Was last night’s comeback against the Marlins a “turning point”?

Let’s get this out of way: last night’s game was fun. It was the biggest comeback in Nationals history and it came at the perfect time. It was a cathartic moment for a fan base that badly needed one. More importantly, it put the team back at .500 and a little bit closer to the top.

Ok, now that we’ve established that, can we be real for a millisecond? The Nationals didn’t score 14 straight runs because they had a “players-only” team meeting the day before. They didn’t give up 9 straight runs because of the team meeting either. To paraphrase a President from an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy, post hoc ergo proctor hoc does not apply.

The Nats won because they finally put hits in close enough proximity to each other to push runs across the plate. They scored runs because the Marlins’ starting pitcher stumbled the third time through the Nats order and generally ran out of gas. And the Nats finished erasing the 9-run deficit because the Marlins bullpen started throwing batting practice in the 6th inning.

It’s an old trick to hold a “players-only” meeting right before your star pitcher takes the mound or you face a bad team. It just so happens the Nationals finished a tough 3-game series against the best team in baseball–the Red Sox. And before that, it was the Phillies, who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Here’s another thing to consider. The Nationals had a brutal 7-16 stretch in April that started their season on a sour note. The poor record in that stretch was a bit of a mirage–the Nats lost 8 straight one run and extra inning games. Results in close games tend to regress towards the mean, and they did. After April 28, the Nats went 8-2 in one-run and extra inning games, a stretch that briefly put the Nats in first place and 10 games over .500. The luck reversed. In their 4-13 stretch before last night, the Nats lost 6 straight one run and extra inning games.

The trend will again regress to the mean. Maybe it’ll happen this weekend against Miami. Maybe not. That’s the thing with luck–we don’t know.

But we do know a bad team came to town, and the Nats recent losing skid isn’t exactly what it appears to be. A turning point was likely–“players-only meeting” or not.

By all means, enjoy the comeback. It was a memorable night of baseball. If it inspires this club, that can only be a good thing. You were bothered by the losing–I promise you it bothered them more.

I’m rooting for a big winning streak. But unless the “players-only” meeting involved steroids, we’ll have to find a more logical explanation.

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Strikeouts are fun

Last night’s Nationals game was a fun one, as far as sparsely-attended midweek May games against terrible opponents go. With the score 3-2 and two runners on base with one out, closer Sean Doolittle blew away two consecutive Orioles quad-A hitters with mid 90’s fastballs to lock down the victory. After the last strike 3, Doolittle turned towards centerfield and uncharacteristically let out a guttural scream while Pedro Severino pumped his fist behind the plate. It was a fun display of emotion from both and provided the Nats a signature moment in the young season.

Would the moment have been more fun had Doolittle acquired the last out through a routine pop up? Would Doolittle have reacted in the same way if he was forced to wait for an outfielder to catch the ball? Would it have been more or less satisfying for the fan watching on tv?

There’s been quite a bit of hand-wringing this season about the drop of “balls in play” across Major League Baseball. Pitchers are getting better and batters are caring less if they make contact. Strikeouts are up. Ground balls and pop flys are down.

Is this a reason for worry? Last night’s experience with Sean Doolittle suggests that it’s not. Strikeouts are fun. There’s something immediate and primal about a strikeout. It’s instantaneous satisfaction. When Dootlittle let go of the ball, it could have been a walk off home run or game ending swing and miss. The fan gets the answer right away. That’s the essence of sports. It’s the baseball equivalent of shot at the buzzer or 4th down throw into the end zone. That’s why Doolittle let out his scream. The game went from uncertainty to finality in a fraction of a second. It was exciting.

It also provides Doolittle, and the fans, the the gratification of conquering an opponent. Baseball is unique among sports that the majority of the action is Mano a Mano. It’s an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. Ninety percent of the time, its just pitcher against hitter. We repeat until one team has 27 outs. It’s a series of individual duels bundled into one “game.” A strikeout is the purest form of that duel.

Strikeouts provide us our best moments. Think about Stephen Strasburg striking out the side in the 7th inning of his first start. People would have cared less had he induced 3 straight ground balls. Max Scherzer’s 20 strikeout game in 2015 is another great franchise moment. Plenty of Nats pitchers have compiled 20 outs via ground balls and pop flies, but you never bother to remember them. Teams track “K’s” on the scoreboard–they don’t track ground balls. Fans stand and applaud when a pitcher gets two strikes–they’re not doing it because they’re rooting for a pop fly.

There’s a line in “Bull Durham” where Kevin Costner encourages his young pitcher to avoid strikeouts and get more ground balls because they’re “more democratic.”

Well, democracy is boring. Give me to the Dictatorship of the strikeout. There’s a reason Napoleon is in every history book.

Quick reaction to the Nationals “firing” Dusty Baker 

I’m not surprised very often when it comes to Nationals. Most big events–free agent signings, trades, firings–are telegraphed ahead of time or rational responses to a known series of events. 

But Dusty getting the axe?  That surprised me.

Maybe it shouldn’t have. Dusty managed the entire season on the last year of his contract–a highly unusual circumstance. But I attributed that to the Lerners being the Lerners.  They always have an unusual way of doing business.  I assumed Dusty would come back as long as the Nationals kept winning. And they did keep winning. Two divisions titles in two years–the only Nationals manager to that, doing what Davey Johnson and Matt Williams should have done considering the talent they managed. 

The story will come out and this will be explained, but one thing is clear: this is Mike Rizzo’s team. When Dusty was hired, I made the observation that Rizzo’s sterling reputation as GM is most marred by questionable managerial hires. He’s back to square one. I said this last time and I’ll say it again: how many chances does he get to find the right guy? 

Why is everyone so outraged about the Strasburg situation?

Nature–and the MLB postseason–abhor a vacuum. So it was only natural that a day filled with zero baseball games, yesterday, would lead to unecessary drama. 

The Nationals announced yesterday that Stephen Strasburg would not start Game 4. Dusty Baker’s press conference regarding the issue was confusing. I wrote about that yesterday. But that’s Dusty’s style, and to be honest, this decision wasn’t made by him anyway, which explains why he had trouble explaining it. 

Mike Rizzo stepped in right away, however, and was actually pretty honest about the situation. Stephen Strasburg was sick, and the team had a decision to make. Were their chances of winning Game 4 greater with an ill Strasburg or a healthy Tanner Roark?  They decided Roark, and made the the announcement, which they were required to make by MLB. Some may disagree with this decision. Strasburg is the ace, and they want him on the mound no matter his condition. This is fine. You can disagree, but I’m not sure you have a right to be outraged.  As Rizzo noted on the radio. He’s trying to win too.

Nor does anyone have the right to be outraged at Strasburg. He didn’t fly home. He didn’t tell the team he wasn’t pitching. He went out and showed the team what he had in his bullpen session. Mike Rizzo, who is paid to make these decisions, thought a fully healthy Roark gave them a better chance to win. 

The biggest outrage here seems to be the team’s “poor communication.”  I concede Dusty’s pressure didn’t really settle the issue, but other than making their manager skip the league-mandated press conference, I’m not sure what else the team could have done. They were honest, which is probably what threw off the media and public. They didn’t think Strasburg could make the start. Today, he felt well enough to do so, and the Nats adjusted accordingly. 

Some suggest the Nats should have done the opposite, named Strasburg the starter and then switched to Roark if Stephen’s condition did not improve. I suppose this could have been a viable option, but is it really a better one? What happens when they name Strasburg the starter but then word leaks he’s sick and Roark was informed by the team to be ready to pitch? Doesn’t that lead to a bigger circus? It doesn’t eliminate the uncertainty, and it adds a level of deceit to the Nats’ actions. 

The Nats had a bad situation. Their number one starter was questionable to pitch. The Nats had two options. They chose to be honest. The fact that people are so outraged about that speaks more poorly of us than it does them. 

Edit: apparently the Nats weren’t required to name a starter by MLB. Even if that’s true, it still makes sense to announce Roark the night before. It is not ideal for the likely starting pitcher to go to bed having no idea whether he’ll pitch. 

All 12 Nationals Home Openers ranked from worst to best

12. 2010 – The Nats are blown out 11-1 by the Phillies. Worse, the stadium was filled with Phillies fans thanks, in part, to Stan Kastan’s policy of selling block tickets to out of town fans before individual tickets went on sale to the public. Coming off two horrific seasons in 2008 and 2009, there’s a good argument this day was the low point in Nationals history.

11. 2009 – The Nats entered the game 0-6 and left the game 0-7 after losing to the defending champion Phillies, 9-8. By the time this game ended we were all on notice that the 2009 season would be just as painful as 2008. One bright spot: Christian Guzman went five for five.

10. 2011 – It was cold. It wasn’t even April yet. Livan Hernandez turns in a quality performance in his last opening day start. But the Nats lose a lackluster 2-0 game to the Braves.

9. 2007 – The last opening day at RFK. John Patterson got rocked and the Nationals lost 9-2 to Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins. It was an inauspicious start to the beginning of the Manny Acta era.

8. 2006 – Everything about the home opener in 2006 was a little bit of a bummer. The team was already 2-5 on their way to 91 losses. Opening Day starter Ramon Ortiz gave up four runs and the Nats lost 7-1 to a superior Mets team. The excitement of the previous years home opener had already started to wear off. Can anyone name the leadoff hitter from the home opener in 2006? Anyone? Brandon Watson.

7. 2014 – Not great weather as the Nats lose 2-1 to the Braves in part due to the Justin Upton ground rule double fiasco. The loss wouldn’t be nearly as bad if it didn’t breathe more life into the annoying “the Nats can’t beat the Braves” narrative.

6. 2016 — Tanner Roark had a rough day. After giving up 3 runs to the Marlins in the first inning, he didn’t make it more than 4 innings.  The Nationals scored 3 runs in the first inning too, which was cool, but they didn’t do much more than that.  Bryce Harper hit his 4th opening day home run, which is becoming a fun trend.  The Nats lost 6-4.

5. 2015 – The game started well. Great weather. Bryce Harper homering in his second at bat. Max Scherzer beginning his Nats career with 5 shutout innings. Unfortunately, a critical miscommunication between Dan Uggla and Ian Desmond on a routine pop-up opened the door to some Mets runs and the Nats bats were silenced by Bartolo Colon and the Mets bullpen (including recently traded Jerry Blevins). It was a foreshadow to a disappointing 2015 season. The Nats lost 3-1.

4. 2012 – Nationals win a 3-2 walk off against the Reds in the 10th inning after a blown save by closer Brad Lidge (spoiling a nice start by Gio Gonzalez). The win moved the Nats record to 5-2 to start the season. After quality end to 2011, we started to get the feeling that the Nationals were actually playoff contenders.

3. 2008 – The first game at Nats Park. The excitement of a new stadium puts this game high on the list. But Ryan Zimmerman’s walk off homerun in the 9th inning puts it higher. Unfortunately the temperature dropped steadily throughout the game. By the time Zim hit his homer, the stadium was half empty and freezing. Also, while the Opening Night walkoff provided a signature moment for the new stadium, nobody in that park thought the Nats would be contenders that season dampening some of the enthusiasm.

2. 2013 – Almost everything about Opening Day 2013 was perfect. Bryce Harper hit the first two good pitches he saw out of the ballpark. Stephen Strasburg nearly threw a shutout. And the game was over in record time. That season didn’t turn out as planned but on that day it looked like the Nats would be cruising to their second straight National League East title.

1. 2005 – This will be #1 forever. Everything was perfect. The President threw out the first pitch (and didn’t bounce it). Livan Hernandez threw a gem. Vinny Castilla almost hit for the cycle (thanks Lance Cormier). The stands were bouncing. Most importantly professional baseball was back in Washington DC.  It’ll never get better than Opening day 2005.

Ranking 30 MLB Stadiums in 30 Days: #23 Progressive Field

2016-10-06_Progressive_Field_before_ALDS_Game_1_between_Cleveland_and_BostonLast year, I achieved a life goal: seeing all 30 active MLB stadiums.  It’s a fleeting achievement though, which will become obsolete the moment the Atlanta Braves open their brand new stadium this April.  So now is the perfect time to rank the stadiums, since I’ll need a new ranking in only a few weeks.

Over the next 30 days, I’ll countdown the best stadiums in MLB–Turner Field included, since this is the last time I’ll ever get to rank it.

Rankings like this are inherently subjective.  I won’t try to give them a faux-objectivity by creating a point system like you’ll see in other rankings on other websites.  I also don’t rank peripheral factors like food, beer, and fan support.  I only care about the building and the location.  I’m ranking stadiums, not stadium experiences.

30. Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay Rays)

29. Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum  (Oakland Athletics)

28. Chase Field (Arizona Diamondbacks)

27. Rogers Centre (Toronto Blue Jays)

26. Miller Park (Milwaukee Brewers)

25. Turner Field (Atlanta Braves)

24. Guaranteed Rate Field (Chicago White Sox)

23. Progressive Field (Cleveland Indians)

The last entry on this list, Guaranteed Rate Field (formerly U.S. Cellular formerly Comiskey), carries the distinction as the last stadium to be constructed before Camden Yards changed the rules for building stadiums.  Progressive Field (formerly Jacobs Field) carries the opposite distinction–the first one to be built afterward, along with the Texas Rangers’ new stadium, then called The Ballpark at Arlington.  Camden opened in 1992–the Indians and Rangers opened theirs in 1994.  These two stadiums, even more so than the one in Baltimore, cemented the trend of retro-modern stadiums in MLB.

After it’s construction, Jacobs Field was a massive success.  Most teams see attendance booms in the first year of a new stadium.  Many fade after one season.  The Indians sold out every game at their new stadium for 455 consecutive games from 1995-2001, a streak only recently broken by the Boston Red Sox.  Of course, the Indians had great teams in the late 1990’s, but the excitement of the new stadium helped fill the seats.  There were several seasons during their sellout streak where every ticket was purchased before the season began.

Things have changed since then.  Even with a pennant winning team, the Indians couldn’t even average 20 thousand fans a night last season.  Progressive Field is now neither new, nor unique.  Eighteen different teams have opened new ballparks since the Indians first christened Jacobs Field.  Think about that.  Progressive Field is now in the top half of oldest MLB stadiums.

Had I made this list 20 years ago, there’s no question the Indians stadiums would have been ranked in the Top 10, probably Top 5.  The fact that it’s now ranked number 23 is not a reflection on the ballpark, it’s a reflection on the creativity and ingenuity being used in modern stadium construction.  This ranking isn’t an indictment of Progressive Field; it’s a compliment to modern baseball architecture.

In many ways, Progressive Field is the perfect stadium for the Indians and for Cleveland. For comparison, the Texas Rangers have already made plans to replace their stadium opened the same year.  Turner Field, built after Progressive Field, has already been retired.  As noted, the Indian’s stadium has aged, but it’s not showing it.  On the contrary, the team has continually tinkered with the stadium to keep it fresh and to current with modern trends.  A two-year renovation was just completed, adding new amenities like updated club levels and a new bar.  Most notably, they decreased capacity to roughly 35K, which is more appropriate for Cleveland’s market size.  Unlike Texas and Atlanta, it’s unlikely to see Indians fans clamoring for a new ballpark anytime soon.

Part of Jacobs Field’s initial attraction back in 1994 was the upgrade it provided from the Indians former home, Cleveland Stadium.  Commonly referred to as the “Mistake by the Lake,” Cleveland Stadium was a largely lifeless multi-purpose stadium the Indians shared with the Browns.  Too big for the baseball with over 70 thousand seats, the park would be freezing from Lake Erie winds during the colder months and swarming with midges during the warmer months.  The move to Jacobs Field presented a contrast in almost every way.

The new stadium was downtown, away from the lake winds and among restaurants and bars.  The ballpark became a centerpiece of a largely successful city downtown revitalization.  The Cavaliers now play right next door at Quicken Loans Arena.  Where Cleveland Stadium was cavernous, Jacobs Field was intimate, with seats closer to the field with improved sightlines thanks to it’s baseball-only design.  The old stadium was plain, the new one had quirks–an asymmetrical outfield and eccentricities like the mini-Green Monster in left field.  Even the stadium lights were unique–a toothbrush-like design so distinctive the team put it on its stadium logo.

Progressive Field is a hard stadium to rank.  There is nothing about it that’s lacking, but there is also nothing about it that makes it transcendent–at least not anymore.  Back in 1994, the Indians discovered the right formula to build a ballpark.  Unfortunately for it’s spot on these rankings, it’s a formula easily replicated throughout the country.

Ranking 30 MLB Stadiums in 30 Days: #25 Turner Field

Last year, I achieved a life goal: seeing all 30 active MLB stadiums.  It’s a fleeting achievement though, which will become obsolete the moment the Atlanta Braves open their brand new stadium this April.  So now is the perfect time to rank the stadiums, since I’ll need a new ranking in only a few weeks.

Over the next 30 days, I’ll countdown the best stadiums in MLB–Turner Field included, since this is the last time I’ll ever get to rank it.

Rankings like this are inherently subjective.  I won’t try to give them a faux-objectivity by creating a point system like you’ll see in other rankings on other websites.  I also don’t rank peripheral factors like food, beer, and fan support.  I only care about the building and the location.  I’m ranking stadiums, not stadium experiences.

30. Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay Rays)

29. Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum  (Oakland Athletics)

28. Chase Field (Arizona Diamondbacks)

27. Rogers Centre (Toronto Blue Jays)

26. Miller Park (Milwaukee Brewers)

25. Turner Field (Atlanta Braves)

Turner Field was a little like Atlanta itself: generic, artificial, and a derivative of something more authentic.  That sounds a little harsh, and it is, but there was nothing remarkable about Turner Field, much like there is nothing remarkable about Atlanta.  Both the stadium and the city have everything you need, but neither of them are very unique.

Years ago, the State of Georgia passed a law giving generous tax breaks to Hollywood studios filming in the state.  If you’ve noticed a proliferation of TV shows and movies with an Atlanta backdrop (The Walking Dead, almost every Marvel movie), that’s why.  On one level, it’s a basic financial transaction between corporation and municipality.  On another level, it works.  Atlanta easily passes for Generic American City for any film project where the location in fungible.  Atlanta is there, it fills the frame, but it doesn’t overshadow what’s in the foreground.

Turner Field was Generic American Ballpark.  It had a pleasant brick exterior, exposed steel in the concourse, all the modern concessions, and a giant video screen.  But it was difficult to pinpoint–other than the incessantly grating tomahawk chop music–anything about the place that stood out.

Turner Field, of course, is the only stadium in this 30 Stadiums in 30 Days countdown I refer to in the past tense.  The Braves played their last game there last fall, and the stadium is being repurposed for Georgia State football.  Atlanta will be moving to a stadium, well, outside Atlanta to neighboring Cobb County, closer to the team’s suburban fan base.  The new stadium, SunTrust Park, will be a multi-use development with office space, apartments, restaurants, a movie theater, and a bowling alley.  The strategy–and it’s not a bad one–is to generate income 365 days a year.  It’s the latest trend started to some degree by the Cubs and Tigers to benefit from non-baseball revenue near the site of your home ballpark.

But enough about the new place–back to Turner Field.  The stadium owes some its awkwardness to its origin.  It was initially constructed as the home stadium for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.  In an impressive display of civic efficiency, it was immediately converted to a baseball-only facility for the 1997 season.  The renovation was so complete, you’d never know it was constructed for track and field and not baseball.  In 2005, Turner Field was upgraded with the largest video screen then in existence along with LED displays, which frankly were oppressive to the eyesight.

Turner Field was built within walking distance to the Braves former home, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium near downtown Atlanta.  The near is critical there because Turner Field was near a lot stuff, but adjacent to nothing.  For the fan, there was nothing more to the gameday experience than the game–no walkable restaurants, bars, or anything else.  It was just a sea of parking lots.  The new stadium project will attempt to remedy that, and then some.

The outline of the old Fulton County Stadium outfield wall is still marked in the Turner Field parking lot.  This is noteworthy because the Fulton County outfield saw one of the most famous moments in baseball history, Hank Aaron’s 715th home run.  Aaron is omnipresent throughout Turner Field, along with several other notable figures in Braves/Georgia baseball history, like Phil Niekro and Ty Cobb.  Along the second deck in the outfield, the Braves displayed 14 pennants, signifying one of the most impressive feats in baseball history–14 consecutive division titles, including five pennants and one World Series win in that stretch.

Most of that recent success took place at Turner Field.  Nonetheless, attendance dwindled, some theorize because of the stadium’s inconvenient location.  So after 20 years–adolescence for a baseball stadium–it was abandoned.  It speaks to the fans’ affinity for the place that very few tears were shed.  Atlanta can, and will try, to do better.

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