It’s quite nice to not be talking about the raft of injuries that appeared to hold the Washington Nationals back early on this season. Finally, with most of the health issues behind them, they’re playing like they were expected to all season.
While the injuries to their two of their best hitters in Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon were big blows, there was another player whose absence arguably stung more in Trea Turner.
The shortstop suffered a broken finger against the Philadelphia Phillies in just the fourth game of the season.
That injury caused him to miss 39 games in which the Nationals went 17-22, seemingly leaving their season on the brink.
Yes, there were plenty of factors for the poor record. The bullpen was unable to string good innings together, other injuries took their toll, and other players were underperforming.
With Turner back in the lineup, it not only gives it more balance, but it also gives them a true on-base threat with game-breaking speed that pitchers always have to account for.
“When we have Trea getting on base and leading off, he creates a lot of havoc,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters back in May. “You’ve got him, you’ve got [Adam] Eaton behind him. Those two get on for Rendon and Soto, it gets us going.”
“He’s as important to the lineup as any player that we have, pitcher or player,” GM Mike Rizzo told the Sports Junkies last week.
Perhaps, given his importance, the Nationals hurried him back a little bit with the underwhelming performances of Carter Kieboom and Wilmer Difo in his absence.
That led to some rust out of the gate with just 10 hits in his first 11 games off of the IL as well as some sub-par defense. It was clear his finger wasn’t completely healed as he was keeping his index finger straight rather than wrapping it around the bat when hitting.
“He won’t say it, he won’t use it as an excuse, but this guy played with that finger that wasn’t fully healed,” Rizzo also told the Junkies. “He was probably not 100% swinging the bat, you could tell he would have his finger off the bat quite a bit.”
“You miss seven weeks, you come back, the game is quick up here,” manager Dave Martinez explained after Thursday’s game. “It speeds up, so he had to go through that period where he had Spring Training all over again.”
Even though he wasn’t performing at his peak, his presence was a lift to the clubhouse who seemed ready to go and prove that they were about to kick on at near-full-health.
“He plays the most demanding position on the field,” Rizzo told the Junkies.
“He’s the captain of the infield, and plays a premium position at shortstop and is one of our offensive catalysts, so he’s a huge part of our ballclub.”
Following those first 11 games back, he’s been back to usual form at the plate. Since May 28th, Turner is slashing .299/.365/.552 with three home runs, three triples, and six stolen bases, returning to the top-of-the-order catalyst the Nats know he can be.
As the old saying goes, “when he goes, we go” and it couldn’t be more true for Turner. The Nationals are 19-13 since he returned from the IL and 14-6 since May 28th.
They’ve also averaged 5.66 runs per game since Turner was activated compared to only 4.42 runs per game beforehand. A huge difference in offensive production over that time.
“I think he’s starting to kind of round into shape,” Rizzo said. “After missing so many games it takes time to get your rhythm at the plate and in the field, and I think you’re seeing a guy that’s finally confident enough in that finger that he can go and play his game”
We’ve even seen his defense blossom back to the high-standard he displayed in 2018.
In the last few days, Turner has made some spectacular plays, including the dive and throw to cut down Scott Kingery at the plate and his incredible play to nail Ozzie Albies - albeit after a replay review - on Friday.
“He’s playing like we know he’s capable of playing,” Martinez noted. “Here’s a kid, who came off the [IL] and he hasn’t had a day off and he’s playing and he doesn’t want a day off, he wants to play every day.”
Even though he missed too much time to be in serious All-Star consideration this season, he’s one of the best all-around shortstops in the game.
“When he’s healthy and he’s on he’s dynamic as any player in the big leagues and we need him to be healthy and playing well,” Rizzo explained.
The Nationals’ offense is running like a well-oiled machine right now. While there are players who are likely putting up bigger stat lines than Turner, he’s been the key cog in the batting order machine and a big reason the Nats’ arrow is finally pointing north again.