Still barely a month into this topsy-turvy 2021 baseball season, and Washington Nationals fans are still trying to get their bearings.
We’ve seen the team stumble out of the gate after missing the first four games because of COVID, but bounce back with two series wins against St. Louis. Now they have a chance to win another series against the New York Mets, who took over first place in the National League East on Jacob DeGrom’s two-hit, 6-0 shutout Friday and still hold at least a piece of first place after Saturday’s 7-1 Nats’ win.
But the Nationals can shake up a close NL East where all five teams are within a game and a-half of each other with a second straight series victory.
The division might be this close all season, with some teams still struggling to find a rhythm in returning to a 162-game pace after 2020’s short season.
Like many of those other teams, the Nats are still searching for their true identity as the season approaches the 20-game mark. And while we may not be quite sure how to characterize the team, it’s not the team we thought it would be when the season started. We’ve found a few pleasant and unpleasant surprises.
The Good News
The starting pitching can be as good as advertised. Patrick Corbin and Joe Ross both bounced back from rough starts, while Erick Fedde has been surprisingly sharp and Max Scherzer is his old self.
Still no word on when Stephen Strasburg will return from his shoulder injury, but the Nats have covered nicely for his absence.
Despite a high 5.29 ERA, the rotation has been at the heart of three wins in four games, all without Stephen Strasburg or Juan Soto.
“Sometimes find a way, sometimes good defense,” said Ross after holding the New York Mets to one run on five hits over six innings. “You’re not always going to feel 100%, but I ended up doing pretty well, and getting us the win today.”
The bullpen is looking reliable. Only two of the Nationals’ 10 losses are on the bullpen so far this season, and they both occurred in the season’s first week.
In the past three Nats’ victories, the bullpen has thrown eight straight scoreless innings, protected a pair of one-run leads and held a six-run lead (with a few hiccups) Saturday for Joe Ross. The bullpen will be even better when Will Harris returns to the back end.
So far, not bad defensively. The two big position players the Nationals added for 2021, Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell, came with reputations as sub-par defenders. But so far this season, they and the rest of the team have played good defense. The Nats’ eight errors are fourth-fewest in both the National League and baseball. Schwarber made a nice sliding catch of Brandon Nimmo’s sinking liner on the fifth inning of Saturday’s win, and Bell has scooped several key throws out of the dirt for outs.
The Bad News
Where’s the power? Because the leadoff play that put Josh Harrison at third base on Saturday was ruled a two-base error, the Nats won Saturday’s game on 10 singles, without benefit of an extra-base hit. They have only four extra-base hits in their past three victories. The Nationals have the second-best batting average in the National League at .246, but only the Mets have fewer extra-base hits than Washington’s 40. Juan Soto’s absence from the lineup is duly noted, but somebody needs to come up with some big hits.
Martinez says the team still need to concentrate on quality at-bats.
“Power will come. We got some guys that can hit the ball a long way. It’s going to happen,” he said, “but for right now I like the at bats. I like way that they took their walks, and they were pulling for each other.”
The Nationals are still inefficient: As has been duly noted, the Nats hit .226 with runners in scoring position and the average sinks to .203 with two out.
Even in Saturday’s 7-1 win, the Nats were still 4-for-14 with runners in scoring position and eight men left on base. Just five of the team’s 15 homers have come with men on base.
This is the second-lowest scoring team in baseball with 62 runs and only three players have driven in more than five runs this season.
“We want to be aggressive in the strike zone,” said Martinez. “This team is good when they don’t chase and they get the ball in the strike zone. So we need to continue to do that.”
Early-season injuries again: The Nationals have always seemed to bounce back from early-season injuries. This year it’s the defending NL batting champion, Soto, and the pitcher who was 2019 World Series MVP, Strasburg.
With three wins in four games since this development, the team seems to be working through it.
Yadiel Hernández, the 33-year-old rookie from Cuba, had a 2-for-4 day Saturday against the Mets, starting in place of Soto.
The Nats will need continued hot hitting from Hernández and Andrew Stevenson until Soto returns.
“We all know what Juan brings to the plate. Juan is a special bat, a special player,” said Josh Harrison after going 1-for-5 and getting the scoring started against the Mets.
“And it’s not a matter of having to replace Juan Soto, because that’s kind of hard to do, but when you’ve got a lineup that’s going to be tough 1-9, we can definitely play well and still win games until he gets to full health.”