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It Wasn't Just A Good Weekend. It Was A Great Weekend.

As sports weekends go in the Nation's Capital, local teams may have just finished a rare great one.

Think about it. The Capitals won an opening-round Stanley Cup playoff game. The Wizards rallied to win and clinch an 8th-seed in the NBA playoffs. The Nationals won a series on the road. Plus the Mystics opened their season, DC United took to the pitch, and even the Washington Football Team and Hokies down in Blacksburg had an eventful last few days.

Not  bad. Not bad at all. Here are the details:

Capitals Win A Postseason Thriller

Caps fans had their hearts in their throats early when starting goaltender Vitek Vanecek left in the first quarter due to injury, leaving the game in Craig Anderson’s hands. Anderson only had two starts this season, his last win was in May of 2017, and while they said he was 39, it was just barely. He'll be 40 this week. So on top of concerns for injuries to TJ Oshie and the return of Alexander Ovechkin from injury, Caps fans had plenty to worry about.

But soon after realizing Anderson was even on the team, Caps fans realized they were seeing a calm, experienced goaltender who kept the Boston Bruins in check. Tom Wilson scored the game’s opening goal, showing he can score AND fight, then Jake DeBrusk responded – which was also the play on which Vanecek left with an injury. The call-and-respond action continued in the second period, when Brendan Dillon and Nick Ritchie traded goals, and the teams held each other scoreless throughout the rest of regulation.

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Nats Questions Have Been Answered, But Not Favorably

It’s time to face reality.

The season is a long way from being complete, but at this point in time, the Nationals don’t look as good this year as we hoped they would. Entering the season, their roster seemed to have an NL East championship ceiling with plenty of talent spread across the team, including players who had succeeded in high-intensity moments in the past.

But the pieces have not fit together so far this year. Sluggers have not hit well, the batting order continues to not make sense on a day-to-day basis, and the team has repeatedly struggled at the beginning of games and faltered in key situations.

One great way to assess how this year has gone thus far, relative to expectations, is by looking back at many of the questions people – myself included – had about the Nationals entering the regular season. 

Why Sign Both Bell and Schwarber?

This lineup needed to add some power. Anthony Rendon had left a glaring void that wasn’t filled following the World Series, players like Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera were also gone, and Victor Robles regressed in 2020. None of that was arguable, but the way the team addressed it was strange.

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Late-Inning Doozies Against Yanks Raise Concerns For Nats

When they write the book on this past week for the Nationals, it will probably be titled "long fly balls and bullpen calls."

Weaknesses in those areas proved to be the undoing of the Nationals, as a stellar outing by Max Scherzer and improvements from the likes of Victor Robles and Patrick Corbin were wasted. Both teams – particularly the Yankees – are built upon those two topics, and the Nats were unable to match them.

The bullpen wasn’t all bad, except for two pitchers. However, that duo, along with the offense, was largely responsible for Washington’s 1-5 week.

The Bats Have Been Flat

The offense remained quiet for most of the week, which has been consistent all season. The Nationals have only scored more than three runs in one of their last seven games – and even in their 11-run outburst on Friday, they only had three runs through the first seven innings.

This really stems from a larger issue. While Washington is No. 6 in baseball – and first in the NL – in batting average, the Nationals are also No. 19 in slugging percentage, No. 23 in at bats per home run, and subsequently fourth from the bottom in runs scored per game. 

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The Nationals Are Positioned To Add Some New Blood

Washington’s roster construction has often been criticized this season, as they don’t have a proven left-handed specialist out of the bullpen, they only have one true backup infielder (aside from Ryan Zimmerman, who can only play one spot), and four of their five outfielders are left-handed. Few of them, it should be noted, are hitting well.

They recently designated for assignment Hernan Perez - who checked off two of the boxes above - but he was unproductive in the batter’s box in his short time with the Nats. His pitching appearances, however, were entertaining.

In cutting ties with Perez, the Nationals opened up a spot on their 40-man roster. They aren’t required to fill it, but it does present them with an interesting opportunity to fill one of their glaring voids.

The option to promote someone from within is always available, but truthfully, there isn’t a worthy candidate. The few players they could recall from the minor leagues are already on the 40-man roster, anyway.

Strictly in terms of offense, Jonathan Lucroy is still available and could provide some value. However, as a third catcher, he doesn’t fix any of the larger roster conundrums.

Albert Pujols was also recently designated for assignment by the Angels, but the last thing the Nationals need is another first baseman. There are some other players in “DFA limbo” that present some intrigue, though. Left-handed reliever Brandon Waddell was chiefly among them as recently as early Saturday afternoon, but the Orioles beat the Nationals to the punch, claiming him from the Twins and optioning him to AAA Norfolk.

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The Curious Case of Kyle Schwarber in D.C.

Kyle Schwarber has two of the Nationals’ most memorable hits this season. Yet, the totality of his play has fallen well below the team’s expectations.

Once signed shortly after Josh Bell – who has also seen his fair share of tough times in Washington – to serve as the thump in the middle of the batting order, Schwarber finds himself hitting in the No. 7 spot in Thursday’s lineup.

Sure, it’s against a lefty, and Washington seemed to recognize all along that Schwarber was less potent against same-sided pitching. I’m pretty sure they never thought he’d ever be the second-lowest non-pitcher in the lineup, though.

Schwarber enters Thursday’s game batting a smidge over .180 with an OPS+ of 58, compared to a career mark of 111. However, there are two tendencies that should make fans fairly optimistic that a turnaround could be on the way.

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Nats Minor League Affiliates Kick Off Their 2021 Seasons

At last, minor league baseball is returning tonight!

The junior circuit cancelled its season last year due to COVID-19 restrictions and loss of revenue, and this season was delayed by a month for similar reasons. Nonetheless, it’s back now.

Many teams had already unveiled the rosters of each of their affiliates, but like they often are on this subject, the Nationals were laggards.

On Monday, the Nationals’ affiliates in Rochester (Triple-A), Harrisburg (Double-A), Wilmington (High-A) and Fredericksburg (Low-A) unveiled their Opening Day rosters.

If some of those locations look unfamiliar to you, it’s because they are new to the organization. Harrisburg has remained Washington’s Double-A affiliate, but Rochester and Wilmington were added from other organizations during a far-reaching minor league realignment this offseason, and Potomac (affectionately known as the P-Nats) recently relocated to Fredericksburg.

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Yadiel Hernandez is Here to Stay for the Nationals

The Nationals have won four in a row, Jon Lester has returned to the field, and Max Scherzer had a vintage “Mad Max” complete game start on Sunday against the Florida Marlins.

None of those, however, are really the biggest story in Washington this week.

With Juan Soto on the shelf with an injured throwing shoulder, the bigger story may be that the Nats haven’t missed a beat with Yadiel Hernandez in his place. In fact, you could almost make the argument he's been the team’s best hitter over the past week.

The 33-year-old left-handed outfielder has been an afterthought for much of his baseball career. As recently as 2016, he was a relatively everyday Joe, swinging the bat in Cuba.

Hernandez signed a minor league contract with the Nats following the season. That’s not an incredibly uncommon path, except he was already in his late 20s and wasn’t viewed as much of a major league prospect.

He spent three years in the minor leagues – one plus a month in AA Harrisburg and nearly two in AAA Fresno – and batted .301 with a slugging percentage north of .500. After blasting 33 home runs in 2019, the organization had seen enough.

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Four Hokies Hear Their Names Called In 2021 NFL Draft

Last year, much was made of the fact only one Hokie - in the third round - was selected in the NFL Draft.

That certainly won't be the case this year, as Virginia Tech had four players selected in the 2021 draft, including two picks back to back in the first round. Only 7 schools had two or more players chosen in the first round, putting the Hokies in some pretty elite company.

Cornerback Caleb Farley and left tackle Christian Darrisaw were the back-to-back picks in the first round, safety Divine Deablo was taken in the third, and running back Khalil Herbert heard his name called in the sixth round.

Incidentally, while they aren’t going to teams who scouted them at their Pro Day, all four of them find themselves going into great situations, as prototypical players for each team’s system.

Caleb Farley

The Titans, who are in the process of completely overhauling their cornerback room, took Farley with the No. 22 overall pick. As recently as two seasons ago, they boasted one of the deeper secondaries in the NFL, featuring Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson at cornerback and Kenny Vaccaro at strong safety. They’re all gone now.

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Jon Lester's Debut Was Worth The Wait For Nationals

Ever since Stephen Strasburg was sent to the IL with right shoulder inflammation, the Washington Nationals have been making ends meet with four starting pitchers.

That's no longer the case, as Jon Lester made his regular-season debut Friday night for the Nats, a 2-1 extra innings win over the Marlins.

No one will confuse Lester for Strasburg, but the 37-year-old left-hander has seen plenty of success in the big leagues, including an 18-win season as recently as 2018. He’s also a five-time All Star and three-time World Series champion, and he threw a no-hitter for the Red Sox in 2008.

There are tons of accolades, but what can Lester still bring to the table for Washington in 2021?

Admittedly, his two most recent seasons weren’t pretty. In 43 starts since the beginning of 2019, he posted an ERA of 4.64. Granted, he won more games than he lost over that span, but the Nats would still prefer for him to be more productive than that.

As a rule, Lester typically relies on a four-seam fastball and cutter around 30 percent of the time, complimented by a sinker, curveball and changeup. All three offspeed pitches are effective, giving him the type of arsenal that many of Washington’s other starters don’t have.

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Josh Bell Isn’t Doing So Swell At The Plate For The Nats

When the Nationals traded two mid-level minor league prospects to Pittsburgh for Josh Bell over the winter, they assumed they were getting the high-upside power-hitting first baseman that they’ve been lacking for a number of years.

Instead, they’ve been stuck with one of the least productive hitters in the majors to start this season. In fact, his tailspin has risen to the point of him getting demoted from third or fourth in the lineup consistently to the No. 6 slot on Wednesday night.

How has the former top prospect gone from an MVP frontrunner to a liability at the plate in only two years, and what will it take for things to turn around for the 28-year-old slugger?

The Overarching Analytics

Two years ago, Josh Bell was among the best hitters in the National League. He hit for a career best .277 average, reached base in nearly 37 percent of his plate appearances, and recorded a whopping .569 slugging percentage with 37 home runs and 116 RBIs.

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Could Nationals Be Saying Goodbye To Max Scherzer Soon?

In seven years with the Nationals, Max Scherzer has consistently been one of the hardest working, most dominant starting pitchers in Major League Baseball, which you'd think would ensure he'd be a Nat the rest of his career.

That's not, however, necessarily true.

Scherzer’s status as a potential trade chip has been one of the hottest topics amongst the national media recently, and it reached a climax during Saturday’s broadcast against the Mets on Fox Sports 1.

Nothing Ken Rosenthal said is incorrect. He even qualified his stance by stating that the Nationals are striving to be playoff contenders and are unlikely to fall far enough out of the picture to strongly consider trading Scherzer. Still, it’s a very possible – and reasonable – outcome at this year’s Trade Deadline.

What This Discussion is Really About

There’s been an outcry amongst the fanbase that the Nationals would never trade away one of their biggest stars if they’re trying – and have a realistic chance – to make the playoffs. That statement in itself is absolutely true, and completely in line with their past tendencies. If they’re still within five (maybe even ten) games of a playoff spot by deadline day, they won’t entertain the idea of a trade.

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