Sooner or later, the Nationals will have to start stringing together wins to make up for the hole they dug themselves over the first month of the season. There’s time. But they’re 5 1/2 games behind the New York Mets for first place in the NL East, and capitalizing on this stretch at home as the calendar flips to May would be a good start.
The Nationals escaped a sweep against the Diamondbacks, but it wasn’t because they were scoring in bunches again. They tallied just three runs despite Diamondbacks starter Robbie Ray leaving the game with an oblique injury with one out in the second inning. Washington managed 10 runs in the three-game series and has scored fewer than six runs in nine of its past 10 games. That exception was, of course, Wednesday’s 15-run outburst in San Francisco. Both of the Nationals’ losses to Arizona were by one run, dropping the their record to 1-8 in one-run affairs.
The impact is palpable. Little scoring means more pressure on the pitching staff. Close games mean the better relievers are used more frequently, which can lead to overuse, which has already hurt Washington. The overuse leads to situations like Sunday, when Manager Dave Martinez decided to let Gio Gonzalez start the seventh inning at 97 pitches — and then let him work his way out of a jam on his 114th pitch.
Such is life for the Nationals, who are without three all-star-caliber players and lack a solid bench piece who could step in when injuries hit. The Nationals should get a boost whenever Anthony Rendon comes back from his toe injury. The third baseman has intensified his workouts the past couple of days and should return to the Nationals before Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy do. But Rendon probably will need to go on a rehab assignment, which would delay his return.
Conventional wisdom assumed the Pirates’ offense would regress this season after Andrew McCutchen, the face of the franchise, was traded to the Giants. It might. It’s still early. But a month into the season, Pittsburgh is scoring at a significantly higher rate than it did last year. Entering Sunday, the Pirates ranked seventh in baseball, averaging five runs per game. In 2017, they ranked 28th with 4.12 runs.
Francisco Cervelli, Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco have headed the charge. While Dickerson, Marte and Polanco have track records of high production levels, the 32-year-old Cervelli’s start is an outlier. Never has the injury-plagued catcher posted an OPS higher than .771 over a full season. He has eclipsed .700 when playing at least 81 games just one other time in 11 years. But Cervelli had a .967 OPS with four home runs in 22 games this season entering Sunday. His career high for home runs is seven.
Dickerson was surprisingly designated for assignment by the Tampa Bay Rays in February after an all-star 2017 season. After hitting 27 homers with a .282 batting average and an .815 OPS last year, the 29-year-old outfielder was batting .323 with a .862 OPS in 24 games entering Sunday.
The Pirates designated Enny Romero for assignment Sunday, a day before the former Nationals left-hander was to make his return to Washington. Or, that was the initial news Sunday. But later in the day, reports surfaced that Romero and his agent notified the Pirates that he had a shoulder injury before they executed the designation. So Romero was put on the disabled list instead.
Pittsburgh claimed Romero off waivers earlier this month after the Nationals designated him for assignment April 7. Washington let him go after he allowed three runs in two innings. The Pirates used him a little more: Romero surrendered five runs (two earned) in four innings before this DL stint.
Pittsburgh was seemingly taking a chance on the 27-year-old Romero for the very reason Romero was on the Nationals’ Opening Day roster: He oozes potential. There aren’t many left-handed pitchers who can throw 100 mph. Romero can, and he can be dominant when he harnesses that stuff. Stretches last season, when he pitched to a 3.56 ERA in 53 games for Washington, serve as evidence. But he harnesses it irregularly. He’s usually erratic and has walked 4.6 batters per nine innings as a major leaguer. As a result, when the Nationals decided to trim their eight-man bullpen to add a bench piece, Romero, who didn’t have an option remaining, was the odd man out. It seemed like he was in that spot again Sunday, but he’s still a Pirate.
But Romero, of course, wasn’t the only hard-throwing former Nationals left-hander in the Pirates bullpen. The reliever formerly known as Felipe Rivero, who now goes by Felipe Vazquez, is still a Pirate after signing a four-year, $22 million deal over the winter. The Nationals traded Vazquez — back when he was still going by Rivero — for Mark Melancon in July 2016. He then emerged as one of baseball’s premier relievers last season, posting a 1.67 ERA in 73 games as he was elevated to closer. He had a 3.97 ERA in 12 appearances entering Sunday. He’ll be ready and available to pitch against his former team.
Monday: RHP Jameson Taillon vs. RHP Tanner Roark
Tuesday: RHP Chad Kuhl vs. RHP Max Scherzer
Wednesday: RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Stephen Strasburg
Thursday: RHP Trevor Williams vs. RHP Jeremy Hellickson