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July 3, 2021 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ June in review: ‘I want to play stupid’

At the beginning of June, the Nationals had a 21–29 record and were in last place in the NL East, 7 games behind the division-leading Mets. There was already speculation about which players would be traded before the deadline. The team’s fortunes continued to decline during the first 12 days of June, as they went 5–6 and successively lost Stephen Strasburg, Austin Voth, Daniel Hudson, and Max Scherzer to injuries. Then the wheel of fortune began to turn. Kyle Schwarber started hitting home runs almost daily. The starting pitchers pitched well. Players like Josh Bell and Starlin Castro who had been struggling at the plate began hitting. And the Nats began winning close games. From June 13 through 30, the Nats went 14–3, making their record for the full month 19–9. They finished the month with a 40–38 record and in second place, only 2 games behind the Mets.

On June 1 the Nats were in Atlanta, having lost the first game of a four-game series with the Braves. Strasburg had to be pulled in the second inning and would spend the rest of the month on the injured list with a neck strain, but the Nats won 11 to 6. The next night the Nats won a close game, but they lost the finale and split the series.

Their next stop was Philadelphia, where the Nats won one of three games against the Phillies. In the first game, Scherzer pitched well enough for the Nats to win despite scoring only two runs, but the Nats lost the next two. In the finale, Voth, who was making his first start of the season, was struck in the face by a pitch in his first batting appearance, breaking his nose. The bullpen had to finish the game, and they gave up 12 runs in a 12–6 Nats loss. The road trip concluded in Tampa Bay, where the Nats split a two-game series. In the last game, the team had to battle back again and again to finally win in the 11th inning, and Tanner Rainey got his first career save. The Nats’ record on the road trip was 4–5.

Returning home, the Nats had a four-game series against the Giants, who had the best record in baseball. The first game, on Thursday, was rained out, which was probably for the best as the team was recovering from an early morning flight home after their extra-inning game in St. Petersburg. Scherzer took the mound on Friday evening but had to leave while facing his second batter. He went on the injured list with groin inflation, and while the bullpen pitched well, the Nats lost the game 1 to 0. Hudson also went on the IL with right elbow inflammation, while Erick Fedde returned to the roster from the Covid-19 IL. In the Saturday double header, the Nats won the first game 2 to 0 but lost the nightcap 2 to 1. The team had reached a low point with a 26–35 record, 8½ games out of first place. According to FanGraphs, the Nats’ probability of reaching the playoffs was down to just 1.7%.

But changes had been taking place that week that would indicate a turn in the team’s fortune. The previous Tuesday in the first game against the Rays, Davey Martinez had put Schwarber in the leadoff spot. Kyle went 0 for 3 with a walk that night, but Davey must have liked the idea because he had him lead off again in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Giants, and Schwarber hit a home run off their ace, Kevin Gausman. On Sunday, Davey returned Kyle to the leadoff spot, and this time he hit two home runs and drove in four. Schwarber would stay in the leadoff spot and the home runs would keep coming. By June 29 he had hit 16 home runs in 18 games, tying him for the record with Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa. His 12 home runs in a 10-game span tied the record with Albert Belle. His 11 home runs in a 9-game span tied the record with Frank Howard. His 16 home runs in a 75 plate appearance span set a major league record. He broke Bryce Harper‘s Nationals record of 13 home runs in a month. And Schwarber’s 7 leadoff home runs in a month tied the record that Alfonso Soriano set while playing with the Nationals in 2006.

The Giants series concluded on Sunday. After scoring only 3 runs in the first three games of the series, the Nats scored five to beat the Giants 5 to 0 and split the series with two wins each. Next came a three-game series against the Pirates, and the Nats swept it.

The home stand concluded with a four-game series against the Mets, including a Saturday doubleheader. The Nats won the first game 1 to 0 that ended with a Yan Gomes walk-off single. Fedde pitched seven scoreless innings, extending his streak of 20 scoreless innings. The Nats and Mets split the Saturday doubleheader. For Sunday’s game, Gerardo Parra appeared as a pinch hitter, and Nationals Park erupted to the singing of “Baby Shark” for the first time since October 2019. Parra had signed a minor league contract with the Nats after spending 2020 in Japan and was called up after Andrew Stevenson went on the IL. Parra hit a double, and for the rest of the month he would go 4 for 11 with a home run and two doubles while playing at Nats Park. Even more important for Sunday’s game, though, were Schwarber’s three home runs in the Nats’ 5 to 2 win. The Nats won the series three games to one, and the home stand eight games to three. Schwarber was named NL Player of the Week after hitting .385 with 6 home runs and 11 RBIs with a 1.491 OPS during the seven games of the Pirates and Mets series.

The Nats’ next road trip took them to Philadelphia and Miami. They played a two game series against the Phillies, and Scherzer, returning from the IL, started the first game. It was also the first Nats game in which umpires were required to regularly check all pitchers for controlled substances. During the fourth inning, after Scherzer had already been checked twice, Phillies manager Joe Girardi requested that Scherzer be checked again. Scherzer was outraged (and wasn’t found to have any controlled substances, and when Scherzer’s night was done he stared down Girardi, leading to the Phillies manager being ejected. The video clip was the talk of baseball that evening. The Nats won that game 3 to 2. They also won the next afternoon’s game 13 to 12. It was one of the wildest games I can remember—both teams hit grand slam home runs, and the Phillies kept getting ahead and the Nats kept coming back.

The four game series with the Marlins was a little tamer. The Nats won the first and last games, while the Marlins won the second and third ones. Kyle Finnegan went on the IL with a left hamstring strain, and Erick Fedde went back on the IL with an oblique strain. The Nats finished the road trip with a 4–2 record.

Returning home, the Nationals began their toughest stretch of 17 games this season. They were scheduled to face the top three teams in the National League (the Giants for three games, the Dodgers for four, and the Padres for seven), as well as the AL team with the third best record (the Rays for two games), while kicking off the span with a single game against the division-leading Mets. The Nats beat the Mets 8 to 4 behind several home runs. They finished the month by winning both games against the Rays, by scores of 4 to 3 and 15 to 6. The second game of the Rays series featured Trea Turner hitting for the cycle and tying the record for most career cycles with three. Setup man Tanner Rainey joined other Nats pitchers on the IL with a stress reaction in his lower right leg. Of the relievers who had formed the back of the Nats’ bullpen, only Brad Hand remained on the active roster. In the first half of July we’ll find out if the bullpen fend off the top teams in the NL West.

According to Fangraphs, at the end of June the Nats’ probability of making the playoffs stood at 12.5%. Fivethirtyeight.com was more optimistic, showing a 27% chance of making the playoffs, and Baseball-Reference was even more optimistic yet at 32%.

During June, the Nationals’ offense was one of the best in the National League. Their on-base percentage in June of .336 ranked second in the NL, and their slugging percentage of .448 ranked third. The comprehensive batting metric of weighted runs created (wRC+) was 112, which is 12% above average and ranked third in the NL.

The Nats’ starting pitchers’ ERA of 2.95 during June led the NL, which is pretty remarkable considering that Strasburg missed the entire month and Scherzer had to miss two starts. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde pitched well. And three pitchers who had not been expected to start (Paolo Espino, Jefry Rodriguez, and Austin Voth) made four starts and pitched a total of 16 innings without giving up a run.

The relief staff’s typical performance was about average. Their ERA of 4.05 ranked ninth in the NL, and their FIP of 3.86 ranked fifth. But they came through in timely, high-leverage situations—their 29 shutdowns during the month led the NL, and their 11 meltdowns was tied for fourth fewest.

Record:

19–9 (.679)

Pythagorean Record:

17–11 (4.68 R/G – 3.68 RA/G)

June MVP:

Kyle Schwarber (.280/.362/.760, 16 HR, 22 R, 30 RBI, 190 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR) was unbelievable over the 18 games from June 12 through 29 (.348, 16 HR, 27 RBIs). Schwarber was named National League Player of the Month. But I also want to recognize the runner-up, Trea Turner (.345/.398/.540, 4 HR, 24 R, 11 RBI, 6 SB, 155 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR).

Most valuable pitcher:

I call this a tie between Joe Ross (3–2, 3.06 RA/9, 5 G. 32⅓ IP, 9.2 K/9, .252 opp OBP, 1.0 RA9-WAR) and Max Scherzer (3–0, 1.42 RA/9, 4 G, 19 IP, 11.4 K/9, .267 opp OBP, 1.0 RA9-WAR).


Most valuable relief pitcher:

Brad Hand (2–0, 2.20 RA/9, 15 G, 16⅓ IP, 7.7 K/9, .222 opp OBP, 4.48 RE24, 0.6 RA9-WAR, 9 shutdowns, 1 meltdown).

Worst month:

Kyle Finnegan (1–2, 10.57 RA/9, 9 G, 7⅔ IP, 12.9 K/9, .342 opp OBP, –6.23 RE24, –0.7 RA-9 WAR, 4 shutdowns, 2 meltdowns). He really just had two bad outings, but then he wound up on the injured list.

Best start this month:

Joe Ross (June 13, 5–0 win over the Giants at home) pitched 8 scoreless innings, giving up 5 hits and no walks and striking out 9 for a game score of 81.

Worst start:

Jon Lester (June 25, 11–2 loss to the Marlins in Miami) gave up 7 runs on 5 hits and 3 walks in 2-1/3 innings with 1 strikeout, for a game score of 17.

Tough losses:

  • Joe Ross (June 5, 5–2 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia) gave up 4 unearned runs on 3 hits and 2 walks in 6 innings, while striking out 4, for a game score of 60.
  • Patrick Corbin (June 26, 3–2 loss to the Marlins in Miami) gave up 3 runs on 5 hits and no walks in 6 innings, while striking out 6, for a game score of 56.

Cheap win:

  • Jon Lester (June 30, 15–6 win over the Rays at home) gave up 5 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks in 5 innings, while striking out 3, for a game score of 34.

Best shutdowns:

Usually, here I just report the relief appearance with the highest win probability added, which this time was an important and interesting save. But the second highest appearance is probably a “better” pitching performance, so I’ll report both of them.

Brad Hand (June 22, 3–2 win over the Phillies in Philadelphia). Tanner Rainey had just given up a home run to cut the Nats’ lead to one run when Hand got the call to face Andrew McCutcheon with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, the Nats ahead 3 to 2. Hand struck out Cutch and got out of the inning. Coming back for the save in the bottom of the ninth, a lot of Nats fans found their hearts racing when Hand gave up a leadoff double to Bohm. After getting a fly for an out, Hand let the go-ahead run get on base with a hit batsman. Then Vierling singled to load the bases, still with one out. Herrera flied out to short left, and Hoskins hit a grounder that Trea Turner was able to field and get the final out. (WPA +.228) Yes, it was a high-leverage shutdown, but we could have done without the white knuckles.

The next afternoon, Paolo Espino (June 23, 13–12 victory over the Phillies in Philadelphia) delivered a more conventional shutdown. After a game in which the Phillies had a see-saw battle, with each team taking the lead only to have its relievers surrender it, the Nats regained a 13–12 lead in the top of the ninth. The Nats had used six relievers already, and Hand, having pitched four of the previous five days, was not availab.e, so the call for the ninth went to Espino. He got Hoskins and Harper to fly out. Realmuto reached on an error, but Miller lined out to end the inning and one of the craziest games I’ve ever seen. It was the 34 year-old Espino’s first career save and came just a week after his first career win. (WPA +.197)

Worst meltdown:

Kyle Finnegan (June 6, 12–6 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia). The Nats had to go to their bullpen early when starter Austin Voth was hit in the face with a pitch in the top of the third. When Finnegan got the call in the bottom of the fourth, the Nats were ahead 3 to 0, there was one out, and runners were on first and second. The first batter he faced reached on an error. Then he gave up a single, followed by two walks, tying the game at three apiece. Then came a fielder’s choice that wasn’t able to nab the runner, scoring another run, followed by a strikeout accompanied by a wild pitch that scored another. Finnegan left the game with the Nats trailing 5 to 3 and runners still on second and third (who would both score). (WPA –.656)

Clutch hit:

Josh Bell (June 23, 13–12 win over the Phillies in Philadelphia). Bell came to bat in the top of the sixth with the bases loaded and the Nats traiing 9 to 7. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, he drove a fastball the other way for a grand slam and put the Nats ahead 11 to 9. (WPA +.502) The Nats would need another clutch hit in that game—Starlin Castro‘s one-out two-RBI single in the top of the ninth to put the team ahead 13 to 12 for the win. (WPA +.395)

Choke:

Victor Robles (June 12, 2–1 loss to the Giants at home in the second game of a doubleheader). The game had gone to extra innings when both teams were scoreless at the end of the seventh. The Giants scored two in the top of the eighth, but the Nats got one of them back when Starlin Castro led off with a double, driving in the automatic runner. Robles was hit by a pitch and took first, bringing Kyle Schwarber to bat, still with no outs. Schwarber flied out to center, and Castro advanced to third. Inexplicably, Robles also tried to advance and was easily thrown out, making the second out and removing the go-ahead run. It was a terrible base-running decision and may have cost the Nationals the game. While I don’t know the WPA just for Robles’s part of the play, I assume it accounts for most of the –.358 WPA recorded on the double play.

Favorite defensive plays:

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