Bryce Harper

Nationals’ nine-game winning streak is “absolutely epic”

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This shouldn’t be happening, not like this. It’s not that the Nationals have won nine straight games. And it’s not that they’ve won in walk-off fashion four of the last five nights. It’s that they’ve won three of the last four nights after blowing a lead in the eighth or ninth inning.

Really, who does this?

“I mean, just absolutely epic,” Bryce Harper said. “That’s the best word I can put on it for you. It’s been incredible.”

The events taking place each evening on South Capitol Street are beginning to defy explanation. Four nights after rallying from 3 runs down to beat the Pirates, three nights after watching Rafael Soriano melt down in the ninth before they came back to win in the 11th, two nights after watching Tyler Clippard blow his own ninth-inning lead before they again came back to win in the 11th, they did it yet again.

Leading by two runs in the eighth, the Nationals saw Clippard surrender another game-tying homer, only to pick up their All-Star reliever by producing another winning rally in the ninth, beating the Diamondbacks 3-2 for their ninth consecutive victory.

At this point, it sure looks like Matt Williams is drawing them up this way, going for maximum drama at the expense of everyone’s blood pressure.

“No, no. Not even close,” the rookie manager insisted. “That’s not the way you draw them up. But they don’t stop fighting, that’s for sure.”

The Nationals find themselves in this position — winners of nine straight, owners of a 7-game division lead, an NL-best 19 games over .500 — thanks to an elite rotation (starters have given up 10 total earned runs during these nine games) and an opportunistic lineup that thrives in pressure situations late (they’ve scored 27 runs from the sixth inning on during the streak).

They got both Wednesday night, with Tanner Roark tossing seven scoreless innings despite some early command struggles and then Harper, Kevin Frandsen and Anthony Rendon combining to produce the winning rally in the bottom of the ninth.

Harper ignited things with a base hit up the middle (his third of the game) after battling Arizona reliever Evan Marshall to a full count.

“Great at-bat,” Williams said.

After Wilson Ramos struck out on three pitches, Frandsen sent a sharp grounder up the middle, just past Aaron Hill’s diving attempt. Harper, seeing the ball trickle into shallow center field, never broke stride and wound up on third base without drawing a throw.

That brought a familiar face to the plate in an unfamiliar role. Rendon was supposed to have the night off after 62 consecutive starts at either second or third base, but here was the 24-year-old being asked to pinch-hit for the first time this season, with the game on the line.

Rendon had spent the evening shadowing Scott Hairston, watching how the veteran bench player prepared for the possibility of late action.

“I followed Scotty throughout the whole game pretty much,” Rendon said. “I was like: ‘Alright, what do I do? Do I do this? Do I do that?'”

Rendon also remembered advice he got earlier this summer from former teammate Greg Dobbs, a pinch-hitting specialist for many years.

“He said to just get up like it;s your first at-bat of game. That’s what Dobbs told me,” Rendon said. “And that’s what I actually remembered from earlier in the year. So I was like: ‘Alright, I’m going to go up like it’s my first at-bat of the game and go up there and try to barrel the ball like I always do.'”

Rendon took ball one from Marshall, then turned on the next pitch. The ball was scorched down the third-base line, giving Harper a leisurely stroll home with the winning run while everyone else mobbed Rendon near first base, impressed (but not surprised) by his latest offensive exploits.

“A lot of guys around here will sing his praises all the time, because he is so levelheaded,” Frandsen said. “For him to finally get a day off today, you’d never know, because he was out there doing everything, coming off the bench. There’s one thing I think he was born to do, and it’s hit.”

And there appears to be one thing these Nationals know how to do right now: Win ballgames, no matter how much drama it requires.

“For me, it’s just a very good ethic that these guys have,” Williams said, who with one more win Thursday would have to make good on his pledge to break out his old Babe Ruth impersonation. “They believe in each other. They believe that we can stay in a game, that we can win a game, that we’re never out of a game. That’s a trait that you can’t force on folks. They get that amongst themselves in that clubhouse, and it’s enjoyable to watch. Sometimes it’s not a whole lot of fun, but it’s enjoyable to watch the way they go about it. So I’m proud of them.”

Manny Machado, Jake Arrieta highlight MLB’s monthly award winners

Baltimore Orioles' Manny Machado celebrates scoring on a two-run double by Gerardo Parra during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, in Toronto. The Orioles won 10-2. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP)
Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP
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Major League Baseball announced the winners of its monthly awards today. Your April standouts…

Player of the Month

American League: Manny Machado

All Machado did in April was play his usual elite defense while hitting .344/.394/.667 with 10 doubles, seven home runs, 16 RBI, 20 runs scored in 104 plate appearances.

National League: Bryce Harper

Harper followed up his MVP award winning 2015 season by looking arguably even better in April 2016. The 23-year-old hit .286/.406/.714 with nine home runs, 24 RBI, and five stolen bases in 96 plate appearances.

Pitcher of the Month

American League: Jordan Zimmermann

Zimmermann didn’t get a lot of fanfare for his dominant opening month. The right-hander went 5-0 with a 0.55 ERA and a 23/7 K/BB ratio over 33 innings. The Tigers signed him to a five-year, $110 million contract back in November. Hard to ask for a better start.

National League: Jake Arrieta

Yes, it was the Reds. Yes, he walked four. Still, it’s impressive that Arrieta threw his second career no-hitter, just nine starts separated from the first one, authored on August 30 last year against the Dodgers. Arrieta finished April 5-0 with an even 1.00 ERA and a 32/10 K/BB ratio in 36 innings.

Rookie of the Month

American League: Nomar Mazara

Mazara debuted on April 10 against the Angels, going 3-for-4 with a homer. He hasn’t cooled off much since. He went hitless in only four of the 17 April games in which he played, racking up a .333/.392/.460 line. The Rangers made a blockbuster trade last year for Cole Hamels and they made sure to hang onto Mazara. It’s a good thing they did.

National League: Trevor Story

Depending on how much one values recency, Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz was arguably as or more deserving of the honor. Story, however, grabbed headlines for more than a week after opening up the season with homers in each of his first four games, two of which featured multiple dingers. He finished the month with 10 homers, tying a rookie record. Along with that, he hit .261/.324/.696.

Diaz, in April, hit .423/.453/.732 with eight doubles, a triple, four homers, 13 RBI, and 18 runs scored in 75 plate appearances.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Monday’s action

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws to a San Diego Padres batter during the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, April 21, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
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10 games on the slate for Monday evening. The pitching match-ups aren’t too awe-inspiring, but the 7:05 PM EDT game between the Cubs and Pirates will be interesting if only because the two pitchers’ last names kind of form the name of another pitcher. Jason Hammel will pitch for the Cubs against the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole. Cole Hammel. Cole Hamels. Get it? Tough crowd.

In all seriousness, Cole-Hammel has the chance to be a fun game if you’re a fan of great pitching. Hammel has started off the year on fire, boasting a perfect 3-0 record with a minuscule 0.75 ERA and a 22/9 K/BB ratio in 24 innings. For most of his career, Hammel floundered with an ERA often north of 4.50, but when he joined the Cubs in 2014, he seemed to figure things out. The right-hander posted a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts with the Cubs in 2014 and reprised that with a 3.74 ERA in 31 starts last year.

Cole hasn’t been as dominant as Hammel thus far, but still solid nevertheless. He has a 2.78 ERA with a 19/6 K/BB ratio in 22 2/3 innings. Cole has yet to pitch into the seventh inning, but he’ll hope to change that tonight. The 25-year-old finished fourth in NL Cy Young balloting last season. If he didn’t pitch in the same league as Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta, it would be a lot easier to forecast him winning the NL Cy Young Award. Cole’s good enough to earn one, anyway.

The rest of Monday’s action…

Texas Rangers (A.J. Griffin) @ Toronto Blue Jays (R.A. Dickey), 7:07 PM EDT

Atlanta Braves (Mike Foltynewicz) @ New York Mets (Bartolo Colon), 7:10 PM EDT

San Francisco Giants (Johnny Cueto) @ Cincinnati Reds (Brandon Finnegan), 7:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Angels (Jered Weaver) @ Milwaukee Brewers (Jimmy Nelson), 7:20 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Jose Berrios) @ Houston Astros (Dallas Keuchel), 8:10 PM EDT

Philadelphia Phillies (Jeremy Hellickson) @ St. Louis Cardinals (Adam Wainwright), 8:15 PM EDT

Washington Nationals (Gio Gonzalez) @ Kansas City Royals (Edinson Volquez), 8:15 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners (Nathan Karns) @ Oakland Athletics (Kendall Graveman), 10:05 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Jon Gray) @ San Diego Padres (James Shields), 10:10 PM EDT

Today is the anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s Iron Man streak ending

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MARCH 31 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this Oct. 5, 1938 file photo, New York Yankees' Lou Gehrig scores the first run of the 1938 World Series against the Chicago Cubs as he crosses home plate in the second inning of Game 1 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. A dozen years before Babe Ruth’s famed ‘Called Shot,’ teammate Lou Gehrig hit an equally dramatic homer. Gehrig was 17 when his high school team traveled to Chicago to take on a Chicago team. In the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and his team down 8-6, Gehrig hit a ball over wall and onto Sheffield Avenue to win the game. The historic ballpark will celebrate it's 100th anniversary on April 23, 2014. (AP Photo/File)
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Today is a significant baseball anniversary. On this day in 1939 Lou Gehrig asked out of the lineup as the Yankees played the Tigers in Detroit. It both ended his Iron Man Streak at 2,130, but also marked the beginning of Gehrig’s very public acknowledgement of ALS, the disease which would come to bear his name. Gehrig would never play again.

While it was clear that Gehrig’s body was betraying him and his baseball skills were abandoning him in the first few games of the 1939 season, some say the ultimate impetus for Gehrig asking out of the lineup happened earlier that day. The story goes that Gehrig collapsed on the grand staircase of the Book-Cadillac hotel where the Yankees were staying and that later, as he sat in the hotel bar, he told manager Joe McCarthy that he couldn’t play anymore.

The Book-Cadillac is still there. It deteriorated over the years and then was renovated. It’s a Westin now — the Westin Book-Cadillac. It’s a wonderful hotel and the bar area still has much of its old charm, but the grand staircase is gone, replaced with a couple of escalators. I stay there whenever I’m in Detroit. I’m friends with one of the Book-Cadillac’s bartenders and I try to see him whenever I’m there. When I sit in that bar I often wonder if Gehrig sat near where I was, telling McCarthy that he just couldn’t do it anymore. There are a lot of ghosts in Detroit. Gehrig’s is mostly in New York, but there’s a little bit of him in Detroit too.

Cal Ripken would later break Gehrig’s record. I doubt anyone breaks Cal’s. But in some cases the record holders are less interesting than those who were surpassed.

More talk of a juiced ball

VIERA, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Washington Nationals practice balls  during spring training workouts on February 18, 2014 in Viera, Fl.  (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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At the end of March we linked a story from Rob Arthur and Ben Lindbergh at FiveThirtyEight which sought to figure out why home run rates have spiked. Their theory was that it was either randomness or a juiced ball. They tested baseballs and found no evidence of a different ball, so that seems to have ended that.

Except it didn’t end it because, as so often is the case in the early part of a season, we are seeing some statistical, well, let’s just call it “interestingness” and people don’t like to let such interestingness go. To that end Yahoo’s Jeff Passan — acknowledging the Lindbergh/Arthur study — asks once again if the balls are funky.

It’s all based on exit velocity of baseballs, which Passan notes has spiked. He doesn’t come to any conclusions — just not enough data — but the very act of asking the question in a column and Passan’s acknowledgment that he sounds like a conspiracy theorist tell you that that’s his hunch. And it could be the case. I still think the ball got juiced in 1987 and again, on a more permanent basis, in 1993, but there’s no evidence to really support that. Just one of those “can’t think of anything better” sort of situations.

For now, though, it’s May 2. And I suspect that for as long as there have been May 2nds in a baseball season, people have looked at the stats and suspected something weird was afoot. Maybe something weird is afoot. We just can’t really know.