- The Washington Times
Sunday, July 11, 2021

Dave Martinez couldn’t have imagined writing out Sunday’s lineup card for Game 89 this season, the Washington Nationals’ final contest before the first half of the season gave way to the All-Star break.

There was Alcides Escobar, batting first and hitting leadoff. Tres Barrera was behind the plate catching. Neither player was in Washington’s plans at the major-league level once the Nationals concluded spring training camp, and Escobar wasn’t even with the organization at that point. But then again, very little about Washington’s first half to the 2021 season could be planned for or anticipated.

“Things happen. We all know that,” Martinez said. “I’ve been in this game for a very long time. Seen a lot.”

Martinez, though, couldn’t have foreseen the coronavirus outbreak that postponed the Nationals’ opening day and left the team short nine players who might’ve contributed to begin the season. Nor could he have forecasted the flurry of injuries that have since followed, testing the organization’s depth to the extreme.

Between those have come a series of ebbs and flows — with the ebbs lasting longer than the flows. After trailing in the NL East by as many as 8.5 games, the Nationals finally hit a stride in mid-June, embarking on a run of 15 wins in the final 19 games of the month.

But injuries piled up during that run, and a hot June turned into a dormant beginning of July, with nine losses in Washington’s first 11 games — including Sunday’s 3-1 defeat against the Giants — to take the wind out of the Nationals’ sails once more.

“We’ve gone through a lot in this first half, if you really think back all the way to the beginning of the year,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “We’re still in a position to be in it, and that’s all you can ask for.”

With Sunday’s loss, Washington enters the All-Star break six games back of the New York Mets atop the division. Some of the major issues that crept up throughout the first 89 games of the season showed themselves Sunday, too, especially a no-out, bases-loaded situation in the seventh that yielded just one run. They’re hitting .200 with the bases juiced, although their .263 average with runners in scoring position in the eighth-best mark in the league.

The Nationals’ inability to scratch across runs cost them plenty of wins during the first half of the campaign. They averaged 3.88 runs per game — the fourth lowest in the league — through June 11. They’ve since risen to 4.22 runs per game, good for No. 18 in the majors, because of the sudden breakthrough beginning June 12.

That breakthrough was much to do with left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who clubbed 16 home runs in 18 games. But after a blistering end to June, Schwarber suffered a hamstring strain in early July, shelving him for the foreseeable future. He’s just one of the players sidelined.

Stephen Strasburg hasn’t pitched since June 1, and Martinez said they “need to be a little bit more cautious” with the right-hander. Any rehab assignment to work back from his neck strain would occur after the All-Star break. Joe Ross is another starter shelved until after the break.

Washington has navigated the past few days without either catcher they broke camp with — Yan Gomes and Alex Avila are both on the 10-day injured list. That leaves Barrera and Jakson Reetz behind the plate, and the latter hadn’t played above single-A ball before 2021. Kyle McGowin landed on the injured list Sunday, just a few days after relievers Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan were activated.

“The All-Star break came at the right time for us,” Martinez said. “We definitely could use a little break. We got guys who’ve just come off the IL in the bullpen, they could also use a little rest. Even though they came off, still it’s taxing for these guys trying to get built up again, so the rest will do them some good.”

The bullpen has been especially taxed recently, with a series of short starts forcing long outings from relievers. If there’s anything Martinez hopes to correct going into the second half of the season, that’s it.

Washington is built around its rotation, with big names such as Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin anchoring the starting pitching corps. While Scherzer has put together a solid season — holding a 2.66 ERA and making his eighth All-Star Game roster — Strasburg’s injuries have held him back and Corbin, with a 5.40 ERA, hasn’t performed up to his 2019 level.

And with Jon Lester laboring of late, reaching five innings just once in his last four starts, the Nationals have relied upon that bullpen frequently.

“Our starting pitching needs to get better, needs to go deeper into games,” Martinez said. “Our bullpen has done well but has been used a lot, so if we have to improve on something, we need to get some depth out of our starting pitching and go deeper into games. If we can do that and keep our bullpen sound, we’re gonna take off again — I know we are.”

With the July 30 trade deadline approaching, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo might have his work cut out for him, deciding whether his team requires reinforcements for a playoff push or a selloff to prepare for future postseason hunts.

Washington, at 42-47 heading into the break, hasn’t had a win-loss record as poor since 2010, when the franchise stood at 39-50 after 89 games. Martinez, ever the optimist, hasn’t shut the window yet on this season, even after a slide into the All-Star break. He figures there’s ground to be made up, and he believes this team is capable of doing so.

“I really believe that we’ll come back strong in the second half,” Martinez said. “We got a lot of games left in our division. We’re definitely going to bang heads with the Mets and the Phillies and the Braves and the Marlins. So it should be a fun second half.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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