How do Nats find ways to score runs while Soto’s out?

You can talk about the reasons the Nationals are currently 8-11 and point out that Juan Soto and Stephen Strasburg are currently on the injured list, that nobody in their rotation outside of Max Scherzer owns an ERA under 4.64 or that nine members of the opening day roster were in quarantine on opening day.

And all of those are indeed among the reasons the Nats are 8-11 as they spend this off-day on the Florida Gulf Coast in advance of a two-game interleague series versus the Blue Jays at their spring training complex in Dunedin.

But all of those reasons could easily be ignored, or at least rendered less meaningful, if the Nationals had just done the most integral act there is in the sport of baseball: score more runs.

It is the single most frustrating aspect of the season through 19 games. It has become a colossal chore for this team to advance a batter 360 feet around the bases, more so than it has been for any other team in the majors.

Sunday’s 4-0 loss to the Mets at Citi Field was the Nationals’ fifth shutout loss already in 2021, most in the majors. It was the seventh time they’ve been held to zero or one run, also most in the majors. The team hasn’t hit a home run since Tuesday.

This isn’t the way things were supposed to go this season.

Though they knew all along their chances for success hinged primarily on the ability of their star-studded rotation to stay healthy and dominate, the Nats believed from the beginning their lineup was improved from a year ago. Soto and Trea Turner remained one of the best 1-2 offensive punches in the National League, but the additions of Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, and the return of Starlin Castro from injury, would lengthen the lineup and create sustained rallies.

Throw in some expected improvements from 23-year-olds Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom, and this had the makings of a good lineup.

It hasn’t played out that way, not at all.

Bell and Schwarber, after missing the first six games while in quarantine, have looked lost at the plate. Bell is batting .119 with a .446 OPS and 15 strikeouts in 42 at-bats. Schwarber is batting .192 with a .530 OPS and 18 strikeouts in 52 at-bats.

If you’re searching for positive signs, each guy hit a ball on the screws during Sunday’s loss and was robbed of clutch hits. Bell’s 111 mph liner with two on in the top of the first was hit right at shifted Mets second baseman Jonathan Villar in shallow right field. Schwarber’s 409-foot drive to the wall in center field in the top of the sixth was hauled in by Albert Almora Jr. on a leaping catch.

“It’s part of the game, and it’s not a fun part of the game,” Schwarber said on Zoom following the latest loss. “You go through your routine and your process, and you’re leading up to everything for a good at-bat, and put your best possible swing on the baseball. But once the ball leaves your bat, it’s out of your control. The only thing you control is from your load through the contact. After that, it’s free reign. It definitely is frustrating, but it’s part of this game. And you know what? I think we’ll keep doing that. We’ll keep taking those hard-hit baseballs, and I think those will start landing here more.”

But two hard outs in one game aren’t reason enough to believe things are about to take a dramatic turn for the better for the Nationals.

Castro-RBI-Single-Gray-Sidebar.jpgIn addition to Bell and Schwarber, manager Davey Martinez also needs Castro (.637 OPS) and Robles (.611 OPS) to start producing more. He needs Turner’s bruised left forearm (suffered when he was struck by a pitch Sunday) to heal quickly. He needs Soto to be cleared to return from his shoulder strain ASAP.

And he needs all of his hitters to settle down at the plate and on the bases and not try too hard to make something happen.

The Nationals are making egregious outs on the bases, perhaps evidence of overcompensation for the offensive woes. And they’re not displaying the patience needed to earn free passes: They’ve drawn a total of 51 walks in 19 games, tied for the fewest in the majors.

“Sometimes when you’re not swinging the bat the way you’re capable of swinging, you start chasing more, ‘cause you want to swing more,” Martinez said. “And it’s vice versa for me. Swing less. Get a pitch you can handle and try to hit that pitch. I do believe these guys, as they start locking in and their timing starts getting better, they’ll start taking their walks. But our chase rate has been quite high. We’ve got to get the ball back in the zone.”

It stands to reason things will improve. Soto will be back. Bell and Schwarber will be better.

But in the meantime, the Nationals have to stop shooting themselves in the foot. They can’t keep giving away outs on the bases. They can’t keep giving away walks by swinging at pitches out of the zone. They can’t keep stranding runners in scoring position.

They don’t need an elite lineup to win games. But they need something better than one of the worst lineups in the game.

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