Nats secure win with big decisions ahead

July 21st, 2021

WASHINGTON -- One of the busiest days in Major League Baseball, the Trade Deadline, is approaching on July 30. Teams will field calls, monitor opponents’ moves and weigh options to field the roster that most benefits their club for the remainder of the 2021 season and beyond.

“Trade Deadline time is a decision-making time here,” general manager Mike Rizzo said on Tuesday afternoon before the Nationals’ 6-3 win against the Marlins. “In the past, we’ve usually been a buy-first team because we’re always in the midst of trying to win championships. I think we still feel that way as of right now, today. We’ll attack the Trade Deadline as we always do. We’ll be aggressive in whatever we do.”

Two years removed from winning the World Series, the Nationals (45-49) are fighting to rise in the closely matched National League East. Following Tuesday’s action, the Mets held 2 1/2 game lead on the Phillies, though the top four teams are separated by only five games. For that reason, Rizzo is leaning toward waiting until closer to the Deadline to assess the best moves -- but he still would be aggressive on a can’t-miss deal. 

“This year, it’ll be a little bit different because of where we’re at in the standings,” said Rizzo. “I think we’ll kind of go by a dual path, try and maximize our place in the standings, wherever that is, whenever we make that decision. ... We still have some games to play before we make those kind of decisions, but I think a dual path is probably the most advantageous for us right now.

“We’ll have our lines in the water on the ‘buy’ side. We’ll also prepare some type of ‘sell’ scenario if we have to. But we’re looking forward to playing better baseball for the next two weeks and see if we can creep closer to the New York Mets and see if we can make some noise in the National League East.”

The Nationals' best arm also is a hot topic in trade buzz. Max Scherzer is 7-4 with a 2.83 ERA in the final season of his contract, which includes full no-trade rights. Rizzo said he expects Scherzer will remain with the Nats on July 31. One way that could change is if the team goes into complete sell mode, which Rizzo doesn’t anticipate. 

Even with Scherzer leading the pitching staff, the rotation still needs arms that can go late into games to avoid overtaxing the relievers.  

“We need to get better and longer starts from our starters, because that’s what we’re built upon,” Rizzo said. “If that happens, I think everything else will fall into place. Bullpen will be better because they won’t be overused. When you’re ahead in games, you’re going with your ‘A’ bullpen instead of your ‘B’ bullpen, and the world’s a nice place to be. You know my sentiments on it: when you have enough starting pitching, everything’s great. And until you have it, nothing’s great. So we’ve got to pitch better.”

Washington’s starting rotation has been hampered by injuries throughout the season, including the absence of Stephen Strasburg since he went on the IL on June 2 because of a neck strain. The right-hander has pitched 21 2/3 innings over five starts in 2021. This week, he has thrown a 32-pitch bullpen session and long toss in his rehab.

“It’ll be a day-by-day process with him,” Rizzo said. “But the way he looks and the way he sounds, I feel confident that he’ll be back this year.”

The Nationals have had to take a by-committee approach with their position players, too. Jordy Mercer has been tabbed to step in on the hot corner while Starlin Castro is on administrative leave. 

In the outfield, Kyle Schwarber’s historic homer tear was halted when he sustained a right hamstring strain that landed him on the IL on July 3. Rizzo described the injury as “kind of deflating for a few days.” The Nationals have been filling the vacancy by committee, including Josh Harrison, Gerardo Parra, Andrew Stevenson and Yadiel Hernandez.

“When those core guys, those everyday guys, go down, there is some uncertainty about how you’re going to fill it,” Rizzo said. “I think Davey has put some good options out there. … The more your core guys get hurt, the more pressure is put on your star players, and that’s where your Trea [Turners] and your Juan [Sotos] have to come to the forefront and really carry this team.”

Hours after Rizzo spoke, the Nationals won their second straight game against the Marlins, putting them in position to go for a sweep in Wednesday's series finale. Their bats continued to heat up, with a league-best 13 home runs since the All-Star break, including Josh Bell’s 100th career homer. They have eight games remaining before July 30, with plenty of opportunities for momentum and injury recovery progress to factor into the decisions made at the Deadline. 

“We’re playing really hard, we’re grinding out at-bats, the offense is starting to perform a little bit better,” Rizzo said. “The positive is, we never stop. We grind it out all the time no matter how well we’re playing or how bad we’re playing.”