Observations from and analysis of the Nats’ four-game sweep of the Pirates
Game 1: 3-2 win on Monday night (April 30)
Game 2: 12-4 win on Tuesday night (May 1)
Game 3: 9-3 win on Wednesday night (May 2)
Game 4: 3-1 win on Thursday afternoon (May 3)
1. Excellent series for the Nats. Excellent series for Dave Martinez. He pushed just about every right button, with nothing standing out more than a new-look lineup that had Bryce Harper in the leadoff spot, Trea Turner in the no. 2 spot and Wilmer Difo (who all of a sudden is Jose Altuve) in the no. 9 spot.
2. Bryce Harper drew two intentional walks in the 3-2 win over the Pirates on Monday night; it was after the game that Dave Martinez actually talked about Bryce being frustrated getting walked so much, as at this point Bryce was in a career-worst 12-game extra-base-hit drought.
Then came the 12-4 win over the Pirates on Tuesday night, during which Bryce batted in the leadoff spot for the first time since 2013. What happened? Bryce smashed a one-out three-run first-pitch homer in the bottom of the fifth and drew a walk. It was after this game that he called Martinez “one of the best managers I’ve ever been around.”
Bryce remained in the leadoff spot for the final two games of the series. He in the 9-3 win over the Pirates on Wednesday night had a leadoff homer off Ivan Nova in the bottom of the first off having been down in the count 0-2, a first-pitch two-out RBI single that knocked Nova out of the game in the Nats’ four-run fifth, a leadoff double on a nasty line drive to right field in the bottom of the third on a 1-2 pitch and a two-out RBI force out and a stolen base in the bottom of the fourth. Bryce did go 0-for-4 in the 3-1 win over the Pirates on Thursday afternoon, but him being in the leadoff spot for now seems like a thing.
Martinez batting Bryce in the no. 1 spot is emblematic of why Martinez is the Nats’ manager. A team batting its best hitter high in the lineup and not in the traditional no. 3 or no. 4 spot is a sabermetrics principle predicated on getting that batter as many plate appearances as possible (each spot in the lineup is worth about 17 more plate appearances than the next spot over the course of a season). We had seen plenty of Bryce in the no. 2 spot prior to this series. And while Bryce being moved to the no. 1 spot had as much to do with trying to innoculate him from being intentionally walked so much as with getting him as many plate appearances as possible, the idea here is that the manager is open-minded and progressive. Dusty Baker, for all of his positives, would have never done something like this.
3. We also in this series had the continued rise of Trea Turner. He in the 3-2 win over the Pirates on Monday night batted in the leadoff spot and had a double and two singles, including a full-count RBI single in the Nats’ two-run fourth
Turner batted in the no. 2 spot over the final three games of the series. He in the 12-4 win over the Pirates on Tuesday night had a three-run double in the Nats’ six-run sixth and a walk, though he did get caught stealing for the first time this season. But then Turner in the 3-1 win over the Pirates on Thursday afternoon had a two-out two-run homer in a three-run sixth.
It is power that has been missing for Turner this season. That homer was his first since March 31. This for a guy who slugged .567 in 2016. But Turner is second among qualified Nats with a .374 on-base percentage this season.
4. Another feature to the Nats’ new-look lineup was Matt Adams batting in the no. 3 spot over the final three games of the series. He in the 12-4 win over the Pirates on Tuesday night had a leadoff homer in the bottom of the fourth, a solo homer in the Nats’ four-run fifth and an RBI single on an 0-2 pitch in the Nats’ six-run sixth. Adams in the 9-3 win over the Pirates on Wednesday night had a solo homer in the bottom of the first, an RBI single in the bottom of the third and two walks. And while he did go 0-for-4 in the 3-1 win over the Pirates on Thursday afternoon, Adams now, rather quietly I might add, has put up impressive numbers over 72 plate appearances this season: .403 on-base percentage and a .639 slugging percentage.
5. But the biggest surprise of all regarding the Nats’ new-look lineup is Wilmer Difo, who has been playing third base for the Nats with Anthony Rendon nursing a toe contusion and batted in the no. 8 spot in Game 1 and in the no. 9 spot in Games 2, 3 and 4. He is known for his glove, not his bat. And yet Difo went 7-for-11 with four walks in the series and now has a .379 on-base percentage this season.
Difo in the 3-2 win over the Pirates on Monday night had a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the second and a single in the Nats’ two-run fourth off having been down in the count 1-2. He in the 12-4 win over the Pirates on Tuesday night had a full-count solo homer in the third and a single. He in the 9-3 win over the Pirates on Wednesday night had a double, a single and an RBI forceout. And he in the 3-1 win over the Pirates on Thursday afternoon had a single and two walks.
6. The Nats’ starting pitching in this series was great.
I love how Dave Martinez is handling Jeremy Hellickson. This is a guy who signed with the Nats deep into March. This is a guy who entered this season with a 4.69 ERA and 87 ERA+ over 134 games (including 133 starts) over the previous five seasons. In other words, this is a guy who should have a short leash and should be pulled from most starts prior to facing a lineup for a third time (most pitchers’ numbers plummet when facing a lineup for a third time). And so what did Martinez do in the 3-1 win over the Pirates on Thursday afternoon? He yanked Hellickson after 5 2/3 scoreless innings. More than a few people on Twitter raised eyebrows over this. Whatever. This is exactly how a manager should handle a guy like Hellickson. And ya know what? He has been surprisingly good for the Nats now over four starts: 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, .661 opponents’ OPS.
Stephen Strasburg hopefully started a quality May with his work in the 9-3 win over the Pirates on Wednesday night. He allowed three runs (two earned) in seven innings on 11 strikeouts versus seven hits and a walk. Strasburg gave up a run in the top of the first thanks in part to back-to-back one-out singles by Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte and a Trea Turner missed-catch error. And Strasburg gave up a run in the top of the third on a two-out first-pitch RBI single by Corey Dickerson and gave up a one-out first-pitch solo homer to Francisco Cervelli in the top of the sixth. But the 11 strikeouts were a season high and came off a very uneven April, during which he allowed just two runs in 15 innings in the 4-1 win over Atlanta on April 10 and the 4-0 loss at the Dodgers on April 21 but was bad in his other three starts in the month: 13 runs in 18 1/3 innings.
Max Scherzer in the 12-4 win over the Pirates on Tuesday night had another good start, allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings on eight strikeouts versus just three hits and two walks. He threw 71 of his 106 pitches for strikes. And Max had a two-out RBI single in the Nats’ six-run sixth.
Tanner Roark in the 3-2 win over the Pirates on Monday night was good for the fourth time in six starts this season, allowing two runs in seven innings on just six hits and two walks. Roark tossed four scoreless innings before giving up a two-out RBI double to the opposing pitcher of all people, Jameson Taillon. on a 1-2 pitch in the top of the fifth and then allowed a leadoff full-count homer to Corey Dickerson (who chokes up on his bat like crazy) in the top of the seventh despite having had him down in the count 1-2. But otherwise Roark was good. And he benefited from his defense, as he got a Trea Turner-to-Ryan Zimmerman double play to end the top of the second and saw Matt Wieters gun down Gregory Polanco on an attempted steal to end the top of the third. Roark now has a 3.55 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over six starts this season. And Roark had an RBI single in the Nats’ two-run fourth on Monday night.
7. The Nats’ bullpen had a nice series, allowing just three runs (two earned) in 10 innings.
A well-rested Sean Doolittle recorded a five-out save (his first since 2015) in the 3-1 win over the Pirates on Thursday afternoon, tossing 1 2/3 perfect innings off entering the game with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the eighth. This was yet another smart move by Dave Martinez in this series – going to his ace reliever in the top of the eighth in a high-leverage situation. The move worked out beautifully. Ryan Madson was charged with an unearned run off Howie Kendrick botching a grounder that should have led to a double play for the second and third outs. Brandon Kintzler and Sammy Solis combined for 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
Madson tossed a perfect eighth and Kintzler tossed a perfect ninth in the 3-2 win over the Pirates on Monday night. Kintzler closed the game because Doolittle had pitched in all three games in the series loss to Arizona last weekend.
The 12-4 win over the Pirates on Tuesday night saw Wander Suero and Solis combine for 1 2/3 scoreless innings, but Carlos Torres allowed a meaningless two-out two-run homer by Max Moroff in the top of the ninth. The Nats on Monday recalled Suero from Triple-A Syracuse. He is one of the team’s more enticing relief prospects, having led the Nats’ minor-league system with a combined 20 saves for Syracuse and Double-A Harrisburg last season, during which he averaged 9.0 K/9 over 65 1/3 innings.
Trevor Gott and Torres each tossed a scoreless inning in the 9-3 win over the Pirates on Wednesday night.