- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2021

Dave Martinez hadn’t lost faith in this lineup — publicly, at least — despite the way the Nationals had performed recently.

When hits were sparse and runs sparser, the Washington manager insisted his team was close. The breakthrough was just around the corner. The loud outs would soon turn to knocks. Martinez acted as if he could speak his offense’s revitalization into existence.

At least for a day, Martinez’s messaging seemed to manifest itself as material production, beginning with a pair of first-inning home runs from a pair of struggling sluggers. Those early blasts gave the Nationals a lead they’d later add to, providing the cushion Washington hasn’t felt frequently this month.

For the third time in May, the Nationals scored more than three runs. That relative power surge helped Washington beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the series finale Thursday, 5-1, before the team embarks on a two-series road trip against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs.

“We know that we’re a good team,” Josh Bell said. “We know that we’re a force to be reckoned with when things are right with us. So it’s just a matter of time that things come together, we get hot as a team and things start clicking.”

Thursday’s win broke a four-game losing streak. Martinez held a team meeting after Wednesday’s debacle, a 5-2 loss in 10 innings that featured another Brad Hand blown save, because he noticed some of his players were hanging their heads. He implored them to relax, to stop pressing at the plate, to have some fun.

“We’re a couple hits away every day from really making things happen,” Martinez said before Thursday’s game. “And hopefully today’s the day.”

The dam didn’t burst Thursday, but some water found its way through. With two outs in the first inning, Kyle Schwarber put Washington ahead, 2-1, with an opposite-field two-run homer. And after Starlin Castro worked the fourth walk Philadelphia starter Zach Eflin had allowed all year, Bell hit a no-doubt blast into the second deck in right field.

Those two haven’t found much success early in their first season in Washington. Schwarber entered with a .189 average, and Bell’s on-base-plus-slugging sat at .487. But for this lineup to be the dangerous one Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo envisioned when assembling it this offseason, those two must be major pieces.

“It uplifted our team, and those two guys,” Martinez said. “But like I’ve said, I’ve got all the confidence in the world in those two. It’s going to come. They’re going to help us win a lot of games.”

Their two-run homers gave Nationals left-hander Patrick Corbin the steady base for his best outing of the season. If it hadn’t been for Bell’s poor throw home on a first-and-third double-steal attempt in the first inning, Corbin’s line would’ve been spotless.

Instead, the starter allowed five hits and one run through seven innings, striking out nine and walking none. He used his slider to great effect, throwing the pitch on 49 of his 102 pitches. Corbin proved its effectiveness against Bryce Harper in the sixth, tossing four straight sliders for the strikeout. The next batter, Rhys Hoskins, also struck out after seeing four sliders.

“Mechanically, things were just a little off, I thought, early on,” Corbin said. “And now I feel — body feels great. Starting to use my legs. Kind of feeling like my old self.”

The Nationals held Harper in check Thursday. Beyond Corbin’s two strikeouts of Harper, Daniel Hudson came out of the bullpen to face Harper with two on and one out in the eighth, and the right-hander punched out Harper, overpowering him with a 98-mph fastball at the end of an eight-pitch at-bat.

And with another productive day from Castro, Washington tacked on a run in the sixth. Castro doubled down the left field line, bringing home Juan Soto — the bases were stranded loaded to end that frame, though.

Castro extended his hitting streak to 11 games Thursday, batting .425 in that span. Perhaps more impressive are his seven walks over those 11 games; Castro, often a free swinger, had worked three free passes through his first 22 games.

The Nationals have shown signs of an offensive breakthrough in the past, such as an 11-run outburst against the Yankees on May 7. That production didn’t carry over into the next games. But Martinez thinks his team is close to finding more consistency, and Thursday was the first step on that search.

“When this thing all hits on the same cylinder, I mean, watch out,” Schwarber said. “Because it’s going to be fun to watch.”

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

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