The Washington Nationals finished up their road schedule for the 2020 season in a similar way to how it’s gone all season. In a strange five-game series in three days, they dropped three of the five games to the playoff-chasing Miami Marlins.
It seemed as though all aspects of the team became very hit-and-miss in this series. The rotation had three great performances and two duds, the offense put up some big scores and was lifeless in others. It summed up the inconsistency of this team the past two months.
Here are the main takeaways from the series at Marlins Park...
Starters step up
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The downfall of the Nationals in 2020 has primarily come down to the struggles of the rotation as it failed to live up to the preseason hype.
Though this series still had some poor starting pitching performances from Wil Crowe and Patrick Corbin, in the two wins the Nats collected over the Marlins, they got a pair of outstanding starts from two of their fringe starters in Erick Fedde and Ben Braymer.
Fedde started the series opener in the first game of Friday’s doubleheader and dazzled to the tune of six one-hit innings, allowing two walks and striking out six Marlins in the 5-0 win.
“The key for him is utilizing his fastball, and pitching on both sides of the plate,” manager Dave Martinez explained. “He did that really well today. Really well. I’m proud of him.”
Because of his dominance, the Nationals did contemplate sending him out for a complete game given that the game was only seven innings long.
In the end, the Nationals’ manager decided to rein him in and made sure that he finished his start on a high.
“He wanted to go back out for the seventh. I told him, hey, last time out he had 108 pitches, 110 pitches, something like that, he had 91 today in six innings.
“We needed that, that was huge. I wanted to get him out feeling good about himself. I didn’t want him to go out there and get his pitch count up and all of a sudden he gets in trouble.”
The Nats knew that Fedde does have the ability to pitch well in games, it’s just been a matter of getting him to do it more consistently if they want him to be a fixture in the rotation.
In Braymer’s case though, he was heading out for his first big league start in the second half of Sunday’s doubleheader. It was a bit of a step into the unknown on that front but he raised more than a few eyebrows with an impressive start while the offense summoned up 15 runs.
The rookie left-hander delivered five shutout innings, striking out four, walking three, and mimicking Fedde by only allowing one hit.
“He was outstanding,” Martinez said after the game. “When he throws strikes he’s effective. His fastball sneaks up on you. Good breaking ball, really good changeup.
“We talked to — [Suzuki] and him had a game plan coming in about utilizing all his pitches, using both sides of the plate, he did it really well.”
Because he wasn’t fully stretched out as a starter, the plan was for Braymer to go about four innings before turning it over to the bullpen. But his performance allowed Martinez some breathing room to send him out for the fifth to get him a win with the team up by seven runs.
“We wanted to get him that win, we talked to him, we watched him. He looked really good. We weren’t going to let him go more than 90 pitches, so he finished up at 86 pitches, but he did really well.”
Fedde is set to appear in the upcoming series against the Philadelphia Phillies, while Braymer may well have earned himself one more start as the Nationals close out 2020. Hopefully, both pitchers can carry these performances over to next season...
Stevenson looks the part
The most important thing remaining for the Nats in 2020 now that they’re out of playoff contention is to give less experienced players a run in the team. That includes Andrew Stevenson.
Having spent most of the season at the team’s Alternate Training Site in Fredericksburg, VA, Stevenson was recalled ahead of this series in place of Yadiel Hernández. With a chance to impress the coaching staff the rest of the way, he certainly took it in this series.
Stevenson seemed to not waste any at-bat and finished the series with hits in each of his four appearances, going a combined 4-for-8 with five RBIs, two walks, and no strikeouts.
He impressed the skipper with not only his results but how he looked at the plate and in the field.
“He’s working good at-bats,” Martinez explained after Saturday’s game. “I’ve seen Stevenson now for a couple of years. He’s a guy that grows on you, man. He plays the game hard, he works good at-bats, it always seems like he’s 3-2 every count.
“He’s one of those young kids that’s learning, he’s understanding how to hit with two strikes, so he’s doing a lot of good things. He made a nice play today in right field, which was nice.
“I like what he’s doing so far.”
With Adam Eaton’s season basically over, expect to see a lot more of Stevenson in the lineup over the final week of the season as he hopes to impress enough to earn some sort of role as the team starts to look ahead to 2021.
The little things go awry
It’s been a theme during the season, but in the fourth game of this series, the team’s failure to do the fundamentals, or the little things as the manager likes to call them, showed up again.
The little thing that wasn’t executed which got Martinez’s attention was a comebacker hit right back at Patrick Corbin which he failed to field and allowed the Marlins to score a run, putting them 4-2 up, which was enough offense for them to grab a 7-3 win.
Talking with the media after the game, the skipper said he thinks part of the reason for some of the sloppy way the Nats have played could be down to the frantic build-up to the season.
“It’s actually something that we really couldn’t work on when we came to Spring Training 2.0,” Martinez told reporters. “We couldn’t get the guys together, we couldn’t do these little things.
“Typically we work on that first and third and have baserunners and have guys throw, we work on the bases-loaded comebacker, little ball, whether your pitcher wants to go home or go to first. We couldn’t do it. We couldn’t get together and do those little things.”
It didn’t get any better on Sunday as in the first game of the doubleheader.
There were two errors, a throwing error from Luis García and a fielding error from Eric Thames, that allowed the Marlins the score the two runs they needed to win the game 2-1 and the Nationals couldn’t score with runners on second and third with nobody out in the final frame.
The lack of fundamentals means Spring Training will have a familiar feel to it when they reconvene in February, with the little things likely to be what the manager will drill into his players.
“My plan is next year in Spring Training is to attack all those things again, and be ready, be ready for Opening Day,” Martinez stated. “We talk about it every day when it occurs, cause we do have some young players, and I want them to understand what transpires.
“But we definitely have to get back to the fundamentals, early.”
19-31, the sequel
The record of 19-31 is now remembered fondly in D.C. because of its significance in the Nationals’ miraculous run to the World Series title in 2019. It was the low-point of the season and
However, just because that season had a positive ending, doesn’t mean 19-31 is a desirable place to be. It’s not good to be 12 games under .500 in a normal 162-game season, but when the Nats reached that record this year on Saturday, it essentially signaled the end of their 2020 season.
It’s fun to use the record as a reminder about a fantastic season and for the narrative, but in reality, it’s not something that the Nationals really want to dwell on in a disappointing year.
“Just so you know, I really don’t like that number,” Martinez said after Saturday’s loss. “It worked out last year, but I’d rather be 31-19. But hey, we just got to keep battling.
“We’ve got to keep it going for the next ten games or whatever it is, and just try to go 1-0 tomorrow. That’s where we’re at right now.”
If anything, the team hitting the 19-31 mark for a second season running could serve as a wake-up call that there is plenty of work to be done this offseason to get the Nationals back into postseason contention, even if there is some margin for error in this strange season.
Step one next season for the Nationals, try not to be 19-31 again, it doesn’t help...
Next up: The Nationals now head back to the nation’s capital for one final homestand this year. First up this week is four games in three days against the Philadelphia Phillies. Aníbal Sánchez, Austin Voth, and Erick Fedde are on schedule for three of the games, with the team likely needing to call up another starter for one half of Tuesday’s doubleheader.