1. The Nationals got a needed 6-2 win over Atlanta on Sunday despite two rain delays that totaled three hours, 33 minutes. But that came off an ugly 8-5 loss on Friday night in Game 1 of this rain-shortened two-game series. The Nats need wins right now but are just 5-7 against the Braves this season and just 4-6 against Philadelphia this season. That’s a combined record of 9-13 against the two teams that you’re chasing in the National League East.
2. Sunday’s 6-2 win over Atlanta was a classic spot for the Nats’ ace, Max Scherzer, to dominate, and while he didn’t do that, he was good enough. Coming off the ugly 8-5 loss on Friday night that included a dugout spat between Max and Stephen Strasburg, Max allowed two runs in six innings on seven strikeouts versus eight hits (seven of which were singles) and a walk. He allowed a run in the top of the second on a one-out single by Johan Carmago followed by a first-pitch RBI double by Ender Inciarte and allowed the other run in the top of the fourth on a one-out five-pitch walk of Tyler Flowers and then back-to-back two-out hits: a single by Inciarte and a full-count RBI single by Dansby Swanson. It’s worth noting that Max hasn’t exactly been great in July; he has a 4.15 ERA over four starts, during which he has allowed 24 hits and eight walks in 26 innings. But he was good enough for a needed win on Sunday.
3. As for the ugliness on Friday night – sometimes you just get the feeling that it’s just not your team’s season. We got that with the 2017 Redskins with their choke-job loss at New Orleans in November. And we had that in many ways with the Nats’ 8-5 loss at Atlanta on Friday night. First of all, you had Stephen Strasburg getting shellacked in his return from the 10-day disabled list and on his 30th birthday. Pitching in a major-league game for the first time since June 8 due to right-shoulder inflammation, Strasburg allowed six runs in 4 2/3 innings on five doubles, three singles and two walks (one of which was intentional) versus six strikeouts. He gave up an RBI double to Ozzie Albies in the Braves’ two-run first, gave up back-to-back one-out doubles to ex-Nat Kurt Suzuki and Johan Carmago (each of whom had been down in the count 1-2) in the Braves’ one-run fourth and gave up a leadoff first-pitch double to Ronald Acuna and a two-run double to the notorious Nats killer, Freddie Freeman, in the Braves’ three-run fifth despite him having been down in the count 1-2. And then there was what happened after Strasburg was removed from the game with two outs in that three-run fifth. He and Max Scherzer started arguing in the dugout, leading to the two walking down the steps toward the Nats’ clubhouse to continue their discussion. It was an odd scene, as Max had patted Strasburg on the back and then things seemed to get ugly in a hurry. The two players and Dave Martinez had a closed-door meeting for abut 15 minutes after the game. I can’t help but wonder if personality differences were at the heart of the dispute; can you think of two more different guys in terms of personality than Scherzer and Strasburg? One is durable, excitable and a leader. The other has a lengthy injury history and is seemingly perpetually joyless (seriously, does Strasburg ever look or sound like he’s experiencing anything other than a root canal?). Now, this whole ordeal was nowhere near as ugly as the Bryce Harper-Jonathan Papelbon dugout fight in Sept. 2015, but it was impossible not to think about that. And this game – and all that it included – made it impossible not to think of the 2018 Nats as those 2015 Nats, who wilted in the midst of a divisional race with the Mets.
4. The Nats got mixed results and some bad news from their bullpen in the two-game split with Atlanta. The 8-5 loss to the Braves on Friday night included Justin Miller giving up a two-out solo homer to Charlie Culberson in the top of the sixth and Shawn Kelley giving up a one-out solo homer to Ronald Acuna Jr. in the top of the eighth. But the 6-2 win on Sunday included Matt Grace, Ryan Madson, Sammy Solis and Kelvin Herrera combining for three scoreless innings, including Herrera recording the final five outs for the save (though he did allow a back-to-back two-out hits in the top of the ninth). The bad news for the bullpen in the series came in the form of Sean Doolittle, who (surprise!) is more injured than we were initially told. On the 10-day disabled list since July 10 (retroactive to July 7) due to what the team called left-toe inflammation but what he called a pinched nerve between his first two toes, Doolittle in fact has a stress reaction in his left foot and now is expected to have an absence measured in weeks as opposed to days. In fairness to the Nats, Doolittle said that the stress reaction was the kind of thing that would only show up in an MRI exam taken weeks after the original one. But, yes, this does qualify as another instance of Nats injury confusion for sure.
5. The biggest item, though, regarding the Nats’ bullpen in recent days was a piece by Nats insider Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post detailing Nats relievers’ unhappiness with how they’ve been handled this season by Dave Martinez. The article, which was published on July 19, can be summed up by the following passage: “Martinez’s ability to handle a pitching staff emerged as the primary concern in the Nationals clubhouse in the first part of this season, according to on- and off-the-record conversations with players and those familiar with this team’s inner workings.” The article also features on-the-record comments from Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle and Shawn Kelley. The piece, though, is not a hatchet job, as it does make mention of Davey already having shown a willingness to change and of players seeming to genuinely like him.
The crux of the piece has to do with Davey overusing Madson, Brandon Kintzler and Sammy Solis, resulting in Madson (pectoral strain in May) and Kintzler (right-forearm flexor strain in June) going on the 10-day disabled list and Solis’ performance suffering to where he was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse on June 30. And what troubles Nats relievers the most according to the article isn’t the over-usage itself but a lack of communication behind it.
I have pushed back on the notion of Davey being a primary cause of the Nats’ underachieving this season. But there’s no doubt that he overworked Madson, who in April had two different stretches of four appearances in five days in what is his age-37 season. I have advocated for years that relievers can and should be pitching more innings and that managers should be far more aggressive with their bullpen usage. That Davey has embraced these concepts is great. That he did so without properly communicating with his players to the point that a piece like this came out is bad. As long as Davey learns from this, things should be fine. But lack of communication is one of the things that ultimately did in Matt Williams and also is something that Dusty Baker was quite good at.
6. Bryce Harper batted in the no. 3 spot as the starting center fielder in both games against Atlanta and was especially good in the 6-2 win on Sunday, providing a one-out solo homer to center field in the bottom of the eighth, a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the sixth, a walk, a stolen base and a terrific outfield assist, as he gunned down Ronald Acuna Jr. at second base off his leadoff single in the bottom of the third (and credit to Trea Turner, who made a really nice spinning tag on Acuna). Bryce in the 8-5 loss to the Braves on Friday night had a single and a stolen base in the Nats’ one-run first but also two strikeouts. Your updated slash line for Bryce this season: .218/.366/.475.
7. Juan Soto batted in the no. 5 spot as the starting left fielder in both games against Atlanta and was terrific. He in the 8-5 loss to the Braves on Friday night smacked a two-run opposite-field homer to left-center in the bottom of the eighth off Jesse Biddle off having been down in the count 0-2 and drew a two-out full-count walk in the Nats’ one-run first. And Soto in the 6-2 win over the Braves on Sunday had two doubles, a single, a walk and an RBI groundout. He now has a .968 OPS over 218 major-league plate appearances.
8. And the Nats’ third regular outfielder these days, Adam Eaton, also had a good series against Atlanta. He batted in the no. 1 spot as the starting right fielder in both games and had two walks and a steal of home in the 8-5 loss to the Braves on Friday night and three singles in the 6-2 win over the Braves on Sunday. Eaton now has a .403 on-base percentage this season.
9. Dave Martinez continuing to go with a starting outfield of Soto-Harper-Eaton meant two things in the two-game split with Atlanta. The first was that the benching of Michael A. Taylor continued, as he now has started just three of the last 12 games, though he did make a really nice catch on a Dansby Swanson fly out in the top of the seventh in the 6-2 win over the Braves on Sunday (one of several nice defensive plays by the Nats in that game). The second was that Brian Goodwin has been traded, as the Nats on Sunday dealt him to Kansas City for minor-league pitcher Jacob Condra-Bogan. Goodwin, who the Nats took with the 34th overall pick in the 2011 draft, had an OPS+ of 105 over 278 plate appearances last season but had barely played this season.
10. The Nats on Friday reinstated Ryan Zimmeran from the 60-day disabled list off him having not played in a major-league game since May 9 due to a right-oblique strain, though we had persistent rumors and reports that he also was dealing with a calf injury. Whatever the case, Dave Martinez very interestingly did not start Zimmerman in either of the two games against Atlanta over the weekend. Now, this likely had to mostly do with the Braves starting two right handers in the games, as Adams has done very well against right-handed pitching this season. But the decisions paid off. Adams in the 8-5 loss to the Braves on Friday night delivered a two-out solo homer off Anibal Sanchez in the bottom of the third. And Adams in the 6-2 win over the Braves on Sunday drew a two-out walk off Mike Foltynewicz in the bottom of the fifth and had an RBI single in the bottom of the seventh. Adams has been among the Nats’ most pleasant surprises this season, posting a .928 OPS. It’s going to be very interesting how much playing time he gets given Zimmerman’s history and salary ($14 million this season versus Adams’ $4 million).