Up against the best team in the National League, the Washington Nationals dropped two of three in the series. The Los Angeles Dodgers are clearly happy to win the series against one of the hottest teams in baseball, but the Nats shouldn’t be too disheartened.
Over the season series, the Nationals were able to hang with the Dodgers. Were it not for a short-handed, soon-to-be-strengthened bullpen, as well as having some bad luck with the way the rotation lined up, the Nats could’ve easily won more than they lost.
Here are the big takeaways from the three games against the blue side of LA...
Eaton rolling back the clock
As Lucas Giolito was dominating early this season, the performance of Adam Eaton came under just a bit more scrutiny. That includes when he had an OPS under .700 as recently as May 21st, right before the team turned things around.
Thankfully, during the recent winning run, Eaton has been hitting well as a prototypical top-of-the-order hitter. That includes a 2-for-8 series against the Dodgers in which he came up with the game-tying hit on Friday, and the go-ahead triple on Saturday.
“Oh, man, he’s swinging the bat really well,” Martinez said after the series opener. “I hope he continues to get on base and swing the bat the way he’s swinging.”
“He’s hitting the baseball, it doesn’t matter left, right, he’s playing good outfield, so we’ve just got to just keep him going.”
Since June 7th, Eaton is quietly looking a lot like the player the Nationals were expecting when they traded for him. In that time, he’s slashing an impressive .316/.385/.458 with 15 extra-base hits, 25 runs, and 18 walks compared to 22 strikeouts.
Without Bryce Harper in the lineup for the first time since 2011, there has been a lot more emphasis on the lineup as a whole stepping up to make up the difference.
Finally, Eaton seems to be coming around, getting on base for the deadly heart of the lineup.
A moment some fans and a certain FBB editor were dreading finally happened. The Nationals experimented with an opener, using Matt Grace before he made way for Joe Ross.
Grace threw two perfect innings to start off the game, looking extremely comfortable in his new role for the day. His part of the equation couldn’t have gone much better for the Nats.
“I liked what I saw from Matt, and he did great,” Martinez said of Grace as the opener. “He did it one at a time, and actually was very successful.”
It was a smart move by the Nationals given the Dodgers’ 129 wRC+ by left-handed hitters is the best in all of baseball. They used Grace to gain the platoon advantage at the start of the game, meaning Ross could start at the bottom of the lineup.
“For me this is a perfect opportunity because of the way their lineup is structured,” Martinez explained.
Unfortunately, Ross’s struggles coming out of the bullpen continued in this game. He served up six runs on nine hits and two walks with seven strikeouts in his 4.2 innings of work.
Though this strategy may not be best suited with Ross as the long-man, perhaps it could have some traction with someone like Erick Fedde, who seemed more comfortable than Ross coming out of the bullpen earlier this season.
“If that’s something strategy-wise they see as a good opportunity I’ll take the ball when they want to give it to me,” Grace told reporters when asked if he would do it again.
“It doesn’t really make a difference to me when they want to use me, that’s kind of up to them and their decision-making if they see it’s a good opportunity.”
Though the result was less than ideal, the Nats can definitely take positives from their first opener and could be tempted to try it again if they find a similar advantage.
More Ross woes
The curious case of Joe Ross continues to baffle the Nationals so far in 2019. His rough outing on Saturday was just the latest in a string of poor performances that may leave his immediate future with the team in question.
So far this season, the right-hander has posted an ugly looking 9.85 ERA in 19 appearances. As the team frantically searched for a bullpen solution, most of those have come out of the bullpen, a role he’s struggled to adapt to.
On Saturday, Ross came in following a successful start from Grace as the opener. But by giving up six runs in his 4.2 innings, he proved that he’s still got a lot to work on.
“I really think for Joe he needs to identify whether he wants to be a two-seamer or a four-seam guy,” Martinez said of his struggling righty. “I think he tried to do both today. We have to figure out what’s going to be best for him.”
“He threw some pretty good pitches at times, and then sometimes he just left the ball elevated, so we’ve just got to go back and figure it out.”
In his previous big league time, Ross was proving to be a solid low-end starter, posting a 3.95 ERA in 48 big leagues games before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017.
Not everyone gets back to pre-TJ form right off the bat, the Nats have a rotation member who’s proof of that in Patrick Corbin. From the Nats’ perspective, they may be best letting Ross work out the kinks in Triple-A, relying on others to fill the fifth starter void for now.
It’s unfortunate to see someone who has shown promise before, struggle so mightily, but that’s the situation Ross is in right now.
The wait for bullpen help goes on...
The MLB trade deadline is just over two days away now at 4pm Eastern Time on July 31st. The Nats are likely to be in active in trade talks right now, especially for relief pitching, but nothing has emerged just yet.
But on the field, the bullpen continues to cost them games. That played out in the first game when the depth of the relief corps was put the test but just wasn’t up to scratch.
In a 1-1 tie in the eighth, the Nats were forced to piece together their bullpen after Fernando Rodney, Wander Suero, and Tanner Rainey were used extensively in the previous series.
After Javy Guerra delivered two outs, it came down to Tony Sipp and Kyle Barraclough. Unfortunately, they combined to allow three runs, leading to the loss in the opener.
It really exposed the lack of depth in the relief corps. Something that could be bolstered if the Nationals can add a pair of relievers in the next few days.
As far as general manager Mike Rizzo is concerned, that’s the plan for the Nationals.
“We’re looking to improve ourselves,” Rizzo told MLB Network Radio last week. “We like to improve ourselves always when we attack the trade deadline as yeah we’d like to improve ourselves this year, but also for the future.”
It seems like a matter of when, not if, the front office bolsters the clear Achilles heel in Washington. It’s not entirely the Nats’ fault, sellers seem reluctant to sell until the last minute, but each day that has passed without it has led to more winnable games being lost.
Injury bug still stings
One of the main reasons that the Nats were able to turn things around over the last two months has been getting back to full health. But for whatever reason, the injuries are rearing their ugly head again, with two more particularly troubling.
After making his return from the Injured List on Thursday against the Rockies, Max Scherzer might need to miss his next start with a mild strain in his upper back.
“[Scherzer] didn’t throw his bullpen today,” Martinez explained. “We’ll reevaluate and see how he feels tomorrow. I have to say I’m very doubtful that he’ll make his start on Tuesday.”
The only worse time for these injuries to Scherzer could’ve come would be the playoffs. If he does indeed miss his start on Tuesday, then that’s two games against the NL East leaders pitching a minor league call-up compared to the best pitcher in baseball. Big difference.
But the right-hander isn’t the only one suffering. Matt Adams was forced to leave the finale on Sunday after being hit by a pitch on his foot. Initially, he stayed in the game, but after running the bases and taking the field the following inning, he was taken out.
“He had X-rays, but it’s tough to see anything right now because the foot is swollen,” Martinez said of Adams’ ailment after the game. “He’s going to get another round of X-rays tomorrow and we’ll see what happens. He’s pretty sore right now.”
Obviously, this seems pretty troubling for the Nats, not knowing the extent of the injury just yet. It’s even more worrying after the injury to Ryan Zimmerman, which could leave their depth at first base severely tested until Adams returns.
The Nationals can ill afford to be without him for too long. The slumping Howie Kendrick and Gerardo Parra would likely need to take on more playing time in Adams’ place. Not ideal.
Dear baseball gods. Please stop injuring Nats. They’ve already had more than their fair share.
Next up: With the trade deadline on Wednesday looming, the Nats host the division-leading Atlanta Braves. Patrick Corbin will get the nod for the opener, while Aníbal Sánchez will start the finale. But Tuesday’s game is TBD, with Max Scherzer unlikely to make the start.