Pennant races across baseball may not be won this year the best teams, necessarily, but rather the last teams standing. Injuries have become a scourge this year, a defining characteristic of the season 50 games in that has left a confluence of teams missing their stars.
The Washington Nationals have been at the fore of the troubling trend, sending 12 – that’s T-W-E-L-V-E – players to the disabled list this season and playing the whole season to this point without closer Drew Storen and slugger Michael Morse. They also lost catcher Wilson Ramos for the season, played two weeks without Ryan Zimmerman and will not get Jayson Werth back until August. And yet, their starting pitching has led them to a narrow lead for first place.
The Nationals have been among the most-stricken teams, but they are not alone. Every night, it seems, another superstar writhes in pain or hobbles off the field. A partial list of players to miss significant time this year reads like an all-star team. A sampling:
Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Kemp, Troy Tulowitzki, Roy Halladay, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Mariano Rivera, Chipper Jones, Nick Markakis, Carl Crawford, Doug Fister, Salvador Perez, Jason Bay, Michael Pineda, Huston Street, Pablo Sandoval, Brian Wilson, Lance Berkman, Chris Carpenter, Evan Longoria and Neftali Feliz.
This year’s playoff races, then, could be decided either by who best survives attrition or simply avoids it all together. The Marlins have been the healthiest team in the National League East, recently losing Emilio Bonifacio for about six weeks but otherwise surviving unscathed. Can it be a coincidence, then, that that Miami just reeled off 21 wins in May to move within a half game of first place?
The NL Central has been greatly shaped by injuries. Since the Cardinals lost Berkman to a torn ACL – piling that injury atop the spring training loss of Carpenter, their ace – the Cardinals have dropped to second place. The surging Reds lost closer Ryan Madson to Tommy John surgery in the preseason and have been without third baseman Scott Rolen for several weeks. But their relative health, the reinforcement of rookie third baseman Todd Frazier and the genius of Joey Votto has vaulted them into first place.
Some injuries could have enormous reverberations. The Phillies have hung tough despite their major injuries, sitting at 27-25 and just three games behind the Nationals But without Halladay, and with uncertainty surrounding the returns of Utley and Howard, will the Phillies fall out of the race and consider trading free agent-to-be Cole Hamels to another contender?
Without Kemp, will the Dodgers try to trade for another big bat? And with all of their injuries, would the Red Sox be tempted to offer them Kevin Youkilis? The again, the Red Sox can also anticipate the return of Ellsbury and, perhaps, Crawford.
Or, considering the state of this season, they could just wait for the teams above them in the standings to fill their trainers rooms.