1. The Nationals have another opportunity to beat a good team with their two-game series at the major-league-leading Yankees on Tuesday night and Wednesday night. The truth is that the Nats have not done well against good teams lately. We had the three-game, two-day sweep to the Dodgers from May 19-20. We had the Nats losing three of four at Atlanta from May 31-June 3. We had the Nats losing two of three to San Francisco (which had been playing well) this past weekend. Mixed in with all of this have been winning two of three over San Diego, three-game sweeps at Miami and the Orioles and a two-game sweep of Tampa Bay, which came out of that series having lost six straight. There’s nothing wrong with beating up on bad teams, but it would be nice to see the Nats do well against the good teams, even with all of the Nats’ injuries.
2. So here we go again with Stephen Strasburg. He in the 9-5 loss to San Francisco on Friday night left after just two innings due to a right-shoulder injury and, off an MRI exam on Saturday, was placed on the 10-day disabled list on Sunday with what is being called right-shoulder inflammation. The injury actually makes some sense, as Strasburg a) has looked uncomfortable on the mound lately and b) just hasn’t quite been himself this season. Strasburg on Friday night allowed three runs in two innings on five hits, including a first-inning two-out solo homer by Andrew McCutchen (who had been down in the count 0-2) and two doubles and two singles (all with no outs) in a two-run Giants second. Strasburg has an ERA of 3.46 and WHIP of 1.09 over 13 starts this season; those certainly aren’t terrible numbers, but what has stood out big time is the extent to which he has given up home runs this season. Strasburg has allowed 12 homers in 80 2/3 innings this season (1.34 HR/9) off having allowed 13 homers in 175 1/3 innings (0.67 HR/9) last season. Perhaps now we know why.
Injuries, of course, have been a major issue for Strasburg over the years. He underwent Tommy John surgery in Sept. 2010. He missed more than a month in 2015 due to a left oblique strain. He missed time in 2016 due to an upper-back strain and right-elbow soreness and then was shut down that September due to a right-forearm flexor-mass strain. He missed nearly a month last season due to a right-elbow nerve impingement and then, of course, we famously had the drama of him being sick but then ultimately starting the Nats’ NLDS Game 4 win at the Cubs. You can’t say that Strasburg hasn’t been a good pitcher; the guy has a career ERA of 3.10 and career WHIP of 1.08 over 197 regular-season starts. But you also can’t ever call him durable.
3. Max Scherzer in the 2-0 loss to San Francisco on Sunday was very good yet again, though he had one problem in particular: Brandon Crawford. Max allowed two runs in seven innings on nine strikeouts versus four hits and three walks. But all three of the four hits came from Crawford, who had a two-run homer to the second deck in right field in the top of the fourth despite having been down in the count 0-2, a double and a single off Max and then had a double off Matt Grace. Otherwise Max was good, including striking out five consecutive batters over the second and third innings. Max leads all qualified major-league pitchers with 13.5 K/9.
4. Gio Gonzalez came up way too small in Saturday afternoon’s 7-5 win over the Giants. In a game with a 12:05 p.m. start, which was just hours after six relievers were needed due to Stephen Strasburg lasting for just two innings due to right-shoulder inflammation in the 9-5 loss to the Giants on Friday night, the Nats needed their Game 2 starter to eat up some innings. Instead, Gio lasted for just 3 1/3 innings, allowing four runs on six hits and four walks. The big blow was a two-out three-run homer by Nick Hundley on an 0-2 pitch in the top of the third. The Nats gave Gio a 5-0 third-inning lead; that’s a recipe for throwing strikes, working quickly and consuming innings. Instead, the guy just could not find the plate, throwing just 55 of his 97 pitches for strikes. This is what has always bothered me about Gio: when you truly need him to come through, he doesn’t. NLDS Games 1 and 5 in 2012. NLDS Game 3 in 2016. NLDS Games 2 and 5 in 2017. Heck, Gio was really good in games in May at San Diego, home to the Padres and at the Orioles, but what happened when he faced a good team in the Yankees on May 15 in that rain-suspended game? Gio allowed three runs (two earned) in five innings on six hits and four walks. The guy can be a really good pitcher. He did come through in the Nats’ 5-3 14-inning win at Atlanta on June 2 (three runs in seven innings on nine strikeouts versus five hits and no walks), and his ERA for this season is still a terrific 2.65. But how can you count on him when you really need him?
5. The Nats’ bullpen was leaned on heavily over the first two games against San Francisco before catching a bit of a break on Sunday.
Nats relievers combined to allow seven runs in 14 2/3 innings in the series thanks almost entirely to Friday night’s 9-5 loss to the Giants. Six relievers were needed due in that game due to Stephen Strasburg lasting for just two innings due to a right-shoulder injury. The good was Shawn Kelley, Justin Miller, Matt Grace and Tim Collins combining for 4 2/3 scoreless innings. The bad was Wander Suero allowing three runs in two innings and Brandon Kintzler being charged with three runs in the top of the seventh, during which he recorded just one out. Kintzler gave up a double, two singles and a hit-by-pitch before being replaced by Grace.
Then came Saturday afternoon’s 7-5 win over the Giants, and the Nats’ bullpen was asked to do a lot again, this time due to Gio Gonzalez lasting for just 3 1/3 innings. Miller, Sammy Solis, Ryan Madson, Collins, Kintzler and Sean Doolittle combined to allow one run in 5 2/3 innings. Doolittle recorded a four-out save in another instance of progressive usage of the closer by Dave Martinez. The run came off Madson in the top of the seventh on three straight one-out hits, including an RBI double by Nick Hundley. But the big item from this game from a bullpen standpoint was Kintzler leaving in the top of the eighth due to a right-forearm flexor strain, which landed him on the 10-day disabled list on Sunday.
Sunday’s 2-0 loss to the Giants included Grace, Kelley and Trevor Gott combining for two scoreless innings.
6. Now we know how the Nats are handling their outfield dilemma: Adam Eaton, Juan Soto, Michael A. Taylor and Bryce Harper will all play.
Eaton, who underwent left-ankle surgery on May 10 and who had not played in major-league game since April 8, was reinstated from the 60-day disabled list on Saturday, during which he was the starting right fielder, batted in the leadoff spot and had a single and a hit-by-pitch in the 7-5 win over San Francisco. He did not play in Sunday’s 2-0 loss to the Giants.
The corresponding roster move to Eaton’s reinstatement was optioning Wander Suero to Triple-A Syracuse and not, thankfully, sending Juan Soto back to the minors. All the 19-year-old has done is kill it, and demoting him or even benching him would send the wrong message, to say nothing of taking perhaps the next great Nats superstar out of their lineup. Soto in the 9-5 loss to the Giants on Friday night blasted a two-out two-run opposite-field homer in the bottom of the fourth off Andrew Suarez. Soto in the 7-5 win over the Giants on Saturday afternoon had two walks as the starting left fielder. And Soto in the 2-0 loss to the Giants on Sunday remained the starting left fielder and had a single. The 19-year-old has a .972 OPS over 72 plate appearances. And did you see what came out on Monday? Baseball America now ranks Soto and Victor Robles among the top five prospects in the sport. The Nats have not one but two outfielders among the top five prospects in baseball.
Bryce Harper in the 9-5 loss to the Giants on Friday night had a first-pitch one-out two-run single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth off Andrew Suarez as the starting right fielder. He started the 7-5 win over the Giants on Saturday afternoon in center field before moving to right field, providing a one-out solo homer in the bottom of the fourth off Ty Blach and a single. And Bryce was back as the starting right fielder for the 2-0 loss to the Giants on Sunday, going 0-for-4, including haphazardly running out a groundout off arch-nemesis Hunter Strickland to begin the bottom of the ninth. Bryce’s OPS for the season has gone from 1.073 off his two-homer performance in the 7-3 win over Philadelphia on May 4 to now .869 – a 204-point decline. And he is just fourth among Nats position players in bWAR this season at 0.9 – Trea Turner (2.1), Michael A. Taylor (1.2) and Matt Adams (1.1) all have been better.
Speaking of Taylor, he had a double as the starting center fielder in the 9-5 loss to the Giants on Friday night, did not play in the 7-5 win over the Giants on Saturday afternoon and had a single and a walk and went 1-for-2 on stolen bases in the 2-0 loss to the Giants on Sunday, although the caught-stealing was a result of Taylor coming off the bag upon on his slide into second base on what was looking like a successful steal attempt in the bottom of the seventh. Taylor now has a career-high-tying 17 steals this season, and even more important for that is that he’s 17-for-19 on stolen bases (he was 17-for-24 last season).
7. Are the Nats about to activate Daniel Murphy? It sure looks like it. He was back with the Nats on Sunday and was to accompany the team to New York, where he could finally make his season debut. Murphy underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee last Oct. 20 – the same day on which we learned that Dusty Baker would not be back as Nats manager. Murphy’s recovery has been slow and plodding, to the point that his minor-league rehab assignment, which began on May 26, featured numerous reports of him not running well and ended up lasting for an abnormally-long 15 days. He did end up with an .823 OPS over 10 games with Double-A Harrisburg, but hitting hasn’t been the concern; running and fielding are. The good news is that the Nats are in need of a DH for each of their next five games given a two-game series at the Yankees on Tuesday night and Wednesday night and then a three-game series at Toronto this weekend. Murphy was tied for eighth in the majors over his first two seasons with the Nats (2016 and 2017) with a 146 wRC+, which is a state-of-the-art batting stat that’s adjusted for a player’s league and home ballpark (100 is average).
8. The Nats had another so-so offensive series in losing two of three to San Francisco, but I did wanna highlight Matt Adams, who continues to be the Nats’ most pleasant offensive surprise this season. He in the 9-5 loss to the Giants on Friday night had a pinch two-out RBI single in the bottom of the sixth off ex-Nat Mark Melancon. Adams in the 7-5 win over the Giants on Saturday afternoon had a two-out two-run double in the Nats’ four-run second off having been down in the count 0-2, and he had a single. Heck, go back to the 4-2 win over Tampa Bay last Tuesday night – Adams had a full-count leadoff homer in the bottom of the second. Adams did strike out on three pitches against Hunter Strickland in a pinch-hitting at-bat to end Sunday’s 2-0 loss to the Giants, but Adams still has a .924 OPS over 165 plate appearances this season. He is third among Nats position players with a 1.1 bWAR this season.