The Curse Lives On; Nationals Lose to Cubs

Put a “Curly W” in the books for the DC Curse… and another “L” for the Nationals.

This may be the most gut wrenching of them all. For a team that’s suffered 3 straight NLDS game 5 losses before tonight, including one in which they led 6-0, that’s telling. Of course, in true tragic and familiar fashion the Nationals took an early lead as the offense finally woke from its slumber to put up a 4 spot in the second. The hero of that second inning was Michael Taylor, who in consecutive at-bats going back to game 4 was responsible for 7 RBIs. While Gio Gonzalez labored through 3 unimpressive innings, the thinking was that this time, our deep bullpen would carry us through. Well….think again.

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The relief efforts started innocently enough as Matt Albers came on and pitched a scoreless top of the fourth. Then, it was Max time. Scherzer had pitched brilliantly in game 3, throwing 6 hitless innings before giving up his first hit in the seventh and being pulled. He retired the first two hitters in game 5, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who happen to be the Cubs best hitters. From there, disaster struck. Three hits, an intentional walk, a passed ball, a dropped third strike, catcher’s interference and a hit by pitch — all with two outs and suddenly the 4-3 lead had turned into a 7-4 deficit in a hurry. A lead washed away, an electric crowd silenced in disbelief.

Somebody must have it out for Dusty Baker. The 68-year-old manager of the Nats has seen enough heartbreak on the baseball field to last two lifetimes. Now (seemingly) 0-10000 in elimination games, everything he does in these types of games always seems to backfire. Even his good moves go against everything we’ve come to count on and expect. Start Jayson Werth in the 2nd spot again? He gets on base 4 times and has the best at-bats on the team. Everything else? That’s the story of the misery of Dusty Baker in the postseason. Starting with Max’s incredibly unlikely outing, everything fell apart for Dusty and the Nats. Brandon Kintzler and Sammy Solis combined to give up 2 more runs when they needed shutdown innings in the worst way. So, even after the Nats score 3 runs in the 6th and 7th, they still trailed 9-7 heading into the bottom of the 8th.

The bottom of the 8th might go down as the opening scene in the Dusty 30 for 30. The inning started beautifully as Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon drew leadoff walks to bring up the pitcher spot (switched into the 7th hole) and everyone’s favorite blonde, Adam Lind. Sticking to the tragedy script, Lind of course grounded into a double play on the first pitch. What followed the double play is beyond words. After Taylor singled in Murphy (8 RBIs in 2 games, never buying a beer in DC ever again) Jose Lobaton singled up the middle. Lobaton, the backup to starting catcher Matt Wieters had been inserted as part of a double switch an inning earlier. This after Dusty had the chance to pinch-hit for Wieters with Lind or Howie Kendrick with the bases loaded, but instead watched as Wieters flew out to end the inning.

Back to the bottom of the 8th inning; Taylor on second, Lobaton as the go-ahead run and Trea Turner up to bat against a laboring Wade Davis. As Turner worked the count in his favor 2-1, Lobaton drifted too far off first trying to get a secondary lead and Wilson Contreras almost picked him off. As the bang-bang play was replayed, Lobaton appeared to slightly lose his footing on the bag and Joe Maddon promptly challenged, and of course won, because he’s not Dusty Baker. Just like that, the inning was over and Davis was spared. 3 outs later in the bottom of the 9th, the Cubs advanced and the Nationals were bitterly sent home for the winter once again.

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It’s too soon to ask, where do we go from here? A loss like this is going to be very hard to move past for a long time. It’s understandable if you want to blame Dusty or the bullpen or the lineup, but the blame game has been played before and we’ve still lost in Division Series 4 consecutive times. While you can’t say Dusty was the sole reason the Nats lost the series, his moves over the course of the 5 games will be justifiably questioned throughout the offseason. With his contract up, it will be interesting to see what the Lerners and Mike Rizzo decide to do. For now, we’re left with the same depressed feeling as D.C. sports fans, another year where we’re left saying the familiar phrase, “well there’s always next year”. What a disappointing way to end such a promising season. The Curse lives on!

Nationals Game 149; Win Number 90

On a night when the Nationals acknowledged and celebrated the most dominant Air Force in all the World, the US Air Force, the Nats and Dodgers took the field in the third game of a three game series to claim their place as the most dominant team in the National League.  The Dodgers got much needed quality pitching performances from Alex Wood and Rich Hill, two starters slated to be a big part of the Dodgers playoff rotation plans. The Nationals on the other hand countered with Edwin Jackson and A.J. Cole, two pitchers who may not even make the playoff roster, depending on how things shake out.  

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You could say that this series doesn’t mean much considering the Nats wrapped up the NL East what seems like months ago, even though it’s only been a week. Since clinching, the Nats have lost 4 out of 5 games, you might call it a bit of a hangover. The Dodgers came into DC a bit of a wounded dog.  Yes, they were on a 2 game winning streak, but that was after losing 11 in a row and 16 of their last 17. To say the Dodgers were struggling would be quite the understatement. The Dodgers began this losing streak with a record of 91 -37, that’s 54 games over .500! Even after all that losing, they still held a 92 -52 record and a 10 game division lead over the 2nd place Arizona Diamondbacks.  Coming into this series the Nats were 5 games behind the Dodgers for the best record in the NL. A sweep, brings it down to 2 games, with 14 left to play…anything can happen.   Losing the first 2 games pushes the Nats to 7 back. A loss Sunday, and the Nats fall 8 back and all of sudden the once dormant Dodgers (if you can call a 95 win team dormant) are now on 5 game winning streak and feeling good about themselves.

Tonight, Stephen Strasburg, one of the heads of that Nationals dominant two headed pitching monster along with Max Scherzer, took the mound to face the Dodgers. Strasburg came in hot, having pitched 34 straight scoreless innings.  Observers will tell you he hasn’t been perfect during this streak but he has been getting himself out of trouble, if ever he found himself in it.  The Dodgers countered with Hyun-Jin Ryu, a  lefty pitcher with a nasty curve and an average fastball. Ryu is a good pitcher but isn’t likely to be part of the Dodgers rotation.  Also sitting for the Dodgers were Adrian Gonzalez and Again, tonight was a matchup between two teams that may look a bit different if they meet again in October.

Strasburg, for his part, had some slight control issues in the early innings, giving up 2 walks and hitting a batter in the first 3 innings. Hiis scoreless streak ended at 35 innings after conceding a double to Logan Forsythe that scored Yasiel Puig. That said  he still managed to strike out 7 batters through 5 innings and kept the Dodgers at bay. The Nats offense however seems to have collectively slumped. Ryu, initially seemed to continue the string of strong Dodger pitching performances in this series but got chased by after throwing 98 pitches in 4⅔ innings, not having allowed a run but walking Strasburg and lead off hitter Trea Turner.

In the most controversial moment of the evening, the next batter Jayson Werth lined an 0-2 pitch from reliever Ross Stripling down the left field line. The 3rd base ump immediately called the ball foul. Strasburg stopped half way between 3rd and home, with Turner on his heels. Nationals manager, Dusty Baker immediately called for a challenge and review by the league offices in NY. The crowd was certain the call would be overturned, only to be disappointed by the upholding of the call on the field.  Boos rained down on the umps and Werth flew out to centerfield to end the inning.

In the bottom of the sixth, the heart of the Nationals lineup made some noise. Following an Anthony Rendon walk, Daniel Murphy lined a sharp single to center for Ryan Zimmerman.  Zimmerman crushed a 3-1 90 mph slider over the right center field wall for a 3 run homer. Strasburg  was done after six very strong innings giving up 3 hits, 1 run, 3 walks 1 hbp and 8 strikeouts on 94 pitches.

It was then on to Baker’s trusty bullpen beginning with Brandon Kintzler who breezed through the top of the 7th on 10 pitches. Ryan Madson pitched the eighth, getting off to a shaky start giving up a hard single to right by Corey Seager. Seager advanced to second on an error in the field by Werth. Madson would then retire Justin Turner, Cody Berlinger and Yasiel Puig in order to end the threat.  Sean Doolittle came into the game in a non save situation and closed out the game getting the final three outs around a harmless single and walk.

The Nats added another run in the seventh on a Rendon double down the left field line that scored Werth who legged it home all the way from first. The Nats used the long ball to pad the score in the bottom of the eight with, Zimmerman hitting his 2nd homer of the night over the scoreboard in right center to make the score 5-1 and Adam Lind hitting a sharp 2 run homer to left Center into the visitor’s bullpen.

For one Sunday night in September, all was well again in Nats Park. Not much can really be made of this series. Dusty definitely wanted this win tonight, leaving nothing to chance. He got just what he needed from Strasburg and the law firm of Kintlzer, Madson and Doolittle. Zimmerman and Murphy went a combined 6 for 8 tonight reviving the slumping lineup.  There are still 13 games left in the season before meaningful baseball is played in Nats park again. Until then, expect Dusty to rest some of the regulars and to tinker with some lineups as he figures out his 25 man roster for the playoffs.

Gio Speeds Up As He Loses Velocity

When you take a look at the stats below, you might be amazed at the differences, or lack thereof, of the dominance that each pitcher has displayed: (All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference)

Pitcher A: W-L: 12-5, ERA: 2.39, IP: 162.0, SO: 150, WAR: 6.3, ERA+: 185

Pitcher B: W-L: 12-5, ERA: 2.25, IP: 160.1, SO: 220, WAR: 6.1, ERA+: 197

Based on the high strikeout total you probably figured out the Pitcher B is Max Scherzer, having another incredible season that has him ahead of the pack for his second consecutive CY Young Award (barring an extended DL stint due to neck issues that have continued to bother him). To the shock of all around baseball, Pitcher A is none other than Gio Gonzalez, having one of the quietest great seasons in recent history. How can a pitcher with a 4.57 ERA a year ago with declining Fastball velocity be so dominant just one season later? It seems unfathomable to comprehend, but that is where things stand with Gio this year.

Everyone knew the Nationals had a great rotation going into the season. It is one of the many reasons they were picked to win the NL East and challenge the Cubs and Dodgers in the playoffs. When analysts and smart baseball guys talked about the rotation, most mentioned the obvious names such as Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Some expected the continued excellence of Tanner Roark and that Joe Ross might make the leap this year in his third season. There was even high praise for hotshot prospect Erick Fedde after a strong spring and after the Nationals traded away Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez over the winter. The least talked about holdover from last season’s rotation was Gio, a pitcher seemingly in decline and who has been unable to throw enough strikes throughout his career. Now, with Joe Ross out for the year after having Tommy John Surgery, Scherzer currently on the DL, Strasburg just having returned from the DL, and Roark struggling this season, Gonzalez has been the steadying force in the rotation throughout the entire year.

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ERA+ is a stat that measures how much above or below average a pitcher is over the course of a season. Factors such as the average ERA around baseball as well as the nature of the ballpark (hitter or pitcher-friendly ballpark) are taken into account with a baseline of 100. According to B-R, Gio Gonzalez has been 85 percent better than the average pitcher around baseball this year. This is a shocking turnaround given that Gio was 9 percent below average last season. The ERA+ last season demonstrated a continued trend over the last few seasons as it had gone from 138 in his awesome 2012 season (his first with the Nats) to the measly 91 he put up last year. All the advanced and non-advanced pitching stats point to a pitcher coming into his own after a few down seasons. His innings per start are up over 6 IP/start after checking in at 5.1/IP start last season. While he’s still walking a few too many guys, he’s managed to give up only 6.6 H/9 after giving up more than a hit per inning the last two seasons. All of this begs the question of how has he done it?

Watching Gio Gonzalez in recent years was akin to a slow climb up a sloped mountain. There was a lot of talking to himself, lots of pacing aimlessly, and a very slow, methodical approach. This year, Gio has continued to talk to himself, but the rest of the experience has sped up exponentially. He’s pitching with confidence and a renewed sense of self-belief even with declining velocity. The most basic way to look at this is how he’s fared when facing batters with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP). Last season the league batted .333/.406/.507 in those situations as he essentially turned every hitter he faced in that situation into Jose Altuve. The season before, those numbers were .272/.333/.424. Thanks to an improved pace and a belief in his stuff, the numbers this year are .121/.220/.168, numbers that reflect a below-average hitting pitcher.

While it would be too simplistic to say that Gio is better because he’s pitching faster, watching him this year reveals a much more relaxed and calm individual on the mound. He’s learned to take a deep breath when things don’t go his way and focus only on the next batter and the next pitch and not what just happened behind him. Even when he’s fallen behind hitters, he has had the confidence to come right after them and make his pitch and get the outs. There is no stat to back this up, but it seems like he’s given up 0 hits to batters that he’s fallen in the count 3-0 to. The same self-confidence is evident in Stras this year and it might be time to give Mike Maddux the due he deserves for the work he’s done with the staff this year. He’s gotten everyone to buy in and believe in their stuff; it is one of the reasons that the starters are pitching with more confidence and going deeper into games.

With Scherzer due back shortly and Strasburg pitching strongly in his first game back from his DL stint, the Nationals rotation is set up very nicely at the top. Given that Strasburg missed the 2012 and 2016 postseasons and Scherzer was not around in 2014, the continued excellence of Gio this year gives the Nats hope for their best playoff rotation yet. With tough lefties such as Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber Cody Bellinger, Curtis Granderson, and others looming in the playoffs, Gio will play a key role in just how far the Nationals advance this year. That is no longer scary thought for the Nationals and their fanbase.

Nationals Bullpen is Red-Hot; Dusty Keeps Adjusting Roster; ESPN / Robert Lee Fiasco

Nationals Bullpen is Red-Hot; Dusty Keeps Adjusting Roster; + ESPN / Robert Lee Fiasco

Stevie, FP, Joe, and special guest Anthony (the Nats Stat Authority) sit down to talk about the red-hot Nationals bullpen and debate how much credit Mike R deserves for adjusting/trading on the fly (1m-5m). The Nationals are still missing key players but they are getting closer to a full “stud” lineup (6m-11) and Dusty continues to work his magic with the roster day in and day out (11m-14). Harper will take his time returning but they really don’t need him against the impressive Astros do they (15m-21) and don’t miss the hot take about the Robert Lee, ESPN mess at the end either! (Photo Credit: Washington Post)

Source: Nationals Bullpen is Red-Hot; Dusty Keeps Adjusting Roster; ESPN / Robert Lee Fiasco

Nationals Bench is Best in Class

Earlier this week the Nationals lineup against the Angels featured a starting outfield of Howie Kendrick, Adam Lind, and Michael A. Taylor with Wilmer Difo starting at shortstop. This was not due to a 1 p.m. start or the marathon games over the weekend against the Giants. Rather, due to the state of the Nationals disabled list (a loooong list) the team has had to make due with players that are playing out of position or ones that weren’t even on the roster to begin the year. Given the state of the lineup and the shuffling of the defense, the Nationals can be excused for potentially going through a slump or a cold streak. Instead, the backups and bench guys have helped the Nationals go to a season-high 25 games over .500 and a 14+ game lead in the division.

Photo: USA Today

The long litany of injuries began when Adam Eaton tore his knee at the end of April. That forced Taylor (who was a bad spring away from possibly being released) into the starting lineup where he’s thrived. While he’s still striking out a little too much and missed time himself with an injury, Taylor has earned the trust of Dusty Baker by playing great defense and making consistent contact more than ever before. When Jayson Werth went down at the beginning of June, Brian Goodwin was called up and has been an extra-base hit machine since his call-up, generating 35 extra-base hits in his 74 games. Of course, he now is on the DL with a strained groin that is sure to sideline him for at least a couple of weeks.

On and on the injuries began to pile up, but the Nationals have continued to roll due to the strong performances of the players filling in. After Trea Turner went down, Difo came in and has been a sparkplug atop the lineup after briefly getting benched due to a slow start. Adam Lind has been pinch-hitter and spot-starter extraordinaire filling in for Ryan Zimmerman and in left-field when needed. Even when Bryce Harper went down with a horrific-looking (thankfully not season-ending) knee injury, Kendrick has stepped up and hit 3 home runs in the last 2 games, including a walk-off grand slam to end the weekend marathon Sunday night. Losing Joe Ross and Stephen Strasburg has barely slowed the team down given the strong performances of Edwin Jackson and AJ Cole spot-starting when needed.

With a huge lead in the division that won’t be relinquished, the focus down the stretch will be on getting all the key cogs healthy and ready to roll in time for the postseason. Strasburg is due back on Saturday after a strong rehab start in Potomac earlier this week. Having missed 2 of the 3 division series the Nationals have participated in, the onus will be on Stras to remain healthy and continue dealing down the stretch. Trea Turner and Jayson Werth should soon follow at the end of the month, although Werth’s timetable has continued to shift further and further back. The consensus with Harper’s injury seems to be that he will come back with a week or two left in the season, but he said that he will not return until he’s 100% healthy.

The silver lining in all these injuries? Barring any further injuries, the Nationals will have their strongest bench crew to date heading into the postseason. With professional hitters such as Kendrick and Lind raking and young guys such as Taylor, Goodwin, and Difo getting consistent at-bats, the team will have reliable options in key pinch-hitting opportunities in the postseason. While not planned or expected, the exposure that the backups and rookies have received might give them the confidence in a key spot in October. Combine the strong bench with the best offense in the National League and a bullpen that has been lights-out since the trade deadline, the Nationals could finally have the right ingredients for a deep run in October. If all clicks and the injuries don’t resurface, D.C. could finally host its first League Championship Series game in history.