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July 2, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ June in review: Winning is the single greatest motivator

After two months of losing, the Nationals turned things around in June and began winning. With the season now half over, there’s a question of whether their improved performance has arrived too late for the divisional race, but a wild-card bid seems still to be very much in play.

June began with the Nationals in fourth place in the NL East, nine games below .500 and nine games behind the division-leading Phillies. They had just played—and lost—the opening game of a 3-game series against the Reds in Cincinnati. They won the last two games to take the series and completed their short road trip with a 4–1 record.

The Nats returned home to face the Chicago White Sox in a two-game series. They won both games, with the second win coming on a walk-off homer by Trea Turner. The Nats then traveled to San Diego to face the Padres. They split the 4-game set against the Padres, then split a two-game series against the White Sox in Chicago. In the NL East divisional race, the red-hot Braves moved ahead of the Phillies.

The Nationals returned home for a scheduled 11-game homestand, where they would face the Diamondback as well as their main divisional rivals, the Phillies and the Braves. Although the Nats were trailing in the NL East by 7.5 games when the homestand began, good performances could potentially help them back into the race. The homestand began with a 4-game series against the Diamondbacks, which they split. Next came a 4-game series against the Phillies, but the first two games were rained out. One of the postponed games would be made up in a doubleheader, and the other was rescheduled for late September. To make matters worse, on the day of the second rain-out, Max Scherzer took a foul ball in the face while taking batting practice—specifically, while practicing bunts—and suffered a broken nose.

The weather finally cleared enough for the Phillies series to begin. In the first game of the day-night doubleheader, Patrick Corbin, who had been struggling his previous three starts, returned to form and led the Nats to a 6 to 2 victory. In the nightcap, Scherzer took the mound with a black eye and a broken nose and shut out the Phillies for seven innings, allowing the Nats to win 2 to 0. The next day the Nats took the finale 7 to 4, sweeping the Phillies and knocking them back in the divisional race.

Next came a three-game series against the division-leading Braves. After playing three games in two days, the Nats’ bullpen was fatigued. The Nats managed to win Game One 4 to 3, relying on Wander Suero to get the save, helped by a dramatic sliding, game-ending catch by Victor Robles. In Game Two, the Nats held a comfortable 8 to 4 lead after six innings, but when Trevor Rosenthal came in to pitch the seventh, he walked the first three batters. Then Tanner Rainey was brought in and walked in a run and gave up a three-run double, tying the game. In the bottom of the seventh, the Nats scored a run to take a 9–8 lead. But in the top of the eighth, Joe Ross gave up four runs on five hits (including a three-run homer), and the Nats wound up losing the game 13 to 9. The next morning, Ross was optioned to Fresno and Rosenthal was released—the Nats conceding his signing was a $7 million mistake. Game Three seemed winnable when the Nats scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh to tie the game 2 to 2. But the game went to extra innings, and the Braves scored two in the top of the 10th. The Nats were able to score one in the bottom of the inning but fell 4 to 3. With the series loss, the Nats dropped to 8.5 games behind.

The month ended with a road trip to Miami and Detroit to face two of the worst teams in baseball. The Detroit series featured the return to the active roster of Ryan Zimmerman, the last of a number of Nationals regulars who had been injured during April and May to return. The Nats swept the Marlins and took two of three against the Tigers.

For the month of June, the Nats went 18–8 and finished with a 42–41 record, in third place in the NL East, 7 games behind the Braves (who went 20–8 in June). According to Fangraphs, the Nats had begun June with a 16% chance of winning the division and a 32% chance of making the playoffs, while they ended June with a 19% chance of winning the division and a 60% chance of making the playoffs. By contrast, the 538 website showed them with a 16% chance of winning the division and a 46% chance of making the playoffs, while Baseball Prospectus gave them a 12% chance for the division and 40% for the playoffs.

Throughout the season, the Nationals’ strength has been their starting pitching, and this continued to be the case in June. The starters’ ERA of 3.52 during the month was second best in the National League (behind the Dodgers), and their park-adjusted ERA relative to league (ERA–) of 79 was also second best in the league. Their fielding independent measure, FIP–, was 91, third best in the league. Their 25.8% strikeout rate was the NL’s best. Furthermore, the starters on average went deeper into games than other teams—their average of 6.1 innings per start led baseball.

The team’s relief pitching, which had been among the worst in baseball during the first two months of the season, rebounded to deliver results that were more like league average. Their ERA– of 101 during June ranked eighth among the 15 NL teams, and their FIP– of 87 ranked fourth. In the situation-dependent measures, they ranked ninth in both RE24 (with –3.06) and win probability added (with –0.29). Their 21 shutdowns ranked tenth, and their 10 meltdowns were the third-fewest in the NL. Overall, while the bullpen still wasn’t a strength for the team, its performance was often acceptable.

The offense, meanwhile, contributed to the Nationals’ winning record but was not among the elite offenses in the league. The Nats’ June on-base percentage of .326 ranked eighth in the NL, while their slugging percentage of .467 ranked fifth. Their 44 home runs during June also ranked fifth. The park-adjusted combined measure of offense relative to league, wRC+, was 101, sixth in the league.

Record:

18–8 (.692)

Pythagorean Record:

17–9 (5.58 R/G – 3.92 RA/G)

June MVP:

Max Scherzer (6–0, 1.00 RA/9, 6 G, 45 IP, 13.6 K/9, .196 opp OBP, 3.0 RA9-WAR) had a month that was phenomenal even by his own standard. Overcoming a slow start in April, Max is making yet another bid for the Cy Young Award. Addendum: Scherzer was named NL Pitcher of the Month for June.

Most valuable position player:

Anthony Rendon (.307/.363/.604, 26 G, 9 HR, 22 R, 24 RBI, 144 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Wander Suero (0–0, 2.77 RA/9, 13 G, 13 IP, 10.4 K/9, .302 opp OBP, 1.17 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 5 shutdowns, 1 meltdown).

Worst month:

Joe Ross (0–1, 36.00 RA/9, 1 G, 1 IP, 0.0 K/9, .667 opp OBP, –0.4 RA9-WAR, –0.66 WPA, 0 shutdowns, 1 meltdown) was called up as a potential starter for the game on the 23rd but then pressed into service as a reliever on the 22nd, and he delivered a disastrous eighth inning, surrendering four runs to go from a one-run lead to a three-run deficit.

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (June 2, 4–1 win over the Reds in Cincinnati) pitched 8 innings, giving up 1 run on 3 hits and 1 walk and striking out 15, for a game score of 86. It was only his third win of the season.

Worst start:

Stephen Strasburg (June 15, 10–3 loss to the Reds in Denver), who gave up 6 runs, 9 hits, and 1 walk in 5 innings, while striking out 5, for a game score of 29.

Tough losses:

  • None

Cheap wins:

  • Stephen Strasburg (June 4, 9–5 win over the White Sox in Chicago) gave up 5 runs on 5 hits and 3 walks with 6 strikeouts in 5 innings, for a game score of 40.

Best shutdown: 

Sean Doolittle (June 30, 2–1 win over the Tigers in Detroit). Doolittle pitched the ninth with a one-run lead. Although he allowed a single and a walk, he recorded a strikeout and two flyball outs to record his 100th career save (win probability added .205).

Worst meltdown:

Sean Doolittle (June 7, 5–4 loss to the Padres in San Diego). After being held scoreless for six innings, the Nats clawed their way back and took a 4–3 lead in the top of the ninth. Doolittle came in to pitch the bottom of the ninth. After striking out Machado, he gave up a triple to Hosmer. He then struck out Franmil Reyes for the second out but gave up a single to Josh Naylor, tying the game. Naylor stole second, and another single from Austin Hedges gave the Padres the win (WPA –.816).

Clutch hit:

Matt Adams (June 27, 8–5 win over the Marlins in Miami). The Nats were trailing 4 to 1 in the top of the sixth when Adams came to bat. There were two outs and runners on first and third, and Adams lofted a hanging slider down the right-field line for a game-tying three-run homer (WPA .327).

Choke: 

Juan Soto (June 23, 4–3 loss to the Braves at home). With the score tied 2 to 2 after nine, the game had gone to extra innings. In the top of the tenth, the Braves took a 4 to 2 lead on a 2-run homer by Camargo. But the Nats came back in the bottom of the tenth and had scored one run and had runners on first and second when Soto came to bat with two outs. Soto grounded out to shortstop to end the game (WPA –.171).

Favorite Defensive Plays:

  • Victor Robles sprinted a long way to make a diving catch at the warning track against the White Sox.
  • Trea Turner made a diving stop to keep a ground ball from going to the outfield, then gunned down the Phillie runner who was trying to score from second.
  • Victor Robles made an even more dramatic catch against the Braves, with two outs in the top of the ninth, the Nats holding a one-run lead, and runners on first and second. A pop-up was hit into no-mans land behind second base, and Robles raced in to make a game-ending, sliding catch.

 

 

 

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