shepherd”…and I turned into the Spelling Bee’s version of the early 80’s DePaul Blue Demons… big on regular season reputation while suffering ridiculous upset postseason losses in future years  (“conferance”, “onamatapea” and “Krzyzewski” my downfall)… so my advice to the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers–yes, you’re both young and represent the future of the Eastern Conference as well as the league– but you never know the size of your window of opportunity until its closed like the enrollment date to a private kindergarten.