Washington Nationals show flashes of a bright future, 2024 contention

MLB: Washington Nationals at San Francisco Giants
Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals wrapped up a week in the Bay Area going 3-3 after winning two of three from the San Francisco Giants, and then dropping two of three against the Oakland A’s. Outside of their 7-1 loss against the Giants on Wednesday, Nationals pitchers had limited the opposition to three or fewer runs four times in six games. They also dropped the series finale against the A’s, 7-6.

The projection systems didn’t have a lot of faith in the Nats coming into the season, with FanGraphs pegging them for a 65-97 campaign and a 0.2% chance of making the postseason. With a 6-9 record, they have already increased their projected win total by a game. If they keep playing the way they have shown over the first two weeks of the season, Washington could start pushing closer to their 71-91 record from a year ago.

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One standout from over the weekend was veteran outfielder Jesse Winker, who not only had some nice things to say about the Oakland Coliseum but also finished the series 6-for-12 including a game-tying home run on Friday night. He’s now hitting .341 with a .482 OBP on the young season. Winker likely won’t be part of the team’s long-term plans, but if he keeps hitting like this, could finish the season as a contender.

Mackenzie Gore’s emergence

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals
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Mackenzie Gore, one of the big pieces the Nationals received from the San Diego Padres in the Juan Soto deal, started Saturday’s game against the A’s. While he lasted just five innings, the southpaw also matched a career-high with 11 strikeouts. That’s a mark he’s touched just once, last year against the Kansas City Royals when he went seven innings.

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Coming out of his third start of the season, Gore holds a 2.81 ERA across 16 innings, showing just a glimpse of what kind of a starter the team is hoping he’ll become. The team is doing their best to keep him close to 90 pitches in his starts right now as they build him up, because they want him to remain with the club through the end of the season without worrying about innings.

  • MacKenzie Gore stats (FanGraphs): 2.81 ERA, 12.94 K/9, 0.56 HR/9, .241 batting average allowed, 1.19 WHIP, 35.4 percent strikeout rate, 7.7 percent walk rate in 16 innings pitched

Nationals manager Dave Martinez said after Saturday’s game that the next step of Gore’s evolution will be pitch efficiency and trying to get six innings at 90 pitches.

The key for Gore on Saturday was to establish his fastball, which allowed his secondary offerings to play off the heater. To improve his pitch efficiency, he’ll have to get ahead of more hitters with the first pitch. Against the A’s he faced 19 batters and only ten of those plate appearances began with an 0-1 count. 12 of those batters saw four-seam fastballs, five the curve, and then one each for the slider and the curve.

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Need for speed

Washington Nationals
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Heading into the weekend series, Martinez talked about how his team is aggressive on the base paths, but “aggressive smart.”

Earlier in the week the Nationals swiped nine bags in ten chances against the Giants which led their offense in the first two games of that series. On Friday, their fastest runner, Lane Thomas, was thrown out at second by Shea Langeliers who had a 1.70-second pop time. Langeliers leads the league in pop time this season at 1.86, tied with J.T. Realmuto of the Philadelphia Phillies. The A’s backstop also has the best arm behind the plate in the early going, according to Statcast.

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Ahead of Saturday’s game, we asked Martinez if that throw from Langeliers influences how he approaches the rest of the series, or if they’re going more on who is on the mound. “A little of both. We knew that if he gets a good ball to handle, he’s pretty good. But it’s not going to deter our guys.”

He also mentioned that stealing bases is nice, but what he’s more focused on is the team’s overall base running. “You don’t have to be fast to be a good base runner. Let’s be a good base runner. Let’s go first to third. Let’s try to score from second base on a base hit, or score from first on a ball in the gap. The guys bought in. When we get on the bases, it’s part of who we are. It’s our identity. We’re going to push the envelope. We want to be aggressive.”

Coming up

The Nationals have spent the past week playing games without their primary catcher, Keibert Ruiz, who has been out with an illness. He last played on Monday night, and on Wednesday they recalled No. 19 prospect Drew Milas. Ruiz was feeling better and looked to be nearing a return and was even ready as the team’s backup catcher for a game, so the team optioned Millas back to Triple-A Rochester. The good health report was short-lived, and Ruiz was unable to play in all three games in Oakland.

There is still no timetable for a return for Ruiz, and Martinez told reporters on Sunday that the Nationals would have to add another catcher to the roster in the next day or so.

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Josiah Gray was placed on the IL last week with a right elbow/flexor tendon strain, and their fifth starter in the rotation was up in the air through most of the weekend. It is now being reported that left-hander Mitchell Parker, the team’s No. 21 prospect, will make his MLB debut against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on Monday.

The 24-year-old allowed one hit and walked one in his lone outing this season in Triple-A when he worked a scoreless four frames and struck out five. Parker was a fifth-round pick in 2020 and has totaled just under 15 innings pitched at Triple-A.

The Nationals currently sit at 6-9 on the season, but their upcoming three series could be really rough. They’ll play the next three games in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, then fly home for an off day on Thursday before hosting the Houston Astros and wrapping up their season series with L.A. While the record is likely to suffer during this upcoming stretch, we should get a better sense of this team over the next nine games.

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