Well .500 baseball never felt so good. A lot of that comes from what had been a pretty miserable season for the Washington Nationals until a few weeks ago, but they’re finally surging.
Sure, this latest three-game sweep came against the Miami Marlins, who are almost certain to once again lose triple-digit games. But they seem to have become a somewhat pesky team lately, winning 20 of their last 35 games, the eighth-best record in baseball in that time.
Here are the big takeaways from the series with the Fish...
Starting pitching is king
Usually the starters are split up in our series recaps, but in this case, we’ll bundle the big three together to appreciate their shared dominance during the sweep of the Marlins.
Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin were lights out in the first two games of the series, going a combined 15 innings, allowing eight hits and one walk while striking out a combined 19.
In the finale, Stephen Strasburg was unlucky not to record a quality start after an error was generously re-scored as a hit for the Marlins. He went seven solid innings, allowing four runs on seven hits and no walks, striking out four in the outing.
The Nats’ rotation now has the second-highest fWAR in baseball behind the Dodgers, the fourth-best ERA, third-best FIP, and the fourth-highest strike rate in the majors. Dominant.
Even with their three possible All-Stars at the top, the rest of the rotation has stepped up too. Aníbal Sánchez has reverted to his 2018 form since returning from the IL, Erick Fedde was solid, if unspectacular as the fifth starter, and Austin Voth dazzled last week.
Mike Rizzo’s philosophy as GM has always been to build on great starting pitching and go from there. Once again, he appears to have crafted one of the best in the league and his three stars led the way en route to their sweep at Marlins Park.
First base logjam looms
There are certainly worse problems than too much talent than spots in the lineup. However, that’s what the Nationals will have at first base soon when Ryan Zimmerman returns from the IL this weekend in Detroit with the team granted the DH for the three-game series.
Since the start of 2017, Zimmerman has posted a .283/.346/.528 slash line, while his 126 wRC+ ranks 18th in the National League and eighth among all first baseman with at least 800 plate appearances in that time. Even late in his career, he’s still a threat with the bat.
Earlier this afternoon, Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports reported that it will be Michael A. Taylor who will be optioned to make room for Zimmerman on the roster. Given his poor 2019 season and sparse playing time as a fifth outfielder it isn’t too much of a surprise.
But once he’s officially on the roster, the Nats are going to have to get creative with their playing time distribution. Zimmerman and Matt Adams are realistically first base-only options, while Howie Kendrick can also play there if Brian Dozier is at second base.
But Adams, in particular, has caught the eye lately and could be earning more playing time in this split. The slugger hit two towering home runs against the Marlins and is now slashing .267/.298/.689 over his last 13 games with six long balls and 16 RBIs.
“We’re going to find ways to get [Adams] in there, especially against right-handed pitchers,” Martinez said following Thursday’s game. “We’ve talked about this before, him and Howie, they’re a tremendous value to this club and I’ve got to get them in there.”
All three players deserve plenty of playing time, but it’s not going to be that simple, sadly.
Fire that arrow
Welcome to the Nats, Fernando Rodney! The team’s average age certainly took a hike with the additions of Rodney and fellow veteran Jonny Venters in the bullpen before the series.
The Dominican was thrown straight into the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game after Max Scherzer dominated and the offense put the game out of reach. Rodney walked the leadoff man but struck out the next batter before inducing a game-ending double play.
On the whole, it was a pretty positive appearance for the 42-year-old who, despite losing the leadoff hitter to a walk after an 0-2 count, was in and around the zone. His fastball even averaged 94.1mph in the outing, as his arm shows no sign of aging just yet.
“He’s a veteran guy, knows how to pitch,” Martinez said after the game. “I’ve seen him come in and walk the first guy and settle down and get three outs, quick outs.”
“I’ve known him for a long time, he’s going to get an opportunity to pitch here and I hope he just continues to do well.”
The drama-free ending to the game was much-needed after the bullpen had been used pretty excessively the previous week. It’s only one appearance, but Rodney certainly looks like he can at least be useful in the right situations for this team.
Back to .500...
As was mentioned in the lede, the Nats are finally making their way toward the better-half of teams in the league, as they were able to clamber back to .500 with the sweep.
“They’ve played unbelievable,” Martinez told reporters following the sweep.
“We talked about this earlier today, about how we get down and there’s no quit. These guys are always staying in the fight, and that’s what they do.”
“If you watched our games all year long, there was always that extra fight, that extra push.”
They even have three more series against three teams on course to lose 100 games this season to help continue riding their momentum into the All-Star break. It’s entirely possible that they make it into a Wild Card spot before the break.
A season that once seemed lost at the end of May has new life and could now lead to a completely different reality at the trade deadline at the end of July than was first imagined.
...but still a long way to go
While getting back to the .500 mark is certainly a positive, it also just goes to show how big of a hole this team was in during the early part of the season. Blame it on whatever you want, they were nowhere near the required standard for the first month and a half.
The Nats have been the second best team in baseball, behind only the Dodgers, since May 24th, the day after the Mets completed a humiliating four-game sweep at Citi Field.
And yet, despite that, they still sit seven games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves and two and a half games out of a Wild Card spot, with six teams above them in the hunt for those two spots. Still some way to go before they get where they want to be.
“There’s no secret, our bullpen struggled, but you could see it, we’d come back, we just couldn’t finish out the games,” Martinez explained after the series in Miami.
Hey, if the worst we can really come up with from this series actually comes from earlier in the season, then the Nationals are now very much heading in the right direction in 2019.
Where was the drama?
It’s tough to pick too many holes in the Nationals’ performance with a pretty clean three-game sweep. Perhaps you can be picky and critique Javy Guerra’s ninth-inning stumble on Wednesday or some of the manager’s bullpen decisions, but on the whole, it was clean.
Guerra had been solid for the Nats so far, so deserves a pass, and bullpen management is always highly scrutinized and Martinez could’ve done much worse in this series.
So, we’ll go with this: After about 90 percent of the team’s wins so far this season have come with the drama equivalent to someone riding a unicycle backward through four flaming hoops, this series provided some relatively boring wins.
Perhaps the most dramatic it got was the comeback in the sixth inning on Thursday when Matt Adams and Victor Robles hit home runs to flip a 4-1 deficit into a 6-4 lead.
I’m sure Nats fans would much rather not have a heart attack every game, but come on, those last-gasp wins are so much fun. </semi-sarcastic font>
Next up: The Nationals will hope for a similar result against the Detroit Tigers this weekend who are also lurking in the doldrums of the baseball world. Aníbal Sánchez, Austin Voth, and Max Scherzer are set to go for the visitors who need to keep their momentum going.