Once-Proud Nats Suffered '21 Nightmare
ALSO: EVEN WITH BASEBALL LOCKED DOWN, A WRITER WILL SKIP THE SUPER BOWL
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Did you know…
MLB has not had a repeat world champion for 21 consecutive seasons . . .
When Mookie Betts fanned on three pitches with two men in scoring position during the NLCS against Atlanta lefty Tyler Matzek, it was the first time that happened in his two seasons with the Dodgers . . .
Matzek was the first pitcher in postseason play to fan three straight hitters in the seventh or later while stranding runners in scoring position . . .
Matzek pitched for the Texas AirHogs of the independent American Association two years earlier . . .
Lefties can be lethal: in the sixth and final game of the 2021 NLCS, three left-handed relievers wearing Braves jerseys (including Matzek) retired all 15 Dodgers they faced . .
In that same series, eventual NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario became the first man to collect 14 hits in a six-game set.
The Self-Inflicted Wounds of the 2021 Season Hit Washington Nationals Hard
By Andrew Sharp
After concluding in late July last year that the Nationals were not going to compete for a post-season berth, team president and general manager Mike Rizzo jettisoned eight key players on 2021 team: future Hall-of-Famer Max Scherzer, All-Star shortstop Trea Turner, record-setting slugger Kyle Schwarber, veteran utilityman Josh Harrison. starting catcher Yan Gomes, closer Brad Hand, set-up man Daniel Hudson and veteran starter Jon Lester. That's a third of the active roster and four essential members -- Scherzer, Turner, Gomes and Hudson -- of the 2019 World Series winning team.
Certainly, most knowledgeable fans knew Scherzer was likely to be traded, given his free agency at season’s end. Washington's farm system certainly had been depleted during Rizzo's successful attempt to build and sustain a contender. Yet Nationals' fans had to be shocked at the wholesale tanking that took place.
So the Nationals’ performance through August and September came as no surprise. The nightmare began in the second game of the July 29 doubleheader in Philadelphia. In his farewell, Scherzer had beaten the Phillies, 3-1, in the first game. In the second game, the Nats jumped out to a 7-1 lead and still lead 7-4 after six innings. Against the depleted bullpen, the Phils scored three in the seventh to send the shortened game into an extra inning. The Nats scored one in the eighth, only to see the Phils win it with a walk-off grand slam in their half.
Beginning with that loss, the Nats went 18-43 -- a .295 percentage -- for the rest of the season. Washington managed to edge the Marlins for the dubious honor of finishing last in the N.L. East, the second time in the two seasons since winning the World Series that the Nationals had finished last (albeit tied with the Mets in the Covid 19-shortened 2020 season.) It’s sad enough they had to play 2020 as the defending champs in empty stadiums, but to fall so far, so fast in 2021 was just devastating.
Aside from wins and losses, how bad was it?
The Nationals bullpen set a major-league record by blowing 37 saves (10 before Hand left). No team converts every save, but what if the Nats had held on for even 10 or 12 of these leads? Only the Nats and the woeful 110-loss Diamondbacks converted fewer than half their save opportunities. Cutting the blown saves in half would have produced a .500 season. Fans care about their team at least being competitive.
After the sell-off, Washington had at best a weak AAA-level ’pen. Tanner Rainey lost the strike zone and Wander (Make Me) Suero was getting bombed. Both were banished to the minors and replaced by guys who didn’t do any better.
Nationals relievers lost a league-leading 42 games and won the second fewest (22, one more than the Diamondbacks). The Nats' bullpen ERA was 5.08, just a tad better than the D-backs -- hardly an achievement -- for worst in the N.L.
Nationals pitchers (not just the bullpen, mind you) yielded an N.L. high 247 home runs. The D-backs were next at 232. More than 18 percent of the hits given up by Nats pitchers left the yard, also, no surprise, highest in the league.
Washington's starters weren't much better than the bullpen, and the starters stats benefited from four months of Scherzer. The Nationals’ 4.80 team earned run average was topped only by the D-Backs (5.11) and the thin-air Rockies (4.82). The Nats gave up 5.05 runs per game, joining the Rockies, Cubs and Pirates as the only N.L. teams yielding an average of more than five runs every game. Had lefty Josh Rogers not come out of nowhere for six credible starts, the numbers would have been worse.
Nationals’ hitters finished the season well above the league as a whole in batting average (.258) and on-base percentage (.337). N.L. averages were .242 and .318. But the Nats’ totals were boosted, of course, by the two-thirds-of- the-season contributions of Trea Turner (.322), Josh Harrison (.294), Starlin Castro (.283) and Yan Gomes (.271). On the downside, the Nats batters hit too many rally-killing ground balls: Their percentage of fly balls was the worst in the majors.
Based on the runs scored and yielded differential, Washington should have won 72 games. The Nationals, thanks mostly to the horrendous bullpen, won 65.
So 2022, like the last two months of 2021, will be for rebuilding, but from a much deeper trench than fans expected. Rizzo is betting heavily on catcher Keibert Ruiz, right-hander Josiah Gray, and most likely center fielder Lane Thomas, players picked up in the tear down. Will all three emerge as stars? Will Stephen Strasburg return? Will Joe Ross recover? Can Will Harris come back? Does Patrick Corbin have anything left? Will Juan Soto have much protection in the Nats’ lineup? Will his frustration at getting so few pitches to hit begin to show?
Perhaps Washington fans should consider the rebuild of the Houston Astros, losers of more than 100 games three years in a row, from 2011 to 2013. The Astros lost 92 games in 2014 before becoming consistent winners (by whatever means, but that's another story.) The Nationals, when Rizzo took over, were going through similar hard times -- 100+ losses in 2008 and 2009, following by 93 losses in 2010. They nearly reached .500 in 2011 before winning their first division title in 2012. Washington fans have to hope that this rebuild will not take nearly as long.
SABR member Andrew Sharp is a retired journalist who blogs about D.C. baseball at washingtonbaseballhistory.com
This Baseball Purist Plans To Snub The Super Bowl Again
By Dan Schlossberg
Tomorrow will be a good day to keep intact my record of never having seen a Super Bowl. Most years, I don’t even know who’s playing — despite the deafening cascade of free press publicity.
People who know me realize that I’d rather attend a Groundhog Day party than a Super Bowl party. In fact, I used to throw Groundhog Day parties every year until I realized that early February in Northern New Jersey does not always coincide with decent driving weather for guests.
Add to that the punishment of a football game, which I consider three minutes of action in three hours of game. It’s like watching a squirrel crossing the street.
Even this year, when baseball spring training has been reduced to a mirage on a desert horizon, I’d much prefer digging out one of my many taped editions of the ‘Salute to Baseball’ delivered by long-time deejay Jonathan Schwartz on WNYW radio, Sirius XM Satellite Radio, and an on-line outlet called — surprisingly enough — The Jonathan Station. He was an active broadcaster for 56 years before retiring.
He always started his programs with a piece of a meaningless game, sometimes with golden-tongued Ernie Harwell at the mic, and then chime in with these magic words:
“Today, on Super Bowl Sunday, we will salute America’s only true game.”
Schwartz began in Boston and openly rooted on the air for the Red Sox, as movie critic Jeffrey Lyons does, but that merely made his New York-based broadcasts better. No Mets, no Yankees, just baseball.
Instead of the old-time music he normally shared with listeners, Schwartz played the fight song of the Montreal Expos (remember them?) or a Chicago Cubs ditty that starts with the words once uttered by broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, “Hey, Hey, Holy Mackerel, the Cubs are on their way.”
Here’s a baseball-related playlist from one of his ‘Salutes to Baseball’:
Frank Sinatra/Gene Kelly - Take Me Out To The Ball Game - Frank Sinatra In Hollywood: 1940-1964
Chaim Tannenbaum - Brooklyn 1955
Arthur Fiedler - Look Sharp! - Irish Night At The Pops
George Carlin - Baseball Vs. Football - George's Best Stuff
Jay Leonhart - Dodgers - Life On The Road: A Jazz Journey
Count Basie - Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball - Baseball's Greatest Hits
Carly Simon - Take Me Out To The Ball Game - Ken Burns' Baseball
Ted Williams - The Kid From San Diego - Unreleased Demo
Mandy Patinkin - Take Me Out To The Ball Game/God Bless America - Mamaloshen
Frank Sinatra - There Used To Be A Ball Park - Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back
Frank Sinatra - It Happens Every Spring - The Columbia Years: 1943-1952
Frank Sinatra - Don't Ever Be Afraid To Go Home - The Columbia Years:
This year, in a nuclear winter unleashed by the lockout but unlikely to end anytime soon, I had hoped to find a 2022 baseball book or magazine to fill the hours when the rest of the world is wasting its time with football. But, thanks to the labor war and the increasing intransigence on both sides, I went 0-for-the-store. Nada. Nothing.
I couldn’t even find a single reference to the 2021 World Champions. At least my own book, When the Braves Ruled the Diamond World Series edition, comes out on 2-22-22.
Spring training was supposed to start the day after Valentine’s Day. But the only things owners and players will be exchanging are slings and arrows. No hearts — not even a Jim Ray Hart baseball card.
It’s sad, it’s maddening, and it’s aggravating — especially now that it looks like the Covid catastrophe is diminishing.
But leave it to Rob Manfred and Tony Clark, who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Happy V.D. to you both.
Dan Schlossberg has been covering baseball since 1969. He’s the author of 40 baseball books, including the 2021 World Championship edition of When the Braves Ruled the Diamond, out this month. Contact Dan by e.mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Whit Merrifield, the first man to win three AL stolen-base titles since Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox in 2013, is the only Royal to lead the American League in steals more than once . . .
Starling Marte led the majors with 47 steals but did not lead either league, since he was swapped from Miami to Oakland on July 28. He had 22 steals in Miami and 25 in Oakland, making himself the first player to finish among each league’s Top 10 base-stealers in the same season . . .
Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter says he vividly remembers watching his dad play shortstop for his corporate baseball team – and playing wiffle ball in his grandmother’s back yard in West Milford, NJ.
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HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [email@example.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [firstname.lastname@example.org] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [email@example.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.