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June 1, 2021 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ May in review: ‘This is a way different year than 2019’

The Nationals entered May tied for second place in the NL East, a game behind the division-leading Phillies. During the month, they slipped further and further behind, and— with a five-game losing streak at the end of the month—their record for the month was 11–17. They finished the month in last place in the division, seven games behind the division-leading Mets. According to Fangraphs, their probability of winning the division was down to 2%, and of making the playoffs down to 4%. (Fivethirtyeight.com is a bit more optimistic, showing a 7% chance of winning the division and 10% of making the playoffs.)

As May began, the Nats were at home, having played (and won) the first game of a three-game series against the Marlins. The Nats won both of the remaining games for a series sweep. The final game, on Sunday May 2, was notable because Max Scherzer pitched a complete game in a 3–1 victory and had a shutout going until he gave up a home run in the ninth inning. He finished the game quickly—in 2 hours and 37 minutes (106 pitches)—because he had somewhere to go. After the end of the game he rushed away to join his wife, who, a couple of hours after the game ended, would give birth to their baby boy.

The Nats’ record was now .500 (12–12), and they were tied for first place in the NL East. Indeed, on their May 3 off day they briefly held sole possession of first place, though all four divisional rivals were within 2.5 games of the Nats. But that quickly changed with their next series, a three-game set against Atlanta, which the Braves swept. The last two games—a 5 to 3 loss in which the Nats rallied in the bottom of the eighth but ultimately fell short, and a 3 to 2 loss in which Ryan Zimmerman doubled to put the tying run in scoring position leading off the bottom of the ninth—were tightly fought but frustrating losses. At the end of the series the Nats had dropped to last place, 2.5 games behind.

The team next had a short 3-game road series in New York against the Yankees. Juan Soto returned to the lineup after the shoulder injury that had put him on the injured list. The first game was close until the eighth inning, when the Nats broke out and wound up routing the Yanks 11 to 4. Scherzer pitched superbly in the second game and left in the eighth with the Nats ahead 2 to 1, but Brad Hand wasn’t able to close it and the Yanks went on to win in the 11th inning. The third game featured another Hand meltdown and the Yankees’ second consecutive walk-off win.

Returning home for a three-game series against the Phillies, the Nats lost the first two games, with the second loss featuring yet another meltdown and blown save by Hand. They came back to win the third game behind a good start by Patrick Corbin. Wander Suero, who had been on the injured list since April 18, returned to the bullpen.

The Nats’ next road trip took them to Arizona and Chicago. In the series opener at Chase Field in Phoenix, the offense took off, beating the Diamondbacks 17 to 2. In the next game, the D-backs responded by thrashing the Nats 11 to 4, but the Nats won the finale 3 to 0 to take the series. In Chicago, the Cubs won three of four, making the Nats 3–4 on the road trip. Erick Fedde and Tanner Rainey were placed on the Covid injured list after one of them tested positive, and Victor Robles suffered an ankle sprain that would leave him on the injured list as well.

Returning home, the Nationals faced the Baltimore Orioles. Stephen Strasburg returned from his 5+ week stint on the injured list dealing with shoulder inflammation and looked good in his first start, which the Nats won 4 to 2. They went on to win the next two games, sweeping the series. The O’s were followed by the Reds, but the Nats’ bats went quiet. They scored only 6 runs in the three-game series, and the team lost two games to one. Rainey returned from the injured list. The home stand concluded with a series against the Brewers. The Nats’ bats remained quiet, scoring only 3 runs in the three-game series, which the visiting Brew Crew swept.

On the last day of the month, the Nats opened a road trip in Atlanta where they lost their fifth consecutive game. Robles returned from the injured list, but Will Harris was lost for the season when it was announced that he would have surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome.

During May, the Nationals’ offense played at an average level—their on-base percentage in May of .321 ranked sixth in the NL, and their slugging percentage of .392 ranked eighth. Their batting average of .251 ranked second, but that was offset by relatively poor performance with runners in scoring position (their “clutch” score of –1.55 ranked 13th of 15 teams).

The Nats’ starting pitching was below average, and when Scherzer (or Strasburg, who only pitched twice in the month) wasn’t pitching, was really quite bad. The starters’ ERA for May was 4.10 (11th in the league). When someone other than Scherzer or Strasburg was pitching, their ERA was 5.11 and they went 4–9 in 20 starts. The starters’ fielding independent pitching (FIP) was 4.19 (10th in the league), and they ranked 12th in home runs allowed per 9 innings with 1.35.

The relief staff was about average. Their ERA of 4.06 ranked seventh in the NL, and their FIP of 3.91 ranked sixth. They didn’t have a lot of high leverage innings—their average leverage index when entering the game was 0.89, 13th in the league. They ranked 14th in shutdowns, with 16, but had fewer than average meltdowns, with 14. Their WPA of –0.58 ranked 12th, indicating difficulties in high leverage situations.

Record:

11–17 (.393)

Pythagorean Record:

13–15 (3.96 R/G – 4.14 RA/G)

May MVP:

Max Scherzer (3–2, 1.83 RA/9, 6 G, 39-1/3 IP, 13.0 K/9, .215 opp OBP, 1.9 RA9-WAR).

Most valuable position player:

Trea Turner (.304/.349/.452, 28 G, 126 PA, 4 HR, 15 R, 17 RBI, 118 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR). His defense contributions allowed him to edge Kyle Schwarber (.245/.357/.500, 7 HR, 13 R, 18 RBI, 135 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR).

Most valuable relief pitcher:

Daniel Hudson (1–1, 2.38 RA/9, 11 G, 11-1/3 IP, 11.9 K/9, .195 opp OBP, 4.47 RE24, 0.4 RA9-WAR, 5 shutdowns, 1 meltdown).

Worst month:

Brad Hand (0–2, 8.68 RA/9, 10 G, 9-1/3 IP, 11.6 K/9, 3 HR allowed, .386 opp OBP, –4.61 RE24, –0.6 RA-9 WAR, 3 shutdowns, 3 meltdowns).

Best start this month:

Max Scherzer (May 8, 4–3 loss in 11 innings to the Yankees in New York) pitched 7-1/3 innings, giving up 1 run on 2 hits and 1 walk and striking out 14 for a game score of 83. When he left the game in the bottom of the eighth after 109 pitches, the Nats led 2 to 1. The Yankees would tie it in the bottom of the ninth and win it in the 11th.

Worst start:

Joe Ross (May 15, 11–4 loss to the Diamondbacks in Phoenix) gave up 8 runs on 8 hits and 3 walks in 4 innings with 5 strikeouts, for a game score of 16.

Tough losses:

  • Joe Ross (May 4, 6–1 loss to the Braves at home) gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks in 5-1/3 innings, while striking out 3, for a game score of 51. When he left the game in the top of the sixth, the Nats were trailing 1 to 0.
  • Max Scherzer (May 25, 2–1 loss to the Reds at home) gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 1 walk in 7 innings, while striking out 9, for a game score of 67.
  • Max Scherzer (May 30, 3–0 loss to the Brewers at home) gave up 2 runs on 2 hits and 1 walk in 6 innings, while striking out 10, for a game score of 69. He was, however, out-pitched by Brandon Woodruff, who had a game score of 81.

Cheap wins:

  • Patrick Corbin (May 23, 6–5 win over the Orioles at home) gave up 4 runs on 11 hits and 2 walks in 5-2/3 innings, while striking out 3, for a game score of 32. The bullpen held the Nats’ lead to win the game.

Best shutdown:

Kyle Finnegan (May 8, 4–3 loss in 11 innings to the Yankees in New York). The game went into extra innings after the Yankees tied it 2 to 2 in the bottom of the ninth. In the top of the tenth, the Nats (facing Aroldis Chapman) managed to score their designated runner, going ahead 3 to 2. But in the bottom of the tenth, Hand (who had blown the save in the ninth) was allowed to start the tenth and immediately gave up a single, making it 3 to 3. Finnegan got the call, and he retired all three batters he faced—on a ground ball force-out at second, a pop-fly. and a strikeout—sending the game to the 11th. (Win probability added +.211)

Worst meltdown:

Brad Hand (same game—May 8, 4–3 loss in 11 innings to the Yankees in New York). With the Nats leading 2 to 1, Hand was asked to get the save in the bottom of the ninth. He gave up a lead-off walk to LaMahieu, who advanced to second on a ground-out. Judge singled, advancing LaMahieu to third, and Torres singled, scoring the runner. Hand got the last two outs on a strikeout and a ground-out, but the game was tied and went to extra innings. After the Nats scored a run in the top of the tenth, Hand went out to try to save it again in the bottom of the inning. The first batter he faced, Ford, singled, driving in the Yankees’ designated runner and tying the game again. Hand was pulled from the game (WPA –.567) and Finnegan came in to keep the game tied for another inning, until the Yankees finally won in the 11th.

Clutch hit:

Ryan Zimmerman (May 2, 3–1 win over the Marlins at home). With two out in the bottom of the third, runners on first and second, Zim hit a home run to center field, putting the Nats ahead 3 to 0. (WPA +.273)

Choke:

Yadiel Hernandez (May 6, 3–2 loss to the Braves at home). In the bottom on the ninth, the Nats were trailing 3 to 2 and Hernandez came to bat with one out and Andrew Stevenson on third. (Stephenson came in to pinch run after Zimmerman led off the inning with a double.) Will Smith, the Braves closer, struck out Hernandez. (WPA –.251).

Favorite defensive plays:

And two more plays that were more quirky than beautiful:

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