National League East bends at the elbow in Washington Nationals’ favor

The Post’s Adam Kilgore discusses how much he expects the offseason acquisitions of starting pitcher Doug Fister and outfielder Nate McLouth to impact the Nationals in 2014. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist March 21

Ten days before the baseball season even begins, the Washington Nationals just won the National League East — on paper and with the oddsmakers, two places that are indicative yet don’t matter.

Soon come 162 games to find out whether the Nats can claim that title in reality, including six meetings in the first dozen days of the season against the devastated rotation of the Atlanta Braves.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Don’t print the playoff tickets yet. But don’t pretend the Nats’ season hasn’t changed radically because awful injury luck just hit their main rivals.

Part of the Nats’ professional responsibility is to proclaim — and try to make themselves believe — that the season-ending and career-threatening second Tommy John surgeries for two of the Braves’ best pitchers, ace Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, do not dramatically slash Atlanta’s chances. But of course they do.

The Nats never mention that top Braves lefty Mike Minor (shoulder) will not be back until late April or that free agent Gavin Floyd, another rotation piece, won’t be back from his own elbow surgery until late May. Oh, did Atlanta not re-sign Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm, either?

The Post Sports Live crew debates which single player is most important to the Nationals’ overall success in 2014. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

After finishing 10 games behind the Braves, the Nats had their whole underdog riff working and were content to roll with it. Now Las Vegas is doing that “favorite” hex on them again, and multiple Web sites give the Nats the best chance to win their division of any MLB team, led by FanGraphs.com at 72.7 percent. That’s not the “World Series or Bust” and national-magazine-cover burden of last season, but it echoes.

“I respect Vegas’s opinion, but they haven’t played a game yet,” Nats reliever Craig Stammen quipped.

“So we’re right back where we were last year?” Jayson Werth asked quizzically. “We learned our lesson. I don’t think we’ll make the same mistakes twice. This game is tough. It will chew you up and spit you out.”

Last year, the Braves whipped Washington all five times they met in April, taking a 41 / 2-game lead before May 1. That set the whole year’s tone.

Since then, the Braves added one starting pitcher — get-help-quick free agent Ervin Santana — but for the next month or more, five starting pitchers have been subtracted.

“What we learned last year was not to pay attention to any of that [preseason] stuff,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “Some well-built teams, like Atlanta, always find people to pick up the slack. And the Braves will.”

Then he names talented Braves lefty Alex Wood, 23, who had a 3.54 ERAin 11 rookie starts late last year, as well as solid but less flashy David Hale, 26, from Princeton. They will join 37-year-old Freddie Garcia in the Braves’ early-season rotation behind Julio Teheran and Santana.

“So now the Braves are [supposedly] a terrible team because they don’t have Medlen and Beachy? That’s a huge overstatement,” Zimmerman said. “I actually feel bad for ’em. No matter how much you want to beat someone, even if you completely hated someone, you don’t want that to happen.”

If the Braves get Minor and Floyd going, they should have a solid rotation despite everything. That’s how deep they were. Their strong bullpen is long and their offense full of homers and strikeouts. Even with catcher Brian McCann gone to New York, isn’t that enough to battle the Nats evenly?

No.

Unless the Nats have waves of injuries or play as lamely as they did for the first 114 games last year, it shouldn’t be.

Few teams ever get blows on consecutive days like the losses of Medlen and Beachy, whom one Nat called “their two best pitchers.” With a 3.23 career ERA, Beachy has a stat profile similar to Jordan Zimmermann.

Almost as bad is the overhanging doubt about the future of both. Data is limited, but the full-recovery rate for a first TJ surgery is about 90 percent but perhaps only 40 percent for a second “revision.” Jason Isringhausen pitched in the majors after a third TJ, and some maintain that Jose Rijo had a form of the surgery five times. But your odds decrease.

“The thing with [Tommy John] surgery, people say afterward, ‘Successful,’ ” Stephen Strasburg said. “But you can’t take it for granted.”

Pitching coach Steve McCatty was in the room with Strasburg in 2010 and Zimmermann in 2009 when they were told they needed to have that surgery.

“I know emotionally what it does to them,” he said.

Tommy John surgeries are so prevalent (a third of all MLB pitchers have had one) yet such franchise-changers that big leaguers are barely willing to discuss them. The A’s, Diamondbacks and Mets are also without their Opening Day starters for that reason, while the Orioles’ top prospect, Dylan Bundy, is rehabbing. The sympathy for all of them is instantaneous and real, the sense of superstition far beyond mere “knock on wood” formality.

“You never want to see anybody get hurt. But you hate to see somebody come off one [TJ] and have to have another,” Nats Manager Matt Williams said. “We have to worry about ourselves. We have to play well to win.”

Last spring, two top Braves relievers had second TJ surgeries and aren’t back.

“When you have a cluster of Tommy Johns like we’ve had, there’s no question you do an internal audit of how you are doing things,” Braves General Manager Frank Wren said.

Often, the Braves use orthopedic surgeon James Andrews for the procedure. Medlen used him for the second time Tuesday. Beachy, who was scheduled for surgery Friday, chose not to use him a second time. The Nats used the late Lewis Yocum for both Zimmermann and Strasburg.

“I don’t know how any other club does their protocols, but this team errs on the side of caution,” the Nats’ Ryan Mattheus said. “I rehabbed with Zimmermann. He passed me up throughout rehab: 12 months to get back to 18 for me. Nobody rushed me. I had a pain in the back of my elbow, maybe not related to the surgery. But they shut me down for 30 days.

“And they got me right.”

Nobody knows exactly how to tilt the Tommy John roulette wheel their way or how long any fix may last. But many a season has been transformed in a blink by the tenuous strength of a medial collateral elbow ligament.

And the National League East just was.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

More on the Nationals:

Nationals Journal: Treinen continues to impress

Nationals Journal: No decision between Rendon, Espinosa at second

Nationals Journal: Espinosa feels good about new approach

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