Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Nats keep confidence level up

Fans worry about the standings and magic numbers, fret about abstractions and wish their lucky charms could actually influence the big league world.

Ballplayers live in a different realm — the real one. They aren’t a collection of fantasy players or a stack of baseball cards. They are teammates, often friends and men who know every detail of each other’s baseball life. They know that few affairs impact a team like pennant race injuries. They worry whether their second baseman, Danny Espinosa, can swing a bat without his shoulder “collapsing” from weakness or if left fielder Michael Morse can swing without pain in his aching left wrist.

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The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore joins Post Sports Live to identify the main areas of concern for the Nationals as they head into the postseason for the first time in team history.

The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore joins Post Sports Live to identify the main areas of concern for the Nationals as they head into the postseason for the first time in team history.

Nationals Journal

Nationals Journal

Insight on the Nationals and all the latest news from Post reporters Adam Kilgore and James Wagner.

And they also know when the clouds start to lift. That’s why Ryan Zimmerman walked through the Nationals clubhouse with a bounce Tuesday. Gotten any news on Espinosa and Morse yet?

“Oh, yeah,” said Zimmerman, breaking into a smile. “We’ve taken a lot of injury hits this year. We don’t want to see those guys go down.” And now it appears they won’t.

Morse’s name was back on the Nats lineup card, even though Tuesday’s game with the Dodgers was postponed by rain, to be made up as part of a doubleheader on Wednesday. Though Morse is technically still day-to-day, his return is imminent.

Far more of a relief was a diagnosis that showed Espinosa “only” has a bone bruise inside the capsule of his left shoulder. A cortisone shot Monday has already eased inflammation. With rest, he should be okay. “This is the best news we could have gotten,” said a beaming Espinosa, who feared that he would play with limited strength the rest of the season, then face surgery and lengthy rehabilitation.

The fears of a torn labrum or rotator cuff have tormented Manager Davey Johnson since Sunday, when “my tough little iron man second baseman” finally admitted to a coach that he couldn’t stand the pain of hitting. An MRI exam told the truth. Espinosa was never so glad to get a big “thick needle” with cortisone “like syrup” shot into “the right spot” in his shoulder so that he could “feel it spread, like your skin can’t hold it all.” To you, gruesome; to Espinosa, joy. He feels so much better he might play Wednesday.

Fans may wonder whether the Nationals are concerned that their 81 / 2 -game lead over Atlanta shrank to fivewith 16 to play after a three-game Braves sweep over the weekend (the Braves lost Tuesday, pushing the lead back to 51 / 2). That matters. But it quickly disappears. In baseball time, the next day quickly swallows the previous night, leaving a few memories, but little residue. The season is a shark, constantly moving forward, devouring the next game.

What matters to players is the true state of their team, their mates and their essential competitive strength. If that’s intact, they’ll take their chances.

“We’re confident. We’re a good team,” said reliever Tyler Clippard. “Come home, take a deep breath. Go out and play like we play and it’s going to take care of itself.”

True, as long as the Nats (89-57) resemble the team they’ve been all year. Their worst 16-game span all season has been 7-9. If they duplicated their worst, they’d finish 96-66 and Atlanta would have to finish 11-3 to force a tie. In other words, they’re still in the “just go play the darn games” stage. If their lead fell to a couple of games, revisit the proposition. But ballplayers have the wisdom not to turn over rocks just to see if a snake’s underneath.

Morse was asked what he thought of the current NL East standings. “I have no clue. I don’t pay any attention to that,” he said. “We need to go out and win our next series, the same as we have all year. Just go out and play. Been that way since I was a little baby.”

The standings do not concern him, but his wrist certainly does. That’s real, something he can influence or, perhaps, will his way to play through. “I’m going to go take some swings now, see how it feels,” he said.

Ironically, three weeks ago, Morse said, in a general chat about pain and recovery, “It is amazing the things in this sport that we are expected to get over in like two days. But we do.” Not always with best results. Since then, Morse got hit in the right thumb with a fastball. He compensated in his violent slugger’s swing to play around the pain and that, in turn, injured his left wrist.

Espinosa’s stoicism has always been a trademark. But this time he went too far. His left shoulder hurt him so badly for more than a week that he could barely raise his arm to play catch before games. He said he felt “zero strength” in his left side when he swung. “I couldn’t get my top hand to the ball. I was late, late, late every time,” he said. The pain woke him in the night when he rolled over.

Why was he playing? Why wouldn’t he? No pro athletes play with more sprains, strains, bruises than baseball players during the 162-game schedule. They cope, unless they are truly hurt and know they risk further injury if they continue. Espinosa is the prototypical “gamer.”

Besides, he’d been hot at the plate for five weeks. Who sits when they can still hit? Then, suddenly, he just couldn’t. The Nats are lucky he went 0-for-11 in Atlanta with nine strikeouts. He was so helpless he had to admit the problem. At least for now, it appears he did himself no real harm.

After the Nationals left Atlanta, the Braves leader, Chipper Jones, dropped a message for the Nats in the next day’s papers, saying, “You like to leave a sour taste in the other team’s mouth as they’re leaving. . . . We can stand toe-to-toe with them.”

Some teams don’t know how to strike the right note when challenged. But the Nats probably do. Or, at least, Johnson almost certainly does after 50 years in baseball with his first pennant race way back in ’66, when he was a second baseman on the Orioles. “The Braves pitched two or three good games against us,” he said. “I like where we’re at. I wouldn’t want to switch places with ’em. Our destiny is in our own hands. We’ve been consistent and resilient all year.

“The Braves needed it more. We put our best foot forward. They won those three battles. It’s history. I’m not worried about that.”

What did worry him was Morse, who missed the Braves series, and Espinosa, who was crippled during it. Now, Johnson’s not worried anymore.

“Morse was getting electrocuted today,” joked Johnson of all the electrodes he had attached to him to help him heal. “And the doctor may have to fight Espinosa to keep him out of the lineup.”

If you wanted a late-season pennant dash, you have it. The Nats got their wish, too. They wanted their team back intact to play in it.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

 
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