Electric Rookie Trea Turner Providing Crucial Spark for Nationals

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 05:  Trea Turner #7 of the Washington Nationals rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the fifth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park on August 5, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

For much of the season, the leadoff spot has been a barren wasteland for the Washington Nationals

Consider rookie Trea Turner an oasis in the nation's capital.

We're in small-sample territory, but after going 2-for-4 with a home run in Friday's 5-1 win over the San Francisco Giants, Turner is hitting .321 with an .896 OPS in 20 games for the Nats.

He has also swiped eight bases without being caught and generally provided a lineup-topping spark for the National League East leaders.

That is quite a change of pace. The Nationals offense, which ranks among the top 10 in runs scored and OPS, has been strong on balance.

Other than Turner, however, Washington's leadoff hitters have landed somewhere between anemic and abysmal.

In 256 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot, outfielder Ben Revere sports a .220/.271/.309 slash line. That's unquestionably awful, but center fielder Michael Taylor has been just as bad with a .206/.248/.382 leadoff line.

Really, since center fielder Denard Span departed for the Giants as a free agent this winter, the Nats have been without an adequate leadoff option.

Now, Turner is providing the combination of speed, on-base capabilities and "sneaky pop"to quote Nationals color analyst F.P. Santangelo, via the team's Twitter feedthat make for an ideal table-setter:

Speaking of the Nats' Twitter feed, here's a clip they pushed out of Turner stealing home, which is the coolest thing you can do in a baseball game this side of a walk-off homer:

"I love speed," manager Dusty Baker said of his vroom-vroom new toy, per MASN Sports' Patrick Reddington. "You heard me say that in spring training. Speed kills. And it does a lot of things and it creates a lot of mistakes."

A San Diego Padres first-round pick in 2014, Turner played the bulk of his minor league innings at shortstop. Since arriving in D.C., however, he's logged time at second base and center field and looked more than passable. So add versatility to the "special skills" section on his resume.

Second baseman Daniel Murphy is on pace to win the NL batting title. Catcher Wilson Ramos is having a career year with a .332 average and 17 home runs. Veteran left fielder Jayson Werth has reached base in 36 consecutive games. 

Turner, though, could end up being the most important Nationals hitter during the stretch run, as Washington seeks to push into October and atone for last season's acrimonious flameout.

That's especially true if reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper keeps up the disappearing act that has him toting a .235 average into play Saturday.

Then again, imagine if Harper gets hot. With Turner above him slapping the ball around the field and wreaking havoc on the basepaths, this Nationals attack would go from solid to downright scary.

"I think it's just about knowing the game," Turner said about his baserunning in May, per MiLB.com's Michael Peng. "Knowing what the pitcher is going to do, knowing who's hitting behind you and the counts. Just trying to relax out there. When you try to get jumps, you may end up doing stupid things and make a mistake. If you stay relaxed, I think you can take advantage of a lot of opportunities out there."

Turner could set the table for reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper.
Turner could set the table for reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

There will be growing pains for Turner, as there always are for young players. The league will adjust. Then again, you know the cliche about speed not slumping. Even if his average ticks down, the 23-year-old has his legs to fall back on.

Here's how ESPN.com's Eddie Matz put it, calling to mind another legendary baseball speedster:

Cool Papa Bell was one of the speediest players in baseball history. Legend has it, he was so fast he once laced a line drive up the middle and the ball hit him in the butt sliding into second. So fast he could get out of bed, turn the lights out across the room, and be back in bed before it got dark. Trea Turner might not be quite that fast, but he's close.

For much of the season, the Nationals have played without a true leadoff hitter. Now, they have one.

Catch him if you can.

All statistics current as of Aug. 5 and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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