Nationals growing as a team with phenoms stepping up
BALTIMORE Max Scherzer wore dark shorts, a black shirt and had his baseball cap on backwards.
The Nationals’ season was going backward or at least sideways nearly one month ago. But thanks to Scherzer, his fellow starting pitchers and young reinforcements, Washington reached the first third of regular-season play atop the National League East division.
“Guys are getting an opportunity to step up and take advantage of it. We are seeing that right now,” Scherzer said after he pitched the Nationals to a 2-0 win over the Orioles Wednesday night for his league-high ninth victory.
That gave the Nationals a record of 32-22 in the first 54 games of the season’s 162-game marathon. After starting 11-16, Washington has gone 21-6 and surged into first entering Thursday’s game at Atlanta.
The series continues Friday with Stephen Strasburg (6-4, 3.17) slated to pitch.
Some of those guys Scherzer talks about seeing regular playing time are second baseman Wilmer Difo, catcher Pedro Severino and rookie left fielder Juan Soto, 19, who played in his first major league game May 20.
All three players are products of the Nationals’ player development efforts in the Dominican Republic.
For good measure, hard-throwing rookie reliever Wanda Suero, who was called up from Triple-A Syracuse in late April, is also from the Dominican.
The international efforts have paid off for the Nationals, according to minor league pitching coordinator Paul Menhart.
“They have done a wonderful job of mirroring what we do over here,” Menhart said of the Dominican academy. “When they come over here we don’t have to re-teach them or start over with them. When they come over they just have to get used to the culture, not the baseball aspect.”
Difo has filled in for Daniel Murphy, the regular second baseman the previous two years who has been out all season after knee surgery in October.
Severino began the season as the backup catcher to Matt Wieters, who went on the disabled list May 11 with a left groin strain and may not return.
Soto was called up to help fill a void when Howie Kendrick, who was playing second base and left field, was lost for the season on May 19 with a right Achilles injury. All Soto did in his first 10 games was hit .375.
The left fielder to start the season was Adam Eaton (left ankle bruise), who went on the disabled list April 11 but is expected to begin his minor league rehab stint Friday.
First baseman Ryan Zimmerman (right oblique strain), on the DL since May 12, could be back soon.
Throw in third baseman Anthony Rendon, who missed 14 games with a toe contusion, and five of the projected regulars have spent time on the disabled list. The only three who have not are right fielder Bryce Harper, center fielder Michael A. Taylor and shortstop Trea Turner.
Harper had a league-high 18 home runs through Wednesday, Turner was hitting .267 with 14 steals and Taylor was playing strong defense with 13 steals despite an average of .203.
The Nationals have also benefited from the free agent signing of first baseman/left fielder Matt Adams, who hit 12 homers in his first 47 games.
First baseman Mark Reynolds, filling in for former Virginia teammate Zimmerman, hit six homers in his first 13 games with the Nationals after signing a minor-league contract.
So what will the Nationals do when Murphy, Eaton, Zimmerman and backup outfielder Brian Goodwin are ready to join the team?
“Those questions answer themselves,” general manager Mike Rizzo said this week on 106.7 The Fan. “These things have a way of working themselves out. We are prepared to make those decisions. We will attack those decisions.”
Murphy and Goodwin both started for Double-A Harrisburg on Wednesday in Hartford, and injured lefty pitcher Matt Grace (left groin strain), on the disabled list since April 21, also pitched for the Senators in a rehab appearance.
Meanwhile, the Nationals keep on winning. They were six games back of first place on April 28 then won 21 of their next 27 games under Dave Martinez, a rookie manager who helped guide a steady ship in rough waters this spring.
It helps that the starting pitchers had a league-best ERA of 2.81 before Thursday’s game, and were second in the majors in overall ERA at 3.21 and WHIP at 1.11.
“For me, it’s all about watching these guys grow as a team,” Martinez said. “They’re playing together now as a team, as a unit, and it’s fun to watch. They’re pulling for each other, they’re picking each other up. Like I said before, I’ve asked these guys to do some things that they’re not very comfortable with doing and they’ve done really well, so I’m just looking forward to continuing to do what we do and go out there and play good baseball.”