To say it’s been a bumpy stretch for the Washington Nationals might be a bit of an understatement.
Entering their Sunday matinee game against the San Francisco Giants, the Nats had lost nine of their previous 10 contests. Even in terms of individual player performances, not much had gone right for them.
But that all changed Sunday. The Nationals earned an 11-5 win, some of the bats in the middle of the order – namely Juan Soto – had productive days, and a young starting pitcher and two speedsters at the bottom of the lineup stole the show.
The 24-year-old right-hander’s season had started fairly well, but Sunday’s outing was his best of the season – and perhaps his career.
After a rough appearance that ballooned his ERA from 3.14 to 4.05, Gray took a no-hitter into the fifth inning Sunday.
Gray loaded the bases with two outs in the inning (including two of his four walks on the day), but rebounded by striking out Darin Ruf to put himself in line for the win.
Gray proceeded to stay in the game in the sixth inning despite an elevating pitch count, and tossed a quick 1-2-3 frame. In doing so, Gray tossed his deepest outing of the year – as well as his second scoreless, one-hit appearance.
Perhaps more than any other situation in his Nationals career, Gray showed serious moxie. He was faced with adversity, overcame it, and kept himself in the game for an additional inning without giving up any more damage. It's too soon to declare him an ace yet, but Sunday was certainly a potential step in that direction.
It’s easy to be critical of this team’s centerfielder (pictured at top) when he’s not hitting – especially considering his former top prospect status. When reports surfaced that he was getting a couple days off to work with hitting coach Darnell Coles on refining his approach at the plate, many fans certainly thought to themselves, “oh, brother” or “yeah okay, whatever.”
As it turns out, the work behind the scenes may have paid off.
On April 20, Robles had an abysmal .094 batting average. After reaching base in 10 of his last 14 plate appearances, his average has risen to .259 – only three points lower than Juan Soto’s.
People often throw around hypotheses about what Robles could be if he hit at a respectable level. If he could raise his average to .250 with 10-15 home runs while playing Gold Glove defense, he could be an immensely valuable player – even if he never reaches the All-Star status he was billed as having the potential to become.
Although it’s been a very uneven season, that’s essentially where he now stands statistically. If his production could level off at its current 2022 rate, we’d be having similar conversations about him as we did during his rookie season in 2019. Given how the last couple years have gone, that would be a significant victory – or, I should say, “Victor-y.”
I haven’t been shy about my feelings for Lucius Fox. He entered Sunday 0-for-20, and he’d also committed some defensive miscues.
For what it’s worth, I’ve pondered – in conversations with @TalkNats on Twitter – whether Fox’s struggles have been largely rooted in a lack of confidence. He has a lot of desirable traits, especially his speed and slick fielding ability. Yet it often appeared as if he was pressing – trying to be too perfect, especially on defense, where he’d often double clutch the ball before making a fairly routine throw.
It’s just one game, but Fox may have also turned a corner.
In his first plate appearance of the day, Fox legged out an infield single towards shortstop, driving in Keibert Ruiz. He also stole second base shortly thereafter. Then he notched another hit in the sixth inning, zipped from first to third on a Soto single, and essentially stole home on a (very slightly) wild pitch.
If that wasn’t enough, Fox also played a strong nine innings at shortstop, including a couple more plays on which he showcased his effortless range. With a couple more days like this, we could start seeing a lot less Alcides Escobar – and before long, maybe even a pairing of Fox and Luis Garcia up the middle of the infield.
Down On the Farm
Things continue to look up for many of the Nationals’ top minor league prospects. Garcia is still batting .337 with a .994 OPS. He’s one of four hitters in Rochester with at least that high of a batting average – led by outfielder Josh Palacios’ dazzling .366. In Wilmington, second baseman Darren Baker (the son of Dusty) has at least one hit in 15 of his last 16 games, raising his batting average to .299, and we’ve seen the return of outfield prospect Ricardo Mendez – who’s off to a 4-for-10 start to 2022 with a pair of doubles. And while Fredericksburg’s lineup has cooled off a bit, the normal suspects are still doing some damage.
On the pitching front, Cade Cavalli threw 5 1/3 no-hit innings in his most recent start. For Harrisburg, Cole Henry also went hitless through four innings on Friday, Evan Lee gave up one run on two hits on Sunday, and Matt Cronin relieved him by retiring all four batters he faced, striking out three of them – and he still hasn’t given up a run all season. Lastly, left-hander Dustin Saenz held the opposition to one run over six innings in his weekend start for Fredericksburg.
The Nationals get a day off before traveling to Colorado. For those interested, I’ll also be on the move to a new apartment ahead of Tuesday’s series opener at Coors Field.
Here’s the rest of their slate for this week:
As usual, the Rockies are hitting well so far this season, and they’re off to a somewhat surprising 13-9 start. They’ve been led by C.J. Cron and Randal Grichuk at the plate.
The Angels are also playing great baseball, leading the AL West at 15-8. Mike Trout is firmly in the MVP race once again, and pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Michael Lorenzen are off to strong starts to their bounce-back attempts in 2022.
The Nationals players, both young and old, will look to carry over Sunday’s momentum into their continued West Coast road trip. If Gray, Robles and Fox can continue to provide solid production, Washington could win some games against a pair of good teams.