While it is still early as we’re only in the first week of May, the Washington Nationals continue to slip deeper into a hole they may struggle to rally from later in the season.
In their second series in Philadelphia this season, the Nats dropped two of three to the Phillies. They’ve now lost five-straight series, with the road trip set to get even tougher on the road against the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Injuries are an excuse, but only to a certain extent. The playoff-worthy teams in the league find a way to grind results and the Nationals couldn’t quite do that in Philly this time.
Here are the main takeaways from another disappointing series...
Surfin’ Suzuki scorches Phils
The Phillies are definitely going to be happy to see the back of Kurt Suzuki. The backstop hit a home run in all three of the games this series, going a combined 5-for-9 with five RBI at Citizens Bank Park this weekend.
The catcher's success has led to a popular new celebration. Born in Hawaii, the team started a surfing routine in the dugout which you can see below. We won’t mention how he hit the deck doing the celebration on Sunday...
He’s now slashing an impressive .298/.339/.596 on the season as he appears to be continuing the strong hitting prowess he showed with the Atlanta Braves last season.
Suzuki should continue this hot hitting thanks to a mutually beneficial timeshare with Yan Gomes. Nats fans are definitely happy with the production the team has gotten from behind the plate after two and a half years of struggles in that department. Sorry, Matt Wieters.
Hellickson finds his strikeout touch
Coming off of two rough outings, Jeremy Hellickson bounced back on Friday night.
The right-hander went 5.1 strong innings, allowing just two runs on four hits, walking none and striking out a remarkable nine. The nine punchouts were tied for the second-most in his career, with the last occurrence coming on August 8th, 2017.
However, with the heart of the order set to face him for the third time, manager Dave Martinez pulled his starter, hoping the bullpen could finish it off.
After the game, Hellickson had strong words about the decision, believing he should have been left to finish his work.
It was a tough call regardless, especially given how much Bryce Harper has owned Hellickson this season. At the very least, it was positive to see the Nats right-hander keep his team in the game, which is about as much as you can hope for from a fifth starter.
Martinez decisions under fire again
Here we are again. Despite the firing of Derek Lilliquist during the previous series, Dave Martinez still appears to be drawing a lot of criticism from Nationals fans for his decisions.
In fairness, he did make some good calls this series. Obviously, the most notable was withdrawing Andrew Stevenson for Kurt Suzuki, allowing the latter to hit the game-tying home run.
Also, despite a lot criticism, letting Dan Jennings pitch to Rhys Hoskins had good reasoning behind it. Hoskins has struggled against lefties in his career, slashing just .194/.376/.392 against them compared to a .269/.368/.575 slash line against right-handers at the time.
But, with that in mind, Martinez chose not to stick to his guns when a similar situation arose on Saturday, which was puzzling. Instead, he opted to use Joe Ross, though part of that may have been down to the fact it was a clean inning, not mid-inning like it was on Friday.
That’s not necessarily a big deal. Maybe he wanted to try a new tactic after it failed the night before. But leaving Ross in to face seven batters in a close game was a little worrying. They were eventually bailed out by the Suzuki and Victor Robles home runs, but the deficit could’ve been much smaller with a quicker hook.
The same could be said about his decision to leave Matt Grace in during Sunday’s game.
After a strikeout to end the fifth and to start the sixth, Grace then proceeded to allow seven straight baserunners to reach, though one of those was on a fielder’s choice.
Again, a quicker hook seemed to be needed to prevent the game getting out of hand. After that, Martinez left Grace in to take his lumps pitching the seventh too in order to save the rest of the bullpen as much as possible.
The scrutiny on Martinez intensifies with every passing game. Even though he has the excuse of injuries, he needs to be doing all he can to prove he's the right man for the job.
Kieboom struggling to adjust
Carter Kieboom’s major league career couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start at the plate with two game-tying home runs in three games. Unfortunately, since then, it’s been a rough ride for the young shortstop.
Over his last seven games, Kieboom is slashing just .087/.192/.087 with an alarming 11 strikeouts compared to just three walks. Pitchers at the highest level are now adapting to him with great success and it’s now up to him to adapt back.
So far, it appears as though he’s struggling with the fastball at the highest level. He’s yet to record a base hit off of the pitch as he doesn’t seem to be capitalizing when he sees dead red heat in the zone.
Entering Sunday’s content, he had just a 61.9 swing percentage of fastballs in the zone and just a 76.9 contact percentage on fastballs in the zone.
He definitely has the ability to adjust and hit the heater. We saw that in full effect when he hit two bombs off Justin Verlander this spring. It’s just a matter of putting a plan into action.
Injuries injuries injuries
The injury crisis the Nationals are going through right now shows no sign of slowing down. Juan Soto hit the Injury List on Saturday, then shortly after Michael A. Taylor and Matt Adams both left the game, with the latter also going on the IL.
They join Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and Trevor Rosenthal in a lengthy group of ailing Nats. That’s half of their Opening Day position players, arguably their top bench option, and the man who was supposed to be a lockdown eighth inning man. Ouch.
Somehow, they still need to stay afloat. At the end of the day, no other team will give the Nationals any sympathy for their injuries. They need to try and battle through them, stay close to the pack in the NL East, and hope they can make run at full-ish health.
Mercifully, reinforcements could be on the way soon. Rendon sounded hopeful that he would be activated when first eligible on Tuesday, Soto is eligible to come off the IL on Saturday, and Turner hopes to begin baseball activities this week.
If they can at least get some help back, it could make a huge difference to a lineup that has had to really grind out every run the last few days.
Next up: The Nationals now continue their grueling road trip with a visit to Wisconsin to take on Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Jeremy Hellickson are set to go for the Nats as the team tries to get back on track.