Washington becomes a baseball town

905041.png

Washington becomes a baseball town

How does a town respond to something that hasn't happened in 79 years? How does a city that hasn't hosted a postseason ballgame since Franklin Roosevelt's first term in the White House catch pennant fever? And how does a region known mostly for dividing itself down the middle along political party lines come together in support of one common goal: Winning a World Series?

Washington is about to answer all of those questions, and the rest of the country is about to find out what those who live here have known for decades: D.C. is a big event town.

And for the next week (and perhaps the entire month) there's going to be no bigger event in town than Nationals playoff games.

From the moment the Nationals clinched their city's first postseason berth since 1933, there's been a baseball buzz around the District and surrounding suburbs not experienced in generations, if ever. The local papers are filled with more baseball coverage than many have time to read. Local TV news has hopped on board the bandwagon. Radio stations are announcing plans for Super Bowl-like pregame and postgame coverage of first-round playoff games.

Politicians and network news anchors have been showing up at Nationals Park, some of them mysteriously becoming part of the clubhouse champagne celebration. The President of the United States has expressed his support of the Nationals (as well as his hometown White Sox, who have since been eliminated from contention).

And, in perhaps the craziest example of Nationals buzz overtaking the city, the long-awaited triumph of Teddy in the Presidents Race on Wednesday instantly became one of the biggest (non-) news stories in the country. Moments after he crossed the finish line ahead of nemeses George, Tom and Abe, Teddy became a trending topic on Twitter, with a replay of the race becoming the No. 1 "highlight" on ESPN's SportsCenter (ahead of Miguel Cabrera securing MLB's first Triple Crown in 45 years).

For those who have followed the Nationals since the franchise arrived from Montreal following the 2004 season, there's a surreal nature to all this attention. Sure, there was hype and buzz surrounding the Nats during their inaugural 2005 campaign, especially when they took over first place in the NL East for a stretch in early summer.

But few outside of the die-hards cared much about what was going on during the dark days from 2006-09, when a 73-89 record was considered a significant achievement. Around the country, just about the only time the Nationals were mentioned beyond a passing breath was when they were being mocked, whether for misspelling their name on a couple of jerseys, producing the worst TV ratings in the majors, getting booed in their own park on Opening Day by Phillies fans or losing games at an astonishing rate.

Then, at long last, came a glimpse of what could be: June 8, 2010, the night Stephen Strasburg made his major-league debut. Considering all the hype surrounding the rookie right-hander from the day he was drafted No. 1 in the country by the Nationals, his first career start turned into a major baseball event in D.C.

And when Strasburg surpassed everyone's expectations by striking out 14 Pirates over seven innings, an overflow crowd at Nationals Park rejoiced in a manner that suggested this could indeed become a baseball town ... if the team ever started winning.

There were glimpses of it late in 2011, with manager Davey Johnson guiding the team he took over in midseason through a strong September and coming within two games of producing the club's first-ever winning record.

But it wasn't until the Nationals burst out of the gates in 2012, opening the season 14-4 and taking over first place in the division, that the skeptics began to believe. And over the course of the summer, fans began turning out in bigger numbers and more and more people around town became engaged with what turned into the best team in baseball.

Now, you can't walk more than a few blocks without spotting someone wearing a curly W cap or a Bryce Harper jersey. Now, it's perfectly acceptable to begin a conversation about local sports not with an analysis of the Redskins' next game but with a debate over which potential postseason opponent the Nationals would be most likely to beat.

The toughest ticket in town right now isn't to see RG3 and the Skins face the Falcons on Sunday. It's to see Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth host either the Cardinals or Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS on Wednesday. Starting times haven't been announced yet, but when they are, thousands of federal government employees and regular working Joes in Maryland and Virginia are going to be putting in requests to leave early to catch the first postseason ballgame here in three generations.

It's uncharted territory for just about everyone involved. But it's left everyone in a state of euphoria for now, then ultimately high tension as this city gets to experience the meat grinder of emotions that comes with postseason baseball.

Fans in New York, Boston and Philadelphia -- regular participants in this exercise -- may scoff and ask why this is a big deal.

Washington sports fans need not respond. They've spent the last six months falling in love with the National Pastime, and they're about to be rewarded with a honeymoon that could last anywhere from four days to four weeks and could bring this town together like few past events have.

Zimmerman heating up for Nats, Papelbon can't solve Philly

natscutin530refframe_1.jpg

Zimmerman heating up for Nats, Papelbon can't solve Philly

Here are a few leftover thoughts from Monday night's Nationals win over the Phillies…

Is Zimmerman finally starting to heat up?

Ryan Zimmerman missed his ninth homer of the season by a matter of inches on Monday night as he watched his long flyball in the seventh inning bounce off the railing in center field at Citizens Bank Park. Instead, it was his first triple since last April and the 20th of his career. A 12-year veteran, Zimmerman is usually good for one or two of them per season.

The triple was Zimmerman's fourth extra-base hit in his last three games and his 15th of the month of May. In April he only had four extra-base hits the entire month. Zimmerman's four XBHs are the most he's had in a three-game span all season. Over his last 19 games he has seven homers, 12 RBI, eight walks, a .355 OBP and a 1.007 OPS.

Zimmerman is still hitting just .244 this year through 46 games and .247/.309/.769 since the start of 2015 (141 G). But perhaps this recent stretch can get him going. All year it has been pointed out how highly he ranks in average exit velocity - currently 11th in MLB at 94.7 miles per hour - and it may now be starting to pay off. 

Papelbon keeps having trouble with the Phillies

Jonathan Papelbon earned his 14th save of the season on Monday night, but once again it was an eventful outing against his former team. Papelbon served up back-to-back doubles to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning, the second by Ryan Howard. That brought home Maikel Franco and cut the Nationals' lead to 4-3 with no outs.

Papelbon escaped, but it wasn't easy. Since getting traded from Philadelphia to Washington, Papelbon has blown two saves and has allowed six earned runs in 5 2/3 innings (9.53 ERA) against the Phillies. 

Compare those numbers to what he's done against the rest of the league since joining the Nats and it will make you scratch your head. Papelbon has a 2.09 ERA (9 ER in 38.2 IP) with the Nats against non-Phillies teams. The Phillies are 29th in baseball in runs scored this season, too. There doesn't seem to be a good reason for it, but Papelbon just can't solve his former team.

Roark goes seven strong innings

Tanner Roark continues to bounce back nicely from his May 14 disaster against the Marlins, his worst start of the season. In his three outings since, Roark has allowed just four earned runs in 20 2/3 total innings. In four of his last five starts Roark has gone at least six innings with two runs or less allowed. 

Roark now has a 2.70 ERA, which ranks just third on the Nats but 13th overall in the National League. He places sixth in slugging percentage against (.304) and 11th in the NL in OPS against (.607). One stat that really stands out for Roark is his groundball rate. His groundball/flyball ratio is 1.94, which ranks third in the NL and seventh in baseball.

As good as Roark has been, the Nats are just 4-7 in his starts this season and have lost five of his last seven outings. He's been killed by a lack of run support, ranking fifth from the bottom (100th among qualifying pitchers) with an average of 2.55 runs per game scored by his team. Stephen Strasburg, who is a perfect 9-0 and has seen the Nats win his last 15 starts dating back to last season, is second from the top with an average of seven runs scored per start.

Revere keeps searching for consistency

Ben Revere went 0-for-4 on Monday and is now hitless in three straight games and in five of his last six. He's still not striking out, which is good. Revere only has one strikeout in his last eight games, a span of 30 at-bats, and he has the best contact percentage on the Nats (88.6%). 

And when Revere gets hits, they tend to come in bunches. In each of the last five games he's notched a hit, he's landed at least two in those contests. That gives him a .282/.333/.436 slash-line over the last 11 games. That's not bad, but it has been feast or famine for the outfielder with six hitless outings during that stretch.

Bryce Harper hopes to play Tuesday after injury scare against Phillies

natscutin530refframe_1.jpg

Bryce Harper hopes to play Tuesday after injury scare against Phillies

Here is the update from the Associated Press on Bryce Harper's injury after the right fielder left Monday's Nationals win over the Phillies:

Bryce Harper left the game shortly after taking a fastball off the outside part of his right knee in the seventh. The reigning NL MVP went to first base, got doubled off on Murphy's fly out to left and was replaced by Chris Heisey in right field in the bottom half.

"It hurts," Harper said. "Whenever you get squared up like that, it doesn't feel good. We'll evaluate tomorrow and see how it feels. If I don't feel good, I'm not going to play. If I feel fine, then I'll be in there."

Murphy homers, lands go-ahead hit in Nats' 4-3 win vs. Phillies

natscutin530refframe_1.jpg

Murphy homers, lands go-ahead hit in Nats' 4-3 win vs. Phillies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 4-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Monday night.

How it happened: Right now, two months into the 2016 MLB season, is there any other player you'd rather have up in a key spot than Daniel Murphy?

The Nats second baseman continued his months-long Ted Williams impression on Monday night with three hits, one of them his eighth homer of the season and another the go-ahead swing in the bottom of the eighth in a 4-3 Nats victory over the Phillies. 

On a night Bryce Harper left with an injury, Murphy helped save the day with three runs driven in. The other was pushed across by Jayson Werth, who tied the game at 2-2 in the eighth to help set up Murphy's heroics. 

The Nationals hung on in the ninth, but closer Jonathan Papelbon made it interesting by allowing back-to-back doubles to lead off the frame, the second to score a run. Papelbon has surrendered six earned runs in 5 2/3 innings with two blown saves against the Phillies since he was traded from them to the Nats last summer.

Tanner Roark pitched seven solid innings with two earned runs allowed. He earned his fourth win of the season.

What it means: The Nationals moved to 10 games over .500 and 3-4 against the Phillies this season, all three of those wins having come at Citizens Bank Park. The Nats remain in first place with a 31-21 record after 52 games. That puts them two wins ahead of their 2015 pace (29-23 after 52). In 2014 when they won 96 games and the NL East, they were 25-27. And in 2012 when they won 98 games and the division, they were 30-22. The Nats are playing at a 97-win pace right now.

Murphy's big day: Who is this guy? As impressive as Murphy's 2016 had already been, he put in one of his best games as a National on Tuesday. Murphy smacked his eighth homer of the season in the top of the fourth which put him more than halfway to his career-high of 14, which he set just last year. This is in just 50 games, which puts Murphy on pace for about 25 by the end of this season. That would not only far exceed his best season ever, it would significantly change his value as an offensive player. Murphy has six homers in the month of May, a personal career-best for the regular season. The only other month he's hit more was last October when he clubbed seven for the Mets in the playoffs. Murphy also landed a double in the second inning on Monday to notch his 25th mutli-hit game of the season, exactly half of the game he's played. This was all on top of his go-ahead, two-RBI single in the top of the eighth. Murphy is now batting a cool .395 and we're one day away from June. That's just amazing.

Harper leaves with apparent injury: In a sight that will scare the living hell out of any Nationals fan, Harper left in the top of the seventh with what appeared to be a right leg injury. He exited after taking an 88 mile per hour fastball either off his knee or off his thigh muscle right above it. Harper stayed in the game for one play by taking first, but left after getting out on a double play. Murphy flew out and Phillies outfielder Tyler Goeddel beat Harper with a throw to first before he got back. Chris Heisey replaced Harper in right field in the bottom of the seventh. It could be just a bruise, but Nats fans will certainly worry until they hear otherwise.

Werth's game-tying double: Aside from Murphy's three knocks, Werth was one of only two other Nationals to land a hit on Monday night. For Werth, it was a single to left field that scored Danny Espinosa from second in the top of the eighth. The RBI hit came off Phillies reliever Hector Neris, who also gave up the deciding blow against Murphy. Werth's big swing came just one day after he launched a pinch-hit grand slam in the Nats' win over the Cardinals on Sunday. 

Up next: The Nationals send Joe Ross (4-4, 2.52) to the mound for Tuesday's game with right-hander Aaron Nola (4-3, 2.86) set to pitch for Philly. It's another 7:05 p.m. first pitch.