The Nationals have announced that Stephen Strasburg will return to the major leagues September 6 at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It will be Strasburg’s first big league start since undergoing Tommy John Surgery on September 3, 2010. Most players who undergo the surgery take anywhere from 12-to-18 months to fully recover and then rehab before returning to the majors. Strasburg will take the Nationals Park mound exactly 12 months and three days after his surgery date. Some may wonder why the Nationals, who are 63-70 and 23 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East, are risking his health by bringing him back for a few starts in September with Washington out of the playoff race. However, the Nationals are making the right decision by not shutting down Strasburg and instead, letting him pitch this year.
The Nationals’ decision allows Strasburg much more comfort in adjusting back to Major League Baseball. The Nationals are going to give their young minor league talent a look over the final month of the season to audition for future roster spots. Strasburg, who, after being the No. 1 pick of 2009 amateur draft went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA, 1.074 WHIP, 12.2 K/9 ratio and 5.41 K/BB ratio in 12 starts last year, is clearly the future ace of the Nationals if healthy. Therefore, there is no pressure for him to try to earn a roster spot with his performance over the final month. He can shake off the butterflies from returning to the majors and readjust to big league hitters now, rather than in the beginning of 2012 when Washington figures to field a more competitive ballclub.
The Nationals only have to look to a fellow starter on their team and a division rival’s starting pitcher to know they are making the right decision. Washington is shutting down 25-year old starter Jordan Zimmermann, who underwent Tommy John Surgery in August of 2009, to limit his innings this season. Strasburg will easily slide right into Zimmermann’s slot in the rotation, but can also learn from his experience. After going under the knife nearly the same time of the year as Strasburg did, Zimmermann returned on August 26, 2010 to make seven big league starts and re-acclimate himself to the mound. Zimmermann struggled in those seven starts, going 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA and 1.323 WHIP. However, he was able to regain his strength, shake off the butterflies and learn how to pitch again at the major league level during that short stint. Zimmermann made what is presumably his final start of the season August 28, but finished with a very good 2011 campaign, his first full season back from the surgery. In 26 starts, he went 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA, 1.147 WHIP and 124 strikeouts in 161.1 innings. His brief return to the mound last season got out all of the jitters from the stigma of returning from Tommy John Surgery and allowed him to focus on what would ultimately be a very good year in the offseason.
Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson underwent Tommy John Surgery on August 8, 2008, close to the same calender date as Strasburg. Like Zimmerman, Hudson returned the very next season to make seven major league starts. Hudson’s performance, while not poor, was below his impressive career standards. He went 2-1 with a 3.61 ERA, 1.465 WHIP and 30 strikeouts in 42.1 innings over those seven starts. However, in 2010, his first full season back from Tommy John Surgery, Hudson was stellar, going 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.150 WHIP and 139 punchouts in 228.1 innings of work over 34 starts. Returning in meaningless September games (Atlanta finished the season 86-76 and in third place of the NL East) helped Hudson learn again how to pitch in the major leagues and helped him have one of the best seasons of his career on a 2010 Braves team he was instrumental in leading to the postseason.
There will be people who accuse the Nationals of bringing back Stephen Strasburg for the final month of the season just to sell tickets. However, Washington is making the best decision not from a business point of view, but from a baseball standpoint. Like how the Braves handled Tim Hudson and Washington handled Jordan Zimmermann, bringing back Strasburg now, rather than the beginning of next season, allows him to get the fanfare of returning from Tommy John surgery out of the way and readjust to pitching in the major leagues. If Strasburg follows the model of Zimmermann and Hudson, he will struggle slightly this September, but by next September may be enjoying the best season of his career.
The third and fourth hitters in a lineup, respectively, are traditionally the most feared batters on a team. There are obviously quite a few exceptions. The Yankees bat Curtis Granderson second when everyone is healthy, and he has 36 home runs and leads the majors with 103 runs batted in this year. Ichiro Suzuki (who, despite a down year, is still the most feared hitter in Seattle’s lineup) and Jose Reyes almost always bat leadoff for the Mariners and Mets, respectively. But for a pitcher, there is nothing worse than seeing a dangerous No. 3 batter step into the box and looking over to the opposing dugout to see another dangerous weapon lurking in the on-deck circle.
Perhaps there is no 3-4 punch in baseball history quite as feared as the Yankees’ Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig duo was from 1926 through 1934 (Gehrig was the No. 5 batter on the 1925 Yankees). On the 1927 Murderers Row team, Ruth hit .356/.486/.772, Gehrig batted .373/.474/.765 and the pair combined to swat 107 home runs and drive in 339 runs. In 1930 Ruth had a .359/.493/.732 batting line, Gehrig hit .379/.473/.721 and the duo combined for 90 homers and 327 RBIs. The very next year, Ruth batted .373/.495/.700 at age 37, his final truly great season, and Gehrig hit .341/.446/.662. They smashed 46 homers apiece and drove in a combined 347 runs with Gehrig driving in 184 of them by himself, the most ever by an American League player in a season. In the nine seasons they batted third and fourth respectively, Ruth and Gehrig combined to drill 771 home runs with 2,748 RBIs. There has been no 3-4 combo that has been feared more or put up better numbers in all of baseball history.
A more modern example of the production Ruth and Gehrig put up from the three and four holes in the lineup, respectively, comes from the 2004 through 2008 Boston Red Sox. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez did not have the same longevity of Ruth and Gehrig, but there were equally as feared by major league pitchers. In 2004, their first season as a 3-4 combo and the year the Red Sox broke an 86-year drought to win the World Series for the first time since 1918, Ortiz hit .301/.380/.603, Ramirez batted .308/.397/.613 and the duo combined for 84 homers and 269 RBIs. The next year, Ortiz had a .300/.397/.604 batting line, Ramirez hit .292/.388/.594 and they combined to whack 92 home runs and drive in 292 runs. In their four and a half years as a 3-4 combo (Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers on July 31, 2008), the duo produced 354 homers and 1,120 RBIs and helped win Boston’s only two modern World Series championships.
No 3-4 combo today comes close to the Ruth/Gehrig standard of excellence. Nonetheless, there are still some very good ones that are very tough to pitch to, despite injuries limiting many of baseball’s most dangerous 3-4 duos this year. Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse don’t match up statistically (combined for 30 home runs and 106 RBIs) with the rest of baseball due to a Zimmerman injury that caused him to miss 58 games, but give the Nationals something to build around with their young and talented farm system. The Phillies have seen a similar problem with Chase Utley missing 51 games with an injury, and as a result, have seen their 3-4 duo combine of Utley and Ryan Howard combine for 36 home runs and 138 RBIs, well below what they normally produce together. The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez has missed 46 games this year, but he and Mark Teixeira have still hit 49 homers and driven in 152 runs combined. Kevin Youkilis has missed 21 games for the Red Sox, but has combined with Adrian Gonzalez to blast 40 home runs and bring home 181 runs. The Rangers have lost Josh Hamilton for 40 games, but he and Michael Young have hit 27 homers and driven in 157 runs. Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday have missed a combined 42 games to injury, but have hit 50 home runs with 145 RBIs. Cincinnati’s Joey Votto and Jay Bruce have stayed healthy, each knocking in 84 runs and combining for 51 long bombs, but have been plagued by Bruce’s inconsistency all year long. However, healthy or not, none of these duos match the Milwaukee’s Brewers 3-4 punch of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
Braun and Fielder have terrorized opposing pitchers together since Braun reached the big leagues in 2007. Their first year together, Braun hit .324/.370/.634, Fielder batted .288/.395/.618 and the pair combined for 84 home runs and 216 RBIs. The 2009 season was another remarkable campaign for the anchors of Milwaukee’s order, combining for 78 homers and 255 RBIs while Braun owned a .320/.386/.551 batting line and Fielder hit .299/.412/.602. In what is likely their last year mashing together in the lineup because Fielder is a free agent at the end of the season, the duo have smashed 53 home runs and driven in 187 runs together, the most production of any 3-4 duo in baseball. Braun is posting career-highs in batting average (.333) and on-base percentage (.404), and is also leading the National League in slugging percentage (.592). Fielder meanwhile, leads the NL in RBIs with 101, is fifth in slugging percentage (.547), and is close to matching career-highs in average (.298) and OBP (.413).
The pair also has the longevity factor, as they will have been placed as 3-4 batters, respectively, in the Brewers’ lineup for five seasons by the end of this year. They have combined to pound 343 home runs and drive in 1,052 runs in their time as a 3-4 punch. Their production together is the closest baseball has had in a 3-4 duo since Boston’s Ortiz/Ramirez combination, and they are dangerously close to the numbers that Ortiz and Ramirez put up together in the four and a half years they spent destroying opposing pitching in the middle of the Red Sox order. The one thing the Ortiz and Ramirez were able to do together that Braun and Fielder have not is consistently win. The Brewers hold a 9.5 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, and if they hold on, it would be the first time Milwaukee’s 3-4 punch has won a division and only the second time they visited the postseason. In comparison, the Ortiz/Ramirez 3-4 duo won one division but also two World Series titles together, going to the playoffs a total of three times. While it may end this offseason because Fielder is expected to sign elsewhere in free agency, the Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder 3-4 punch is the most feared in the majors today – and the best in baseball since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez bludgeoned opposing pitching in Boston’s order from 2004 through the middle of the 2008 season.
Look up the National League’s batting average leaders and Michael Morse’s name appears third behind perennial All-Stars Jose Reyes and Ryan Braun. Morse is behind only Lance Berkman, Braun and Matt Kemp in slugging percentage. The Washington Nationals’ first baseman/left fielder is in the top 15 in the National League in both home runs and runs batted in, and is in the top ten in OPS.
Michael Morse never had more than 266 at-bats in a season. From 2005 through 2010, he appeared in only 237 games, batting .291/.353/.456 with 33 doubles, 21 home runs and 88 RBIs, which is an average of 15 homers and 61 RBIs over 162 games. Not discouraged by his lack of experience, the Nationals penciled the 6’5″, 230-pounder into the Opening Day lineup in left field. Washington expected Morse, along with Jayson Werth, to help make up for the offseason losses of Josh Willingham (traded to Oakland) and Adam Dunn (signed with the Chicago White Sox). It took him a while to adjust to his new role, but Morse has responded by becoming one of the best hitters not only the in the Nationals’ lineup, but in all of baseball.
An everyday player for the first time in his career, Morse started off the season just 2-for-20. It took him 12 games before he had a multi-hit performance. Batting in the middle of the lineup, Morse didn’t hit his first home run until April 24, the same day he had his first multi-RBI day. In 23 games during March and April, Morse batted .211/.253/.268 with just one double, one home run and nine RBIs. Washington’s gamble that the physical specimen Morse would hit now that he was finally given consistent playing time in the majors was not looking like it would pay off. Morse slipped into a platoon role with Laynce Nix.
However, as soon as the calender turned to May, Morse suddenly morphed into a different hitter. During one stretch in May, he hit a home run in four consecutive games. In 85 games from May through August, Morse has batted .349/.400/.635 with 28 doubles, 20 home runs and 62 RBIs, which over a 162-game average, translated to 54 doubles, 39 homers and 119 RBIs. With Adam LaRoche out of the season with an injury, Werth struggling mightily and Ryan Zimmerman finally starting to come into form after an early-season injury that caused him to miss 58 games, it has been Morse who has shed the platoon role to become in Washington’s lineup and carried the Nationals’ offense. It looks like it could be the way for the foreseeable future.
The Nationals have never had a winning season since they moved to Washington, D.C. before the 2005 season. However, with Morse, Zimmerman and hopefully a rebound performance by Werth next season, Washington has some pieces in the lineup they can build around with their wealth of young talent. Twenty-three year old Wilson Ramos has done a solid job in his rookie season behind the plate. Up the middle, the Nationals have two young pieces in second baseman Danny Espinosa and shortstop Ian Desmond, although both have had their share of struggles this season. Top prospects Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Chris Marrero also figure to reach the majors in the near future. Combined with Washington’s young pitching nucleus that consists of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Henry Rodriguez, the Washington Nationals look to have a very bright future.
The Nationals placed a lot of responsibility on Michael Morse at the beginning of the season by asking him to help fill the shoes of Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham. Initially, Morse struggled with the pressures of being an everyday player for the first time in his major league career. However, he has settled down at the plate to carry Washington’s offense for most of the season and become one of the National League’s best hitters. At 29 years old and finally given the first opportunity of his career, Michael Morse has made the most of it, becoming a bat the Nationals can build around with their young talent to finally build a winner in D.C.
As expected, the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies have proved to be the three strongest teams in baseball this year. However, the Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays continue to shock (most of) the world by being in contention for a playoff spot. The Rays are currently the furthest out of a playoff spot, just five games behind the Yankees in the American League Wild Card race and six games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. The Diamondbacks are just three games behind the San Francisco Giants in the National League West while the Pirates are just one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central. The Indians currently stand 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central.
There were two managers who had to be replaced already this year, yet neither was fired. Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez resigned after a horrific 1-18 start to the month of June (the Marlins finished the month 5-23). The Marlins began the month just two games behind the Phillies in the NL East but ended it 14.5 games back. Florida replaced Rodriguez with 80-year old Jack McKeon. McKeon led the 2003 Marlins to a World Series Championship, also taking over the helm in Miami at midseason during that year. Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics from 1940 through 1950 until the age of 87, making McKeon the second-oldest manager in baseball history. Florida was 32-39 under Rodriguez and are 11-8 with McKeon as manager.
The Washington Nationals also had to make a midseason managerial move. Washington was in the midst of an 11-1 run, putting them over .500 for the first time since the team moved to D.C. in 2005 when Jim Riggleman quit on June 23 due to a contract dispute with Nationals’ management over his option for next year. The Nationals tabbed Davey Johnson as his replacement. Washington is 6-8 under Johnson, but was 38-37 with Riggleman guiding the team.
There have also been some notable achievements by players through the first part of the year. Derek Jeter reached 3,000 hits with a home run at exactly two o’clock at Yankee Stadium to become the first Yankee to achieve that milestone. Francisco Liriano and Justin Verlander each threw no-hitters within four days of each other, on May 3 and 7, respectively. Liriano walked six hitters and struck out two. Verlander struck out four and walked just one hitter in the seventh inning, beginning a streak of pitching at least eight innings in eight of his next 10 starts. Andre Eithier strung together a 30-game hitting streak that began on the second day of the season. The streak is the second-longest in Los Angeles Dodgers’ history and is the longest in the majors since the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman’s 30-game streak in 2009.
The first half of the season featured many close divisional races. In fact, there is no division separated by more than a 3.5 game lead. There are currently 17 teams, more than half the league, within 6.5 games of a playoff spot. This season is shaping up to have some terrific playoff races that will go down to the wire in September. Here are my predictions from the beginning of the season and how they stack up with what has happened so far this year:
1. Boston Red Sox
2. Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card)
3. New York Yankees
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Toronto Blue Jays
1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Tampa Bay Rays
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Chicago White Sox
2. Minnesota Twins
3. Detroit Tigers
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Cleveland Indians
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Cleveland Indians
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Kansas City Royals
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
1. Texas Rangers
2. Oakland Athletics
3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
4. Seattle Mariners
1. Texas Rangers
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Oakland Athletics
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
1. Atlanta Braves
2. Philadelphia Phillies (Wild Card)
3. New York Mets
4. Florida Marlins
5. Washington Nationals
2. Atlanta Braves
3. New York Mets
4. Washington Nationals
5. Florida Marlins
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Cincinnati Reds
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
6. Houston Astros
T-1. Milwaukee Brewers
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
2. Colorado Rockies
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
4. San Diego Padres
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
1. San Francisco Giants
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
3. Colorado Rockies
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
5. San Diego Padres
Last night I had nothing to do so I decided to make the trip to Nationals Park to watch some baseball. It didn’t figure to be that exciting of a game. The Cubs are one of baseball’s worst teams this year, coming into last night’s game at 35-53, losers of five of the past six games. The Nationals, on the other hand, have been playing very good and exciting baseball, winning 15 of their last 18 games heading into last night.
The Nationals were starting 36-year old Livan Hernandez, who is having a good year (19 starts, 5-8, 4.01 ERA, 121.1 innings, 1.368 WHIP), but who is also not part of the new, young and exciting generation of pitchers who throw in the high-90s with knee-buckling movement on all of their secondary pitches. His fastball barely touches 85 mph. He is throwing it at an average speed of 83.8 mph this season. He throws a slider and a changeup in the 76-78 mph range and a SLOW curveball at about 66 mph.
Opposing Hernandez was 27-year old Matt Garza. Garza can probably be placed in the beginning of the new era of pitchers. Once rated the No. 21 prospect in the minors by Baseball America, Garza possesses a killer arsenal of pitches, but has never quite been able to put it all together on the mound. In six big league seasons, Garza is 46-51 with a 4.00 ERA, 1.318 WHIP and a 2.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Those numbers are not horrible, but for a guy who can touch 97 mph (average speed: 93.8 mph) on the radar gun with his fastball and then possesses a slider, curveball and changeup, all of which can dance across the plate, it is a little disappointing. There is a reason that the talented Garza is now on his third team in six years: He has never quite been able to live up to his immense potential.
After two shutout innings, Garza morphed into a completely different pitcher when he came out for the third. He gave up a leadoff single to Hernandez. Then Roger Bernadina roped a double to right field. Danny Espinosa followed by knocking in both Hernandez and Bernadina with an RBI single to put Washington up 2-0. Ryan Zimmerman hit a nubber down the third base line, beat it out for a single, but then Garza threw the ball into the stands. Michael Morse then singled to center, knocking in Espinosa. Jayson Werth knocked in Zimmerman with an infield single to second and then Carlos Pena committed an error that loaded the bases. Wilson Ramos then smashed a double down the line, knocking in two more runs to make it 6-0, and that was it for Garza. He allowed seven hits in the third without recording an out. The Nationals would add one more that inning against Jeff Samardzija on a Bernadina RBI single to make it 7-0.
Chicago went down quietly in the top of the fourth before Rick Ankiel clubbed a double off the right field fence to make it 8-0 Washington in the bottom frame. With the big lead, the Nationals looked like they had it in the bag. Hernandez was cruising along and the Nationals bullpen, one of the best in baseball, was waiting out in right field just in case things got chippy.
In the top of the sixth, Hernandez got Starlin Castro to groundout to second. Aramis Ramirez followed with a single. Hernandez then struck out Pena swinging. With two outs and a runner on first, the score still 8-0, it was Livan Hernandez’s turn to implode. Geovany Soto singled to center. Marlon Byrd then singled to load the bases. Alfonso Soriano scored Ramirez with an RBI single to left. Darwin Barney then crushed a pitch into the gap in right-center to score Soto and Byrd. With the score 8-3 and runners on second and third, Cubs manager Mike Quade turned to Blake DeWitt to pinch-hit. DeWitt turned on a Hernandez pitch, sending it right down the right-field line. The ball would hit high off the foul ball, making it now 8-6 in favor of Washington. Hernandez, after allowing five consecutive hits, was sent to the showers and the vaunted Nationals bullpen went to work.
Todd Coffey relieved Hernandez and retired Kosuke Fukudome on a lineout to center to finally end the top of the sixth. In the top of the seventh, Coffey got Castro to line out to left to leadoff the inning. He would follow by walking Ramirez. With the left-hand hitting Pena coming up to the plate, Nationals manager Davey Johnson elected to bring in southpaw Sean Burnett. It did not take long before this move backfired. Burnett threw one pitch. Pena launched it into the right field bleachers to tie the game. Just like that, the Nationals had blown an 8-0 lead.
Things began to get really interesting here. Sean Marshall came out of the bullpen for Chicago and retired the side in order in the bottom of the seventh. With the game tied at eight in the top of the eighth, Washington turned to the laser-throwing Henry Rodriguez. Rodriguez hit 100 on the radar gun with almost every fastball and threw a slider where the bottom just seemed to fall out. He struck out Reed Johnson before Fukudome grounded out weakly to second. With two outs, Castro lined a double into right-center field to set up the first of many high-pressure, late-inning situations of the night. Runner on second base, two outs and Ramirez coming to the plate. Ramirez worked the count full before lining a single into right-center field to score Castro and give the Cubs their first lead of the game at 9-8.
The Cubs stuck with Marshall for the bottom of the eighth. Bernadina led off with a single. Espinosa tried to bunt him over, fouling off both bunt attempts before striking out. The Nationals didn’t fool around bunting anymore with their best hitter coming to the plate. Bernadina stole second on the first pitch before Zimmerman eventually grounded out to second, moving Bernadina to third. With two outs, Michael Morse stepped up to the plate. There have been few hitters in baseball who have been hotter than Morse. In 51 games since May 8, Morse is hitting .335/.389/.682 with 15 doubles, 13 home runs and 37 RBIs. On the first pitch, Morse hit a hard groundball through the middle of the infield to knock in Bernadina and tie the game at nine. Marshall retired Werth to end the inning, but as things headed to the ninth, the game took on an extra-innings feel.
Naturally, in a game that felt like it was going to extra innings, the Cubs scored the very next inning to put that in jeopardy. Tony Campana reached on a fielder’s choice with two outs and then stole second on the first pitch to Barney. Barney worked the count to 3-1, then smashed a pitch to his liking for a double down the right field line to give the Cubs the lead again, 10-9.
The Nationals, who had won nine straight one-run games at home, were not going to go down without a fight. Chicago brought in their closer, Carlos Marmol, who promptly hit Ankiel to lead off the inning. Ramos then bunted Ankiel over to second base. With the struggling Ian Desmond due up, Davey Johnson elected to send up 43-year old Matt Stairs. Marmol threw the first pitch to the backstop and Ankiel went to third base. The Cubs brought the infield in. All Stairs needed to do now was loft a flyball to the outfield or hit a groundball through Chicago’s drawn-in infield to tie the game and guarantee extra innings. Instead, Stairs hit a weak pop-up in foul ground down the third base line. Ramirez caught it for the second out. Now Rodriguez was due up, but Johnson decided to send up the dangerous Laynce Nix. Marmol wanted no part of Nix, throwing a 3-0 slider nowhere close to the strike zone to walk Nix on four pitches. The Nationals had runners on the corners with two outs and Bernadina coming to the plate. Alex Cora pinch-ran for Nix and stole second base, giving Washington two runners in scoring position with two outs. Bernadina already had two hits on the evening. Marmol got the count to 0-2 before throwing a fastball high. With the 1-2 pitch, Bernadina lofted a flyball to right field to end the game and give Chicago a wild, 10-9 victory.
Last night’s Cubs-Nationals game might be the best game I have ever been to. The great thing about baseball is a game that doesn’t look exciting on the surface turns into a classic. An 8-0 blowout turns into an unbelievable comeback, which turns into a seesaw battle in the late innings. You never know what you will see at a baseball game. However, more often than not, a warm summer night at the ballpark turns into something you will never forget.
We are officially at, or just past (depending on the team), the midway point in the Major League Baseball season. In the sport with the fewest playoff spots, there are so many teams competing for the right to play in October. The lack of playoff spots is one of the many things that makes this sport so special. Just eight of the 30 MLB teams will make the postseason, compared to the 16 playoff teams in both the NBA and NHL and the 12 NFL teams that vie for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Having such few teams make the playoffs creates a strong emphasis on succeeding in the regular season, and as long as baseball’s regular season is, we have the potential to see some very compelling races in August and September. Twenty teams either lead a division or are within seven games of a playoff spot. There is no division separated by more than a four game lead.
A number of surprise teams remain in the mix for a playoff spot. Behind Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates sit at 41-39, just two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. The Arizona Diamondbacks are two games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West and three games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card race with a record of 44-38. The New York Mets and Washington Nationals are 5.5 and 6.5 games behind Atlanta in the Wild Card race, respectively.
In the American League, few thought that the Cleveland Indians would spend 80 days during the first half of the year leading the Central. The Indians have stumbled slightly, but are 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers right now. Rookie sensation Michael Pineda has helped the Seattle Mariners come within 3.5 games of the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers in the West, even though the Mariners have been outscored by 13 runs this season and have a record below .500, at 39-42. After losing Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano and their entire 2010 bullpen to free agency and various trades, the Tampa Bay Rays sit just four games behind the New York Yankees in the East and 1.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card. The Rays are 45-36 despite having star third baseman Evan Longoria play in only 53 games during the first half of the season.
The first half of the Major League Baseball season featured many storylines, but none may be more compelling than the playoff races that will determine the fate of the 20 teams who have their eyes on the postseason. There will be teams who falter down the stretch during the second half of the season. However, with so many teams fighting year in and year out for one of the precious few trips to the postseason, baseball’s emphasis on a strong regular season is unrivaled by any sport. With 20 teams in competition for just eight playoff spots, the next three months of the season will feature postseason races that come down to the wire and show just why baseball is so special.
There have been few bright spots in the Nationals’ history since moving to Washington, DC before the 2005 season. In the Nationals’ six full seasons in DC, the team has posted only a .423 winning percentage. But as Danny Espinosa’s 12th home run of the season sailed over the right field fence in the 10th inning last night to give the Nationals a 7-4 victory and series sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals, who came into the series in first place in the National League Central, there is suddenly a lot of reason to believe that Washington’s fortunes will change for the better in the near future.
Last night’s win has put the Nationals on a six-game winning streak. You would have to go back to August of 2009 to see the last time the Nats accomplished such a feat, when Washington won eight games in a row. While Espinosa made an error last night, the Nats had gone 130 2/3 innings, or 14.5 games, of clean baseball before that. Offensively, Jayson Werth started things off yesterday with his first career leadoff home run, but also the first homer by a National in the first inning all year. Roger Bernadina followed up with his second home run of the year, making it the first time since Brad Wilkerson and Jose Vidro did it on June 16, 2002 that the Nationals/Expos hit back-to-back home runs to start off a game. With Espinosa’s game-ending homer, it represented the first time in Nationals/Expos franchise history that they hit both a leadoff and walk-off home run in the same game.
While yesterday represented a number of firsts for Washington, the Nationals have been playing very good baseball throughout June, winning 11 of their last 16 games. During this six-game win streak, the Nationals have won in almost every conceivable way, with last night’s walk-off to a 10-0 blowout over the Cardinals the previous night to a high-scoring 8-6 victory in the first game of the series against St. Louis to a pair of 2-1 nailbiters and then a 2-0 victory over the San Diego Padres.
The Nationals, who trot out five position players in the lineup who are under 30 years old and have three starting pitchers, their closer and four other relievers in the same age group, are built for the future, but it looks like all of this young talent is learning how to win now. Washington is finally starting to see first baseman Michael Morse blossom into the potential middle-of-the-order hitter they need him to be, as Morse is hitting .365 with a .425 on-base percentage, a .771 slugging percentage, nine doubles, 10 home runs and 29 RBIs since May 22, a total of 24 games. Three other potential cornerstone players, 23-year old catcher Wilson Ramors (.248/.319/.406, 5 HRs, 19 RBIs), the 24-year old second baseman Espinosa (.233/.321/.463, 12 HRs, 41 RBIs) and 25-year old shortstop Ian Desmond (.235/.273/.336, 3 HRs, 19 RBIs), have not hit to their potential so far, but the Nationals are hopeful they will go on a hot streak similar to Morse. In fact, Espinosa is hitting .286/.356/.600 with 8 homers and 21 RBIs since May 16 (29 games) and Desmond is hitting .308/.341/.308 over the past nine games. Washington is still looking for Werth to get hot and live up to the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed this offseason. Werth has struggled thus far, hitting .240/.340/.426 with 10 homers and 26 RBIs for the season but should be given more protection in the lineup now that star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has returned from injury.
What may be most encouraging about what the Nats have done recently is the fact that they have a 33-36 record despite playing baseball’s toughest schedule to this point (Nats’ opponents have had a .517 winning percentage) and having Zimmerman miss 58 games to this point. Washington is looking at the possible return of phenom starter Stephen Strasburg in August from Tommy John Surgery. Sitting just 5.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves for the NL Wild Card, the Nationals could be looking at their best record in DC if they continue to play good baseball.
The past couple weeks have given Nationals fans plenty of hope for what looks to be a bright future ahead. Former No. 1 pick Bryce Harper is tearing up Single-A Hagerstown with a .326/.421/.585 batting line, 14 home runs and 45 RBIs in slugging percentage in 63 games. Harper could be playing in Nationals Park as early as next season, joining forces with Zimmerman, Werth, Morse, Ramos, Espinosa and Desmond to form a formidable lineup next to a young pitching staff that features the 22-year old Strasburg, 25-year old Jordan Zimmerman (4-6, 3.10 ERA, 1.08 WHIP in 81.1 innings), 26-year old John Lannan (4-5, 3.52 ERA in 87 innings) and 23-year old closer Drew Storen (4-2, 2.48 ERA, 16 saves). The Nationals could also make a big play in the potential Albert Pujols/Prince Fielder sweepstakes this offseason to add another bat in their lineup. While their time in Washington has not featured may positives to this point, the future looks very bright for the Nationals in DC.