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The good, the bad, and the ugly from the Nationals’ two-game sweep of the Rays

The Washington Nationals had only swept one series so far this season. So when the first-place Rays came to town, of course they swept them...

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals had just one sweep entering this two-game set against the American League-leading Tampa Bay Rays. You probably would've had some long odds for them getting their second of the season in this series, but baseball is a funny old game.

The Nats didn’t pay any attention to what was supposed to happen. They got great starting pitching, the bullpen was excellent, and the offense did enough to give them a pair of relatively comfortable wins. That was fun, they should try doing that more often.

Here are the main takeaways from the two games...

The Good

Vintage Max

Sometimes in this bizarre season that some doubt the legitimacy of, it’s worth appreciating the little things in baseball. Watching Max Scherzer pitch at his very best is one of those things.

In Monday’s series opener with the Rays, the right-hander was just that.

Scherzer tossed seven shutout innings, allowing just six hits and a walk while striking out eight. He retired every single inning’s leadoff hitter and never allowed a runner past second base in a dominant effort that the Nationals hoped for against a tough team.

“After the second inning, he started pumping strikes and getting ahead of hitters, utilizing all his pitches,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters after the start. “I thought his curveball was really good today, changeup was good. But his fastball was good and located really well.

“That’s the Max that we know right there. He really pitched well. Needed that today. Needed those seven innings from him and he did it pretty easy.”

No, he’s not going to win a third NL Cy Young this year, and the pandemic makes this whole season a bit bittersweet. Neither of those things makes Scherzer gems any less fun to watch though. Hopefully, there will be a couple more waiting for us the rest of the way.

New ‘pen, who dis

Er, guys, the Nationals’ bullpen continues to be an actual strength for this team. What a nice change from last year’s relief corps that seemed to specialize in turning wins into losses.

Over the course of the two games against the Rays, the bullpen was virtually untouchable.

Five relievers combined to toss six innings of one-run ball, allowing four hits, walking three hitters, and striking out nine in this series, locking down both wins.

So far this season, the Nationals’ bullpen sports a 4.44 ERA in 152 innings. Sure, that could be better as a whole, but it’s the “A-bullpen” that stands out having only blown five saves at this stage, tied for eighth-fewest in the majors.

The point is, when they get given a lead, they usually hold it. That didn’t happen in 2019.

“We have an opportunity once we get to the seventh to lock the game down,” Martinez explained following Tuesday’s win.

“We have four or five guys right now that can really step up and do the job.

“[Daniel Hudson] has been really, really good in that closer’s role. Now you’ve got [Will] Harris, [Tanner] Rainey, who’s been phenomenal, you’ve got [Kyle] Finnegan in the sixth or seventh, you’ve got [Sean Doolittle] in the seventh or eighth, so and [Wander] Suero, Suero came in today in a tough spot and shut the door down and didn’t give up that other run, that tying run, so I feel good.”

It’s a funny situation for the Nats to be in, waiting for their starting pitching to answer the call to get it to their bullpen rather than the rotation crossing their fingers, but here we are.

If the Nationals get more solid starts from their rotation like they did against the Rays, and that’s a big if with the back-end of the rotation, more wins like those in this series could follow.

The Bad

The injuries for the Nationals this year haven’t been quite as widespread as they were early on in their championship season last year, but they’ve had their fair share of knocks.

After Juan Soto missed all of the series in Atlanta and the first game against the Rays with a sore elbow, it was hardly good news when their young infielder, Luis García, was scratched from Monday’s lineup a couple of hours before first pitch.

The second baseman departed Sunday’s game with some heel pain, and as the Nats’ manager confirmed after the series opener this week, that’s what held him out of the series.

“García took ground balls, he felt good, he put his spikes on to play, and right where the spike is it kills him,” Martinez said of the injury. “We’ll see how he feels [Tuesday], I know he’s getting treatment right now, we’ll see how he feels tomorrow, hopefully we can figure something out and he’s back out there, but we’ll see.”

As we now know, García wasn’t able to return to the lineup Tuesday, missing another game.

At this moment though, it seems precautionary to hold him out, especially with an off-day looming.

The Nationals will hope that García will be back in the lineup again against the Atlanta Braves this weekend, as they look to keep getting him acclimated to the big leagues.

The Ugly

Beaten-up Zuk

Seeing as there’s not a lot to critique in terms of on-field play from this series, the ugly from the past two games comes from the various bumps and bruises Kurt Suzuki endured.

Over the past few games, Suzuki has seemingly been peppered with foul ball after foul ball, hitting his foreman, groin, and...yeah...those too. He got the same treatment in this two-game series and is looking forward to a well-earned rest during today’s off-day.

“Thank goodness it’s only 60 games,” Suzuki joked after the series opener. “It’s just part of the territory.

“I feel like as I’ve gotten older it’s gotten worse. Or maybe it just hurts worse as I’ve gotten older, but it’s part of the territory, but as long as I can get out there and help the team win that’s what I try to do.”

The skipper also noted how beaten-up his 36-year-old catcher has been getting lately.

“He’s a hot mess right now,” Martinez said. “He goes in the training room and has ice everywhere. But he loves to play the game, and he loves to be out there. It takes a lot for him to come out of the game. He won’t come out. He’s one of those guys, I love him, he just wants to play and help us win.”

Suzuki has really justified the tools of ignorance nickname for catching gear with the pummeling he’s taken. He’ll hope for a nice few days off and let his catching tandem partner Yan Gomes take over behind the dish for a couple of games this weekend.

Yes, I know it’s a boring ugly takeaway, but that’s all I’ve got after a well-played series by the Nationals. This is a nice problem to have.

Next up: After a deserved off-day on Wednesday, the Nats welcome the division-leading Atlanta Braves to Nationals Park for four games. Erick Fedde, Austin Voth, Patrick Corbin, and Max Scherzer are lined up to toe the rubber in this series.