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Nats-killers series #3: Glove-first Kevin Pillar finds his power stroke against the Washington Nationals

As our series on Nats-killers continues, we look at Kevin Pillar, a plus-defender who has killed them with the bat...

New York Mets v Washington Nationals Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

We’re back for another installment of our Nats-killers series as we reach the halfway point, looking at the players who manage to up their game against the Washington Nationals.

If you want to catch up on the series so far, including the introduction and the first two players in our list, you can find the links below.

The introduction to the series will give you the criteria we’re looking for in the Nats-killers and some of the near-misses who won’t be on the list.

Let’s continue our countdown with #3 on our list of Nats-killers: Kevin Pillar.

In this series, we’re going to take a look at their numbers against the Nationals and then revisit their “signature” moment against the team where they truly changed the game.

The Numbers

When most people first think of Kevin Pillar, their minds will often go to his Gold Glove-worthy defense in center field, even if he hasn’t won a Gold Glove to this point in his career.

Offensively, it’s generally been a different story for Pillar. To this point in his career, he has an underwhelming .260/.297/.409 slash line and 88 wRC+.

When you have plus-defense like Pillar though, you can live with the slightly below-average offense.

As should be obvious by his presence at #3 on this list, he steps up against the Nats.

In 25 games against the Nationals, Pillar has slashed a sensational .360/.402/.733 with eight home runs, 20 runs scored, and 20 RBIs, giving him a wRC+ 202 in 92 plate appearances.

On the face of it, Pillar’s success looks completely unsustainable. His walk rate against the Nats is in line with his career rate, but he actually strikes out more against Washington, at a 22.8% clip, compared to a career 16.6% rate, giving him an exceptionally inflated .404 BABIP.

However, even with a larger sample size last year, Pillar kept that BABIP up and still hit well.

Playing for the New York Mets in 2021, Pillar shared a division with the Nationals for the first time and took full advantage of the chance to face them more, slashing .364/.432/.879 with a 243 wRC+ and five of his eight career home runs against Washington coming in 2021.

No matter whether he’s been in the opposite league or been in the same division, Pillar has always found a way to rack up the hits against the Nationals in his career.

Signature Moment

Pillar’s performance against the Nationals has been relatively consistent in his career, from last season with the Mets to even his first games against them with the Toronto Blue Jays.

In fact, he made a huge mark in his first career game against the Nationals back in 2015.

Toronto Blue Jays v Washington Nationals - Game Two Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

At the start of June, the Nationals began a two-game set with the Blue Jays at Nationals Park. The hosts were tied atop the National League East and the visitors were off to a disappointing start to a season they had high hopes for with a record of just 23-29.

With their new ace, Max Scherzer, on the mound for the series opener, the Nationals were filled with confidence facing a Toronto team that was still trying to find its feet.

At least, they were filled with confidence until Pillar launched a solo home run in the top of the second inning to give the Blue Jays an early 1-0 lead — Scherzer giving up solo home runs, yep, that checks out, even in just his first season with the team...

But that’s not the signature moment in this game for Pillar, that came a bit later on.

The Nats managed to rebound in the middle innings, entering the top of the sixth with a 3-1 lead and Scherzer settling into a groove, striking out five and walking just one in the five innings.

After two quick outs to start the frame, Toronto started a two-out rally with a double by Danny Valencia and a seven-pitch walk for Justin Smoak that brought Pillar up as the go-ahead run.

At this point, it should be obvious what happened. In a 1-1 count, Pillar crushed a hanging breaking ball over the same left-field fence that his first home run of the night soared over and turned a two-run deficit into a one-run lead for the Blue Jays.

It was a decisive blow for the Blue Jays, as it gave them a lead they wouldn’t lose, shutting down the Nats the rest of the way in a 7-3 win. You can find a clip of the home run on YouTube as part of the full game.

One bright side of the homer was that maybe it helped make Scherzer mad, because just two starts later, he dominated the Milwaukee Brewers in a one-hit shutout. Then the start after that, he threw a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates — thanks again, José Tábata — to help Scherzer cap off one of the most dominant pairs of starts for a pitcher in MLB history.

For Pillar though, it was just the first game against an opponent who he must now look forward to seeing on the schedule...

Next up...

While the three players we’ve covered so far have all been generally average hitters in their career to this point, #2 in this list is by far and away the best hitter of anyone on this list.

If you need an extra clue, he’s actually been a recent teammate of Kevin Pillar...