MLB Game 162 2011

Remembering baseball’s best night ever: Game 162

It is times like this when the average fan will look back and remember some great moments in baseball history. The hot stove is rather cold, and we are still six weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting in the spring.

One of the greatest moments of the 21st century, if not ever, was the 162nd game of the 2011 regular season. I am not talking about one game in particular. I am talking about four different games that all led to one of the greatest finishes to a regular season ever.

Before we can focus on game 162, we need to know the context of the season.

September 2011

On Sept. 1, 2011, the Boston Red Sox were in first place of the AL East and were nine games ahead of the third place Tampa Bay Rays. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals were 7.5 games back of the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and 8.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the Wild Card. Remember, this was the year before there were two Wild Card teams accepted from each league.

At the beginning of the month, everything was perfectly laid out for teams that looked playoff bound. Boston was a favorite to go to the World Series at the beginning of the year, and they looked poised to make another trip. However, they went 7-18 going into the last game of the season, and the Rays went 16-9 going into game 162. They were tied for the Wild Card with one game left, and everyone knew it would be exciting night just on that front.

The Cardinals were long shots for the postseason at the beginning of September. They were further back in the Wild Card than they were in the division. Luckily for them, the Braves went 8-17 going into game 162, while the Cardinals went a solid 16-10. This also left Atlanta and St. Louis tied for the NL Wild Card, just like the American League.

The hype for these games was there, and luckily for us, they did not disappoint one iota.

What was the situation for game 162?

Where even to start? The Cardinals were playing the Astros in Houston in what would be the last time Minute Maid Park would ever be a part of the National League. The Astros were also the worst team in the league with a lowly 56-105 record.

The Braves, on the other hand, were playing at home. The only problem is that they were playing the best team in the majors, and their bitter rival, the Philadelphia Phillies. Even though the Phillies had clinched the division and home field advantage through the entire postseason long before this game, they still had every intention of keeping their division rival out of the playoffs.

Much like the Cardinals, the Red Sox were on the road and they were playing one of the worst teams in the league in the Baltimore Orioles. Baltimore had lost the previous game, but were treating this last one like it was their World Series. Under no circumstances were they going to let Boston have a free ticket into the playoffs.

Down in Tampa, the Rays were playing the New York Yankees, who already clinched the AL East as well as home-field advantage through American League playoffs. The Rays had won five games in a row and had Boston sweating up in Baltimore. A Boston loss and a win against New York would give the Rays their third playoff birth in franchise history.

The National League

MLB Game 162 2011

The Braves collapse will go down as one of the “greatest” ever (Photo from NY Daily News)

The first domino to fall on the historic day was St. Louis beating Houston 8-0. It was a straight forward game that left the Cardinals confident they would have a ticket to the postseason. The problem was that the Phillies were down to the Braves 3-2 going into the ninth inning. It looked like the Braves would hold on amidst their September collapse.

Not so fast. Chase Utley flew out to left field to allow Pete Orr to score and tie the game. They were on the way to extra innings.

The Braves were not able to muster much of anything in extras. The closest they got was in the 12th where they had runners on first and second with two outs. Martin Prado proceeded to ground out, and they went to the 13th.

Hunter Pence came to bat in the 13th and was able to drive in the go-ahead run on an opposite field single. That gave the Phillies a 4-3 lead going into the bottom of the inning where the Braves would fight to stay alive.

Due up in the bottom of the inning were three of the Braves best hitters in Chipper Jones, Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman. Jones began the inning by striking out, followed by Uggla being walked. It was a runner at first with one out with the young Freeman at the plate. He then grounded to first base, where John Mayberry and Jimmy Rollins were able to turn the double play, and Freeman slammed his helmet on the ground in disgust, finishing off what was an epic collapse to miss the postseason.

The American League

The results of the day are not the only thing that makes these games incredible, but it was in the manner in which it happened. Fangraphs did an excellent piece on the timing and odds that went into the regular season finale in the American League.

To sum up the games, New York had taken a 7-0 lead over Tampa, while Boston had a 3-2 lead over Baltimore. It looked like Tampa had no chance of coming back and that Boston would hold on. The stadium had emptied out as all hopes of the postseason alluded the Tampa faithful. About half the stadium looked emptied out at this point. All those fans forgot the wise words of Lenny Kravitz.

It ain’t over til it’s over.

The Rays burst out for a six-run bottom of the eighth, largely thanks to a three-run home run by Evan Longoria. The only problem was that they were still down 7-6 going into the ninth inning. They were down, but not out.

MLB Game 162 2011

The Rays react to a stunning home run from Dan Johnson (Photo from mlb.com)

The Rays found themselves down to one out in the bottom of the ninth. Joe Maddon used Dan Johnson as a pinch hitter to try and save their season against Cory Wade. Johnson fell behind and eventually reached a 2-2 count. The season was all but lost. Then, something magical happened.

Johnson roped a ball around the right field post for his second home run all season long.

Johnson trotted around the bases taking in what would be one of the greatest moments of the year. Everyone in Tropicana field went nuts, except for the skipper, Joe Maddon, who was stunned beyond belief.

It wasn’t over yet though. Boston and Baltimore had been in a rain delay, and they were just beginning to resume their game with Boston leading 3-2. They went to the bottom of the ninth, and Jonathan Papelbon had retired the first two hitters, and Baltimore was down to their final out.

Chris Davis was at the plate and was able to rope a ball down the right field line and get to second base for a two-out double. Nolan Reimold proceeded to drive a ball into the right-center gap for a ground-rule double to tie the game. Papelbon was just trying to get out of the inning at this point with Robert Andino at the plate. Andino was batting just .262 and was not a big threat at the plate. No problem for Papelbon, right?

MLB Game 162 2011

Mike Aviles walked off the field watching Baltimore celebrate their improbable victory (Photo from New York Times)

Wrong. Andino hit a line drive to the left fielder, Carl Crawford. Crawford bobbled the ball on the hop as he tried to make a play to catch the ball. That brief moment where he could not gather the ball led Reimold to round third base. Reimold steamrolled into home and just beat the throw. You might have thought that Baltimore had just won the World Series after that play.

Even after the blown save by Papelbon, the Red Sox still had hope. Hope that relied on the dreaded New York Yankees taking an extra-inning lead against the Rays. A moment where the Red Sox and their fan base would pray all they could for the Yankees to win, a true once in a lifetime moment. That moment was short lived.

It was not but three minutes later that those hopes would go down the drain.

Evan Longoria, the cornerstone player of Tampa Bay, perfectly fit a baseball just over the 315-foot marker on the short left field wall. The Rays came back from the grave in the Wild Card race in game 162 to stun the Boston Red Sox, who had just lost a heartbreaker 1,000 miles away.

The Aftermath

Terry Francona left as the Red Sox manager shortly after they blew their postseason chances. The Tampa Bay Rays lost in four games to the Texas Rangers, who eventually went on to the World Series.

The Philadelphia Phillies played the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS, the very team they allowed to enter the postseason after they stunned Atlanta. They lost the series to the Cardinals after a stunning performance by Chris Carpenter, outdueling the great Roy Halladay.

St. Louis went on to beat the Texas Rangers in seven games in the World Series in stunning fashion. That story is for another day though.

 

Featured image from the Tampa Bay Times

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Deadline Approaching: NL East Trade Thoughts

As the trade deadline approaches, the picture of who could be making a playoff push and who should be preparing for next season is beginning to take form. Lower teams on the totem pole should begin looking to see what they can do to make the most of the remaining season, while the higher teams begin thinking about what areas they can shore up in to further their playoff hopes and dreams. The NL East trade situation is beginning to take shape.

In the East, I’d argue that it’s beginning to look like the two teams everyone expected to be at the bottom fall into the first category, while the two everyone thought would be at the top fall into the latter. The Marlins remain in limbo, because while they’re just a game back of the second place Mets, they’re still a full six behind the Nats at the moment and, in my opinion, are unlikely to solve all of their needs (mainly in the pitching category) within the next few weeks and make a serious run.

With that in mind, we’ll take a look who the potential buyers and sellers, as well as what may be on the table, as we near the 2016 trade deadline (August 1).

Buyers: Washington Nationals, New York Mets, Miami Marlins

Papelbon’s DL visit and his rather lackluster stuff on the mound could make the Nats willing to shop for another closer as the deadline approaches. Photo courtesy of foxsports.com

Nationals: The Nationals are in a pretty good spot compared to the rest of these teams right now. While the other four teams in the division all have offenses in the bottom ten of the MLB in runs, Washington sits in the top ten. But with recent performances bringing questions, Washington may be looking for some new arms to toss in the bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon hasn’t been as crisp at the closing role, surrendering runs in two of his three in June. On the season, he’s allowed baserunners in 17 of 25 appearances, and multiple runners in ten of those games. Papelbon has been having one of the most underwhelming seasons of his career, so even when he returns, the Nats might be looking for, at the very least, a plan B at closer. Former setup man Shawn Kelly struck out four of the five Cubs he faced, grabbing his first save of 2016 on Tuesday against the Cubs.

So who will the Nats look for out of the bullpen? It’s difficult to tell, if they go for anyone at all, since Papelbon is quite a pricey guy to not have at closer, and limits the money available to give to new guys. Aroldis Chapman, currently with the Yankees, is a closer who is up on the market, and would definitely provide the heat and power that Papelbon has been lacking this year. Another guy from New York who sits deep in the bullpen, Andrew Miller, could also garner some attention from the Nationals. With closers always being a hot commodity with playoff contending teams, Chapman’s destination could come down to who makes the offer that most tempts the Yankees organization.

Mets: The Mets are a team that might find themselves forced to make some moves at the deadline in order to stay in the fight in the East. They’ve currently dropped three straight games, and while a lot of things can change in the next month and a half, injuries are currently a noticeable problem for New York. Captain David Wright, first baseman Lucas Duda, and catcher Travis D’Arnaud are all currently on the DL; Neil Walker and Michael Conforto are still active, but also battling injuries. The offense has been the major weakness of this Mets team anyways. Sure some of their starters have struggled this year, but I don’t think New York sees itself in a selling position at this point in the season, and definitely has faith that its young rotation will fix itself in time. Currently, the Mets don’t have any big name guys to fill the voids left at the various positions littered with injuries. James Loney is currently filling in for first base, and while he’s not a bad player, I don’t think he’s going to carry this Mets team to another shot at the World Series. The same goes for Rene Rivera at catcher.

Jonathan Lucroy is a player who is projected to find himself in another jersey by the trade deadline. It might just be a Mets jersey. Photo courtesy of foxsports.com

So who will the Mets look for? As a team that seems to love power, the Mets might find themselves reuniting with long-time Met, Carlos Beltran, who is currently playing with the Yankees. Beltran, despite his age, has hit 16 homers so far this year, which ties with the Mets’ homer leader Yoenis Cespedes. Beltran certainly wouldn’t be a long-term fix, but if the Mets moves from last year are any indication (when they acquired Juan Uribe, Tyler Clippard, Addison Reed, Kelly Johnson and Yoenis Cespedes) the organization is willing to take on players for only a brief time, so long as they feel it will help them make a playoff run. Of the five players they acquired last year, only Cespedes and Reed still wear a Mets jersey. Another guy who the Mets may look for is Jonathan Lucroy. While Travis D’Arnaud is slated to return from the DL next week, it never hurts to have multiple catchers on standby, especially when Lucroy is one of them. Lucroy currently has ten homers are 31 RBIs this year.

Marlins: I currently have the Marlins as a buyer, although by the time August rolls around they could very well end up being a seller. So I’ll try my best to run through both scenarios as best as I can. If the Marlins are able to begin making headway in the division or wildcard picture, then they will want some more starting pitching. Jose Fernandez cannot single-handedly carry this team to the postseason, and the rest of the arms in the rotation are struggling to provide much support. I personally don’t believe that the Marlins will have enough of a shot in the playoff race to deem making a big trade, but I don’t think they will be in the market to sell anything either (unless a team is willing to break the bank for Jose Fernandez, I give it a 1% chance of happening).

Rich Hill is one of the bigger starting pitchers currently on the trade market, will the Marlins buy? Photo courtesy of sfgate.com

But let’s say the Marlins do hang around, and they’re in the thick of the playoff race: who would they look for on the mound? I think the biggest name circling around the MLB currently is the A’s Rich Hill.  This does depend a lot on how Hill recovers from his current visit to the DL, but he’s 8-3 with 74 strikeouts and a 2.25 ERA so far in 2016. Another guy who could be on the market, depending on how the Braves are feeling, is starter Julio Teheran. Teheran doesn’t have the same flashy record as Hill, but he has been impressive with Atlanta despite the pitiful amount of offense around him. Teheran is just 2-7, but has a 2.93 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 14 starts this year.

As a final bit regarding the Marlins and Mets: Cuban defector Yulieski Gourriel has been granted free agency by the MLB. Gourriel is considered a potentially valuable infielder for any team that is willing to take a risk on him. Mets GM Sandy Alderson told ESPN’s Adam Rubin in a report that the Mets are hesitant to take a chance on Gourriel because he did not regularly see quality pitching in the Cuban League, and it’s a lot harder to scout guys in Cuba, especially give the United States’ relationship with the country over the years. With that said, both the Mets and the Marlins might find themselves needing to take a chance on an infielder with a bat like Gourriel.

Seller: Atlanta Braves

Braves: The Braves have claimed that they’ll be willing to discuss trading anybody on their roster not named Freddie Freeman. With Jason Grilli gone to Toronto, Julio Teheran is now their most lucrative piece on the table. Teheran will pull a fair price, though, and if the Braves’ recent moves have been any indication, the teams willing to talk Teheran better have a lot of young pitching prospects to offer.

Teheran is probably the guy who is most likely to be a headline trade offer come late July, but some young bats like Mallex Smith or Chase D’Arnaud might find their ways to other teams as pieces of a deal if they continue to perform at the plate.

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NL East Weekly: 6/6-6/12

In the East, it was a good week to be a Nats fan… and that’s about it. The rest of the teams had a rough go of things last week, as the Nationals were able to extend their division lead to 4.5 games over the Mets. Washington saw its offense drive in runs at a breakneck pace, while the rest of the division still continues to struggle with their consistency in the runs department.

The Mets saw their game on Monday at Pittsburgh rained out, and when it rained it poured for New York, who were only able to snag one game of the remaining three. As Matt Harvey slowly makes his way out of the danger zone with another respectable outing last week, Steven Matz has garnered a bit more attention, losing two consecutive starts for the first time in his career.

The Marlins found themselves dropping two series to teams they, on paper, should have been able to rack up some wins against in Arizona and Minnesota. The story around the Marlins clubhouse continues to be the mid-season slump of slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who continued his skid at the plate last week, despite breaking his own record for the hardest hit ball professionally.

And then there’s the Phillies and Braves. I think it’s safe to officially write off the Phils as a potential x-factor in the MLB now, as they have dropped 13 of their last 16 games, and are now 10 games back of the Nats. Atlanta had a lot of expectations coming into the week, having to play three games against the Cubs, but they also had to play another one of the worst teams in baseball, the Padres. That series didn’t give Braves fans a lot to celebrate about either, as their Braves continue to have the worst record in the MLB.

Now let’s jump in to get a closer look around the NL East.

1. Washington Nationals (39-24) 

Jayson Werth had another big week for the Nats, including a walk-off double on Sunday. Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com

The Nationals remain atop the East, and actually doubled their lead this week thanks to a rough week by New York. The Nats offense was out in force this week, and is still the main reason I favor the Nats over the rest of this division. The Nationals saw a lot of production from several different guys this week, surprisingly, Jayson Werth found himself atop that list with eight RBIs, a homer, and a .500 batting average last week. Werth continues to be a guy who has hot weeks out of nowhere that really help the Nationals in the offense category. Despite some questions concerning his effectiveness at 37 years old at the start of the year, Werth has put together a solid year so far. He’s got ten homers, 35 RBIs, and is hitting .245. While it’s far from a star-studded season, it’s a great step up from last year’s 12-homer, .221 season (albeit he only played in 88 games).

Another bat with a surprisingly good week was Danny Espinosa, who hit three homers, four RBIs, and batted .429 last week. Espinosa is still hitting below-average on the year with a .220 batting average on the year, but his power has begun to become a factor as of late, hitting eight of his 11 season homers in the last 15 games. Daniel Murphy, while having a surprisingly low .227 batting average last week, continues to be a RBI machine, driving in five more runs last week, and taking the team lead with 42 on the year. Meanwhile, both Ben Revere and Michael Taylor had strong weeks at the plate, making manager Dusty Baker’s job of deciding between the two at center field increasingly harder. Revere hit .400 with two RBIs, while Taylor hit .389 with three RBIs. I think it’s a good problem for Baker to have, however, especially looking at how some of the other offenses in the division are doing.

On the mound, Stephen Strasburg became the first NL pitcher since Andy Hawkins in 1985 to start a season 10-0. He has a chance to tie Hawkins’ 11-0 record for the best opening record for a NL starting pitcher since the start of the live ball era (in the 1920s). Strasburg’s 10-0 start deserves a lot of credit, yes, but his win was certainly not the prettiest of Strasburg’s career, surrendering four runs in seven innings to the Phillies on Friday. Strasburg has statistically been the greatest beneficiary of the Nationals’ offense this year, with Washington averaging 7.53 runs per nine innings in Strasburg starts.

Tanner Roark had another excellent start against the Phillies on Saturday, not allowing a run in seven innings. While Roark doesn’t draw as much attention as some of his fellow Nats starters, he currently has four starts that have gone seven or more innings with no runs allowed. This puts him in some pretty elite company, as Clayton Kershaw also has four of these starts, and Jake Arietta leads the MLB with five. The rest of the Washington staff has four of those starts combined. Max Scherzer had one of those four starts on Wednesday, where he also went seven innings of scoreless baseball against the White Sox. Jonathan Papelbon continues to slightly struggle in the bullpen, surrendering the go-ahead homer to Maikel Franco on Sunday night in what was a tied game in the ninth inning. Luckily for Papelbon, the Nats offense came through with a two-run, walk-off double from Jayson Werth to win in the bottom half of the inning.

The Nationals get a second chance against the Cubs this week, who swept them the first time the teams met. They then play four games in San Diego against the Padres.

2. New York Mets (34-28) 4.5 GB

The Mets lost ground this week, despite winning three games in a row in the middle of the week, and now sit over twice as far back as they did last week. Injuries are not a friend to the Mets right now, who are already down first baseman Lucas Duda and third baseman David Wright. Michael Conforto is currently battling wrist soreness as well, which would further hinder a Mets offense that is already struggling with consistency. Wrist problems would explain Conforto’s current woes at the plate; he went just .105 at the plate last week, but did knock a three-run homer against the Pirates on Wednesday.

Curtis Granderson led the way for the Mets this week, slugging another three homers to boost his season total to 12. Granderson is still not putting up typical leadoff-hitter numbers, batting just .218 this season,  but he’s been effective in the power department and has drawn his fair share of walks, with a .316 OBP this year. Yoenis Cespedes continues to be the Mets most productive hitter, hitting another homer and driving in three men this week. He’s got a team-high 16 homers on the year and 40 RBIs to boot, both of which are top 10 in the NL.

The Mets’ affinity for the long ball has cost them as of late, however. They led the league in homers in mid-May, but now rank 7th in the MLB, and as their homer production has fallen, so has their runs. The Mets are 28th in the MLB in total runs scored, which is unheard of for a team that so many teams saw making a playoff push.

The best starts on the mound last week came from the two guys you’d least expect them to come from this year, Matt Harvey and Bartolo Colon. Harvey threw six innings of one-run ball on Friday, giving him just two earned runs allowed in his past three starts. Colon, meanwhile, went seven innings with just one run allowed against the Brewers on Thursday, and was the only Mets starter to get himself a win last week.

Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom both suffered losses last week, Matz suffering a pair of losses against the Pirates and the Brewers. DeGrom went six innings and allowed three runs and took the loss, despite striking out nine on Tuesday against the Pirates. The loss was deGrom’s first decision in his past six starts (the prior decision also being a loss against the Padres on May 5th. Matz lost two consecutive starts for the first time in his career last week. He allowed two earned runs in five innings against the Pirates, and four earned runs in six innings against the Brewers. Those six earned runs eclipse his total for all of May (5) in just his first two June starts. We’ll see how Matz rebounds since, even though every pitcher drops a couple of games here and there, it can still have an impact on a very young Matz’s confidence.

The Mets are at home all week this week, starting with a three game rematch against the Pirates before the Braves come to town for the weekend.

3. Miami Marlins (32-31) 7 GB

The Marlins also had a rough week on the road last week, only scraping together a couple of wins against the Twins and the D-Backs. Despite that, Marcell Ozuna continues to hit fire, driving in eight runs and tying Giancarlo Stanton for the team lead in homers with 12. Ozuna has hit a very impressive .345 in his past 30 games, with 20 RBI and slugging a strong .595.

And while young Ozuna continues to be a boon to the Marlins offense, a couple of seasoned vets are proving that they can also hang with the young whippersnappers of the team as well. Martin Prado reclaimed the team’s highest batting average last week, after hitting .480 with a couple of RBIs. His season average now sits just a few ticks above Ozuna at .323. Ichiro also continues to take advantage of his newfound starting time, hitting .471  and driving in three as well. Justin Bour also deserves an honorable mention, as he became just the sixth player in Marlins history to belt a pinch-hit grand slam. Bour’s slam highlighted a seven run seventh inning on Friday against the Diamondbacks.

Jose Fernandez’s perfect run is finally over, as he suffered his first loss in a month and a half on Saturday against Arizona. Fernandez surrendered four runs in six innings, but kept the season K count high with another eight punch outs. Tom Koehler turned in the best outing of any Marlins starter on Thursday, going six innings and surrendering two runs.

The rest of the Marlins arms continue their struggle however, as Justin Nicolino and Wei-Yin Chen both yielded five runs in their starts last week. Chen mustered just 5.1 and only struck out two Twins on Wednesday while Nicolino struck out six through 5.2 against the D-Backs on Friday. Despite their rough starts, neither pitcher was given the loss. Adam Conley was the only other Marlins starter to lose a game last week. Conley went a cumulative 11.2 innings and gave up eight runs in his two starts last week. He suffered the loss on the back of his five inning, five run start against Arizona on Saturday.

The Marlins finish their road trip with three games in San Diego before coming home and hosting the Rockies over the weekend.

4. Philadelphia Phillies (29-34) 10 GB

Tommy Joseph continues to hit well since being brought up from the Minors this year. Photo courtesy of metro.us.

Someone apparently threw a beer bottle at Ryan Howard earlier this month. That pretty much sums up how this month has gone so far for the Phillies. Or maybe it just shows that Phillies fans are done with Howard, because his replacement, Tommy Joseph, turned in another impressive week at the office last week. Joseph led the team with three more home runs and five RBIs, a welcome sight at the plate for fans who were used to seeing unproductive at-bats from their cleanup man for the past few years.

Cody Asche saw starting time in left field this week, returning from a rehab assignment in Reading, and delivered his first homer of the year. Asche returned from the DL last week, with Philly sending David Lough back for assignment. Asche is another young outfielder the Phillies are hoping to develop down the road, as the team further matures. Freddy Galvis continues to show that he’s another young stud Phils fans can hope to see a lot more of in the future, with four more RBIs this week. Maikel Franco also hit a homer this week, to give the Phils a one-run lead in the top of the 9th inning on Sunday against the Nationals. Unfortunately, the bullpen was unable to seal the deal.

Bad news on the pitching front, as starter Vince Velazquez ended up on the DL last week with a bicep strain. Velazquez left his start against the Cubs after just two pitches, and was placed on the 15-day DL on Friday. Luis Garcia has been recalled from triple-A Lehigh Valley. To further the bad news, everyone else on the Phillies staff had a rough go of things as well last week. Aaron Nola lasted just 3.2 on Saturday against the Nats, yielding four runs. Meanwhile Jeremy Hellickson made it six innings on Friday, but he gave up seven runs against Washington. Even Jeanmar Gomez struggled over the weekend, blowing just his second save on the year on Sunday.

I’ll end it for Phillies on a high note, however, Jerad Eickhoff. Eickhoff went seven innings and surrendered just one run on two hits against the Cubs on Tuesday, in the Phils’ only win last week.

The Phillies play Toronto for four games, two on the road followed by two at home, before playing the Diamondbacks over the weekend.

5. Atlanta Braves (18-44) 20.5 GB

Actually, I’ll start this segment off with some more good news for the Phillies fans. Your rebuilding season hasn’t been as rough as Atlanta’s. The Braves swiped a couple of games last week, one in San Diego and one from the Cubs. Nick Markakis is turning things around in June, after a slow end of May, with another three RBIs last week. Ender Inciarte also delivered with three RBIs and a .400 mark on the week, although he wasn’t able to swipe any bags. Chase D’Arnaud was able to nab a couple, however, as he continues to prove himself as a promising speed prospect for the Braves. Adonis Garcia and Tyler Flowers were the only Braves hitters who left the yard last week, still showing how little power this Braves team has.  The offense just continues to show how much help it needs, and as the trade deadline approaches, it’ll be interesting to see if Atlanta makes any moves in hopes of securing some potential hitting prospects.

On the mound, both Bud Norris and Julio Teheran got wins for Atlanta. Norris has had a couple of good starts since returning from the bullpen, surrendering just one run in each of them. He went seven innings against the Cubs and allowed just one run during that time to get the Braves their only win of the series against Chicago. Teheran, who had had a couple of iffy starts after a stellar May, surrendered just two runs in eight innings against the Padres to help Atlanta avoid the sweep.

Aside from Teheran and Norris, it wasn’t pretty for Braves starters. Matt Wisler continues to be in a funk, surrendering five runs in just four innings. Williams Perez, who hasn’t been great but has at least been solid so far this year, was roughed up on Monday in San Diego. John Gant became another young pitcher to start for the Braves this season, but it wasn’t the most memorable of starts on Sunday against the Cubs. Gant mustered just 4.1 innings, surrendering two runs during that time.

The Braves trudge on in 2016, hosting the Reds for four games before heading to the Big Apple for a three game set against the Mets over the weekend.

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NL East Weekly: 5/16-5/22

For the first time in two weeks, there was no lead change in the NL East. The Nationals remain atop the division. They didn’t gain too much headway in the division, as every team won at least three games last week, aside from Miami.

One of the bigger news stories from the East last week was the Braves firing manager Fredi Gonzalez. The move was inevitable with the way the Braves had been playing, and with the plans have for the future, but it’s always hard to gauge exactly when a manager is going to bite the dust. The Braves did win their second series on the year, their first since April 17th, under interim manager Brian Snitker against the Phillies over the weekend. While I doubt there was a whole lot of correlation between the two events, it is good to see the Braves young pitching is starting to show more life.

Jose Fernandez ended up in handcuffs last week. That’s right, the young Marlins ace stole the keys to Phillie Phanatic’s ATV prior to Wednesday’s game, and ended up being cuffed by the Phanatic and led back to the Miami dugout. One thing’s for certain, guys need to stop messing with the Phanatic’s ATV. Another guy in Miami that may as well be batting with handcuffs on is Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton recorded just one hit in 21 at-bats last week, striking out 17 times. Stanton became just the second batter in the modern era to strike out 15 times over a five game span, and the first position player to do so.

I guess the bright side (if you’re one of those optimists who absolutely has to find one) was that Stanton’s one hit came off of Nats ace Max Scherzer, who has looked extremely dominant in his last three starts, combining for 38 strikeouts over that time. Scherzer wasn’t the only one looking dominant on the mound for Washington, as the entire bullpen combined to post a 0.00 ERA last week. Any fans would be ecstatic to see those kind of numbers put up by their bullpen, Nats fans particularly so, given how the bullpen has been one of their sore spots over the past years.

Since we’re already on the topic of the Nats, let’s dive a bit deeper into them as we take a closer look at how the NL East teams fared last week.

1. Washington Nationals 27-17 

Max Scherzer was great, the bullpen was great, and the offense also looked very strong for Washington last week. The Nationals outscored their opponents 30-8 over sox games last week, whose offensive production compared to the rest of the division is why they’re still my favorites in the East (injuries not withstanding). The Nationals bats were hot last week, and they’re continuing to show that they aren’t a one-man Bryce Harper show like some were claiming them to be in April. While Harper continues to pile up the walks, Wilson Ramos continues to drive in runs, totaling six RBI on the week. Ramos is having a standout season through the first two months, and while there’s still a long way to go, Ramos is on the way to having a career year if he continues producing at this rate. The career .264 hitter is almost .100 points higher in 2016, hitting .347.

Anthony Rendon led the team in hitting last week, batting an even .500 and bringing in seven runs in six games. Coming into the year, the biggest problem concerning Rendon was his health, after missing extended time in 2015. Weeks like this show why: it’s obvious that Rendon has the tools necessary to provide in this Nationals lineup if he can stay healthy. A guy who has already spent time on the DL in 2016, Ben Revere, is beginning to turn into the weapon Dusty Baker wanted him to be before his injury. He stole his first two bases and drove in four runs last week. Revere has still been recovering from an oblique injury suffered on Opening Day, but this week’s performance looked reassuring as he looks to return to full form as the Nats leadoff man.

While Max Scherzer struck out 18 men in his two outings last week, he still took the loss in a 2-0 pitcher’s duel against Noah Syndergaard and the Mets on Tuesday. Scherzer allowed just four runs over two starts, with all of them coming off of homers. Solo shots by Curtis Granderson and the hot hitting Michael Conforto were enough to down the Nats, who couldn’t get anything going against Noah Syndergaard. The offense made it up to him on Sunday, however, giving him eight runs of support against the Marlins in the rubber match of that series.

Another guy who (finally) found success vs. Miami was Tanner Roark. Roark was 0-3 against Miami before Friday’s start in which he went 6.2 innings and allowed just one run. Gio Gonzalez continues to fly under the radar on the mound for the Nats. While he is just 3-1 in eight starts, Gonzalez has struck out 40 men in 48.1 innings and posted an impressive 1.86 ERA. Gonzalez picked up his third win in a strong 6.1 inning, one run start against the Mets on Wednesday.

The bullpen deserves a lot of credit on the mound this week as well. Seven men combined for zero earned runs allowed in 13 innings of work last week. Jonathan Papelbon had been looking more suspect than Nats fans had hoped in the past weeks, but he was able to convert his only save opportunity flawlessly on Thursday.

The Nationals are at home all week, with three games against New York before a four game set against the Cards beginning on Thursday.

2. New York Mets (25-18) 1.5 GB

While Noah Syndergaard was able to out-duel Max Scherzer on Tuesday, the rest of the Mets arms were overwhelmed by Washington’s offense in games two and three of the series. The Mets were able to rebound, however, with a sweep of the Brewers over the weekend to keep things interesting in the East.

The Mets offense, while still producing with the long ball, looked much more dormant last week compared to weeks prior. Obviously, the Mets strong pitching staff can make up for some lack of offense, but Syndergaard cannot pitch every game, and even if he did he can’t be expected to put up double-digit strikeouts and give up two runs or less in every start. While Michael Conforto has been fantastic for the Mets offense in recent weeks, belting some balls that still haven’t landed, the Mets appear to have lost first baseman Lucas Duda right before a key series against the Nats. Duda currently has seven homers and 19 RBI on the season, but had to see a doctor on Sunday in regards to an ailing back.

Curtis Granderson is still in the midst of a May slump, hitting just .151 with an OBP of .235. While he did hit two more home runs last week, Granderson is going to need to find himself on base more frequently, and provide opportunities for the men behind him to bring him in. Yoenis Cespedes has proven himself more than capable of doing so. While he didn’t homer last week, his 3 RBI increased his season total to 35, which leads the National League. If Granderson is able to get on base more often, Michael Conforto can begin turning those solo shots into multi-run homers, which can both solidify leads and spark comebacks.

When you look at the Mets’ starting pitcher performances this week, we’re reminded that everybody is human. Except Noah Syndergaard, who is making a very strong case for actually being a demigod. He posted 21 Ks in two scoreless outings, improving his season line to 5-2 with a 1.94 ERA and 76 strikeouts. Thor doesn’t even have the best record on the Mets staff, however. That honor belongs to Steven Matz, who is now 6-1 in seven starts (6-0 in his last six). While he isn’t striking out as many guys as Syndergaard, he’s been just as productive on the hill.

The surprising troubles for the Mets have come from their one and two spots in the rotation, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey, both of which were hit well in their appearances last week. Harvey lasted just 2.2 innings against the Nationals. Harvey threw a simulated game at Citi Field Saturday in hopes he can work his way out of the worst slump of his young career. He’ll get a shot at redemption against the Nats on Tuesday. DeGrom didn’t suffer a loss in his five innings against the Brewers, and still struck out seven men, but he, admittedly, still isn’t quite back to the form he was in 2015.

The Mets won a number of close game this week, in large part to the efforts of closer, Jeurys Familia. Familia converted three of three save opportunities and notched himself a win last week, all without surrendering a single run. Familia ranks second in the MLB in saves, only behind Jeanmar Gomez of the Phillies. Logan Verrett, after being roughed up in a start filling in for Steven Matz, continues to look more at home in the bullpen, not allowing a run through 2.2 innings of work.

The Mets plays three games in Washington before hosting the Dodgers for three games over the weekend.

3. Philadelphia Phillies (25-19) 2 GB

The Phils missed an opportunity to take second place in the division last week, dropping two of three games to the Braves over the weekend. Despite that, they’re still very much in the conversation in the division. The offense continues to show that it needs some serious help, however, as the Braves young arms held the Phils to just one run in the first two games of the series in Philly.

Tommy Joseph NL East

Tommy Joseph is finally seeing Big League action in Philly, hitting his first homer off of Wei-Yin Chen last week. Photo courtesy of articles.philly.com

We’ll start with the positives surrounding the offense. New first baseman Tommy Joseph is looking primed to produce at the plate. While he is currently splitting starts with Ryan Howard, Joseph hit his first big league homer on Tuesday against the Marlins. Joseph is currently hitting .250 in 2016, and while that isn’t earth shattering, it’s a step up from Howard’s .161. One other thing I like about the Phils is their gameplan at catcher. Both Cameron Rupp and Carlos Ruiz started three games behind the plate last week. Alternating catchers ensures that both remain fresh when it’s their turn to start, which has really paid dividends for Rupp, who hit .545 with a homer and three RBI last week.

What Philadelphia really isn’t doing at the plate is getting on base and manufacturing runs. They’re 13th in the NL in on-base percentage, with a team .292; 14th in walks, with just 111; and dead last in stolen base percentage, converting a steal just 50% of the time. When you have a young, developing offense like the Phils, small ball is usually the more conducive way to produce runs, especially when you have talented pitching. That isn’t saying the Phillies should forego the long ball entirely, they have some guys, like Maikel Franco, who can produce in that category. But they also have guys like Freddy Galvis, who can fly on the basepaths, and I feel that Philadelphia isn’t really taking advantage of that.

None of the Phils arms looked particularly bad this week, despite their starters suffering three losses. Aaron Nola suffered from three unearned runs in what would have otherwise been a quality, two-run start in seven innings against the Braves. The loss ends Nola’s streak of unbeaten starts at five. Jerad Eickhoff had to make two starts this week, and looked strong in both. The lack of run support hurt in his six inning, three run loss to Miami on Monday. But he returned with a strong seven scoreless innings against the Braves on Sunday. Jeanmar Gomez continues to lead the MLB in saves, converting numbers 15 and 16 last week.

The Phillies begin a road trip on Monday in Detroit for three games, before playing the Cubs in Chicago for three more over the weekend.

4. Miami Marlins (22-21) 4.5 GB

The Marlins lost the most ground last week, but they’re still within striking distance in the East. With that in mind, they have to find a way to help slugger Giancarlo Stanton out of one of the worst slumps in baseball. Stanton struck out 15 times in five games last week, before finally recording a hit in Sunday’s game against Washington.

Christian Yelich, despite missing two games for back spasms, posted a strong .412 batting average last week. But the real surprise came from his replacement, Ichiro Suzuki. The 42 year old showed he’s still got it, going hitting .667 in the weekend series against Washington, hitting from the three-hole. Justin Bour was able to pick up some of Stanton’s slack in the power department, hitting three homers and notching five RBI. Marcell Ozuna hit the only other two homers for the Marlins last week, and brought home three runners himself.

Jose Fernandez delivered another strong outing against the Nationals on Saturday, striking out nine in six innings of work and allowing just one run. Hernandez was the Nats’ worst nightmare in his starts. In three starts against them, he allowed just three runs combined while striking out 29. Fernandez is also 4-0 in the month of May and hasn’t lost a game in over a month, since April 23 against the Giants.

The only other Marlins starter to pick up a win last week was Adam Conley, who tossed six innings of one run ball against the Phils, before being hit hard by Washington on Sunday. Tom Koehler and Wei-Yin Chen both were stiffed offensively, allowing just two earned runs in seven and six innings respectively, but ending up being dealt the loss. While Koehler is 0-1 in his past three starts, he has surrendered just four earned runs over 19.2 innings of work, and has struck out 16 men. Hopefully for Marlins fans, he’ll continue to trend in this direction while Adam Conley tries to work out of his consistency issues at the bottom of the rotation.

The Marlins play a four game series against the Rays, two games at home before heading to Tampa for the last two. They then head to Atlanta for three games over the weekend.

5. Atlanta Braves (12-31) 14.5 GB

While the firing of Fredi Gonzalez cast a shadow over the Braves this week, it was a good week for them overall. They picked up their first series win in over a month against the Phillies over the weekend, and more guys are starting to relax and find their power swings. Mallex Smith, Jeff Francoeur, and Freddie Freeman all turned in multi-homer weeks; meanwhile Nick Markakis, Kelly Johnson, and Tyler Flowers all hit their first dingers of 2016.

This is a good sign for the Braves, not because it means they’re going to miraculously turn their season around and make a postseason run, but because it means their young pitchers can finally start playing with some run support. When pitchers have run support, they’re able to be more relaxed on the mound and throw their game. Particularly for younger guys, this can play a huge role in a pitcher’s confidence when they take the mound. When pitchers know they will get some run support, they won’t put so much pressure on themselves when they’re on the mound, which can lead to more quality outings. That’s not to say that Braves starters are going to begin routinely throwing seven scoreless innings every time they take the hill, but it will help further their development and maturation on the mound.

Freddie Freeman continues, as expected, to be the top producer for this Atlanta offense, while Mallex Smith continues to solidify his position as a promising player down the road. Jeff Francoeur came out of nowhere last week, with two homers and four RBI. Francoeur is another guy who can provide a lot of veteran knowledge to some of the younger players around him on this Braves roster. The Braves are finally starting to get back into the groove on the basepaths as well, as new third baseman Chase D’Arnaud and Ender Inciarte both swiped two bags last week. D’Arnaud hit a loud .412, and looks to be another strong candidate in the Braves leadoff spot.

Julio Teheran pitching NL East

Julio Teheran finally got a win in 2016. He tossed a 7.2 inning shutout against the Pirates. Photo courtesy of totalprosports.com

Julio Teheran finally snagged his first win of 2016, turning in 7.2 scoreless innings against the Pirates on Wednesday. Teheran has allowed just two earned runs in four starts this month, but is still just 1-1 over that period. Matt Wisler also turned in another strong start, surrendering just one run to the Phillies in 6.2 innings of work. Wisler, also, has been strong in the month of May; he’s allowed just six runs in four starts and has a 2-1 record. Aaron Blair continues to struggle the most of any of the young Braves starters, getting roughed up in Pittsburgh. Blair lasted just 1.1 innings and gave up nine earned runs over that time. The silver lining for Blair is that there’s nowhere to go but up from here, as he’ll have some time to recover some confidence with triple-A Gwinnett.

NL East: Week 5 Recap

Four teams are within three games of the owning top spot in NL East after the first week in May. It may not have been exactly what a lot of people were expecting to happen, but this division is looking more exciting by the week. The East has gone from a team with four teams below .500 to four teams now being over .500.

Despite these successes in the win column, the East still has four of the bottom six teams in the National League in regards to run production. That just shows how crucial the pitching is for the top four teams in this division.

The Atlanta Braves notwithstanding, the Nationals are probably the team in the biggest slump right now. This is the first time since the season started that they haven’t been atop the division. They just suffered a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs despite winning the series against the reigning World Series champions. Ryan Zimmerman is really in the doghouse after a very rough game on Sunday, stranding 14 guys on base batting after Harper, who got seven free passes.

While the Mets, who led the division with four wins last week, may still be around the bottom in the runs scored column in the NL, they actually lead the entire MLB in home runs. They continued their power surge, even getting some help from, in my opinion, one of the most entertaining guys to watch in the MLB when Bartolo Colon hit his first career home run at age 42.

The Marlins also won four games last week, and they’re also succeeding in the offensive category, at least everywhere except the scoring department. The Marlins are third in the MLB in batting average, with a .277 average. The trick for Miami is finding a way to get those runners home once they find their way on base.

Now, let’s take a closer look at each of the teams in the East.

1. New York Mets (19-11)

The Mets have settled in quite nicely after looking a little shaky in early April. They find themselves atop the East for the first time in 2016, and it’s looking like the rest of the division will be hard-pressed to find a slip up in New York to take advantage of. As I already said, the Mets lead the MLB in home runs, and Yoenis Cespedes hit four more home runs, and now has surpassed Neil Walker as the team’s homer leader on the year. Cespedes is also producing hits for average as well, hitting .320 over the past week. Lucas Duda also provided three homers, all of them solo shots, in the past week. Duda is hitting just .240 on the year, but the Mets haven’t needed him to be a contact hitter throughout his time in New York. Asdrubal Cabrera has been that average guy, bringing in four RBI last week and leading the team with a .306 average so far this year.

Bartolo Colon hit his first ever home run at age 42 against the Padres over the weekend. Photo courtesy of news-herald.com

The starter of the week in New York had to be Bartolo Colon. He went 2-0, allowing just three runs in his two starts and striking out 12 batters to just one walk in that time. On top of that, Colon broke the internet with his first career home run on Sunday. Colon continues to be a consistent pitcher in the five-hole in the rotation. He’s not a guy who is going to blow hitters away with his stuff, but he’ll provide workable starts and let the Mets offense do their job.

Noah Syndergaard suffered another loss and seemed to be in a minor slump, but it’s nothing to worry about. Matt Harvey continues to work himself out his own slump, with a win and a loss. The loss wasn’t bad by any stretch of the mind, but the Mets offense ended up being shut out by the Braves pitching staff. Steven Matz turned in another gem and continued to look sharp as well. With the majority of this Mets squad seeming to be on the up and up, this team could be tough to surpass in the upcoming weeks.

The Mets are on the road this week, with four games in Los Angeles against the Dodgers before going to Colorado for three games against the Rockies.

2. Washington Nationals (19-12) 0.5 GB

Bryce Harper didn’t get a lot of swings like this in on Sunday, walking six times. Harper walked more Sunday than MLB batting leader Martin Prado has all season. Photo courtesy of nbcwashington.com

The Nationals continue to be trending in the wrong direction with another sub-.500 week. They started off with two wins in a three-game stretch against the returning World Series champs, but the Cubbies then swept the Nats in a four-game series. The Cubs also seem to have figured out a plan for Bryce Harper. Harper was walked six times on Sunday, three times intentionally, along with a hit-by-pitch to not record an official at-bat for a record 12th straight plate appearance.

Ryan Zimmerman was the real victim of Chicago’s plan, stranding 14 men on base by himself, going one for seven on Sunday. There may need to be a reconstruction of the Nats batting order to put someone who has had more success at the plate, someone like Daniel Murphy, behind Harper to ensure opposition can’t just walk him to get to a “weaker” hitter.

The problem with this is, aside from Murphy, most of the Nats bats have been pretty inconsistent at the plate. Jayson Werth steps from time to time at the plate, leading the team with six RBI for the week, but he also hit less than .200 over that time. Wilson Ramos is looking better at the plate, now at .358 on the year, so he’s another potential candidate. But catchers often don’t see themselves playing as frequently as other position players, meaning Ramos may not always be in the lineup to back up Harper if that route is taken.

The Nationals arms didn’t have the best week. Max Scherzer got roughed up again and is having a hard time getting into a groove here in 2016. Joe Ross suffered his first loss of the year, but it wasn’t a bad start by any measure, two runs in 6.2 innings. A lot of the struggles came from the bullpen this week, like Jonathan Papelbon, Blake Treinen, and Sammy Solis all suffered losses. A lot of games were in rough spots when they were handed off to the bullpen, but the pen didn’t do the best job of keeping those games in winnable positions, so Nats fans have to be hoping that the arms can pick up the slack in the next week, and the offense can find a way to stop teams from pitching around Bryce Harper.

The Nationals host the Tigers for three games before playing host to the Marlins for four more games.

3. Philadelphia Phillies (18-14) 2 GB

The Phillies had a rough series against a struggling Cardinals before rebounding against the Marlins. The offense continued to be the difference in the games. It struck late in the last two games of the Marlins to secure the series against the Marlins. In other games, however, it proved lackluster. The Phillies put up just eight runs in the four-game series against St. Louis.

The usual suspects continued to be at work for the Phils this week. Ryan Howard, Maikel Franco, and Freddy Galvis were top three in RBI on the week but continue to struggle in the batting average category. Odubel Herrera continues to step it up in that category, hitting .393 on the week and bringing his season average up to .324. The good news for the Phillies offense is that it looked better in the Marlins series, topping its season average of a little more than 3 runs per game in 2 of the three games. The offense can take advantage of some of the struggling and weaker pitching as the Marlins bullpen proved to be in the series.

The Phillies pitching had a rougher week but still saw a solid outing from Aaron Nola. Nola seems to be settling in as the season rolls on, which is good to see for Phillies fans. The bullpen, after dominating in week 4, had a tough go of things in week 5. Jeanmar Gomez blew his first save of the season (but also picked up another 3) while Andrew Bailey and Brett Oberholtzer had trouble getting outs in their appearances on the week. The Phils offense saw a step in the right direction this week, which helped make up for the pitching’s step down (being fair to them it’s hard to go much higher than they were). If Philly can find a happy medium, then it could continue to lurk around in the division.

The Phillies play three games in Atlanta before coming home for a three game set against the Reds.

4. Miami Marlins (16-14) 3 GB

The Marlins were a couple of bad bullpen outings from a perfect 6-0 on the week and sitting just a game back of New York. That said, a four-win week still helps the Marlins a good bit in the division, as three games back in May is nothing to worry about.

The Marlins saw Christian Yelich hit three homers last week after having just 1 in the previous 4. Yelich had been quiet after getting off to the hot start, but he’s still producing very efficiently in the middle of the lineup, and with Giancarlo Stanton continuing to hit homers, now at 10 on the year, the Marlins offense could continue to see better production. Marcell Ozuna also had two homers, along with hitting .417. Ozuna had a very impressive week and is a testament to the strong young hitters the Marlins have in their organization.

The pitching was the opposite of what was expected this week, with the bottom of the rotation turning in strong starts, and the first two in the rotation having a rough time. Adam Conley had a heck of an outing for the second straight time and is solidifying himself as a solid arm at the bottom of the rotation. Tom Koehler was snuffed a win despite pitching seven innings of 1 run ball. The real problem for the Marlins arms this week was the bullpen, which surrendered six runs and took two losses on Saturday and Sunday against the Phillies.

The Marlins play three games at home against the Brewers before going to Washington for a three-game series.

Atlanta Braves (7-23) 12 GB

The Braves only grabbed one win on the week. Freddie Freeman continues to work out of his slump, but the rest of the team is unable to produce any runs. Freeman hit another homer, along with young outfielder Malex Smith. At this point the Braves are just looking to find more guys like Smith who will be able to provide a base for this team in a few seasons.

Matt Wisler was the only Braves arm to stand out, throwing eight innings of 1-hit shutout ball against the Mets. Other than that is was a pretty dismal week for Braves arms. Jhoulys Chacin gave up four homers in his start, and Jim Johnson lasted just 2.1 innings in his. I guess the other small victory was Julio Teheran. Teheran gave up just one run through 5 innings in a no-decision effort against the D-Backs.

The Braves play three at home against the Phils before three games in Kansas City against the Royals.

NL East: Week 2 Recap

Photo courtesy of cbssports.com

 

The second week of NL East play saw the Nats continue their winning ways en route to the current best record in baseball and franchise history at 9-2. The caveat there is that they have only played other teams in the NL East, and right now the rest of the division isn’t looking so hot. The Mets, who were predicted to go toe-to-toe with the Nats in the East, currently sit four games back of Washington, and have had their share of struggles getting guys on the field.

Really the only other team besides Washington that is at least meeting expectations is Philadelphia. The Phillies are  four games back of Washington with a 6-7 record. Don’t get me wrong, 6-7 is certainly not a record to aim for through 13 games; but the Phillies, with a young up and coming team, have had moments of brightness in what was predicted to be a weak year.

I don’t know what to say about Miami other than, wow. Year in and year out this team seems to look respectable on paper, it has a good mix of seasoned veterans with up-and-coming talent, it acquired Barry Bonds as a hitting coach (yes, the one with the most career home runs ever) and yet it got swept against what was arguably the weakest team in the MLB. It’s certainly too early to sound the warning sirens, but this team’s start doesn’t bode well for the rest of the year.

Speaking of that supposed weakest team, the Braves trip to Miami ended up yielding more than a chance to experience Florida’s lovely weather. While this doesn’t mean I expect the Braves to suddenly make any dramatic moves in the standings, it’s good to see them break open that egg. Hopefully it also means I’ll hear less Atlanta fans grumbling about Fredi Gonzalez needing to go. Your front office is sticking to its, “this is a rebuilding season” front for a reason. It may not be the most fun, thing to experience as a fan, but given a few years (and a brand spanking new stadium) and Atlanta will be right back in the playoff races.

So now that I’ve gotten my rant over fans who expect World Series titles every year out of the way, let’s go a bit more in depth with what happened in week two of MLB East baseball.

1. Washington Nationals (9-2)

There was a lot of good news in Washington this week, so it’ll be a lot faster if I just start off with the bad news. They didn’t go 7-0. There, now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at all of the things Washington can be happy with early in the season. Bryce Harper continues to be an absolute force at the plate. His 100th career home run came on his first career grand slam. Oh, and he also had three more homers last week, bringing his season total to 6, one behind the NL leading Trevor Story. Harper also had 12 RBIs over those 7 games, bringing his season total to a team best, 15.

But this isn’t the NBA, it takes more than one guy to win games in the MLB. The rest of the Nats aren’t slouching, either. Daniel Murphy is leading the entire MLB in batting average by almost 40 points at .432. Wilson Ramos hit .526 with 4 RBIs last week and Jayson Werth had a heck of a game on Friday, driving in 3 runs against the Phils.

The crazy thing is, it isn’t just the hitting that’s been producing for Washington. The arms, particularly the starters, have been fantastic. Nats starters have the best ERA in baseball with a 1.87. That’s over half a run better than the next closest team’s rotation. Tanner Roark, the only starter to suffer a loss in week 1, twirled a 7 inning scoreless gem on Wednesday vs. Atlanta. His friend at the back of the rotation, Joe Ross, did him one better, throwing 7.2 scoreless against the Phillies on Friday. Gio Gonzalez had arguably the best week of any Nats starter, and was the only one without a win. In his two outings he went 13 innings, struck out 12 batters, and allowed just 1 run. Scherzer and Strasburg also showed why they have the 1 and 2 spots in this rotation with great outings on the week.

For the second week, the bullpen is probably the biggest concern, and they weren’t even bad. Unfortunately, Jonathan Papelbon, took the loss on Sunday after blowing his first save of the year in Philadelphia. He converted his other two save opportunities, however, and is currently tied for the MLB lead with 5 saves. Felipe Rivera saw the most action out of the Nats bullpen, making 4 appearances over the 7 game span, and not allowing a run in any of them. Rivera also snagged himself his third career save Tuesday night vs. Atlanta. I feel bad to keep picking on the bullpen, 7 guys made appearances over the week and only 3 of them surrendered any runs. The rest of this team is just so good that they end up being the weak link by default.

Washington continues with a relatively week schedule this week: the go to Miami for four games before coming home and hosting the 3-9 Twins in an interleague bout. Expect the Nats record to remain sky high.

2. Philadelphia Phillies (6-7) 4 GB

The Phillies ended up with a positive record on the week, taking 3 of 4 at home against San Diego and snapping Washington’s 7 game win streak on Sunday. Ryan Howard hit 2 more home runs, bringing his season total to 4 on the year. The problem with Howard is that he only recorded 1 hit in the remaining 18 at-bats, and struck out in another 6 of them. Howard continues to be a guy who can hit for power, but isn’t very good at small ball. The rest of the Phillies bats were able to fill in the small ball gaps that Howard left. The team never scored more than 3 runs in a game, but was able to get those runs across when it most mattered.

Vince Velazquez had 16 Ks in a complete game shutout vs. San Diego. Photo courtesy of thegoodphight.com

The Phillies were able to win 4 games despite the low runs per game totals due to their pitching staff. The most notable performance of the week had to belong to Vince Velazquez, who became the fifth-youngest starter to have at least 14 strikeouts and no walks in an outing; he fanned 16 while allowing just 3 hits in a complete game shutout of the Padres. Charlie Morton also had a heck of a week, allowing just 1 run in 12.2 innings of work over two starts.

There were also a couple of Phils starters who got shelled, though, both of them at the top of the rotation. Aaron Nola suffered 2 losses and allowed 11 runs in his two starts last week. His outing against the Padres wasn’t horrible, but the Phillies magic number of offense was a measly 3, so Nola’s 4 runs proved too much to salvage. While Nola had a rough 5 innings against Washington, his teammate Jeremy Hellickson fared even worse. Hellickson lasted just 3 innings while surrendering 6 runs.

While the Phillies offense has remained consistently weak through two weeks of play, their pitchers have been hard to predict. Charlie Morton had a great second week after a forgettable first week, while Jeremy Hellickson had the opposite. The pitching will have to become more consistent or the offense will have to find a way to produce more runs if the Phillies want to play dark horse in the East this year.

This week, Philadelphia hosts the Mets for 3 games before heading to Milwaukee for another 3 game set.

3. New York Mets (5-6) 4 GB

The Mets haven’t had the start they were hoping for in 2016. They started last week off dropping 2 of 3 to an apparently abysmal Marlins team before taking 2 of 3 from the Indians in Cleveland. The bats did look better, particularly Yoenis Cespedes, who hit 2 home runs and brought in 7 RBIs over the past 7 games. Neil Walker also continued to prove himself an asset at the plate, matching Cespedes’ 2 dingers. Kevin Plawecki has hit well filling in for an injured Travis D’Arnaud, going .500 over 3 games with a couple of RBIs. D’Arnaud is currently battling elbow soreness, but manager Terry Collins seems confident that he should return by Tuesday’s game against the Phillies.

D’Arnaud isn’t the only guy who has missed playing time, however, as Jacob deGrom continues to be on paternal leave. Fortunately, his son’s health has improved and he is slated to throw a simulated game tomorrow night. Manager Collins will then make the decision on whether to pitch him at the ensuing series in Atlanta, or wait for the Mets to return home.

While the Mets certainly miss deGrom in the rotation, they also have to be missing last year’s Matt Harvey. Harvey again was hit well in Cleveland, suffering his third loss in as many starts in 2016. The bright spot is that Harvey retired the first 13 batters he faced that game, only to have things unravel in the 5th inning. Noah Syndergaard had a strong second outing of the season, allowing just 1 run in 7 innings of work but was stiffed a decision against the Marlins. Logan Verrett, making his first start standing in the rotation for Jacob deGrom, delivered a quality 6 innings of shutout baseball but was unable to factor into the decision against Miami.

The Mets offense seems to be on the upswing, they hit four homers on Friday in Cleveland to help Bartolo Colon get his first win of the year. Now it just becomes a matter of helping Matt Harvey return to form and ensure Jacob deGrom can be seamlessly returned to the rotation when the time comes. Syndergaard has looked great in his first two outings and Steven Matz has shown that he can deliver strong performances on the mound.

The Mets are on the road this week, with 3 games in Philly followed by 3 games in Atlanta. While it is still early in the season, they will want to snag as many of these wins against should-be lesser opponents now in order to avoid falling too far behind a streaking Nats in the East.

4. Miami Marlins (3-7) 5.5 GB

The Marlins week seemed to start off so well. They were able to explode for 10 runs against Steven Matz and the Mets on Tuesday and then take the series with a 2-1 win behind 4 scoreless innings of bullpen work. The game 3 drop was unfortunate, but you can’t win every close game, and Chris Conley going 6 scoreless innings was nothing to be upset about. Then they came home for what looked like a cake series against a winless Braves club.

It ended up being the Braves who took that cake, scoring 6 runs in each game against the Marlins, and Miami only mustered a max of 5 in game 3. To be fair, the Braves aren’t as bad as their record suggested at the beginning of the series, but still, being swept at home is never something a team wants to do.

Wei-Yin Chen had the best outing of any starter in his return from elbow injury, not allowing a run in his first 6 innings of work. Tom Koehler had a rough day at the office, allowing 5 runs across in just 3.2 innings and Jared Cosart continued to issue too many free passes, with another 6 against the Braves (he now has a 7/9 BB/K ratio). Ace Jose Fernandez and rookie Adam Conley both had strong outings against the Mets: Conley shut out New York for 6 innings with 9 strikeouts. Fernandez did not have a particularly lengthy outing, but his bullpen stepped up behind him with 4 scoreless innings.

The offensive run producers were Adeiny Hechavarria, Giancarlo Stanton, and Justin Bour. Bour and Stanton both had a homer and 4 RBIs on the week, while Hechavarria had a big fly of his own and 5 RBIs. Dee Gordon also showed off his speed with 3 swiped bags on the week.

The Marlins won’t have an easy time righting the ship this week, with 4 games vs. Washington followed by 3 games at San Francisco. It will be interesting to see if the offense is able to step up this week against some very good arms.

5. Atlanta Braves (3-9) 6.5 GB

Adonis Garcia had 3 RBIs en route to a 6-3 Braves win against the Marlins on Friday. Photo courtesy of zimbio.com

Look at it this way, the Braves are now 3-3 when playing teams that aren’t from Washington. Nick Markakis continues to be the driving force for the team at the plate while Freddie Freeman continues to battle his way through an early season slump. Markakis has 8 RBIs and hit .360 on the week and was a key player in making sure the Braves had just enough runs to sweep Miami. Gordon Beckham, Adonis Garcia, and Jace Peterson also receive honorable mentions for having 3 RBIs each last week, Garcia drove in all 3 of his in the Braves first win of 2016.

Jhoulys Chacin had 2 respectable outings, surrendering just 3 runs combined. Bud Norris is the only Braves starter who currently has a win despite a couple of ugly starts. The Braves bullpen looked pretty good, with Alexei Ogando and Jason Grilli both picking up wins in Miami. Grilli allowed 1 run in 3 appearances. That 1 run unfortunately blew a save, but his offense was able to gift him a win instead. Ogando surrendered just 1 run in 4 innings over 3 appearances as well. The MVP of the Braves bullpen had to be Chris Withrow. Withrow did not allow a hit in 4 appearances and 3.1 innings last week.

The Braves continue a difficult April schedule, but will at least be at home this week. They host the Dodgers for 3 games starting Tuesday before the Mets come to town Friday for a 3 game set.

NL East Opening Week Recap

Baseball is finally back and in full swing with the start of April. I’ll be covering the National League East over the course of the year. If you’re new to the division, feel free to check out my preview of the division, to see how the teams should fare over the course of 2016. Unfortunately, the end of Spring Training means some of the teams will have to return to their chillier homesteads and dream of the days where they get to make their trips down to Miami and Atlanta.

The Nationals are looking to pick up right where they left off in Spring Training, with a hot 3-1 start to sit atop the division. But that’s a pretty trivial matter in the minds of Nats fans compared to Herbert Hoover adding a new face in the President’s Race at Nationals Park. While I’m guessing Hoover was chosen more for his love of baseball than his time in office, it’s still always nice to see the Nats continuing to grow the spectacle; although why Hoover’s eyes are yellow remains a valid question.

But having mascots race on the warning track isn’t all a team needs to win games, apparently. The Braves have less wins in 2016 than Two-Bit the Drill has in his career (one). On the bright side, manager Fredi Gonzalez has the best hugger in the league in Freddie Freeman to console him until they can break the goose egg.

The rest of the East hasn’t been so hot out of the gate either. The Mets are 2-3, the Phillies are 2-4 and the Marlins are 1-3.

The biggest surprise out of these three has to be the Mets. It’s certainly far too early to start panicking, but Matt Harvey is already 0-2 to begin the year and has recorded less than 3 Ks in back-to-back outings for the first time in his career. The Mets had decent pitching outings, but the offense has been predictably quiet and will continue to pose a question for the team.

The Phillies are producing very well on offense, but their pitching has been an issue for them, just as many feared it would be. The Phils have scored the most runs in the division with 18, but have allowed 28 through 6 games. If the Phillies can shore up this offense/defense imbalance, they could find this year to be very constructive in the rebuilding process.

Marlins pitchers are throwing about as accurately as the real thing would on the mound. The staff has 16 walks through 29 innings of work which has helped play a part in their 1-3 start. It doesn’t help that they started their season off against a reinvigorated Detroit Tigers team and a smoking hot Nationals team either. With that said, their offense is tied with Philadelphia at the top of the East with 18 runs scored. If Miami can shore things up on the mound and provide less free passes, some of the narrow losses, like the one suffered Sunday in Washington, could turn into victories.

Through the week, the division between predicted top two and bottom three of this league can be very easily seen in the runs allowed category. The five teams all sit at the bottom of the NL offensively in runs, but the Nationals and Mets have just 12 runs allowed each (the best in the NL). The Marlins have allowed 23, the Phillies 28, and the Braves are at 38. Now, let’s take a more in depth look at the teams in the NL East working from the top down.

1. Washington Nationals (3-1)

The first week of play only confirmed a lot of suspicions about the Nationals coming into the season. The first being that Bryce Harper is still really good at baseball. He belted his first homer of the year in his first at-bat of the year in Atlanta, and sits at two through just four games. Daniel Murphy is also producing at the plate, leading the team with 5 RBI and also homering on Opening Day. The starting rotation has looked good in their 2016 debuts, with three of the four delivering quality starts and allowing a combined 4 runs between them.

Matt den Dekker got the call up from Las Vegas when Ben Revere went on the DL. Photo courtesy of foxsports.com

The two worries for Washington continue to be their bullpen and injuries. Jonathan Papelbon is 3 for 3 in save opportunities so far, but getting it over to him with the game intact has not always been easy for the middle arms. Ben Revere was not on the injury-watch list coming into the year; there were some worries about older players like Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, but nobody suspected Revere would go down with an oblique strain on Opening Day. The good news is that his replacements Michael Taylor and Matt den Dekker have already displayed that they can produce in Revere’s absence. Taylor drove in the game-tying RBI in the top of the 9th on Opening Day, and den Dekker drove in 2 runs in the Nats’ 3-1 win in game 2 against the Braves.

Washington starts this week at home for a four-game bout with the Braves before going to Philadelphia for a three-game series. Their schedule remains fairly light throughout the majority of April, especially if their starting pitching can continue to hold down the fort.

2. New York Mets (2-3)

The Mets split their two-game World Series rematch versus the Royals to open up the year and dropped two of three at home against NL East rival Philadelphia. Matt Harvey hasn’t looked like himself in his initial two starts, giving up 7 runs over 11.2 innings and only striking out 5 batters. The rest of the staff has looked very good, however. Noah Syndergaard delivered a scoreless outing against the reigning World Series champs and Bartolo Colon shows he can still make plays at 42 years old (and deliver a quality start in the process).

Unfortunately for Colon and the rest of this Mets rotation, the offense has been quiet to start 2016. The Mets would end up shouldering Colon with a loss 1-0 in that game despite a strong 7.1 innings of work. The top average on the team is already below .300 with David Wright hitting .267 through 5 games. Neil Walker is producing runs at the plate, leading the team with 5 RBI, but other than that the Mets bats have been very quiet. Yoenis Cespedes, definitely seen as the potential spark offensively for this team is hitting just .200 and leads the team with 7 strikeouts.

Mets fans came into the season knowing that their offense would just have to provide enough run support for a stellar rotation. But with Matt Harvey in an early slump and Jacob deGrom potentially going on paternity leave, they may have to step it up and provide more at the plate. New York hosts Miami for three games before heading to Cleveland for a three-game series.

3. Philadelphia Phillies (2-4)

Philadelphia’s offense is tied for the best in the NL East with the Marlins. Sadly, this still puts them in 11th in the NL in run production. Ryan Howard is showing that he still can provide the big bat, knocking 2 homers through 6 games. A couple of young guys, Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez, are hitting above .400 to start off the year as well. The Phillies are showing that they have the components to build a contending team some years down the road, they just lack experience.

The pitching continues to be somewhat troublesome for the Phillies. While they are a far cry from the worst in the NL (almost half as many runs allowed as Colorado), they still are getting shelled in the bottom three-fifths of the rotation. Jeremy Hellickson has looked very good in two starts. He was just one-third of an inning shy of opening up the season with two quality starts. He held the Mets to 2 runs on just 3 hits in 7 innings of work, and has 11 strikeouts so far this year. Aaron Nola went 7 innings in his initial outing against the Reds, striking out 8 and giving up just 1 run. Vince Velazquez also had an auspicious first start in a Phillies uniform, going 6 scoreless and fanning 9 Mets.

The Phillies start a 10-game homestead with a four-game series against San Diego. They finish out the week in a three-game bout vs. Washington.

4. Miami Marlins (1-3)

Christian Yelich is looking for another. 300+ season in 2016. He and Giancarlo Stanton both have home runs for the Marlins through 4 games. Photo courtesy of cbssports.com

Who says that fish can’t walk? Miami arms have walked 16 batters in their initial 29 innings of work. Administering so many free passes puts undue stress on these young pitchers who are already under pressure acclimating themselves to the Bigs. Wei-Yin Chen and Jose Fernandez both suffered rough outings at the hands of the Detroit Tigers to open the year. Chris Conley only went 1 inning in his start against Washington, and ended up ceding 3 runs on just 2 hits in that time.

Dee Gordon is looking good in the leadoff spot, as usual, hitting .421 thus far. Giancarlo Stanton is off to a respectable start, with a .294 average and 1 home run so far. Christian Yelich is also off to a strong start, hitting .321 with Miami’s only other dinger. Yelich has proven his offensive worth over the first two full seasons with the Marlins, and could be a strong asset as the year progresses.

Miami travels to New York for a three-game series before coming home to host the Atlanta Braves this week.

5. Atlanta Braves (0-5)

The Braves are using 2016 as a year to rebuild. Ask them, ask me, ask a vast majority of people in baseball and they’ll all tell you that. All the same, it’s got to hurt to be a Braves fan this year. Nick Swisher and Adonis Garcia are the leading players for the Braves at the plate so far. Swisher is hitting .300 with 4 doubles in 20 at-bats, and Garcia has one of the team’s 3 homers so far. One of the other guys with a home run, Freddie Freeman, is off to a surprisingly rocky start. Freeman has just one hit besides his first inning blast on Opening Day.

The pitching hasn’t looked very good stat-wise either. Only two guys on the team that have appeared on the mound haven’t surrendered a run yet. Julio Teheran has had a hard time on the hill as a starter, he’s gone just 10 IP in 2 games, with a 8/7 strikeout to walk ratio. There wasn’t a lot of pressure on the Braves to perform this year, so expect to hear that a lot when people discuss the Braves throughout the year. They’ll continue to take beatings on the mound as this year continues to trudge on in Atlanta.

NL East Roundup: Washington Nationals

Here I’ll be continuing my NL East review with the Washington Nationals.  You can also see my thoughts on the Phillies, Braves, and Marlins.

The Nationals, despite ending with a winning record, were perhaps one of the more disappointing teams last season.  For the second straight year they came in as the preseason favorite to win the National League and failed to deliver, missing the playoffs entirely in 2015.  The team started off strong, but began faltering in the second half of the season, and ended up collapsing by the end.

The Nats, however, look to shrug off last season’s blunders and make a statement this season.  They are in a strong position to do so, with new manager Dusty Baker, along with last year’s unanimous NL MVP Bryce Harper and pitching ace Max Scherzer.  Baker provides a much needed mix up in the dugout, as previous manager Matt Williams certainly had his fair share of questionable decisions last year, especially during the Nationals second half slump.

Michael Taylor will look to earn the starting spot in center field for the Nationals. Taylor hit 14 home runs and stole 16 bases in 19 attempts in 2015. Photo courtesy of Washington Post

The Nationals return a majority of an offense that was top 3 in the National League in both runs and home runs in 2015.  The team brings a lot of experienced hitters to the plate, along with a couple of seasoned veterans in Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth.  Honestly with Spring Training starting March 2nd for the Nationals, I still think there is a fair bit of malleability in who makes the starting 9 for Opening Day.

I think the battle for center field between Ben Revere and Michael Taylor is probably the highlight as we head into Spring Training.  With the loss of Denard Span, the Nationals are going to want a consistent bat and speedy baserunner out of his replacement. Of the two, Revere is definitely the safer option at the start of the year, as he has more professional experience and has proven his ability to hit for average. With that in mind, I think Taylor has the higher potential of the two. While he does need to work on cutting down the strikeouts, he is absolutely lights out on the bases, and has shown that he is the superior of the two when it comes to power (Revere has 4 homers in his 6 year career, Taylor had 14 last year).  I think both players will be given ample opportunities to prove themselves in both center and left field, as current starter Jayson Werth’s endurance is beginning to fade after 13 years of playing.

The rest of the batting order looks very strong as well.  The acquisition of Daniel Murphy from the Mets in the offseason looks to be the most fruitful acquisition for Washington.  Murphy absolutely exploded in the postseason series against the Dodgers and the Cubs, homering in 7 of 8 games and being named NLCS MVP.  Fans are certainly hoping Murphy will continue to swing that hot of a bat come April.

On the other side of second base, it will be interesting to see how Danny Espinosa does in the field. Longtime shortstop Ian Desmond seemed to be somewhat of a liability there, so it can only be hoped that this offseason provided him with enough time to acclimate himself.  I think that regardless of who the Nationals choose for their starting 9, there will be plenty of talent at the plate.

For Jonathan Papelbon, strangling the National League MVP may not have made the best first impression with Nats fans. Photo courtesy of: http://sports.cbsimg.net/images/visual/whatshot/414papgrabsharpbyneck.jpg

The real concern for the Nationals pitching-wise doesn’t come from their rotation. If Strasburg can stay healthy and Scherzer can have even half the season he did last year, I think they should be in good shape.

The real concern comes from the bullpen. The Nats had the 5th lowest save percentage in the NL, converting just over 64% in 64 opportunities.  Jonathan Papelbon seems to be the undisputed closer now, with Drew Storen moving to Toronto. While Papelbon did have issues meshing with the team originally, (including one altercation where Papelbon seemed to strangle Bryce Harper) the players seem willing to move past them.

With a lot of firepower on offense, and arm in every slot in the rotation, the Nationals are primed for another great season. Hopefully the team chemistry will continue to increase throughout Spring Training, and some veteran ex-starters (Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit) will be able to adapt to their new bullpen roles with some of the younger talent. The offense should be consistent throughout the year, so the Nats success will hinge a lot on Stephen Strasburg remaining healthy in the rotation, along with Tanner Roark and Joe Ross continuing to improve as young starting pitchers.  If these three can live up to their potential, it will then be up to the bullpen to ensure that their efforts are converted into curly W’s.