Archives for category: MLB

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.

 

 

ORIGINALLY POSTED July 1, 2019.

The Nationals begin…what shall we call it?  Spring Training 2.0? Summer Training? Minicamp?  Whatever we wind up calling it, they’ll be minus Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross with each opting out of the 60-game summer sprint.  Zimmerman’s mother has MS and his wife just gave birth;  Ross is less than three years removed from Tommy John Surgery.  Sean Doolittle may very well join them on the sidelines, as his wife has a chronic lung condition.  And the fact that it took players and owners this long to get a deal in place was less than ideal.  Just like Dalton in “Roadhouse” famously said, “Nobody wins a fight”, nobody wins a sports labor tussle.

Thank goodness we have 2019 to look back on.  And thank goodness the Nationals wrapped up an 18-8 month to move over the .500 mark to stay with a victory on June 30.  Here is the “Nats Notebook” from that week.

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

“Max’s Mad Month”

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?

Sadly Max would be bothered by injury the rest of the way; the fact he was able to get back in gear after missing most of two months was incredible, just like his ability to pitch Game Seven of the World Series two days removed from needing to crawl out of bed.

 

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 minuscule. 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.

The five Billy Martin regimes with the Yankees remain the stuff of legend:  as fate would have it the star-crossed skipper’s first tenure was 471 games while his second, third, fourth, and fifth stints equaled 470 games.

 

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…

How reliant were the Phils on Harper last year?  Bryce batted .282 with 27 homers and 89 RBI while scoring 66 runs in Philly’s 78 wins, .235 with 8 HR and 25 RBI while scoring 32 runs in the team’s 79 losses.

 

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.

It’s amazing how quickly things cratered for a team that made the playoffs three times in five years from 2012-16;  proof that no matter how young you might be or no matter how good your stars are the bitter end is often just that.

 

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.

Back issues would limit Max the rest of the way; he’d go 3-2 with a 4.14 ERA in 50 innings over nine regular season starts. It’ll be interesting to see how he pitches this year after the start and stop in Spring Training.

 

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.

Taylor would eventually get back to the bigs and score a key run in the team’s Wild Card win over Milwaukee.

 

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.

I’m a sucker for the Expos’ unis.  I actually wish they had just kept those colors and fonts when they moved to DC instead of the Angels hand-me-downs.  Just flip the “M and e” on the cap upside down–or go with a BLOCK W.

 

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.

The US Women’s National Team did not disappoint, while over the course of 2019 neither did Corbin.  He’d go 7-2 after the All Star break while winning Game Seven of the World Series in relief.

ORIGINALLY POSTED June 24, 2019.

The Nationals had .500 in their sights as the calendar turned to summer.  Only they ran into a buzz-saw named the Atlanta Braves that would post a 20-8 mark in June. Not helping their cause was a relief corps that still had to get out of its own way.  But while they were not the equal of Atlanta last June, the Nats had gone 18-9 since reaching the depths of 19-31.  And healthy, they were much more like the team over the most recent 31 days than the first 50 games. Here’s last year’s “Nats Notebook” from that week.

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

 

“Bedeviled by the Braves and a Bad Bullpen”- my headline form is back.

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.

They weren’t able to sustain the .667 play for the rest of the season, as the 56-29 finish was a paltry .659.  In all seriousness, wow. That’s a 107-win pace for over half of the season.

 

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.

As much of a mess the Mets were early and often last season, they were able to overtake the Phillies by the end of the season.

 

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.

Harper leading off isn’t as bad as Chris Davis doing the same for the Orioles, but that’s how things had gotten after McCutchen’s injury.

 

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.

Hess & Straily were hardly the only underperformers last year for the Orioles, but that’s one tough double-whammy for a subpar offense (21st in battting, 22nd in runs scored) to try to keep pace with in 40% of your starts.

 

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.

Max wasn’t just enjoying a 6-0 June where he helped this team get back on track, he didn’t only pitch relief when called upon in the playoffs before starting Game Seven of the World Series, but he pitched through a broken nose.  And the black eye only added to his blue and brown ones.  I hope you all appreciate him now.

 

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.

Rosenthal would hook up with Detroit and post an ERA of 7.00 over ten relief appearances.  Joe Ross would pitch much better in the second half of the season for the Nats, posting a 3.83 ERA over nine starts and ten appearances.

 

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.

If I wasn’t covering sports, I would cherry-pick Scherzer’s starts and attend those games. Hands down.

 

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.

Last year I had the chance to announce the game with Noah Frank and Mitchell Miller. It was a great experience. Hopefully they’ll play ball again in 2021.

ORIGINALLY POSTED June 17, 2019.

The long road back from 19-30 included a handful of fits and stalls amid the surges and streaks.  While the Nats would win 14 of their next 21 they’d still be submerged deep in the National League standing, climbing from 14th to 11th place.  And the logjam of teams (five clubs separated by three games) right in front of them may have been teetering, but not tottering just yet.  But technically it wasn’t even summer yet–and the club had its lineup healthy with one of its starting pitchers in the middle of a magical month. As always, 2020 thoughts to things written in 2019 are in boldface italics.

 

“The Time is Now”- (I need to get better at headlines)

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…

I’m not peeking ahead to how they fared against the Phils and Braves, but after playing .500 ball against a pair of .500 teams one could see that this would be one huge week.

 

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.

Keuchel was the big pickup that stalled- going 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA while averaging fewer than six innings per start.  His innings per start has actually declined each year since his 2015 Cy Young Award.  Caveat Emptor.

 

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.

It’s not a good year when your “games behind” number is larger than your victory total. The homers-allowed record chase would lend a macabre feel to the summer.

 

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.

Bryce was in the middle of his second-least productive month of the season (.825 OPS) while his team was floundering (losing two of three in Atlanta including the series finale 15-1).

 

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.

Matt Adams would do most of his damage as the Nats were fighting back to .500 with 17 RBI in June.  This was one of those “Big City” days.

 

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.

Despite the week, Dozier had his best month in June (.275 with 5 HR and 13 RBI) as the team began its surge up the standings.

 

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 Papelbon) is 4-1 with an ERA of 5.00 over eight starts this year. It’s the semi-pivotal third game of the series.

Rainouts would force a doubleheader on Wednesday, shifting Scherzer into a showdown with former Orioles underachiever and Cubs overachiever Jake Arrieta (who would also go 8-8 in 2019–what is this, the NFL?)

 

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?

Right now I’d be okay if my pool was open at all–but why can’t pools be open while its light out in June and July?  

ORIGINALLY POSTED ONE YEAR AGO ON THIS DATE-

We saw the Washington Nationals rebound from a 19-31 start to win a World Series in 2019. Meanwhile, there might not be a 2020 unless players and owners hammer out a deal.  Thank goodness for last year’s “Nats Notebook”. At this point the team was still under .500 but gaining steam. Thoughts now on what I wrote then are in boldface italics.

 

June 10, 2019- “Back to Back to Back to Back”

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.

We had them all the way, right?  What amazes me is that all during their 19-31 start the team remained resolute that they were capable of playing great baseball.  They’re still under .500 in June, but with two Wild Card spots there’s plenty of hope. 

 

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.

The Phillies’ would fade; their June swoon saw the team go 11-17 and lose the NL East lead to Atlanta (20-8 in June).  And by the end of the month the Mets would be closer to last place than to fifth.

 

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?

NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas recently wrote a piece that explored “what if the Nats re-signed Harper?” that presents a different short-term (Eaton likely gets dealt out of a crowded outfield) and long-term (the team loses both Strasburg and Rendon last winter) results. Harper could have been THE FACE of this franchise moving forward.  And while he’ll make a ton of cash in Philly, he won’t be the cradle-to-grave star he would have been here.

 

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.

Severino would cool off, hitting 5 HR with 26 RBI over his final 59 games played in 2019.  He still has room to improve, having played just 201 Major League games.

 

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.

Amazing to think how Turner basically played all of last season with an injured finger.  Making a move up the standings is a little easier too with Strasburg and Scherzer at peak perfomance.

 

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.

Don’t worry, Parra’s a little over a week away from bringing “Baby Shark” into our lives.

 

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…

Scherzer would go on to win all six of his June starts.  Simply sensational.

 

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… 

Sanchez after his 0-6 start would go 11-2 with an ERA of 3.42 the rest of the way; he was at his best in a 3-0, 2.76 June.

 

ORIGINALLY POSTED ONE YEAR AGO ON THIS DATE-

We saw the Washington Nationals rebound from a 19-31 start to win a World Series in 2019. Until there is a 2020, we’ll be posting last year’s “Nats Notebook” as the anniversary of each one passes. The piece usually posts on Mondays, so with the leap year in effect you can look forward to seeing this every Wednesday.  Thoughts now on what I wrote then are in boldface italics.

 

“Road Rage”

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?

“Can this be the start of something?”  Certainly.  But I don’t think anyone had any idea how well this team would play in June en route to moving over .500 by the All Star break. 

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.

Philly led the NL East on Memorial Day-the first marker of most seasons-and were ten games over .500 (37-27) for the final time June 8th.

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.

Bryce would set career highs last year in at bats, RBI and strikeouts while tying his career mark of being hit by a pitch six times.

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.

It was cool to see some baseball on an off-day, attending with a friend from New England who has been in love with Camden Yards since it opened. It was nice to see Carl Yastrzemski’s grandson reach the bigs.

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.

It was only one start, but we had no idea the month that Max Scherzer would have. Absolutely awesome. And spoiling us for when he eventually slows down and becomes just another decent starter.  If he decides to allow that to happen.

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.

The bullpen would be an issue all season, while Robles and Gomes as plus-defenders make any short-term issues at the plate acceptable.

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.

I had family in town that weekend and we went to the National Zoo.   After back to back visitors I felt like my grandmother on the Cape during the summer.

Game to Miss- Friday Erick 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.

I don’t remember that game at all.  Until next week?

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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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Spring Training is more than just getting the players ready for the upcoming season; various vendors from glove to shoe companies show their wares to players while memorabilia companies are in the clubhouse with baseballs for players to sign.  There’s also the day when Topps drops by.  Baseball cards have come a long way from being inserted into tobacco packs in 1909; for most generations there are fond memories of collecting and trading.  There was a time when cards were inserted in boxes of cereal and on the back of Hostess Twinkie cartons, feeding a child’s hunger for sugar and baseball in equal portions.  Who could forget the gum that came in the packs and was beyond brittle?  “I was probably more for the gum even though I was a huge baseball fan,” Adam Eaton said.  It was almost guaranteed that that gum’s powder residue would color your best card in the pack, decreasing its value like that of a new car just driven off of the lot.

I remember my first pack; it involved Pittsburgh backup catcher Ed Ott, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Burt Hooton, and multiple non-descript pitchers.  I recall going to “Ray’s Country Store” or “The Wagon Wheel” in Bedford, NH, and getting a Tom Hume when his ERA was over seven.  Somehow I scored two Warren Brusstar cards in one pack.  I thought Sixto Lezcano’s 1982 Donruss card made the infielder look just like Maria from “Sesame Street”, and realized that one Fleer pack purchased was one too many.  We all dream about getting Rickey Henderson and Cal Ripken while actually getting Dave Henderson and Billy Ripken (the clean card, of course).  That’s the beauty of putting down a dime in 1976, fifty cents in 1991, or whatever it costs now (I’ve been out of the target demographic for some time) for the luck of the draw.  I remember at the tail-end of my collection days when you could go to “Collector’s Heaven” and search for old cards and sets, not to mention other cards ranging from football (nothing like the air-brushing of logos before Topps got the NFL rights) to “Three’s Company”.  The loss of randomness took a little bit of the thrill out of collecting.

Austin Voth is 27, meaning he probably got into collecting when Ichiro Suzuki’s rookie card was the rage. “As a kid we actually had competitions where the coaches would give out packages of baseball cards if we won a certain drill of the day,” Voth said.  “Even my grandpa- he had some old school baseball cards that I still have to this day.  I don’t know where they’re at in my house right now, but I still have some.”  What is it like for the third year veteran to suddenly see himself in a pack?  “It’s pretty cool. You look down and you get to see your picture,” Voth said. “You’re living your dream and have stats on the back-you got a little bio and everything.”  Players’ bios on the backs of cards range from the normal (post-playing goals and high school athletic feats) to the sublime (rib-eating and grave-digging).

Adam Eaton turned 31 this past offseason, but the ninth-year veteran still gets a kick when he sees his card-whether it’s from his time as a National, Chicago White Sox, or Arizona Diamondback.  “Pretty cool: it’s a little pinch yourself moment.  Especially when you get your first card-it’s pretty neat,” Eaton said. “Kind of takes you back to when you were a kid.  Hopefully someone’s got mine around their bicycle spokes somewhere making cool sounds.  That’s basically what I used most of em for.”  Eaton is the one player I could picture riding his bike down the street with cards in the spokes-not just this back in the day but in 2020.

Kurt Suzuki is 36 and his card-collecting days have long passed, but he does have three children who are just reaching that age.  But confronted with his face on a card, Kurt turns into a kid himself.  “It’s always surreal. You know when you see that kind of stuff as a baseball player growing up –you’ve got a card now for your kids.  It’s a pretty cool thing.”  Somewhere this spring a six-year old will open a pack with Suzuki, Eaton, or Voth inside.  They might grumble that they wanted a Soto or a Robles rookie card. Their eyes may even wander to the set of of Upper Deck Hockey or Topps Garbage Pail Kids (yes, they still make those).  But a tiny percentage of them will grow up to some day see their faces on those cards, and turn into kids again when they do so.

 

 

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A relief pitcher is not always an easy read. These guys hang out in the bullpen for the bulk of the game and either sit around or warm up during the middle to later innings. When they do come in (either running or via the bullpen cart) they’ll display their poker face on the mound while receiving a series of signs from the catcher, and keep centered no matter how each batter fares. The exception (Shawn Kelley throwing his glove after serving up a home run) proves the rule-it’s tough to find a window inside their souls, and they prefer it that way.

But Sean Doolittle is no ordinary reliever. And the bespectacled, bearded left-hander isn’t as much about being read as he is all about reading: coming off of a winter consuming books like he disposes of batters during the summer. “Sometimes during the offseason you get away from it for a little bit, and it’s hard to get back into it,” Doolittle said. “I think I read like 10 or 12 books this offseason, so I still did pretty well.” What’s his winter been like so far? “Right now I’m reading a book called ‘There, There’ by Tommy Orange. It came out a couple of years ago,” Doolittle said. “I just finished ‘Upright Women Wanted’ by Sarah Gailey and that was a shorter read but it was so much fun; I highly recommend people check that out.”

When Doolittle isn’t pitching for the Nationals, he’s often pitching for youth literacy. Last summer the reliever was involved with DC Public Library’s reading program. While he recognizes the importance of reading 20 minutes a day during the summer for area youths, he also recognizes what reading does for him. “It helps me decompress. You know, a lot of times pitching in the later innings it’s tough for that adrenaline-it doesn’t wear off right away and a lot of times you’re still wide awake at two in the morning,” Doolitte said. “Another thing too is just giving your brain something else to do, so that you’re not ruminating on what happened during the game. Good, bad, or otherwise.” The rhythm of the read keeps the veteran even keeled amidst the highs and lows of a 162-game campaign. “I actually probably read more during the season, just because it’s the thing that is part of my routine that I fall into after games when I come home.”
Doolittle’s career has seen more than a few plot twists: he played three minor league seasons as a first baseman/outfielder in the Oakland system before knee injuries led him back to the mound. A swift rise (16 minor league games from high-A to Triple-A) through the A’s farm system in 2012 resulted in 44 appearances as a rookie, and the lefthander was an All Star within two years. After being dealt to the Nats in 2017, he was selected to the All Star Team in DC the next summer and pitch in the midsummer classic on his home field. Unfortunately a foot injury hijacked his 2018 season, and last year it appeared like over-use would burn the lefthander out before the team acquired Fernando Rodney and Daniel Hudson. Rested somewhat, Doolittle posted an ERA of 1.74 in 10.1 innings over nine playoff games last October.
Through it all, Doolittle returns to his books, and when the team is on the road he’ll check out independent bookstores. And he’s just as much at home in a strange bookstore as his familiar place on the mound. “That’s one of my favorite things to do is just wander in,” Doolittle said. “Not looking for anything in particular, just seeing what’s on the shelf and just going wherever it takes you.” Even the offseason couldn’t cure his curiosity. “Our trip that we (Doolittle and his wife) went on over the holidays,” Doolittle said. “Boulder has a couple really good bookstores: Boulder Bookstore and Trident Books and Cafe were some really good spots. And we stocked up for the winter months.”

Just like pitchers mix up fastball and off-speed offerings, the reliever mixes up his subjects. “I read a little bit more non-fiction this year, which isn’t saying a whole lot because I really don’t read that much non-fiction at all,” Doolittle said. “I thought ‘Say Nothing’ was absolutely incredible- I learned a lot. I found it really thorough but also very accessible.” Doolittle tweets regularly about his latest reads at @whatwouldDOOdo.

 

 

 

 

 

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While the Washington Nationals were propelled by starting pitching that posted the third best ERA in the majors plus a lineup that ranked second in batting average and runs scored, many close to the team felt that that the clubhouse chemistry was a key factor in going from 19-31 in May to a championship parade in November. “When one guy doesn’t do the job the next guy picks him up,” Martinez said before the World Series.  “You watch them go down the line, they pat each other on the back- ‘hey, we got you don’t worry’.” Chemistry in the clubhouse is a tricky thing; if anybody could create it everybody would have it. It’s not a Chia Pet, for heaven’s sake.  How have things gotten so good for the Nats?

It wasn’t always this way. From players reportedly being shipped out for leaking to the press, dugout scuffles between Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper, to the famed Mike Rizzo quote “If you’re not in, you’re in the way”, it’s taken a while for the phalanx to come together.  When you spend February through October together, the team has to be together.  “At the end of the day nobody understands what goes on in a clubhouse except the 25 guys and the coaching staff that are in here,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “There’s nothing like it and truly the biggest reason why we won last year is because of how much we enjoyed being around each other.” 

When things got bad last spring and it looked like the team was sinking, the players didn’t jump ship. Instead, they began to bail each other out. “We were all very open with each other,” Gomes said. “Whatever little things were going on we were able to cut them out right away-cut out distractions-and made sure that whatever happened it stayed in here and we were battling for each other in here.

Perhaps the fact that this was the oldest roster in baseball last season gave some clarity and focus to what was really important: trying to go 1-0 every day while not letting one loss bleed into the next day.  “Just the mix of veterans and young players and just the attitude,” Howie Kendrick said. “There’s no selfish guys here and everybody wants to win. There’s a chemistry here that we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Baseball’s regular season is the longest (162 games) while the playoff field is the most exclusive in the major four sports (10 of 30, or 33%).  Fighting through the dog days of summer (and for those who live in the Washington area, August can get particularly houndish) is no easy task, and knowing that the clubhouse is a fountain of positive vibes makes the grind a little easier.  “It’s great when you get to the field every day and you’re just happy to be hear and don’t feel like you’re working,” Michael A. Taylor said. “And it helps on the field too having that camaraderie and just trusting one another.”

Unfortunately for any team in MLB, you can’t bring everyone back.  While we know the Nats will miss Anthony Rendon’s bat and glove as well as the contributions of Brian Dozier and Gerardo Parra (earworm alert-BABY SHARK), we can’t size up yet the intangible loss of those three as well as others on the 2019 team not coming back.  Sometimes the absence of one minor ingredient can change a whole recipe.  “When we finished Game Seven it was one of those things where we knew that everyone wasn’t going to be back,” Adam Eaton said. “Which kind of saddened all of us because you’re with those people for so long it’s part of your family.”  But with most of the parts coming back, the 2020 Nationals should earn another solid grade in Chemistry.  Will it be another A?  Ask me in October.