Are the Washington Nationals the Texas Longhorns, because they are back! Well, maybe. Actually, probably not, but still, they’ve managed to win five of their last six games following a two-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves in their first series of the season.
If the Nats are somehow going to climb back into this thing, then they need to consistently put forward more performances like this. They mostly dominated the Braves by scoring early and often in the series while getting outstanding pitching for the most part.
Here are the main takeaways from the Nationals’ first sweep of the season...
Starting pitching the bread and butter
The Nationals’ rotation has arguably been one of the best in baseball so far in 2019, even despite some sub-standard performances from the back end. But in this series against the Braves, Stephen Strasburg and Aníbal Sánchez stole the show.
On Tuesday, Strasburg delivered the latest gem in what could be an All-Star season for the right-hander. He allowed just two runs on five hits and two walks, striking out 11 in seven brilliant innings. Thankfully, the bullpen didn’t blow this one.
Then in the second and final game, Sánchez returned from the Injured List with his best start of the season. The offseason free agent signing started off retiring the first 16 batters he faced, finishing with six shutout innings, surrendering just one hit.
Following the series, the Nationals’ starters now lead the majors in fWAR, are second in FIP and fifth in ERA. This part of the equation seems to be going to plan, so if the Nats’ offense can keep chugging and the bullpen can at least be average, a winning formula is there.
Romping away in the finale
One of the trademarks of some of the successful Nats sides in recent years had been their ability to absolutely demolish teams with lopsided scorelines. This iteration of the team hadn’t really managed it so far in 2019. Then Wednesday happened.
Thanks in part to the great start by Sánchez, the Nationals were able to sprint into a 14-0 lead by the fifth inning. Every starting position player had a hit by the fourth inning as the Nats racked up 15 in total, allowing them to cruise to victory.
It’s just the latest showcase of what has seemingly been the start of a turnaround for the Nats’ lineup. In their last seven games, they’ve managed to average 7.3 runs per game, posting an OPS of .933 and wRC+ of 143, both fourth best in the majors in that span.
Part of this has come from the team’s return to health. Trea Turner seems to be coming around after an initial lull on his return, Juan Soto is hitting out of his mind right now, and Howie Kendrick continues to shock the baseball world with his bat.
Their next series in Cincinnati will be an interesting test against a pitching staff that is third in the league in fWAR and second in ERA. If the bats can keep up their recent hot streak in the three-game set, it really will bode well for a possible miracle rise up the standings.
Doolittle’s mechanical tweak pays off
One of the more interesting stories to watch entering the series in Georgia was Nationals closer Sean Doolittle making a slight tweak in his delivery. Based on the results of his appearance in the series, it seems to have worked a treat.
“A big part of it is some of the workload in the beginning of the season,” Doolittle told Jesse Dougherty of The Washington Post before the series. “Your body gets a little fatigued, it gets loose, you start developing some bad habits just because it’s a little bit tired.”
He even ditched the little toe-tap that got Joe Maddon all riled up in the series against the Chicago Cubs. So, there was that too. Regardless, Doolittle locked down the ninth in pretty convincing fashion on Tuesday, striking out the side around a Dansby Swanson single.
With the rest of the bullpen still attempting to settle down, the Nats need Doolittle to be the lockdown reliever we’ve seen throughout his tenure with the team. Based on his impressive outing in this series, the lefty appears to be fine and should return to dominant form.
Pickoffs leave runners Fried
It was only a short series, and in a comfortable enough sweep, it’s hard to be too critical. But there was definitely some improvement to be had on the bases following the series.
Max Fried, the Braves’ starter in the series opener, was able to pick off Trea Turner at second base in the first inning. He then followed it up by catching Adam Eaton in no man’s land at first base.
Admittedly, the lefty has one of the nastier pickoff moves in the majors, currently tied for the lead in the majors in pickoffs this season, while also recording four last year. But still, the Nats probably ought to have been a little more cautious on the basepaths in the game.
Baserunning has been a big issue for the Nats so far this season, currently ranking 19th in FanGraphs’ Ultimate Baserunning Rating, which rates how a team does on the bases excluding stolen bases.
The two lapses on Tuesday certainly didn’t help matters as both incidents were far from pretty for either player, with both caught out badly. Thankfully, if one of the bigger negatives in a series in a pair of pickoffs during a sweep, a lot of things went right.
Barraclough spiraling out of control
Starting out as one of the better relievers in a rough Nats’ bullpen, Kyle Barraclough’s season has gone from bad to worse in a hurry lately.
The right-hander entered in the eighth inning of the series opener on Tuesday protecting a three-run lead. However, in the outing he allowed a hard double to Josh Donaldson before getting rocked for a two-run home run by rookie sensation Austin Riley.
The rough outing raised his ERA all the way up to 5.48 on the season as he’s been especially poor lately. On May 9th, Barraclough held a pristine 1.26 ERA, but since then, he’s surrendered 11 runs in just seven innings of work, with a 1.258 OPS against him.
Some of his struggles seem like bad luck. Currently, hitters possess a .367 BABIP against vs him whereas his career figure is just .281. His HR/FB% is also at a sky-high 19.2 percent, while his career number is only 10.5 percent. Both of those figures should correct.
Until things start to turn around for Barraclough, the Nationals may need to consider other options in high-leverage spots, with Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero coming to mind. But the former Marlins’ reliever could do with some low-pressure spots in the near future.
Next up: The Nats will come up against a familiar face in Tanner Roark this weekend with a three-game series on the road against the Cincinnati Reds. Patrick Corbin, Erick Fedde, and Max Scherzer will pitch for the visitors, hoping to carry forward their recent momentum.