ATLANTA — The Nationals arrived in Atlanta on Sunday night having just won their first game of the season. After a pair of lopsided contests, they claimed the series with a 3-1 victory over the defending World Series champion Braves at Truist Park on Sunday afternoon. Here are four takeaways from the first leg of the road trip as the Nats heads to PNC Park to take on the Pirates.
Despite being taxed early in the season, the Nationals’ bullpen delivered with their depth and experience. After 24-year-old Josiah Gray tossed five scoreless innings, relievers Kyle Finnegan, Sean Doolittle, Steve Cishek and Tanner Rainey (save) closed the game by allowing a combined one run on two hits with three strikeouts and no walks. Every performance by the ‘pen — which features relievers of interchangeable roles — is key, because the Nats do not have an off-day until April 25.
“However we line up, I think it’s going to be a really good combination no matter what the matchups are, whoever gets in the game, honestly, with however many guys we’ve got down there,” Rainey said. “I think the bullpen’s been really good so far.”
Ringing the Bell
The Nats and Josh Bell now travel to Pittsburgh, where he played the first five years of his career, with the first baseman having hit safely in every game this season. He wrapped up the series in Atlanta with a 2-for-4 day at the plate. Washington manager Dave Martinez noted Bell has been keeping his hands back and staying behind the ball, and he lauded Bell’s defense at first base as well.
“I’m just trying to stay athletic, stay short and stay on time for the fastball and let the rest happen,” Bell said. “Good things have been happening so far.”
Bell is in the final year of his deal with the Nationals after being acquired from the Pirates on Christmas Eve of 2020. General manager Mike Rizzo said last week that the Nats’ first priority in contract extension talks is with Juan Soto.
“He’s a professional through and through,” Martinez said of Bell. “I just want him not to worry about that, and just go out there every day and play the game the right way every day. He does that. We never talk about contracts with him or anything else. I said, ‘Just go play, and play the game today.’”
Franco in the zone
Maikel Franco found his rhythm in Atlanta. After beginning the season 1-for-13 in four home games against the Mets, Franco hit 8-for-13 over three contests at Truist Park, including 4-for-5 with five RBIs on Monday. Coming off a .210 batting average with the Orioles last season, Franco is looking to maximize his starting role at third base after signing a Minor League deal with the Nationals this past winter.
“His chase rates were astronomical over the last couple years [38.5 percent in 2021],” Martinez said. “And that’s one big thing that we wanted him to understand. ‘Hey, you have to get the ball in the zone. When you do that, you’re going to hit the ball hard.’ He’s got good bat-to-ball skills, too, which is something we appreciate a lot here. And when he’s done that, he’s hit the ball fairly hard, so hopefully he continues to do that.”
Every player approaches injuries differently, and Martinez got an early glimpse this series into how 41-year-old designated hitter Nelson Cruz navigates a temporary setback in his 18th season. Cruz was scratched from the lineup on Tuesday because of right groin tightness. The following day, he went through a comprehensive pregame checklist before he was cleared to play.
“The biggest thing with me is that he’s very honest,” Martinez said. “I can ask him how he’s feeling, and he’ll be honest with me. That’s something I told him that he needs to do. We had another guy here with Howie [Kendrick] that [we] had to be very careful with.”
Cruz, who went 0-for-4 on Wednesday, is three days removed from hitting his 450th career home run. The Nationals need Cruz’s bat in their lineup, even if it means sitting out occasionally to stay healthy for the long haul.
“This guy wants to play every day,” Martinez said. “He wants to DH every day. He tells me all the time, just write his name in the lineup and if something goes awry, he’ll let me know. Yesterday was a perfect example where he didn’t feel right, and I respect that. That guy knows his body better than anybody, and I’m good with it.”