SAN DIEGO — The light of the postgame camera shined carefully on Trea Turner as Anthony Rendon, a locker over, was changing after Monday night’s 8-5 win over the San Diego Padres. Someone asked Turner a tongue-in-cheek question. Is he happy that the Nationals’ sudden star Matt Adams, who homered twice in the win, is on his team these days?
“Sort of,” said Turner through a straight face as Rendon leaned in and suggested he should answer the question instead.
“Tony has a new favorite player. I’m out, so I’m a little upset about that,” said Turner, revealing that Rendon — whose declaration of Turner as his favorite player spawned tweets, T-shirts, and more — now favored Adams instead.
“I’ve been informed,” said Turner, who also homered. “I guess I got kicked to the curb that quick.”
Rendon denied the allegation, though if he has chosen Adams instead, no one could blame him. It was Adams whose five RBI lifted the Nationals to their eighth win in nine games. It is Adams who now leads Nationals regulars in batting average, and whose seven-homers-in-seven-games surge coincided with Washington’s climb back up the National League Standings.
And it is Adams’s production that has filled the void left at times by injuries to Rendon, Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Zimmerman this season, helping the Nationals find themselves two games over .500 after all that, tied for the National League East lead in wins in early May after sputtering through April.
“For me to be able to contribute the way that I’m doing, it means a lot,” Adams said. “I also think it means a lot the way the team has bounced back from a little rocky start. We knew all along that this was what this team is capable of doing.”
A week and a half ago, the Nationals were reeling, as far below .500 as they had been in years, with a lineup so injured it could hardly score. Since the start of that six-game winning streak that is now an eight-wins-in-nine-tries stretch, Adams is 11 for 29 (.379) with seven home runs and 13 RBI.
Adams nearly wasn’t a National at all. They originally offered a deal to Adam Lind, who didn’t take it, hoping to find a starting job instead. When Lind declined, they pivoted to Adams, who took $4 million to serve as the Nationals’ backup first baseman. That job has a different description here than it does other places.
Because as loaded as Ryan Zimmerman’s resume is with statistics and achievements, with sentimental moments and overall importance to this franchise, many of the more recent entries chronicle injuries. For as inseparable as he is to this franchise, this franchise now plans annually for injuries to separate him from the starting lineup for large portions of the season.
Zimmerman has missed the Nationals’ last three games with a sore back after an awkward dive Friday night. Adams has homered three times in those three games. The second of his two homers Monday came against Padres’ left-handed reliever Matt Strahm — just the 13th home run Adams has hit against a lefty in his seven-year career. The Padres will start two left-handers in the other two games of this series. Adams, who spent spring training working with hitting coach Kevin Long on ways to fare better against lefties, might be making a case to play against both of them.
“I definitely feel more comfortable and definitely more confident this year, just from working with Kevin in spring training, opening up a little bit,” Adams said. “ … Seeing the ball come out of the hand a little better from being open a little bit, it’s done me wonders for sure.”
Adams’s hot streak is so prolific it has lifted a part-time player into a tie for fourth in the majors with 10 home runs. He is hitting .323 with nine home runs against right-handed pitching. He has transformed into an everyday player, and with Eaton injured, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez can store Adams in left field when Zimmerman does return.
Zimmerman has been struggling, particularly against right-handed pitching (.156), but has fared better against lefties (.290). When Eaton returns, could the Nationals really consider a platoon with the man who has been such a statistical and sentimental staple of their roster for so long?
As enticing and potentially controversial as that notion may be, the conversation is premature. Eaton will not be back any time soon. For now, the Nationals do not need to make that decision. Adams, who did not expect to play this much in the first place, might need a rest soon, though. He emerged for his postgame interview with tape around his right thumb, but dispensed of it before cameras arrived. Asked about his hand, he said simply, “it’s all good.”
Such is the state of Adams’s game right now. He is playing a functional left field, and said the highlight of this week was actually when he robbed a home run against the Phillies Friday night. He made a highlight reel diving stop and dove for first base to retire Chase Headley at one point Monday night.
So for now, Martinez’s most difficult problem regarding Adams is conjuring new answers to questions about the 28-year-old. He has answered so many already that MASN reporter Dan Kolko abandoned pretense and simply asked Martinez if there were any thoughts he hadn’t yet shared about Adams.
“He’s playing good defense,” said Martinez with a laugh.
“He’s really, really good right now.”
Adams’s production backed seven strong innings from Stephen Strasburg, who allowed three runs on six hits in his homecoming. Those two homers were not enough to keep the beleaguered back of the bullpen from warming, with Carlos Torres allowing two runs in the ninth that forced Sean Doolittle to warm — the only negative, Martinez said later.
But thanks to Adams, the Nationals clubhouse was cheery all the same, filled with hoots and hollers of “Big City,” Adams’s nickname, and conversation about his place in their internal “favorite player” rankings. At one point, Howie Kendrick paused in front of the clubhouse TV, which was showing replays of Adams’s big night, and rued the fact that his spot in the batting order means he has had to follow performances like that so often in the last week. The only negative to Adams’s week, apparently, is that he is making the rest of his teammates look worse by comparison.
“It’s been fun watching him play,” Turner said. “Other than I lost … my title.”
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