It’s been nice for the Washington Nationals to finally have some off-days again around their two-game series the American League East-leading Tampa Bay Rays before the hectic schedule kicks in to end the season with 13 games in the final 10 days with no off-days.
In this series, the Nationals were once again able to put up a decent fight against a good Rays team, splitting the two games with a dramatic late home run in the second game.
And don’t look now, but the Nats aren’t far away from being 19-31 again for nostalgia’s sake.
Here are the main takeaways from the two games in St. Petersburg...
García into orbit
What were you doing at 20-years-old? The youngest player in Major League Baseball, Luis García, is busy launching extra-inning go-ahead home runs out of ballparks at 20.
Following a blown lead in the bottom of the ninth, the young second baseman led off the top of the 10th inning with the runner placed at second base. Not that the runner was there long.
Just as fans were likely steering their eyes back to the game for the 10th, they were greeted with a sharp and satisfying thwack. On the first pitch of the inning from Nick Anderson, García hit a missile 427 feet over the seats in right-center field to give his ballclub a 4-2 lead.
After the game, García revealed he got a quick scouting report from manager Dave Martinez to expect a first-pitch fastball to do damage on. It’s fair to say that he did that damage.
“Right before the at-bat I went to him,” García said. “He told me generally this is a situation to bunt the runner over, but I have confidence in you and in your swing, so he’s going to come right at you with a get-me-over type of fastball, so just be ready for it.”
Despite being the youngest player in the major leagues, it’s the confidence that he plays with that has impressed his skipper so far during his rookie season.
“He has no fear,” Martinez explained. “He’s going to give you everything he’s got, he goes out there and he plays the game and has fun playing the game.
“Testament right there, he ain’t thinking of anything, you kind of try to guide him on what to expect and what to do and he goes out there and does his best. It was a big pick-me-up for us.”
The emergence of García since his call-up to the big leagues has been a breath of fresh air for Nationals fans. Now he has his first true game-winning moment at this level, one that is likely to be the first of many if he keeps going on his current trajectory.
Hope for Voth?
It’s been a rough go of things in this shortened 2020 season for Austin Voth.
He’s someone the Nats had high hopes for coming out of Spring Training 2.0, awarding him a spot in the rotation as a fifth starter after a solid rookie season where he held a 3.30 ERA.
However, entering his Wednesday start, Voth had a 7.99 ERA and his -0.4 fWAR was the second-worst among hurlers with at least 30 innings pitched, just ahead of Madison Bumgarner.
There were signs of life in his start against the Rays though. The right-hander made it through five strong innings, allowing just one run on four hits and three walks while striking out six, with his skipper particularly impressed with his fastball during the outing.
“I loved that he was attacking the strike zone with his fastball,” Martinez explained after the start. “It’s great. He established his fastball, and his secondary pitches were a lot better.
“He went after them today with his fastball, and I loved it. I told him, ‘That’s what I remember you being.’ So, just continue to build off of that and your next start build off of that one, but that was really good.”
Obviously, the three free passes are a concern for Voth, but he was able to limit hard-contact well in this start. Of the 13 batted balls he allowed in this start, only one was what Statcast considers a barrel with an xBA of at least .500 and xSLG of at least 1.500.
It’s just one good outing for Voth among of sea of substandard starts, but this appearance has at least given a flash of the promise we all saw last season in the right-hander...
Safety for Rainey
As the 2020 season begins to wind down for the Nationals one of the bigger bright spots from this year for the team has been the emergence of Tanner Rainey as a force out of the bullpen.
In 20 appearances this season, the right-hander has a 2.66 ERA with a strong 32 strikeouts in just 20.1 innings. He’d even managed to suppress his command issues by only allowing seven walks in those 20 outings out of the bullpen.
That makes his placement on the Injured List with a right flexor strain even more disappointing.
So with Rainey looking like a big piece of the bullpen for years to come, it was impossible for the Nationals to be too cautious with the injury, especially in what looks like a lost season.
“He came in today, he said he felt a little bit better,” Martinez explained. “We just want to be safe and make sure that he’s 100% when he comes back. That was the decision right there.
“We gave him a few days to see how he felt, but at this point, we just want to make sure that he’s going to be totally fine. We don’t want any setbacks. When we deem that he’s ready to go, hopefully, it’s sooner than later that we’ll get him back. But we wanted to make sure we were careful.”
As the closer of the future, it was absolutely the right decision to shut Rainey down for now, and maybe even for the rest of the season. The Nationals can just be glad it doesn’t look like a long-term concern and that the flamethrower will be back dominating soon.
Another bump for Hudson
At the top of the series recap, we talked about García’s game-winning home run. The only reason he was in a situation to do so was the fact that Daniel Hudson coughed up yet another save opportunity in the bottom half of the previous frame.
Hudson retired Mike Brosseau and Austin Meadows with relative ease before getting the Rays down to their last strike against Brandon Lowe. He then let a slider hang a bit too much in the zone, Lowe turned on it for a homer, and just like that the hosts tied the game.
That blown save was his fifth of the season in 14 save opportunities as his ERA rose up to an ugly 7.13 on the season as his performances become more concerning for his manager.
“He’s falling behind,” Martinez told reporters last week about Hudson’s struggles of late. “His location is — he’s throwing too many balls honestly right almost down the middle of the plate, and he’s not getting the ball up, elevated like he was before.”
“As you know what Huddy has done for us in the past. I believe in him. It’s just like I said, like hitters, pitchers go in funks and you see that often. So, I’m going to stick with him. He’s been the guy, he’s going to be the guy.”
The issue so far this year for Hudson has been the long ball. In 17.2 innings, he’s surrendered six home runs — four of which have come in three of his blown saves — good for a 3.1 HR/9 which is the worst mark of his 11-year big league career and bloats his FIP up to 6.60.
The man who got the final out of the World Series last year has certainly taken his lumps in 2020, but for now, the Nationals still appear to be sticking by their man to close games out.
Next up: After their last off-day of the season on Thursday, the Nationals are back on Friday as they set to play five games in three days against the Miami Marlins. Erick Fedde, Wil Crowe, Patrick Corbin, and Max Scherzer are on schedule to start with a potential bullpen game on Sunday, with Ben Braymer and Kyle McGowin candidates to start that game.