So on the first afternoon of May, in a fourth-inning matchup with Ross Detwiler, Bell punched an opposite-field double to the corner in right. Three scored. Washington raced ahead by seven. And once he reached second base, Bell lightly clapped his hands and patted the top of his helmet. It wasn’t a highlight-reel celebration. It won’t play in one of those moments-to-remember loops, if this season is to be remembered at all. But it got Bell closer to what the Nationals believed they were trading for in December.
That counts for something, and it pushed his team to a comfortable 7-2 victory at Nationals Park. Bell added an RBI single in the first and smacked three of the game’s 12 hardest-hit balls. Patrick Corbin completed seven innings and allowed two runs on four hits and four walks. The Nationals (11-12) have won three straight for the first time this season and can sweep the Marlins (11-15) on Sunday.
“Both those balls I hit today were kind of off the barrel, just inside a bit, but they were lower,” Bell said of his single and double. “I feel like if I can keep balls lower, on a line, around the barrel, that’s when good things happen. That’s when you get your mishit hits. So hopefully more of those to come, and then the damage will be there whenever a pitcher makes a mistake.”
Pregame was centered on a pair of important shoulders. Around 10:30 a.m., a few hours to first pitch, Stephen Strasburg tossed in right field before he threw around 30 pitches in the bullpen. He appeared to be working below max effort, with pitching coach Jim Hickey watching closely. Strasburg remains on the 10-day injured list with right shoulder inflammation. He was sidelined April 18. The plan was to have him on the mound at some point this weekend, and the Nationals checked that box.
Then it was Juan Soto’s turn to test his arm. The 22-year-old star is on the 10-day IL with a strained left shoulder. Before he returns, he will have to throw without pain for at least a few days in a row. He was eligible to be activated for the series opener Friday. Instead, in an effort to keep these issues in the early going, he spent Saturday morning playing catch from 90 feet with head athletic trainer Dale Gilbert. Seth Blee, a physical therapist, stood by Soto and chatted with the outfielder. Afterward, the three of them discussed Soto’s motion while he pantomimed it over and over.
He kept pausing when he would have released an imaginary ball. It was a reminder that, as they climb toward .500 and as bits of their team fall into place, the Nationals are not totally there. They are without two of their best players (not to mention relievers Will Harris and Wander Suero, too). Strasburg, of course, is a question mark because of recent injuries in a career chock full of them. But Soto charges a lineup in sore need of his help. It just wasn’t so apparent in this lopsided win.
“We can still get better, no doubt about it,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We left some guys on, runners on third base with less than two outs. We got to drive those guys in — not to nitpick. The guys played well today. We got some key hits.”
For that, the Nationals had Bell, Trea Turner, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison and Yadiel Hernandez to thank. Yes, Bell is still inching toward even average production. And, no, one game doesn’t put him on track. But there was hope in how he fared in his 16th game with Washington.
Bell entered with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .464 in 60 plate appearances. That number had grown on a two-run homer in a win against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday. Then it grew some more Saturday, to .517, with his RBI single (off rookie starter Paul Campbell) and three-run double (off Detwiler, a former Nationals left-hander who resides in Miami’s bullpen). Bell clicked from both sides of the plate, tagging Campbell as a lefty and Detwiler as a righty. He also didn’t let more scoring opportunities go to waste.
The Nationals have suffered from a dearth of timely hits by Bell, Kyle Schwarber and Starlin Castro in the middle of their order. Yet sometimes only one of those three can hide the problem. Schwarber took his turn with a walk-off homer Friday night. Bell followed with a chunk of run support for Corbin.
“This is why we wanted him here,” Martinez said of Bell. “He’s going to drive in runs, and the thing is that his at-bats are getting better and more consistent.”
He batted fifth Saturday and was surrounded by offense. In front of him, Turner collected two singles and two steals in the leadoff spot; Harrison, hitting second, singled twice, doubled in the eighth and finished with an RBI and a run; and Hernandez, batting third, singled, walked and swiped second to stay hot. And behind Bell, Gomes ripped a 105-mph single in the second and a two-run homer in the fourth. Andrew Stevenson singled ahead of Gomes’s shot to left field. The hitting was contagious.
Campbell’s final line was stuffed with five runs (four earned) on nine hits. Detwiler, who relieved Campbell with two outs in the fourth, was on the hook for two runs in a third of an inning. The Nationals haven’t often blitzed opponents like that. But a clear difference, between now and most of April, is that Bell was chipping in.
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