San Francisco Giants Close Down Washington Nationals in Game 4

It’d be ridiculous at this point to suggest the San Francisco Giants are lucky. Luck doesn’t win you two trophies in three years, and it doesn’t land you a spot in the National League Championship Series, which the Giants clinched with a 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals Tuesday night at AT&T Park.

Not everyone pegged this team for another deep run. In fact, after the Giants squandered a hot start and squeaked into the second wild-card position, many dismissed them.

Funny thing though…there’s just something about this squad led by veteran skipper Bruce Bochy. The Giants seem to enjoy the feeling of their backs against a wall, to thrive when the pressure is greatest and to find the strangest, most unexpected ways to come up big.

Take Tuesday’s clincher: The Giants scored on a bases-loaded walk, a weak ground ball and a wild pitch. They would have plated a second run on a wild pitch, when an intentional ball four to Pablo Sandoval in the bottom of the seventh sailed over Washington catcher Wilson Ramos’ head.

The ball, though, caromed hard off the backstop, and Buster Posey was tagged out trying to score from third.

It didn’t matter. The Giants clung to their one-run lead with more stellar innings from their stingy bullpen and eked out another memorable, nail-gnawing win.

It began with starter Ryan Vogelsong, who in many ways embodies the unflinching resiliency of the Orange and Black. A Giants prospect once upon a time, Vogelsong was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001.

A Tommy John surgery and a stint in Japan later, he returned to San Francisco as a minor league free agent in 2011 and fought his way into the rotation.

The following season, Vogelsong was an October hero, posting a 1.09 ERA in four playoff starts and getting himself a ring.

Since then, the 37-year-old right-hander has been unreliable at best. His 4.00 ERA in the 2014 regular season certainly didn’t inspire overwhelming confidence as he took the mound Tuesday, with the Giants up 2-1 in the best-of-five series.

It was a must-win game for the Nationals, but it felt like one for the Giants. San Francisco did not want to go back to D.C. with the series tied and face either Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmermann in an elimination contest.

Vogelsong helped ensure that wouldn’t happen, tossing 5.2 gutsy innings while giving up one run on two hits. He didn’t earn the win, though, thanks to Bryce Harper.

In the top of the seventh, with the Giants leading 2-1, Harper launched a towering home run into the water beyond the right field wall off hard-throwing Giants rookie Hunter Strickland. The bomb fired up the Washington dugout; for a moment, it looked like the loaded, 96-win Nats had some fight left in them.

Then the Giants worked their magic, loading the bases in the bottom of the frame on a pair of singles and a walk and scoring on the aforementioned wild pitch.

And that was it. Setup man Sergio Romo and closer Santiago Casilla, who have combined for six scoreless frames this postseason, tossed mostly uneventful eighth and ninth innings, and the Giants stormed the field to celebrate another trip to the NLCS.

The team they’ll face, the St. Louis Cardinals, knows a thing or two about playoff mojo. The Cards made the Fall Classic in 2011 and 2013. Add the Giants’ appearances in 2010 and 2012, and we’re looking at a fifth straight season when either San Francisco or St. Louis will represent the National League on baseball’s biggest stage.

The Cardinals are tough. They showed that by dispatching the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games in the NLDS, including two wins against sure-fire Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.

The Giants, though, have now won seven straight playoff series, eight if you count the wild-card playoff win against Pittsburgh that started this latest run.

They’ve already added to the legend in 2014, winning the longest game in MLB postseason history, an 18-inning marathon Oct. 4 at Nationals Park, on a towering home run by first baseman Brandon Belt.

Really, the Giants don’t need to say anything. They let their play do the talking.

They’re confident. They’re collected. They’re cohesive. And they get it done, one way or another.

Call them what you like. Just don’t call them lucky.

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San Francisco Giants Outlast Nationals In Marathon 18-Inning NLDS Game 2

The marathon game is finally over after Brandon Belt hit a solo homerun in the 18th inning to lead the San Francisco Giants over the Washington Nationals 2-1. This game should be about Belt’s heroics, but much will be made of the Nationals manager. Matt Williams cost the Nationals a chance to win game-two of the NLDS. After a ninth inning walk to Joe Panik to end Jordan Zimmerman’s streak of 20 straight batters retired, Williams chose to turn to Drew Storen out of the bullpen instead of staying with Zimmermann.

It was truly an inexplicable decision. Zimmermann was cruising, and he was only 100 pitches on the night. With Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval due up the order, wouldn’t you want your team’s best pitcher against the opposition’s heart of their lineup? I know I would. Nevertheless, after a two-out walk to Panik, it took only a handful of pitches for Posey to single and Sandoval to double him home. The Nationals could have very well lost it in the ninth inning as well, as Posey was called out in a controversial play at the plate.

The Nationals had plenty of chances to walk away with the win, but nine innings later, regardless, the Giants now head back to AT&T Park ahead in the NLDS 2-0. With Madison Bumgarner scheduled to pitch on Monday, it could be over quickly for the Nationals, just like it was in 2012, when they entered the postseason in similar fashion.

The decisions by Williams just highlighted the team’s total inexperience in the postseason as the Giants remained cool. After allowing the tying run in the ninth, Williams and Asdrubal Cabrera were both tossed after arguing balls and strikes in the 10th inning. It was a complete unraveling by the Nationals due to the frustration buildup from game-one and the majority of game-two, and it ultimately cost Washington the game, and potentially the series.

The win for the Giants, however, was just more evidence of how resilient this team really is. They won the World Series in 2010 and 2012 with similar resiliency. They weren’t the favorites in either of those series, but yet they moved their way through. Tonight was just another example of Bruce Bochy pulling all the right strings and believing in his players to come through in the end.

The same cannot be said for Williams, as the rookie manager made the mistake of pulling Zimmermann, and in turn, probably costing the Nationals any chance of winning this series.

Is Clayton Kershaw the Next Sandy Koufax?

With Dodgers great Sandy Koufax in attendance at Dodger Stadium in LA on Tuesday evening, Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw continued to show why he is the preeminent pitcher in Major League Baseball. Kershaw went eight innings against the National League East-leading Washington Nationals, giving up only three hits, including a solo home run to Bryce Harper for his only run allowed.

Kershaw walked two and struck out eight. He has now recorded 200 strikeouts or more in five consecutive seasons, matching Mr. Koufax as the only Dodgers pitchers in history to complete this fete. Mr. Koufax did it in six straight. Kershaw also picked up his 17th win of the season, leading the majors. This is also quite remarkable because he missed six weeks earlier in the season with a back injury. His 23 starts trail 13 league-leaders by six.

Kershaw’s 1.70 ERA leads the league as well. He is 41 points ahead of second place Chris Sale of the White Sox. His .850 winning percentage also leads baseball, 64 points over Sale. Kershaw’s 0.83 WHIP also leads the majors, eight points better than Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners. Because of the injury and the six weeks on the disabled list, he does not even crack the top 40 in innings pitched, yet leads the majors with six complete games and is tied with six other pitchers with two shutouts. His BA-against, OBP-against and OPS-against all lead the majors.

Kershaw is well on his way to winning his second consecutive Cy Young award and third overall. There is also a lot of talk in the media that he should, at the very least, garner votes for the NL MVP. I agree. With the tight race in the NL West against the San Francisco Giants, I don’t think the Dodgers would be in control if not for Kershaw. When he returned from the disabled list in mid-May, the Dodgers were barely floating above .500 and the Giants were in control of the division.

At 26 years of age, Kershaw is indeed building a one-man dynasty. In comparison to the one-and-only Mr. Koufax, the Hall-of-Famer was building his own dynasty starting at the age of 26. From 1962-66, Mr. Koufax collected three major league ERA titles, struck out 26.8 of all batters he faced, collected a 0.93 WHIP and won nearly 77 percent of his decisions. Mr. Koufax retired at the age of 30, after 11-plus seasons with the Dodgers.

By comparison, Kershaw is on his way to a fourth consecutive major league ERA title, struck out 26.7 percent of his batters faced (yes, that is exactly 0.1 lower than Mr. Koufax), has collected a 0.99 WHIP and won nearly 69 percent of his decisions. The similarities are eerie, yet only solidify Kershaw’s place among the greats. And it bears repeating that he is only 26!

Can the Oakland A’s Win the AL West?

Although the game is under protest by the Oakland A’s and manager Bob Melvin, as it stands now, the LA Angels own a 4-3, 10th inning walk-off win against their division rivals. This translates to an 80-53 record for the Angels and a two-game lead over the A’s at 78-55.

The game is under protest due to a ninth inning obstruction call that went against Oakland and was upheld by umpire Greg Gibson and crew chief Gerry Davis. Howie Kendrick collected the game-winning RBI with a sacrifice fly in the 10th off A’s reliever Ryan Cook (1-2).

The A’s did put up quite a fight in the game, typical of their outstanding season. After struggling through the first three innings, staff ace Sonny Gray retired the next 12 batters to finish with seven innings, allowing three runs off six hits and three walks. Gray’s season record is an impressive 13-7 with 3.03 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over 178 innings pitched.

But the A’s are struggling as a team since the All Star break. They are 19-19 since the break and have lost 11 of their last 17. The A’s still maintain a 5-1/2 game lead on the top Wild Card spot over Detroit and Seattle. LA has won seven of ten and appear to be the hot team right now, although the loss of staff ace Garrett Richards could diminish their chances of staying on top.

Although the acquisition of starter John Lester from Boston has certainly improved the A’s pitching staff and their team overall, the loss of Yoenis Cespedes has hurt the offense. In 24 games with the Red Sox, Cespedes is batting .280 with four doubles, four home runs and 20 RBI’s. Although not staggering numbers by any stretch, the A’s could use his bat right now.

Derek Norris is leading the team offensively with a .270 BA. Josh Donaldson is leading in power numbers with 26 homers and 88 RBI’s, but is only batting .255. The offense will have to pick it up in September to support the pitching staff if they want to challenge the Angels for the AL West crown.

Bryce Harper’s Breakout Season Put On Hold

Many were predicting that 2014 would be Bryce Harper‘s big breakout season. After two seasons of putting up solid numbers, this was supposed to be the year where the 22-year old firmly established himself as one of baseball’s stars. Now fans might have to wait until later this season or maybe even next for the outfielder to really take off.

Harper is of course going to be on the shelf for the foreseeable future after thumb surgery. Initially he was just placed on the 15-day DL with a bad thumb, but now an operation to repair a torn ligament will extended his time away from baseball.

The Washington Nationals are currently four games back in the NL East and without one of their top hitters, that’s where they’re likely to stay.

All is certainly not lost without Harper. He’s just one piece on a talented team and let’s face it — he wasn’t doing that great prior to his injury.

Overall, this is not a crushing blow to the OF or his team. He’ll be back and the Nationals should remain near the playoff picture during his absence. Luckily the baseball season takes forever and there’s plenty of time for everyone in Washington to get back on track before September rolls around.

As for that huge breakout season from Harper that everyone’s been waiting for, there’s always 2015. If he fails to take off again next year, then fans will really begin to wonder if he’s destined for long-term stardom.

The Washington Nationals Hire Matt Williams to Take Over for Davey Johnson As Manager

Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has confirmed that the Washington nationals have hired Matt Williams to replace the retiring Davey Johnson as manager of the Washington Nationals. Williams has been a coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks since 2010. This will be the first major-league managing job for Williams. The other candidate for the job, Washington bench coach Randy Knorr, will stay with the team in his current position.

Williams takes over a team with a ton of talent and a chance to compete for the NL East division title in 2014. Under Johnson, the Nationals went to the playoffs in 2012, the first time since the franchise relocated to Washington in 2005. The team made a late playoff push this past season, only to come up short. Despite dealing with injuries to key players and lackluster performances from others, the Nationals ended up winning 86 games and gave the Cincinnati Reds a run for the 2nd Wild Card into the final week.

Johnson always viewed the Nationals job as temporary. He was working as a senior advisor for the team when they asked him to take over as manager midway through 2011. It was his first major-league managing job in 11 years. He ended up winning the NL Manager of the Year award in 2012, as the team won 98 games and captured the NL East crown. Johnson is now 70 and will go back to a consulting role with the Nationals.

Williams, 47, was a 5-time All Star who led the NL in home runs in 1994. In 17 seasons, with the Giants, Indians and Diamondbacks, he had 378 homers and 1,218 RBI. He was part of Kirk Gibson’s ‘All Star’ coaching staff in Arizona. Besides Gibson and Williams, other former All Stars that were part of the staff included Alan Trammell, Don Baylor, Charles Nagy and Steve Sax. However, that coaching staff is largely dispersed now, as Sax and Nagy were fired earlier this month and Don Baylor went to the Angels to be their hitting coach.

Washington Nationals Game Postponed Due To Navy Yard Shooting

The game scheduled this evening at 7:05 PM ET between the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves has been postponed until tomorrow due to the shootings that occurred at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. this morning. The game will be made up as part of a day/night doubleheader on Tuesday, with the first game being played at 1:10 PM ET and the second taking place at 7:05. The Nationals are currently 4 1/2 games out of the final Wild Card spot with 13 games left to play.

The team made an official statement this afternoon, when they announced that the game would be postponed: “All of us here in the Nationals organization were deeply saddened to learn of the tragic events that occurred this morning only a few blocks from Nationals Park. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. The safety of our fans is our utmost priority. As we have throughout the day, the Nationals security personnel will continue to work closely with all levels of law enforcement to reinforce the already high level of security in place at Nationals Park.”

As of this writing, 13 people have been confirmed in the shootings, including the shooter, 34-year-old Aaron Alexis. For more information on the tragedy, you can check NBC News here, as they are continuously updating as events unfold. The shooting started around 8:20 AM ET and it has been reported that the gunman had 3 weapons on him: an AR-15, a double-barrel shotgun and a handgun. Alexis previously served in the Navy for nearly 4 years and had been working as a civilian contractor at the base.