Concurrent injuries and a terrible bench are what doomed the 2013 Nationals. At any given point in the early parts of the season the Nationals line-up could contain four hitters with an OPS under or around .600. That isn’t good, and it led to the Nationals offense being completely unable to score runs. The 2014 Nationals are a little different. Danny Espinosa has filled in admirably with Ryan Zimmerman on the DL and Jose Lobaton’s recent hot bat has lifted his offensive numbers to an above average level for a catcher. The Nationals have now lost another piece with Bryce Harper on the DL with a thumb injury. No timetable has been given for his return as the extent of the injury is unknown but it could be anywhere from a simply 15 day DL stint to two months. The Nationals will know more after Harper visits a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic today.
There is no good time for injuries to happen and it is even worse when they all happen at the same time, but the Nationals schedule is loosening up a bit. People will look at the end of the Nats recent home stand against the 11-13 Angels and the 12-14 Padres and conclude that those were two mediocre teams the Nationals couldn’t defeat, but the Angels have scored 130 runs and allowed 101 meaning that their record should be much better. Against the Padres the Nationals had a couple fluky loses in which they got 16 hits but couldn’t only manage 3 runs and another in which the normally solid Aaron Barrett walked in two runs. In total the Nats outscored the Padres 20-9 in the series. Do that in every series and that is a lot of wins.
While the results weren’t there for the Nationals on the home stand the Angels are a better team than people realize and the fluky loses to the Padres are the type of thing that evens out over the course of a baseball season. Even given the records both the Angels and Padres are hovering around .500, just like the Nationals. The Astros are not. The Phillies are one game over .500 at 13-12 but have been outscored 106-116, and with the extra off day on Thursday the Nationals should be able to skip over Taylor Jordan in favor of Gio Gonzalez for the Sunday game giving them a slight edge in the pitching department.
What it boils down to is that there is never a good time to be playing without three of your top hitters, but if that time is going to happen it is good that it happens during the soft part of the schedule. After the road trip the Nationals come home to play the Dodgers. That should be a tough series but all indications are that Wilson Ramos could begin a rehab assignment at any moment and meeting the team at home for the Dodgers series is a logical thing to do. After playing the Dodgers at home the Nationals head back out on the road to play the A’s and Diamondbacks. The A’s, like the Dodgers, are a good team and it will be tough for the Nationals to beat them not at full strength, but the Diamondbacks are currently the worst team in baseball and provide a nice cushion to end the road trip.
If everything goes perfectly, and nothing ever does, then Bryce Harper’s thumb injury won’t be too severe and Ryan Zimmerman will be ready to come off the DL when the Nationals open a six game home stand against the Mets and Reds. At this point it is wishful thinking to hope that happens, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibilities. It would be the best case scenario, but as we’ve learned with this team the worst case scenario is far more likely. Still by that time both Ramos and Fister will be back with the Nationals and maybe they’ll get some good news on Harper or Zimmerman before then and any one of those two players will provide a boost.
No games in baseball are easy, and no time is a good time for injuries, but this could be the softest part of the Nats schedule and it is a lot easier to tread water in calm seas than in the middle of a hurricane. Right now for the Nationals the key is to survive. Get through the next 14 games and don’t let the Braves get too far ahead and then make a run as players start to come off the DL, and hope for good news on Bryce Harper so those players come off the DL sooner rather than later.