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Kyle Schwarber’s early blasts and strong start by Joe Ross give Nationals series split with first-place Giants

If the Washington Nationals, to a man, could do what they did in their 5-0 win over the San Francisco Giants on Sunday at Nationals Park, they could turn around their season.

If Joe Ross could deliver eight scoreless innings every outing, if Kyle Schwarber could homer twice against every right-handed starter, if Josh Harrison could chip in four hits and Victor Robles could reach base three times and everyone could just play to his potential every single day ... well, most major league teams would look much different if they could bottle their best.

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But these Nationals, who split a weekend series with the best team in the National League but remain eight games under .500 at 27-35, simply need to find a way to be good enough more often, to do the little things enough to turn close calls into close wins a bit more frequently.

For a team that rarely has had much margin for error, that the Nationals managed a series split despite an injury-shortened start by Max Scherzer and Juan Soto contributing just one hit qualifies as a positive — particularly after they split a two-game series at the American League-leading Tampa Bay Rays last week.

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“It’s not a matter of ‘Oh, we can play with these guys.’ We always knew,” said Harrison, who called splitting with those teams the “worst-case scenario” because he felt the Nationals were a run or two away from winning them. “It’s just a matter of, we got to be good in all areas of the game.”

Leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber hit a solo home run in the first inning and a three-run shot in the second to stake the Nationals to a 4-0 lead against the visiting Giants on Sunday. Above, he rounds the bases after the first homer.
Leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber hit a solo home run in the first inning and a three-run shot in the second to stake the Nationals to a 4-0 lead against the visiting Giants on Sunday. Above, he rounds the bases after the first homer. (Nick Wass/AP)

The Nationals began the weekend series desperate to find solutions for their inconsistent offense. They may have found an unlikely patch in Schwarber. Manager Dave Martinez moved the slugger to the top of the order Saturday to get him more pitches to hit. The idea was that pitchers would throw Schwarber more fastballs to avoid putting him on base in front of Trea Turner and Soto.

In the opening game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Schwarber led off the bottom half of the first inning by hitting a fastball out to right-center. On Sunday, he hit a Johnny Cueto changeup out to right-center, just over the out-of-town scoreboard. An inning later, he hit a 95-mph Cueto fastball that appeared to be well above the strike zone off the facing of the second deck to give the Nationals a 4-0 lead. Put another way, Schwarber drove in more runs in two innings Sunday than the Nationals had scored in the first three games of the series combined.

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“I always think it’s kind of funny seeing him lead off in front of Trea because usually you think of him as a three, four guy,” Ross said. “But he’s done great. Kind of like [Ronald Acuña Jr.] with the Braves leading off — kind of immediate danger in the box.”

The goal of a move like that, it should be noted, is not to turn Schwarber into something he isn’t. When the Nationals signed him in January, they added a .230 career hitter with a .336 on-base percentage who averaged about 20 homers per year over his first six seasons. As the Nationals try to turn their season around, they cannot bet on Schwarber to hit for a higher average or cut down on his strikeouts. But they can try to maximize his strengths and optimize his value, as they are trying to do with fellow slugger Josh Bell, who didn’t play Sunday.

“If those guys see 3,000 pitches in a year and they hit 30 home runs, that’s only 30 at-bats,” Martinez said. “They’re going to slug, but in between those home runs, they need to take their walks, they need to get on base, they need to do the little things. Today we saw all those little things.”

Joe Ross allowed five hits in eight shutout innings, striking out nine and walking none, to improve his record to 3-6.
Joe Ross allowed five hits in eight shutout innings, striking out nine and walking none, to improve his record to 3-6. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

The Nationals need every ounce of production they can get. They entered Sunday with a .638 OPS since June 1, the fourth-lowest in the majors. At times during Saturday’s games, particularly in the second one against a handful of Giants relievers, their at-bats were quick and unintimidating — and the outcomes followed suit.

After 15 innings of mostly offensive futility Saturday, the Nationals put at least one runner on base in each of the first seven innings Sunday. When they got runners on, they often moved them.

In the second, after Alex Avila singled off Cueto’s leg, Robles dropped down a surprise bunt and beat it out (with Cueto being charged with an error) to get on base for Schwarber’s second big swing.

It was Robles whose base-running miscue cost the Nationals a chance to tie Saturday night’s game, a mistake that was not out of character for a 24-year-old who has a habit of erring on the side of aggressiveness. But Robles did not shy away from that mistake when speaking with reporters Saturday night, nor, his manager said, did he try to dodge responsibility in a conversation Sunday morning.

Robles was back in the lineup Sunday. After reaching on that bunt in the second, he singled in the fourth and walked in the sixth. He nearly made an incredible leaping catch on a ball that the Giants’ Mike Tauchman hit to the wall in center in the sixth inning, but reply revealed the ball nicked the wall before settling into Robles’s glove, so Tauchman was awarded a double.

Perhaps more notably, Martinez said he reminded Robles before the game that Cueto had a good pickoff move. He noticed Robles adjusted his lead accordingly — a sign, Martinez said later, that he was trying to take lessons to heart.

Robles does not need to reach base three times per game for the Nationals to be successful. He does need to continue to smooth out his edges, particularly on the bases, to maximize his value. These Nationals cannot afford to hurt themselves.

Similarly, they don’t need Ross to pitch eight scoreless innings every outing, either. That he did so Sunday was particularly welcome given the dilapidated state of the bullpen, which was taxed by Scherzer’s brief outing Friday and the doubleheader Saturday. The Nationals didn’t have any of their top three late-inning options available Sunday. Thanks to Ross, they did not miss them. And thanks to their showing this weekend, the Nationals seem willing to believe they just may be able to be good enough a little more often.

“Remember, guys, this is a good team,” Schwarber said after he had answered the last question at his postgame news conference. “Stay with us. Stay with us.”

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