With the halfway mark of the 2020 season nearly upon us, the Washington Nationals are still stuck in first gear. That was evident again as they spluttered their way to a 3-2 series loss to the Miami Marlins in the first meeting of the year between the two teams.
There wasn’t one consistent theme in these games for the Nationals, but often one part of the team let them down on a given day, with the rotation, lineup, and starting pitching culpable for poor performance at various times during the five games.
Here are the main takeaways from the series with the fish...
Yan the man
Even though the offense as a whole has been one of the major negatives for the Nationals this year, they have been getting some of their bats going again recently.
One of those bats is Yan Gomes, who had another strong showing in this series against Miami.
Starting three games over the weekend series, Gomes went 4-for-12 with a pair of home runs and a double, raising his slash line on the season to a solid .261/.306/.478.
The first of those home runs was also of historical significance as it was his 100th in the big leagues, making him the first player born in Brazil to reach triple digits in long balls.
“Reaching triple digits on homers,” Gomes said after the game, “I knew it was coming close, I think last year I hit one and a guy robbed it, so I’m like, ‘Man, this is going to be a tough one, and then I took quite a few games to hit my first one of the year, but I think it’s a little personal milestone that I can take back and I think honestly just getting to play this game has been an honor, but reaching that kind of milestone like that has been pretty cool.”
As well as the historical milestone, Gomes was also able to extend his active hitting streak to eight games with at least one hit in his three starts this series, as his bat seems to be coming around more toward the type of hitter was in his last season in Cleveland.
For a position that didn’t produce too much offensively last season, it would be good for the Nats if Gomes can pick up some of the slack that he left last season after an underwhelming season with the stick. His recent run could be the spark he needed...
As has been talked about ad nauseam by us at Federal Baseball and others covering the Nationals this season, the team’s supposed strong point, the rotation, has struggled in 2020.
Arguably the biggest underperformer so far has been Aníbal Sánchez. The right-hander, who was so good last season after his return from the IL, has had another sluggish start, holding an 8.50 ERA after his first four outings and averaging less than five innings per start.
During his fifth start though, Sánchez appeared to begin reversing course and looked more like his 2019-self.
In Sunday’s penultimate game of the series, Sánchez tossed seven innings of one-run ball, allowing just fives hits while walking nobody and striking out five Marlins.
“He was good, he was really good,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters after Sunday’s game. “That’s the Aníbal I’ve known for a very long time. When he can split the plate like he did and work both sides and keep the ball down, he’s going to be very effective, and he did that today, and you could see the results. He was really good.
“I had a conversation with [Suzuki] afterward, and he said that that’s the best he’s thrown this year, just because everything — he’s working from down to up, and that’s who he is.”
In this start, Sánchez was able to keep the ball down in the zone, something he had struggled to do up until that point, allowing him to be crushed by opposing hitters. If he can do the same moving forward, another second-half surge could be on the cards.
On the other side of the starting pitching spectrum in this series was Max Scherzer.
Starting the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, things appeared relatively normal for the Nats’ ace as he got through four scoreless innings allowing just a pair of hits and one walk.
The catch though is that it had taken him 77 pitches to get through those four frames.
That showed in the fifth inning as the Marlins continued to put together tough at-bats and strung together a two-out rally that would plate four runs and knock Scherzer out after 108 pitches
“The pitch count was a little high coming in but was able to avoid any damage there in the early part of the game,” Scherzer explained after the game. “In the fifth inning, there were a couple batters I had some bad locations on and another couple times I didn’t hit my spot and they were able to just get a hit and able to continue to extend the inning.
“Then when it got down to when you really need to get an out against say [Brian] Anderson and [Jesús] Sánchez, I just wasn’t able to get the job done, wasn’t able to locate and obviously I had a hit-by-pitch and then walked somebody on four straight, that’s on me.”
This year more than others so far, Scherzer has seemingly gotten more fatigued than usual later in his starts. It happened on Saturday, it happened in Baltimore, and it seemed to be happening against the New York Yankees on Opening Day before the rain intervened.
So far this season, opposing hitters are slashing .323/.382.548 against Scherzer between pitches 76 and 100 compared to a .244/.302/.402 career slash line in the same pitch range.
All things considered, it’s probably not a huge shock to see something like this given the rapid ramp-up time for this shortened season. It will be worth watching for in his next start against the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday to see if he can finally get deeper into games.
Through the first couple of weeks of the season, Asdrúbal Cabrera was one of the team’s hottest hitters and helped carry a lineup that was struggling a lot without its star, Juan Soto.
In this series though, Cabrera continued to cool down at the plate, going just 2-for-14, continuing a poor run that has seen him slash just .177/.269/.311 over his last 12 games with 13 strikeouts compared to just four walks and only two extra-base hits in that span.
The good thing for Cabrera is that when he has been able to get hits, they come at the right time, as he’s still been able to accumulate six more RBIs despite slumping overall at the dish.
That clutch hitting is why the Nationals are keen to keep him in the lineup when possible.
“We’re trying to keep him in there,” Martinez explained before Monday’s game. “He’s a big part of the middle of our lineup. This guy has a knack of driving in runs. We need that right now.”
Cabrera has been a bit unlucky during this recent slump with a measly .194 batting average on balls in play suggesting he’s not doing as bad as the slash line over the last 12 games indicates.
In short, Cabrera isn’t the insane RBI-machine that he was to begin the season, but he’s not as bad as his stats have suggested recently, and that’s perfectly fine for someone who was brought in to be a part-time contributor and mentor to Carter Kieboom...
Voth’s rotation spot in jeopardy
It’s not often there are three noteworthy stories from the Nats’ rotation in one series, but that was the case here. After the aforementioned starts from Sánchez and Scherzer, the team sent Austin Voth to the mound to close the series, only to see him perform poorly again.
In this start, the right-hander could only go 3.2 innings while allowing six runs on six hits and three walks, striking out just three, bringing his ERA up to 6.65 and WHIP up to 1.62.
Not only was the performance poor, but it was also another short outing. Going deeper into games is something that Martinez has been emphasizing to all of his starters, and in this start for Voth, his manager thinks it was partially to do with not attacking the zone enough.
“He’s got to get strike zone,” Martinez explained. “He’s a guy that we know, he can get strike one, when he works ahead he’s really good, so we got to get him to start throwing strike one and start finishing. A couple times he had 0-2 counts and couldn’t finish.
“I think that’s just trying to be a little too cautious. When you’re 0-2 and the hitter is behind like that, for me, that’s your time to put them away. Not nibble, just go right after them and put them away.”
When asked whether Voth’s recent performances will affect his rotation spot, Martinez didn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement of his right-hander, leaving the door open...
“I’m not going to jump into conclusions tonight,” Martinez said. “I don’t do that as you guys know. I’ll assess everything, and I’ll talk to him tomorrow, and we’ll go from there.”
Given the recent woes for Voth as well as Wil Crowe looking ok in his big league debut, it’s not exactly a stretch to see the latter take a rotation spot over Voth so that the Nats can get a longer look at him at the big league level down the stretch.
Expect an firmer announcement on Voth’s future in the rotation at some point this week...
Next up: For the final series of the homestand, the Nats play host to Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies for the first time this season. Erick Fedde, Patrick Corbin, and Max Scherzer appear to be lined up to start for the Nationals in this three-game set.