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A breath of fresh desert air: Washington Nationals’ offense erupts in Arizona

A change of scenery, and opposing pitching, seems to make all the difference for a struggling club...

Washington Nationals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

So this is all it took to awaken the Washington Nationals’ offense in 2021? A visit to their desert cousins in Arizona?

The team that showed up in Phoenix on Friday night to deliver a 17-2 bashing to the Arizona Diamondbacks bore no resemblance to the side that has scored more than two runs in a game only once this week.

Perhaps it’s not too late to apply for membership in the National League West, so Washington can get more games against the Arizona Diamondbacks, in their hitter-friendly ballpark, with their even more hitter-friendly pitching staff.

The Nats’ batters should have remembered the D-Backs’ pitching staff fondly after scoring 15 runs against them in a four-game split in Washington last month. They might have also giotten some inpiration from a pre-game visit with World Series hero Howie Kendrick.

This time around, from Trea Turner’s team-leading ninth homer on the second pitch of the game, the offense was in gear like never before with a season-high 22 hits.

“The key was, we stayed on the ball, we hit the ball all over the field today, which was really nice,” said manager Davey Martinez after the game.

This was the kind of game where slumps were busted, streaks were broken, and weeks-long offensive trends quickly died. And with Max Scherzer serving up five-innings of two-hit, seven-strikeout nastiness, and the bullpen running deep, the Nats’ hitters were continually on their way back to the dugout to line up for more.

“Sure. 17 runs, I mean, can’t say we’re going to be putting up 17 runs every game, but having one of those games shows top-to-bottom the kind of lineup that we have, said catcher Yan Gomes, who had the first five-hit game of his career and came a homer shy of the cycle.

Gomes is already having his best offensive season in years, but his 5-for-6 night raised his slash line sharply, from .243/.282/.432 to .288/.321/.500.

“Just one of those days,” Gomes said. “Seeing the ball well, got to work with (hitting coach Kevin Long) a little bit before the game.”

After doubling in the first inning, tripling in the third, and singling in the fifth and sixth, Gomes had a chance for the home run and the cycle in the eighth against Kevin Ginkle and the ninth against David Peralta, moving to the mound from left field in a blowout.

He struck out against Ginkle and and singled against Peralta for his fifth hit of the night.

”I don’t think I’ve ever really had a shot at (a cycle)” said Gomes. “Yeah, I took a shot I think in the fourth at bat when I got the base hit up the middle.”

His hopes were not high for a homer against Peralta.

“Can’t say I enjoy those at bats very much. That was probably my most uncomfortable at bat, probably the hardest at bat of the day,” he said.

Martinez said he thought Gomes would swing for the fences against Peralta.

“He told me, ‘I just don’t want to strike out.’

“He stayed under the ball, but I was hoping he’d give it one shot and see if he could hit for that cycle.”

Josh Bell’s batting average took a 14-point jump in a 2-for-5 game that upped his season RBI total from 9 to 12. The average jumped from .140 to .154, but the hits finally came through with men on base, breaking the game open with a two-run double in the first inning and continually feeding rallies.

Kyle Schwarber’s 3-for-4 performance was his first three-hit game of the season and raised his line from .202/.282/.384 to .223/.316/.427. Schwarber has also hit safely in seven of his past eight games.

To the other extreme, it was a streak-stopper for Starlin Castro. The Nats’ third baseman came into the game with an 11-game hitting streak and stepped to the plate seven times to try to extend it. Schwarber even took one for the team to get Castro that last at-bat against Peralta.

But Castro was the only starting position player without a hit against baseball’s second-most hit and second-most scored-upon pitching staff, finishing 0-for-6 with a walk.

“We just don’t want to give away at bats,” said Martinez. “That’s the key. You try to preach to them when they’re going up there, ‘Hey, work good at bats. Don’t give away any at bats, and get something out of it.’”

The Nats have had previous offensive uprisings this season, only to return to slumber the next game or the game after. What makes this a true breakout and not an offensive outlier? It might take a week to bear this out, but the key is in the pitching they are facing.

The Nats are finally away from the NL East pitching they’ve faced every week of the season so far — along with the staffs of the Dodgers and Yankees.

The Nats will be playing the D-Backs and the Chicago Cubs — both with bottom-10-in-baseball pitching staffs — for another six games. It’s time to start streaking.

“Our pitching staff, they’re going to give us a good chance to win every time,” said Gomes. “Giving them a couple runs in the first, especially with the lineup that we have, we definitely have the ability of doing that.”