3rd 18*-gamer: A Breakout Set, Even With an Asterisk

Click here for links to previous 18-gamers.

When the umps stopped the Nats’ first scheduled game against the Yankees on May 15 because of rain, little did they know what havoc they had wreaked on my 18-gamer. With the score tied at 3-3, the game won’t be completed until June 18, much to the disappointment of some famous fans.

But with five innings complete, the stats for that partial game are “in the books” as Charlie Slowes would say.  And the stat site that matters, at least for my purposes (i.e., Baseball-Reference.com) says the Nats have played 54 games. So their record in the third 18 game set stands at 12-5, with one game unfinished, or as I’ve seen in a few places – 12-5-1.

What is this, soccer?

What does this mean for our evaluation of this set? Not much, really. It was great, and it will still be great whether they finish 12-6 or 13-5, come June 18.   But you’re going to see a bunch of asterisks as we review the games. Nothing wrong with asterisks, I guess. You’re still in the books – just ask Pete Rose and Barry Bonds.

Remember how the 2nd 18 game set was a tale of two streaks? Well this one was also a tale of streaks.  But there were three of them, and two were long and good. The Nats won 5 of the first 6 games.  Then they lost 3* straight, and then won 7 of the last 8.   How’d they do it?  Well, it wasn’t their clutch hitting. For the first time this year, they didn’t manage to average even 4 runs per game (3.8 in this 18* game set, compared to 4.4 and 5.5 in the previous two sets).  Take a look at the summary and game by game stats.

Five of the Nats’ 12 wins came in games in which they scored 3 or fewer runs.  That suggests, and it’s true, that the pitching was the story in this set.  Here’s the game by game overview.

The starting pitching summary reflects a continued improvement overall, and some surprisingly and even stunningly good performances.  Check out the overall WHIP, and particularly the work of Roark and Hellickson.

A quick look at what our five main starters have done over the first third* of the season tells the story of a rotation that top to bottom may be the best in baseball.

Does any other team have a 5th starter with a WHIP, under 1.00 a BB/9 under 2.0, and an ERA+ of 173 after eight starts?  I don’t know for certain the answer to that question, but I’m pretty sure it’s —

All hail Jeremy Hellickson. (He also plays music for me, when I say his name rather than “Alexa” to my Amazon Echo.  What a talented guy!)  And kudos to Davey Martinez for taking his five innings per start to the bank and not risking a third time through the order, except when he had a no-no going in the first game of the set.

The bullpen was nails too.  Doolittle picked up six more saves, in seven attempts.  On the year through Game 54*, he had a 0.58 WHIP and had walked three, yes three, batters in 23 appearances.  Wow.

But it’s not just Doo who did well in this set.  Even with Ryan Madson out of the picture after appearing in four of the first six games and Matt Grace still on the DL, the bullpen managed to hold down the fort and allow the Nats to get eight of their 12 wins by three runs or less.  Sammy Solis appeared in 10 of the 18* games, and had a 1.05 WHIP and five holds.

The set began auspiciously with a 4-0 victory over the Padres. The highlight was Hellickson’s 6 2/3 inning, 2-hit, 8 K gem, with the first hit not dropping in until the first batter of the seventh inning.   And he helped himself with an RBI-double.  Quite a performance.

As noted in the video, that was the Nats’ 9th win in 10 games. Remember that second streak at the end of the last set?  Well, they were just getting started. By the time their sweep of the D-backs out in Arizona was over, they had won 13 out of the last 15 games.

The 4-game sweep in the desert was a thing of beauty.  Two 1-run wins, one in 11 innings, and two 2-run wins.  Doo had three saves.  The D-backs led their division by 3 1/2 games when the Nats came to town, and had won 2/3 of their games.  But the Nats kind of triggered an about-face for their season.  Just nine days after the Nats left town, the D-backs had lost 13 of their last 14 games and were almost back to .500 on the season.

The sweep started with a thrilling extra inning win. After tying the game at 1-1 on a balk, yes, a balk, by ace reliever Archie Bradley, the Nats scored the eventual winning run in the top of the 10th on a sweet shift-beating opposite field single by Matt Adams.

The next night, Max had one of those “I’m doing it all” nights.  He struck out 11 and gave up just four hits in his seven inning outing.  He also drove in the eventual winning run.

Those of you who read my comments know I think it’s dumb to say that Max’s much better than average hitting for a pitcher makes him an MVP candidate based on 70-80 PAs per season, on top of leading the chase for the Cy Young award.  But it sure is nice when your pitcher helps himself. At the end of these 18* games, he was batting .286 in 28 PAs.  Small sample size, but still impressive.

The next night, Stras followed suit with his best outing of the set — 6 2/3 innings, 5 hits, 1 BB, 9 Ks.  With Doo unavailable, Solis, Kelley (yes, Kelley!), and Madson locked down a 2-1 win with 2 1/3 innings of no-hit relief.

Then, in the final game, some runs were finally scored.  Hellickson had a nice 5-inning outing and the Nats took a 4-1 lead into the 7th inning, behind long balls by TTO, Bryce, and Mark Reynolds, who was making his Nats debut.  But Kintzler fell apart, allowing the D-backs to come back and tie the game.  Fortunately, Reynolds wasn’t done for the night against his first big league team, crushing a 2-run homer off of the afore-mentioned Archie Bradley (I think that guy was very glad to see the Nats leave town…)

Make sure you watch until the end of the video to hear the D-back announcer’s call of the HR. And feel the pain of old friend Steven Souza, Jr.

After that grand finish to the road trip, the Nats returned to DC to face to two of MLB’s crown jewel franchises — the Yankees and the Dodgers.  Unfortunately, a deluge of rain came too, turning the first five scheduled games into a mess.  First there was the asterisk game.  Then the next night’s game was washed out altogether.  Both will be played (or finished) on June 18.  Then the first game of the Dodgers series was postponed as well.  That left the Nats to play three games in two days over the weekend.

Unfortunately, they were not up to that task.  The doubleheader on Saturday was a disaster, with the offense going to sleep in the first game, managing just six hits off of Ross Stripling of all people.  More important, Howie Kendrick suffered a season ending Achilles tendon tear catching a flyball at the wall.  If anyone actually wants to see that play, you can click on this link. (Something tells me very few of you will do that.)

In the nightcap, Max wasn’t quite as good as he’s often been recently, giving up two runs over seven innings, but he did strike out 13 Dodgers.  The Nats teed off against Tony Cingrani in the 6th, getting four runs in a “keep the line moving rally” that included another RBI hit by Max himself. It looked like Max was in line for another “doing it all” win.  But after he left the game, disaster struck again.  Doo blew his first save of the season after successfully converting his first nine opportunities, and the Nats lost 5-4.

And then on Sunday, in a near sellout for Kids Superhero Cape day, the Nats were anything but superheroes, falling 7-2. Stras had a quality start, but barely, and Suero and Kelley combined to give up four runs in the last two innings.  The capes were pretty cool though.


If anyone wants to see highlights of the Dodgers series, I’m sure you know how to look them up on MLB.com.  For me, there were only two redeeming events from those three games, and both were seeds planted that sprouted later in the set.  First and most important, Juan Soto made his major league debut in the series finale, replacing Howie on the roster. He struck out in a pinch hitting role, but much better things were ahead for him very soon, as we will see.  The second seed planted was the scrambling of the rotation to deal with the doubleheader, which several days later required the Nats to call up Erik Fedde for a spot start.

First though, the Nats had to recover from the spanking administered by the Dodgers.  And what better way to do that than to face three bad teams over the next week.  First the Padres came to town, and the Nats took out their frustrations by clobbering the lefty Robbie Erlin in a 10-2 win.   Without any question, the biggest blow was Soto’s first pitch, opposite field, no doubt, three run homer complete with an homage to a Bryce hair flip.

What a way to make up for the K in his first at bat the day before.  Gio was the beneficiary of the onslaught in a solid 7-inning, 2 hit effort.

The next night was a complete contrast — a tense pitchers’ duel in which some guy named Eric Lauer held the Nats to one run in 6 solid innings, a solo shot by Bryce.  His outing  lowered his ERA to 6.67 on the year.  And it was good enough, with the help of two of the Padres’ three headed “A-bullpen” monster — old friend Craig Stammen and setup ace Kirby Yates —  to match Hellickson, followed by Suero and Kintzler for eight innings.  The ninth was another story.  Doo struck out all three Padres he faced, but Bud Black went cult of the closer, keeping the third monster, Brad Hand, in the bullpen for a save that never materialized.  Instead, Matt Strahm, who had only five appearances with a 1.71 WHIP and 7 walks since being called up on May 7, took the mound. He promptly walked Juan Soto, who advanced to second on a groundout by Difo.  And MAT walked him off.

I’m providing the full recap video here for two reasons.  First, MAT also had a fantastic outfield assist in the 6th inning to keep the game tied, which is definitely worth a look.  Statcast timed the throw at 98.8 mph.

Second, Sevi had an outstanding defensive game, not only getting the tag on the Padres runner after receiving MAT’s throw, but also throwing out an attempted base stealer in the 8th.  Sevi’s offense hasn’t been great, but he has played very solid D as the starting catcher in the 13 of the 18* games in this set.

Finally, I know I’ve spent a lot of time and space on this game, but MAT’s expression as he waited to be mobbed at second base was priceless.  TFW you’ve had a really tough year, get beat up on this blog almost every day, and finally get that key hit —

The Nats lost the final game of  the series against the Padres 3-1, with Joe Ross‘s brother Tyson, Stammen, and Hand stymieing the Nats’ bats. But Erik Fedde turned in a very respectable  5 2/3 inning, 3 run, 6-hit performance in that game.  As an occasional 6th starter when needed, it looks like he’ll do.  Now we just have to hope that we see him for double header duty, rather than as an injury replacement.

So the Padres are not a good team, but they are competitive.  After completing a series victory over them, the Nats headed off on a road trip to visit two truly bad teams — down to Florida to play the Marlins for the first time this season, and up the road to face the Orioles at OPACY.  The Marlins had already played seven games (and lost five) against the Braves, currently our main rivals in the East.  As reports started coming in that long-missed players such as Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton, and Brian Goodwin are soon to return, the Nats played some of their best baseball of the year, taking care of business in both series of the road trip in convincing fashion.

In the first game against the Marlins, two run homers by MAT and Matt (Adams) keyed a 9-5 drubbing behind a not particularly sharp Max Scherzer. The next night, a tough battle between Tanner and Wei-Yin Chen was tied 1-1 going into the 9th.  The Nats broke the game open against slow sidearmer Brad Ziegler, scoring three to put the game away.  Mark Reynolds started the rally with a solo blast, his fifth since putting on a Nats uniform.  Juan Soto had two hits and scored a run.

Neither Reynolds nor Soto were with the Nats when this set got started on May 8.  But each played a key role in the winning streak that ended the first third* of the season.  Take a look at the stat lines for the veteran and the rookie in the games they played in the set.   As much as we want to see our regulars return, most hope that these two can stay on the roster somehow.  With OPS’s over 1.000, their performances have been amazing.

Helped by some impressive BABIP, both Soto and Reynolds were on fire, and just in time because Bryce Harper continued his cool run, though he did keep hitting home runs, landing him right at the top of the leaderboard for MLB for much of the set. Here’s how his numbers look at this point of the year.

A slight uptick in both BA and SLG from games 19-36, though the precipitous fall in walks is concerning. Bryce looked frustrated a lot during this set, and that can’t be good for his performance.  His BABIP has been very low all season long.   If you didn’t read it when it was first posted, this article by Joe Posnanski about Bryce’s tough times, what might be causing them, and the chances of him snapping out of his funk is worth a read.

And so, to close out these 18 games*,  the Nats paid a visit to that team in orange and black to the North.  Have I mentioned before that the O’s are terrible?  Well, they are, but they also always seem to play the Nats tough.  Indeed, the three game sweep that was about to happen only brought the Nats’ record against the O’s to an even .500 since 2005.

Only the first two games 0f the series were in this 18* game set.  In the first one, TTB went T4B early in the game with two men on, and that was more than enough for Gio and Shawn Kelley to lock down what ended up being a 6-0 Nats win.

In any language, those are some lightening quick hands.

The next day, Bryce hit yet another bomb as did Reynolds, Hellickson pitched well again, Justin Miller had 3 Ks in the 6th, and Doo locked down another save (number 12 on the year), for a 3-2 Nats win, and a 31-22 record after the first 54* games.  That was enough to get tantalizingly close to taking over the top spot in the division.

It’s hard to imagine the team playing much better, but tougher opponents await, including this weekend in Atlanta.  We’ll get a better read on just how good the team is, even without some key personnel, in that series.

More importantly, by the time I write the 4th 18 gamer, that pesky asterisk, thankfully, will be gone.  Unless it rains some more, of course.

Some people will complain about anything.


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