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After we’ve all experienced a global pandemic, this year is undeniably much different than 2019. However, things on the baseball diamond are beginning to look much like they did two years ago for the Washington Nationals.
Following a series-opening loss to the San Francisco Giants on June 11, the Nationals found themselves sitting nine games below .500. Stephen Strasburg was on the IL, Max Scherzer and Daniel Hudson had suffered injuries and were also heading to the IL, and the Nationals appeared to have a very difficult road ahead of them.
Miraculously, Washington won eight of its next 10 games, its starting rotation looked like one of the best in the league, and they began to add reinforcements to their roster.
Much like 2019, it’s difficult to understand exactly what sparked this turnaround, but with players suddenly firing on all cylinders, the future looks much brighter than it did less than two weeks ago.
The Pitchers Are Performing
Erick Fedde hasn’t allowed a run since Scherzer went down. In fact, dating back to mid-May, Fedde has thrown 20 consecutive scoreless innings. He’s lowered his ERA to 3.33, and it’s as low as 2.54 if you exclude his first start of the season.
Since Scherzer left, the makeshift top of the rotation has also solidified itself. Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester have stabilized themselves as reliable starters, and Joe Ross tossed eight scoreless innings on June 13.
Even Paolo Espino and Jefry Rodriguez each had a scoreless start following Scherzer’s departure. Every move the Nats have made in the starting rotation has worked to near perfection.
The relievers have held their own, too. As a whole, Washington’s staff has allowed more than two runs only once in its last 11 games, including three shutouts.
Following a bullpen session, Scherzer is expected to make his return on Tuesday night. If indeed he is able to pitch tomorrow, Espino and Rodriguez will be relegated to the bullpen, where they’ll serve as multi-inning options later in games. However, we all know how important starting pitching depth is, particularly during the grueling summer months. Remember how important Ross, Fedde and Austin Voth were in the second half of 2019?
Kyle Schwarber Is Heating Up
Okay, that’s an understatement. He has multiple hits in four of his last eight games, including eight home runs – five of which he slugged within a 24-hour span over the weekend against the Mets.
By the end of Sunday, his OPS had risen by 83 points compared to where it was after Game 1 on Saturday.
Schwarber – who was often belittled by fans through the first month of the season – now leads the Nationals in home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage and OPS. Seemingly against all odds, only five players in the sport have drilled more deep flies than Schwarber this season.
So, back to that “last eight games” distinction. What’s significant about that timeframe is that he’s batted leadoff in all eight of those games. His production at the top of the lineup (13-for-36 with four walks and nine home runs – that’s one every four at bats) has been unimaginably better than the rest of his body of work this year. He’s also led off a game with a home run four times since June 12. WHAT!?!
Schwarber is on one of those MVP-type runs, similar to what Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto did for the second half of 2019. He won’t sustain it to this degree, but if he can remain a potent bat in Washington’s lineup, it’ll do the team a lot of good.
Gerardo Parra Is Back
On Friday, Andrew Stevenson was placed on the IL with an oblique strain, leaving the Nationals with no backup outfielders. They addressed that problem on Sunday by selecting the contract of a familiar veteran.
“Baby Shark” picked up right where it left off. Parra stepped into the batter’s box in the seventh inning of the finale against the Mets. Wouldn’t you know it; he slapped a ball into left field for a pinch-hit double, and the crowd and dugout went wild.
We don’t need to rehash how important Parra was to the 2019 champions. Early – and I mean very early– indications suggest that he could be that guy again.
Is This Real?
If the pitching staff can stay on track, and if Soto and Trea Turner can start hitting the ball with authority again, we could see the Nationals go on another mid-to-late-season run. If you would’ve asked me if I thought that was possible two weeks ago, I would’ve said no.
The Nationals have six straight games against division opponents up next, followed by three games against the very good (but scuffling) Tampa Bay Rays and 11 against the three best teams from the top-heavy NL West prior to the All-Star break. The Nats will have to earn their wins, but when teams have the magic, the quality of their competition tends to not matter. We’ll know what this team is by mid-July.