Washington Nationals thoughts and notes, One Week Through the Regular Season.

Victor with a hot start;

There haven’t been many Nationals hitters who have stood out to begin this season; many haven’t made strides from last season. That’s part of why the Nationals are 2-6 after the first week (and a day) of baseball. Okay, maybe part of it was six combined games against the Braves and Rays.

However, there has been one surprising player who has improved and put up quality numbers. Centerfielder Victor Robles is in a make-or-break year and is already showing the Nationals he can be their starting center fielder for at least next year, which happens to be his final season of team control in 2024. Manager Dave Martinez certainly thinks Victor is materializing into a great hitter.

“Patience at the plate, and more discerning pitch selection will only aid Robles in what he’s trying to do with the bat in his hands…Suddenly, he starts getting into a hitter’s count, and then that’s when he starts to hit the ball hard.”

— Davey Martinez

Robles has recorded six hits, one RBI, and four BBs in 24 plate appearances. Although more impressive, Robles has only stuck out once while slashing .300/.417/.350/.767. Robles was a huge contributor to the Nationals World Series run in 2019, showcasing his excellent defensive skills. Although Robles has always been consistent in the field, he has been an up-and-down hitter at the plate. In 2019 he was patient at the plate, drawing 35 BBs while hitting .255. However, in 2022, his plate mentality was so poor that he had to be sent down to Triple-A Rochester. He had 407 plate appearances, recording 82 hits, six homers, and slashing .224/.273/.311/.584. Strikeouts were a big issue for Robles in 2022, and he compiled 104 Ks alone in 2022.

This year he looks more relaxed at the plate. Robles changed his stance, and it’s working so far. Nationals fans should be thrilled about his development. The Nats’ manager spoke on Robles’ improvement before the Rockies series.

“[Victor] is a guy that needs to be very situational, whether it’s bunting a guy over, getting a guy over from second base with no outs, driving in free runs with a guy on third base less than two outs, those are the little things I want to see Victor do.

He’s been great. He’s been wonderful, and he’s, really, really, really taken everything we told him this spring to heart and is trying to work on just getting on base. And it’s been great. He’s been on base for us quite a bit already, but that’s all him. Him wanting to do it now, which is nice.”

— Davey Martinez

Davey’s questionable decisions;

Speaking of skipper Dave Martinez, the manager has made questionable calls and decisions during the first week of the regular season. It is not to say they attributed directly to a loss, but certainly, NatsTown was questioning the expediency of moves. On Tuesday, Martinez decided to keep closer Kyle Finnegan in a game where he already gave up a game-tying home run for the blown save, then gave up another home run to the next batter to fall a run behind; the decision had Nationals fans scratching their heads as the Rays scratch out five runs against Finnegan on five hits and a walk. The only out recorded was on a pick-off.

Finnegan hasn’t been consistent with the Nationals going back to Spring Training and has continued to struggle in Hi Lev spots. Finnegan first pitched on Opening Day, when the Braves slaughtered his pitching. After that, however, Finnegan had his worst performance as a National against the Rays. Martinez gave him the nod to close out the game in the ninth, but he couldn’t locate his first pitch, and Rays outfielder Luke Raley hit a game-tying home run. Three pitches later, Josh Lowe hit a bomb out of the ballpark and made it a 7-6 ballgame in favor of the Rays. Then a walk, single, double, and another homer followed, and Finnegan was pulled. However, many Nats fans were disappointed by Martinez’s decision to keep Finnegan in the game for so long. The Nationals had put up six runs heading into the ninth and gave the Nats’ closer a one-run lead to work with, and if Davey decided to take out Finnegan quicker, the belief was the Nationals would have at least had a chance for a ninth-inning comeback. With a four-run deficit, there was little chance, and the Nats just rolled over in the ninth to lose that game.

Davey was later asked about his decision to keep the pitcher in the game.

I’m not going to pull him. He’s our closer. We’ve got to get him right, right? I was going to give him 25 pitches to try to get out of it. They were just on everything.

It’s just location for him is not good right now. He’s leaving balls out over the plate, just can’t get the ball in, so we’ll take a look at some stuff for him, but I thought other than that we battled back, came back, boys played well.”

— Davey Martinez

Finnegan bounced back with a quality outing against the Rockies on Friday night. The reliever pitched in the ninth inning, striking out one.

Dead last Nats;

Before the 2023 season, many analysts believed the Nationals would be the worst team in baseball, and well… they are right. The Nationals are last in many statistical categories, Home Runs, Stolen bases, Runs scored, and RBIs. However, the Nationals are putting the ball in play, with only 49 strikeouts, fifth best in the MLB. So what’s the problem? Are the Nationals not hitting the ball hard? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is a little more complicated, the Nationals are not hitting the ball in the air, and 46% of contact is ground balls. That’s tied for worst in league with the Rockies.

Furthermore, 18.5% of the contact hitters make is “soft contact,” per FanGraphs. Meanwhile, only 27% of hits are “hard hits”; that’s the third lowest in the league. The problem isn’t hits. The Nationals are in the middle of the league in hits and on-base percentage. It’s getting those runners to advance 90 feet. It’s expected that a lineup with C.J Abarams, Micheal Chavis, and Stone Garret will struggle to hit the baseball hard, but the Nats have to figure it out because they aren’t far off.

When asked about the lack of stealing from Nationals players, Martinez told reporters his thoughts.

“We talked about this a little bit, you know, the situation will dictate when we run, but we definitely want to take advantage. I’m looking at all these guys stealing bases, and sometimes the game dictates how much we run, but we’ll see, but we know that the reason why they made the basis bigger, and they did this limited pickoff, is so guys can steal more bases, but we’re definitely in on it.”

— Davey Martinez

Gore’s stellar start

A former first-round selection by the San Diego Padres, MacKenzie Gore was the first Nationals pitcher to earn a win in 2023. Gore was part of the return for former Nationals Josh Bell and Juan Soto. Gore started strong last season, walking 17 and striking out 57, posting a 1.50 ERA during his first eight starts. However, it began to go downhill for the starter when he started to experience arm pain. In the last five starts in San Diego, he had a .333/.454/.615 line against with an 11.05 ERA and 20 BBs, against 15 Ks. After healing from his injury, Gore made a couple starts for the Nationals Triple-A affiliate, the Rochester Redwings. Martinez said that last year the team was hoping to get Gore into game action, but then they erred on the side of caution and decided to shut him down.

“It’s been a long time…I’ve been looking forward to it, and it was a lot of fun.”

MacKenzie Gore

The 24-year-old threw 5.1 innings, allowing three hits and one run with four BBs and 6 Ks in his Nat’s debut last weekend. The Nationals gave him some help, adding four runs to the board. Many noticed his fastball was a few notches faster, as he averaged a 94.7 mph fastball. However, Martinez stressed the importance of constantly throwing strikes.

“The thing for me is getting him in the strike zone. When he does that, he’s got electric stuff, and we saw that. He fell behind a few times, but he was able to get back into counts because he was able to get swings and misses.”

— Davey Martinez

Gore got his second start last night on the road at Coors Field on Friday and continued his success. He pitched six innings, allowing two runs, 2 BBs, 6 Ks, 1HR, on 98 pitches. He threw 64 strikes on Friday and has a combined 2.38 ERA through two starts.

Hickey’s hiccup;

Well, this will be short and not so sweet. Nationals pitching coach Jim Hickey was recently a guest on a podcast where he is heard seemingly forgetting Nationals pitcher’s names. He forgets Hobie Harris‘ last name and forgets to name Thaddeus Ward. Hickey was hired in 2020 and hasn’t been great with the team based on results and progress. I expected him to be gone this past offseason, but general manager Mike Rizzo and Martinez must see value in him. However, I expect a change could be made on the horizon unless the results really improve. You can listen to the full blunder below.

Nationals injury updates

Here are a couple of injury updates for Nationals fans. The most encouraging is the Jake Alu is making a rehab assignment at High-A Wilmington. This is the first time we have seen him since TalkNats first broke the news that he was hurt in the first week of March. Sean Doolittle and Tanner Rainey have been progressing and flew back to West Palm Beach, where they will continue their training program. Both players were in Washington for Opening Day for the ceremonies. Rainey is rehabbing from his Tommy John surgery that occurred last summer.

Rainey could be expected back at the end of the season, but he hasn’t thrown real pitches yet. On the other hand, Doolittle is also improving, as he suffered an elbow injury last season. He has started throwing on flat ground but hasn’t had any bullpen sessions yet.

Carter Kieboom has started throwing across the diamond again and is following a throwing program to get his arm back and healthy. Kieboom was a designated hitter in “some backfield spring training” games.

The left fielder, Corey Dickerson, was recently placed on the IL after suffering a calf injury two days into the season. Dickerson is with the team in Colorado, and the hope is he can be activated when his ten days are up. The Nationals would probably choose to re-assign Stone Garrett to Triple-A Rochester when Dickerson returns. However, the Nationals could also have Dickerson complete a minor league assignment before being called up. Alex Call and Ildemaro Vargas have been filling in for Dickerson.

Unfortunately, Stephen Strasburg‘s situation isn’t looking good. The latest update came two weeks ago, with the President of Baseball Operations, Mike Rizzo, stating the veteran is with his family and plans to start rehab when he is able and healthy. However, Strasburg is currently not participating in any baseball activities.

American League;

The Nationals will begin a stretch on Monday when they play 11 consecutive games versus Amercian League opponents. After the Rockies series, Washington will travel from Colorado to Anaheim to face Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout and the Angels. After a three-game series, they will head back to D.C to host the Guardians and the Orioles. Finally, the Nationals will return to the road and travel to Minneapolis to play the Twins.

Did you know: The Nationals led the National League in hits during the 2021 season with 1,388. Juan Soto led the team with 157 hits, with Josh Bell in second with 130.

Did you know: Brad Wilkerson recorded the Nationals’ first hit, first triple, first grand slam and recorded the first Nationals cycle. He hit that cycle in the Nats’ second game of the team’s existence back in April 2005 against the Phillies.

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