Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
The Nats open their final homestand of the season tonight against the Astros.
On the surface, this four-game series against Houston might look like the easiest portion of the homestand. Dig deeper, though, and this is going to be anything but easy. The Astros have actually been one of the NL's best teams for nearly four months, going 55-43 since June 1. (I'm sure it's pure coincidence that run began with three straight wins over the Nats.) Houston has also won 19 of its last 27, putting together a strong finish.
Livan Hernandez starts tonight for the Nationals, looking to earn his 11th win and even up his record at .500. Right-hander Bud Norris (8-8, 4.95) starts for Houston, having never faced any Nats hitter before.
Danny Espinosa gets the start at shortstop tonight, with Adam Kennedy at second base and Ian Desmond on the bench.
Check back for updates throughout...
ASTROS at NATIONALS
Where: Nationals Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m.
Radio: WFED-1500 AM, WWFD-820 AM
Weather: Sunny, 74 degrees, Wind 9 mph in from LF
SS Danny Espinosa
2B Adam Kennedy
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam Dunn
CF Roger Bernadina
RF Michael Morse
LF Willie Harris
C Wilson Ramos
P Livan Hernandez
CF Jason Bourgeois
2B Jeff Keppinger
RF Hunter Pence
1B Carlos Lee
SS Geoff Blum
3B Chris Johnson
LF Brian Bogusevic
C Humberto Quintero
P Bud Norris
5:55 p.m. -- Meant to post this earlier, but I'm making a bold prediction: Tonight's game will set a new paid attendance low in Nationals history. The current record is 11,191, set April 21 against the Rockies. I'm predicting tonight's game draws less than that.
7:06 p.m. -- And we're underway with a strike from Livan Hernandez to Jason Bourgeois. As expected, the ballpark is empty.
7:09 p.m. -- Danny Espinosa is playing shortstop tonight, only because Ian Desmond is out of the lineup. Jim Riggleman said earlier today there is "no chance" Espinosa and Desmond would swap infield spots next year. So of course Espinosa fields three grounders cleanly in the top of the first, recording all three outs.
7:25 p.m. -- And the Nats take a 2-0 lead to a thundering roar from the crowd. Well, everything except the thundering roar part. With two on and one out, Adam Dunn ropes a double down the right-field line, scoring both Adam Kennedy and Ryan Zimmerman. Those fans who are actually here applauded. But there aren't nearly enough of them to create a sound that could accurately be described as "thundering."
7:38 p.m. -- Still 2-0 after two innings. Livo has retired all six batters he's faced, only one of them hitting the ball out of the infield. He also singled in the bottom of the second but was stranded at first after Michael Bourn made a diving catch of Kennedy's sinking liner to center.
7:48 p.m. -- The Astros are on the board thanks to a well-executed squeeze from Norris in the top of the third. Brian Bogusevic scores to cut the lead to 2-1.
8:02 p.m. -- Still 2-1 through four as both Livo and Norris settle in nicely.
8:30 p.m. -- Yeah, guess I spoke too soon. I went down to the stands for the fifth inning to take some photos. Basically had an entire section to myself, which was probably best since I might have been in danger of taking a tomato in the face that was intended for Livo after he gave up seven runs in the top of the fifth. Yeah, seven runs. Of course, only three of those runs were earned after three errors charged to Adam Dunn, Willie Harris and Roger Bernadina. U-G-L-Y. It's now 8-2 in the sixth, Craig Stammen has come on to pitch and the few fans here are quite restless.
8:45 p.m. -- Nothin' doin' from the Nats since that two-run first. In five innings since, they've produced two singles and a walk. Not exactly putting on a clinic in good, crisp, clean baseball here tonight. 8-2 Astros as we go to the seventh.
8:54 p.m. -- The moment you've all been waiting for: Tonight's paid attendance is ... 10,999. Congrats to those of you who were here to be a part of the smallest crowd in Nationals history.
9:02 p.m. -- Strange moment in the top of the seventh. Carlos Lee hit a little tapper to third, which Ryan Zimmerman charged in, fielded and then threw a bit wide of first. So Lee was safe. But Zimmerman and Riggleman immediately argued with plate umpire Brian Gorman, apparently that the ball hit Lee's bat twice. Replays appeared to show just that. Gorman would have none of it, though, so Blum remained safe, leaving the bases loaded with one out. Stammen made it all a moot point by getting Geoff Blum to foul out and then Johnson to strike out, ending the inning with the score still 8-2.
9:15 p.m. -- Chance for the Nats to get back in it in the bottom of the seventh. Bases loaded. Two outs. Adam Dunn at the plate. Astros manager Brad Mills pulls Norris in favor of lefty Tim Byrdak. ... And Dunn strikes out on three pitches. Inning over.
9:21 p.m. -- If you were wondering (and I know you were), Adam Dunn's OPS against left-handers this season is .738. For comparison's sake, Roger Bernadina's OPS against lefties is .845. (Dunn's OPS against right-handers, of course, is .965, among the best in the league.)
9:24 p.m. -- I should point out that Bernadina has only 49 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this season.
9:28 p.m. -- You know, no matter what the Nats' record ends up being this year, Anderson Hernandez (who just pinch-hit for the Astros) won't be their starting second baseman next season. That's progress right there, folks.
9:36 p.m. -- And we go to the bottom of the ninth of this thriller. All the Nats need to do is hit a grand slam, then hit a three-run homer, to win this game. Apparently the few thousand who have stuck around til now believe this is an actual possibility.
9:46 p.m. -- This one is in the books, hopefully locked up and hidden away where no one can ever find it again. Final score: Astros 8, Nats 2. Fortunately, barely anyone was here to see it in person. At 62-88, the Nats now need to go 8-4 the rest of the way to get to 70 wins. They need to go 6-6 to get to 68 wins. They need to go 1-11 to avoid 100 losses. At this point, anything seems possible.