At the base of the dugout steps, Dave Martinez stood, arms outstretched, waiting for Josh Bell.
The Washington Nationals manager had just watched his first baseman connect with a four-seam fastball left over the plate that Bell muscled to deep left field. That was Bell’s first hit in 19 at-bats, and the longball helped give a momentary reprieve to a longer slump to start the season.
Bell entered Thursday hitting .120 in his first 50 at-bats with the Nationals. He’s continually said he feels close to a breakthrough — and the analytics back up his suggestion — but his performance Wednesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays gave an indication he’s on the cusp of that turnaround.
So when Bell reached the visitor’s dugout Wednesday in Dunedin, Florida, after his fifth-inning long ball, Martinez was there, ready with a big hug.
“Hey, good for you,” Martinez told Bell. “Let’s keep it going.”
The second part of Martinez’s statement is the critical piece for Washington. General manager Mike Rizzo traded for Bell this offseason to insert another power bat into the lineup. Rizzo hoped to supplement the production the Nationals already have from Trea Turner and hopes to have from Juan Soto once the latter returns from a stint on the 10-day injured list with a shoulder strain.
Rizzo banked on Bell returning to his 2019 form — when he hit .277 with 37 homers and 116 RBI in an All-Star season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. So far, Bell has more closely resembled his 2020 self, in which he hit .226 with eight dingers in 57 games.
To take some pressure off Bell, Martinez dropped the switch-hitter to the sixth hole in the lineup. He wanted Bell to “relax, go out there, see some pitches and have fun.”
And that’s what Bell did.
Bell’s two-run home run Wednesday night — his second of the season — doesn’t indicate Bell’s scuffles are completely behind him. But there were promising signs during that game, most noticeably in the fifth inning, powering his homer the other way.
“I felt like during that at-bat, I was talking to [Kyle] Schwarber, I was like, ‘Thank you for having a long AB there, got my timing down,’” Bell said. “Finally felt comfortable going into the AB.”
In two other at-bats, Bell’s outs were still encouraging. He clubbed one pitch to deep center field in his first trip to the plate, and he elevated another ball to left field later on.
“That means he’s getting on time and starting to hit the ball out front a little bit,” Martinez said. “It’s just a matter of time before you start to see some consistency. It was a good day for him, overall. I liked what I saw and he was happy of the day, so we’ll build from there.”
Bell knew a breakthrough was just a matter of time. He had started spraying hard hits around the park, even if he didn’t have much to show for it. His batting average hangs at .120 and his slugging percentage is just .280.
But according to Statcast, his expected batting average is just over 100 percentage points higher than what he’s actually hitting, and his expected slugging percentage sits at .430. Bell is in the top 9% of the league with his 52.9 hard hit percentage, and he’s found the barrel on 14.7% of his batted balls.
Those marks, Bell said, would be easier to appreciate if the Nationals were consistently winning. At 9-12, though, frustration can sneak in. Still, Bell said the “overall atmosphere right now in the cages and with the coaches, they’re like, ‘Hey, just keep fighting for quality at-bats, one after the other.”
Bell could unlock another dimension to Washington’s lineup if he can find a rhythm at the plate. Martinez plans to bat Bell in the sixth hole for another few days, hoping to establish some consistency.
Once — or if — Bell discovers that form, the Nationals hope he returns to being the player who was a force in Pittsburgh.
“If he’s hitting four, five and six, and your six hole can hit 45 homers or whatever it may be, that’s a dangerous lineup,” Turner said. “And he’s going to drive in a lot of runs for us, because we’ve got guys who get on base and walk and he’ll make us a much better team. And I think he’s really close to being his old self and starting to drive the ball and look really good at the plate.”
That would be the Nationals’ dream scenario, with Bell’s potential breakout coupling with a surge up the standings. That’s why Martinez waited for Bell in the dugout, ready to give his struggling slugger a hug and a word of encouragement.
It hasn’t been easy for Bell so far in his first 50 at-bats for his new team. He and Washington can hope, though, that his next 50 — and more beyond that — prove Wednesday was a turning point.
“Obviously, I want way more hits than I’ve gotten,” Bell said. “But I think that adversity is something that’s going to make me stronger.”