Archives for posts with tag: baseball

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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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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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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.

The Nats almost went from the ridiculous high of sweeping San Francisco behind the oh so unpredictable arms of Joe Ross and Erick Fedde (plus Anibal Sanchez) to a nightmare weekend in New York.  Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin both pitched well enough, but the bullpen blew up both Friday and Saturday nights and the team was fortunate on Sunday to beat the Mets 7-4.  Juan Soto’s strained ankle is day to day and Max Scherzer remains on the long road back, but for the moment the Nats are still trending upward: 4-2 for the week, 5-4 for the month and 15-13 since the All Star Game.  They won’t go back inside the division until August 30 but will play 21 of their final 30 games against NL East foes.

Digesting the Division- Atlanta remains atop the NL East thanks to a 4-3 week; they’re 70-50 mark is two games better than where last year’s division champs were at this point.  The Nats (62-55) inch to within six and a half games of the lead while the streaking New York Mets (61-57 after a 6-1 week) are eight behind the Braves.  Philadelphia (60-58) drops nine games back after a 2-5 week; they’re 4-7 this month and 13-15 since the All Star Game.  Thank goodness the basement is a few levels down as Miami (44-73) is zeroing in on a tenth straight losing season (after five winning years the previous decade).

The Wild Wildcard Race- Sunday’s win over the Mets kept the Nats a half game ahead of St. Louis for the Wildcard lead; a loss would have dropped the team into a tie with Milwaukee a half game behind the Cardinals and Mets.  Of the five teams in the mix (Philadelphia is just two and a half games behind the Nationals), the Nats own the worst record in one-run decisions (12-18).  The best?  The Brewers are 20-13 in such games.

O’s Woes- the Birds beat back the brooms by outslugging Houston 8-7 thanks to a Rio Ruiz walkoff homer.  The victory ends a five-game losing streak that included a 23-2 rout at the hands of the Astros the night before.  The home run coughed up Sunday was the 241st allowed this year by the Orioles-tying the American League record set by the 1996 Detroit pitching staff.  They’re also 17 homers shy of Cincinnati’s major league record of 258 set three years ago.  This week the Birds battle the New York Yankees- as the current elimination number is eight the O’s could be eliminated from the AL East by Thursday night.

Harper’s Weekly- the former face of the franchise hit .286 with three homers and seven RBI, putting him back on pace to hit .250 with 30 HR and 110 RBI.  He’s also on track to strike out 188 times (he’s currently tied for the  league  lead at 137).  All while the Phillies sink into the Wildcard quicksand.

Last Week’s Heroes- Juan Soto hit .368 with three homers and six RBI while Trea Tuner (.304) and Adam Eaton (.400) each scored seven runs. Erick Fedde and Joe Ross may be the back end of this rotation, but each tossed six scoreless innings at San Francisco.

Last Week’s Humbled- Sean Doolittle and Fernando Rodney had late-inning hiccups Friday and Saturday against the Mets. Brian Dozier went 0-for-14 at the plate while Matt Adams went 5-for-21 with nine strikeouts.

Game to Watch- Wednesday the Nats wrap up their series with Cincinnati as Stephen Strasburg (14-5, 3.72 ERA) faces midseason pickup Trevor Bauer (10-8, 3.74).  It’s also the final game for the Reds in DC, meaning Marty Brennaman will say one last time, “So long, everybody” as he closes the broadcast.  The longtime announcer is calling it a career after 46 years with the team.

Game to Miss- Marty’s final tour distracts the faithful from another disappointing campaign;  the Reds haven’t had a winning record or made the playoffs since 2013 (a Wildcard loss to Pittsburgh).  In his first 23 years at the mic, Cincinnati posted 16 winning records and finished first or second in the division 15 times while winning three World Series (two via sweep).  Over the last 22 and a half years (including this season’s 56-60 start) the Reds have finished over .500 just five times.  Tuesday they pitch Alex Wood, who won 16 games two years ago for the Dodgers but has a 5.65 ERA over three starts.  Watch old videos of the Big Red Machine instead.