Wind: 1.99 m/h
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.
Still, Hernandez didn’t get much of a look in the majors in 2020. He played 12 games and got 28 plate appearances, and results were mixed. His batting average was below the Mendoza line, but he recorded four extra-base hits in limited opportunities.
Nonetheless, Hernandez struggled enough to find himself left off the Opening Day roster – at least initially. Hernandez got a brief look to start the season due to COVID-related absences among the roster, but a 1-for-7 start resulted in him being optioned back to the Alternate Training Site.
Then Soto went down with an injury, and Hernandez received another opportunity. So far, he’s made the most of it, starting six of the team’s last seven games, and he’s reached base at least twice in all but one of them, including three two-hit games, a three-hit performance, and four walks.
During his current big league stint, Hernandez has consistently hit the cover off the ball. He’s even batted second or third in five of those six starts. As unbelievable as it sounds, Soto hasn’t been missed.
Soto should be back before too long, but it’ll be hard to keep Hernandez off the 26-man roster – much less the lineup – this time around. At a glance, Hernan Perez, in spite of his versatility, could be shipped out of D.C. to keep Hernandez in town. Regardless, we’ll be hearing the public address announcer say Yadiel’s name plenty more times in 2021, even if it’s in a pinch-hitting capacity.
On Saturday, Stephen Strasburg threw off the mound for the first time since going on the IL with shoulder inflammation. He’s not ready to return yet, but these are encouraging steps that Strasburg had hoped to see at this time.
Right-handed relievers Will Harris and Wander Suero are continuing to progress from their injuries, as well. Harris has reportedly been throwing in simulated games every other day recently, and Suero threw from 120 feet in the outfield on Sunday. Both appear to be approaching their returns to big league action.
After Monday’s off day, Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Jon Lester will make Washington’s next three starts at home against the Braves. Atlanta has announced Huascar Ynoa as its starter on Tuesday and Drew Smyly on Thursday, with Wednesday as “TBA” – likely meaning left-hander Max Fried will return from the IL to make the start.
The Braves are currently without Travis d’Arnaud and Ender Inciarte, among others. Their most productive everyday players this season have been (unsurprisingly) Ronald Acuña Jr. and (quite surprisingly) Austin Riley.