Washington Nationals are getting healthier, and the NL East is there for the taking


Adam LaRoche and the Nationals may have a lot to be pleased about as the team nears being fully healthy. That includes LaRoche, who hit a two-run home run to help defeat the Phillies on Thursday. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

Few teams get a chance at a second opening day, an opportunity to start a season over and get it right. The Washington Nationals do. Finally almost healthy and essentially undamaged in the NL East standings, the Nats completed a three-game sweep of the Phillies on Thursday at Nationals Park. The smoothly played, well-pitched 4-2 win felt — as the entire last week has — like a fresh June start after a painful, sour spring.

After making a minor league rehab start Friday, Gio Gonzalez should take his next regular turn, giving the Nats a five-deep starting rotation that may rival the San Francisco Giants as the best in the game. Then, except for Bryce Harper, who may miss another month, the Nats will be intact. By this point in the season, few teams have all hands on deck. So Harper or not, the time to properly evaluate these Nationals can finally begin.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Or, considering how strong they have looked while winning five of six games from the Rangers and Phillies by a combined score of 38-12, perhaps it would be wise just to enjoy them.

After enduring trips to the disabled list by six of their best players and five losses in six games to Atlanta in April, the Nats are one game behind the Braves with 104 to play. If the Nats (30-28) played in any division except the NL East, they would have entered Thursday trailing the leader by at least three games and as many as eight.

“Funny game,” said Adam LaRoche, who has been off the disabled list only 10 days but hit the two-run homer off Kyle Kendrick that provided the final margin of victory.

The Post Sports Live crew debates where Ryan Zimmerman should play once Bryce Harper returns from injury – third base or left field? (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Dust off all those best-case hopes for this team and toss all the excuses in the trash, too. The Nats have reason to smile after outscoring both Texas and Philadelphia by the same 19-6 total score in back-to-back series. “Big boost to confidence,” LaRoche said. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”

With Ryan Zimmerman back after missing 44 games and playing left field, the team Washington waited all winter for and that baseball anticipated two months ago finally has a chance to show what it can do. With its toughest West Coast trip of the season starting Friday — 10 games in San Diego, San Francisco and St. Louis — answers may come fast.

“We’re going to find out who we are,” reliever Craig Stammen said. And after an April and May marked by injury, sloppy defense and decimated, deconstructed lineups, it’s about time, too.

“I’m a little surprised that we’re so close [to first place],” said Tyler Clippard, whose scoreless eighth inning dropped his ERA to 1.37, almost exactly the 1.43 ERA of the Nats’ five most effective firemen during a season in which they lead all of baseball in bullpen efficiency. “We went through a stretch where we played terrible. We’ve just now started to play like we think we should.”

In just 13 days, the Nats host four games against the Braves. In a year when they have gotten only four homers from Harper, Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos, of whom 20 might be expected by now, the Nats are not just breathing — they are in position to do anything.

Or do nothing. Since every time they’ve dreamed big recently they’ve woken up screaming.

“Anybody can go on a run and make some hay here [in the NL East],” Manager Matt Williams said. “But when we get ahead of ourselves, we tend to get in trouble.”

This sweep over the sagging Phillies, who didn’t respond to a pep talk Monday by Manager Ryne Sandberg, offered plenty of fresh energy. Doug Fister, who missed the first 39 days of the season, chewed through the bottom of the Phillies’ order as if a DH-less league was an invitation for him to stand even taller than 6 feet 8. Since a knockout by Oakland in his Nats debut, Fister has dominated five NL foes, going 4-0 with a 2.13 ERA. Fister looks like he has been sent down a classification and loves it.

For the first time all season, the Nationals even had the luxury of a normal team — the ability to rest two key hitters, just for the sake of rest, before the long trip. Shortstop Ian Desmond got his first day off of the season, and Ramos, who broke his wrist on opening day and missed 37 games, simply got a day off after Wednesday’s late rain-delayed game.

This is a time of year when frayed nerves and outright anger begin to show in the clubhouses of supposed contenders, like as the Nats, who find themselves near .500 and often frustrated. On Wednesday in Los Angeles, Manager Don Mattingly ripped his team before and after its loss to the White Sox. Since the Dodgers may, on paper, be the only team in the NL that looks better than the Nats, their discord is not irrelevant.

“It hasn’t felt like a true team at this point,” Mattingly said. “We talk about this all the time. . . . It’s really not that hard to see that it’s not happening.”

Then, just hours later, when asked about his team’s poor home record, he said, “Home, away, whatever, I don’t know that that’s got anything to do with it. It’s just being basically [bleepy]. We’re just not that good.”

Perhaps one measure of Williams’s rookie season on the bench is not some specific piece of strategy but rather the overall calm tone he has maintained. With a record almost identical to the Dodgers, his team does not seem to have been strained internally at all.

Ironically, early-season injuries, if survived, can keep key players fresh for the long grind. The Nats now head West for what would normally be considered a grueling part of the season. Yet those who have visited the disabled list already, including mid-order sluggers Zimmerman, LaRoche and Ramos, should feel revived again. What once were the wounded are now the best of reinforcements.

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

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