Doesn’t yet matter. What the Nats’ just-concluded 8-3 homestand provided is what you want from your baseball team as summer begins: a reason to tune in. Step back from this season and view it wide-angle: For the Nats, that has been true for nine of the past 10 summers — a period that dates back to the initial run to the postseason in 2012 and includes every season but last year’s miserable, pandemic-shortened campaign. Now here they are again, not necessarily thriving but surviving.
June is a foolish time to make conclusions, and even with seven wins in eight games, these Nats are still three games below .500. But if you’re feeling optimistic, here’s a primary reason: This team is built on the right arms of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, and neither Max Scherzer nor Stephen Strasburg contributed to this run.
Since June 5, Scherzer has pitched just a third of an inning — though he may come off the injured list as soon as Tuesday night in Philadelphia, and he has pledged that the groin strain that sent him there was minor, not major. Strasburg has pitched just 21⅔ innings all year — and 26⅔ innings since winning the World Series MVP award and signing a seven-year, $245 million deal. It says here, and has said here for years, that in order for the Nats to be the best versions of themselves, Scherzer and Strasburg must be something resembling the best versions of themselves.
Which is why there is room for encouragement in this recent run. If the Nats can win without their best two pitchers, what might they do with them? In his past eight starts, Scherzer has a 1.71 ERA and a .163 batting average against; there’s no reason to believe he won’t pick right back up again. Strasburg, out with a nerve issue in his neck, is now throwing from 75 to 90 feet on flat ground, but he hasn’t returned to the mound. His status is more complicated and less predictable.
In any case, here are the Nats’ runs allowed in each game of this homestand, which began the night Scherzer lasted just 12 pitches before coming out with that tweaked groin: 1, 0, 2, 0, 2, 1, 1, 0, 5, 2, 2. Forget ERA. That’s just 1.45 runs allowed per game. (Looking at it that way, it’s kind of remarkable they only won eight times.)
That’s Washington’s goal under Mike Rizzo: Win with starting pitching. That the starting pitchers who have led them back into the race aren’t Scherzer and Strasburg — and instead have included junk-balling Paolo Espino as well as resurgences from Erick Fedde and Joe Ross — doesn’t matter at the moment. What matters is staying afloat until the horses are healthy again.
Which is why griping about the offense isn’t worth it. In 2019, the year the Nats went on to win the whole thing, they ranked second in the National League in on-base-plus-slugging percentage and runs. Hoping that offense will return? It can’t, and it won’t. That team had an in-his-prime Anthony Rendon and a reborn Howie Kendrick. Starlin Castro and Josh Harrison won’t produce at that level.
So get used to a flawed offense producing flawed results. Kyle Schwarber isn’t always going to hit five homers in two games — as he did over the weekend against the Mets. Only Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuña Jr. have more homers in the National League, and that’s likely to be a pattern for Washington’s offense — one or two guys getting hot for a period, enough to support superior pitching.
The best hope for the offense lies not, then, in waiting for all cylinders to click. It lies in one cylinder being itself: Juan Soto. When the Nats dreamed of what the best version of their lineup could be, it didn’t include Schwarber and fellow reclamation project Josh Bell with more homers than Soto’s eight. It also didn’t include a reality in which Ryan Zimmerman has 96 fewer plate appearances than Soto but more extra-base hits — 15 for Zimmerman to 14 for Soto. Yet here we are.
Soto doesn’t have to slug as he did last year, when he led all of baseball at .695 and had as many extra-base hits as he did singles — 27 apiece. But right now, his slugging percentage is .432. His career mark coming into this year was a full 125 points higher. If the player around which the lineup should revolve gets back not to last year’s absurd numbers but just to what his career has been, then the lineup becomes more dynamic.
(A small aside: Victor Robles’s next 2021 homer will be his first. Two summers ago, he hit 17. Soto’s star has streaked past Robles’s, but the center fielder should feel free to develop his offensive skills — or even revert to what he was when he was 22.)
Whatever the month-and-change before the trade deadline brings, there’s an argument that the long-term health of the franchise would be helped by a losing season this summer. That’s hard to endure — not to mention hard to watch — in the moment. But whatever happens at the major league level, the truth is that the minor league system needs restocking. Some of that will happen in next month’s draft, when the Nats select 11th — their highest first-round pick since 2011, when they took Rendon sixth.
This could all make for an existential question for Rizzo and his front office in a month or so. Constantly going for it takes its toll on the depth of a farm system, which is a reason the Nats are thin. But how could you look at the players in your clubhouse — who overcame a covid-related 1-5 start and injuries to Soto, Scherzer and Strasburg — and tell them you’re not going for it? If Manager Dave Martinez’s “Go 1-0 today” mantra was followed — and it paid off — the reward for the roster should be adding in an attempt to reach the postseason.
About Martinez: I’ll admit that his relentlessly positive “Believe me, it’ll turn around” message during slow starts occasionally rings unrealistic and out of touch to me. But damned if it doesn’t work. Martinez has navigated his bullpen through injuries to Will Harris and Daniel Hudson and ineffective stretches from Brad Hand and Tanner Rainey, and that group allowed three earned runs in 32 innings during the homestand. As important: In tenor and substance, Martinez seems to have the right mix of patience and faith needed with such a veteran group.
So, then — off to Philadelphia, the start of seven more games against the NL East. In a week, we’ll have more evidence about what the 2021 Nationals will ultimately become. What they are to this point — with Scherzer about to return, and Strasburg presumably doing so at some point — are relevant and intriguing. That has been the norm around here for a decade. Don’t take it for granted.
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