- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2021

For the nearly two weeks Kyle Schwarber spent every second of his day inside, the Washington Nationals left fielder turned his home into a makeshift baseball training facility. He worked out with weights and physio balls. He rode a Peloton bike. He hit balls off a tee into a net.

“Maybe some angry hacks in there,” Schwarber said.

Schwarber even used a pair of virtual reality goggles, watching as a fake baseball left the mock pitcher’s hand. He’d simulate those at-bats, working on his stride, watching balls in with the hope he’d be ready whenever he was cleared to return.

Schwarber, Josh Bell and Josh Harrison were the three remaining batters missing from the Nationals’ lineup because they had either been infected with the coronavirus or been exposed to someone who had. That forced Washington to begin the season short-handed.

But the Nationals completed their first series Wednesday with their batting order fully intact, taking the rubber match against the St. Louis Cardinals. The additions of Bell, Harrison and Schwarber won’t solve all of Washington’s issues overnight — overcoming 14 runs on Tuesday, for instance, would have been a tall task for even the most potent lineup.

But the return of those players, who were cleared Monday, offers hope that the team’s rocky 3-6 start will give way to something better. And two wins in three games against St. Louis at least arrests an early string of losses.

“We just take it one day at a time,” Harrison said. “We know that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

The first four games of the Nationals’ campaign were postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak that impacted nine players on the 40-man roster. The bulk of those players returned last weekend against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but there was still a significant hole in Washington’s lineup.

Manager Dave Martinez’s squad opened the season by being shut out in three of six games and posting five straight losses after an opening day walk-on win. A common problem in all those games: the lack of clutch hitting stranding baserunners. In the Dodgers’ three-game sweep, Washington hit 3-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

So the Nationals needed a boost, and it came in the form of Bell, Schwarber and Harrison when they arrived on a chartered flight to St. Louis on Monday morning. Martinez asked them how they felt, despite all the time away. All three pushed to have their names on the lineup card that night.

The new faces were instrumental in that series-opening win, too. Schwarber knocked an RBI double and Bell crossed the plate twice. Like Schwarber, Bell stayed sharp in a unique way. He practiced during quarantine on a high-velocity machine that fired golf-sized whiffle balls at him, dipping and cutting through the air at irregular moments.

“If I had to equate a batting average on that thing, I’m probably a .200 hitter,” Bell said. “When you actually do square it up, it’s a good feeling. It makes baseball just a little bit easier.”

Adding those three bats back into the lineup doesn’t flip a switch entirely for Washington, but their presence helps. Bell finished the series 1-for-6 at the plate in his two games. Schwarber cooled off after his four hits combined between Monday and Tuesday to strike out three times Wednesday.

Harrison produced throughout the three-game slate, even in Tuesday’s 14-3 shellacking. The everyday second baseman finished the series 6-for-11 with three RBIs and two walks.

The trade for Bell and signing of Schwarber this offseason were made to lengthen Washington’s lineup, providing more cover behind Trea Turner and Juan Soto. There was a delay, but Martinez now has the lineup he’d envisioned.

In the grand scheme of a 162-game slate, a three-game series against the Cardinals in April won’t mean much. But after the way the season started — multiple key players missing through coronavirus protocols and a five-game losing streak — rebounding Wednesday in the rubber match with key bats producing in key moments gives the Nationals hope the worst is behind them.

“We left spring training hoping to start the season off on the right track,” Martinez said. “Unfortunately, we had some guys who got COVID, we missed a lot of our players. Now they’re back, they’re healthy, they feel good.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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