“I can’t be striking out at the clip that I’m striking out,” Bell said after a 6-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. “I’m having way too long of at-bats and not capitalizing on mistakes right now, so it’s just been tough.”
The context? This strikeout stranded the bases loaded when the Nationals trailed by just a run. This strikeout was their best shot to claw back. This strikeout dropped Bell’s batting average to .134 and his on-base-plus-slugging percentage to .493 in 90 plate appearances, and it was immediately followed by the Phillies adding three insurance runs against reliever Kyle Finnegan.
And this strikeout, tough as it was, also came three batters after Ryan Zimmerman punched a two-out double to start the rally. Zimmerman has a .310 batting average, a .344 on-base percentage and a .569 slugging percentage in 61 plate appearances. Manager Dave Martinez double-switched Bell out to keep Zimmerman’s bat in the game.
It was only fuel to the calls for Zimmerman to take more of Bell’s time. Juan Soto was issued three walks with Bell behind him, including a four-pitch pass in the seventh, when it was clear Alvarado was avoiding Soto to get to Bell. The Nationals (13-18) have lost three straight and six of their past seven.
“You kind of want to be patient, and then he gets up there and gets a strike and he tries to be a little too aggressive,” Martinez said of how Bell approached Alvarado in the seventh. Then he again backed Bell as his everyday first baseman. “We need him. He’s a big part of our lineup. I’m not going to give up on him. We know that, in the past, he’s been streaky. And when he starts to hit, starts getting it, he could carry us for a while.”
Looking for a spark, or for anything other than what he has seen, Martinez tweaked his lineup for the series opener. He led off with Trea Turner and slid Soto in behind him. From there, he batted Bell third and Kyle Schwarber fourth. Josh Harrison dropped down to seventh, despite his strong start and good career numbers against Phillies right-hander Chase Anderson. The questionable part was moving Bell and Schwarber up when their production is so down.
They had flashed their potential with a double and a homer, respectively, in the seventh inning of Sunday’s 3-2 loss at the New York Yankees. But the sequence was a loud reminder of what has been missing. By the first inning Tuesday, they were back to struggling in key spots.
Turner and Soto started the bottom of the first with singles off Anderson, who entered with a 5.54 ERA in 26 innings. Bell dug in looking to erase Bryce Harper’s solo homer in the top half. The blast, Harper’s seventh, came on an 0-1 cutter from Erick Fedde. Harper smacked it to the facing of the second deck in right. But Bell, hitting in the middle of an order that Harper used to head, couldn’t get it done.
He began the at-bat by watching a cutter below the zone. The next two pitches, though, were an illustration of his and the Nationals’ issues at the plate. The first was a low-and-away, in-the-zone sinker that Bell fouled off. The second was another sinker, almost in the exact same location, that Bell watched for strike two. He battled to a full count before whiffing on a cutter. Schwarber followed by going ahead 3-1 before he popped out down the right field line.
On Tuesday afternoon, Martinez was asked to explain why the offense has been so inconsistent. He pointed to batters not being aggressive enough early in counts and fouling off too many pitches that should result in positive outcomes. It was all displayed in Bell’s first-inning matchup with Anderson. And after those singles by Turner and Soto, Anderson held the Nationals hitless until the sixth.
“I’m not going to stop searching until I’m really producing,” Bell said of his mechanics. “As of right now, as of that last at-bat that I had left-handed, I felt like I was in a really good place to drive the baseball, finally getting swings off on balls down and in. Seems like the last couple weeks I’ve been taking those pitches. I feel like I’m climbing, even though the batting average is dropping.”
Turner began the sixth with a solo homer to left-center. Next Soto walked, ending Anderson’s outing at 85 pitches, bending another rally toward Bell and Schwarber. Bell was retired on a sharp grounder to first, moving Soto into scoring position. He has had trouble elevating balls all season. Schwarber, then, worked an 11-pitch at-bat that finished with a chopped RBI single to center.
The Nationals found a pulse. But they flatlined in the seventh, once Bell missed Alvarado’s last sinker and the bases stayed juiced.
“The swings and misses are tough. I think in years past, those were way down,” Bell said of a whiff rate that, if the season finished Tuesday, would be close to the worst of his career. “As of right now, with two strikes, got to at least give myself a chance to put the ball in play and keep things rolling.”
Alvarado attacked and ultimately beat Bell with four triple-digit sinkers. The inning hadn’t been promising until Zimmerman pinch-hit. It led to Turner’s 14-pitch walk and a quick walk for Soto. Zimmerman’s double, on a 3-2 sinker from former Nationals reliever Brandon Kintzler, was his seventh extra-base hit of the year. Bell has the same number in 29 more plate appearances. The contrast was stark because it bookended a hollow push.
There was Zimmerman, a 36-year-old veteran, a guy the Nationals want to keep in a supporting role, revving an offense that needed his jolt. And there was Bell, still trying to figure it out.
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