Injured, tired, and losing is not what Washington Nationals fans want their team to be heading into the All-Star break, but that seems to be the condition of the team we’re getting just past the midway mark of the 2021 season.
The “injury rat” that Max Schrezer called out last week seems to be the healthiest creature in the Washington clubhouse, having gnawed through the team’s rotation, bullpen, and batting order for the first two weeks in July. The players aren’t seriously injured, it seems, but all the momentum the team built in its red-hot June is now gone.
“It’s been a weird year,” shortstop Trea Turner said after Saturday’s 10-4 loss in San Francisco. “I think we started off pretty bad and we were fairly healthy for the most part, and we started to kind of climb out of that and started to play pretty good baseball, and then we got hit with a lot of injuries, so we’re having to kind of having to climb out of another hole.”
Even if the Nats do close out the first half with a win Sunday, they will be no better than tied for third place in the National League East and still closer in the standings to the last-place Miami Marlins than the first-place New York Mets.
The status of the starting pitching, which was supposed to be the team’s strength this season, is shakier than it has been at the midpoint of any year since the team’s first winning season and playoff appearance in 2012. Injuries have also devastated the bullpen to the point where only two leads have been safe in the past 10 games.
And no pitching staff will be its best when the team’s top two catchers are both injured.
So where does the Nats’ starting staff stand at the break, and how did we get here?
Scherzer is an All-Star and might even start this year’s Midsummer Classic in Denver. At 7-4 with a 2.66 ERA and 139 strikeouts, he deserves the honor and all the accolades that come with it. But what Nats fans are really hoping is that Scherzer pitches well in the All-Star game and comes back ready to pick up his game for the second half of the season.
Scherzer’s fourth-inning meltdown Friday in San Diego gave him as many earned runs so far in July as he had during the entire month of May, when he was 3-2 with a 1.83 ERA. He will need to progress from this point because what comes after him in the rotation is unclear.
Who will follow Scherzer? Good question.
With Joe Ross joining Stephen Strasburg on the Injured List, that leaves Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester, and Erick Fedde healthy and available.
The Nats’ ace says any of his teammates could make the difference in the second half.
“They’ve stepped up and had some really, really big games for us, and it’s really great to see those guys, really pitching well. And that’s even the reason we can even talk about still being in this race,” Scherzer said before Saturday’s game.
Corbin’s six wins are second to Scherzer’s seven, so we’ll pencil him in there. It might also be prudent to point out that his seven earned runs in July are second to Scherzer’s eight. He has also easily given up the most earned runs in the Nats’ rotation at 56 and the most homers with 18.
If Fedde is healthy, he has to come next, whether we’re balancing the opposing batting order or just judging on quality starts this season. Unfortunately, all of three of Fedde’s quality starts came before his second visit to the IL this season. In his first start back, he was rocked for six earned runs on eight hits through 3 1⁄3 innings.
A good start on Sunday will give him and the team confidence moving forward.
The only currently healthy starting pitcher after Fedde is lefty Jon Lester, who is not-so-quietly having the worst season of his big league career.
At 2-4 with a 5.54 ERA in 14 starts, watching Lester pitch is like death by a thousand paper cuts. Lester got weak contact on Saturday against the Giants, but it was so weak he gave up up infield singles on balls where the infield was positioned normally.
‘It doesn’t really matter how hard they hit it, it’s still a hit, still runs, kind of same song and dance as the last couple here. Maybe a little reset button and get ready for the second half,” said Lester after giving up eight runs, five unearned, on nine hits in just 2 2⁄3 innings.
Lester is also the latest in a line of Nats lefties going back to Gio Gonzales who’ve had difficulty pitching out of trouble caused by errors. Would you feel any better about the 47 runs he’s surrendered this season if you knew eight of them were unearned?
“The frustrating part is, I’m okay with the hits and the runs and that sort of thing, but just consistently 2-and-something, 3-and-something innings is just, like I’ve said before, putting the team in a bad position,” said Lester.
“He’s a veteran guy and I believe in him, we all believe in him,” said manager Davey Martinez after Saturday’s outing. “When he comes back, we need him. We said it all along, we need him to go out there and give us five or six innings every outing.”
Ross is recovering from tightness in his right forearm, an injury Martinez hopes will heal with the extra rest before the break.
“He said his forearm felt funny and he did have some inflammation,” Martinez said before Saturday’s game.
Strasburg could be the key to improving on the rotation in the second half. On the IL with nerve irritation in his neck since June 2, he threw a simulated game on Friday after a bullpen session earlier week. His recovery will be key.
“He’s going to go through his routine today and tomorrow and then we’ll come up with another plan for him,” said Martinez.
No matter who’s on the mound for the Nats, they'll be throwing to a couple of rookies, Tres Barrera and Jackson Reetz, until regulars Yan Gomes and Alex Avila are back from the IL.
Gomes strained his left oblique Friday night.
‘You don’t know how long it’s going to take,” said Martinez. ‘But we have the All-Star break, he’ll rest, and then we’ll start rehabbing him when he gets back.”
Avila has been on the IL since July 4 with bilateral calf strains.
“He’s just progressing, his calfs are feeling a lot better,” said Martinez. “He’s catching some bullpens, so hopefully we’ll get him back shortly after the All-Star break.”
Turner says the the team will use the break to its advantage.
“I think the break will be good for us physically and mentally,” he explained, “and hopefully we can get a win tomorrow and kind of take a break on a good note, and then come back refreshed and hopefully some guys back and kind of get back to what we were doing 2-3 weeks ago, and that was playing good baseball.”