Maybe it’s a calendar thing for the Washington Nationals.
Or maybe it’s just a coincidence, or just another outlier in a so-far regressive season.
But for the second straight June 1, the Nats’ offense looked like it had flipped the switch from the previous day and the previous month, in an 11-6 victory over Atlanta last night.
In 2019, it was seven games after they had minted the “19-and-31” rallying cry, but still a big offensive performance (a 5-3 win over Cincinnati) after a loss — one that started a four-game winning streak and the season’s first winning month. Of course, there was no baseball on June 1, 2020 because of the pandemic.
Who knows where it will end in 2021? But it began on a night when Stephen Strasburg had a clear physical setback, if not an injury, and the normally reliable bullpen had its most taxing game of the season.
But it ended with Juan Soto’s first home run in almost two weeks and Kyle Schwarber clinging to a snow cone, even as he made contact with the left-field wall catching the game’s final out.
“I think we’ve had one or two games like this, and the next three or four we don’t score runs or we don’t get opportunities,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who hit a two-run homer on a 2-for-5 night. “So I think it’s nice to do what we did tonight, and string together a bunch of good at bats.
“The key is to kind of keep it going and be a little bit more consistent. But we have a talented lineup. We’ve just got to kind of use this and hopefully get some positive momentum.”
Whether this is the start of another mid-season run will not be known for a while.
In the meantime, it has to feel for fans like this victory was a longer time in coming than the five straight games the Nats had lost going into the game.
Strasburg’s apparent injury, described by manager Davey Martinez as lat tightness, forced Austin Voth into a game at the earliest point of any this season, the second inning; he stayed maybe one batter too long.
But what started out as a series of gifts from the Atlanta defense and battery, quickly turned into a briskly moving line around the bases, and Soto’s opposite field blast with Trea Turner aboard for the third time left Brad Hand with a ninth-inning mop-up rather than a save op.
Manager Davey Martinez said his team was hitting fastballs early in the count, as he’d been preaching during the five straight games they’d lost previously.
“It was awesome,” Martinez said in his post-game Zoom call. ‘We’ve got to continue to do that. Hunt fastballs early, get the early strikes and put them in play. They had good at bats today, they were aggressive, and it was a lot of fun.”
Soto, who went 3-for-4 and drove in four runs, had not homered since May 19, a span of 11 games in 13 days, and countless ground balls and line drives right at someone. This game, though, he was driving the ball, the result of a lot of hard work.
“All we’ve been working on the last couple days, just try to put the ball in the air, try to hit the ball, square up and put it in the air, is coming through right now, and it feels great,” said Soto.
After striking out in the first against Atlanta starter Max Fried, he got ahead in the count in the fourth inning and drove a four-seam fastball on the outer part of the plate solidly to left field to score Victor Robles and Austin Voth.
“Hit the ball the other way,” Soto told reporters. “I think that was the key that got me set up.
“When I hit that single to left field, it just got me really on and really ready for it.
“It set everything up for the next at-bats,” he continued. “It got me on time. It showed me where I can hit the ball, how far I could let it travel, and how good I can hit it anywhere on the plate.”
Soto’s fifth home run of the season came in the eighth inning against Atlanta left-hander Grant Dayton, on a 1-2 fastball, right down the middle.
After the ball sailed over the wall, just over outfielder Abraham Almote’s glove, Soto danced in the dugout to celebrate his fourth run of the game.
“It always feels great to hit a homer,” he said. “A long time to get that feeling, hit that ball that hard, and just run around the base.”
Trea Turner answered his 0-for-5 performance on Sunday with a three-hit, two-run game, although he was uncharacteristically picked off first base after his sixth-inning single.
After Turner scored the first run of the game on a first-inning wild pitch by Fried, it seemed the Nats were fortunate to have even that, having gone 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.
But that first-inning mix-up between Fried and catcher William Contreras led to another pair of wild pitches and two passed balls, giving the Nats seemingly free run of the basepaths.
After Zimmerman’s sixth homer of the season increased the lead to 6-1, the Nats survived a comeback against Voth, who pitched two clutch shutout innings before giving up a two-run homer to Ronald Acuna Jr. in the fifth.
Then Schwarber hit an RBI single for his second hit of the game, and Yan Games added a two-run double in a three-run seventh before Soto’s homer capped the Nats’ scoring.
Martinez celebrated the end of a hitting slump and losing streak and said the club has the right attitude to keep rolling.
“It’s funny, because you sit around and have these conversations with them, and none of them ever feel like we’re out of it,” Martinez said.
“They come in, they’re here, the music is on, the energy — it’s live in our clubhouse and we watch them in batting practice, and man, they’re really honing in on trying to square balls up.
“And then before the game, you hear them talking to one another. ‘This is the day. This is the day we’re going to snap out of it and we’re going to get on a roll.’ And they believe that.”