Washington’s batters are hitting balls hard, they’re just not falling in or getting through, and the Nationals are making good contact with runners on and in scoring position and it won’t go their way. It’s bad luck. Heck, even the stat-averse Ryan Zimmerman discussed the club having BABIP issues recently, though he did so, “without saying that stupid word,” as he put it.
“I tell you right now we need a little luck on our side,” manager Davey Martinez said after the club was shut down by a red-hot Brandon Woodruff in Sunday’s 3-0 loss.
“We’ve hit some balls hard, we really have. So, these guys are up there and they’re giving us every effort in the world. Like I said, we’ve hit some balls hard, we need a little luck, one of these balls to fall with guys on base and things will change for us.”
But how long can that sort of talk sustain you when you’re not getting the big hits when the club puts runners on, and not driving in runs when you need to? How long do you stick with the process when it’s not producing results, and where do you find the resolve?
“I feel like it’s the quality of the hard hit,” Josh Bell explained on Sunday. “I feel like if you’re hitting balls hard on the ground, that’s not a win, sometimes you get rewarded for it, but more times than not if you’re hitting it hard in the air that’s when you’re in a good place. I feel like for the most part guys are really, really close, hitting the ball hard, but they just aren’t behind it enough to really get it in the air.
“Once that change happens, that’s when we’re going to start putting multiple runs on the board.”
It happened for Bell, who was struggling to elevate the ball in April, when he put up a rough .113/.200/.264 line on the month before turning it around as the calendar flipped. He talked in early May about adjustments he made that helped him turn it around (and since then he’s put up a .265/.315/.458 line with four doubles and four home runs, going into play Monday.)
After he hit a big home run on a first-pitch slider in a 5-1 win over Philadelphia’s Phillies early this month, Bell said some things he saw watching videos of his at bat helped him find what he thought was a fix.
“I had a really long night last night, just watching like a ton of video,” Bell said that night.
“Came here early, worked with [Hitting Coach Kevin Long]. Really only took about 10-12 minutes worth of swings, but talked with him for probably an hour before the game.
“So, just to be able to simplify, work through some things mechanically, and have it click that first pitch, I was really stoked. So, hopefully I can turn things around here.
“Obviously not the start that I wanted to have, but a lot of baseball still to be played.”
“I feel like there were some things in Spring Training that were working for me that haven’t been working this year,” Bell added when asked what he’d seen in the videos he watched.
“So I was just focusing on staying more stacked, keeping my shoulders square, and allowing my barrel to travel behind the baseball as opposed to kind of pulling out with my front shoulder. I’ve been hitting a lot of balls hard, but it just seems like that slight little redirection is causing the ball flight to be lower and more on the ground, so I made that subtle change and it seemed like ball flight was there for the rest of the ABs, and I felt like if [the pitcher] were to make a mistake I was going to punish it, and that’s the type of hitter that I want to be, so hopefully I can grow from that.”
“I think that I’ve created different patterns that I thought were working,” Bell explained further, “... and in spring I had the results, so just talking with K-Long and kind of diving into everything that’s going on with my body. He was able to make some subtle cues, and we just did pretty much dry work. Didn’t hit a baseball, but were working on the stance for like 15-20 minutes before I got into the cage. I think that just kind of solidifying my load and not allowing my barrel to tip out over the plate. Just bought me more time and allowed me to stay more clean into the baseball.”
So when he says he thinks with all the Nationals’ hard contact but bad luck that he and his teammates are getting close, is his own progression a testament the club’s approach?
“Yeah. For sure,” Bell said this past Sunday “I was talking to K-Long about it today. I got to drive it into a gap, you know, me and Juan [Soto] were talking about that yesterday, it would be really nice to shoot that left-center field gap, drive in a couple runs on a double as opposed to trying to do too much on homers and stuff like that. But like I’ve said before all it takes is one hit, one feeling where you square up that ball and you know it’s going to hit outfield grass, it’s a great feeling and after that you just try to repeat it.”
Is Bell an example of perseverance for his teammates? What did Martinez and Co. on the coaching staff take from the way Bell’s started sorting himself out?
“We always talk about and it was about the point of contact,” Martinez said before the series opener in Atlanta on Monday afternoon. “Being a little bit more out front. And they work on that religiously in the cage, during batting practice. Just getting the ball a little bit more out front and being ready early, getting set up early. That was Josh’s big thing, he was a little late getting his foot down, he got a little early, his point of contact was a little more out front and he started driving the balls like we know he can.”
“They’re hitting the ball hard,” he reiterated, of the team as a whole. “If some of those balls would go through the infield, we’d be in great shape. Unfortunately they haven’t.
“I want to continue to have these guys just go out there and have good at bats and continue to hit the ball hard. I don’t want them to think about going up there and trying to hit the ball up in the air, because we’ll create some bad habits, just go up there and get a good pitch to hit and keep hitting the ball hard. Like I said, we’ll find holes and hopefully with guys on base we’ll find a hole here or there and we’ll score some more runs.”
The manager doesn’t want his team to press, and try to elevate it, but just continue with the same consistent approach (and maybe swing at more fastballs when they do throw them to Nationals’ hitters). But just stick with a good approach, make solid contact, and hope things start to fall in ... or get through.
“I don’t want these guys to think about hitting the ball in the air,” Martinez said. “Like I said, they’re hitting balls hard, they’re coming back and a lot of them are saying, ‘Hey, I’m hitting the ball good, I’m putting a good swing on, it’s just not — ’ like I said, for me, it’s only a matter of time before those balls — they start hitting those balls on a line and start finding holes, so I look back and I watch some of the games, as you know, we’ve had some really good at bats, some at bats haven’t been good, but that’s part of the game, but for the most part we’re hitting the ball hard.”
With a runner on in front of him in the fourth on Monday afternoon, Bell hit a 96 MPH 1-2 fastball up high outside from Charlie Morton to center field for a two-run shot, his 7th of 2021.