What to make of Nats’ start

The Nats are off to a 2-4 start. Not ideal, but in any normal year, no real reason to worry. If they can win the next couple series, it’s back to smooth sailing. Except this year is not any normal year. The normal 162 games are condensed to just 60, making every game count nearly three times as much as it normally would.

Last year, the team bounced back from a 19-31 start to win the World Series, but they can’t afford to go 19-31 this year. 10 percent of the season is already gone, and it just started a week ago. Juan Soto and Stephen Strasburg have yet to appear on the field this year. Last night’s 4-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays could have gone either way, and a loss would have been disastrous.

The New York Yankees were as great as advertised on the rain-shortened Opening Day. The team didn’t really have a chance to overcome the 4-1 deficit, but given how Gerrit Cole was pitching, I’m not sure they would have. The team bounced back in Game 2, with Victor Robles leading the team to a 9-2 win. Rounding out the opening series was a Patrick Corbin gem wasted by the bullpen in late innings. It felt like a reverse of all the elimination games in the 2019 postseason; Will Harris even gave up the tying run.

What followed was a lack of offense and a surplus of frustration. Aníbal Sánchez allowed six hits, walked one batter and struck out seven across five innings of work. Not shabby. The only problem: four of those six hits were home runs. All solo shots. Austin Voth allowed just four hits the following night… two of which were solo home runs. The Nats scored just one run in each game.

Last night saw the team nearly waste a Max Scherzer gem. Two days after turning 36, Mad Max pitched 7.1 innings, allowing just three hits, three walks and zero runs all while striking out 10 batters. Toronto’s Nate Pearson made his MLB debut and was kept to just five innings of work, but he looked filthy. The eighth-ranked prospect in baseball allowed just two hits, walked two additional batters and struck out five.

The game was 0-0 after nine innings, thanks to an incredible 1.2 inning, three-strikout night for Daniel Hudson and a strong showing from the Toronto bullpen that allowed just one hit between four relievers. Nats fans then got to see the new extra innings rule up close.

With Emilio Bonifácio starting the inning on second and Carter Kieboom and Andrew Stevenson drawing walks in two stellar at bats, Robles and Trea Turner struck out, leaving Adam Eaton in a do-or-die situation to get a run across the plate. An infield single led to a photo finish at second base between Stevenson and Toronto second baseman Cavan Biggio. After a lengthy review, the safe call was upheld and the Nats officially led 1-0 with the bases still loaded.

The next at bat, designated hitter Asdrúbal Cabrera smacked a clutch base-clearing triple to pad the lead at 4-0. Tanner Rainey struck out the next three batters in the bottom of the 10th, except the third batter reached first on a wild pitch strike three, keeping Toronto’s hopes alive. The next batter flew out to center, and the Nats won just their second game of the season. It may be the narrowest 4-0 victory in recent memory.

The Nats and Blue Jays will face off once more today at 4:05, where Erick Fedde will make his second start in place of Strasburg against last year’s NL Cy Young finalist Hyun-Jin Ryu. A win will put the team just one game behind .500, where a loss will keep them at the bottom of the NL East.

In such a short season, a string of losses could quickly become an insurmountable hole, even this early in a season with an expanded playoff field. The 60-game equivalent to a 19-31 start is about 7-11, though to be fair, I’m not sure that’s really comparable. Being four games under .500 is a lot easier to overcome than 12.

Still, a 2-4 start can’t just be brushed off as it would in normal years. It’s not a doomsday scenario just yet, but if the team can’t start scraping together wins soon, then they may not even have the chance to repeat. The suspension of the Miami Marlins’ season and the complications that have just arisen with the Philadelphia Phillies puts the state of the division in flux — possibly two NL East teams that will have to make up games at a later date — so the standings may get complicated.

The Nats are technically last in the division at 2-4, while the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets are both 3-3. Both Miami and Philadelphia have played just three games; Philly is 1-2 and Miami is 2-1 (they played each other in the opening series). With every team playing each team in their own division 10 times, the Nats will have plenty of chances to elevate themselves.

How will they do that? As expected, the starting pitching has been a strength. Scherzer struck out 10-plus batters in both starts, and every other pitcher has looked solid in their first outing… except for when it comes to allowing home runs. Of the 18 runs the team has allowed so far this season, 11 were off home runs. Seems obvious, but if the pitching staff can start keeping the ball in the park, it will be a significant boost.

The offense, meanwhile, is desperately missing Soto. They’ve encountered several strong pitching performances, such as Cole in the opener and Pearson in his debut last night, but there have been times where it looks like the team can’t even hit a beach ball.

Outside of the usual suspects (Turner, Eaton and Robles), there has not been much offense. Cabrera and Starlin Castro have been decent, while the rest have had minimal success, albeit with a small sample size. Hopefully the pitching staff will start allowing fewer home runs, but even that won’t matter if the lineup can’t provide run support, so everyone will have to step up at the plate.

One interesting thing to note is that the team is 2-0 with Kieboom in the lineup and 0-4 without. The rookie is starting at third base again tonight, so hopefully that trend will continue. In two games this year, Kieboom is 2-for-7 with one walk and three strikeouts, and he has yet to tally a home run or RBI. The growing pains are there, but hopefully he will continue to develop over the next few weeks.

The team was supposed to play Miami following the series with the Blue Jays, which would have provided a prime opportunity to snatch up some much-needed wins, but instead the team will have to wait until Aug. 4, where they will spend roughly the next two weeks alternating between series against the Mets and the Baltimore Orioles. It will be here where the team needs to catch fire in order to put themselves in a good position, as better teams like Atlanta, Tampa Bay and possibly Philadelphia will lie ahead.

These first six games have not been promising, but the Yankees are one of the best teams in baseball, and the Blue Jays have proven worthy opponents. It also doesn’t help to miss two of your biggest stars. There’s still time for things to fall into place for the Nationals, but a win tonight would go a long way.

Cover Photo Credit: Curly W MLB Blog

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