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PORTIONS ORIGINALLY POSTED July 8, 2019.

The Nationals received their World Series rings this week-with a near-major error. Series MVP Stephen Strasburg noticed the box his ring arrived in had his name spelled incorrectly. For those who recall the days of “Natinals” on Ryan Zimmerman’s jersey and the team store once sold “Teddy Rosevelt” dolls, this wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility.  Thank goodness the ring was engraved correctly–that’s much harder to change than writing on a box.  At this time last year the Nats had just moved into the Wild Card lead at the All Star break.  Let’s see how they got there.

As always, 2020 thoughts to things written in 2019 are in boldface italics.

 

“Breaktime!”

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.

For the record, they’d go 2-1 against Philadelphia, 1-2 against the Dodgers, and 3-4 against the Braves in July.  Not ideal, but not deadly.

 

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.

Believe it or not, the Mets would boast an NL East-best 46-26 mark after the break (the Nats were 46-27).  Meanwhile the Marlins would not disappoint, going 24-50 after the hiatus.

 

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.

Bryce would bat .270 with 19 homers and 52 RBI in 67 games after the break (that prorates to 45 & 125 over 162 game seasons) while the Phils would play 34-38 ball the rest of the way.

 

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.

The Birds would win 27 games after the break to finish 54-108.  Means would post a 5-7 mark with a 4.85 ERA to fall back to earth after a great start.

 

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.

Yes, Max stole a base.  Something we’re going to miss this year with the DH in all games.

 

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.

Jonny Venters?  The random guys who pitched for this team last year boggles the mind. The 34-year old lefthander wouldn’t appear in a Major League game after the All Star break.  And Fernando Rodney was walking the tightrope between looking mahvelous and needing a little respect.  Thank goodness for 80’s comedy.

 

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.

I’m looking forward to checking out those box scores.

 

 

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The Washington Nationals were originally going to hand out World Series rings Sunday, May 24 in a virtual ceremony.  While that is no longer the case, the date chosen was rather fitting as that’s when the surge up the standings began for a 19-31 team that would finish 93-69 before continuing its magical march through October.  And although the team was confident they’d turn things around eventually, it’s more than reasonable for those covering the team or rooting them on from the cheap seats (and not-so-cheap suites) at Nats Park to have given up on the hometown team.

I’ve been covering the Nationals’ home games on a regular basis the last six seasons, anchoring afternoon sportscasts from the ballpark before providing updates during the game that evening.  I’ve dealt with Game Five losses and late summer meltdowns, witnessed hot bats become frigid in October and see untimely injuries become costly in the NLDS.  But I never had to deal with a team ten games under .500 in DC-and that’s exactly what I had last May.  Due to injuries in the lineup and ineffectiveness in the bullpen, the team that had won four division titles in seven years was on pace to lose 100 games after getting swept in a four game series by the New York Mets on May 23.

Since 2015 I’ve written a weekly “Nats Notebook” for prestonsperspective.wordpess that explores the highs and lows, the big picture and minutiae.  These are excerpts from last year’s “Nats Notebook” on the way to Memorial Day.  They provide a bit of a road map as well as highlight who was doing well and who wasn’t on a week by week basis.  Enjoy with retroactive comments in italics.  Because sometimes hindsight isn’t always 20-20; sometimes it turns out to be 93-69.

 

April 2nd–Too Early for a Freakout?

The calendar reads “2019”…but for many the first weekend of this season felt like last year’s 82-80 journey to nowhere.  From stranding runners to bad base running to questionable bullpen use to wasting a solid Max Scherzer start, the season opener had it all. Saturday’s loss doubled down on all of that with a subpar Stephen Strasburg start followed by a bad bullpen outing.  Thank goodness Trea Turner hit a walkoff home run in Sunday’s win, otherwise we’d have a winless last place team facing first place Philadelphia.  Along with a familiar face.  Please tell me it’s only April…

Last Week’s Heroes- Max Scherzer strikes out 12 while allowing two hits over 7.2 innings and Sean Doolittle K’s a pair while tossing 1.2 scoreless in Sunday’s sweep-averting win.  Trea Turner bats .385 with two homers while Victor Robles hits .455.

Last Week’s Humbled- Robles also had an error in Saturday’s loss and his base running blunder helped keep the Nats off of the board in the season opener.  But at least he’s hitting- Brian Dozier began the year 0-for-10 while Juan Soto has seven strikeouts in his 12 at bats.  Trevor Rosenthal has allowed five runs while not recording an out over two appearances.

Rosenthal would live in the land of infinity before finally recording an out in his fifth appearance April 10.  This was the same time that Orioles slugger Chris Davis was oh-for-the-season.  I maintain that if they faced each other during this stretch, the universe would have imploded.

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April 8– “One Bad Bullpen”

Beware the Bad Bullpen. Shaky setup men and closers in crisis are the perfect way to undo five-plus solid innings of work from your rotation.  Eight games into the season, the Nats bullpen ranks last in the majors with an ERA of 10.80.  While last week one was reminded of the 2018 season’s sloppy base running and bad defense, this week one recalls how bad the bullpen was during the first half of the 2017 season.  And this is April- with multiple off-days early in the season.  Can this bullpen get itself together before it’s too late?

Last Week’s Heroes- Anthony Rendon hit .474 with 4 homers and 7 RBI, while Ryan Zimmerman drove in 5 runs.  Stephen Strasburg tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to start their series against the Mets, Sean Doolittle threw 2.2 scoreless frames over three outings and Max Scherzer tallied 16 strikeouts over 11.1 innings.  Max also gave himself a lead for the first time all year by driving in a run Saturday.

Last Week’s Humbled- Trevor Rosenthal remains in the land of infinity, allowing 2 more earned runs while walking 3 more over two games.  Joe Ross in his 2019 debut allowed a 3-run homer while getting one out Sunday.  For those doing the math, that equates to an earned run average of 81.00.  Tony Sipp’s ERA for the week was a robust 27.00, while Matt Grace and Wander Suero also have double-digit ERA’s.  At the plate, Victor Robles and Brian Dozier are both hitting .133 to start the season.  While neither is expected to carry this team offensively, the loss of Trea Turner to a broken finger for the next 4-8 weeks makes every out sting a little more.

Bryce Harper’s return to Nationals Park was less than ideal for the team he left, as the former face of the franchise went 5-for-10 with 3 RBI in his first series back.  Throw in losing offensive sparkplug Trea Turner, and early April was not awesome in DC.

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April 15– “Whirlwind World”

What a week it was.  From Virginia winning a first-ever men’s college basketball National Championship (Kippy & Buffy are celebrating with a bottle of 2009 Chateau Lynch-Bages) to the Capitals taking a 2-0 first round playoff series lead over Carolina to Tiger Woods winning the Masters to Game of Thrones’ final season premiering, there’s been a lot to experience.  Amidst all of that the Nationals went 3-3 to remain .500 on the season.  One series win that could have gone the other way followed by the exact opposite.  But who’s watching?

Last Week’s Heroes- Howie Kendrick in his return to the roster hit 7-of-11 with 2 homers and 4 RBI.  They missed the Swiss army knife a ton last year.  Anthony Rendon hit .360 while driving in 8 runs.  Adam Eaton scored a team-high 7 runs.  Patrick Corbin struck out 11 over seven innings in his only outing while Kyle Barraclough (1.2 scoreless innings) and Sean Doolittle (3.2 scoreless) kept the lid on things.  Trevor Rosenthal after living in the land of infinity notched his first out of the season.

Last Week’s Humbled- Ryan Zimmerman hit .167 while Wilmer Difo batted .143.  Stephen Strasburg was touched up for 6 earned runs over 4 innings of work.  Tony Sipp allowed 2 runs in one inning.

Amazing how sports works out. The Cavaliers trailed in every game during their NCAA title run and needed crazy rallies to get to overtime in the Regional Finals and Championship Game.  And that doesn’t include the three free throws with 0.6 seconds left against Auburn in the National Semifinals.  But just as the Cavs go up, the Caps come down as they’d lose four of five to end their title defense on a cold April night.

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April 22– “Sunburned”

So much for getting fat on the last place Miami Marlins.  The Nats visited the one team in the NL East that could be accused of not really trying in 2019 and lost two of three.  And now once again the team finds itself at .500; they were 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9 and now the club many thought would fight for the NL East is 10-10.  Granted, not having Trea Turner is a major blow to the offense and the bullpen is only beginning to put together outs consistently.  But the longer this team stays in second gear, the longer one feels they’re going to be second-tier. 

Last Week’s Heroes- Adam Eaton hit .364 while Matt Adams batted .333 with two homers and six RBI.  Ryan Zimmerman homered twice in Sunday’s win over Miami.  Patrick Corbin struck out nine over seven innings in his only start while Stephen Strasburg K’d 11 while tossing eight scoreless innings in Sunday’s win at the Marlins. Relievers Kyle Barraclough pitched three scoreless outings while Tony Sipp tossed two scoreless frames over three appearances.

Last Week’s Humbled- Max Scherzer had a rare rough outing, coughing up six runs over 5.1 innings at Miami. Austen Williams allowed two homers in two outings and has an ERA of 162.  Yes, it’s a very small sample size but…ouch.  Juan Soto did walk five times last week but hit .200 primarily batting third and fourth.

There’s a Seinfeld episode where “everything evens out” for Jerry, and that’s what the early season felt like for the Nats.  Meanwhile the rogues gallery of relievers gave nobody long-term confidence in the bullpen that would eventually rank 29th in the majors.

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April 29– “The Future is Wow”

On the week that the NFL took center stage with its Draft Party Celebration Extravaganza, it was only fitting that the Nats looked to their youngest players in Sunday’s rally from six runs down to beat San Diego in extra innings.  The 7-6 win in ten innings may have been won by Matt Adams’ walk-off homer, but Carter Kieboom, Juan Soto and Victor Robles helped force extras with home runs of their own.  It’s the first time in Major League history that a trio of teammates under the age of 22 homered in the same game.  And while there are plenty of issues facing this team at this time, one can at least look to the next generation making their mark now.

Last Week’s Heroes- Carter Kieboom provided an instant spark, homering in his first career game Friday night before going yard Sunday.  Juan Soto hit .308 and led the team with 8 RBI while Matt Adams batted .333 and had the sweep-averting homer against the Padres.  Erick Fedde tossed four scoreless innings after getting called up from the minors while Max Scherzer struck out 10 to move past the 2,500 plateau.

Last Week’s Humbled- Trevor Rosenthal had one rough outing against Colorado:  he threw three wild pitches and hit a batter while allowing three runs.  Jeremy Hellickson allowed 10 earned runs over eight innings, while Wander Suero went 0-2 with an ERA of 16.88.  Adam Eaton hit .217 while Victor Robles batted .214 with one walk and eight strikeouts.  Not what you dream about atop the batting order.

I had a chance to interview both Carter Kieboom and Erick Fedde this past February at Spring Training.  Fedde was fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation and while his extra year of options was originally going to keep him in the minors an expanded roster this summer may play into his favor. Conversely, Kieboom’s lack of regular reps the last two months could seriously stunt was going to be his growth into the starting role at third base.

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May 6– “Still Trying to Take Off”

Add Juan Soto to the growing Nats’ Injured List.  And Matt Adams.  And–potentially Michael A. Taylor.  And–for a few hours–the flight from Philadelphia to Milwaukee–the team’s charter plane.  Not to mention their pitching coach:  sayonara Doug Lilliquist, welcome Paul Menhart.  The Nats aren’t just minus their opening day #2 through #5 hitters, but they’re also without their best bat off the bench (who had been forced into a starting role) and potentially their best defensive outfielder (we await the moment when Taylor is put on the IL).  Not helpful in the early season when one has yet to find itself.  The team that had issues getting away from .500 (nine times in April) is now taking serious water (losses in 11 of their last 16 games).  And their gauntlet of playoff teams from last year continues with trips to Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

About that Delay- during a season where the team was expected to contend yet is five games under .500 in early May, it’s only fitting that the team flight had trouble taking off as well Sunday.  The Nats boarded their team charter at 6:30 p.m. but mechanical issues kept them on the tarmac for eight hours. They finally deplaned at 3 a.m. (wondering when the peanuts ran out) and went back to their hotel before flying later in the morning.  On a trip where there are no off-days, this was beyond not ideal.  Fire up the espresso machine in the visitor’s clubhouse.

Last Week’s Heroes- Kurt Suzuki hit .462 with three homers and five RBI while Howie Kendrick hit .348. Sean Doolittle notched a pair saves while tossing 2.1 scoreless innings and Kyle Barraclough threw three scoreless frames over three appearances.  Stephen Strasburg reached the 1,500 strikeout milestone by whiffing nine over 6.2 innings in a sweep-averting victory against St. Louis.

Last Week’s Humbled- Joe Ross allowed seven earned runs over 0.2 innings (94.50 ERA for those without calculators) while Matt Grace posted a 10.38 ERA.  Carter Kieboom suddenly looked like a rookie while hitting 2-for-23 while Michael A. Taylor went 0-12 with five strikeouts before injuring his wrist.

The flight delay was going to be one of those things that becomes symbolic of a lost season.  The change of a pitching coach seemed to make sense, as a staff that boasted quite a bit of talent ended April with the fourth-highest ERA in the NL.

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May 13– “Wandering Out West”

The Nats’ ten-game road trip is now in their rear-view mirror.  The 3-7 finish was less than ideal but not as disastrous as it could have been.  From getting swept in Milwaukee to getting shut out twice in Los Angeles.  From a comedy of errors in the field against the Brewers to a silent outing by the bats in almost getting no-hit by the Dodgers.  This team returns to DC a little healthier (Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto are both back) but far from full-strength.  And just as far from successful:  they’ve not won consecutive games since April 18 and have had just a pair of two-game winning streaks.  Things won’t get any easier as they face fellow NL East contender New York and the NL East-leading Cubs.  Can things get turned around by Memorial Day?

Last Week’s Heroes- Patrick Corbin ended the team’s four game losing streak by tossing seven scoreless innings while Max Scherzer struck out 17 over two starts, winning for the first time in over a month.  Newcomer Gerardo Parra hit a grand slam in Saturday night’s win while ending a no-hit bid by the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu Sunday afternoon. Howie Kendrick’s homer helped the Nats snap the slide, and he led the team with seven RBI last week.

Last Week’s Humbled- Anthony Rendon came off the injured list and hit .136 with seven strikeouts.  He’s not alone-as none of the regulars hit over .250 last week. The catching combination of Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki went 1-for-25 with 10 strikeouts.  Jeremy Hellickson allowed six runs over four innings of work while Kyle Barraclough and Matt Grace each posted a 13.50 ERA.  That of course pales in comparison to Dan Jennings’ 40.50 blemish.

Hello Gerardo Parra!  He was hitting .198 for the Giants when the Nats picked him up, and what an acquisition for the Nats.  Even with the “Baby Shark” earworm.

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May 20– “Maylaise” 

Another week, another slate of games where the Nationals were alternately inspiring and frustrating.  The team that started slow (12-16 on April 30) is now 7-11 in May, has lost nine of 15 series (with two splits in the mix) and has dropped 13 of 15 series openers. After winning their first series in almost a month, the Nats went out and turned a 5-4 game in the eighth inning against the Cubs into a 14-6 nightmare.  With Miami’s sweep over the weekend of the Mets, the Nats are now the only team in the majors without a three game-winning streak.  And there’s no possible way this team will be over .500 on Memorial Day.  Could there be a crisis of confidence in DC?

Last Week’s Heroes- Gerardo Parra continues to be the hero the Nats need, hitting .500 with a homer and 3 RBI.  Anthony Rendon is also hitting his stride, batting .435 while scoring eight runs and driving in seven.  Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin each won their starts while allowing one earned run over eight innings.

Last Week’s Humbled- one rough week for Jeremy Hellickson, who goes 0-2 with an ERA of 9.00. Relievers Dan Jennings, Justin Miller, Kyle Barraclough and Matt Grace all post double-digit ERA’s-with Grace’s 15.43 the big number of the week.  Catcher Yon Gomes (now .206 on the season) continues to struggle with an 0-11 week.

I want to say I never said “malaise”, but “crisis of confidence”.  Fans of former President Carter will back me up.

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 27– “A Tale of Two Series” 

It was the worst of times–and the best of times last week. Well, actually–not the best because it’s tough to celebrate wins over the NL East’s AAA team.  But you get what I mean. And just remember the Nats lost two of three to Miami last month.  Nothing like three wins to put some wind back in the team’s sails and give one hope as they cross the first marker of the Major League Marathon (July 4th & 31st plus Labor Day are the other three of note-it’s not like Golf’s Majors where there’s a fixed set- some include the All Star Break as well).  The bullpen remains beyond as bad as anyone feared it might be (the team allowed 49 runs in the eighth inning over the first 50 games of the season) and its ERA has spiked to a mind-boggling and save-blowing 7.25.  As the Nats wind down May they find themselves closer to last place (4.5 games ahead of Miami) than first (nine behind Philadelphia). They entered their eight game stretch against the sub-500 Mets and Marlins with conventional wisdom being the Nats could/would/might win five or six to jump back into the race.  Entering the series finale with the Marlins they need a win just to break even.  Thank goodness the schedule continues to stay semi-soft in June.

Last Week’s Heroes- Juan Soto hit 13-26 with 2 homers and 8 RBI, while Juan Gomes batted .400 with 5 RBI.  Anthony Rendon remains red-hot, scoring a team-high 8 runs while driving in 5 more.  As it’s Rendon’s walk year, the longer this team remains sub-.500 the louder the whispers of trading Tony Two Bags will get.  Patrick Corbin tossed a complete game Saturday (just what the beleaguered bullpen needed) and Max Scherzer tossed six shutout innings earlier in the week.  Matt Grace pitched two scoreless innings over three games. Somebody check his temperature.

Last Week’s Humbled- rookie James Bourque made his major league debut Sunday, allowing 4 earned runs over two-thirds of an inning. He’ll have no issues fitting in here.  The usually sharp Sean Doolittle coughed up a three-run double and a three-run homer to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Just to show it’s not just a bullpen thing, Kyle McGowin allowed five runs over four innings in his start Friday.  Trea Turner hit .212 with six strikeouts while leading off and Victor Robles batted .200.

I remember losing power in my building the day the Nationals lost their matinee to the Mets.  That felt appropriate as the Nats had just gotten swept by their NL East foes, coughing up leads in three of the four games.  And even though they bounced back with three straight wins over the Marlins, they’d find a way to blow a late lead on Memorial Day.

 

 

 

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The Nationals boast one of the best rotations in baseball, and that’s thanks in large part to the four horsemen (profiled on these pages entering last year’s World Series).  But there’s no turning the clock back to 1975 when four-man rotations were the rule, meaning somehow this team is going to need 30 or so starts from somebody.   It’s a thankless job, because while it’s difficult to make the playoffs without a reliable fifth starter most teams trim their rotations to four in the playoffs due to the off-days.  And by definition the fifth starter isn’t necessarily going to be awesome;  otherwise they’d be the fourth starter.

Teams go about finding number five in one of two ways nowadays: they sign a veteran (sometimes off of the scrap heap) like the Nats did with Jeremy Hellickson in 2018 or go with prospects who might be a little green like last summer when Erick Fedde (12 starts), Joe Ross (nine starts), and Austin Voth (eight starts) split the role.  That’s the trio that will be under Manager Davey Martinez’ microscope over the next month. “Joe-two years removed from surgery, he’s completely healthy-he looks really good. Fedde, I watched throw today- threw the ball really well and Voth also threw the ball well,” Martinez said. “When we break camp one of them is going to be the fifth starter.”

Joe Ross has been in this role before. The 26-year old made 23 starts for the Nats in 2016 and was the beneficiary of ridiculous run support (the team averaged 9.15 runs in his 13 startes) the following season before suffering a torn elbow ligament.  After Tommy John Surgery, Ross returned to make three appearances in 2018.  He then split time with the Nats and AAA Fresno in 2019,  and made three appearances in the postseason (0-1 with a 7.45 ERA over 9.2 innings).

Austin Voth went 3-3 with a 3.30 ERA over eight starts (four in September) and nine appearances before shoulder tendinitis helped keep him off of the World Series Roster (he was active for the NLDS and NLCS but didn’t make an appearance).  The University of Washington product and former fifth round pick is healthy and ready for the audition.  “Honestly it’s just going to come down who pitches the best in Spring Training,” Voth said. “I know there’s a lot of other things that go into that, but for me I’m just focusing on what I can do put myself good position to make the ballclub.”

Erick Fedde made 12 starts and 21 major league appearances in 2019, posting an ERA of 4.50 which was a slight improvement over his 2018 (5.54 over 11 starts).  The former first round pick does have one more year of options; in a rule that smacks of Faber University’s “Double Secret Probation” if a player uses up all three years of options before his fifth professional year, he gets a fourth year of options.  What is Davey looking for from Fedde? “Consistency. Strike one. Finishing hitters. He had hitters last year 0-2, took him three or four pitches to finish hitter,” Martinez said. “Look at Max and Stras, and they try to finish hitters on four pitches all the time. I’d like to see him do that.” The fact that Fedde has another potential year of minor league flexibility while Voth and Ross do not could color the competition in March.  But the 27-year old is focused on what he can control. “I just finished up my first live BP,” Fedde said Thursday. “It’s good to see some hitters in there. You really find out what your stuff looks like when you see some swings. That’s a really good starting spot. Things are feeling great- I’m excited and ready to compete for a spot.”

The competition began last weekend with the first of 31 games before they leave Florida.  “I want them to go out there and just keep building of what they did last year,” Martinez said. “They’ve all showed that they can pitch in the big leagues; just go out there and pitch with confidence, relax and just do your thing.”

 

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A bad dessert can wipe out a great meal.  Last year the Nationals relief corps almost shut down the season before it began. The bullpen ERA of 5.66 was the worst in the majors and their 29 blown saves was the second-highest total in the big leagues.  Even in the team’s postseason run the team was aided by relief appearances from starters Stephen Strasburg (three scoreless innings in the Wildcard win), Max Scherzer (one scoreless frame in the NLDS Game Two victory), and Patrick Corbin (five appearances including three scoreless innings in Game Seven of the World Series).  So manager Davey Martinez has his work cut out for him in 2020.

He starts with a solid base:  Sean Doolittle saved 29 games in 2019 and was an All Star the previous season, Daniel Hudson went 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA and six saves after joining the Nats in a midseason trade, and Will Harris posted a 1.50 ERA in 60 innings over 68 games last year with Houston. “Those guys are going to be the constants in the back end of the bullpen, but with that being said you got (Tanner) Rainey who has pitched in the playoffs and the World Series for us,” Martinez said. “you got (Wander) Suero who did a good job and ate a lot of innings for us.” Suero led the team with 71.1 relief innings in 2019.  Harris is the new kid in town with the Nats becoming his fourth major league team.  The former Astro tries to put his finger on what makes a bullpen’s whole greater than the sum of its parts. “I think it’s having a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things has produced the best results,” Harris said. “Having guys that can pick one another up and do different things to help kind of dissect and navigate a lineup.”

Veteran Javy Guerra posted an ERA of 4.86 over 40 games last season for the Nationals while tossing two innings over three frames in the World Series.  “I think for the most part we collectively sat in that room and believed in each other,” Guerra said. “The numbers are the numbers…but we controlled everything in our room and knew what we had to do as a group.”  The 34-year old is back with the team on a Minor League contract with a Spring Training invitation and returns to a crowded clubhouse.  One offseason acquisition is Ryne Harper; what does the former Minnesota right-hander think is crucial to building a successful bullpen?  “You’re like brothers out there. You develop relationships-you get real close with one another and I think that’s important too,” Harper said. “You’re pulling for another guy, you’re helping another guy between outings.”

Two X-factors in 2020 are two midseason moves from 2019 that didn’t pan out as well as the Nats would have liked to due to injuries:  Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elias.  “Elias got hurt and Strickland was hurt before we got him,” Martinez said. “I’m looking forward to watching those two guys pitch to their capabilities.  Strickland was a closer at one point and from what I’ve seen he’s thrown the ball really well early in camp.”

One factor that may ease the 2020 bullpen’s growing pains:  starting pitching.  Last year’s rotation ranked second in the majors in ERA and quality starts.  With multiple off days (six before May 1) Martinez could shorten his rotation which would allow the number five starter (likely Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, or Austin Voth) to provide another option in the pen.  One thing’s for certain:  anyone watching the season opener at Citi Field will sit up and take notice when the Nats bullpen percolates for the first time in 2020.

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For a game that celebrates its tradition, baseball has evolved quite a bit this century.  “Moneyball”.  Pitchers batting eighth. “Launch Angles”. Extreme defensive shifts.  Just when you thought you’d seen everything, the “opener” gets trotted out to the mound.  I know we’re a long ways from four-man rotations and complete games being more than a random aberration, but pitching by committee shakes the core of the game’s basic duel between one pitcher facing one batter.  Houston and the New York Yankees even went with “openers” and essentially tossed staff games Saturday in Game Six of the ALCS. However, viewers of the upcoming World Series should prepare themselves for a blast from the past.

The Nationals’ path to and through the playoffs has been marked from the start; with a rotation that boasts a guy who once struck out 20 in a game, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, a high-priced free agent, and a veteran who threw a no-hitter in his 13th career start.  “You know I’ve said this all year. Our starting pitching was the key. They’ve kept us in every ball game this year and they’ve done it all playoffs,” Manager Davey Martinez said. ” It’s nice to go out there with a Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Sanchez, Corbin. These guys are a big reason why we’re here.”  Simply put:  starting pitching is the bedrock of this team.

The rotation’s 3.53 ERA ranked second best in the majors during the regular season, the same case as with its 1,010 strikeouts thrown and 938.2 innings pitched.  “They don’t give anything away and I think that’s what makes them really special. No matter the situation, no matter how many people are on, what the score is, they don’t give in,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “They continue to stick to their gameplan and use the preparation to make the best decisions and the best pitches they can.”

Four arms featuring four different approaches.  Just like the compass has four points, the Nationals rotation comes at you from four completely different directions-with four completely different personalities.

Do you want high heat?  Max Scherzer throws 48% fastballs (according to baseballsavant.mlb.com) and his preferred pitch averages 95 miles per hour.  His personality is rather easy for to describe. “Max IS Mad Max,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said.  The three-time Cy Young Award winner was steamrolling his way to a fourth Cy this summer when a back injury sidelined the right-hander for over a month.  What followed was the strangest rehab stints of recent memory:  two four-inning outings while continuing to ramp up, before finally tossing 100+ pitches in his final two September starts. “We’re at the point of the season where there’ no room for error. I cannot get hurt,” Scherzer said in August. “That’s why I’m going out there pitching under control. I’m not going to put my body in jeopardy.”  After allowing an two-run homer in the first inning of the Wild Card Game, Scherzer has resembled the pitcher who went 6-0 in June, winning his NLDS and NLCS starts.  He also tossed an inning of relief in Game two against the Dodgers.

First Intermission- while Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin have each taken turns coming out of the bullpen this month, they’ve shined as starters in the postseason with Sanchez.  The quartet has tossed 88 strikeouts over 61.2 innings as starters, posting an ERA of 2.04 over the ten-game run.  “When you try and figure baseball out, it kind of goes back to starting pitching. Always been the key,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “There’s been some teams that have been successful without it, but for us it’s always been the backbone of our team.”

Looking for something a little offspeed? Stephen Strasburg’s bread and butter is his curveball (31%) and change-up (21%).  “I think my change-up’s really evolved over the years,” Strasburg said. “When I first started my pro career it was a pitch I threw like once or twice a game. Over the years it’s turned into a weapon.” He’s not completely abandoning his fastball (28%), but the 30-year old altered his winter regime and that helped lead to setting career highs with 18 wins and 251 strikeouts in 2019.  “I obviously worked really hard last offseason;  I wasn’t really satisfied with how last season ended up,” Strasburg “I think it’s just part of the process…learning how to take care of your body better.”  How does Suzuki see Strasburg?  “Silent assassin for Stras for sure,” the catcher said.  Alliteration aside, Stras is 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA over three starts and a season-saving relief appearance.

Second Intermission- General Manager Mike Rizzo was the Director of Souting Operations with the Arizona Diamondbacks when they won the 2001 World Series behind the arms of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.  This year he’s built a rotation that not only produces on the field, but also pushes one another in the clubhouse.  “First of all you’ve got some talented, talented guys who are taking the mound for us. Yeah, they’re all competitors-they all want to one-up each other,” Rizzo said. “I think it’s healthy competition and when you get guys that are in that kind of rhythm and on that kind of roll it’s fun to watch.”

Wary of the slider and sinker combo?  Patrick Corbin (38% and 33%) is just what the doctor ordered.  One of the reasons he came to DC via Free Agency last winter was the chance to be a part of this staff. “When you have starting pitching that can go out there and pitch deep into ballgames and keep us close with the offense we do have with some veterans and young guys,” Corbin said. “It seemed like a good fit: a team that wanted to win and had the guys here to win.”  He had no issues fitting in, finishing strong with a 14-7 mark that included going 4-1 in September.  “Patty Ice–he’s cool, calm and collected,”  is how Suzuki describes Corbin.  The left-hander appreciates collecting input from the rest of the rotation. “Everyone’s been around for a little bit now and has seen pretty much everybody in the league.  When one guy’s out there pitching, the other guys are just communicating and talking with each other,” Corbin said. “I think what’s good is no one’s really selfish: we’re all rooting for each other and if anything can help it’ll be great for the team.”

Third Intermission- While the rotation is succeeding in 2019, they’re also helping lay the groundwork for the future.  Young pitchers like Erik Fedde have the chance to watch and learn from the four.  “Very very lucky to be a part of this. All four of them kind of go about in a different way,” Fedde said. “Anibal and Scherzer–you probably couldn’t have two more opposite guys and yet both still so effective. It’s good as a young guy just to be able to watch that and pick up small things from each of them and create my own personality.”

How about a seven-pitch buffet?  Anibal Sanchez empties the tank when it comes to variety:  while the majority of his pitches are fastballs (30% four-seam and 24% split-finger), the 35-year old also uses a sinker, curveball, change-up and slider.  The veteran also brings an infectious enthusiasm to the team. “Happy go lucky and nothing really fazes this guy,” Suzuki said. “He’s always happy, keeps the clubhouse loose and he has fun.”  After starting 0-6 with an ERA of 5.10, a stint on the Injured List set the veteran straight: he went 11-2 with an ERA of 3.42 after coming back in late-May.  He also set the tone in the NLCS by tossing 7.2 scoreless innings in the Game One shutout of St. Louis.

A catcher is part-planner, part-psychologist.  Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes signed with the Nationals this past offseason to help the quartet navigate their way through batting orders, slumps, bumps and bruises and long seasons.  They couldn’t ask for a more diverse–or more professional group.  “They’re all good and they have their own quirks about them,” Suzuki said. “They go about their business the right way–they’re pros and the bottom line is they know how to get the job done. That’s what sets them apart from a lot of guys.”

The Nationals’ four arms will have their work cut out for them in the World Series. Houston’s trio of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke has 77 strikeouts over 62 playoff innings, posting a combined ERA of 3.04 against American League hitting (as in a DH instead of a pitcher).  But reliever Daniel Hudson is confident, as the mid-season pickup has had a front row seat  “Those guys have gone out just about every time since I’ve been here and pretty much do what they do,” Hudson said. “To be able to come in and jump in and watch it from here instead of somewhere else has been a pretty special experience.”  Four points of the compass, looking to point the Washington Nationals towards a first-ever World Championship.

 

 

 

The Nationals are headed to baseball’s final four for the first time since they were the Montreal Expos and needed a strike-shortened split-season to make the playoffs.  Their thrilling 7-3 tenth inning win at the Los Angeles Dodgers sends them straight to St. Louis for Friday’s Game One of the League Championship Series.  How did they get this far?  And can they make the next leap forward into the Fall Classic?

Hot Bats: Anthony Rendon is hitting .350 in the postseason, scoring a team-high six runs over six games while driving in five.  His solo homer in the eighth inning off of Clayton Kershaw got the rally in full gear.  Juan Soto has a pair of homers and six RBI, while delivering the go-ahead hit in the Wild Card Game.  And Howie Kendrick smacked the extra-inning grandslam that gave the Nats the lead and eventually the series against the Dodgers.

Cool on the Mound:  Stephen Strasburg is 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA in the playoffs, posting 21 strikeouts over 15 innings (including his relief turn in the Wild Card Game).  Max Scherzer has been a bulldog, striking out 16 over 13 frames (including a 14-pitch tour de force in the Game Two win).  Daniel Hudson has tossed 3.2 scoreless innings over four games, while earning two saves.  Sean Doolittle nailed down the 10th inning in LA.

Stats vs. St. Louis:  Howie Kendrick went 11-22 against the Cardinals this year, while Victor Robles led the Nats with three runs and four RBI.  The table-setters? Trea Turner & Adam Eaton combined to hit 9-44 (.204), while the meat of the order Anthony Rendon & Juan Soto batted 5-29 (.172) against St. Louis this season.  The second-best bat on the team this year belonged to Yan Gomes (.429), who’s currently hitting 1-6 in the playoffs but pending on Kurt Suzuki’s wrist and face may see more action than originally intended.

Conquering Cardinals:  St. Louis used a second half surge to take the NL Central, snagging the division lead for good on August 23.  They also took five of seven from the Nats:  two of three at home in September and three of four in DC during the Nationals’ injury-ravaged April (I want to say a hot dog vendor may have pitched relief).  They’re just as resilient in the postseason as the Nats, needing an extra-inning victory to force a Game Five before blowing Atlanta out.

Birds to Beware:  the numbers might be skewed a tiny bit because of the 13 runs put on the board against the Braves Wednesday.  Paul Goldschmidt and Marcel Ozuna are both hitting .429 in the playoffs, and Ozuna drove in a team-high seven runs against the Nats during the regular season.  Adam Wainwright went 2-0 with an ERA of 1.35, while Game One starter Mike Mikolas struck out eight while allowing three runs over 12 innings against the Nationals this year.

Anibal Sanchez starts Game One;  the right-hander struck out nine over five innings of one-run ball in Game Three of the NLDS.  He lost his lone regular season start to the Cardinals, but that was in April when he was off to an 0-6 start.  That was when this team was 12 games under .500;  they’re now four wins away from the franchise’s first-ever World Series appearance.

Talk about finishing with a flourish.  The Nationals entered last week with the path to the playoffs in their hands, and instead of making us sweat this one out won eight games over seven days to secure home field advantage for Tuesday’s Wild Card game.  They broomed Bryce Harper and Philadelphia all the way back to .500 and eliminated Cleveland from the AL playoff picture.  The Nats after starting 19-31 find themselves in the playoffs for the fifth time in eight years.

Celebrate Good Times, Come On!- okay, so things got a little crazy in the clubhouse after the team secured the Wild Card berth last Tuesday.  And yes, it’s not a division title or a playoff series win.  But baseball has teams make the longest journey (162 games) to qualify for the most exclusive postseason (33% of MLB teams make the playoffs, as opposed to 38% for the NFL and over 50% for the NBA and NHL).  So let the boys enjoy their evening of suds.

Playoff Picture- while the Nats/Milwaukee winner plays the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta meets St. Louis in the other NLDS.  The ALDS has Houston facing the Oakland/Tampa Bay winner while the New York Yankees play Minnesota.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce batted .323 with 2 HR and 6 RBI in the final week of the season, finishing with a .260 batting average, 36 doubles and 35 HR (second best in his career to the 2015 MVP season) and  114 RBI (a career best).  He also posted a career high with 178 strikeouts, and for those scoring at home Harper hit .266 in 18 games against the Nats this season.  Prorating his numbers over 162 games, he would have hit 27 HR with 81 RBI against his former team, walking 126 times while posting 198 strikeouts.

O’s Woes- the Birds wrapped up the season 54-108, seven games better than last year but their second-worst mark since moving to the Charm City from St. Louis in 1954.  It’s also the first time the team has posted consecutive 100-loss campaigns.  What sort of vision will this franchise have for 2020?

Last Week’s Heroes- Gerardo Parra regained his swing and the Baby Shark batted .615 with 2 homers and 11 RBI.  Trea Turner hit .400 while scoring 8 runs and driving in 7–including that go-ahead grand slam against Philadelphia. Brian Dozier batted .417.  Stephen Strasburg finished his best season as a pro (18-6, 3.32 ERA, 251 K) by striking out ten in his final start.

Last Week’s Humbled- this is no reflection on the awesome season each had, but Juan Soto hit .150 and Anthony Rendon batted .133 to put mild dampeners on their years. Javy Guerra posted an 8.10 ERA out of the bullpen.

September Surges- Howie Kendrick hit .410 in the final month of the season, while Asdrubal Cabrera batted .324 with 4 HR and 21 RBI.  Table-setter Trea Turner hit .308 with a team-high 24 runs, barely missing the 100-run plateau (96) despite missing almost a fourth of the season with a broken finger.  Juan Soto notched 18 RBI while Anthony Rendon drove in 17 RBI in September.  Patick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg both notched 4 quality starts in the final month of the season; Corbin’s 4-1 mark was the best on the staff.

Who’s Beating the Brewers- while the Nats lost four of six to Milwaukee, three of those games were in May when this team was a mess.  Adam Eaton hit .385 with 3 HR and 7 RBI while Victor Robles hit .429 while Adam Eaton hit .385 with 3 HR and 7 RBI.  Max Scherzer starts the Wild Card game, and struck out 10 over six innings of one-run ball in a no-decision this past May.

Brewers to Beware- while Christian Yelich (.480 with 8 runs scored against the Nats in 2019) is done for the season with a fractured right kneecap, Mike Moustakas hit .379 with 4 HR and 12 RBI against the Nationals this season.  Orlando Arcia hit .385 against the Nats this year and is 2-for-3 in his career against Max Scherzer.

This is it.  Eight games over the next seven days to determine if the Nationals will host or be on the road for the Wild Card Game…or if they’ll be on the outside looking in.  A second straight 3-3 week would be a nightmare, if it weren’t for the Chicago Cubs’ epic collapse (1-6 with five straight one-run losses).  The magic number to make the postseason is four, but the Nats will play a Philadelphia team fighting for its playoff life and a Cleveland squad in the AL Wild Card mix. It won’t be easy-but nothing about the 2019 season has been easy.

Health Check- Manager Davey Martinez re-joined the team for their series in Miami after having a procedure last week.  He suffered chest pains during Sunday’s win over Atlanta, but is back with the team for the stretch run.

The Wild, Wild, Sprint- Milwaukee’s magic number to make the playoffs is three, and the Brewers battle sub-500 teams Cincinnati and Colorado this week.  The Chicago Cubs are also in the hunt, and have three games with Pittsburgh before three more with St. Louis (they were swept by the Cardinals last weekend).  The New York Mets also have a “tragic number” of four, and play four against Miami before meeting Atlanta (Braves likely resting up before the NLDS).  Philadelphia (tragic number of three) can play its way back into the conversation by taking four or five games in DC this week, while Arizona (tragic number of two) needs to basically run the table against St. Louis and San Diego.

O’s Woes- the nightmare is almost over as the Birds at 51-105 are done at Camden Yards for the year.  They did win a series for the first time this month.  On to 2020.

Harper’s Weekly- he’s heating up, hitting .350 with 2 HR and 6 RBI as the Phillies went 3-3 against contenders Atlanta and Cleveland.  His 34 doubles are four shy of his career high, and his 108 RBI represent a new career best.  Bryce also sets a new high with 170 strikeouts.

Last Week’s Heroes- Howie Kendrick hit .529 while Yan Gomes batted .364.  Patrick Corbin struck out 11 over 6 scoreless innings in his only outing.  Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey and Javy Guerra combined to throw 9.1 scoreless innings over 8 appearances.

Last Week’s Humbled- Fernando Rodney generated little respect and did not look marvelous, posting an ERA of 15.43.  Hunter Strickland and Sean Doolittle also delivered in the double digits.  Anthony Rendon hit .167 while Juan Soto batted .056.

Game to Watch- Tuesday evening Max Scherzer (0.75 ERA against Philly this year) pitches against Aaron Nola (12-5, 3.75 ERA) in game three of the team’s five games over four days against Philadelphia.  The bullpen could be blown up by this point, and a stellar Scherzer performance is needed.  But can he dial up the Max of June in what might be his final start of the season?

Game to Miss- Friday’s game has the Nats hosting Cleveland.  After the NL East brawl, lets just stay the intensity may be a little down for a foe from the AL Central.  Austin Voth also pitches.  Friday there’s also a Big Ten opener in College Park, as Maryland meets No. 12 Penn State.  A little Terpness will be on tap.

The Nationals’ playoff push took some water this past week when they lost five of seven to fellow contenders, all but assuring Atlanta of a second straight NL East title.  The incredible 11-10 comeback win against the New York Mets feels like months ago, but it kept the Nats from getting swept.  And in a world where one isn’t going to win the division but still leads the Wild Card by three games, you want to win every series but you most definitely don’t want to get swept.  Sunday, the Nats beat back the brooms against the Braves thanks to Max Scherzer on the mound and the bats finally breaking out after being dormant all series.  Brace yourself for a bumpy ride as the Nats jet tries to land on the playoff runway.

Digesting the Division- Atlanta’s Magic Number is 11 with 18 left.  For those curious Sunday’s loss ended a 17-2 stretch.  If things break the right or wrong way (depending on your perspective) the Braves could clinch the division Saturday or Sunday in DC.  The Nats (79-63 after a 2-5 week) get AL Central-leading Minnesota before the Braves drop by the district.  Philadelphia (74-68, 4-3) and the New York Mets (72-70, 3-3) find themselves on the outer reaches of the Wild Card pack.  Miami?  Now 51-91, the Marlins have clinched last place for the second straight year and Manager Don Mattingly dips under the .500 mark for his career (he’s now at 716-719).

The Wild, Wild Card- the Nats lead the Chicago Cubs by three games for home field while the Cubs are 1.5 games better than Arizona for the final playoff spot in the NL.  The Nats easily have the toughest schedule with 17 of 20 games coming against winning clubs, although they will play 11 of those 17 at home.  The Cubs have 7/20 against .500+ teams, with all seven games coming at Wrigley Field.  Arizona plays 12/19 against losing clubs, and that’s including a four game series at the slowly sinking Mets.  Milwaukee (74-68, 2GB) plays an equal amount of games against both types of teams.  Philadelphia (74-68) has 11 of its final 20 on the road against winning clubs.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce batted .188 and hurt his hand.  He’s now at .254 for the season with 30 HR and a career-high 101 RBI.  Harper’s 11 shy of reaching his career high of 169 strikeouts.  And there are still five games against the Nats in DC later this month.

O’s Woes- the sweep by Texas drops the Birds to 46-97, or on pace to win 52 games this year.  While surpassing last year’s 47 wins is almost a certainty, there are those of us who have seen September swoons that have taken much better teams from 63-63 to 67-95 in 2002 and from 71-68 to 75-87 two years ago.  So nothing is a given as of yet.

Last Week’s Heroes- Asdrubal Cabrera hit .450 with 2 HR and 8 RBI while Anthony Rendon batted .333 with a team-high 6 runs and 3 RBI. Somebody should sign him.  Ryan Zimmerman and Kurt Suzuki had clutch hits in the team’s crazy comeback Tuesday against the Mets.  Max Scherzer got the no-decision that night, but struck out 8 over 6 innings Sunday to notch his first win since the All Star Break.  Sean Doolittle tossed two scoreless innings of relief.  But Aaron Barrett outshone them all.  The reliever tossed one scoreless inning, completing his comeback from Tommy John Surgery and a broken humerus bone.  Great to have you back in the bigs, Aaron.

Last Week’s Humbled- Joe Ross coughed up 7 runs over 3.2 innings while Anibal Sanchez, Roenis Elias and Javy Guerra each posted ERA of 10+.  Gerardo Parra (1 for 13) and Matt Adams (1 for 15) had market correction weeks at the plate after enjoying hot flashes this season.

Game to Watch- Friday the Braves come to town with a chance to provide the NL East knockout blow, and they’ll be starting rookie Mike Soroka (11-4, 2.67 ERA).  Max Scherzer will be on the mound for the Nats. Enough said.

Game to Miss- Saturday afternoon Joe Ross and Mike Foltynewich bring a combined 10.45 ERA to the mound, while out on Route 50 Navy will be kicking off AAC play by hosting East Carolina.  Go Mids!

The Nationals reach Labor Day four and a half games in front of the NL Wildcard pack thanks to their sweep of Miami.  Friday’s walk-off win turned into Saturday’s shutout and wrapped up with Sunday’s slugfest.  That’s the good news; the bad news is that the Nats face the toughest schedule over the final month of the regular season with 24 of their 27 games coming against teams with winning records as of today.  Bring it on…

Digesting the Division- will Atlanta ever lose again?  The Braves won four of six last week to see their NL East lead remain at five and a half games.  They have their work cut out for them in September, as the defending division champs play seven games against the Nationals, seven against Philadelphia and three against the New York Mets.  Speaking of the Phillies and Mets, those two teams are now double digits off the pace.  Miami?  The Marlins own a tragic number of six to clinch last place.  Get used to it.

The Wild, Wild Card Race- as mentioned the Nats play 89% of their remaining schedule against clubs with winning records.  How about the other contenders?  The Chicago Cubs (73-63, 4-2 last week) play 11 of their remaining 26 games against winning clubs, most notably seven against fellow NL Central contenders Milwaukee and St. Louis.  Philadelphia (70-65, 3-3) play 20 of 27 against winning teams, with 15 coming against the East Division trio of Atlanta, the Nationals and Mets.  Milwaukee (70-66, 3-3) may get a reprieve with 17 of their final 26 games coming against losing ballclubs while Arizona (70-67, 5-1) may stay hot thanks to a finishing stretch of 18 September games against sub-.500 foes.  The Mets (69-67, 2-4) have an uphill battle with 16 of their remaining 26 games against winning foes.

Harper’s Weekly- proud new papa Bryce hit .308 with 2 homers and 5 RBI, increasing his season totals to .257, 29 and 97.  He’s on pace to reach career highs in doubles and RBI, as well as in strikeouts (Harper’s 15 shy of last year’s 169 whiffs).  Bryce and the Phillies play five games over four days in DC later this month.

O’s Woes- the Birds drop two of three in Kansas City to fall 46 games under .500.  While they’ll cruise past (as best as a last place team can cruise past) last year’s 47-win total, the Orioles need to finish 18-8 in order to avoid a 100-loss campaign.  Yes, I wrote that in all seriousness.

Last Week’s Heroes- Anthony Rendon hit .563 with 3 homers and 7 RBI while Juan Soto batted .474 with 9 RBI.  Stephen Strasburg won his career-high 16th of the season by tossing eight scoreless innings.  And Sean Doolittle is back.

Last Week’s Humbled- Tanner Rainey and Daniel Hudson had issues on the mound. Trea Tuner hit .182 while Gerardo Parra, Baby Shark and all, went 1 for 18 at the plate.

Game to Watch- Tuesday evening Max Scherzer makes his third start since coming off of the injured list while the Mets pitch Jacob deGrom.

Game to Miss- Sunday Scherzer starts against Atlanta, but at 1:20 p.m. EDT I think I’ll be watching the regular season return of the NFL.