Hernandez earning more time; bullpen changes coming

It’s been noted more than once over the last week that only two members of the Nationals lineup have consistently been producing: Juan Soto and Josh Bell. It’s probably time to add a third name to that list: Yadiel Hernandez.

Hernandez hasn’t played as much as the other regular members of the lineup, but the 34-year-old outfielder is earning more playing time because of his bat. After homering, singling and driving in all three of the Nats runs during Sunday’s loss to the Giants, he now sports a .333 batting average, .a 485 slugging percentage and an .846 OPS that actually outpaces Soto’s .841 mark at the moment.

“He can hit,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I’ve always said that. He’s got a good swing.”

Hernandez’s two-run homer was an opposite-field blast that landed in the visitors’ bullpen at Nationals Park, the kind of swing that has always intrigued club officials about him since they signed him in 2016 after he fled Cuba.

He hasn’t shown that power stroke a ton, but he has totaled 11 homers in 353 major league plate appearances since debuting late in the 2020 season.

With Lane Thomas and Victor Robles both struggling to produce to begin this season, Hernandez has started finding his name in Martinez’s lineup on a more regular basis. And the more Hernandez plays, the more he believes he delivers.

“I feel like the more at-bats you get, obviously it’s easier to make the adjustments out there,” he said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “The less you play and the less you see pitching, it’s a little harder to make those adjustments.”

In the long run, the Nationals don’t seem to have any serious plans about making Hernandez an everyday player. But if he keeps producing while others aren’t, it’s going to be difficult to leave him on the bench.

“I know my role on this team,” Hernandez said. “I know I’m not going to play that often, so when I do I have to be ready. I do everything possible to prepare and be ready so that I can help the team the day I am asked to play. That’s all I can do: Be prepared for when I’m called upon.”

* If you’ve been paying attention, you know the Nationals have leaned heavily on their bullpen through the season’s first 18 games. Would you be surprised to learn they’ve leaned heavier on their relief corps than any other team in the majors to date?

The Nats’ 78 relief appearances leads the sport by a longshot, with the Rangers next on the list at 67 (entering Monday). It of course has to be noted the Nationals have played more games than anyone else, and that contributes to their standing. Even so, an average of 4.3 relievers used per game probably isn’t sustainable over the long haul.

“They’ve been pitching a lot, but we’ve also been taking care of them,” Davey Martinez said. “There’s been a lot of guys who haven’t really gone back-to-back days. There’s been a lot of guys who have only been out there for two outs and not come back out. But they’ve got to pitch. We’ve got to use them.”

That’s because Nationals starters are only averaging 4.38 innings per game. They’ve tried to compensate for it by carrying an unusually large 11-man bullpen. But that’s not going to be an option for them much longer.

“Because all of a sudden, here comes May,” Martinez said. “After May 1, we’re going to shorten up the bullpen.”

Indeed, on Sunday all clubs are required to reduce their active rosters from 28 to 26. The Nats will have no choice but to drop at least two relievers, possibly three if they feel they need to carry four bench players instead of three.

The makeup of that pared-down bullpen has yet to be determined, but it’ll be interesting to see if they make a concerted effort to carry multiple long relievers in an attempt to cover all the extra work that could be coming their way.

So far, the Nationals have had only six relief appearances of two or more innings. Three of those belong to Paolo Espino, who along with recently added righty Erasmo Ramírez are the only relievers to log three or more innings in one appearance.

Josh Rogers was moved to the bullpen over the weekend after struggling in his two previous starts, and with Aaron Sanchez expected to remain in the rotation for now, Rogers might prove important as another long reliever alongside Espino and possibly Ramírez.

* MASN announced this morning that Nationals broadcasters will begin traveling to road games for the first time this season. Bob Carpenter and Kevin Frandsen had called the team’s first two road series in Atlanta and Pittsburgh from Nationals Park. They will be on-site in San Francisco for this weekend’s series against the Giants, then in Colorado for a three-game series against the Rockies before Dan Kolko fills in for Carpenter on play-by-play duties during the May 6-8 series against the Angels in Anaheim.

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