- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2021

When Kyle Schwarber thinks back on his first stint as a leadoff hitter at the major league level, he doesn’t mince his assessment.

“I’ll be brutally honest: I stunk,” he said Sunday.

Schwarber hit .190 with 48 strikeouts when the then-Chicago Cubs slugger received 147 at-bats atop the lineup. Part of the issue was his swing, which resulted in his demotion to Triple-A midway through the season. But he also entered the role with a preconceived notion of what a leadoff hitter should be, and that messed with his already patient approach at the plate.

He made changes by the time the Cubs handed Schwarber 223 more at-bats at leadoff in 2019, leading to improvement at the position. And with the Washington Nationals grasping at straws to invigorate a largely underachieving lineup this season, manager Dave Martinez turned to Schwarber as the potential catalyst for change.

Schwarber now better understands his role when batting leadoff — that is, to ignore the leadoff title and just do what he normally does.

“Coming here and being thrown in the leadoff spot, it’s just like, ‘Eh, whatever,’” Schwarber said. “Take that leadoff name out of it and you’re batting in the first spot and the next time you come around, you could be batting third. It’s not like I haven’t led off an inning before.”

Martinez inserted Schwarber into the leadoff hole on June 8, and besides a walk, he was hitless at the plate that night against Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow.

But Martinez went back to Schwarber atop the order for the first of Saturday’s doubleheader, Sunday and Monday. He might not fit the description of the typical leadoff hitter — someone like Trea Turner or Victor Robles, who can be a threat on the basepaths — but Schwarber has produced in a small sample size. The result have given Washington hope there’s a turnaround for him — and the Nationals’ offense overall — as the summer grows warmer.

“You know, the leadoff spot’s the leadoff spot,” Schwarber said. “It’s just another position in the batting order. It’s not unfamiliar to me. I’ve done it before. And I think the biggest thing was just taking out the conception of the leadoff spot, the fact of seeing pitches and stuff like that. I do that naturally. So I think it’s just going up there and trying to take your normal at-bat.”

After Sunday’s outing, starting pitcher Joe Ross admitted he found it “kind of funny” to see Schwarber leading off ahead of Turner, but there are distinct advantages to have the left-handed hitter atop the order.

With Turner and Juan Soto due up behind Schwarber, pitchers are less likely to play around the edges of the zone, wanting to avoid a walk. Schwarber said he’s noticed the pitchers being more aggressive in the zone against him in those situations, giving him good pitches to swing at. And Schwarber’s career slugging percentage is significantly better against right-handed arms than lefties (.511 vs. 345), hinting that Martinez wants to take advantage of those matchups.

Schwarber saw an eye-popping pitch early in his first at-bat Saturday. Right-hander Kevin Gausman hung a 94.5 mph fastball over the middle of the plate, and Schwarber blasted the pitch out of the yard for an early lead.

On Sunday, right-hander Johnny Cueto delivered a good changeup low and away, but Schwarber still connected for a blast. The 28-year-old barreled up a high fastball for a three-run homer his next trip to the plate.

Those knocks helped buoy an offense that has struggled to plate runners consistently this season, scoring five or more runs five times in the 17 games between May 27 and June 13. Washington split its four-game series against the San Francisco Giants despite allowing just three runs.

“Any time you can get a leadoff homer, it’s a spark for the offense, to show like, okay, let’s go,” Josh Harrison said. “Not only a spark for the offense, but especially being at home, a spark for the crowd.”

When asked about what allowed him to crank leadoff home runs on consecutive days, Schwarber let out a laugh: “Luck, I guess.” But he went on to admit the small surge can be attributed to his work in the batting cage, his film study and his understanding that batting leadoff shouldn’t change what he wants to do at the plate.

The leadoff role frequently only leads off an inning once — to begin the game. From then on, as Martinez said, “you just become a hitter.”

The Nationals will hope that hitter maintains his recent form, hitting .267 with three homers, six RBIs and three walks in his previous five games entering Monday. That’s what Washington needs more of, from a variety of batters. And if it takes Schwarber leading off to produce those numbers, Martinez won’t mind.

“I know what to expect from him every day, and when you see him go out there and do what he does, he’s prepared for that,” Martinez said. “We all know, I talk to him all the time, I say, ‘Look, at the end of the year, you’re gonna hit your 30 home runs-plus, you’re gonna drive your 80 to 100 runs. That’s who you are, you know, so don’t bang yourself in the head. Just go out and play baseball.’”

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

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