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May 2, 2021 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ April in review: ‘Take a swing, see what happens’

The Nationals’ season began with news that no one wanted to hear—four players tested positive for Covid-19 and seven others went into mandatory quarantine due to close contact. The opening series was postponed, and when play began the Nats immediately fell into a hole, starting the season 1–5. After that, the team seemed to be treading water. They finished the month 10–12, though only one game behind the division-leading Phillies.

The season was supposed to have started at home on April 1 with a series against the Mets followed by another against the Braves. But first the opening game, then the entire Mets series, and finally the first game of their Braves series were postponed as news came in about the sick and quarantined players. The Nats finally were cleared to play the Braves on April 6, but they were missing four players who had been expected to be starters on opening day (Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison, and Yan Gomes), as well as two starting pitchers (Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester) and the closer (Brad Hand). Both regular catchers were out, so the Nats hurriedly signed Jonathan Lucroy to fill in as catcher. The roster for the first series included lots of players from the alternate training site.

Despite the home team’s lineup deficiencies, the series with the Braves was tightly fought. The Nats won a walk-off victory in the first game, then played a double header the next day to make up for the postponed game. The Braves swept the double header, but they were both close games.

The Nats headed to Los Angeles, where several of the quarantined players were allowed to rejoin the team. But their still thin roster was no match for the Dodgers, who swept the three-game series. St. Louis was the next stop for the Nationals, where the remaining quarantined players returned (except for Lester, who was cleared to leave quarantine but would need to spend another three weeks building his arm strength). On April 12, most of the players were vaccinated. The Nats took two of three games against the Cardinals. But Stephen Strasburg pitched poorly and was placed on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation. And reliever Luis Avilan, who only pitched four games for the Nats, decided to have season-ending Tommy John surgery.

Returning home, the Nats split a four-game series against the Diamondbacks. They concluded the home stand by taking two games of three against the Cardinals. But their injury woes continued when Juan Soto went on the injured list with left shoulder strain.

The next series was in New York against the Mets. The Nats looked bad in the opener when Jacob deGrom pitched a complete game, 2-hit shutout, striking out 15 Nats, beating them 6 to 0. But the Nats were able to turn the table the next day, beating the Mets 7 to 1, before dropping the third game. The Nats then traveled to Dunedin, Florida, where the Blue Jays were playing their home games at TD Ballpark due to Covid-related international travel restrictions. Home runs were flying as the Nats lost the first game 9 to 5 despite hitting four home runs and having Max Scherzer start. But they came back to win the second game of the two-game series, 8 to 2. Returning home, the month ended with the Nats winning the opening game of a series against the Marlins 2 to 1 with a walk-off home run in the 10th inning.

The Nats’ weak performance in April reflected problems both in their hitting and their starting pitching. Of the 15 National League teams, the Nats’ on-base percentage of .314 ranked 7th, while their slugging percentage of .378 ranked 9th. The comprehensive batting measure, weighted runs created (wRC+), was 90, which ranked 11th. And their starting pitchers had an ERA of 4.94, 12th in the league, while their fielding independent pitching (FIP) was 5.29, worst in the league. Losing Strasburg and Lester for most of the month while having Corbin struggle really hurt the starting staff.

The relief corps was a modest bright spot. Their ERA of 3.66 ranked 4th in the National League, and their 7 meltdowns were the fewest in the league. That was partly due to having relatively few high leverage games (their 15 shutdowns ranked 12th in the league), but their RE24 (an overall measure of the impact on the expected runs) of +4.66 ranked third in the league.

Record:

10–12 (.455)

Pythagorean Record:

8–14 (3.50 R/G – 4.45 RA/G)

April MVP:

Trea Turner (.302/.348/.558, 22 G, 92 PA, 6 HR, 11 R, 10 RBI, 145 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR).

Most valuable starting pitcher:

Max Scherzer (1–2, 3.60 RA/9, 5 G, 30 IP, 11.4 K/9, .250 opp OBP, 0.7 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Brad Hand (2–0, 1.00 RA/9, 8 G, 9 IP, 7.0 K/9, .294 opp OBP, 3.41 RE24, 0.5 RA9-WAR, 4 shutdowns, 0 meltdown).

Worst month:

Patrick Corbin (0–3, 11.02 RA/9, 4 G, 16-1/3 IP, 7.7 K/9, 6 HR allowed, .427 opp OBP, –0.8 RA-9 WAR).

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (April 16, 1–0 win over the Diamondbacks at home) pitched 7 scoreless innings, giving up only 2 hits and 2 walks and striking out 10 for a game score of 81.

Worst start:

Patrick Corbin (April 15, 11–6 loss to the Diamondbacks at home) gave up 10 runs on 6 hits (including 3 home runs) and 4 walks in 2 innings with 1 strikeout, for a game score of 3.

Tough losses:

  • Max Scherzer (April 11, 3–0 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles) gave up 1 unearned run on 3 hits and 1 walk in 6 innings, while striking out 5, for a game score of 66. Scherzer pitched a great game, but he was facing Clayton Kershaw, who pitched 6 scoreless innings with a game score of 68.

Cheap wins:

  • None

Best shutdown:

Brad Hand (April 21, 1–0 win over the Cardinals at home). The Nats were ahead 1 to 0 when Hand took the mound in the bottom of the ninth to try for the save. He walked the first batter, but then got a ground ball for a double play, removing the runner. The next batter was Yadier Molina, who hit a fly ball down the right field line that Andrew Stevenson caught for the final out. (Win probability added +.162)

Worst meltdown:

Tanner Rainey (April 7, 2–0 loss to the Braves at home in the second game of a double header). Rainey took the mound in a scoreless game in the top of the seventh. Because it was a double header, this would be the final inning if either team could break the tie. Rainey got the first two batters to fly out, after which Dansby Swanson lined a single to left. Then Pablo Sandoval came in as a pinch hitter and belted a home run to deep center field. The Braves led 2 to 0. Rainey gave up a walk to the next batter, then got the final out, but the damage was done. In the bottom of the inning Sean Newcombe struck out the side, and the Nats lost. (WPA –.407)

Clutch hit:

Kyle Schwarber (April 30, 2–1 win over the Marlins at home). The game was scoreless after 9 innings, so for the first time this season the Nats went to extra innings. In the top of the inning, the Marlins singled in their runner who had started at second, putting them ahead 1 to 0. In the bottom of the tenth, Schwarber led off and blasted the second pitch he saw 454 feet into the upper deck, walking off the Marlins. (WPA +.557)

Choke:

Andrew Stevenson (April 7, 7–6 loss to the Braves at home in the first game of a double header). It was the bottom of the seventh (again, the last inning of a double header), and the Braves closer, Will Smith, had already given up a run on two walks and a double. There was one out, runners on first and second, and the Nats were trailing 7 to 6. Stevenson grounded into a double play, ending the game. (WPA –.337).

Favorite defensive plays:

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