Surging Bell powers Nats to late-night win in San Diego (updated)

Ask anyone who has watched him - shoot, ask Josh Bell himself - to evaluate his performance through the season’s first half, and the answer almost certainly will be negative. And a quick glance at Bell’s season totals - .247 batting average, 12 homers, 39 RBIs, .775 OPS - would give reason to believe that.

Let’s not forget, though, just how big a hole Bell dug for himself six weeks in. On the morning of May 13, the Nationals first baseman owned a horrific .133/.198/.289 slash line that suggested he was a bust of an offseason acquisition from the Pirates.

Now consider what Bell has done since to dig himself out of that hole. With a three-hit night Monday that included an RBI single and the go-ahead homer that gave the Nats the lead for good during a 7-5 victory over the Padres, he distanced himself further from that disappointing start and reiterated his importance to this lineup.

Bell-Swings-Blue-Sidebar.jpgBell’s latest big night at the plate, capped off by his seventh-inning homer off lefty reliever Tim Hill to break a tie game, leaves him with the following slash line since that turning-point date of May 13: .314/.381/.564. Those numbers all rank among the league leaders during this prolonged stretch.

“I still have a lot of ground to make up after that first month,” Bell said in his postgame Zoom session from San Diego. “I still think if I can get hot for three or four weeks, then I can look up at the scoreboard and feel like I’ve accomplished something. But I still don’t think I’m near that now. But at the end of the day, as long as we’re still winning games, we’re going to be happy.”

With Kyle Schwarber out for the foreseeable future with a significant hamstring strain and Juan Soto continuing to struggle to hit for power, the Nationals desperately need Bell to keep doing this.

They also need Trea Turner to keep producing as he has for weeks now, just as he did tonight in his return from a four-day layoff while letting a jammed left middle finger heal. Turner reached base three times in this game and homered in the top of the first, showing no ill effects of the injury.

“That was awesome,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We talked to him before the game, watched him swing. He said he felt pretty good, and he came through for us tonight.”

And in order to win more games like this after a disheartening four-game weekend sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, the Nationals will need more performances like this from their reconfigured bullpen, which got one perfect inning apiece from Wander Suero, Sam Clay, Austin Voth and Brad Hand to seal the victory.

“The bullpen did a great job,” Martinez said. “They kept us in the ballgame, and they all chipped in. It was a great win.”

The evening began swimmingly, about as well as the Nationals could’ve hoped it would go against one of the Padres’ best pitchers, Joe Musgrove. Turner returned to the lineup with a bang, launching the first pitch he saw in the top of the first into the second deck for his 15th homer of the season and his fifth consecutive hit (with four days off in the middle of it all).

Turner would make it 6 for his last 6 with a single in the top of the second, an inning that saw the Nats send nine batters to the plate, four them coming around to score.

“I didn’t do very much the last four days,” Turner said. “I basically tried resting as much as possible and tried not to beat on it. ... I just felt like I was in a really good spot beforehand and felt consistent. Just tried to keep doing what I was doing four days ago.”

The second-inning rally included an RBI single by starting pitcher Jon Lester (who struck out twice as a pinch-hitter over the weekend), a perfectly executed safety squeeze by newcomer Alcides Escobar (now 7-for-12 since joining the club), a sacrifice fly by Soto and an RBI single by Bell to continue his prolonged resurgence at the plate.

Up 5-0 on an opposing starter who hadn’t allowed more than five earned runs in any outing this season, the Nationals had every reason to feel good about themselves. But handed that seemingly comfortable lead, Lester gave it right back (with some assistance from his third baseman).

Though he made it through the first two innings without allowing a run, Lester already found himself teetering on the brink of disaster. He loaded the bases in the bottom of the first via a two-out single and a pair of walks and threw a whopping 28 pitches to the first four batters he faced.

It finally caught up with Lester in the third, when the Padres batted around and scored three runs, thanks in large part to a two-out error by Starlin Castro that allowed the inning to continue. Lester should’ve been back in the dugout, but he didn’t do anything to pick up his teammate after the fact, issuing another walk, hitting Trent Grisham with a 3-2 cutter with the bases loaded, then allowing a two-run double to Ha-Seong Kim.

“I just keep putting myself in bad situations, bad counts,” he said. “I don’t have the stuff like I used to pitch around those situations. You have to pick and choose your spots to try to fight back into some counts. I felt like I fell behind some of their big guys and then didn’t want to give in. Then had some bases open, which puts you into bigger situations. When you do execute a pitch, you’ve maybe thrown enough pitches where it doesn’t matter.”

When Lester served up a laser of a home run to Fernando Tatis Jr. and a double to Jake Cronenworth with one out in the fourth, his night came to an abrupt end, the Nationals’ lead about to disappear altogether into the marine layer.

It was merely the latest in a series of disappointing (and usually brief) outings by Lester, who over his last four starts has seen his ERA skyrocket to 5.34 while needing a hefty 20.6 pitches to complete each inning.

Fortunately for the Nationals, it was an afterthought at night’s end, thanks to Bell at the plate and a bunch of relievers on the mound.

“They picked me up again, huge,” Lester said. “With a five-run lead early, it shouldn’t have been that way. But it is what it is, and guys picked me up. Bullpen came in and shut them down, which is huge. J.B. with a big night. That was big on the offensive side for our guys, big for the bullpen. I just wish I could’ve contributed a little bit more.”

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