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The good, the bad, and the ugly from the Nationals’ series against the Cardinals

Here we go again. The Nationals started a series slowly before finishing with a win in the finale. This happens a lot. Here are the main takeaways from the four-game set...

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We’re here again. The Washington Nationals start a series sluggishly before winning the finale in the hope of carrying some momentum over to the next series. They’re now 1-9 in series openers, and 8-2 in series finales. Just, weird.

This time, against the St. Louis Cardinals, the first three games were brutal to watch as the Nats continued to drop even further below .500. Thankfully, they pitched an excellent game in the finale to avoid a sweep.

We look back at the main takeaways from the series...

The Good

Record-breaking Strasburg back on form

In one of not many bright spots during the series, Stephen Strasburg was able to make a little bit of history on Thursday night.

With a strikeout of Dakota Hudson in the fifth inning, the right-hander became the fastest pitcher to 1,500 strikeouts, in terms of innings pitched. The next quickest in innings were Chris Sale, Kerry Wood, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson. Good company.

And thankfully, he was able to celebrate the feat with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over the Cardinals. He was simply dominant over 6.2 innings of one-run ball, allowing just six hits, walking two and striking out nine.

Strasburg seems to be getting into a groove with this outing following eight shutout innings against the Miami Marlins and seven strong against the San Diego Padres. Everything has clicked for the right-hander, and if he gets on a roll, it could be huge for a team set to go on a grueling road trip.

Bullpen continues on a strong run

While the Nationals continue to see injuries pile up and questionable managerial decisions made, the bullpen finally appears to have turned a corner. They finished strong against the San Diego Padres before carrying that over into this series.

The bullpen combined for eight scoreless innings in the final game against the Padres before proceeding to allow just two earned runs in 12.1 innings during the Cardinals series. Perhaps even more promisingly, Sean Doolittle was only needed for 1.1 of those innings.

Seven of the eight members in the bullpen pitched at least an inning’s worth of work and none of those seven were charged with an earned run. The only pitcher who did was Joe Ross, who allowed two runs in only a third of an inning during the series.

With a struggling lineup, having the bullpen finally pitch up to expectations could be huge to lock down close wins, just as they did on Thursday.

First coaching staff change comes

Though it seems a little harsh to put a firing in the positive takeaways, this one likely seems justified. Derek Lilliquist was relieved of his duties as Pitching Coach after Thursday’s game, replaced by Paul Menhart.

Almost the whole coaching staff has come under fire this season, with a lot of that criticism spilling over from last season. It was clear that a change was needed, and while some fans were hoping for the manager, Lilliquist certainly wasn’t doing any better.

One of the main themes of Dave Martinez’s tenure with the Nats has been the lack of communication with his pitching staff.

We’ve seen a few occasions of pitchers attempting to pitch through injuries without telling the manager. That’s on the pitching coach.

It was a notable step down from Mike Maddux to Lilliquist, and Mike Rizzo pulled the trigger following the series. Hopefully, this will not only improve the pitching staff’s performance but also keep everyone looking over their shoulders after the first firing of the season.

The Bad

Corbin labors through first poor outing

Heading into his start against the Cardinals, Patrick Corbin had lived up to the hype so far for the Nationals. He had a 2.48 ERA, 0.92 WHIP with stellar 1.65 BB/9 and 10.74 K/9 ratios.

Unfortunately, on Monday, the Cardinals were able to get to Corbin, hanging six runs on him via six hits and an uncharacteristic four walks.

Through the first four frames, the left-hander was cruising, but it was the fifth that undid his good work. In that inning, he allowed a home run to Harrison Bader between the first two outs of the inning, before allowing two walks and four hits without recording an out.

The Cardinals are one of the best teams in baseball right now and perhaps they just spotted something in that fifth inning to give them an edge. One bad outing is definitely not a huge concern for Corbin, so he’ll hope to get back on track in Philadelphia.

Soto misses final two games

A little bit out of the blue, Juan Soto was scratched from the lineup before the last two games of the series due to back spasms. Both of these came after he was named in the initial lineup both times.

After the team seemed to mismanage the injury to Anthony Rendon recently, it’s understandable that Nats fans are wary moving forward with this strange injury to Soto. Thankfully, it looks to be largely precautionary.

The outfielder had an MRI on Thursday, checking to see if there was anything else wrong, but those came back negative, indicating only back spasms. Deep breaths everyone.

This lineup can’t afford to lose Soto for an extended period of time given the current lineup issues, so it will be a relief that this appears very minor. Matt Adams had a back spasm earlier this season and only missed a pair of games, which bodes well for Soto.

The Ugly

Anemic offense can’t figure out Cards’ pitching

Early on this season, the offense and starting pitching looked good until the bullpen continually blew leads. Now, the offense has shown virtually no life. In this series, over the four games, the Nats could only manage to score eight runs.

A lot of that comes down to the team going 3-for-25 with runners in scoring position during the series, including only managing to go 1-for-10 on Wednesday’s game. No wonder the Nats are 1-6 in seven Max Scherzer starts this year.

Admittedly, they played this entire series without two everyday starters in Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon, and one majority starter in Ryan Zimmerman. That makes a huge difference, as all three have been a potent threat with the bat over the last two seasons.

However, when you see teams like the New York Yankees grind out results with a wave of damaging injuries, it would be good to at least see the Nats offense put up a fight.

Defensive display was pretty offensive

Again, despite the supposed emphasis on the little things this spring, the Nationals continue to display inconsistencies in the field.

Rookie shortstop Carter Kieboom certainly looked incredibly rough around the edges with two errors and some other misplays this series. With his bat struggling somewhat out of the gate, the defensive issues become even more prominent.

But it wasn’t just Kieboom who struggled. Victor Robles also made a poor play in the game on Wednesday where he badly misjudged a lazy fly ball. They’re both rookies, so these lumps are natural, but it’s not setting a great tone with the rest of the defense struggling.

Per FanGraphs, the Nats don’t have a positive Defensive Runs Saved figure at any position so far this season, with their best spots being pitcher, first base and right field.

Rendon, Turner, and Zimmerman are all missed on offense, but all three are good defenders at their respective positions too. But even when they return, there’s clearly still a lot of work to do in the field to get where they need to be on that front.

Next up: After a largely disappointing home stand, the Nationals are back on the road. The Philadelphia Phillies await for a three-game weekend set. Jeremy Hellickson, Patrick Corbin, and Aníbal Sánchez will take the mound for the visitors in the series.