The Washington Nationals have had far from the World Series title defense they were hoping for this year, both because of the makeshift Major League Baseball season that’s taking place, but also the fact that beyond the halfway point they’re seven games under .500.
Facing off against the Boston Red Sox this weekend, it initially looked like a good chance to bounce back and grab a much-needed series win. After a promising victory on Friday, their pitching failed them on Saturday and Sunday and led them to another series loss.
Here are the main takeaways from the three games at Fenway Park...
Through the Nats’ first 16 games, it was fair to say that Trea Turner and his .238/.310/.429 slash line were an early disappointment for the team, especially when they needed every bit of production squeezed out of the lineup to compensate for Anthony Rendon.
Since then, Turner has been a man possessed on a 15-game hit-streak that’s vaulted his slash line all the way up to .360/.417/.616. In this series with the Red Sox, the shortstop couldn’t stop hitting if he tried, going 11-for-15 with four of the hits going for extra bases.
Those 11 hits were the most by any player in a single series for the Nationals since the franchise moved to the nation's capital.
His manager thinks a much more complete approach from Turner has led to his success.
“The thing that stands out to me is he’s just using the whole field. He’s getting his hits everywhere,” Dave Martinez told reporters after Turner’s 5-for-5 game on Saturday.
“When he does that, and he stays behind the ball, he’s got unbelievable hands, so he’s able to hit the ball hard, and you saw it again tonight.
“He’s just going out there, he’s being patient, but aggressive at the same time, getting balls in the strike zone, and hitting the ball hard.”
As well as his impressive performance at the plate, the Nationals’ manager also noted how Turner has continued to grow as a leader in the clubhouse while he’s matured and the team has gradually gotten younger around him.
“I’ve seen him grow since I’ve been here, ten-fold,” Martinez said. “He understands the game, he understands what he needs to do, and he plays the game the right way, he really does.
“He’s a student of the game, but yet, he’s starting to teach the game to our younger players, and I really like that about him. He sees things that other guys don’t see. It’s fun to listen to him talk to the younger players.”
In this series, Turner had Juan Soto hitting directly behind him. With one of the best hitters in baseball backing him up, perhaps pitchers challenged him more and were made to pay. Given how the offense clicked this series, that should continue moving forward...
More starting woes
Of all the things that could have let the Nationals down in 2020, you would’ve got pretty long odds on it being sub-standard starting pitching holding them back.
In this series, following Max Scherzer’s strong start on Friday, Aníbal Sánchez and Austin Voth both struggled in their starts. Sánchez went five innings while allowing five runs on eight hits, though Voth was even worse allowing five runs on six hits in two innings.
Past the halfway point, the rotation’s ERA is an ugly 5.39, the worst figure in the NL. They’re also averaging just under five innings per start which, despite being middle of the road in the majors, is a far cry from what they expect given their pedigree.
The skipper has been lamenting the poor performance of his rotation for a while now.
“Scherzer is throwing the ball well,” Martinez explained after the series. “[Patrick] Corbin is throwing the ball well. [Sánchez], he’s typically having one bad inning, but he’s throwing the ball well. We’ve got to get these other guys going.”
“We’re swinging the bats and we’re scoring runs. Typically when we score five runs we feel pretty good about the game, it hasn’t been that case so far.”
Sánchez probably still has some rope to work with this season, but following Voth’s performance, his rotation spot has to be in jeopardy now. The right-hander could even have made his last start in 2020 if the Nationals go out and trade for a starter today or replace him internally with someone like Wil Crowe from their alternate training site.
Whether they add a new starting pitcher or not, the Nats are going to want to see a lot more promise from the bottom half of their once-vaunted rotation the rest of the way in 2020.
On the brink
The consequence of that struggling rotation as well as the hit-and-miss lineup is that the Nats are now seemingly flirting with missing the postseason this season.
Following the weekend’s games, the Nationals now sit at 12-19, the second-worst record in the NL, and three games back of a Wild Card spot.
Despite that record and playoff standing, the Nationals are still quietly optimistic.
“I like where we’re at,” Martinez explained on Saturday at the team’s halfway point in the season. “We still got a lot of games. A lot of games. So, at this point, nobody seems to be running away with it, we just got to get on a roll here, win two, three out of four, come back and win two, three, or four, and then we’ll be right back in this mess, but I’m proud of the guys.
“We talked about this before. It’s not an easy year. It’s difficult, and they’re coming out now, they’re showing up and they’re playing baseball.”
With the trade deadline looming at 4pm today, the Nationals’ plans are a bit of uncertainty with the front office weighing up the rough play by the team with the small gap to a postseason berth.
Regardless of what they do transaction-wise, if the Nats do want to get back into the postseason hunt, they are certainly going to need to start racking up series wins — of which they only have one this season — and fast, or they will be watching at home in October.
Next up: The Nationals continue their road trip with a four-game series in Philadelphia. Erick Fedde, Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer, and Aníbal Sánchez are set to start for the visitors.