For the first time in 2020, the Washington Nationals played as a road team at a road ballpark. The New York Mets lay in wait in what appeared to be an intriguing NL East showdown.
Following a 16-run offensive outburst in the first game, the Nationals’ bats that don’t belong to Juan Soto seemed to disappear.
They did at least scrape out a hard-fought win in the second game, but were just put to the sword by the Mets in the next two games.
Here are the main takeaways from the four games in Queens...
Juan Soto is good
It’s official, because we’ve run out superlatives for just how good Juan Soto is, he’s forced me into a very boring heading for this takeaway. Thanks a lot, Juan.
The 21-year-old had another torrid series going 7-for-15 with four home runs and eight RBIs, taking his slash line to .414/.452/1.034 with five home runs and 10 RBIs in just eight games.
Yes, that is indeed a slugging percentage over 1.000, and yes, that is absolutely ridiculous.
That line is remarkable in itself, but the fact he’s managed to do this after missing the first two weeks of Spring Training 2.0 and then missing the first week of the season after he tested positive for coronavirus right before Opening Day is even more incredible.
“For me, with the time off and everything, when I came back I just had to really make sure I’m doing everything perfect,” Soto told reporters after Wednesday’s game.
“Nobody is perfect, but I try to go to the field and try to do my routine in the cage, I try to make it as clean as I can, try to make it as perfect as I can and maybe to come back quicker, it made my body come back and feel ready more quickly.
“That’s the thing I’ve been doing, and just trying to make my routine perfect.”
Just when Nationals players, staff, and fans thought the young outfielder couldn’t do anything more to wow them, he has his schedule completely thrown off before coming back and raking at an MVP-level.
The sky really is the limit for Soto in his baseball career, and this series was yet more proof.
Coming into the season, the Nats planned to have both Sean Doolittle and Will Harris play big roles at the back-end of games.
Unfortunately, due to subpar performance for the former and an injury to the latter, the team needed other relievers to step up.
Enter Tanner Rainey.
During his rookie season in 2019, Rainey displayed excellent stuff, but was rarely able to control it. So far in 2020 though, his mechanics seem much more controlled, allowing him to pound the zone a lot more and have helped him become a trusted option for Davey Martinez.
Though Rainey was only called upon once this series, his manager asked him to get five outs in a one-run game in that appearance. He obliged in emphatic fashion with two Ks.
“He’s throwing the ball where he wants to throw it,” Martinez told reporters when asked about Rainey’s improvements in 2020. “That’s something that we talked to him about during the wintertime.
“Strike one, strike one, using your breaking ball to throw strike one as well. He’s got a good one, and he’s been doing that.”
The flamethrower’s velocity might be a little down this year, but clearly it’s not hindering him so far as he currently holds a 1.08 ERA and 0.36 WHIP as well as four holds in 2020.
Expect to continue to see him late in games as the Nationals trust him to help secure precious wins.
While there are a few bats the Nationals are watching get scorching hot like Soto, Asdrúbal Cabrera, and Howie Kendrick, there are others who have failed to live up to expectations.
It’s fair to say that even though Adam Eaton’s season started with a bang after he hit a home run off of Gerrit Cole in his first at-bat of the year, it’s been all downhill for him since then.
Following a 4-for-15 series against the Mets, Eaton’s slash line currently sits at a lowly .228/.279/.333 for the year. That’s far from what the team needs out of their two-hole hitter.
With his current slump and the Mets starting lefty Steven Matz in the series opener, the Nats’ manager even decided to sit Eaton for Monday’s game in favor of Josh Harrison to switch things up.
“He said he had a tough time seeing the ball [Sunday],” Martinez said coming into the series with the Mets. “He’s going to be fine. He’s hit some balls hard earlier. Kind of falling off a little bit, but for me, he’s got to stay on the ball and use the whole field. He’s really good when he starts driving the ball to left-center field.”
With those around him heating up, it’s fair to wonder if the Nationals would consider dropping Eaton down the order temporarily until he starts swinging the bat better.
The lone lefty
There’s been a lot of bullpen talk around the Nationals recently. Thankfully, it’s not about how they can’t get anyone out like it was at the start of last season, rather, it’s about how the injuries keep piling up and stretching them to their limits in games.
In particular, the team is struggling for healthy left-handers in the bullpen.
That southpaw contingent was already stretched thin with the team’s former closer, Sean Doolittle, struggling for form to start 2019 and Roenis Elías on the IL before Sam Freeman felt his elbow pop pitching on Wednesday.
So, with Doolittle in low-leverage duty and the other lefties hurt, what should the Nats do against lefties?
“I think we — with getting Will, you know, who I like against left-handed hitters with his cutter,” Martinez explained when asked about how he envisages his staff facing lefties.
“Suero could be effective. Guerra could be effective. So, we just have to figure those things out as we go along.”
Shortly after his pregame press conference, the Nationals announced that Doolittle was being placed on the Injured List and the team was selecting the contract of pitching prospect, Seth Romero, the left-hander who had been on the taxi squad this road trip.
That means that Romero, who was roughed up in his first major league outing on Thursday, is currently the only left-hander in the bullpen
The reality now is that the Nationals are going to have to look outside the organization for left-handed help in the bullpen with Freeman, Doolittle, and Elías on the IL.
“I know [GM Mike Rizzo] is looking elsewhere,” Martinez told reporters following the series about potentially adding another lefty. “We’ll see, we’ll see what happens in the next few days.”
Next up: After their four games in New York, the Nationals now head back to the DMV to take on the Baltimore Orioles for three games plus the remainder of Sunday’s suspended game. In the three full games the Nats plan to send out their three horses to toe the rubber in Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Max Scherzer. Good luck, Baltimore...