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The Washington Nationals at one point owned the second-worst record in the National League. Tonight, they are one of two teams remaining in the playoff party as the World Series gets underway in Houston.  While the Astros are prohibitive favorites, the Nats have been discounted all season–or at least since they were 19-31 after an ignominious sweep by the New York Mets.  Bring on the Fall Classic.

Soaring Astros- the American League champs won a big league-best 107 games during the regular season, ranking third in the majors in runs scored and team ERA.

Bats to Beware- Jose Altuve didn’t just win ALCS MVP honors by hitting a walk-off HR in Game Six, he’s also hitting .349 with 10 runs scored and 8 driven in this month.  Alex Bregman (with serious DC ties) led the team with 41 HR and 112 RBI during the regular season, and has 10 runs scored in the playoffs.

Yet to Take Off- leadoff hitter George Springer hit 39 homers during the regular season;  in the postseason he’s batting .152 with 15  strikeouts.  Yordan Alvarez is the other 100-RBI bat this year, and he’s hitting .171 with 19 strikeouts.

Nats Bats to Watch- Anthony Rendon is hitting .375 in the playoffs with a team-high 8 runs scored an 7 RBI, while also hitting .316 against right-handers.  Victor Robles is back from a bad hamstring and is hitting .313 in October. Howie Kendrick’s 9 RBI are tops on the team this month.

DH Decisions- Kendrick will be the designated hitter for Game One and will still bat fifth; the lineup tweaks are behind him in the order with Asdrubal Cabrera (21 RBI in September) getting the nod at second base instead of Brian Dozier (20 HR in the regular season).  He’ll bat sixth, the switch-hitter separating righty bats Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman- who’ll bat seventh.  Zim missed most of the season with plantar fasciitis, but notched 12 RBI in 53 September at bats.  He’s also hitting .333 against right-handed pitchers in the playoffs.

For Starters- Max Scherzer is 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA in the playoffs over three starts and one scoreless inning of relief, averaging 13.5 strikeouts over 9 innings.  He was completely unstoppable in June (going 6-0 with an ERA of 1.00) before a back injury cost him the better part of the next two months.  Gerrit Cole (20-5, 2.50 ERA) did not lose a decision after May 22 and is 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA in the playoffs.

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Autumn in Washington can come at you fast.  Didn’t we just have a week of 90-degree weather?  You blink and all of a sudden you’re looking for the lining in your coats you removed in April and breaking out the scarf and gloves.  Baseball’s playoffs are just as abrupt, as teams gearing up for a long postseason run all of a sudden are packing up their gear after a Game Five loss.

Ryan Zimmerman is deep into the autumn of his career, one that spans the entirety of the Washington Nationals’ stay in DC.  The teams initial first round pick in 2005 was a September call-up during the tail-end of the Nats’ inaugural season at RFK Stadium.  He shined the following season as an everyday player, finishing second in the NL Rookie of the Year race (to Hanley Ramirez, for those curious).  Zimmerman topped that off by hitting a walk-off home run in the first regular season game at Nationals Park the next March.

The problem was, there wasn’t a lot of talent around Zimmerman at the time. It was an era of bad baserunning and dismal defense, misspelled uniforms and exploding sausage sandwiches in the skies (true story).  But the team was building for something special, and Ryan Zimmerman was their cornerstone. “He hasn’t changed since I saw him at the University of Virginia. He’s a pro’s pro–and one of the great players that I’ve ever scouted,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “A guy that’s really given his all to the Washington Nationals.  Physically, mentally and in the community he’s been terrific.  He’s the face of the franchise for a reason.”

The “face of the franchise” carries with it a ton of weight on the field and in the clubhouse.  Production at the plate and making great plays in the field are tangible skills one can easily see;  being the leader Zimmerman has been for the bulk of his career is not. But his teammates know and appreciate what Zim has done and continues to do on a daily basis. “He’s just an ultimate professional. A guy that goes out and puts his all into it-even banged up whatever it might be,” Adam Eaton said. “Speaks highly of everybody. Somebody that you would follow into battle type of guy.  There’s a reason he’s been the face of the organization for as long as he has been.”

That means being the go-to quote in the clubhouse when it’s not apparent who’s had a big game; it also means being the guy who the young players look up to in the clubhouse as they try to navigate their way through the early stages of their careers.  Zimmerman has been that kind of teammate; reliever Sean Doolittle played with him in college. “When I was a freshman at Virginia and he was a junior, he was one of the top prospects in all of college baseball,” Doolittle said. “And I got to watch the way he handled that pressure in that the microscope and go about about his business every day and was an awesome mentor to me.”

Being “the guy” for so long means building friendships with teammates that may spend half a season or half a decade in DC.  And Zimmerman knows that while the 2019 Nationals are the team that finally won a playoff series, this World Series appearance also belongs to the Jayson Werths and Adam Laroches.  “It’s definitely a culmination of a lot of guys that have been here,” Zimmerman said.”We’ve had some chances and haven’t come through, but they say you learn from your failures.  All of those guys that were on those teams are part of this tonight even though they’re not here.”

Baseball can be cruelly ironic.  Just when the Nationals were beginning to be competitive, Zimmerman started dealing with a laundry list of injuries.  Shoulder issues eventually moved the Gold Glove-winner across the infield to first base.  Seasons have been hijacked due to an abdominal strain and an oblique injury.  This year Zimmerman played just 52 games (fewest since his September call-up in 2005) while dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.  He finally returned on September first with the rest of the 40-man roster expansion.  After hitting .283 over 53 at bats in the season’s final month, Zimmerman was no guarantee to be a fixture in the lineup.  Matt Adams offered more power (20 homers) while Howie Kendrick was hitting a career-high .344.  Kendrick likely had to play first because second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera was coming off of a 21-RBI September.  The Kendrick-Cabrera combination at first and second base started the Wild Card Game.  “I played with him in 2014 here,” Cabrera said. “He was one of the best teammates, he’s a professional outside (of) and on the field. You want to do everything that is possible to do the best for the team and him.”

Autumn weather can defy explanation though;  it’s not as much of a straight line straight line between the seasons as it is an eventual progression from summer to winter.  And this October Zimmerman has turned back the hands of the clock, hitting .290 with a homer and five RBI over nine games.  His biggest hit was that broken-bat (more of a splintered or shattered bat) single in the Wild Card Game that set up Juan Soto’s go-ahead single in the eighth inning.  “What he’s doing now does not surprise me one bit.” Manager Davey Martinez said. “The biggest thing for him was his health. If you get a healthy Ryan Zimmerman, the product on the field speaks for itself.”

Somehow from the ashes of a 19-31 season this team surged and then scraped its way into the playoffs.  Somehow from 3-0 deficits in the Wild Card Game and Game Five of the NLDS the Nationals found a way to be the team still standing when the final out was secured (a fly-out to centerfield in both cases, just like the NLCS).  And somehow Ryan Zimmerman gets to enjoy being a key part of one historic run.  “Now to share a clubhouse with him again it’s been really special,” Doolittle said. “I’m really happy for him as somebody who’s been here from the beginning of this version of Washington baseball.”

How long will Zimmerman’s extended autumn last?  The 35-year old is in the final year of the contract extension signed way back in February, 2012.  There’s a club option for 2020 worth $18 million (his salary the last two years), or the team can buy out the deal for $2 million.  To say it’s extremely likely the Nationals will take the buyout route would be a major understatement.  But to also say that the veteran wants to come back and play his final days in Washington, even at a reduced rate and playing time, is also a major understatement.  This has become home for the Virginia Beach native and his family, and the only major league home he’s known. “Playing in the big leagues for this long you consider yourself lucky,” Zimmerman said. “To be able to do it with one team and one organization. Being involved in the community and have friends that I’ve met that I’ll be friends with far longer than I’ll play baseball.  It’s a pretty cool situation.”  He has at least four more games before those decisions need to be made, but the face of the franchise hopes to be safe at home here in Washington for 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nationals entered September knowing they were going to play 24 of 28 games against teams with winning records, and they also knew the centerpiece of the season’s final month would involve 13 straight games against division leaders. The team is 6-8 so far this month, and while they’ve lost three of four series they’ve yet to be swept.  Last week’s 3-3 mark kept the club in the lead for the NL’s first Wild Card, although the 0-4 mark in September series openers reminds one of the first two months when the team was 2-14 in such games.  While the NL East is but a pipe dream, the Nats are still very much in the driver’s seat of the playoff race.

Meanwhile, Nationals Manager Davey Martinez left Sunday’s win over Atlanta with chest pains and was taken to a hospital.  He underwent a cardiac catheterization and will undergo more tests in the hospital.  General Manager Mike Rizzo said there is no timetable for his return, putting the team in the hands of bench coach Chip Hale for the time being.  Thoughts are with the skipper as he recovers.  

Digesting the Division- Atlanta (93-58) didn’t clinch in DC, and we’ll take that as a victory.  They did take 5 of 7 between the two teams this month and slice their magic number to four.  The Braves also own a nine game lead for the second best record in the National League, meaning their magic number to clinch home-field for the NLDS is also four.  Can they catch the Dodgers?  They trail the NL West champs by four games at this time.

The Wild, Wild Race- the Nats own a game and a half lead over the Chicago Cubs for home field.  Nationals play 8 of their remaining 14 games at home and 11 against winning clubs.  The Cubs lead Milwaukee by one game for the final playoff spot, and hte Brewers play their final 13 games of the season against sub-.500 squads.  The Mets (four games behind the Cubs) also have an advantageous schedule with 10 of 13 remaing games against losing clubs.  Philadelphia and Arizona are window dressing at this time.

O’s Woes- the Birds reach the 100-loss plateau for the second straight season, the first time that’s happened since the franchise moved to Baltimore.  Right now they trail Detroit in the race for the first overall pick in next year’s draft.  I hope they know what they’re doing from a tank standpoint.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce batted .211 with a homer.  The former face of the franchise is now hitting .253 with 31 HR and a career-high 102 RBI. He’s also four strikeouts shy of matching his career high of 169.

Last Week’s Heroes- Howie Kendrick batted 8-for-16 with a team-high 4 RBI while Victor Robles hit .350.  Anibal Sanchez posted two solid starts, allowing just a pair of earned runs over 14 innings. Stephen Strasburg struck out 7 over 6 frames to post his 17th win of the year.  Sean Doolittle, Javy Guerra and Daniel Hudson posted scoreless weeks out of the bullpen.

Last Week’s Humbled- Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Eric Fedde, and Aaron Barrett were each touched up on their respective ways to ERA’s of 10+.  Trea Turner hit .167, Asdrubal Cabrera went 2-for-14 while Yan Gomes batted 2-for-17.

Game to Watch- Monday Stephen Strasburg pitches the series opener against the Cardinals, who counter with 15-game winner Dakota Hudson.  If this team is going to reverse its recent slide, the series opener is a great way to start.

Game to Miss- Friday the Nats meet Miami and start Austin Voth against fellow rookie Robert Dugger. After 13 straight games against division leaders, it’s okay to take this one off.

The Nationals are almost two thirds of the way through the regular season, and in two days they’ll learn two important things:  how they stacked against divsion-leading Atlanta and how they’ve addressed their issues at the trading deadline.  Yes this is now  no longer the “non-waiver trading deadline” as in previous summers, but the actual hard-line trading deadline.  Unless you’ve been on vacation since mid-March, you probably realize what the Nats’ needs are this late-July (as has been the case most midseasons during this recent run of contention):  the bullpen.  The relief corps has given little relief (a big league-worst 6.04 ERA is 2.63 runs higher than the starters’, the biggest gap in the majors) and for every Sean Doolittle (6-2 with 23 saves and a 2.72 ERA) there’s a Matt Grace (5.93 ERA over 45 appearances) and Kyle Barraclough (6.66 over 33 outings), with experiments like Trevor Rosenthal (don’t get me started) blowing up in their face.  Who will they bring in and at what cost are two key questions this week- because one of the byproducts of contending for the better part of this decade has been that the Nats have been buyers more often than sellers at the expense of the farm system.

 

Digesting the Division-  NL East-leading Atlanta went 2-3 to slip to 62-44 as their lead over the Nationals shrinks to five and a half games.  The Braves have also lost 7 of their last 11.  The Nats (56-49) lead Philadelphia (55-50) by a game;  the Phillies’ 3-2 week saw them almost get swept by the Braves at home.  The New York Mets (50-55) are coming off of a 5-1 week and seemingly look like buyers (Marcus Stroman?).  Even Miami (40-63 after a 4-2 week) is regressing to the mean.

The Wild Wildcard- while technically there’s a three-way tie for two spots, either St. Louis or the Chicago Cubs (or Milwaukee who’s a game off the pace) would grab the NL Central-meaning there are five teams within three games fighting for two spots.  San Francisco (54-52) brings up the rear but just like the Nats has stormed back from being 12 games under .500 to contend.  The Giants were sellers one month ago at 35-47, but after a 19-5 run now might not have bullpen pieces (Mark Melancon) available for rental.

O’s Woes- don’t look now, but the Birds are 8-8 since the All Star Game and at 35-70 are on pace to finish seven full games better than last year’s disaster.  Hats off to outfielder Stevie Wilkerson, who became the first position player in MLB history to save a game last week.  Bats off as well–as the rookie is hitting .223 this year with 11 walks and 72 strikeouts.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce batted 3-for-19 with 11 strikeouts as his average drops to .254.  The former face of the franchise is on pace to hit 28 homers with 112 RBI.  While he’s likely going to set a career high for doubles (Harper’s got 30 already–eight shy of the 38 he had during the MVP year of 2015) Bryce is also on track to strike out 195 times.

Last Week’s Heroes- Stephen Strasburg went 2-0 while striking out 17 over 13 innings while driving in a run to help his cause Sunday.  For the record, the Sledgehammer has more RBI (6) this month than earned runs allowed (4).  Sean Doolittle saved a pair of games while Patrick Corbin tossed six scoreless innings in his lone outing.  Gerardo Parra hit .667 with 5 RBI and continues to get the DC area exposed to the “Baby Shark” song. Anthony Rendon hit .320 with 9 RBI while Trea Turner batted .367 and scored 6 runs.

Last Week’s Humbled- Howie Kendrick hit 3-for-17 while Juan Soto hit .192 for the week.  The Nats bullpen remains an occasional disaster with Kyle Barraclough (ERA of 27.00) and Tony Sipp (20.25) coughing up leads and Joe Ross (11.57) making shaky spot appearances. Max Scherzer’s back is still not right and he may miss his scheduled start this week against Atlanta.

Game to Watch- Monday the Nats battle the Braves as Patrick Corbin (8-5, 3.25 ERA) faces Dallas Keuchel (3-3, 3.50 ERA after his midseason signing).  With Max Scherzer a question mark and Strasburg not starting in this series, the opener looms even larger.

Game to Miss- Tuesday if Scherzer can’t go, it will likely be another “opener” or “staff” game.  The 21st century has seen a lot of great advances in sports. This is not one of them.