- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2021

Josh Harrison and Josh Bell stood up in the first row of the dugout, waving their arms in the air, calling for the 30,371 fans at Nationals Park to reach an even higher decibel. And when those cheers continued — the loudest ones heard at this stadium since the 2019 World Series — Kyle Schwarber emerged from the dugout.

He whipped his batting helmet off, lifted it up to the crowd, then vanished back down the steps, away from the spotlight that has increasingly focused on him the past eight days.

Moments earlier, Schwarber lifted one hand to the sky, pointing to where so many of his hits over the last week have flown. This time, in the seventh inning of Washington’s 5-2 win against the New York Mets on Sunday, his swing blasted a ball into the visitor’s bullpen beyond left field.

But Schwarber has been spraying balls around the park — or rather, into the outfield seats — with the frequency of a hitter who is not just hot, but scalding. He clubbed three home runs Sunday. He launched another two Saturday. Over the span of the Nationals’ 11-game homestand, Schwarber has crushed nine long balls.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know what’s going on,” Schwarber said. “I’m not going up there trying to hit home runs. I’m just — I’ve got a guy on second base, and I’m trying to drive him in.”

Since manager Dave Martinez inserted Schwarber into the leadoff spot, Schwarber has reached another level. Over the last seven days alone, his slugging percentage has soared to 1.077. After starting the season in a slump, hitting .189 over his first 25 games, Schwarber has hit .264 over his next 35 outings.

Part of the reason Martinez placed Schwarber at leadoff ahead of Trea Turner and Juan Soto was that Schwarber should see more pitches in the zone, particularly heaters, as opposing pitchers look to avoid issuing unnecessary free passes with two of the Nationals’ most dangerous options following. The result: pitches to hit — and hit hard.

“I’ve seen Kyle get hot, start swinging the bat and hit the ball like that,” Martinez said. “When he squares balls up, he hits them far.”

That’s what happened to lead off Sunday’s game, with Mets starter Taijuan Walker grooving in a fastball for Schwarber to take the other way. Walker was more cautious in the fifth, when Schwarber led off again.

Walker fed Schwarber a steady dose of curveballs, sliders and sinkers. Schwarber fought them off, fouling a sinker and slider on a full count. And then came a sinker that hung up — the first elevated pitch of the plate appearance — and Schwarber was soon trotting around the basepaths again.

“It’s fun to get instant offense up there, first batter,” Schwarber said. “But I just want to be able to keep putting in quality at-bats for the guys behind me. Either, yeah, cool home run, whatever. But work the pitcher, not let him feel comfortable, not let him feel like he’s going to be able to settle in right away.”

The trips around the bases have become a familiar routine for Schwarber over the last eight days, looking up, watching a ball carry and carry before dropping his head and jogging again. And he wasn’t finished after his fifth-inning laser, which left his bat at 112 mph and crashed into the home bullpen down the right-field line.

Patrick Corbin backed up Schwarber’s standout outing, throwing six innings and allowing two runs on four hits while striking out seven. But Corbin hit a wall entering the seventh, allowing a leadoff blast to Pete Alonso before walking Kevin Pillar in a one-run game. Kyle Finnegan entered in relief and forced a double-play ball for Starlin Castro to niftily turn.

Still, Corbin’s six innings backed up his strong 8 1/3 innings last time out against the Pittsburgh Pirates, steadying what has been an up-and-down season. His slider, especially, looked formidable.

“When he’s got that going, and hitters have to worry about that ball coming in like that, it makes his two-seam even that much better,” Martinez said. “I’ve seen a lot of swings and misses on his two-seamer that were on the outside of the plate, and that’s because of his slider, how sharp it was.”

Schwarber soon added to the Nationals’ edge with a two-run blast in the seventh, electrifying a crowd already worked into a frenzy by the return of Gerardo Parra, who doubled after stepping into the batter’s box to the familiar strains of “Baby Shark” — the beloved theme song of Washington’s World Series title run in 2019.

That pushed the game out of reach, and the Nationals closed out the four-game series with three wins and wrapped up the 11-game homestand with eight wins.

“It’s a good feeling in the clubhouse right now,” Corbin said. “When you’re winning, it’s fun.”

After Schwarber doffed his helmet to the Nationals Park crowd in the seventh inning — and after he had clobbered his third homer of the day — Martinez opted to give Schwarber’s knee a rest. The left fielder has dealt with nagging soreness of late, and once he clubbed his third long ball, Schwarber told Martinez, “I’m done.”

After all, there was nothing else Washington needed from Schwarber that he hadn’t already accomplished.

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

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