WASHINGTON -- The Nationals understood that their longest homestand of the year -- including back-to-back series against the two teams ahead of them in the National League East -- would be a crucial stretch in their season. These games presented the Nats with a prime opportunity to start chipping into
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals understood that their longest homestand of the year -- including back-to-back series against the two teams ahead of them in the National League East -- would be a crucial stretch in their season. These games presented the Nats with a prime opportunity to start chipping into the deficit facing them in the division and to hang onto their postseason dreams.
And even though they dropped Sunday’s series finale to the Braves, 4-3, in 10 innings at Nationals Park, the Nationals can feel good about what they accomplished. They went 6-4 overall, with one game postponed by rain, including going 4-2 in the past week by sweeping three from the Phillies before dropping two of three to the Braves.
Yes, there was an opportunity for more after winning the first four games against their division rivals this week, but if the weekend series between the Nationals and Braves is any indicator, the next 14 games between the two teams should be a treat. Washington will be attempting to claw its way back into the race while Atlanta tries to establish itself once again as the divisional power.
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“I think especially after today and yesterday, we know we’re capable of keeping up with any of these guys,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “We’ve said it since the beginning: Eighth inning, ninth inning comes around, we’re going to battle til the end. We gave ourselves a chance to win today, it just didn’t come our way. But no shame, no hanging our heads. We’ve still got to look forward.”
Yes, there are plenty of reasons for the Nats to look forward, and to do so with optimism, even as they stand in third place and trailing the Braves by 8 1/2 games. Here are three takeaways as the Nats wrap up a crucial homestand:
Soto is locked in
No one in the Nationals’ lineup has been as dialed in as Juan Soto at the plate. He homered to put the Nats on the board in the seventh inning Sunday, his first career dinger on a curveball, which extended his hitting streak to nine games. Soto now has collected a hit in 11 of his past 12 games, and during that stretch he is 18-for-44 (.409) with a pair of doubles, pair of triples, pair of homers and even a pair of stolen bases to go along with 10 RBI, five walks and nine runs scored.
“He's really staying on the baseball well,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “When he was going good last year, one thing that he really, really worked on is getting the ball in the strike zone and just staying on the ball and using the whole field. He's doing that really well now.”
Soto got off to a bit of a slow start to his sophomore season with opposing pitchers feeding him a steady diet of offspeed pitches. But he has nearly erased his slow start, raising his slash line to .305/.399/.534 with a 141 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus).
“Right now, it's amazing,” Soto said. “You just see the work coming out. All the work I made in the beginning of the season is coming out right now.”
Voth impresses Martinez
Austin Voth made the most of his opportunity against the Braves, putting together the best start of his brief Major League career. He limited Atlanta to just two runs in six innings -- a solo homer from Josh Donaldson in the fourth and another by Ronald Acuna Jr. in the sixth -- as he finished with a career-high seven strikeouts. His fastball averaged 93.9 mph, a few ticks up from the 91.3-mph average during his stint as a September callup in 2018.
The Nats were in a stretch of six games in five days, which is why they needed Voth to make this spot start and he will almost certainly head back to the Minors before Tuesday’s game against the Marlins, but this outing made Voth someone worth keeping an eye on going forward.
“I really liked what I saw. I really did,” Martinez said. “Everything was good. We'll see where he fits in, but I was very impressed. Especially in the sixth inning, still throwing 94 miles an hour. And [he] looked very poised. It was awesome.”
The Trevor Rosenthal era officially ended on Sunday morning with the Nationals releasing the perplexing reliever who never got right. The Nats tried everything to fix Rosenthal -- mechanical adjustments, days off, mental breaks, physical breaks, a month at extended spring training and Minor League rehab assignments, in high-leverage and low-leverage situations.
But on Sunday, they finally moved on. In some ways, the Nats have moved on from both of their failed offseason reliever acquisitions and stumbled into a few key pieces at the back end of their 'pen with Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey. Even though Rainey gave up the game-winning homer Sunday, he's been pitching well ahead of Sean Doolittle. No, the Nationals’ bullpen is not perfect, but the club has found a few pieces that should keep it somewhat stabilized going forward.
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.