Bell is true ringer in heart of Nats' lineup

First baseman stays hot with pair of hits, 3 RBIs in win over former club

April 16th, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- The presence of Washington first baseman Josh Bell has drawn the attention of the crowd at PNC Park early in the Nationals’ series against the Pirates.

Bell, a second-round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, spent five seasons with the Bucs from 2016-20 before being traded to Washington. His return to Pittsburgh this week -- the second time with the Nationals -- has prompted scattered applause from the Pirates’ faithful when his name has been announced.

A few more performances like Friday night’s, and that could change. Bell went 2-for-4 and drove in three runs as the key cog in a lineup that roughed up Pirates starter Mitch Keller and the Pittsburgh bullpen in a 7-2 victory.

In the first inning, Nelson Cruz and Bell hit RBI singles to score César Hernández and Juan Soto.

After letting an early lead slip away in Thursday’s 9-4 loss, the Nationals didn’t make that mistake twice, adding on as Cruz drove in runs in the second and fourth. In the sixth, Bell broke the game open with a two-run opposite-field single that drove in Alcides Escobar and Soto to make it a five-run margin.

Though his early-season hit streak was snapped on Thursday, Bell has reached safely in all nine games he’s played this season and took over the team lead in RBIs with nine. Bell is hitting .344 on the season, and he also has drawn six walks, taking a more patient approach into this season.

“He’s had an unbelievable attitude coming to the ballpark every day,” manager Dave Martinez said. “I always talk to him about focusing on today. Let’s win today and then go from there. ... I give credit to him for actually, really working on the mental side of the game.

The early hot start to the 2022 season is quite a contrast to his first year with Washington. Bell missed time while on the COVID IL and he struggled through the early part of the 2021 season. He hit .113 in April and .264 in May before rebounding through the rest of the season.

“He started off rough because of what had happened,” Martinez said. “He came back and it took him a while to get going. I think he learned and matured a lot from that in really knowing what kind of player he can be.”

This season, he’s found success right away, thanks to a more mature approach at the plate and the growth that he’s gone through over the last year.

“I’m feeling really short and compact to the ball,” Bell said. “Being on time for the fastball, that’s where I need to be. I’m not trying to do too much. I’m just trying to square the ball up, be more of a ball striker than a home-run hitter. If I can stay there, I know I’m going to continue to put balls on a line, put balls in play, and good things will happen.”

Bell and Cruz figure to get plenty of opportunities for RBIs, teaming up to be the heart of the Nats’ lineup behind All-Star Soto. So far, that’s been a duo that’s worked well and it came through in a big way on Friday, combining for six RBIs.

“Juan is going to accept his walks,” Martinez said. “He’s going to get on base. We’ve got two guys behind him that can drive him and César in, we’re going to score some runs.”

The 41-year-old Cruz knows a thing or two about being a successful Major League hitter, and he sees the potential in Bell to continue the hot start to his 2022 season.

“He’s a great hitter,” Cruz said. “He gives you really good at-bats. When he’s driving the ball the other way, it makes him really dangerous. He can go and get the hit, or he sees something he can drive, it’s a homer.”

Combined with a solid start to the season from leadoff man Hernández, the lineup looks to be in a good place in the early going.

“We are where we want to be,” Cruz said. “It’s early in the season, but we’re doing good things: getting on base, finding ways to score runs. That’s what we need to be doing.”