The good news is that the Washington Nationals continue to inch closer to a postseason berth every day. The bad news is that they are looking far from convincing doing so lately.
After a somewhat demoralizing series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the week, the Nationals had to grind out a series win over the Miami Marlins. Winning the three-game set was the bare minimum required, but a sweep was always the goal against the flailing Fish.
Here are the main takeaways from the three games with the Marlins...
Asdrúbal taking over
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has generally been pretty good at plucking players off the scrap heap and turning them into contributors during his time in Washington. He seems to have done that again with old friend Asdrúbal Cabrera.
Cabrera arrived at the start of August after having a pretty dismal start to the season down in Texas. He had slashed .235/.318/.393 in 93 games with the Rangers but has since slashed a remarkable .315/.392/.546 since joining the Nationals.
What’s been most impressive about Cabrera since returning is his ability to step up in the biggest of spots. With runners in scoring position, he’s slashing .413/.453/.804 with the Nats with 32 RBIs in just 53 plate appearances.
“Unbelievable,” Trea Turner said of Cabrera before the series. “I don’t know the stats, but I’m pretty sure the RBIs are off the charts and it just seems like every time there’s a clutch at bat that we need he comes through, and just a professional.”
At the time he joined, it looked like he would be a strong platoon and bench option for the team. But over the past two months, he’s asserted himself so much that he’s stolen the starting second base job, starting there in 14 of the team’s last 18 games.
Last time the Nats acquired Cabrera midseason, he had a similar habit of coming up with clutch hits. Now all the team needs is for the result of that season not to repeat itself.
As with all of the team’s trade deadline additions, Daniel Hudson didn’t arrive in D.C. with a huge amount of fanfare. However, since the trade, he’s been one of the few reliable arms out of the bullpen.
He was once again relied on in a big spot in this series down in Miami. Though the bullpen as a whole flailed, Hudson delivered two huge scoreless innings on Friday to secure the win.
Going more than one inning is nothing new for Hudson. This was the fourth time the Nats have asked for more than one inning out of him, three in save opportunities and the other coming in Chicago with the game tied before he recorded the win in extra innings.
“I’m up for anything,” Hudson said after his outing on Friday. “If they need me for five or six, that was totally fine.
“Once they told me I was starting the eighth, I kind of had the idea that I was probably going back out, especially jogging in seeing the double-switch, so just kind of get in your head that you’re probably going two and just get it done.”
With a 1.80 ERA since being traded to Washington, Hudson is arguably the team’s best reliever right now, hence the need to try and get him the ball as often as possible in close games.
The right-hander has been an arm that Mike Rizzo has coveted for some time and he finally got his man this summer. However, Hudson just needs others to step up around him if the Nats are going to have any chance to put their October demons behind them.
Ryan Zimmerman’s season being derailed by injuries has been a familiar tale for the Nats stalwart in recent years. But in this series in Miami, he appeared to be fully healthy and ready to make an impact the rest of the way this year.
At the plate, Zimmerman went 3-for-7 while raising his OPS to .802 since rejoining the team in September. However, the best sign regarding the first baseman was his baserunning.
In the top of the 10th inning on Saturday, Zimmerman pulled off an aggressive first-to-third as the go-ahead run, later scoring on a Brian Dozier single.
“Here’s what I know about Zim,” Martinez said after the game, “he’s one of our best first-to-third guys that we have.
“We thought about [pinch-running], and I said, ‘Hey, that ball was hit fairly soft, but a lot of guys would have stopped at second, I knew right away he was going to third, and he’s a good baseball player. He understands, and he runs the bases well.”
For a player coming off of two bouts with plantar fasciitis this season, his full-speed, seemingly unhampered baserunning was a huge positive that he’s fully healthy again.
Having his potentially lethal bat and veteran presence in the clubhouse could be invaluable for the Nationals as we get closer to October. Fingers crossed he can avoid any more injuries, especially given some of the ailing players sitting out recently.
Don’t worry, we’ve got a specific section for the bullpen meltdowns. However, first, this series hardly provided a glowing endorsement of the manager’s bullpen management skills.
With the Nationals leading 4-0 on Saturday, Dave Martinez turned to Fernando Rodney to try and lock down the eighth. Unfortunately, the 42-year-old had his worst outing of the season, surrendering four runs to tie the game while recording just one out.
That in itself isn’t anything to panic about, Rodney has been very hit-and-miss since being promoted from Triple-A Fresno and this was clearly just a miss for him.
It was arguably more of a concern that the manager left his reliever out there to nearly throw the game away himself despite looking far from his best. It was only after Austin Dean cleared the bases to tie the game that Martinez came to get his right-hander.
“We had guys up, but you know what, I know Fernando. He typically can get out of a jam,” Martinez said of the decision. “He’s going to throw strikes, so he was the guy for me right there.”
There were some lesser concerns in the series finale, which they did lose, such as sending Hunter Strickland back out for a second inning of work in which he struggled and also using Wander Suero for a third consecutive day despite leading the pitching staff in appearances.
The bullpen management harks back to the early part of the season where Martinez pressed all the wrong buttons, not often putting his pitchers in the best situations to succeed. That’s hardly a winning formula in postseason baseball if this team makes it.
Not this again...
Well, here we go again. Despite the series win, the Nationals’ bullpen stole the headlines for the visitors as they let one game slip away, while almost letting another get away too before the offense summoned up a big rally.
As mentioned above, the culprit on Saturday night was Fernando Rodney who let a 4-0 lead slip in the eighth inning. Thankfully, the Nats dodged a bullet with a rally in the 10th this time.
The Nationals didn’t get so lucky on Sunday, however. Protecting a two-run lead, Hunter Strickland and Wander Suero combined to allow four runs in the bottom of the seventh.
“I’m not really concerned,” Martinez stated after the series. “You know what, I trust these guys, like I said, you see guys come in one day, they’re really good and get big outs for us, the next day is just doesn’t happen, so let’s just get consistent.”
“I trust all those guys in the bullpen, I really do, and they know what’s at stake and they’re giving this team everything they’ve got, and I’ve asked them to do a lot and they’ve always stepped up, so let’s keep it going.”
After seemingly taking a step forward with the new additions, the Nationals’ bullpen are back near the back of the pack, posting a 5.75 bullpen ERA in September, the third-worst in baseball.
Everything else on this team is just about postseason-ready, but if anything is going to end the Nationals’ season prematurely, it will be the bullpen. Hopefully, some of the arms can return to previous form, else it could have dire consequences.
Next up: The Nats head home to finish off the year, starting with five games in four days against the Philadelphia Phillies. Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer, Aníbal Sánchez, and Stephen Strasburg are all scheduled to go this series, with a spot starter also needed for Tuesday’s doubleheader.