BALTIMORE — In the lead-up to this season — at the winter meetings, during spring training, whenever a new player joined the team — the Washington Nationals were asked how they would fill the power void created by Bryce Harper’s departure.
The Nationals promised to become a different offense, to focus harder on the “little things,” to replace their ability to launch home runs with a higher commitment to small ball. More bunts. More steals. Stuff such as that. Harper led them with 34 homers last season — no one else had more than 24 — and Daniel Murphy, a power-hitting second baseman, also was gone via a trade. But Washington has since stumbled upon a simpler way to compensate for the loss in strength.
They are homering at a higher rate than in 2018, keeping in line with league trends, crushing what many believe is a “juiced” baseball designed to leave the yard.
“It’s just part of the game,” Matt Adams said after hitting his 14th of the season in an 8-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. “We’re barreling the ball up, and they’re going.”
Washington finished last season with 191 home runs, ranking 13th in baseball. Eight of the 10 playoff teams last fall, counting the loser of each wild-card game, finished with 200 or more. So with home runs equaling success in most cases, the absence of Harper and Murphy looked troubling on the surface. Seven Nationals finished with 10 or more home runs in 2018 — Harper (34), Anthony Rendon (24), Juan Soto (22), Trea Turner (19), Matt Adams (18), Ryan Zimmerman (13) and Mark Reynolds (13) — and Murphy hit six in 56 games before being dealt. And it was hard to map out that production before this year began.
But here it is ahead of a 7:05 p.m. game against the Orioles on Wednesday: Seven players already are above 10 homers, and that’s with Zimmerman (three) and Turner (seven) lagging because of early-season injuries. Rendon leads the team with 20, well on pace for a career high. Soto has 17, Adams and Brian Dozier have 14, and Robles has 13. Howie Kendrick has 12, and Kurt Suzuki has 11. The Nationals recently set a franchise record by hitting one in 22 straight games, all coming during a 31-12 stretch that has them atop the wild-card standings. Trading power for fundamentals was never a viable winning formula, especially with baseball’s best teams going long at historic paces. It’s good for Washington that it never really tried that.
Washington has failed to homer in just 20 of its 93 contests this season. Eleven of those came before the lineup was healthy again — welcoming back Turner, Rendon, Adams and Soto — in mid-May.
“We’re going to hit home runs,” Manager Dave Martinez said Tuesday before circling back to that small ball commitment. “It’s the at-bats in between that we need to put good at-bats together.”
At the winter meetings in December, when Martinez stated the Nationals would have to score in creative ways, they had not yet signed Dozier or Adams to one-year deals. Both are known power hitters who have helped this effort along. But the key contributions have come from where they weren’t expected. Robles, a speedy center fielder, has just four fewer homers than Harper does for the Philadelphia Phillies. Kendrick is coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon and, for parts of the year, has been Washington’s most consistent hitter. And Suzuki helped add power and production to a position group that displayed very little last season.
A combination of catchers Matt Wieters, Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino finished with just 12 home runs in 2018. Now, thanks to Suzuki, Nationals catchers already have 14 with 69 games left to play. Rendon and Soto were expected to have big years. Adams and Dozier can be counted on for at least 20 each season. But Robles, Kendrick and Suzuki compensating for the roster turnover, and the time missed by Turner and Zimmerman, has been a major lift.
The Nationals still rank 18th in home runs, tied with the Tampa Bay Rays, yet they’ve used a lot of power throughout their recent surge. Washington is still defined by its starting pitching, and its bullpen still has to improve, and it can’t rely on homers to win. Few teams can. But that the Nationals can go deep — regularly, not every so often — is another reason they have a chance to turn their comeback into a pennant chase.
All the contenders are doing it. Washington can keep up.
“That’s really amazing,” Soto said of all the home runs they have hit this season, after he launched a 443-foot bomb into the right field seats at Camden Yards on Tuesday. Then the 20-year-old left fielder pointed to a ritual the Nationals have established following each one: “It’s like everybody wants to dance in the dugout.”