Tracee Hamilton
Tracee Hamilton
Columnist

Washington Nationals’ fast start masks health concerns

More than the usual amount of optimism surrounds the Washington Nationals this season. It’s like pollen. A Metro ride to the ballpark is a cacophony of sneezing and coughing — Beethoven’s lesser-known Symphony for Snot and Phlegm — and once inside, all that misery is replaced by the euphoria of a season still filled with promise.

In years past, any euphoria surrounding the Nats could be largely attributed to allergy medication, and disregarded accordingly. These days, however, the Nats have a rotation of dangerous young arms, a deep bullpen that seems to have an antidote for whatever ill the opponent can send to the plate, and a lineup that has . . . improved. Let’s call it improved. They are alone atop the NL East standings, and granted it is barely more than a week into the season, but a 6-2 start through Friday night is nothing to sneeze at, allergies or not.

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The Post Sports Live crew debates which current injured National, outfielder Michael Morse or closer Drew Storen, is more important for the team's long term success.

The Post Sports Live crew debates which current injured National, outfielder Michael Morse or closer Drew Storen, is more important for the team's long term success.

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However, Nats fans may need to switch to Goody’s headache powders or Tums, because whether you anticipate a World Series or a .500 finish for this team, or something in between, you’ll agree that the one thing that could derail your dream is injuries.

That’s why seeing closer Drew Storen (43 saves last season) in a sling at Thursday’s home opener was sobering to many. Storen underwent surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow, a 30-minute procedure that could have him sidelined until after the all-star break. Considering the Nats had feared he was headed toward a Tommy John procedure, that’s what passes as good news in Natstown. (It was beginning to seem like the Nats had one of those punch cards: “Buy nine season-ending elbow ligament replacement surgeries and the 10th is free!”)

Then came the second in the 1-2 punch of bad news: Michael Morse, who had been battling an injured lat since spring training, is on the shelf for at least six weeks.

Just like that, Washington’s vulnerability was exposed. This did not have the degree of difficulty of, say, discovering the thermal exhaust port in the Death Star. But for a team trying to slowly build themselves into a playoff contender, depth at every position is a key piece of the puzzle. They aren’t there yet.

Such was the concern at Nats Park before Thursday’s pregame news conference with Manager Davey Johnson: The assembled media were told to hold all injury questions for GM Mike Rizzo. Of course, telling the assembled media what to do is akin to telling a room full of cats to go to their assigned cages, pronto. So Johnson was peppered with questions ranging from Morse’s injury to Storen’s injury to Chien-Ming Wang’s injury to Rick Ankiel’s injury to Michal Neuvirth’s injury. (Okay, that last one isn’t true.)

The loss of Storen would seem to be less devastating than that of Morse, because the injury was not as severe as anticipated and because the one place the Nats do have depth is the bullpen. In the first seven games of the season, the Nats have replaced Storen with a closer committee of Phillies veteran Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez. On paper it looked brilliant. On the field it’s not quite there yet.

Thursday, Lidge came on in the top of the ninth with a 2-0 lead and gave up a one-out walk to Joey Votto and a double to Scott Rolen. After intentionally walking Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick singled, and just like that, the score was tied.

Even though the Nats won in the 10th on a wild pitch, that performance, plus Rodriguez’s rough night in New York on Monday (a throwing error in a 4-3 loss), calls the closer combo into question. Of course, both are being asked to fill very different roles than they were expecting just a few weeks ago, but after Thursday’s blown save, Lidge didn’t want to use that as an excuse.

“I feel good about what they want me to do,” he said. “Henry and I have to step up. We have a deep pen.”

Morse’s loss probably will be felt more deeply, even if he can return in six weeks. The Nats failed to land an everyday center fielder in the offseason, and they also failed to land a power hitter. To lose the player who led the team in homers (31) and RBI (95) a year ago is a tremendous blow. In the past, the Nats would have filled the hole by committee and made the best of it. In the past, however, expectations of playoff contention were not a part of the equation.

Roger Bernadina has started six of the first seven games in center field and is batting .125. The Nats had just four homers entering Friday’s game, two from a somewhat unexpected source, Adam LaRoche, whose defensive skills at first base are the more lauded aspect of his game. (He also has eight RBI.) The expected source of power, Jayson Werth, had no homers, although he is starting to hit. But the Nats need everyone to produce, from Danny Espinosa (.182) to Ryan Zimmerman (.192).

The Nats can’t count on winning on wild pitches every night. Because of the strength of their rotation and bullpen, the Nats can afford to have less than the best offense in the National League. But they can’t afford to have one of the worst offenses in the National League. That’s asking too much of a young rotation and a Storen-less bullpen.

At one point during his pregame talk, Johnson wondered aloud why the assembled media couldn’t come up with questions not related to injuries. When one reporter said, “We’re concerned about Morse,” Johnson replied, “We all are.”

And not without reason.

For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.
com/hamilton.

 
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