Observations from and analysis of the Nats’ series loss at the Braves
Game 1: 8-1 win on Monday night (April 2)
Game 2: 13-6 loss on Tuesday night (April 3)
Game 3: 7-1 loss on Wednesday afternoon (April 4)
1. A series that started off great for the Nats ended with them giving up 20 runs over the final two games, both of which were losses. And nothing was more surprising than seeing Max Scherzer struggle as he did in the 7-1 loss at the Braves on Wednesday afternoon. He allowed five runs (though just two were earned) in five innings on an astounding 110 pitches. Think about that; he threw 110 pitches in just five innings. Max gave up six hits, including a homer and three doubles, and issued two walks and a wild pitch. He did have seven strikeouts, and he also had a two-out RBI single in the top of the second for the Nats’ lone run in the game.
Most disappointing was what happened in the bottom of the first. Max gave up a two-out double to the notorious Nats killer, Freddie Freeman. Then came a Wilmer Difo fielding error on a Nick Markakis grounder that should have ended the inning. Difo, who was outstanding defensively at shortstop last season, booted the ball at second base, putting runners on first and third. OK, bad luck for Max, but there still were two outs. But he then gave up a three-run homer to Preston Tucker on a 1-2 pitch, as Max seemed to leave a curveball too far up, and Tucker punished the mistake.
Max gave up two more runs in the bottom of the fourth and again with two outs. He issued a leadoff walk to Tucker and then gave up a single to Charlie Culberson on a 1-2 pitch. Then came back-to-back strikeouts of former Oriole Ryan Flaherty and Carlos Perez. But then came Max giving up a two-out two-run double to the Braves’ starting pitcher, Mike Foltynewicz, on a 2-2 pitch.
Interestingly, 71 of Max’s 110 pitches were strikes. But his location was off on some key pitches, and he failed to put away multiple batters despite favorable counts.
2. So, uh, how did A.J. Cole do in his season debut? He got bombed. A man who the Nats very clearly like a lot had yet another bad major-league outing in the 13-6 loss at the Braves on Tuesday night. Cole allowed 10 runs in 3 2/3 innings. He gave up 10 hits, including two homers and two doubles, and three walks.
Cole allowed four runs in the bottom of the first, allowing four consecutive batters to reach base with one out: first-pitch single by Ozzie Albies, five-pitch walk to the notorious Nats killer Freddie Freeman, first-pitch RBI double by former Oriole Nick Markakis, three-run homer by Preston Tucker.
Cole allowed four runs in the bottom of the second. He walked two of the first three batters he faced (including Ender Inciarte on four pitches) and then gave up a first-pitch RBI single to Albies followed by a three-run homer to (who else?) Freeman.
Cole allowed a run on three consecutive singles to begin the bottom of the third and then allowed another run in the bottom of the fourth on a two-out first-pitch double by Tucker followed by an RBI single by Dansby Swanson.
You might be wondering why Cole was allowed to stay in the game for so long, and I was wondering the same thing. Cole actually hit a one-out solo homer off Julio Teheran in the top of the second, but Dave Martinez inexplicably allowed Cole to bat with two outs, the bases loaded and the Nats trailing 8-5 in the top of the third. He popped out on the first pitch to the Braves’ second baseman, Albies. That was a bad job by Martinez. Cole had no business batting in that spot given how wretched he had been.
And so the beat goes on with Cole. The Nats spent a fourth-round pick on him in 2010, dealt him to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez trade in Dec. 2011 but then traded back for him in the three-team trade with the A’s and Seattle in Jan. 2013. He has appeared in 23 major-league games with 18 starts over the last four seasons. His ERA is 5.23. His WHIP is 1.52. I get that not every good pitcher is good from the get-go. But at what point will the Nats fall out of love with this guy?
3. This is a big season for Tanner Roark. He has struggled in two of the last three seasons, wasn’t used at all in the Nats’ five-game NLDS loss to the Cubs last October and is set to be a free agent after the 2019 season. We know how good he can be given how great he was in the 2014 and 2016 seasons. But he needs to perform well and demonstrate some consistency. Well, he got off to a great start in the 81 win at the Braves on Monday night: one run in seven innings with six strikeouts versus just four singles, a walk and a wild pitch. He pounded the zone, throwing 62 of his 93 pitches for strikes. The only damage that Roark allowed came on an RBI single by who else but that notorious Nats killer Freddie Freeman in the bottom of the fourth. But otherwise Roark was really good.
4. The Nats’ offense was great over the first two games of the series, totaling 14 runs and 19 hits. The offense cooled off in the 7-1 loss at the Braves on Wednesday afternoon, but the Nats still had six walks in that game off having 10 walks in the 8-1 win at the Braves on Monday night and six walks in the 13-6 loss at the Braves on Tuesday night. Yes, the Nats worked 22 walks over the three games. The Nats as of games through Wednesday led the majors with 36 walks
Bryce Harper blasted a first-pitch three-run homer off Sean Newcomb in the top of the second and worked four walks in Game 1, had a first-pitch leadoff homer in the top of the third and a walk in Game 2 and worked two more walks in Game 3. Harper’s slash line through six games this season is .333/.517/1.000.
Ryan Zimmerman had a two-run homer in the top of the first and a single in Game 2, snapping a 1-for-12 slump to begin his season.
5. The Nats on Monday placed Matt Wieters on the 10-day disabled list with a mild left oblique strain and recalled Pedro Severino from Triple-A Syracuse.
This is obviously a bad sign for Wieters, who is coming off an abysmal 2017 in which he had a negative Wins Above Replacement (-0.6 bWAR, meaning that he was below the level of a replacement player) and was the worst hitting catcher in the majors (wRC+ of 62, which was no. 33 out of 33 catchers each with at least 300 plate appearances). Oblique injuries can be nagging and lasting. Hopefully that’s not the case for Wieters, but an injury like this was about the last thing that he wanted in trying to author a bounce-back campaign.
As for Severino, this is where he needs to rise up. As recently as 2016 this guy was lauded as the Nats’ catcher of the future. But then came the Nats’ surprising (and foolish) signing of Wieters in Feb. 2017 followed by a bad season for Severino, who he struggled with injuries at ineffectiveness for Triple-A Syracuse in 2017. Severino was ranked as the “Best Defensive Catcher” in the Nats’ system entering the 2018 season per Baseball America. But he is not even considered the Nats’ best catching prospect overall; MLB Pipeline had him as their no. 20 overall prospect versus fellow Dominican catcher Raudy Read being no.13.
Severino did have a good game in the 8-1 win at the Braves on Monday night, providing a leadoff single on an 0-2 pitch in the top of the second, a five-pitch leadoff walk in the top of the fourth, a two-out RBI infield single on an 0-2 pitch in the top of the fifth, a two-out walk despite having been down 1-2 in the count in the top of the seventh and a hit-by-pitch in the top of the ninth. Severino was hit by another pitch in the 7-1 loss at the Braves on Wednesday afternoon.
Dave Martinez started Miguel Montero at catcher in the 13-6 loss at the Braves on Tuesday night. He went 0-for-3 with a walk and 0-for-1 on runners trying to steal. Montero didn’t start the loss at the Braves on Wednesday afternoon, but he did have a run-scoring passed ball in the the Braves’ two-run eighth.
Montero was atrocious for Toronto after being DFA’d by the Cubs last season, posting an OPS+ of 30 over 101 plate appearances with the Blue Jays. He entered this season 12-for-117 on runners trying to steal over the last two seasons. You may recall what happened last June 27. A 6-1 win over the Cubs included the Nats matching a Nats/Expos single-game record with seven stolen bases. All seven of the steals came off the same catcher-pitcher combo – the Montero-Jake Arrieta battery. Montero fell to 1-for-32 on runners trying to steal for the season. And he hysterically threw Arrieta under the bus after the game. The Cubs designated Montero for assignment the next day.
6. Shawn Kelley and Matt Grace each tossed a perfect inning in the 8-1 win at the Braves on Monday night. Kelley had two strikeouts in the bottom of the eighth. He also tossed a perfect sixth in the 13-6 loss at the Braves on Tuesday night, during which Sammy Solis struck out the side in a perfect seventh.
I know that these were just two outings for Kelley, but boy did he need them. Kelley was atrocious last season, giving up 12 homers in 26 innings in nearly tripling his HR/9 from 2016 (1.40 to 4.15). But Kelley was no. 10 among qualified major-league relievers in K/9 in 2016 at 12.41. He’s a two-time Tommy John-surgery guy, but he can be terrific. We just didn’t see that last season.
Grace also had a second strong outing in the series, tossing two scoreless innings in the 7-1 loss at the Braves on Wednesday afternoon.
7. Enny Romero and Trevor Gott struggled in the 13-6 loss at the Braves on Tuesday night. Romero hit the first batter he faced, former Oriole Ryan Flaherty, with two outs in the bottom of the fourth and then gave up a run in the bottom of the fifth on a two-out full-count double by Ozzie Albies followed by a two-out full-count RBI single by (who else) the notorious Nats killer Freddie Freeman. Gott gave up two runs in the bottom of the eighth on a leadoff walk to Freeman followed by a double by former Oriole Nick Markakis and then a pinch RBI single by Lane Adams. Gott also issued a one-out four-pitch walk of Flaherty.
Gott then struggled again in the 7-1 loss at the Braves on Wednesday afternoon. He gave up two runs (one earned) in the bottom of the eighth on a leadoff pinch walk of Adams, a one-out RBI double by Flaherty and a two-out run-scoring passed ball by Miguel Montero, though Gott was late covering home plate as Flaherty scored from second, which is inexcusable.