'Can only go up from here' for slumping Bell

May 12th, 2021

The stage was set for a comeback on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

A two-out, pinch-hit double by Ryan Zimmerman in the seventh inning. A 14-pitch battle between Trea Turner and José Alvarado culminating in ball four thrown to the backstop. Another walk to Juan Soto on four pitches to load the bases.

One swing of the bat from could tie the game or give the Nationals the lead. Too many swings and misses, though, could add to the offensive frustrations of the first baseman’s first season in Washington.

It ended in the latter scenario in the Nats’ 6-2 loss to the Phillies.

“The guy was wild,” manager Dave Martinez said. “So in [Bell’s] mind, I know he’s thinking, ‘He’s got to throw a strike.’ He took a strike and then he went up there and started swinging the bat. [He] just couldn’t get it done.”

The switch-hitting Bell batted right-handed against the southpaw Alvarado. He entered the game 1-for-15 against lefties this season. Bell took the first pitch for ball one, but he quickly fell behind in the count. After looking at a sinker for the first strike, he fouled off the next pitch and struck out swinging on a 100.8 mph sinker to end the Nats’ threat. Bell described it as “a tough AB.”

“I feel like there were subtle cues,” Bell said. “Guys that have really, really heavy sink, I’ve got to give myself just a little bit more room to reach the bottom of the zone. I feel like with that lefty, I could have done a better job of getting a little bit closer. Even though he was throwing hard, just give myself a chance to put that ball in play.”

Despite the back-to-back walks to Turner and Soto, the Phillies had confidence in Alvarado facing Bell in that matchup.

“Bell, you're gonna want to turn around when you can,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “He's had more success in his career on the left side. It doesn't mean that we're always going to get him out when he is right-handed. He's a good player, but I felt good about Alvy in that situation."

Bell’s batting average dropped to .134 in what the Nationals are hoping will be a bounce-back season after acquiring him on Christmas Eve from the Pirates, with whom he hit .226 last year. He is 2-for-4 this season with the bases loaded (four RBIs, two strikeouts), while the Nationals rank tied for last in the Majors with a .143 team batting average in that scenario.

“Obviously, I want to be able to come through for the team,” Bell said. “I think that if I’m in a good place in the box and driving the ball the way that I know I can, that’s when good things happen. I’m always happy to be in RBI situations, to be in game-winning situations. It’s just coming through in those moments and sticking to the plan. That really hasn’t happened for me so far.”

Martinez reiterated his confidence in Bell batting in the middle of the Nats’ lineup. He pointed out that Bell has been streaky over his six-year career, but he puts in notable pregame work (including 50-60 additional swings before taking batting practice) that could put him on track for a turnaround.

“We need him,” Martinez said. “He’s a big part of our lineup. I’m not going to give up on him. … When he starts to hit, he starts getting it, he could carry us for a while. So we’ve got to just stay with it.”

Bell, in the meantime, won’t get caught up in the numbers and plans to stay focused on the at-bats ahead of him.

“It’s called an average for a reason, thank goodness,” Bell said. “It’s obviously not where I’d like it to be, but I know it can only go up from here.”