It might be easy to look at the recent body of work and be down on the Nationals entering the All-Star break: a four-game sweep at home at the hands of the Dodgers, a four-game series split with the Padres when winning three of four was right in their grasp, a loss in the first game against the Giants and a growing list of injuries.
But looking at the greater body of work shows that the Nationals are carrying some real momentum into next week’s pause: Over their last 30 games, they are 18-12, having received some surprise starting pitching performances, reassembled their bullpen and rejuvenated their offense.
Before this stretch, they were in last place, seven games back and nine games under .500. Now they are in a back-and-forth affair with the Phillies and Braves for second place, only 5 1/2 games back of the Mets and teetering right around the .500 mark.
Signs of another 2019-like turnaround?
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, we’re not even officially at the break yet.
But this year’s version of the Nationals does deserve praise for the work they have put together to get back into this division race and make this last series of the first half meaningful.
Then come the injuries, and, yes, there are a lot of them. None more noteworthy than Kyle Schwarber’s hamstring injury that will keep him out of the lineup for a significant amount of time. Add on Stephen Strasburg’s neck strain, Tanner Rainey’s stress reaction in his right tibia, Jordy Mercer’s strained right quad, Alex Avila’s bilateral calf strains and now Yan Gomes’ left oblique issue from last night, and you would probably think this team would rather just skip straight to the All-Star break.
So what do you do when there is positive momentum to maintain but the time off would give players some much-needed rest? There has to be a balance between the two.
“We are playing well and unfortunately part of our game is to get those days off,” manager Davey Martinez said in his pregame Zoom session with reporters on Friday. “Players do need it, they really do. We’ve been battling day in and day out. But they understand when we come back, we gotta come back and start off strong as well. So we talk a lot about these guys, even though they have a break, but do some kind of stretching, some form of exercise maybe for a day or two. I really care that they keep themselves going so that when they get back, there’s no hesitation and we jump right back in this thing. You know, we play a tough team right when we come back, we play San Diego again. So we gotta be ready.”
There’s also the balance of needing to win important games, but also needing to enter the break without any more injuries.
“The biggest thing is get through these three games with no further injuries and come out hopefully with a win today, go 1-0 today and go from there,” Martinez said Friday. “But you know, it’s a big weekend. I mentioned to the players individually how important it is to finish strong this first half before we go into the break.”
Unfortunately, neither of those things happened Friday night, as Gomes had to depart the game in the middle of the second inning and the Nationals dropped the opener 5-3.
So how does Martinez balance all of that? Does it cause him to manage these last few games any differently with the season’s intermission in sight?
“Our bullpen has been stretched out pretty good, as you know. So we definitely have to be careful,” he said. “We’ve had some guys in (Kyle) Finnegan and Huddy (Daniel Hudson) that just came off the IL, so we really want to be careful with those guys going into these last three days. But they want to win. And you know when I ask them, I gotta be smart, they’re probably gonna say they can go. But we need to be smart about it, especially with Huddy and his (two-time Tommy John surgery) history. So we’ll go from there. But we’ve got some other guys that are readily available, so hopefully (Paolo) Espino can start us off and give us five, six innings today.”
Unfortunately, Espino couldn’t provide that kind of depth last night, giving up three runs and six hits over just 3 2/3 innings. That task will now fall on Jon Lester tonight and Erick Fedde in the first-half finale tomorrow.
As for the injuries, the Nationals are hoping to be greeted with some good news on Mercer and Avila to start the second half of the season or shortly thereafter, and possibly receive some good news on Gomes later today.
“We’re hoping,” Martinez said. “With that being said, we got four days off during the break, those guys will probably do a lot of stuff to make sure they’re ready. But we’ll see how they are when they get back on Friday.”
Are there contingency plans in place to give the roster more flexibility with the rate guys are getting injured? One recent development is first baseman Josh Bell getting reps in the outfield, having played 16 games for the Pirates in right as a rookie in 2016. That would shift Josh Harrison back to his more natural position at second base, move Alcides Escobar to the bench and allow Ryan Zimmerman to enter the starting lineup at first base.
“Every day, he’s gotten better out there,” Martinez said of Bell. “I talked to Bob (Henley), I watched him a few times taking fly balls and like I said, we’re going to continue to work with him. It’s not something that we’re gonna rush into and do right away. But it does give us another option.”
As for the players, they’re following their manager’s lead and staying positive while the healthy players attempt to pick up their injured teammates.
“That’s baseball. Sometimes it goes down, it goes high,” Gerardo Parra said after a tough night in Friday’s loss. “So we’ll stay in a good spot right now and just play baseball like we would play. Not think (about) nothing that happened like today or yesterday. Just continue to play like we play. We played good. That’s baseball sometimes.”
It’s impossible to tell who is more positive thinking between Martinez and Parra. Either way, that’s why the manager loves having the veteran outfielder around to extend his “Go 1-0 today” mentality into the clubhouse with the rest of the players.
“Forget everything. Tomorrow is a new day,” Parra said. “It’s a team that plays baseball hard and happy, and that’s it. Don’t think (of) nothing in the past. We got a great opportunity and that’s it. Don’t think too much (about) what happened in the past.”
The last two games are in the past. There are two games left to end the first half on a high note. Then, with a change of fortune and some time away, the Nationals will hopefully get some reinforcements and hit the ground running to start the second half.