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Results Were Mixed, But Bats Went Cold For Nats This Week

Although it’s early in the season, the Nationals arguably needed a big week to solidify themselves as playoff contenders.

Instead, the Nats split their six games, taking two out of three from the Cardinals before losing a weekend series to the Mets.

All told, it was essentially the type of week you’d expect from the Nationals when Juan Soto isn’t in the lineup. The pitching staff held its own – which hasn’t always been the case this year – but the lineup didn’t perform as you’d prefer it to.

The only true blip on the mound was from Joe Ross Monday, although he rebounded with six strong innings on Saturday – and was the subject of my most recent article. Aside from that, the worst game in that area was a six-run performance Friday – and half of that came against the bullpen, after Erick Fedde had left the game.

Patrick Corbin tossed six shutout innings Tuesday, although his Sunday outing was less stellar. Nonetheless, the improvement is encouraging and much-needed. Max Scherzer threw a six-inning dandy of his own Wednesday, holding the Cardinals without a run and striking out nine batters.

The issue was the offense. The Nats averaged (just over) five hits per game against the Cardinals, even though they managed to win two of those games. They also went the final 37 innings of the week without hitting a home run, during which they only had four extra-base hits (all doubles). Sunday’s defeat was also the fifth time they’ve been shut out and seventh time they’ve been held to one run or fewer, both of which lead the big leagues.

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It’s Time For Nats To Take Training Wheels Off Joe Ross

Stephen Strasburg is sidelined with shoulder inflammation, Jon Lester has yet to make his debut this season, and Patrick Corbin has not pitched up to his contract so far this year.

Dave Martinez needs someone other than Max Scherzer to pitch late into games and give his team a chance to win.

So why is he so hesitant to give Joe Ross more freedom, instead of treating him like a typical No. 4 or 5 starter?

It’s a tendency Martinez has had throughout his tenure in Washington, and at times, it has been warranted. But not in the case of Ross in 2021.

Joe Ross has looked like a borderline ace starting pitcher three times this season. He should not be absolved of the 10-run outing he had against the Cardinals on Monday, but he’s held his opposition to one run and 11 hits in the other 17 innings he’s thrown. Even his walk rate – which had hovered near five per nine innings in 2019 – has been nearly trimmed in half.

So far this season, he’s pitched between 85–91 pitches three times (he went shorter in his season debut). Keeping in mind that he didn’t play last season, he averaged 86 pitches per start in 2019, never throwing 100 pitches in a game. In fact, he hasn’t reached triple digits since undergoing Tommy John surgery midseason of 2017.

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Injuries Have Become A Pattern for Nats' Pitching Staff

Since 2019, Dave Martinez’s motto has been “Go 1–0 today.”

The events of this week – and subsequent news this weekend – make a case for the alternative. The Nationals split their most recent four-game series with the Diamondbacks, but that’s of relatively minimal importance right now.

On Saturday, left-handed reliever Luis Avilan was confirmed to have suffered a UCL tear, as a result of back-to-back extended outings on Wednesday and Thursday. Then on Sunday, right-handers Stephen Strasburg (shoulder) and Wander Suero (oblique) were also placed on the 10-day IL.

The Nationals promoted Paolo Espino, who made Strasburg’s previously-scheduled Sunday start, and relievers Kyle McGowin and Ryne Harper to fill those three voids. All three have Major League experience, but none of them are difference makers, nor do they come with much apparent upside.

The Strasburg Situation

I noted in my recap from earlier this week that Strasburg had a rough outing in his last start Tuesday, and that the Nationals took exception to camera shots of the dugout that the Cardinals had access to. However, the team glossed over the fact that Strasburg wasn’t himself physically in that start.

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No Offense, But Nationals Offense Right Now Stinks

Dave Martinez has reached a crossroad.

Most people – myself included – will normally cite his mismanagement of the bullpen when it comes to criticism of the Nats' manager. But his construction of the batting order this season has also seemed rather archaic at times.

Davey doesn’t like to experiment with his lineup unless he has to. The Nationals are 12thin the majors in OPS, but they’re 28th in runs scored per game. If that doesn’t suggest a lineup change is necessary, nothing will.

The old school of thought in baseball was to hit your quickest player leadoff, a good hitter with speed second, your best overall hitter third, the hitter with the most pure power fourth, your next best “RBI guy” fifth, and the rest of your batters in order of ability after that.

Times have changed. There’s data suggesting that the No. 2 hitter across the MLB typically steps up to the plate in the most high-pressure situations, and that the importance of including speed at the top of the lineup is of diminishing importance. That doesn’t even factor in separating same-sided hitters, or who’s most comfortable hitting in each given spot in the lineup.

Davey deserves credit for trying Juan Soto in the No. 2 hole recently. Using Adam Eaton there in the past was often crippling. But there’s still more work to be done.

I’d start at the heart of the lineup. Since Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber’s regular-season debuts – and even during Spring Training – they’ve been hitting directly behind Soto. In some ways, that makes sense, but it’s also not quite ideal. Soto and Schwarber are both left-handed hitters, and Bell is a switch hitter, meaning he’ll normally hit from the left side – since most pitchers are right-handed. Particularly late in games, that gives opposing managers a strategic advantage. If they bring in a left-handed reliever to face them, the production of the trio will become much more limited than they’re otherwise capable of.

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As Meatloaf Once Sang, Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad...

The noted philosopher Meatloaf may have been describing the Nationals and their time in St. Louis this week when he once sang "two out of three ain't bad."

But it wasn't the song that was significant: It was the band, or more accurately said, the band getting back together. 

Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber and Josh Harrison were reinstated from the Injured List (IL) on Monday, and for the first time this season, the Nationals had their entire team available to play. Bell started the first two games upon returning, and his counterparts played all three games in the series. The trio gave the lineup some much-improved length, proving why I believe the team has a strong chance to make the playoffs this year

Here’s a look at the difference the three of them made:

Before: Victor Robles, Trea Turner, Juan Soto, Zimmerman, Starlin Castro, Jordy Mercer, Andrew Stevenson, catcher, pitcher.
Bench Core: Hernan Perez, Luis Garcia, Yadiel Hernandez.

After: Robles, Turner, Soto, Bell, Schwarber, Castro, Harrison, catcher, pitcher.
Bench Core: Zimmerman, Stevenson, Mercer/Perez.

You can’t overstate how much of a boost this is for the lineup. Bell and Schwarber have – at least nearly – elite slugging potential, Castro becomes similar to Ian Desmond or a young Anthony Rendon in the No. 6 slot, and Harrison batting seventh – not to mention a catcher like Yan Gomes eighth – is an immeasurable luxury.

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Nationals Experience A Lost Weekend In Los Angeles

California Dreaming, it was not. 

Hoping to end their ever-growing losing streak on the West Coast, the Nationals thought they might take advantage of the Dodgers being without All Star outfielders Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger this weekend, but it didn’t matter much.

The West Coast super-team and defending World Series champions used late-game heroics to take the series opener 1-0, cruised to an 8-5 win on Saturday that was decided earlier than the score indicates, and closed out the set with a 3-0 victory in Sunday’s finale.

Considering how poorly the season has started, including a current streak of five consecutive losses, it seems like a good time to look into some patterns: What’s gone right for the Nats, what’s gone wrong, and how can Dave Martinez blend it all together to create a winning on-field product?

Game One

Joe Ross started Friday’s game, opposed by Walker Buehler. Pitching wasn’t the issue in this game, but finding any source of meaningful offense was.

  • Joe Ross: five innings, two hits, two walks, no runs, four strikeouts, 67 pitches (40 strikes)
  • Luis Avilan: one inning, solo home run, two strikeouts, 17 pitches (10 strikes)
  • Wander Suero: one inning, one base runner (double), 11 pitches (seven strikes)
  • Sam Clay: one inning, no base runners, nine pitches (six strikes)

No one pitched particularly poorly, but it’s completely fair to wonder why Ross was removed from the game after five innings. The obvious answer – whether it’s sufficient or not – is twofold; his spot in the lineup was due up in the top of the sixth, and he hadn’t thrown more than 73 pitches in an outing this spring, after sitting out the entire 2020 season.

At some point, Ross has to be allowed to go deeper into games and face a lineup for the third time – something Martinez is notoriously weary of doing with his back of the rotation starters. Friday’s game was the perfect opportunity to stretch him to his limits, but Davey refused to do it, and the team paid for it when Avilan gave up a homer to Justin Turner the following inning.

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Nats Have Their Moments, But Lose 2 Of 3 To Braves

For six months and a couple of extra days, Nats fans waited.

Then in a span of a little over 24 hours, they went from famine to feast, as the Nationals played three games, showing both the potential - and challenges - they'll have to deal with this season.  

The good: The Nats took the season opener on a walk-off base hit by Juan Soto.

The bad: They dropped both games of a doubleheader on Wednesday.

 Game One

Max Scherzer was not at his best on Tuesday. He surrendered four solo home runs in his first three innings, including two to Ronald Acuña Jr. Thankfully, the Nats’ bats picked up his slack.  Recently signed catcher Jonathan Lucroy laced a two-run double down the third base line in the second inning, and Trea Turner crushed a ball over the left-center field fence in the bottom of the fourth to tie the game.

Despite his early struggles, Scherzer managed to get through six innings while limiting the damage to four runs and striking out nine batters. That kept Washington in the game, and the bullpen fared better.

The Braves added a run on an Acuña groundout in the seventh, with Kyle Finnegan on the mound. But Andrew Stevenson responded with a bases-loaded RBI single the next inning.

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Nationals Sign Lucroy, Reveal Covid-Affected Players

While the COVID-19 situation has been quite complex for the Nationals over the last few days, it would appear some of the questions fans have been asking now have answers.

We’ve known for a while that four players’ rapid/PCR tests returned positive results, with numerous other players ruled to be high-risk close contacts. But now we know specifically who some of the most affected players were.

Per reports, the Nationals expect to be without left-handed pitcher Jon Lester, catcher Alex Avila, infielder Josh Harrison and outfielder Kyle Schwarber when the season begins. It’s also possible that more players will join the list of inactives.

While Sam Clay, Luis Garcia and Yadiel Hernandez will likely remain with the team after being tentatively recalled on Wednesday, catcher Tres Barrera may not. Washington signed Jonathan Lucroy, a two-time All Star (2014 and 2016), to a minor-league contract, and the belief is that he’ll be promoted to the majors upon joining the team.

Lucroy’s case is an interesting one. Any player designated as COVID-19 affected – either due to a positive test or close contact – can be placed on a separate COVID-19 related IL, removing them from the active and 40-man rosters and allowing them to be replaced by a minor-league player. However, unlike last season, the replacement doesn’t have to be placed through waivers when the COVID-19 designee returns and the replacement is taken off the roster.

In other words, Lucroy can be temporarily utilized as a fill-in for Avila, and then returned to the minor leagues and retained by the organization upon Avila’s return. In essence, there is no downside to using a veteran like Lucroy, especially if Barrera isn’t viewed as big-league ready – which appears to be the case.

Lucroy’s role – assuming he earns a promotion and Avila is deactivated – will be dependent upon the availability of Yan Gomes. Lucroy has never caught any of the Nationals’ starting pitchers, though, which would likely limit his usage.

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"Abundance Of Caution" Scrubs Nats-Mets Opening Series

Remember 2020, the year that life as we knew it was thrown a curveball we coined as COVID-19? When the pandemic was so troublesome that Major League Baseball conducted a 60-game “fake” season?

Well, the virus has not gone away, and it's thrown a wrench into the the gears of the first week of Major League Baseball's regular season.

The Nationals’ opening series against the New York Mets has now been postponed to a later date, out of “an abundance of caution” surrounding confirmed positive tests for COVID-19 within Washington’s organization.

All 30 teams across the league were scheduled to play ball on Thursday. It was going to be the first time in decades that all 30 teams opened their season on the same day, and the Nationals were slated to host the Mets in the primetime ESPN slot. But the pandemic had other ideas, forcing ESPN’s nightcap to be postponed and the Nationals to enter a “Mike Rizzo mandated quarantine”.

The process leading up to the postponement was eventful. The chaos started on Wednesday afternoon, when it was reported that someone within the team had tested positive for the virus. News later broke that the positive test would likely impact the Opening Day roster, and would also force five people (including a staff member) to enter quarantine due to close contact.

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Nationals Have A Puncher's Chance At Winning The Division

In 2019, the Washington Nationals brought home a World Series ring.

Last year in a COVID-shortened season, the team didn't make the playoffs, and just went home early.

So where is the 2021 edition of the Nationals going, starting with Opening Day tomorrow?

Although their core remains largely the same, the Nationals have gone through their fair share of roster turnover since the end of last season, not to mention their World Series championship season in 2019. They’ve lost veterans like Anibal Sanchez, Kurt Suzuki, Howie Kendrick and Adam Eaton; but also added thumpers like Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, along with a potential Hall of Fame pitcher in Jon Lester. And don’t forget about that savvy veteran who wears No. 11 and played his college ball in Charlottesville! He’s back too, after taking a year off.

The team appears on the surface to be stronger than it was for most of last season. So where should fans’ expectations fall in 2021, and what will be some of the key factors towards how successful the season will be?

State Of The Division

There’s no way around it; the NL East has improved since the Nationals’ title run. The Braves remain a powerhouse of the division, the Phillies and Mets have each added one of the best players at their respective positions (J.T. Realmuto and Francisco Lindor), and the Marlins are very much on the rise, even earning a Wild Card bid last year, thanks in part to rookie flamethrower Sixto Sanchez.

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