A big series for the Nationals in Philadelphia

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg delivers a pitch against the San Diego Padres during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Friday, April 25, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

brushback_harperIt doesn’t take much to overstate the importance of an early-May series. No matter what happens this weekend in Philadelphia, of course, 133 games will follow. The needle will not move much.

With the disclaimer out of the way, the Nationals can put themselves in a solid position, and help scuttle a potential losing streak before it starts, if they build off their romp through Houston and take two of three from the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

Some series really do have extra meaning. For reasons of timing, this weekend’s might be one of them for the Nationals.

The Nationals have played without their full team all year. While Bryce Harper’s injury means it won’t be complete until July, they will start to become whole again after this weekend. Wilson Ramos and Scott Hairston could return Monday at Nationals Park. Doug Fister is scheduled to start Wednesday. The Nationals still need to weather injuries to Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, but the most strenuous water-treading ends this weekend. If they can steal two more games with their lineup at its most diminished state, it’s a bonus.

Every victory now will take pressure off during what promises to be an arduous offensive stretch. If rotations stay on schedule*, the Nationals next nine games will come in succession against Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez. Every member of that ninesome is either a) awesome, or b) their performances have been awesome early in the season or c) both. All you can eat, Nats.

*Hat tip to Harper Gordek for pointing this out on Twitter.

What’s on their side: The Nationals have been playing their best, cleanest baseball lately. They’ve won four of five, a stretch during which they’ve committed only one error. Their infield defense with Danny Espinosa at second, Anthony Rendon at third and Ian Desmond settling down is better now than opening day. One error in five games is not exactly cause for a parade. It is a start after the Nationals’ gruesome fielding earlier. They don’t even lead the league in errors anymore – the Diamondbacks have 27 to their 26.

“Tonight, I like the fact that we went first-to-third twice,” Manager Matt Williams said after Wednesday’s victory. “Last night, we moved a guy to get in line to score a run that won us the game. All those things contribute to wins. We need to continue to do that if we’re going to be successful.”

After a rough first time through the rotation, Nationals starters have performed at the high level expected of them. Other than Taylor Jordan, who’s been jettisoned to the minors, no Nationals starter has taken a loss since April 19 – and in that game, Jordan Zimmermann allowed one earned run in seven innings.

“Early in the year, it wasn’t like us,” Zimmermann said. “We were having some short outings and getting hit around a little bit. As of late, we’re starting to pitch a lot better and go right after guys. Now you’re seeing the six, seven, eight inning games. Hopefully it continues.”

Friday night’s series opener provides a showdown between Stephen Strasburg and Lee. It’s a big-boy start for Strasburg: on the road, against a division rival’s best pitcher, carrying a diminished lineup. They hand you the ball on opening day because they want, if not expect, you to win these kinds of games.

The Nationals  enter the second month of the season 16-12, a 92-win pace. They have gathered some momentum at a time when the Braves finally lost a couple games, having been swept by the Marlins. Last year, the Braves ran away early and never fell back. The Nats enter Friday night 1 1/2 games behind Atlanta. They’ve got five months to catch them. Sounds doable.

FROM THE POST

One year after a subpar season, Adam LaRoche is helping to carry the Nationals, James Wagner writes.

The Nationals need to recapture their 2012 toughness, Boz says.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Hagerstown is hot

Werth leads in WPA

Harper by the numbers

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 4, Toledo 3: Outfielder Destin Hood, the 2008 second-round pick who turned down an Alabama football scholarship, was promoted to Syracuse. In his first game, he went 1 for 4 with a single. On a rehab assignment, Scott Hairston went 1 for 3 with a double and  a walk. Brandon Laird went 3 for 4.

New Britain 6, Harrisburg 3: Matt Purke allowed four runs in four innings on five hits and three walks, which actually lowered his ERA to 9.30. He struck out three. Matt Skole went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts. Brian Jeroloman went 2 for 3 with a homer.

Harrisburg 4, New Britain 3: A.J. Cole allowed two runs in five innings on five hits and a walk, striking out five. Caleb Ramsey went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk. Michael Taylor went 1 for 3 with a double.

Winston-Salem 3, Potomac 2: John Simms, recently promoted from Hagerstown, allowed one run in five innings on four hits and two walks, striking out one. Brandon Miller went 1 for 4 with a home run. Oscar Tejada went 2 for 4 with a double.

Hickory 7, Hagerstown 3: Austin Voth allowed five runs, one earned, in five innings on six hits and no walks, striking out five. Drew Ward went 0 for 0 with three walks. Wilmer Difo went 2 for 4. Ike Ballou went 1 for 2 with a walk.

Hagerstown 4, Hickory 3: Drew Ward went 4 for 4 with a home run. In the doubleheader, the 19-year-old went 4 for 4 with three walks and a homer. Hector Silvestre allowed no runs in 2 2/3 innings on two hits and no walks, striking out one.

Also on Nationals Journal

Nationals' next wave of young talent at Class A Hagerstown