The Nationals’ first month of the season has been mediocre, but they are lucky none of the other three teams expected be National League East contenders are playing well either.
The Mets and Braves can score, but each has pitching issues, the Mets in the rotation and the Braves in the bullpen. And the Nationals’ bullpen struggles are documented well, although Erick Fedde and the relievers pitched well in a much-needed victory Sunday against San Diego.
The Phillies rotation is coming together. Their bullpen is another question. Starter Zach Eflin is coming off a complete game.
Jerad Eickhoff, who had a 3.65 ERA in 2016, has battled back from injuries and has had two consecutive strong starts. Vince Velasquez, inconsistent in the past, has made four starts and has a 1.99 ERA.
The Nationals need to get it together this week, given their schedule. They play the Cardinals at home and then go on the road to Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Los Angeles - all teams with playoff possibilities.
Here are answers to the most-often asked questions about the Nationals’ competition in the NL East:
Question: What’s the key for Phillies starter Aaron Nola to get back on track?
Answer: First-pitch strikes. Last year, when Nola finished third in the NL Cy Young voting, he was throwing first-pitch strikes 69 percent of the time. This year, he’s having trouble throwing first-pitch strikes half the time. Nola was more consistent with first-pitch strikes in his last start. He went into the seventh inning and lowered his ERA to 5.68.
Q: How has Bryce Harper’s first month with the Phillies been?
A: Harper’s batting average is at .250 - that’s nothing to write home about - but he has six home runs and .400 on-base percentage, a more telling statistic. He leads the NL with 23 walks and his 36 strikeouts in 28 games are second-most in the NL, one behind Wil Myers of San Diego.
Q: How about the Mets’ rookie first baseman, Pete Alonso?
A: Alonso, 24, almost didn’t make the team out of spring training, but now, he’s making history with his bat and his electrifying moonshot home runs. He was the first player in history to have 11 extra-base hits in his first 10 games. His trademark home run went to center field against Atlanta, traveling 454 feet at a speed of 118.3 mph. Alonso was a second-round draft pick in 2016 by the Mets. He hit 36 home runs combined in Double-A and Triple-A last season. He came into the week hitting .306 with nine home runs and 24 RBIs with a 1,082 OPS. Defensively, he’s got work to do. He usually comes out of the game in late innings for a defensive replacement.
Q: The Mets’ Jacob deGrom has had a barking elbow and a 4.85 ERA. Noah Syndergaard is also out of sync. What’s going on with Syndergaard?
A: Syndergaard has a 6.35 ERA after three consecutive lousy starts. He tells reporters that he has no feel for the baseball, that it feels like an “ice cube.” He also said that his secondary pitches aren’t good and he doesn’t trust his curve or slider.
Q: Mike Foltynewicz has returned to the Braves rotation, but what about that bullpen?
A: They had chances - and the money - to get big-name relievers, but decided against it over the winter. Now, they four relievers (Jesse Biddle, Darren O’Day, Jonny Venters and Arodys Vizcaíno) on the injured list. Vizcaíno and A.J. Minter were supposed to share the closer’s role. Minter, consistent last season, has a 9.35 ERA this season. Luke Jackson is their most consistent reliever. He didn’t pitch well on opening day, but since then, going into this week, he’s had 13 consecutive scoreless innings.
Q: The Braves signed third baseman Josh Donaldson for one year and $23 million. How’s that working?
A: Donaldson had a big eighth-inning home run in a 6-5 win against the Rockies on Sunday. He’s hit five on the season and has extra-base hits in 11 of last 18 games. Ronald Acuña Jr. leads Atlanta with six home runs, followed Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Donaldson with five each. Even with a lot of home runs, the Braves went into Sunday not hitting with runners in scoring position. They were 6-for-50.
Q: How’s that Mike King trade working for the Marlins?
A: Mike King? Yes, the Mike King that no one has ever heard of. The Marlins have traded big-name stars such as Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, J.T. Realmuto and Giancarlo Stanton, but the pitcher they got in a non-headline grabbing trade of King in November 2017 is working out. They got a lefty starter named Caleb Smith, who has an average fastball, but mixes it well with a slider and changeup. He joined the Miami rotation last year and since then, he’s had 143 strikeouts in 123 innings. And to think there were those who thought the Marlins should hang on to King.