- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2021

In Kyle Schwarber’s first six games in June, the Washington Nationals’ left fielder walked to the plate 25 times. He hit three singles. He walked three times. He struck out on another eight occasions.

The small sample size was part of Schwarber’s larger offensive struggles to begin the season, which included a short-lived spike in May but had otherwise largely mirrored a dismal 2020 showing with the Chicago Cubs.

Then came a pregame session with hitting coach Kevin Long while the Nationals were in Tampa to play the Rays in early June, working to correct whatever mechanical — or mental — issues were present with his swing and approach at the plate.

“Since that day,” Schwarber said, “it’s been clicking.”

Clicking is an understatement.

Schwarber’s offensive production since June 12 has bypassed hot and skipped straight to scalding. He overcame the nagging reminders of 2020 to lead Washington’s turnaround almost single-handedly — the slow-starting Nationals are now firmly in second place in the NL East.

In 18 games between June 12 and June 29, Schwarber has 16 home runs and 27 RBIs. By contrast, in 51 games between April 12 and June 11, he had nine home runs and 26 RBIs. Going deeper, the changes at the plate can be seen through Schwarber’s ground ball rate — what once was 45.2% through 51 games has dropped to just 28% over his last 18 contests.

Schwarber began the season barreling up 11.9% of his hits. Since June 12 — the second time this season manager Dave Martinez slotted the left-fielder as leadoff, a position that has since stuck — he’s barreling up 36% of his hits. His slugging percentage is 1.043 in those 18 games. His average is .348. His legend is growing.

It’s almost more surprising when a ball doesn’t leave his bat and land up high in the bleachers, another souvenir clobbered out of the yard.

“It’s kind of a joke at this point,” starting pitcher Joe Ross said. “It’s like every time he goes up there, he hits a ball 350, 370 [feet] to right field.”

And yet, Schwarber insists, that’s not his goal. He’s not trying to hit home runs, even as he matches records. His 16th blast of June on Tuesday tied him with Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa for the most hit in an 18-game span. Schwarber’s 12 homers in 10 games tied the record Albert Belle set in 1995. Schwarber has already surpassed Bryce Harper for the most homers hit in a month by a Washington National.

Schwarber instead says he’s looking for quality at-bats, jumping on the pitches he can handle without trying to do too much. He’s still demolishing fastballs, but the off-speed offerings pitchers have turned to aren’t proving much more effective.

When Schwarber’s hot streak was still young, just eight days into a leadoff experiment that seemed to be working, he noted how his work in the batting cage has been the largest catalyst for his breakout. He practices on a batting tee positioned higher than the strike zone, and his flat swing path allows him to reach above the zone.

And Schwarber has continued what Long helped instill during the offseason, when the pair met at Schwarber’s home in Tampa, Florida, to work on his batting. Schwarber hit a career-high 50.8% of his balls on the ground in 2020, leading to a career-low .188 batting average. So Long advised Schwarber to squat more in his batting stance, allowing for more fly balls — and home runs.

Even as Schwarber blasts balls at a record pace — he needs three more homers on top of the 25 he’s already hit to set the franchise record for most hit before the All-Star break — Schwarber said he hasn’t heard from MLB about appearing in the Home Run Derby.

Schwarber put on a show at Nationals Park in 2018, when he finished second to Harper. But if Schwarber is approached, the slugger doesn’t think he’ll participate again.

“The best thing to do is probably let it pass and rest up and look forward to the second half,” Schwarber said. The Derby is “definitely taxing on the body.”

After all, Schwarber virtually competes in the Home Run Derby every night when he steps in the batter’s box, ready to launch another baseball into orbit.

“Just smiling,” Schwarber said. “Keep riding the wave.”

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