Barrage of injuries putting Nationals to the test
With Harper, Zimmerman and Gio on DL, Washington forges ahead
Are the Washington Nationals persevering or disappointing? Are they better than their record shows or worse for wear and tear?
Within the confines of their own clubhouse, these questions are asked.
On the one hand, the Nats know that the members of their Opening Day lineup -- most notably, Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman -- have combined to miss more than 30 percent of their games, and the rotation that was absent Doug Fister for the first six weeks of the season got him back just in time to lose Gio Gonzalez.
So to be sitting at .500 and just three games back in the National League East standings is respectable.
On the other hand, the Nats, purely in terms of record, are actually behind their pace in 2013, when they were one of baseball's biggest disappointments. They were 26-24 at the 50-game mark a year ago. They are 25-25 now. And a ballclub that was steeped in confidence after posting the best regular-season record in the game in 2012 has had that confidence tested in the time since.
"You can look at it a million different ways," said shortstop Ian Desmond. "Is it a positive that we've endured the injuries and we're still in it and haven't dug ourselves too big of a hole? Yeah. That's good. But I think, at some point, as an organization, we're going to have to look beyond that stuff, turn the page and realize we're better than the way we're playing."
The Nats just dropped three of four to the Pirates over the weekend. In the three losses, they were outscored by a grand total of four runs. They are 6-10 in one-run games this season. You have to assume a healthy middle of the order would have made a difference in at least a handful of those losses, but the Nats have also been stung, surprisingly, by one of the most inefficient defenses in baseball (and Desmond, whose 13 errors are the most of any player in baseball, is the first to admit he's the primary culprit).
All of this -- the injuries, the extra outs, the slumps, the struggle to accrue positive momentum -- has made manager Matt Williams' rookie season at the helm a challenging one. He's weathered it as best he can, and the best we can say of Williams -- or any manager -- is that his players are mentally and physically invested in the work put before them, no matter the adversity that's surrounded them.
"The guys that are here now playing every day have found their identity and found the way they want to go about it, and they're competing," Williams said. "They're playing hard. We've come back in a lot of games and won some games we probably shouldn't have won. So that's a good sign."
The Nats could nonetheless use some more tangible evidence that the injury tide is turning.
Getting LaRoche, who had a .319/.421/.504 slash line before pulling his right quadriceps earlier this month, back into the lineup Sunday was a huge mental pick-me-up. LaRoche slotted right back into the cleanup spot behind Jayson Werth, whose OPS dating back to last year's All-Star break (.915) is among the best in baseball in that span.
But the Nats will have to continue to lean heavily on those two vets for a while, because Harper is expected out after thumb surgery until at least early July, and Zimmerman's return from a broken right thumb is progressing more slowly than anticipated.
The lineup injuries have placed more focus on the depth of the Nats' bench, which has proven to be improved over last year's struggles. But they have also compelled Williams to ride his regulars hard.
Desmond has started all 50 games. Werth has started 49. The 22-year-old Anthony Rendon, who has cooled after a scorching start, has started 48. In an ideal situation, a player with Rendon's already lengthy injury history would get a little more rest, but then again, what about the Nats' situation this season has been ideal?
The injuries have had a predictable impact on the Nats' run production, which at 3.92 per game is slightly below the NL average. They've also put more pressure on a rotation that has also had its share of health hiccups.
Gonzalez had made 162 career starts without a DL stint before shoulder inflammation became too much to bear. He played catch on Saturday and Sunday, and the Nats are hopeful his time on the pine won't be lengthy. Rookie Blake Treinen, who has a 1.56 ERA in 17 1/3 innings in the bigs, served well as his replacement Thursday night.
"Everybody has stepped it up a little bit to pick up in the situation," pitching coach Steve McCatty said.
But McCatty is still, like many fans, puzzled by the way a rotation that was among the best in baseball the previous two seasons has suddenly had trouble establishing itself early in games this year. The Nats have had a staggering 10 games in which their starters have given up three runs or more in the first inning.
"Questions have been thrown out about preparation," McCatty said. "We prepare the same way. We go over hitters. Fortunately, I've kept all their records in my book of how many pitches they throw before each start, going back five years. The amount of pitches in their bullpens are all very, very similar.
"So we address it, but it happens. You've just got to attack hitters the same way."
An improved bench and a sterling bullpen have prevented the Nats' season from going off the tracks. The depth of their talent (when healthy, of course) is such that Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds report was still giving them a 40-percent chance of winning the East, entering Sunday, and the internal hope is that a full-strength Nats team will be primed for a second-half surge akin to the one Washington posted in '13, albeit with an actual October berth to show for it.
In the meantime, the Nats work with what they've got, counting on improved defense, less rocky beginnings and, with any luck, no more damaging DL stays.
"It's nice to see we've stayed afloat," Desmond said. "But I'm at the point where I know we have to play better -- I have to play better personally, and we have to play better as a team."