The first week of September wasn’t particularly kind to the Nationals. That’s particularly inopportune for them, given that their seven games came against the rival Mets and Braves, both of whom they are competing with for playoff positioning.
The Nationals entered the week 77–58. They exit it 79–63. Here’s a look at how they got here.
For as strong as the rotation is, this week was not a good one. They averaged slightly over five innings collectively, and every single one of them gave up at least one home run per start.
Joe Ross: 3.2 innings, 8 hits, 7 runs (1 home run), 3 walks, 4 strikeouts, 85 pitches (53 strikes)
Max Scherzer: 6 innings, 5 hits, 4 runs (1 home run), 1 walk, 7 strikeouts, 90 pitches (61 strikes)
Anibal Sanchez: 5 innings, 8 hits, 7 runs (3 home runs), 3 walks, 2 strikeouts, 74 pitches (46 strikes)
Stephen Strasburg: 6 innings, 4 hits, 3 runs (1 home run), 4 walks, 7 strikeouts, 115 pitches (71 strikes)
Patrick Corbin: 5 innings, 3 hits, 2 runs (1 earned, 1 home run), 6 walks, 9 strikeouts, 107 pitches (63 strikes)
Austin Voth: 4 innings, 3 hits, 2 runs (2 home runs), 2 walks, 6 strikeouts, 75 pitches (47 strikes)
Max Scherzer: 6 innings, 2 hits, 1 run (home run), 2 walks, 9 strikeouts, 98 pitches (64 strikes)
Ross also experienced forearm discomfort ahead of his scheduled start on Saturday, which he can ill-afford, considering how far he came just to get himself back into the rotation — including arm injuries.
Aside from Roenis Elias (who re-injured his hamstring), the bullpen had a decent week. The lone true exception is Daniel Hudson, who gave up three runs to the Mets on Tuesday — his lone outing. However, the appearance was extended by an error before anyone had scored.
Sean Doolittle pitched two shutout innings (three if you include September 1), but none of his action was in a save situation. With Elias (the only other lefty in the bullpen) inactive, his usage could get interesting.
Fernando Rodney had one bad outing (one run on two hits, a walk, and a wild pitch on Wednesday) and two good ones. Hunter Strickland gave up two home runs to left-handed hitters against the Braves on Saturday, but was otherwise clean.
Wander Suero had one bad appearance, but the two runs he gave up on Friday were via a home run from red-hot Josh Donaldson. Aside from that, he hadn’t given up a run since August 20 (8.1 innings) and threw another shutout frame on Sunday.
Tanner Rainey had three shutout one-inning appearances, and Aaron Barrett made his long-awaited return to the big leagues — he walked a batter but retired the next three, including a strikeout of Ronald Acuña Jr.
Going forward (aside from establishing who pitches when later this month and in the postseason), Dave Martinez needs to make a decision in regards to Erick Fedde. Starting Ross (in particular) and Voth ahead of him isn’t crazy, but not using him at all is. He could have easily brought Fedde out for the fifth inning on Saturday — after Voth only went four — and asked for about nine outs from him. It would’ve taken a lot of stress off the rest of the bullpen, and that may be a role that Fedde can play in the postseason, since the Nationals don’t have a long reliever — Javy Guerra, who has been used in that role, doesn’t truly fit it, nor has he had acceptable results.
Martinez also needs to stop relying on the same relievers in set roles. He has enough quality pitchers at his disposal to avoid using them three straight nights (like he did with Rodney this week), yet it continues to happen far too frequently. Some more September call-ups also might not be the worst idea.
Breaking down the entire lineup is unnecessary; there are too many ebbs and flows during a 162-game season. However, there are a few battles that need to be resolved.
The most consequential dilemma at this stage in the season is the distribution of reps at first and second base. There’s actually a rather simple solution.
Asdrubal Cabrera should start at second against right-handed pitchers, Ryan Zimmerman should start at first against lefties (and sometimes righties), and Howie Kendrick should help fill in the rest of the time. He can play second when Cabrera sits and first when Zimmerman does. They should each end up starting roughly two-thirds of games. Brian Dozier and Matt Adams should be relegated to pinch-hitting roles (and Dozier might fit as a defensive replacement in the playoffs).
The Nationals also need to figure out who their fourth outfielder is. Adam Eaton sat out much of this week, and Michael A. Taylor made two starts in right field. Gerardo Parra’s bat has gone extremely cold, so he no longer seems to be the answer. Andrew Stevenson has been great as a pinch hitter, but Martinez hasn’t been willing to use him as any more than that this season.
Kurt Suzuki suffered a right elbow injury on Saturday and may be inactive for a while. In his absence, the Nationals need to figure out who the second catcher is. In fact, it’s not impossible that one of Raudy Read and just-promoted Tres Barrera (both of whom were September call-ups) could jump ahead of Yan Gomes — although his case for heavy reps was helped immensely by his two-home run game on Sunday (his first since 2017).
Perhaps this is nitpicking, but someone who could spell Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon at times would be nice. They never get days off. Carter Kieboom made all the sense in the world, but Washington has opted to keep him in extended spring training and not promote him unless an injury takes place.
There’s still time for the Nationals to right the ship, but they need to hurry. Their wide lead for the top wild card position has shrunk to three games over the Cubs, and their deficit in the NL East is up to nine games.
Looking ahead to next week, the Nationals travel to Minnesota on Tuesday, then return home to face the Braves again, and kick off the following week in St. Louis, continuing a pivotal stretch.