Washington Nationals Week in Review: July 27–Aug. 2

Starlin Castro ended his tumultuous week with a four-hit game on Thursday. (Photo: Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

It was a bizarre week across major league baseball, and the Nationals were as affected by it as almost anyone. They were scheduled to play seven games – two at home vs. the Blue Jays, two in Toronto (which later became Buffalo), and three in Miami vs. the Marlins. Instead, they played four straight home games against the Blue Jays and sat at home for the rest of the week due to COVID-19 concerns.

Without delving into the weeds of the disease, it’s safe to say that the Nationals were fortunate to only be affected by it as minimally as they were. Nonetheless, they’re three games behind where they would’ve otherwise been if the Marlins were healthy enough to play.

In terms of on-field play, the Nationals split the four-game series with Toronto, losing the two “home games” (4-1 and 5-1) before rallying to win both “road games” (4-0 and 6-4), bringing them back within one game of .500 (3-4), just like they were when Week 1 ended.

As their record suggests, essentially everything about the series was average, but a few performances stood out above the rest.

Max Scherzer

After a strange outing on Opening Night – four runs on six hits with four walks and 11 strikeouts – he threw a vintage “Mad Max” game on Wednesday:

7 innings, 3 hits, 0 runs, 3 walks, 10 strikeouts, 112 pitches (70 strikes)

Whereas Scherzer had strikeout stuff while also being hittable in his season debut, he had the entire arsenal at its best in start No. 2. It’s something for him to build upon, but it also felt like it was bound to happen, anyway.

Starlin Castro

Aside from his two extra-base hits (his only hits in 10 at bats), Castro’s first week in D.C. was unimpressive. Even aside from his struggles at the plate, he committed an error and briefly dropped from third to sixth in the batting order.

It wasn’t a perfect week because he also committed two errors, but Castro’s bat definitely heated up in the latest slate of games:

7-15, (6 singles and 1 double), 2 runs, 1 walk, 2 strikeouts

In four games, Castro’s batting average rose from .200 to .360, and he’s climbed back to the No. 3 hole in the lineup.

Carter Kieboom

First, to address the elephant in the room, Kieboom isn’t playing enough to develop like he’s supposed to. He only played in one of the team’s first five games, and that was as a designated hitter. That changed in Week 2.

Kieboom ended this week on a very high note. He drew starts on Wednesday (DH) and Thursday (third base), and he didn’t disappoint.

For the most part, he looked great at the plate:

3-5 (all singles), 3 runs, 3 walks, 2 strikeouts

His statistical improvement was even more exaggerated than Castro’s. Kieboom’s batting average rose from .250 to .444, and his on-base percentage climbed from .250 all the way to .583 (seven of 12 plate appearances).

Kieboom had a big week at the plate, but the strides he made in the field – where Asdrubal Cabrera was most-noticeably superior – were substantial and unexpected. This was probably the first stretch in which his on-field appearance in the big leagues matched his accolades as a prospect.

The Bullpen

Weird things are happening in the bullpen. Sean Doolittle was supposed to be the closer, with free agent signee Will Harris as one of the team’s two other late-inning relievers.

Instead, the configuration has gotten flipped. Daniel Hudson has emerged as the closer, and Tanner Rainey has inserted himself as the rubber arm who can get the Nationals out of late-inning jams, in addition to being the eight-inning setup man, with Doolittle and Harris serving as earlier-inning arms.

In a more broad sense, however, the non-frontline relievers have looked great – much better than Doolittle and Harris.

It turns out that Harris was dealing with a right groin strain, and he was sent to the injured list on Friday – retroactive to Wednesday, July 29. No corresponding transaction has been announced.

Simulated Game Notes

With the extended layoff, the Nationals held intrasquad games in Frederickburg, Virginia on Saturday and Sunday. In part, that was to keep players fresh, but they also served as opportunities to give some key players game-like reps as they look to return to action.

Juan Soto

We all know Soto was stuck in a perplexing standoff related to a failed COVID-19 test. He made his long-awaited return to the field on Saturday. By all accounts, it was a positive showing.

He also played on Sunday, and the results were more or less the same. The next step is getting him into regular season games.

Stephen Strasburg

The No. 2 starting pitcher was slated to follow Scherzer in the rotation, throwing on July 25 and 30. Instead, Erick Fedde made those starts – more on that later.

On Sunday, Strasburg took a major step in his return to the field.

Because of the postponed games (and an off-day on Thursday, August 6) Strasburg’s spot in the rotation won’t need to come up until Tuesday, August 11. However, they’d understandably prefer to have him back sooner than that.

Wander Suero

Aside from Harris, Adrian Sanchez and Roenis Elias, Suero is Washington’s only other player on the IL. He also appeared in action over the weekend.

Now that Harris is sidelined, Suero could add some much-needed depth to the later portion the Nationals’ bullpen. However, that likely won’t happen until his “stuff” returns to its typical form. Unlike last year, it doesn’t (for now) look like the Nationals will need to wear out their most talented relief arms.

Extra Notes

There’s no great way of categorizing these points, but here we go!

  • Catcher Tres Barrera was recently suspended for 80 games over the use of a banned substance.
  • Erick Fedde made his second start of the season on Thursday.
    • The Nationals won the game, but in typical Fedde fashion, Dave Martinez pulled him early.
  • James Bourque, Sam Freeman and Ryne Harper threw a combined 4.2 scoreless innings, each remaining unscored upon this season.
    • Kyle Finnegan (1 inning) also has a 0.00 ERA, but didn’t pitch in the four games this week.
  • Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames each fought through minor back pain this week.
    • Kendrick didn’t play on Wednesday, and neither of them started on Thursday.
      • Left-handed Hyun Jin Ryu was Toronto’s starting pitcher on Thursday, which is why Thames didn’t start.
    • Thames did not participate in the weekend’s simulated games, but Kendrick did on Sunday.
  • Washington signed infielder Josh Harrison on Monday and optioned catcher/first baseman Raudy Read to Fredericksburg.
    • Harrison made his first appearance as the starting DH on Thursday.
      • He batted sixth – between Kurt Suzuki and Kieboom – and went 0-4 with a strikeout.
  • Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Castro, Cabrera, and Victor Robles each started all four games this week.
    • Turner and Eaton stayed the top two hitters in the lineup all week.
    • Castro batted third and sixth two times apiece.
    • Cabrera hit third once, fourth twice, and fifth one time.
      • Three of his starts came at third base, but he filled in at first base on Thursday.
      • He went just 3-18 (single, double, triple with no walks and three strikeouts) this week.
    • Robles batted seventh once, eighth twice, and ninth once.
      • He went 2-4 in both games he batted eighth (Monday and Thursday), but a combined 0-7 with four strikeouts in the other two games.
  • Suzuki started three of the four games, batting fifth twice and seventh once.
  • Yan Gomes caught for Austin Voth on Monday.
    • He batted eighth – between Robles and Emilio Bonifacio – and went 0-3 with a strikeout.
  • Michael A. Taylor (Monday and Thursday), Bonifacio (Tuesday) and Andrew Stevenson (Wednesday) each made starts in left field.
    • Taylor had the trio’s lone hit – a two-run home run.
    • Bonifacio replaced Castro as a pinch-runner (the automatic 10th-inning runner on second base) – and eventually scored – on Wednesday.
    • Stevenson had a stolen base as a pinch-runner for Thames (who was pinch-hitting for Taylor) on Thursday.

Looking Ahead

Assuming things go according to plan – which is less likely this year than it typically would be – here’s the Nationals’ upcoming schedule, including likely starting pitchers:

  • Monday: off
  • Tuesday: Max Scherzer (unofficial) vs. Mets (Steven Matz, official), 7:05 p.m. on MASN2/ESPN and 106.7 WJFK-FM
  • Wednesday: Patrick Corbin (unofficial) vs. Mets (Rick Porcello, official), 6:05 p.m. on MASN2/MLB Network and 106.7 WJFK-FM
  • Thursday: off
  • Friday: Anibal Sanchez (unofficial) vs. Orioles (Alex Cobb, unofficial), 6:05 p.m. on MASN (O’s on MASN2) and 106.7 WJFK-FM
  • Saturday: Austin Voth (unofficial) vs. Orioles (John Means, unofficial), 6:05 p.m. on MASN and 106.7 WJFK-FM
  • Sunday: Max Scherzer (unofficial) vs. Orioles (Wade LeBlanc, unofficial), 12:35 p.m. on MASN and 106.7 WJFK-FM

On Friday, the Nationals will also have to trim their roster from 30 players to 28. Assuming they don’t simply place someone on the IL to clear space, that means two players will have to either be optioned to Fredericksburg or – if they’re out of minor league options – designated for assignment and taken off the 40-man roster.

Without pretending to know what they’ll do, here are some potential routes they could go:

Minor League Option

  • Erick Fedde
  • James Bourque
  • RKyle Finnegan
  • Andrew Stevenson

Designate For Assignment

  • Sam Freeman
  • Javy Guerra
  • Wilmer Difo
  • Emilio Bonifacio

Once Strasburg returns, Fedde’s role becomes unclear. He hasn’t shown himself to be a capable relief pitcher up until now, but they may give him a chance anyway simply based on his potential.

Bourque and Finnegan are each rookies, but their roles as relievers are more clear than Fedde, and they’re pitching well so far this season.

Freeman and Guerra are also both pitching well out of the bullpen and the team might not want to expose them to waivers or free agency, but they also have less long-term value than other players.

With Soto returning, it becomes unnecessary to carry a sixth outfielder (either Stevenson or Bonifacio). Stevenson has a minor league option remaining, but he may have inspired enough confidence last year to outlast Bonifacio.

Difo might be the most intriguing. Once a top-five prospect in the organization, he never truly found his way. Even his roles as a switch-hitter, pinch-runner or defensive replacement in the infield are capabilities than Bonifacio also has – plus outfield ability, which Difo doesn’t have. Difo’s lone appearance this season was as a 10th-inning defensive replacement on Wednesday.

As always, keep an eye on @stephen_newman1 on Twitter for thoughts on lineups, in-game situations and more – as well as the bullpen tracker, which provides daily insight on which relievers are available and where they stand in the eyes of Martinez.

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