A participant in The Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell’s weekly online chat with readers offered a reassuring opinion on the Nationals’ April struggles: It’s not yet time to panic. That prompted a column-length rumination from Boswell, which (spoiler alert) essentially reaches the same conclusion. But the journey is still worth taking.
Question: Nats are fine. Well, not fine if they keep turning singles into outs (Stevenson), but they’re hovering around .500 with three of their best players out and 140 games left. Let’s not get too worried just yet.
Answer: It feels like it’s going to be a long season for the Nats. Not “long” in the sense of “bad,” necessarily. But a continual struggle.
They have three very important players with injuries that are hard to analyze — for the players themselves as well as the medical people. After knee surgery on a veteran with as much mileage as Daniel Murphy, you only want him to come back once — not have a relapse like Adam Eaton has had with the bone bruise to his ankle. Last week, Dave Martinez said that Murphy was going to Florida to rehab. The timetable? “Like spring training.” Meaning, I guess, like starting spring training. I keep guesstimating mid-May. But this isn’t a standard baseball injury that you’ve seen dozens of times, like an oblique, where you say “the average time is 26 days — they’ve studied it for years.”
The central point is that I don’t think the Nats know, even in a general sense, when Murphy, Eaton and Anthony Rendon will be back. They’re all in play-it-by-ear situations, which is unusual. Rendon once missed half a season with an injury after diving for a groundball — and the Nats didn’t think it was much at the time.
If Eaton or Rendon came back in a week or so, it would be “sure … okay … seems about right.” But if, a month from now, all three were still out, I’d be surprised, but not amazed. Bone bruise = “How does it feel today? What can you do — run bases, field?” Long rehab from knee surgery is similar: “How does it feel today? Are you 100 percent?” And with Rendon’s toe, plenty of us have had a bruised toe that ended up with losing the nail. I asked Martinez if that looked likely with Rendon. He said probably.
In other words, at this point, I’ll believe they are back when I see them in the lineup. The only semi-adequate replacement is Kendrick for Murphy, as long as Howie hits. Neither can field much. Wilmer Difo’s a solid utility man and good defensive middle infielder. But Rendon is a vastly better hitter and a better defender at third. Finally, if Victor Robles hadn’t overdone it, diving for a liner to short center and really messing up his left elbow — out a couple of months, they think, which means it could be three months — he’d be in left field right now, instead of Moises Sierra who’s trying hard, contributing some, but almost collided in the outfield with Michael A. Taylor in L.A.
So, it’s really four important injuries because Robles isn’t available to sub for Eaton.
The fifth starter and middle-inning relief are still the quality you’d expect of a 74-88 team. They are major leaguers, but they pull down a contender that is already down three everyday players.
Last night, Jeremy Hellickson showed why the analytics folks tell you that average starting pitchers, especially a brainy veteran junkballer like him who seems novel the first time or two that you bat against him, have a very tough time getting through the lineup a third time. After he’d faced 18 hitters through 5 1/3 innings, Hellickson had a 3-0 lead with only one hit, one walk and fve strikeouts. He didn’t get another out. The top of the Dodgers order had seen everything he had and couldn’t wait to face him. The “old school” view might have been: “He’s pitching a one-hit shutout. Show him some respect. If he gets in trouble, let him face the tying run, but not the lead run.” That’s what Martinez did. But by that time it was 3-2 with a Dodger on second base with no outs, and the whole game had changed from “probably a win” to “uh oh.”
The “new school,” which appeals to me for using Hellickson, would be, “Don’t leave him in long enough to mess up the 3-0 lead you worked to get.” So, with two on, none out, you go ahead and hurt his feelings by removing him. That’s easy to say but hard to do, especially with a pitcher who is trying to establish himself with a new team. Don’t you want to show confidence?
So, if you treat Hellickson with a quick hook, it means that — at least — once every five days you are probably going to have to go to your pen for 10 or more outs. So you expose your problems out there. Sammy Solis is the best of the bullpen bunch, and he’s struggling. Nobody out there is an answer to anything right now. They just brought up Austin Adams, who has quality power stuff. We’ll see if he’s ready. Except for Erick Fedde, who else do they have in the minors who’s close to being ready to help at the MLB level?
All of this exposes lack of pitching depth. What do they do if any of the top four starters go on the DL? Then Hellickson is your fourth starter!?
This is a very good-looking October team because, with all the off days in the playoffs, your four starters, plus your best three relievers, can almost create an entire staff. And, long before October, all the currently injured everyday players will be back. But with the Mets looking good and the Phils and Braves much improved (though probably not “good” yet), there’s a lot more danger of another early-season 3-9 stretch like the one the Nats just had.
The Nats have made a game showing on this 3-3 road trip. The “symbolism” of winning the series in N.Y. from the Mets and having such a strong game on Friday night to help Scherzer beat Kershaw has a “quality team” feel about it, even with so many depleted areas.
The Nats are very good. But they are using a lot of energy just to be 10-12. They are learning about each other under Martinez. And players like Kendrick and Difo are showing their value. Taylor has gotten time to work out of his funk without Robles being over his shoulder. That’s good. Ryan Zimmerman’s luck has changed. That fair-by-six-inches double down the RF line last night is an example of BABIP evening out. He’s due a lot of good luck. Even the catcher duo of Matt Wieters and Pedro Severino may be good enough, which would be a pleasant development.
So, I agree: “Let’s not get too worried just yet.”
But, on the other hand, when you have this many problems and uncertainties, and you’re already 5 1/2 games out of the NL East lead, there are real reasons to punch hard, even if the result is only .500.
Sometimes, a .600 team like the Nats (probably) can be proud of playing around .500 ball through a tough period. The next few weeks may be one of those periods.
If the Nats, in San Francisco and then back home, actually start to run off some wins, that would be special. Because they would be doing it with a lot of factors nagging at them.
More Nationals coverage from The Post: