Slumping Bell shows signs of return to form

He may not have known the precise time elapsed since his last extra-base hit, but Josh Bell knew it had been too long.

“I mean, I didn’t get a hit for a while, so I think I had to start there,” the Nationals slugger said with a laugh. “Finally getting back into that extra-base hit column definitely helps. Hopefully there’s more to come.”

After a six-week stretch to open the season that was as productive as that of any hitter in baseball, Bell suddenly fell into a slump over the last week. He went hitless in 24 at-bats from May 16-23, seeing his batting average plummet from .333 to .291. And he went without an extra-base hit for 19 days, his last one coming May 7 when he homered in Anaheim.

So imagine Bell’s relief Thursday when he delivered a long-awaited big hit right away in the bottom of the first of what became a 7-3 win over the Rockies. His RBI double off the wall in deep left-center snapped that ignominious powerless streak and contributed to his team’s fortunes as well.

And he wasn’t done there. Though Bell wouldn’t record another hit in the game, he did drive another ball to left field that was caught and later drove in a run with a sacrifice fly to center. All told, he ended three of his four at-bats with balls that left his bat at 104 mph.

“He hit some balls hard left-handed, and he had a really good at-bat right-handed to drive in a run,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We talked a lot about just trying to stay in the middle of the field when you’ve got a guy on third base, and try to get the ball in the air. And he did really well with that.”

During that brief slump, Nationals coaches noticed a gradual change in Bell’s swing. He was beginning to get too far out in front of pitches, hitting them off his front foot instead of staying back and driving them off his back leg.

During an early batting practice session Thursday afternoon, Bell worked on staying back and liked the results. Then he applied them to the game itself, making the work all the more satisfying.

“I feel like if I can drive the ball down, stay on my legs on the balls away, good things are going to happen,” he said. “I had a couple at-bats today where I was able to keep the ball off the ground. If I can make the outfield catch my balls, we’re going to be in a good place as a team. That’s what I’m going to continue to try to do.”

Bell had been perhaps the Nationals’ only consistently productive hitter through the season’s first 36 games. As of May 16, he was batting a robust .333 with a .423 on-base percentage, .481 slugging percentage and 11 extra-base hits.

Then came the slump, during which his OPS dropped from .916 to .794.

“Everything can go right in this game, and then everything can go wrong very suddenly,” he said. “It’s just one of those things where you have to continue to show up every day. I’m thankful I was able to have early work coming back home this series and try to iron some things out.”

It’s only one game, so the Nationals aren’t going to rush to any conclusions and declare Bell back for good. But Thursday night’s performance was as encouraging a game as he’s had in a while, and perhaps a sign he’s about to break out again.

“I like the fact he was not chasing,” Martinez said. “But also, too, we need him to hit. We need him to drive the ball.”

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