Josh Bell was 2 for 25 (.080 AVG) from the right side of the plate before he stepped in to face Cincinnati Reds’ lefty Amir Garrett in the ninth inning on Tuesday night.
Bell fell behind quickly, 1-2, spit on two sliders in the dirt, 3-2, then launched a 95 MPH full-count fastball to left-center for a 410-foot blast that put the only run the Nationals scored on the board in their 2-1 loss in Washington, D.C.
Bell got off to a slow start at the plate back in April, going 6 for 53 (.113/.200/.264) with two doubles and two home runs, five walks, and 17 Ks in 15 games and 60 plate appearances.
He’s started to get going in May, however, and in 19 games and 73 PAs this month, before Wednesday night’s game, the 28-year-old slugger had put up a .294/.342/.529 line on the month, going 20 for 68 in that stretch, with four doubles, four home runs, five walks, and 18 Ks in three-plus weeks.
In a May 11th Zoom call with reporters, Bell talked about slowly but surely getting his timing right and his mechanics in sync, and the effort to keep both swings straight, with extensive work he does with hitting coaches Kevin Long and Pat Roessler.
“I feel like I’m not going to stop searching until I’m really producing,” Bell said.
“I feel like as of right now, as of that last at bat that I had left-handed, I felt like I was in a really good place to drive the baseball.
“I’m finally getting swings off on balls down and in. It seems like in the last couple of weeks I’ve been taking those pitches, so I feel like I’m climbing even though the batting average is dropping.
“So, like mentally I think that I’m in a really, really good place, like really close to breaking this thing out. It’s just about getting results now.”
In 12 games (nine starts) since those comments, Bell is 15 for 39 (.385/.442/.667) with two doubles, three home runs, four walks, and seven Ks in 43 PAs.
Before he really started to turn it on, Bell said he appreciated having his manager’s support even when he was struggling at the plate.
“Yeah, I mean, he’s had my back this whole time,” Bell said. “I feel like he knows what I’m capable of doing, it’s just kind of tough not coming through as of late, but I feel like it’s going to be that much more meaningful when I do start coming through just knowing that he supported me the whole way. I’m always thankful for him and having him in my corner for sure.”
After Bell’s home run from the right side on Tuesday, Davey Martinez said he saw it as yet another positive sign that the switch-hitting first baseman is improving.
“I thought he had a great at bat,” Martinez told reporters.
“He laid off some pretty good sliders in the dirt, and then he got a ball up, where he could handle it and he smoked it to left-center field. That’s good for us, if he can start doing that right-handed, we’re going to be in great shape.”
The benefits of getting Bell going from the right side? They do have Ryan Zimmerman on the bench to start against lefties or pinch hit when needed, but having Bell going strong from both sides would give his manager more options.
“If he can start swinging the bat from the right side like he did last night,” Martinez said in his pregame Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday afternoon, “... it gives us definitely some options to play him a little bit more against right-handed pitching, keep our bench strong with Zim, but we’ll have to see how that goes. But he’s working hard, like I said before, he’s working really hard to get his swing right, left-handed he’s swinging the bat really well right now, and as you see, yesterday, he had a good swing yesterday right-handed, so hopefully he continues going the way he’s going right now.”
Where is the balance though, of trying to get Bell going from the right side versus putting the best hitter up at the plate against left-handed starters or relievers?
“As you all know, we’re in this to win baseball games, and Zim is swinging the bat well right now, but there is that balance, you know,” Martinez explained. “As I’ve said earlier, we’ve got to keep an eye on Zim and his health. We want to keep him healthy throughout the year, not only against lefties, but also against righties too, so we’ll look at matchups and we’ll go accordingly, but they’re both doing well for us right now and they both understands, Josh understands, and Zim understands his role, and Josh understands that Zim has to play as well. There hasn’t been any issues. These guys are readily available to do whatever is asked, and they want to do everything to help the team win.”
The work Bell has put in with Long and Roessler has paid off though, and Martinez said he can see the results when he watches Bell’s swing.
“If you look at him now, his bat is staying through the zone for a really long time,” Martinez said. “Which enables him to stay back. Able to hit breaking balls a lot better. Changeups a lot better.
“He’s worked diligently with K-Long on trying to stay — letting the ball travel a little bit longer, get the ball a little bit deeper, but yet, make sure the barrel is out in front of home plate when he makes contact. He looks great right now. And like I said, when we looked at everything, when we traded for him here, this is the Josh Bell that we knew we were going to get. So, you know, he’s doing great right now. I love his at bats. He’s taking his walks, and that’s huge for him. He does take his walks, and when he does that I really feel like he’s well on his way.”