Late in Tuesday night’s loss to the Atlanta Braves, Kyle Schwarber hit a chopper over the pitcher’s head. The ball wasn’t particularly well hit — and the charging second baseman still threw Schwarber out by several paces.
But Josh Bell, who stood on third base with one out, trotted home. The run didn’t matter in the grand scheme of the loss. Still, Schwarber’s production stood out to Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez.
“Put the ball in play, put the pressure on the other team,” Martinez said. “Because anything can happen when you do that.”
Washington needs more of that. Early in the season, the team’s batting average with runners in scoring position sits in the basement of Major League Baseball. The Nationals are averaging 3.52 runs per game entering Wednesday’s contest, the third fewest in baseball.
The Nationals navigated the first week of their season with several key players on the coronavirus protocol list, and Juan Soto just returned this week from a stint on the 10-day injured list. Those are factors in the offensive slump to begin the year. But to Martinez, overthinking also plays a role, with players looking for the grand when the simplistic would do.
“I know there’s times when you’re not scoring runs you do get up there and you get an opportunity to score a lot of runs because bases are loaded or there’s first and second or second and third, and they press and try to do too much,” Martinez said. “Just a single in a particular moment can change the game for us.”
Last season, despite Washington finishing six games below .500, the bats came through in key opportunities. The Nationals hit .277 with runners in scoring position, the sixth best average in MLB. They scored 4.88 runs per game, the 10th most.
The largest catalysts for those tallies were Soto and Trea Turner, who hit .421 and .378 with runners in scoring position, respectively, en route to a combined 78 RBIs during the shortened season. Josh Harrison (.320) and Adam Eaton (.351) were also productive players in those moments.
Spotty pitching still rendered those numbers insufficient at times, leaving Washington in last place in the National League East and missing the playoffs one year after securing a World Series title. For the Nationals this season, there’s less room for error on the mound or in the field than last year — and there’s never much to begin with.
With a .217 batting average with runners in scoring position entering play Wednesday — fourth-worst in the league — Washington has struggled to break games open. The team has scored three runs or fewer in 52% of their games before Wednesday, and some of their expected key contributors have regressed in that area.
Soto’s sample size is limited given his recent stint on the injured list with a shoulder strain. But in his first 17 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, he’s hitting .231 — although he was walked five times. That’s .190 percentage points below his 2020 batting average in those scenarios.
For Turner, who’s hitting .320 with 10 RBIs entering Wednesday, his statistics have dropped off slightly from 2020. He has a .235 average with five strikeouts and two RBIs with runners in scoring position. One of those punchouts came Sunday, with Victor Robles standing on third in the first inning with one out. Turner couldn’t put the ball in play, and Ryan Zimmerman followed with a strikeout to end the threat (although Zimmerman’s three-run blast later gave Washington all the offense it needed in the win).
And then there’s Josh Bell, the offseason trade acquisition. The Nationals sought out Bell, hoping the first baseman would return to his 2019 self after a rough 2020, to give their lineup more punch. There have been glimmers of a turnaround that hasn’t been completely realized yet.
Bell hit .336 with runners in scoring position for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019 before regressing to .184 last season. Entering Wednesday, Bell is hitting just .158 in those situations. Still, six of his nine RBIs have come when runners were in scoring position.
For the Nationals to improve, clutch performances from those three — with others following — would go a long way.
But Martinez takes heart that Washington is getting runners on base. The next step of the puzzle for a team pushing to make a run in the mediocre NL East, though, is turning those chances into runs.
“We’ve had a lot of opportunities to do that. We haven’t done it in a consistent basis,” Martinez said. “We just gotta get better at it, and it’s more or less not trying to do too much. Sometimes you’ve just got to move the baseball.”