When Josh Bell goes on a hot streak at the plate, the tear begins with a thought. He imagines himself driving a fastball into the gap for a double, and if that thought becomes reality, the results tend to stack up.
He can then think about the next at-bat, what the opposing pitcher might throw him and how he might look to attack. While Bell’s recent results have improved from his season-opening slump, the same can’t be said about most of the Washington Nationals’ lineup. Any visualization hasn’t converted into real-world results.
“I feel like a lot of guys in our lineup haven’t really had the success to play that game,” Bell said. “We’re kind of scrambling right now.”
As the Nationals scramble, the production at the plate has been meager. Washington is hitting the ball hard — and that’s what the team consistently points to, hoping a breakout is soon to follow that strong contact. According to FanGraphs, the Nationals’ 42.3% hard hit rate is the third-best in baseball.
But those hard hits aren’t finding the outfield grass frequently enough, even though Washington’s .250 batting average entering Monday is the fifth-best mark in MLB. There’s a disconnect with runners in scoring position, and the inability to consistently score runs pressures a pitching staff. One mistake on the mound can be the difference between a win and a loss with Washington’s tepid offense currently.
“We had some good at-bats, and we had some not-so-good at-bats,” manager Dave Martinez said. “It sounds like the same old story, but we gotta keep going. We gotta keep playing hard, and things will turn around. We hit some balls hard, we’ve just gotta find some holes, and hopefully with guys on base we’ll find those holes in the next few days and things will turn around for us.”
If it sounds like the same old story, that’s because it is — at least through the first two months of the season. Entering Monday, the Nationals had lost 28 games. In 22 of those losses, Washington has scored three runs or fewer. And in 16 losses, the run differential has been within three tallies.
That was especially on display this homestand, which started with a three-game sweep of the collapsing Baltimore Orioles before the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers took five of six games. In the latter two series, the Nationals scored nine runs across six games. They managed just three in three losses against the Brewers, with 12 of their 15 hits singles.
While Washington’s average is one of the best in the league, its .388 slugging percentage is middle of the road. The Nationals’ .137 isolated power rate — a measure of how frequently teams knock extra-base hits — is good for No. 26 in MLB. And Martinez’s club has scored 185 runs, the third-fewest leaguewide — although a coronavirus-delayed start to the season forced Washington to play slightly fewer games than some teams at this point.
Washington has long been built around its rotation, and while that facet of the club was shaky to begin the year, performances have since settled. Scherzer allowed two runs on Sunday and May 25, respectively. And yet, he picked up the loss in both of those contests. Stephen Strasburg allowed three runs across five innings Thursday, his second outing since returning from injury. The offense, meanwhile, was shut out.
There have been similar outcomes recently for Joe Ross, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester. They’ve kept the Nationals in the game, but that doesn’t seem to be enough with a lineup struggling to produce.
“I’m not going to sit here and say as soon as I give up a run, we’re going to lose,” Scherzer said. “I have confidence in my teammates and what they’re going to be able to do. Over the past handful of starts, it has worked out that way. But look, you’ve got to rise to the occasion.”
Martinez worries not just about his hitters pressing at the plate in key situations, but the impact a struggling offense might have on his pitching staff.
“It’s a trickle effect for everybody,” Martinez said. “Not just the hitters but the pitchers, as well. When you’re not scoring runs consistently, all of a sudden you’re trying to make that perfect pitch, and you’re trying to throw up zeros.”
That can lead to one mistake — a 1-2 fastball left over the zone from Scherzer in the first inning Sunday, for instance — deciding the game. A struggling offense couldn’t climb out of a shallow hole — again.
The slow start and paltry performance at the plate pits the team in a larger divisional hole. According to FivethirtyEight, the Nationals have an 11% chance to make the postseason. For that slim chance to occur, Washington will need something to change, a switch to flip, a ball to land.
“I think it just starts with one hit,” Bell said. “One hit, one driven baseball in a big scenario, where it’s a double somewhere and we’re scoring runs, and everyone can almost exhale and keep playing.”