There were a couple of good games in the National League on Sunday involving four playoff contenders. In Philadelphia, the Phillies beat the Nationals 4-3 on Andrew Knapp's 13th-inning, walk-off home run:
Knapp was pinch-hitting for Nick Pivetta, the starting pitcher who had worked the top of the 13th for the Phillies. After the game, Knapp said his dad was in town this week for July 4 and that Knapp had texted him before the game to say he wasn't in the starting lineup. "That's OK," Knapp's dad said, "you'll hit a walk-off home run." It was the first walk-off hit of Knapp's career.
In St. Louis, the Braves scored five runs in the sixth to take a 6-0 lead, including sweet-swinging MVP candidate Freddie Freeman hitting a towering fly ball for his 16th home run:
The Phillies took 3 of 4 from the Nationals, losing 17-7 on Friday but winning the other three games by one run. The Braves completed an impressive, three-game sweep on the road. Good job to those two clubs on their big weekend. Bad job to the Nationals and Cardinals, who both sit 42-40 and would be hitting the links if the playoffs started on Monday. The Nationals and Cardinals not only trail the Cubs and Phillies in the wild-card race, they now sit behind the Dodgers and Giants.
Are they in trouble? There are definitely troubling signs.
1. Mediocre offenses
This is maybe the most disappointing aspect of both teams. NL teams are averaging 4.38 runs per game. The Cardinals are 10th at 4.27 runs per game, and the Nationals are at 4.24. They're also trending in the wrong direction. While scoring across the NL was up in June at 4.52 runs per game, the Cards and Nats both averaged an even 4.0 per game.
Bryce Harper certainly deserves some of the blame in Washington. He has hit .193/.332/.404 over 64 games (since April 17) and .180/.333/.326 since June 1. The Nationals also have the worst production in the majors at catcher -- hence the J.T. Realmuto trade rumors -- and since Howie Kendrick went down, their second basemen have hit .232/.246/.341.
For the Cardinals, Marcell Ozuna was supposed to be their Harper, and while he's hitting .285, his .746 OPS and his on-pace total of 20 home runs are well below his .924 and 37 figures from 2017. Matt Carpenter was cold in April and is hot now, while Tommy Pham was hitting in April and early May but has cooled off big time since (he had a 1.042 OPS through May 11, but is .548 since). Paul DeJong got injured and Dexter Fowler has lost his starting job to Harrison Bader. A lineup that looked deep at the start of the season is now thinner and lacks that big hitter in the middle.
What happens moving forward? FanGraphs projects the Nationals at 4.63 runs per game the rest of the season and the Cardinals at 4.35. That makes sense, as you would expect increased production from Harper and Daniel Murphy, while being less certain about guys such as Pham or Ozuna. The answer for the Cardinals, of course, could be a trade for Manny Machado.
2. Back of the rotation
We're nitpicking a bit here because both rotations have been very good overall, ranking third and fourth in the NL in ERA. But since both teams are now playing from behind, they need production from all five spots in the rotation. With Stephen Strasburg sidelined, the Nationals have tried the likes of Jefry Rodriguez and Erick Fedde of late, and those two have combined for a 6.03 ERA in seven starts. It helped getting Jeremy Hellickson back for the No. 4 spot, but Strasburg remains out indefinitely.
I expected Luke Weaver to be a big breakout starter this year for the Cardinals, but he has struggled with a 5.16 ERA, hurt by home runs, walks and the big inning. I still believe in his upside, and he's in the rotation for now with Michael Wacha out with an oblique strain, but he needs his results to match the stuff and potential.
Factoring in the bullpens -- and both teams have had some issues in middle relief -- FanGraphs projects the Nationals to allow 4.06 runs per game the rest of the way (up from 3.85 so far) and the Cardinals to allow 4.19 runs per game (same as the 4.20 they've given up so far). Of course, that Nationals figure depends a lot on Strasburg's return, and his health could determine whether the Nats make the playoffs.
Here's where the numbers don't match the critics, particularly with the Cardinals, who get bashed for their defense (and have for a few years now). I'm not watching every game, so the eye test is clearly providing a different result than the advanced metrics, which have the Cardinals at plus-12 Defensive Runs Saved, which is 12th in the majors. That's nowhere near the Brewers, Diamondbacks or Cubs, who are all at plus-43 or better, but it suggests the Cardinals' defense hasn't been terrible.
They do lead the majors in errors (which are incorporated into DRS) and have allowed 34 unearned runs, which is third-most in the majors behind only the Rangers and Padres, so it appears the pitchers haven't cleaned up very well after the errors. The Cardinals do have a couple of supreme defenders in Bader (one reason he'll continue to play) and Kolten Wong, while Jose Martinez is bad at first and Pham's metrics in center haven't been great (minus-7 DRS). Yairo Munoz, filling in for DeJong at shortstop, has been a problem with eight errors in 28 games started.
This could be the third straight playoff-less season for the Cardinals. Hey, there are high standards here. That hasn't happened since 1997-99. For whatever reason, and maybe Mike Matheny is part of the "whatever," the sum of the parts hasn't added up as well as it might have the past three seasons.
Dave Martinez is more of an unknown, but he has taken a team that had 95 and 97 wins under Dusty Baker and has them on pace for 83 wins. Some of that is the result of Nationals beating up on a weak division the past two years -- 47-29 in 2017 and 51-25 in 2016. In 2018? They're 13-16.
That might be the telling statistic. It could be that we're headed for no Nationals and no Cardinals in the postseason for the first time since 2010.
Quick notes: Blake Snell had to have locked up a spot on the All-Star team with another gem on Sunday, holding the Astros to one run and four hits with 10 K's over 7 1/3 innings. He lowered his ERA to 2.24, and since May 18, he has a 1.43 ERA and .157 average allowed. Wow.
• It was Canada Day, and Canadian James Paxton started for the Mariners on James Paxton bobblehead day (the bobblehead featured an eagle on Paxton's shoulder to commemorate Opening Day, when an eagle landed on his shoulder). All Paxton did was toss eight scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts (all swinging) in a 1-0 victory for the Mariners, their seventh straight win and 26th by one run (tying the mark for most ever through 85 games). Yes, Edwin Diaz closed it out, striking out the side for his 32nd save.
• Catch of the day from Kevin Pillar:
Luis Severino is the best pitcher in the AL. There, I said it.— Bronx Bomber Ball (@BronxBomberBall) July 2, 2018
It's July! OK, Monday is actually July 2, but Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information passes this along:
• Since 1996, 15 of 22 World Series winners led their divisions entering July 1. The 2014 Giants and 2011 Cardinals each had a share of their respective division's lead at that point and did not win the division but did win the World Series.
• Since 1996, the six division leaders on July 1 all finished in first place just three times: 1996, 1997 and 1999.
• Does it feel like there are more good teams than usual? In one league? The Red Sox, Yankees, Astros and Mariners all have .600 or better winning percentages. From Elias: This is the first time in a non-strike-shortened season in the modern era (since 1900) that four or more teams from a single league entered July with a winning percentage of .600 or better.
The @Mariners are now 22-0 when Edwin Díaz is handed a one-run lead:— Gary Hill Jr. (@GaryHillJr) July 1, 2018
LeBron to the Lakers: In honor of LeBron James' leaving Cleveland and heading west, we offer the best players to play for the Indians and the Dodgers or Angels:
Manny Ramirez: He led the AL twice in slugging and OPS with the Indians and had a 165-RBI season. He came to the Dodgers in 2008 and hit .396 with 53 RBIs in 52 games and finished fourth in the MVP voting, leading to the creation of Mannywood at Dodger Stadium.
Kenny Lofton: He was one of the best all-around players in the game in the '90s, spending nine seasons with the Indians sandwiched around one season in Atlanta. He then entered the vagabond phase of his career and hit .301 for the Dodgers in 2006.
Luis Tiant: He's remembered for his Red Sox days, but he was a dominant flamethrower when he came up with the Indians in the '60s, including a 1.60 ERA with nine shutouts in 1968. His final season came with the Angels in 1982.
Orel Hershiser: He was a World Series MVP for the Dodgers in 1988 and pitched in two World Series with the Indians.
Tommy John: He's not just a surgery! John came up with the Indians and won just two games with them before he was traded to the White Sox, who then traded him to the Dodgers for Dick Allen. He later played for the Angels, as well.
Chuck Finley: Arguably the best player in Angels history before Mike Trout, Finley won 165 games with them and had over 50 career WAR. He also won 28 games with the Indians.
Brett Butler: An underrated star in the '80s and early '90s, Butler was a Lofton-type presence at the top of the lineup with his speed and on-base ability. He averaged 99 runs in four seasons with Cleveland and scored 112 his first season with the Dodgers.
OK, that's seven good ones. A starting five and two guys off the bench.