Wind: 1.01 m/h
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.
Of equal importance, this puts men who shouldn’t be playing every day – including, to an extent, Zimmerman – on the bench. Players like Stevenson and Mercer have had their moments so far this season, but they were bound to be exposed at some point if they remained in an everyday capacity. And in Zimmerman’s case, there were questions about how heavy of a workload he could handle.
Zimmerman becomes one of the best pinch-hitting options in the league, Stevenson returns to the fourth outfielder role that he’s thrived in when thrust into duty over the past couple years, and Mercer and Perez become late-game defensive substitution candidates at multiple positions. Not to knock Luis Garcia, who absolutely has MLB potential – as does Carter Kieboom, for that matter – but playoff contenders will always prefer quality veterans in that capacity.
These key additions also provide the Nats with more lineup versatility. To start with, they have the option of playing to platoon splits without sacrificing top-end talent. Neither Bell nor Schwarber hit particularly well against left-handed pitchers. Zimmerman is an obvious fit at first base when Bell needs to sit, but he’s also experienced in left field – Schwarber’s position. Subsequently, if opposing teams ever replace a pitcher who throws from the opposite side of the plate, the Nationals will always have a counter.
Additionally, if Robles is unable to take the next step as a leadoff hitter, Harrison has logged over 2,000 plate appearances as a leadoff or No. 2 hitter. In fact, Castro has similar experience in that capacity – although he’s also a better fit in an RBI-focused slot, such as No. 5 or 6, than Harrison is. And even Schwarber has spent a season batting in each of the top two spots.
It was never fair to expect Bell, Schwarber and Harrison – nor Gomes, Avila or any of the other delayed entrants – to immediately perform at a high level. Not only were their springs interrupted, but they may also be dealing with the affect effects of COVID-19. There was never public confirmation regarding who contracted the virus, and different people are affected by it in different ways.
Still, the recently-added trio went 13-for-34 with three doubles and five walks in the series at Busch Stadium. That, in itself, is solid, and their outputs will likely improve as they return to full strength. They will reap the benefits of continuous repetitions individually, and it’ll make Washington’s lineup increasingly potent over time. Monday’s 12-hit outburst was just a sneak preview.
The pitching staff was a mixed bag, and the lineup essentially followed suit. They did well on Monday, stunk it up on Tuesday, and won in a shutout in the finale.
The pitching was great for the Nats in this game. The staff held Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado hitless with three strikeouts, and the lone extra-base hit was a solo homer by Yadier Molina.
Washington hit for the cycle as a team. A Schwarber double, Robles triple and Stevenson home run highlighted the team’s 12-hit outburst. Soto, Schwarber and Gomes each had multiple hits, and Trea Turner was the only player to go hitless – which shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than a fluke.
This was also the first time we got to see the “A” bullpen. Rainey, Hudson and Hand combined for three scoreless innings, closing out a 5–2 victory.
Strasburg didn’t have his A, B, C, or probably even D stuff in this game. If nothing else, he looked fatigued, and his velocity was down. However, he was also shown – through a potentially illegal camera on St. Louis’ part – reaching for his shoulder multiple times in the dugout.
Goldschmidt, Arenado and Matt Carpenter each homered off Strasburg, and five Cardinals had multi-hit games, including a three-hit performance by centerfielder Dylan Carlson.
After Avilan, the rest of the bullpen pitched well, particularly Perez – the position player who looked like he’d certainly been there before. But the Cardinals were leading by double-digit runs by that stage of the game.
Five of the Nationals’ six hits came from Schwarber and Harrison. Soto and Castro also each committed a fielding error. It was a bad all-around night for the position players – one that they had to forget about quickly.
All told, St. Louis dominated from start to finish, evening up the series at one win apiece with a 14–3 victory.
Joe Ross started his comeback season – after sitting out 2020 – with a second consecutive scoreless outing. He only allowed five base runners, which helped him keep his pitch count down. He was so “economical” that Dave Martinez – who often takes Ross out sooner than needed – felt confident enough to leave him in the game, and it paid off.
Clay and Rainey were unspectacular but sufficient, and Suero and Voth continued strong starts to their season.
Davey tried something new with his lineup. He bumped Robles from leadoff down to ninth, sliding everyone else up one spot – except for Castro, who was leapfrogged by Harrison. Zimmerman also replaced Bell in the No. 3 hole.
Turner, Soto and Harrison had two hits apiece, and Zimmerman slugged a two-run homer in the third inning. Not much else was needed in this game, but they decided to add on four more runs in the later innings anyway, taking home a decisive 6–0 win in the rubber match of the series and improving their record to 3–6.
The Nats will return home for a four-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Here’s how the pitching matchups should shape up.
The D-Backs enter their trip to Washington with a 4–8 record. With that said, they’ll offer the Nationals a chance to catch their breath for the first time this season. It goes without saying, but Sunday’s game is clearly the headliner for this series.
You’ll probably see the lineup the Nats used on Monday and Tuesday for most of the series, with Sunday as the potential exception.
Arizona’s lineup is much more fluid. Top hitters Ketel Marte and Christian Walker are on the IL, and others – like Kole Calhoun, David Peralta and Nick Ahmed – aren’t hitting like their usual selves. Tim Locastro will lead off often and play centerfield, and veterans Eduardo Escobar and Asdrubal Cabrera (the former Nat) should factor into the middle of the order somewhere. Former high-end prospect Carson Kelly is their regular behind the plate, and the other struggling veterans will also be sprinkled throughout the lineup.
This series will certainly be winnable, and it’ll be great for the limited number of fans in attendance to see the D.C. debuts of players like Bell and Schwarber. The better those guys hit in the middle of the order, the better protection they’ll be providing Soto, and the better the team will fare.