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August 2, 2021 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ July in review: Today is heart wrenching as we say goodbye

Nationals fans couldn’t be blamed for feeling optimistic as July began. After a strong winning record in June, the Nats were in second place, only two games behind the division-leading Mets. A tough spell was ahead, as they faced 14 consecutive games against the three teams with the best records in the National League—the Dodgers, Padres, and Giants, all playing in the NL West. But the Nats had just won three games against the Mets and the Rays, so they seemed set to compete against the best teams in their league. Quickly, their hopes were dashed as several Nats players were injured and their pitching was unable to constrain the NL West offenses. The Nats finished the month going 8–18 (their worst monthly record since June 2010), dropping them to fourth place, 7½ games back. And as the July 30 trade deadline approached, Mike Rizzo and the Lerners raised the white flag of surrender and traded away not only seven players who were entering free agency at the end of the year, but also Trea Turner, who had another year left on his contract. The message was clear that management doesn’t expect the team to be competitive again until at least 2023. The fans will have to be content cheering a team consisting largely of players who were recently in the minors.

July began with a four game series against the Dodgers in Washington. The lineup for the first game brought some surprising and unwelcome news. Turner and Jordy Mercer were both injured—Turner had injured his finger while sliding into third to complete his cycle on June 30, which would keep him out of the lineup for four games, and Mercer would go on the injured list with a quad strain. Bizarrely, all of the minor league infielders on the 40-man roster were also injured, so the Nats had to start backup catcher Alex Avila at second base for the first time in his career. Avila finished the game (which lasted only five innings due to thunder storms)  but injured himself and spent the rest of the month on the IL. The Nats lost that game. The next night they added minor league journeyman Humberto Arteaga to the 40-man roster and activated him to play one game at shortstop. Max Scherzer pitched well and left the game after six with the Nats ahead 3 to 1, but the bullpen collapsed and the Dodgers won it 10 to 5. Even worse, Kyle Schwarber had to leave what would be his last game as a National with a hamstring injury. The next night, a more permanent infield solution appeared when the Nats purchased the contract of Alcides Escobar from the Royals. Escobar hadn’t played in the majors since 2018, but he filled in admirably all month. But the Dodgers won the next two games, sweeping the series.

The Dodgers series was followed by a road trip to the west coast, where the Nats played four games against the Padres followed by three against the Giants. Joe Ross went on the IL with right elbow inflamation, but the team was buoyed by the return of Turner to the lineup and of pitchers Erick Fedde, Kyle Finnegan, and Daniel Hudson from the IL. They played more competitively against the Padres, winning two of the first three games, including a 15 to 5 trouncing of the Padres in Game 3. The finale appeared to be headed the same direction as the Nats had Scherzer pitching and took an 8 to 0 lead in the top of the fourth. But it quickly fell apart, as Max gave up 7 runs while recording only two outs in the bottom of the inning. The Nats were unable to add on and lost the game 9 to 8 in 10 innings. The series in San Francisco began inauspiciously as Yan Gomes suffered an oblique strain that would leave him on the IL for three weeks. Tres Barrera took over as catcher, and Jakson Reetz made his major league debut, appearing in two games before the Nats signed veteran Rene Rivera as a backup catcher. The Nats lost all three games against the Giants and fell to fourth place in the division. By this point, it was clear that the team would probably be sellers at the fast approaching trade deadline.

The season paused for the All-Star Game. Four Nats were selected, with Max Scherzer making his fourth All-Star Game start and Trea Turner and Juan Soto also playing, while the injured Kyle Schwarber had to watch the game from the dugout. Soto put on a show in the home run derby, battling and ultimately beating Shohei Ohtani in the first round when it went to a three-swing swing-off, before falling to the winner, Pete Alonso, in the semifinal round. In the major league draft, the Nats had the 11th overall pick and selected high school shortstop Brady House.

After the break, news came that Starlin Castro had been placed on administrative leave while the league investigated an allegation of domestic violence. Ultimately, the league decided to suspend Castro for 30 games and the Nats announced that they would release him at the end of his suspension. The Nats opened a three game series at home against the Padres by being thrashed, 24 to 8, the most runs given up by the Nats in club history. The next night, the game was suspended in the sixth inning after gunshots rang out, causing players and fans to scurry for cover. There was a shooting on South Capitol Street, just outside the stadium, and three people were shot, including one woman who had just exited the stadium and was waiting for an Uber. The game was finished the next day, with the Nats losing, though they were able to win the finale on a walkoff hit by Escobar. Next came a three game series against the fifth place Marlins. The Nats won the first two games, but lost the last one in the 10th inning, giving them a 3–3 record for the home stand.

The Nats next went to Baltimore to play the Orioles, who had the second-worst record in baseball. Fans hoped that if the Nats could sweep the series, they might decide to be buyers rather than sellers at the deadline, but it was not to be. The Nats lost all three games, including an excruciating blown save and Oriole walkoff in the third game, where the Nats held a 4 to 3 lead going into the bottom of the ninth. The pattern was repeated the next night in Philadelphia, where the Nats opened a four-game series with another blown save/walkoff loss, this time after leading 5 to 3 going into the bottom of the ninth. Closer Brad Hand was responsible for both blown saves. 

The next day brought more bad news. Stephen Strasburg, who had pitched only five games this season, would have to have thoracic outlet surgery, shutting him down for at least a year. And while the Nats were able to win the second game against the Phillies, Turner had to be pulled from the game (his last in a Nationals uniform) due to a positive covid test. The next night’s game was postponed as players and staff were tested and three additional players, as well as eight team staff members (including most of the coaches), were quarantined due to positive tests.

The postponed game was played the next day (July 29) as part of a doubleheader. Before the first game, news came that Hand had been dealt to the Blue Jays. Scherzer pitched the first game, giving up one run in six innings for his final Nats win. He finished with a 92–47 record in 189 regular season starts, 1,610 strikeouts, and a 2.80 ERA (151 ERA+) in 1,229 innings as a National. Gomes, returning from the IL, hit a homer for the Nats to go ahead in the top of the seventh, and Finnegan got his first save in the bottom of the inning. But the Nats’ bullpen problems were back on display in the second game of the doubleheader, when the Nats took 7–0 lead in the top of the third and still had a 7–4 lead going into the bottom of the seventh, but gave up three runs, sending the game to extra innings, and another four runs in the eighth for an 11–8 loss. The Nats had gone 2–5 on their road trip.

That evening after the games, news of more trades came in.  Scherzer and Turner (!) were going to the Dodgers in exchange for four prospects. The prospects included the Dodgers’ top two prospects, who immediately became the Nats’ top two prospects—catcher Keibert Ruiz and right-handed pitcher Josiah Gray. Schwarber was traded to the Red Sox and Hudson to the Padres. The next day, we learned that Gomes and Josh Harrison were going to the Athletics and Jon Lester to the Cardinals before the 4 pm trade deadline. In all, eight veteran players, including three all-stars and four veterans of the 2019 championship team, were exchanged for 12 prospects, six of whom immediately were rated among the Nats’ top 16 prospects.  

The month finished with the new, younger Nationals splitting the first two games of a three game series against the Cubs at home. Many of the starters had been playing for Rochester or Harrisburg earlier in the month. Relief pitcher Gabe Klobosits made his major league debut on the 30th.

How to explain the Nationals’ poor record? Their losses in July mostly reflected deficiencies in their pitching, both among their starters and relievers. The  starting pitchers’ ERA of 5.50 during July ranked 12th among the 15 NL teams. One way to assess starting pitchers is to look at their game scores. A game score of 50 or above means that the starter has pitched well enough to give the team a good opportunity to win. Nats’ starters had game scores of 50+ in only 12 of their 26 starts this month. (In the old days when Nats had one of the best starting rotations, this standard was usually reached in about 75 to 80% of their starts.)  The relief staff’s performance was pretty awful. Their ERA of 6.55 in July was the worst among all 30 MLB teams.. Their 23 meltdowns was third most, and their WPA of –3.85 was the worst in baseball.

The offense, on the other hand, did pretty well. Their batting average of .275 during July led the majors, and their on-base percentage of .348 was second behind the Brewers. Their slugging percentage of .450 ranked third in the NL, and they ranked fourth in the comprehensive offensive metric of weighted runs created (wRC+) with 112. But the offense did not make up for the team’s awful pitching. 

Record:

8–18 (.308)

Pythagorean Record:

10–16 (5.19 R/G – 6.35 RA/G)

July MVP:

Juan Soto (.356/.487/.689, 9 HR, 24 R, 22 RBI, 205 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR).  After a somewhat disappointing first half of the season, Soto returned to MVP-level play in July, tying with Manny Machado for the MLB lead in fWAR for the month. 

Most valuable pitcher:

Kyle Finnegan (0–0, 1.54 RA/9, 11 G, 11⅔ IP, 7.7 K/9, .273 opp OBP, 2.11 RE24, 0.6 RA9-WAR, 7 shutdowns, 1 meltdown). Honorable mention goes to Ryne Harper (0–0, 1.00 RA/9, 7 G, 9 IP, .229 opp OBP, 3.73 RE24, 0.3 RA9-WAR, 0 shutdowns, 0 meltdowns), who never had the opportunity to pitch in high leverage innings.

Most valuable starting pitcher:

In a surprise, the honor this time goes to Paolo Espino (1–0, 3.86 RA/9, 5 GS. 23⅓ IP, 6.9 K/9, .306 opp OBP, 0.5 RA9-WAR). He didn’t always pitch great, but he usually gave the Nats a chance to win.

Worst month:

When a team goes 8–18 there are going to be lots of candidates here. I’ve decided to call this a tie among three middle relievers: Sam Clay (0–4, 11.57 RA/9, 13 G, 9⅓ IP, 4.8 K/9, –6.20 RE24, –0.8 RA-9 WAR, 2 shutdowns, 4 meltdowns), Wander Suero (2–1, 12.66 RA/9, 10 G, 10⅔ IP, 9.3 K/9, –7.96 RE24, –0.8 RA-9 WAR, 2 shutdowns, 3 meltdowns), and Austin Voth (1–0, 15.43 RA/9, 8 G, 7 IP, 7.7 K/9, –10.22 RE24, –0.9 RA-9 WAR, 1 shutdowns, 4 meltdowns). If I gave more weight in this category to performance in high leverage situations, though, the distinction would go to Brad Hand (–1.93 WPA, 5 meltdowns). Let me also mention Patrick Corbin, Erick Fedde, Jon Lester, Victor Robles, and Ryan Zimmerman, all of whom played poorly enough to have qualified in a less awful month.

Best start this month:

Jon Lester (July 19, 18–1 win over the Marlins at home) pitched 7 scoreless innings, giving up 6 hits and no walks and striking out 7 for a game score of 72. And for good measure, he hit 2 for 3 with a home run and 2 RBIs. I did a post about this start and how well Lester has pitched with long rest.

Worst start:

Jon Lester (July 10, 10–4 loss to the Giants in San Francisco) gave up 8 runs (3 earned) on 9 hits and 2 walks in 2⅔ innings with 1 strikeout, for a game score of 17.

Tough losses:

  • Joe Ross (July 4, 5–1 loss to the Dodgers at home) gave up 3 runs on 7 hits and 0 walks in 6⅔ innings, while striking out 11, for a game score of 59.
  • Jon Lester (July 24, 5–3 loss to the Orioles in Baltimore) gave up 3 runs on 3 hits and 1 walk in 5 innings, while striking out 2, for a game score of 50.

Cheap win:

  • None

Best shutdown:

Daniel Hudson (July 25, 5–4 loss to the Orioles in Baltimore). Hudson came in to replace Finnegan with two outs in the bottom of the 7th, a runner on first, and the Nats ahead 4 to 3. He got a strikeout to end the inning. In the eighth, he gave up two singles, then got a double play and a strikeout to get out of trouble, allowing the Nationals to go into the ninth with their lead intact  (Win probability added/WPA +.197) In the ninth inning, however, Hand would surrender the lead and give up the winning run.

Worst meltdown:

Brad Hand (July 26, 6–5 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia). Hand, having already blown a save the previous day, got the call again in the bottom of the ninth with the Nats holding a 5 to 3 lead. He gave up a leadoff double to Segura and a wild pitch that advanced him to third. He struck out Realmuto, but walked Harper, putting the tying run on base. The next batter, McCutchen, hit a walk-off home run. (WPA –.909)

Clutch hit:

Juan Soto (July 18, 8–7 win over the Padres at home). In the bottom of the eighth, Soto came to bat with one out, the Nats trailing 6 to 5, and Turner on second. On a 3–2 count, he launched a fastball over the left field fence, putting the Nats ahead 7 to 6 (WPA +.487).  The Padres would tie it in the top of the ninth before Escobar hit a walk-off single in the ninth.

Choke:

Gerardo Parra (July 9, 5–3 loss to the Giants in San Francisco). Parra  came to bat with one out in the top of the eighth, the bases loaded, and the Nats trailing 5 to 3. He grounded into a double play. (WPA –.254)

Favorite defensive plays:

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