Better slightly late than never, but the Washington Nationals finally appear to be heating up a bit this season. As their schedule softens up a bit, they were able to win their third series in a row, taking two of three against the Cincinnati Reds.
All phases of the game appear to be syncing up at the right time, with the offense providing plenty of runs, starting pitching staying reliable, and yes, even the bullpen getting better.
Here are the main takeaways from the team’s series against the Reds...
Scherzer finally gets his backup
With the series in the balance on Sunday, the Nats sent Max Scherzer to the mound, a situation that used to be a favorable situation for the team.
But entering the game, the Nats have gone just 2-10 in starts by their ace this season, so, far from a sure thing.
Though the bullpen has struggled in Scherzer starts this year, with one of the highest bullpen ERA figures of any starter, he didn’t need much of it this time. He went eight dominant innings, allowing only three hits and one walk, striking out a whopping 15.
Scherzer upped his record to 3-5 as he watched Sean Doolittle secure the win with a 1-2-3 ninth inning. He even got four runs worth of run support in the outing, the third most the team had scored while he was still on the mound in his 13 starts.
Perhaps the only concern in the outing was that Scherzer ended up needing 120 pitches to get through the outing. Overall, they were low-stress pitches, with only four baserunners in the game, but it’s still a lofty pitch count, even for Scherzer.
Even so, he should be ready to go all guns blazing again in his next start against the San Diego Padres. Prepare for even more snarling, mouth-foaming, and profanity along the way.
Bullpen on lockdown
Well, while Scherzer didn’t necessarily need much of the bullpen, it was in pretty good shape if he had needed it. The relief corps had one of its better efforts all season in the series against the Reds.
Over the three games, the bullpen pitched 11.1 innings of one-run ball, giving up a combined six hits and three walks. It finally appears as though there’s at least some semblance of stability in the relief corps now.
The Nats bullpen lowered their ERA to 6.81, down from 7.23 before the series started. They’re still bottom in the majors in that stat, but they’re rapidly closing on the pack and at least making their way to respectability again. It’s about time.
Recently, Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey, and even Matt Grace have been impressive, helping form a bridge to closer Sean Doolittle. With multiple solid options for a change, manager Dave Martinez was able to utilize everyone well to secure the two wins in the series.
Who knows where the Nationals would be right now if they had possessed a league-average bullpen to this point. At least it has the potential to be up to that standard now and will likely be the key to an unlikely turnaround this season.
Bullish Dozier turning things around
Nobody needs reminding how poor Brian Dozier looked at the start of the season. The former Minnesota Twin was brought in to be a bridge at second base to Carter Kieboom, but he actually ended up losing some playing time because of his slow start.
However, lately, Dozier appears to be getting back to the player he was before 2018.
Over his last 15 games, Dozier is slashing an impressive .320/.364/.580 with three long balls and 12 RBI. That slash line is propped up by a .342 BABIP, but even when that corrects, it looks like he could get close to the level he was at between 2015 and 2017.
The question, as it has been all season, is how will the Nationals distribute playing time between Dozier and Howie Kendrick. The latter is slashing .324/.362/.581 so far this year and has been one of the biggest surprises in baseball with how hard he’s hitting the ball.
There are worse problems for a manager, but with Dozier’s superior defensive prowess, he should continue to see most starts at second base while he’s hot. Meanwhile, Kendrick can still slide over to first base and get his fair share of starts between the two spots.
Navy on the road
For the first time since their debut last season, the Nats actually wore their new navy jerseys with the script Nationals on the road. More of that, please. It’s definitely the best alternate jersey the Nationals have, so the more we get to see it, the better.
Turner still shaky with the glove
It can’t be understated how much the Nationals missed Trea Turner while he was out injured with a broken finger suffered in the fourth game of the season. However, while he’s a big upgrade on his replacements, he’s clearly still working back to full health.
His bat has been solid since his return, even though he went just 2-for-13 in Cincinnati. However, where he’s really struggled is in the field. He made a pair of errors in the series, taking his season total up to five, while also missing some plays he would expect to make.
“He’s got to get out there and play,” Martinez said after the opener. “His defense, he has no excuses whatsoever. He never says anything about his finger, he goes out there and plays.”
Part of this is likely down to the fact that after missing seven weeks, Turner only made two rehab starts, explaining the rust in the field. He’s also been keeping his right index finger extended rather than wrapped around the bat, perhaps indicating it’s not fully healed yet.
Rusty Turner is much better than the alternative in either Wilmer Difo or Adrian Sanchez, but he’s still got a way to go before he’s back to the borderline All-Star player he was last year.
Corbin follows gem with a dud
Coming off of easily his best outing as a National, Patrick Corbin had arguably his worst start for the team in the series opener against the Reds.
The lefty went just 2.2 innings in his start as he surrendered eight runs, six of which were earned, on 11 hits, striking out only two. The Reds hit Corbin early and often to chase him from the game and give the Nats an insurmountable deficit.
The hosts were able to hit Corbin hard throughout the game, squaring him up with ease. Of the 19 balls put in play by the Reds, nine of them had an expected batting average over .500, and seven had an exit velocity over 90mph.
Some thought that Corbin’s extended outing last time out against the Miami Marlins might’ve been a factor in this struggle. However, it’s nothing new for the lefty who delivered seven shutout innings after throwing 118 pitches in his previous outing.
Of more concern should be that in his last seven starts, Corbin now owns a 4.22 ERA as hitters seem to be hitting him harder lately. It will be worth keeping an eye on this moving forward, but his dominant outings this year are a good sign he’ll be fine long-term.
Next up: With a successful road trip in the rear-view mirror, the Nationals face the Chicago White Sox for two games starting on Tuesday. Stephen Strasburg and Aníbal Sánchez go for the hosts, while Reynaldo Lopez and Dylan Covey will pitch for the visitors.