With Bryce Harper out for two months, the Nationals turn to their depth again

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The past two seasons taught General Manager Mike Rizzo a lesson he hoped he would never need again. After injuries depleted the Nationals in 2012 and derailed them in 2013, Rizzo entered the winter intent on beefing up his team’s depth. Maybe he couldn’t stop injuries, but he wanted a stocked bench if they struck.

“We did prepare ourselves through the offseason,” Rizzo said. “Through trial and error, if you will, we’ve seen our bench players over the past two seasons getting significant playing time.”Sooner and more forcefully than Rizzo could have imagined, injuries have again ravaged the Nationals. On Monday, the Nationals learned that Bryce Harper, placed on the disabled list Sunday with a thumb sprain, would need surgery to repair a damaged ligament in his left thumb and would miss two months.

Harper joined catcher Wilson Ramos, right-handed starter Doug Fister, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and reserve outfielder Scott Hairston on the disabled list. The Nationals also played for a week without Denard Span, who suffered a concussion. Injuries strike every team, but rarely so quickly and in such a concentrated manner. The Nationals’ collective response: deal with it.

“We have had some injuries,” reliever Tyler Clippard said Sunday. “My focus is on how do we win today with the guys that we have. Who is going to step in? And I have all the confidence in the world on the guys who have stepped into these roles for guys who have gotten hurt to play well and play well and we can win with those guys. People might say we’re snake-bitten but we still got a good squad. It’s a big deal but it’s not the end of the world.​”

“We never panicked,” Rizzo added. “You haven’t heard me talk about it or use it as an excuse. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. It’s never good when you lose your 3-4-5 hole hitters in Ramos, Zim and Harper. There’s games to be played and there’s games to be won. That’s why we prepare for these things.”

Despite their injuries, the Nationals still entered Monday night with the same 14-12 record as the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals. But the Nationals already find themselves four games behind the indomitable Atlanta Braves, who at 17-7 own the second-best record in the majors.

Over the next few weeks, the Nationals need to, at least, tread water with their depth leading the charge, waiting for the reinforcements to return. The Nationals open a series against the Houston Astros on Tuesday and Philadelphia Phillies on Friday, two teams they should and need to beat to stay afloat.

“We haven’t played our best baseball,” Rizzo said. “I see a team that’s starting to clean things up defensively. That was my main concern. We weren’t playing good defense, and we should be playing good defense. I see that getting remedied and being fixed. I think our rotation, since the first cycle, they’re starting to get their footing and feel good about themselves.

“It will be great when these guys all come back. Where we’re at right now, we’ve had a lot of trials and tribulations, and we’ve come through them nicely. I think guys have stepped up for the most part and helped us win some games. We’re looking forward to getting our lineup back.”

The Nationals, though, are prepared to play without it. In December, the Nationals signed Nate McLouth to a two-year, $10.75 million deal to be their fourth outfielder. They paid a premium for a backup because both Harper and Jayson Werth had missed significant time in recent seasons, and last year they had no suitable replacement.

Rizzo envisioned a McLouth-Hairston platoon as solid insurance. With Hairston recovering from an oblique strain, Kevin Frandsen and Tyler Moore will help, but McLouth will receive the majority of playing time in left with Harper out. Prospect Steven Souza Jr. could also be part of that mix.

By next week, when the Nationals host the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ramos could be back behind the plate, Fister could be settling into their rotation and Hairston could be back on the bench. They will not quite be whole – Harper will only be starting his rehab, and Zimmerman will have another couple weeks before his broken thumb heals. But they will be closer, and ready for the next injury to strike.

“I’m eager,” Fister said Sunday of his return. “Every time I watch these guys every day and knowing of the quality of the team we have both on and off the field it makes me antsy. I want to play for the team, I want to play for the Nats, get some production and help them win.​”

FROM THE POST

Bryce Harper will undergo surgery and could be out until July, writes Adam Kilgore.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Ryan Mattheus headed to join the Nationals

Bryce Harper to undergo surgery, could miss two months

Nationals must figure out Ross Detwiler’s role

It’s time for Nate McLouth’s closeup

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 6, Indianapolis 5 (10): Brock Peterson’s single scored Emmanuel Burriss in top of the 10th. Blake Treinen allowed one run on three hits over four innings. Aaron Laffey allowed three runs over the next four innings. Manny Delcarmen blew his second save, allowing one run on three hits. Jhonatan Solano homered and Jose Lozada went 2 for 4 with two RBI.

Harrisburg 9, New Britain 0: Robert Gilliam fired 4 2/3 scoreless innings and Brian Dupra added 3 1/3 scoreless innings. Tyler Herron threw a perfect ninth. Kevin Keyes went 3 for 5, Jason Martison finished 1 for 4 and Brandon Batz went 2 for 4. All three drove in two runs.

Potomac was rescheduled.

Hagerstown was off.

Also on Nationals Journal

Ryan Mattheus headed to join the Nationals