The Nationals were patient at the plate against Blake Snell. It paid off.

The Nationals were patient at the plate against Blake Snell. It paid off.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

SAN FRANCISCO — Reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell provided the Washington Nationals with an early season test Monday night. Just how disciplined could they be at the plate?

Snell joined the San Francisco Giants in March, signing a two-year deal with the club after an odd offseason as a free agent. The 31-year-old lefty had a solid track record — that Cy Young Award he collected this past November was the second of his career — but he prioritizes stuff over command. The task for the Nationals, then, was to limit their chases against Snell.

As they opened a West Coast swing on Monday night, the Nationals (4-6) aced the assignment in an 8-1 victory over the Giants (4-7). They only chased 21 percent of the pitches Snell threw out of the zone. They forced Snell to throw 72 pitches over three innings, spoiling his Giants debut. They walked seven times.

“He didn’t win a Cy Young for no reason,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s got some really good pitches, we just had to get the ball in the zone. … Our focus was to make him throw strikes, work deep counts and accept your walks. Don’t chase. And I thought we did a good job.”

For the past few seasons, the Nationals have been a contact-first team in a sport that values power and the whiffs that come with it. Early in their 2024 campaign, this year’s iteration of Washington’s offense isn’t much different.

It’s a small sample size, but the Nationals entered Monday making contact with balls in the zone at a rate that ranked them in the top five clubs in MLB. Washington also chased 31.9 percent of the time, fourth-highest in baseball, and its chase contact was third-highest in the majors. Washington’s propensity to make contact is a blessing and a curse. If the contact isn’t quality contact, opposing pitchers don’t have to work.

That’s been the case early this season. Cincinnati Reds right-hander Frankie Montas threw 81 pitches over six innings on Opening Day. Pittsburgh Pirates starter Martín Pérez threw 85 pitches over 6⅔ innings last week. This weekend, Philadelphia Phillies lefty Ranger Suárez tossed 82 pitches over six. But on Monday, the Nationals were able to get Snell close to those figures by the third inning.

“We all knew it was his first start, so just kind of seeing what he was bringing,” said outfielder Lane Thomas, who finished with three hits, including his first home run of the year. “I know sometimes he has trouble finding the zone so I was think that was our biggest thing. Going in and making him throw a good pitch.

“I don’t think we smashed him by any means, but chipped away and got a few runs. I think, with a guy like him, it’s important to do.”

The first seven batters who came to the plate against Snell got into three-ball counts and the first five reached full counts. The Nationals didn’t score in the first. But in the second, catcher Keibert Ruiz and infielder Ildemaro Vargas walked in consecutive at-bats to set up an opportunity for 23-year-old third baseman Trey Lipscomb.

Lipscomb poked a change-up over the heart of the plate into left field for a game-tying RBI single. Luis García Jr. followed him with another RBI single. And when García was dancing in a rundown between first and second, Lipscomb stole home. Lipscomb would finish with three hits and three stolen bases, only the seventh player in Nationals history to do so.

“Our motto was just to get the bat to the next guy,” Lipscomb said. “I feel like that’s what we were doing today and you saw the success that we had today.”

During the first 10 games of the season, there have been signs that strides are being made with selectiveness at the plate. For example, García’s selectiveness has allowed him to make better contact in the zone. He’s in the 99th percentile for hard-hit rate and 100th percentile for barrel percentage, which measures hard contact that is also elevated. There’s certainly room for improvement, but there has been progress. Now, it’s about consistency.

Shortstop CJ Abrams, who has missed three games with a finger injury, participated in baseball activities Monday but wasn’t quite game ready. Martinez is hopeful he will play Tuesday. Third baseman Nick Senzel is heading on a rehab assignment to Class AA Harrisburg on Tuesday. Their additions could offer a boost for the Nationals, too.

“I sat with them yesterday for a little while and I just talked about getting the ball in the zone, taking your walks and extending innings,” Martinez said. “We did a great job today.”

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