Nationals Notebook: If you’re not first, you’re last

So much for that moment in the sun last week.

For one full day, the Washington Nationals were atop the NL East, but a sweep by Atlanta and two hard-luck losses at the New York Yankees drop the team back to the basement.

Not to go all Talladega Nights on us here, but since they started playing games this spring, the Nats have either been in first or last place of the NL East. And until they can generate quality instead of quantity on offense — they rank fifth in batting average but are 29th in runs scored — they’re going to have to rely on a consistently uneven pitching staff to be great every time out.

At least they have Juan Soto back in the lineup. Even though he only hit .133 last week with a homer and three RBI, the reigning batting champion’s presence in the lineup means Trea Turner can lead off (where he’s hitting .344 this year, as opposed to under .230 batting second or third). Now, if he can only get protection in the lineup.

Digesting the division: The New York Mets (16-13) have won five straight to take the NL East lead, while Philadelphia (18-17) is only one game back after dropping two of three to suddenly-streaking Atlanta (17-17), which has won five of six. Miami (15-18) is in fourth, despite being the only team in the division with a positive run differential (their +20 is fourth-best in the NL) but are saddled with a 2-8 mark in one-run games. The Nats are 5-5 in one-run games this year, and at 13-17 bring up the rear for the third time in four weeks.

O’s woes: Three straight losses keep the Birds in last place of the AL East. At 15-19 they’re the only team in the division with a losing record. But they’ve got John Means, and the lefthander is making this team must-watch at least one day a week. Even before his near-perfect no-hitter, the 28-year-old was having the best season of his young career. His four wins are tied for eighth best in the majors and Means’ 1.37 ERA is the fourth-lowest among qualified starters. On a staff where three of the other four regular starting pitchers own ERA’s higher than five, Means is a breath of fresh air.

Say isn’t that? Michael A. Taylor hit .240 last week to drop his average with Kansas City to .255. He strikes out just like he did in D.C. (his 33 K’s in 31 games played are tied for second-most on the team). Adam Eaton only played two games (hitting 1-7 to drop his batting average to .212), but he’s still posting decent numbers (17 runs scored plus 19 RBI in 26 games played) for the Chicago White Sox. Wilmer Difo may have only 6 RBI in Pittsburgh, but that’s three fewer than his combined 2019 and 2020 seasons for Washington. Wil Crowe in his first year with the Pirates has a 4.02 ERA over four appearances, or one more game than his one season tenure with the Nats. Sean Doolittle hasn’t pitched since May 2, and the lefthander has two wins plus one save after a month of the regular season with Cincinnati.

Last week’s heroes: Starlin Castro hit .400 while Trea Turner batted .308 with a team-high 4 RBI. Yan Gomes and Kyle Schwarber also drove in four runs last week. Max Scherzer struck out 14 over 7.1 innings of one-run ball, while Kyle Finnegan and Austin Voth each notched three relief appearances where neither allowed an earned run.

Last week’s humbled: Tanner Rainey allowed four runs over 1.2 innings while Brad Hand allowed walk-off runs in losses Saturday and Sunday. Josh Bell may have scored a team-high four runs, but the first baseman hit .143. Yadiel Hernandez (.125) didn’t help his case as a long-term fit in the outfield mix that shrinks with the full-time return of Juan Soto.

Game to watch: Wednesday, the Nationals face Philadelphia and Zack Wheeler (3-2, 2.83 ERA) while Jon Lester makes his third start of the season. He was lights-out in his debut, and solid to begin his second outing. With Stephen Strasburg still not on the active roster and the remainder of the non-Max rotation having yo-yo starts to the season, Lester’s ability to produce is key.

Game to miss: Tuesday, the series with the Phillies gets underway with a pair of 5+ ERA starters. Erick Fedde (2-3, 5.27 ERA) and Chase Anderson (1-3, 5.54 ERA) is the less-than-overwhelming mound matchup. Save your attention this series for Lester (Wednesday) and Corbin (Thursday).

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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