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Washington Nationals’ Josh Bell battles back from early struggles for big season in D.C.

Josh Bell missed time early on the COVID IL and struggled in the first month-plus, but since then...

Washington Nationals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Josh Bell’s struggles early this season, following the trade from Pittsburgh’s Pirates this past winter, have been well-documented, as has Bell’s resurgence after the first six weeks of the 2021 campaign.

After a strong showing in Spring Training, then a stint on the COVID-IL when he was part of a pre-Opening Day outbreak with his new club, Bell had a tough .156/.219/.333 line through May 15th, but between May 17th and September 24th, the 28-year-old infielder turned it all around, with a .283/.370/.520 line, 18 doubles, 23 home runs, 53 walks, and 64 Ks in a total of 110 games and 430 plate appearances, after he’d hit five doubles and four home runs in 26 games and 105 plate appearances, with seven walks and 30 Ks in the first six weeks this season.

“I said this before,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters last week.

“From where he started to where he is now, it’s been unbelievable. I mean, for me, he’s been one of the best consistent players in the league, and his numbers show that right now.

“His OPS is over .800, which is amazing from where he started.”

Going into Saturday night’s game, Bell had a .309/.438/.564 line, seven doubles, seven HRs, 26 walks, 15 Ks, and 14 runs scored in his the previous 30 games.

Washington Nationals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The difference for Bell between stretches where he struggles, and ones where he’s on time and producing at the plate?

“Staying behind balls,” Bell said in a late August Zoom call with reporters. “I’m not jumping forward, making early contact. So just being able to get balls in the air to center field, and left-center, that’s definitely a good sign.”

Bell had a tough 15-game stretch in August over which he hit .188, but he came out of that too, and started to get going again later in the month.

“I think I was just jumping forward just a little bit, trying to make too much happen,” Bell said of the rough patch at the plate.

“Just trying to get back to feeling comfortable with if I’m going to foul a ball off deep, that’s okay, live to see another pitch.

“But if I jump out there and make bad contact out in front, that’s just an out every time.”

“I think, for me honestly, it’s just him getting ready on time and seeing the ball a little earlier than he was, as opposed to earlier in the season,” Martinez said before the third of four with the Cincinnati Reds in Great American Ball Park this weekend.

“And he’s worked on it diligently, not jumping, staying behind the baseball, he’s hitting the ball a lot better, and he’s actually swinging at more strikes.”

Getting ready early/on time, and seeing the ball a little earlier, the fourth-year skipper said, is something Bell and hitting coach Kevin Long worked on when he did struggle early this season.

“He’s gotten better at it, and he’s continued to get better at it,” Martinez said.

Washington Nationals v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

“He’s another guy, when he gets the ball in the zone, he hits the ball really, really hard, as we all know, so and that was the key focus. Him and Juan [Soto], and a lot of the other guys, you know, we preached a lot on just putting the ball in play and trying to cut down on strikeouts, and he took it to heart, and he gets up there, especially with two strikes, he’s battling to get a ball in the zone, he’s fouling off good pitches, when he does get that ball in the zone, he’s hitting it hard.”

The work Bell and Long have put in has helped the slugger turn his season around, and the Nats’ skipper said when looking at the slow start he had, you can’t discount the real COVID issues Bell dealt with early when discussing how he struggled out of the gate.

“Let me just go back a little bit: Part of the struggles that these guys had was the fact that they were sick, they had COVID,” he explained. “It took them a long time. It took them a long time to get ready. It took them a long time to get back — regardless of what anybody says, it took a toll on their bodies, so once they felt better, and they started getting back on their feet, you started seeing a big difference in their swings and their approach and their energy, and I think that had a lot to do with it, and then all of a sudden now they got more work in with Kevin, and they started honing in on what they needed to do to get better.

The key for Bell, the manager reiterated, was, “just getting himself ready and giving himself a chance to hit every pitch hard, and he’s worked with Kevin on that, and you can see the results.”