Washington Nationals’ first baseman Josh Bell, who struggled out of the gate with his new team this season, following a trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates this winter, but he picked things up at the plate over the past few weeks, and going into Monday’s game, he was 41 for 152 (.270/.323/.507) with nine doubles and nine home runs in in 45 games and 164 plate appearances since June 1st.
His manager, Davey Martinez, expressed faith in Bell’s ability through his rough first weeks with the team, and now that he’s swinging the bat well, the fourth-year skipper said during the club’s visit to Miami this past weekend, the time the slugger missed at the start of this season, when he got caught up in the team’s COVID outbreak, played a roll in his slow start.
“When we left Spring Training, he was swinging the bat better than anybody that we had,” Martinez explained, in discussing his public and private support of the 28-year-old, “... he really was. He was having an unbelievable Spring Training, and then the pandemic hit him, COVID hit him, and he got slowed down. I wanted to make sure that he understood that I had all the confidence in the world in him, and I know that he was going to get out of the little funk that he was in and he did. And now that we’re in the middle of the season, he’s helping us win ballgames, and he’s playing really well.
Bell’s surge, while not as ridiculous as teammate Kyle Schwarber’s recent run, has come at a good time for the Nationals, who head into the All-Star Break with a brutal stretch of games against some of the best teams in baseball this season, with two against Tampa Bay’s Rays, a four-game series with the Los Angeles Dodgers in D.C., and then a road trip out West that has them playing four in Petco Park with the San Diego Padres and three at Oracle Park with the San Francisco Giants.
“Definitely important baseball,” Bell said over the weekend. “I know that these last two series were really important to us, I know leading up to the break we really have to prove who we are. But I’m excited for it. I think our team is ready for it, I think our lineup is ready for it. The starters are excited, so it’s just one game at a time. We put runs on the board, they keep them off of the board, and we go from there.”
So far in June, the Nationals are 16-9, after a 10-12 April and 11-17 May, so the club is heating up at the right time too, if a bit late, with wins in 13 of their last 18 and seven of their last 10 going into Monday’s game.
While the schedule ahead is imposing, as Patrick Corbin said after his start in Miami, it has not exactly been easy over the first three months.
“I mean I think we’ve had a pretty tough schedule up to this point,” Corbin told reporters. “I mean there’s a lot of good teams in baseball, but I think we can take the field with anybody, we’ve proved it before and I think we’ll continue to prove it. There’s a lot of good teams.
“You can’t take anybody for granted. Miami is a good team, they have some good pitching as well, so we’re ready for the challenge. I’m looking forward to — I think my next start will be the Dodgers, looking forward to that matchup.”
His manager shared that sentiment when he was asked about the upcoming opponents and the tough stretch that leads into the All-Star Break.
“I tell you what I believe,” Martinez said, “I believe every team you play on any given day is tough. We faced some pretty good pitching. This guy today [Sandy Alcantara] was really good coming into today. We just got to focus on one game at a time and come out tomorrow and play with the same intensity we’ve been playing, and do what we do best, get good pitching, jump on teams early and hold the lead. If we can do that I think we can play with anybody.”
Trea Turner, who hit a two-run homer that was the difference in what ended up a 5-1 win over the Marlins on Sunday, after the Nationals dropped back-to-back matchups their NL East rivals, shared his manager’s opinion on not taking any opponents lightly.
“I think we got beat the last two days by Miami, and if you want to call them a last place team, then by all means,” Turner said, “... but they’re a good ballclub, they’ve got good pitching they can hit and they were a tough series for us. I think everybody is tough, everybody presents their own challenges, and we’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing and keep focusing on each day and who’s in front of us and I think if we do that, we’ll be alright.”
To paraphrase Martinez and Turner’s sentiments, with a catchy phrase, the focus in D.C. remains on going “1-0 every day.” But if you want a real take, the player you turn to for the straight dope, is Max Scherzer. So what does he see in the upcoming stretch? Scherzer sees an opportunity.
“Yeah, I mean, this is what you play for,” Scherzer said after giving up a run over six innings in the series finale in Miami on Sunday. “You want to play the best teams in the game. We have a stretch here where we’re playing a bunch of really good teams across the league, we got to take care of business. This is when you find out about yourselves, when you start facing the best, so we’re playing good baseball now, so hopefully when we see these teams, we can win a few series and keep this momentum going.”
Their manager’s favorite part of the Nationals’ recent run?
“For me it’s just the way the whole team is playing,” Martinez said on Monday. “I mean, we’re playing really good baseball. Our starting pitching, our bullpen, we’re getting clutch hitting, we’re starting to hit the ball out of the ballpark, everything, we’re playing really good baseball, so we need to continue to do that.”
After the Nationals’ 8-4 win over the Mets on Monday, which got them within 3.0 games of the NL East’s current division leaders, Martinez said momentum is building, and they were able to stay positive when struggling and now they can enjoy the run they’re on.
“Hey, you know what, one thing I can tell you about this group of guys, they’re always positive. I mean, and that’s something we talk about every day. Regardless of the outcome, I tell them every day, continue to play hard. When things weren’t going our way I always preached that hey we’ll get back to where we need to be, we’ll start winning games consistently, just continue to play hard, do the little things, and now we’re starting to win games, and it’s been a lot of fun.”
“I think the team is having a lot of fun, I know that for sure,” Kyle Schwarber said after hitting two home runs (his 14th and 15th in his last 17 games) on Monday night, when he was asked about imploring fans to stick with the team before they started rolling. “The team is having a lot of fun, like we said, winning is fun, and we want to continue to keep winning baseball games — and I feel like the message was definitely heard to our fanbase just here with the support that we’ve been getting our last homestand and especially tonight too.”
“Same words,” he said, “stay with us. Keep going there and keep supporting us, be loud, and we feed off you guys.”
Starting a big homestand with a win over the Mets was a good way to keep things going.
“It’s definitely big coming off a winning road trip there and set the tone off here with the one game against the Mets, who obviously in the division,” Schwarber said, “that’s the team that we’re trying to get to, and it’s a great tone-setter, and now focusing on the next series here with Tampa Bay rolling into town, obviously a really good team and I think that we definitely set the tone right going into this next game.”