Life is Pain and Suffering; Cubs beat Nats 3-0; Lead Series 1-0

Life is Pain and Suffering; Cubs beat Nats 3-0; Lead Series 1-0

By Matthew Jacobson (@MJacobson12)

What have we done, O baseball gods? What have we done to deserve this? Despite having arguably the most complete roster in the history of the franchise, an offense that served up nearly 6 runs per game at points of the season went silent at the biggest moment against Cubs’ starter Kyle Hendricks.  Stephen Strasburg was masterful, throwing 7 innings while allowing three runs on two hits.  He struck out ten hitters, sending Nationals Park into absolute hysteria.  At times during the night, he was untouchable.  This was the start that Nats fans had been hoping for from him since the day he was drafted.  This was his moment, and was supposed to be the moment that carried the Nats to take a lead in this NLDS.

It all changed on what seemed like a harmless ground ball to Anthony Rendon in the sixth inning.  Rendon dropped the ball on the transfer from the glove, allowing Javier Baez to take first base.  He would be moved over by a Kyle Hendricks sac bunt, and would come around to score on an RBI single by Kris Bryant.  Bryant would later score on an RBI single that dropped agonizingly close to Bryce Harper.  The Cubs took a 2-0 lead that they would not relinquish.  Rizzo would knock in another run later in the game, but at that point we all knew the game was over.  Carl Edwards pitched a scoreless 8th, and Wade Davis shut it down in the 9th to give the Cubs game 1, and swing home field advantage distinctly in their favor.

Mistakes were made on many fronts; Why not bring in a matchup lefty (of which the Nationals were carrying 4) to face Rizzo in the 8th inning and a man on base? Why not pinch-hit Adam Lind with Michael Taylor on base, needing instant offense? Why even take Strasburg out the way he was pitching? Either way, if things don’t change for game 2, it’ll be 2014 all over again.  The Nationals cannot afford to fall behind 2-0 to the defending World Champions.

I personally did not expect the Nationals to win the series before this game, and now I really don’t expect them to do so, even if they do end up taking game 2.  Either way, taking a game (or multiple games) at Wrigley Field is likely too tall a task for the Nationals, a team infamous for their lack of resolve when faced with adversity, to overcome.

Gio Gonzalez looks to salvage the season against Jon Lester, a pitcher notorious for throwing in big games.  First pitch is at 5:38 on TBS. God, if you’re out there, just give us something to be happy about for once.


Perspective- Here We Go Again

Perspective- Here We Go Again

By Matthew Jacobson (@MJacobson12)

I’ve been a fan of the Washington Nationals since day one of their existence.  I have my ticket from the first Nats game I attended (July 4, 2005 against the Mets) taped to the wall of my bedroom.  I have merchandise and memorabilia just about everywhere in my apartment here at the University of Maryland.  I remember attending a game against the Phillies in 2012 where my friend and I started a “Vamos, Ramos” chant in section 101 as the former Nats catcher hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the 12th inning.  I remember being down the first base line as Bryce Harper, who would later be the unanimous MVP of the National League, crushed a walk-off home run against the Braves in early May of 2015.  I remember being at the now infamous “Kiss my Ass” game last season where Jayson Werth walked off the eventual World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.  I remember running around my kitchen screaming like a madman as 4 years before Jayson Werth told his haters to place their lips on his posterior, he walked off the Cardinals to save the Nationals and send the 2012 NLDS to a game 5.

I also remember being at that game 5 and watching a team with so much potential melt down at a crucial juncture not only of their season, but the franchise’s existence.  I remember dropping to my knees in 2014 as Aaron Barrett’s pitch got through Wilson Ramos, allowing the Giants to take a late lead in game 4 of the NLDS, one they would not relinquish en route to sending the Nationals packing.  I remember my stomach sinking as Freddie Freeman hit a walk-off home run in 2013 to eliminate the Nationals from postseason contention.  And the Mets. Oh, I remember the Mets.  All the crap their fans talk about “oh the Nats have never won a playoff series.” A team that was loaded had added Max Scherzer, prompting Bryce Harper to ask about the whereabouts of his World Series ring, only to see the God Damned New York Mets catch lightning in a bottle (that lightning has since signed a contract with the Washington Nationals) and very nearly ride it to a World Series title.  I remember the sigh of relief I experience as the Mets lost the 2015 World Series, realizing that all they would have to show for running three elite arms into the ground is an NL pennant.

The 2015 offseason seemed to be a continuation of the 2015 season, where the team melted down and appeared to be in a tailspin.  Jonathan Papelbon was still employed by the team.  Matt Williams had shown the world that he did not have the managing chops to take this team all the way.  Even worse, he constantly stuck up for Papelbon, claiming over and over again that “he’s our closer.” Papelbon physically assaulted Bryce Harper in a meaningless game at the end of the season, and Williams’ inaction alienated those who had been in the clubhouse long before Williams and Papelbon came to DC.

The Lerners sent Williams packing at the end of the 2015 season, and got Bud Black under contract to be their next manager! And then they didn’t. And then they scrambled to get Dusty Baker, who warranted or not carries a certain reputation regarding young arms and lineup construction, much to the chagrin of self-proclaimed DC sports experts who may or may not host a certain radio show in this town.  The whole debacle seemed to show that the Nationals were beginning to implode, not to mention that Bryce Harper, arguably the biggest sports star in this town, would be three years away from unrestricted free agency.  They wouldn’t pay Black, and they almost wouldn’t pay Baker (they still might not pay Baker despite back-to-back division titles).  A notably stingy ownership group who had no problem paying out the wazoo for free agents (210 million for Max Scherzer, 126 million for Jayson Werth, even 36 million for Daniel Murphy) would not pay other members of their staff adequately.

The Nationals lost out on free agent after free agent after free agent that offseason, compiling misery from a fanbase that was already preparing for the doomsday scenario.  Jason Heyward took less money to play for the Cubs, as did Ben Zobrist.  Yoenis Cespedes took less money and a different money structure to return to the Mets, where he had thrust himself into MVP contention in the second half of the 2015 season.  Even this past offseason, when the Nationals so obviously and desperately needed help in the bullpen, the likes of Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, and Aroldis Chapman all said no to the Nationals.  An organization that was seen as the future of the league and on the rise in 2012 was now, just 4 years later, considered cancerous.

And now, two years removed from that disastrous 2015 offseason, here we are.  Two division titles later, the Nationals are yet again seen as one of the best organizations in baseball.  Yet, the team, those work within the organization, and its fans, are unsatisfied.  Despite winning back-to-back division titles for the first time in their existence, the cloud of past playoff failures has loomed over the metaphorical head of this organization since that game 5 in 2012.  And with the defending champs in this year’s NLDS, it doesn’t appear to be getting easier.

I’m not going to make any predictions for the outcome of this series because I simply do not know how it’s going to end.  Since 2012, the Nationals have won the second most games in baseball, but have nothing really to show for it.  Max Scherzer threw two no-hitters en route to a Cy Young award in 2015.  Bryce Harper was unanimously elected MVP that same year, but the Nationals had their worst win-loss record since 2011 and missed the playoffs a year removed from having the best record in the NL.  This franchise has experienced so many incredible highs, and the progress that it has made in its now 12-year existence is staggering, and yet, in its biggest moments, they falter.  Game 5 in 2012, the late innings of game 4 in 2014. Game 5 just last year.  This team has the chance to flip the script and end the 23-year title drought that has sucked the life and mojo out of this incredibly passionate city.

Winning four division titles in six years is quite the accomplishment (with three different managers nonetheless).  It shows a level of dominance that is rarely achieved in the salary-cap era of sports.  But for this Nationals team to truly realize their potential, to come full circle, and to bring a little bit of joy to this city that needs even just a smidgeon of it, they cannot falter in another big moment.  Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy won’t be here after next year.  Max Scherzer won’t be appointment television forever. Stephen Strasburg might get hurt again. Gio Gonzalez’s magical season might just hit midnight in the fourth inning of game 2.  The Bullpen, something that is a legitimate strength heading into October for the first time in Nationals’ history, might channel the bullpen of playoff’s past.  It could all go to shit, we could get swept, and end the season with our tails between our legs, once again thinking of what could have been.

But what if it doesn’t?

Maybe, just maybe, things will actually go right for a DC team in the playoffs. We’ve been so used to disappointment in this region for now 24 excruciating years.  I got to experience how incredible a title is this past May, as Maryland Men’s Lacrosse ended their 42-year title drought one year after losing the title game in overtime.  I’ve tasted the champagne during a championship celebration, and believe me it was worth the heartbreak of the prior year.  The Nats have had so many of these awful moments in Octobers prior.  I like to think that they’ve learned from them, especially last year being a base hit away from potentially winning the series against the Dodgers.  This Nationals team may not be the most talented team I’ve ever seen, but you’d be hard-pressed to say that it isn’t the most complete.  Offense, defense, pitching, and the law firm of Kintzler, Madson, and Doolittle to close out important games.  This team has the ingredients to do it, it’s just a matter of forgetting about the past, overcoming the mental hurdles that may be in the way, especially for those players who have been on the team since 2011 and experienced this heartbreak first hand.

It won’t be easy; the Cubs are the defending champions for a reason, and they fought tooth and nail to get back into the postseason, especially considering the way they started their season.  They bring back their core pieces and look poised for another deep postseason run.  The only thing in their way? Your Washington Nationals.

I have no expectations for this series.  All I know is that I’m gonna drink a lot of beer, and root root root for the Nationals. And if they don’t win, it’ll be a shame.

Already on Collision Course with One Another, Nats and Dodgers Prepare for Suddenly Crucial 3-game Series

By Matthew Jacobson

Not even one month ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers looked like the greatest baseball team to ever grace the Earth. They lost a series to the Nationals early in the season, and then would not lose another series until about two weeks ago, when they began their now infamous slide, losing 13 of 14 games.  Meanwhile, the Nationals continued to hum along, playing excellent baseball despite not having Bryce Harper (the Nats are 20-13 without him), and now sit just 3.5 games back of the best record in the National League, a concept that at points in the season seemed impossible.

Dan Steinberg wrote a column in the Washington Post the other day dreading that the Nationals were “just another DC team coasting into the playoffs.” He argued that DC teams perform better on the road in the playoffs, as if playing in front of their home fans was some kind of burden that the team did not deserve to bear given the history of the region (Kozmahalakolynyk, he called the mythical beast of the DC sports curse).

For me, this series is a measuring stick of how far the Nationals have really come.  The Dodgers have been the model of consistency, winning the most games since 2012 (the Nationals are second on that list, despite having spent a fraction of the money as their Los Angeles counterparts).  The Dodgers seem like most people’s team to beat in the National League, and while the Nationals would not be on a collision course with them until the NLCS, God willing they get there, (I can’t deal with indignant NL East (Mets) fans joking about the lack of playoff series wins) this series represents a little bit of meaningful baseball before October comes.

Think about this; let’s say the Nationals take two of three, or even sweep this upcoming series with LA. That puts them in the driver’s seat not only for home-field advantage in the NLDS, but in the NLCS and potentially World Series as well, meaning that if they were to make it out of that dreaded first round, games 6 and 7 of both the NL championship, as well as World Series would be in Washington, DC. The concept that DC teams can’t win closeout games at home is baloney. You want as many home games as possible, especially in postseason scenarios. The Nationals are playing great baseball, and have played great baseball all year, yet the cloud of October failures has loomed over them since that fateful night in October of 2012.

Something about this year feels different, and it all starts with the Dodger series. We’ve got a couple weeks left before it really starts counting. Are you in?

Gonzalez Phenomenal as Nats Win Series Over Padres

Gonzalez Phenomenal as Nats Win Series Over Padres

By Matthew Jacobson (@MJacobson12)

Gio Gonzalez appears to have mastered time travel, as he clearly looks like his 2012 self, where he won 20 games.  Gonzalez has the best home field ERA in the National league, and is in the top 5 in wins on the road.  Gonzalez, who had struggled following his 21-win season in 2012, was considered an X-factor for the success of this ballclub coming into the season, especially if they were to go deep into the postseason.  Gonzalez has answered his doubters and then some.

Gio went 6.2 innings, allowing 5 hits and one run, while striking out 8 and walking just one.  He was masterful, and in a series where the Nationals have struggled to score runs, dominant pitching performances have been crucial.  Gonzalez did throw over 120 pitches, but he looked comfortable until his final batter, and with injuries to many key bullpen pieces (Madson, Romero, Glover), manager Dusty Baker felt he could extend his starter a little longer, and it paid off.

Offensively, Daniel Murphy led the way with 2 RBIs. Adam Lind continued his impressive season with an RBI double, and Howie Kendrick looks like the acquisition of the millennium, beating out a double play ball to score a 4th run in the top of the 8th inning.  Kendrick has been unreal since being traded to the Nationals, and when everyone gets healthy, it will be difficult to take him out of the lineup.

The Bullpen. Oh the famed Nationals bullpen. A bullpen where you would wonder if a 7 run lead in the 8th inning was safe but 6 weeks ago.  The Nationals bullpen was named bullpen of the week from this past week, with Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle leading the way.  The two of them were on display once again Sunday night, as Kintzler earned another hold and scoreless inning, while Sean Doolittle, dubbed “The Doctor” by our very own F.P. Santangelo, converted his 11th save in 11 tries since being traded to the Nats.

It was an impressive series win in a series where the Nationals so easily could have fallen flat on their faces. Considering the injuries, as well as the west coast time change, it was one where many fans did expect them to fall flat on their faces, but the composure this team has shown in the face of adversity has been second to none. They have adopted the “next-man-up” philosophy that all successful ballclubs have. Everyone gets hurt, it’s a matter of how you deal with the injuries, and the Nationals have dealt with them as well as they could.

The Nats kick off a potential World Series preview against the Astros in Houston this evening, with first pitch scheduled for 8:05. Tanner Roark hopes to continue an impressive run of form against Charlie Morton.  I’ll be at the Orioles game tonight, but hope to catch the end once I’m home.

Phenomenal Pitching and Heroic Zimmerman Lead Nats to 2-1 Win

Phenomenal Pitching and Heroic Zimmerman Lead Nats to 2-1 Win

By Matthew Jacobson (Follow: @MJacobson12)

The Nats hit the road for a 7-game swing, beginning with a 4 game weekend set against the San Diego Padres. In what has famously been dubbed “Late Night Nats” games, this one did not finish until after 1 AM Eastern Standard Time, despite only three runs being scored.

The Nats looked like they were going to put this game away early, with batter after batter reaching base, and Padres starter Jhoulys Chacin’s pitch count creeping ever higher.  However, the Nats could not find a crucial hit in any of the first three innings, stranding six baserunners and scoring just one run on an Adam Lind sacrifice fly.  The Padres made the Nats pay for not taking their chances, as Jose Pirela singled home Manuel Margot to tie the game in the bottom of the third.

After the parade of batters reaching base in the first three innings, the National offense went quiet.  From the third until the eighth inning, the Nationals did not record a hit, which would be frustrating in any game, but especially in a game where they had so much success getting on base early, coupled with the fact that 10 PM start times are just inhumane.  Former Nat Craig Stammen gave the Padres two quality innings in relief of Chacin, not allowing a hit and striking out 2.  I said last night on Twitter that Craig Stammen was so vital to the Nats’ prior playoff teams, as that long relief pitcher when you’re down significantly or your starter comes out due to injury is vital. Stammen was underappreciated in that role.

On a more positive note, Edwin Jackson was once again stellar.  The veteran went seven innings for the third time in six starts in DC, allowing just one run, eight hits, and one walk while striking out 4.  I was a bit surprised not to see him return for an 8th inning of work, as he had only thrown 83 pitches in his 7 innings, but with newfound confidence in the bullpen, Dusty Baker decided it was better to turn it over to the healthy portion of “The Law Firm” of Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle.

In the 8th inning, Kirby Yates took over for Craig Stammen, and after striking out Wilmer Difo and Daniel Murphy (much to the chagrin of all of us who had stayed up to watch this agonizingly terrible baseball game), Ryan Zimmerman took a fastball the other way, and over the wall in right-center field, giving the Nats a 2-1 lead. I was too tired to celebrate, so instead, I let out an enormous sigh of relief, as the Nats were in position to win it in 9 innings, and not go into extras.

Brandon Kintzler worked a scoreless 8th filling in for Ryan Madson, who was placed on the disabled list with a right finger sprain. Kintzler has been lights out since joining the Nationals, recording 9 scoreless innings.  Sean Doolittle has also been lights out since being acquired from Oakland, and last night (er, this morning) was no different. Doolittle sat down the Padres in order, preserving a 2-1 National win.

It was late, it was excruciating, it was boring, but it was a win. The Ryan Zimmerman renaissance continues this late into the season.  The bullpen, which before the trade deadline was an enormous liability, is now a great strength, which will be even stronger when Koda Glover and Enny Romero get healthy, not to mention Ryan Madson.

Long live east coast bias.

The Nats look to earn at least a split of this 4-game series tonight, once again at 10:10 PM (groan). Max Scherzer goes for the Nats against Luis Perdomo. I went last night without any supplementary caffeine, that probably won’t happen again.

Scherzer Terrific, Lind the Hero as Nats Open Homestand with Win

Scherzer Terrific, Lind the Hero as Nats Open Homestand with Win

By Matthew Jacobson (@MJacobson12)

The Nationals came home after an impressive series win over the Chicago Cubs in which they used none of their “Big 3” starters (Scherzer and Strasburg were injured, while Gio Gonzalez was away on Paternity Leave) in what was likely a preview of the NLDS.  The Nats would come home to a team that would likely not be in the playoffs in the Florida Marlins, but has played the Nationals close lately, with the teams splitting their last 28 meetings 14 and 14.

In another odd occurrence, Marlins starter Chris O’Grady was pulled in the second inning, similar to Max Scherzer pulling himself in the second inning of a game against the Marlins (O’Grady happened to be starting that game as well).  He would be relieved by Odrisamer Despaigne.  Matt Wieters would continue his hot streak with an RBI single in the second inning, giving the Nats a 1-0 lead. Two innings later, Bryce Harper mashed a first-pitch curveball over the wall in right-center, extending the lead to 2-0. For Harper, it was his 29th home run of the season, and the 150th of his career.  In the fifth, Max Scherzer appeared to be cruising along, before a Tomas Telis double and Odrisamer Despaigne single cut the lead in half. Giancarlo Stanton would tie the game just an inning later with a monster shot to left field.

With Scherzer at 94 pitches, signs pointed to him being done after that sixth inning, but he returned for a seventh inning, and after walking Ichiro on 4 pitches, he told Mike Maddux that he would get the next out (he used some NSFW language, but the point was he was going to get his 21st out) and that he did. He struck out Dee Gordon swinging on three pitches, ending his day with a line of 7 innings pitched, 5 hits allowed, 2 earned runs allowed, 2 walks, and nine strikeouts. We are truly blessed to see Max Scherzer pitch here in DC.

Scherzer wanted the win, but the Nationals could not muster a run in the seventh inning, meaning he would be stuck with a no decision.  The Nationals struggles against the Miami bullpen continued, as they got just the two runs off Despaigne, and could not score against Drew Steckenrider or Junichi Tazawa.  Brandon Kintzler worked another scoreless inning in as many appearances with the Nationals, allowing just one walk in the top of the eighth inning.  In the bottom half, it was Wilmer Difo getting things started with a leadoff single. He moved to second on an Andrew Stevenson sacrifice bunt, and to third on a Brian Goodwin groundout.  This would set the stage for Adam Lind against lefthander Jarlin Garcia.  After falling behind 0-2, Lind knocked one right back up the middle, plating Difo, and giving the Nats a 3-2 lead that they would not relinquish.

One month ago, if you told me that the Nationals were winning by a run going into the ninth inning, I would respond by asking you how many runs the Nationals allowed in the 9th inning. But here we are, on August 8, and save situation leads going into the ninth inning are not only safe, but they are secure.  Sean Doolittle continued his perfect run in save situations, working around a leadoff single to retire the next three batters he faced.  A big thing that I had noticed last night was Doolittle’s somewhat struggle to throw first pitch strikes, and last night he threw strike one on the first pitch to all four Marlins he faced.

Kintzler, Madson, Doolittle.  Finally, the Nationals have that bridge from the starter to the closer that all great teams have.  Good on Mike Rizzo for addressing an obvious need, even if it may have taken until the trade deadline.

The Nats are back in action tonight at 7:05, looking to extend their 14 game lead in the NL East. AJ Cole takes the hill for the Nationals against Vance Worley.

Nats Drop 2 of 3 in Weekend Series with Rockies

Nats Drop 2 of 3 in Weekend Series with Rockies

By Matthew Jacobson

A tough series for the Nationals, as they lose 2 of the 3 games to a very good Colorado Rockies ballclub.  The Rockies came into Washington entrenched in one of the NL wild-card spots, chasing the MLB-leading Los Angeles Dodgers, who seem like they will not lose for the rest of the season.  They have one of the best lineups top-to-bottom in the major leagues, and the Nationals knew that especially with Stephen Strasburg’s injury, this would be a “show-me” series, especially for Erick Fedde, who would make his MLB debut in game two of the series.

In game 1, the Nationals were held in check by German Marquez, who had a perfect game through the fourth inning, and would only allow two earned runs while walking none and striking out 10. Tanner Roark allowed 4 runs in 5 innings, all of which were earned. He walked 4 and struck out 8.  This interrupts an impressive run of form for the Nats’ righty, who had strung together 3 very successful outings before the first game of this series. Both Nats’ runs came from Wilmer Difo, who knocked home two runs (including newly acquired Howie Kendrick). Pat Neshek (making his Rockies’ debut) and Greg Holland held the Nats off the board, and shut down a 4-2 Rockies win.

Game two would be the slugfest that most expected coming into this series. Wilmer Difo continued his impressive month of July, despite constant criticism from one particular media outlet with a rocket of a home run. Ryan Zimmerman tied the game with a 3-run homer into the Nats bullpen, becoming the all-time home run leader in the history of DC baseball. Zim would hit another home run later in the game, but major league debutant Erick Fedde would struggle against a tough Rockie lineup, failing to really get that third strike against guys like DJ LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon, and MVP candidate Nolan Arenado.  Fedde, while many will see the results and say that his debut was a disappointment, was widely viewed by many as not ready for the big leagues, and a desperation move for the Nats with the injury to Strasburg.  Fedde is a top prospect for a reason, and the foundation is there. Give him time, Nats fans. The Nats staged a comeback effort in the bottom of the ninth, but it was too little, too late, as the Rockies secured the series win with a 10-6 victory.

Game three came just a few hours after game two, and was more like the first game in that it was not a crazy run-scoring slugfest. All the runs were scored in the fifth inning, with the Rockies striking first on a single into right field (credit Brian Goodwin with an outfield assist, throwing out a potential second run at the plate). In the bottom half of the inning, a 2-run homer from Adam Lind, and a solo homer from Brian Goodwin provided the Nats with all the offense they needed.  Edwin Jackson earned his second win with the Nationals in another impressive outing, going 7 innings allowing just four hits and one run. He struck out 6 and walked two.This was the perfect scenario for the Nats, who had used quite a few pitchers in that first game. Jackson went seven, and they used the bridge of Madson and Doolittle to close out a 2-run win, which had been so rare before the acquisition of the two formers A’s.

As of right now, the Nationals have not made a move at the trade deadline with just about a half hour to go. Howie Kendrick was acquired before the start of the Rockies series, and had himself an impressive series, tallying a couple hits.  Brad Hand is still on the Nats’ radar after missing out on Justin Wilson, who was acquired by the Cubs along with C Alex Avila in exchange for top prospect Jeimer Candelario.  The Nats have made it known that they will not move their top prospects, which is smart, but if a deal comes around, expect Mike Rizzo to pounce. Still some time before the deadline passes.

The Nats are in Miami tonight for the start of a series with the Marlins. Gio Gonzalez gets the start in his hometown against Jose Urena. First pitch will be at 7:05.