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Will ‘mini All-Star Break’ help or hurt the Nationals?

After seven games Nationals fans have seen nearly every dimension of this Nationals team as they deal with the new schedule format coupled with what could prove to be a championship hangover. A COVID-19 enforced break does not seem to be helping the team foster any momentum as they trudge forward.

3-4 is not 19-31, but in the terms of a shortened season it is cause for concern, especially after struggling mightily against what was projected to be one of the AL East’s lowliest teams: the now displaced Toronto Blue Jays. The good news is the Nats managed to split that series; cleaning up defensive errors and getting consistent production out of the order. Bad news? Any momentum may be derailed after the weekend series with the Marlins was postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak in the Miami clubhouse.

The Nationals will have to wait until Tuesday to resume their title defense. They will travel to New York where a hungry Mets team will be waiting for them, desperate to turn their season around as well (3-6).

“Tomorrow, I want these guys just to take off. Don’t do anything. Basically, sit at home. Just rest,” Davey Martinez said on Thursday after the Blue Jays series finale. “Saturday, we’re going to get after it again.” Martinez is no stranger to slow starts, nor is he a novice at galvanizing his team to perform despite previous inconsistent efforts.

Fortunately for the Nationals several key pieces on the roster, some of whom were major question marks, started to show real improvement in the latter part of the Blue Jays series. With Howie Kendrick missing the back half of the series, both Carter Kieboom and Asdrudal Cabrera made huge impacts. Kieboom, seen as the long term answer at third base, got on base four times in the Nationals 6-4 win on Thursday, displaying more resiliency at the plate and on the bag. Cabrera likewise played hero on Wednesday when he drove in a three-run triple in the 10th inning, sealing a much needed win. This came at a time when the Nationals had stranded base runners in the most crucial of situations; 1-for-16 in 2020 with runners un scoring position and two outs.

Another bright spot in the two series has been Starlin Castro. Acquired over the spring, Castro was seen as a worthwhile addition to an already versatile in-field. So far he has impressed, slotting effortlessly into the lineup at second base. Despite the fact he had two errors in the 5-1 loss to Toronto, leading to three un-earned runs, he made up for it the remainder of the series contributing offensively. A four hit game on Thursday is only a instance of his success in the Nationals lineup; batting .360 in his first 7 games with the team.

More welcome news is that of Josh Harrison joining the team during the week. Harrison struggled in his Nationals debut, going 0-4 as DH on Thursday, but he represents much needed depth at the new DH position as well as first base with Howie Kendrick mending a back issue.

As with the 19-31 start last season, many of those losses consisted of defensive errors, inconsistent production from the best bats in the order, and uncharacteristic base running errors. These are areas that can be corrected and mitigated, just as they last year. Time is running thin for tune-ups as the Nationals start to get into the teeth of the divisional schedule. In order to claw back into the race with Atlanta, Dave Martinez will have to use this 4 day break as a time to sharpen the team.

All unorthodox circumstances aside, this team has shown that when it plays a clean, efficient brand of baseball it can compete with the best teams. With the return of Soto and Strasburg imminent the Nationals will hope to shake loose what has been a lackluster start to their title defense.

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