Highs and lows from the Nationals' long trip west

The Nationals’ just-completed West Coast trip simultaneously featured some of their best performances of the season and some of their worst.

There were back-to-back deep starts in Colorado by Erick Fedde and Patrick Corbin, the latter authoring the team’s first complete game of the year. There were offensive explosions in San Francisco, Colorado and Anaheim, with the team scoring seven or more runs in five of the nine games played. And there was at times dominant relief work from several members of a suddenly thinner bullpen.

On the flip side, there was a continued lack of power from a lineup that has totaled only 20 homers in 30 games this season. There were periods of atrocious defense. And, of course, there was Tanner Rainey’s blown save in the bottom of the ninth Sunday in Anaheim.

The end result of all that: a 4-5 trip that represented clear progress from where this team resided just before it, yet still felt short of what truly was possible.

“It would be a great road trip,” Davey Martinez said prior to Sunday’s finale against the Angels. “We’re playing a lot better than we have in the beginning. And we have an opportunity to win another series today.”

The manager’s tone was less optimistic by day’s end after Rainey gave up a game-tying, two-out double to Shohei Ohtani and then the game-winning single to Anthony Rendon moments later. But even that one dubious conclusion to the final game of the trip couldn’t completely wipe out the positives that came before it.

Start with the Nationals rotation, which entered the trip a certifiable mess. At the end of the last homestand, Nats starters owned a collective 6.33 ERA and 1.64 WHIP while averaging only 4.54 innings per outing. Over their last nine games, though, that same group posted a 4.17 ERA and 1.31 WHIP while averaging a much more respectable 5.52 innings per outing.

The domino effect of all that: Less had to be asked of a bullpen that had been overworked through most of April. Any fears about burning guys out once the relief corps had to be trimmed from 11 to nine pitchers following the May 2 league-wide reduction of active rosters from 28 to 26 proved unnecessary.

How dramatic was the difference? By the end of the trip, Martinez desperately needed to find situations for some of his lesser-used relievers to get work. There was no concern about anybody being overworked.

“It’s been huge,” Martinez said. “We started the season out with a couple extra pitchers, and we had to lose those. Now all of a sudden our (starters) are starting to go a little deeper in games, which gives our bullpen a break. These guys come in, they’re fresh and they’re doing a great job.”

The bullpen’s overall numbers during the trip (5.67 ERA, 1.63 WHIP) don’t look great, but within that were some standout individual performances from the likes of Kyle Finnegan, Austin Voth and Erasmo Ramírez, the latter two of which are now making a case to pitch in high-leverage situations.

The Nationals lineup, meanwhile, certainly scored a lot more runs out west than it had back home. After averaging a scant 3.2 runs on seven hits through the season’s first 21 games, that group averaged 6.4 runs on 12 hits during the nine-game trip. The Nats batted a collective .328 and reached base at a healthy .381 clip.

So what was the problem? A lack of power and a tendency to hit way too many balls on the ground. The Nationals slugged .477 during the trip, which on the surface is good but looks less impressive when you consider much of that was a product of singles, not extra-base hits. (The team averaged two doubles and one homer per game.)

And with so many ground balls, there were a whole lot of double plays grounded into, 15 in total during those nine games.

That prevented the Nats from producing as many big innings as they were poised to produce, especially on Sunday when they had multiple opportunities to expand their 4-2 lead and provide Rainey with far more cushion in the ninth.

“The couple times we got guys on third base with less than two outs, we’ve got to move the baseball there and get those guys in,” Martinez said. “We score those two runs, and it’s a different ninth inning. We’ve just got to focus on moving the baseball in those situations and drive the guys in.”

So this was far from a perfect trip for the team. But it was undoubtedly more encouraging than the 2-8 homestand that preceded it, leaving everyone feeling much better about themselves than they were a couple weeks ago.

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