Go ahead. Get it all out. Scream and shout at these Washington Nationals and their luck, their streaks and their unsteadiness. Holler at the injuries, at the makeshift lineup they’ve had to use, at the dominating rotation that hasn’t been, at the bullpen and its ups and downs. Rage at the fact that Bryce Harper, the one bright spot who hasn’t stopped shining, got hurt Thursday night and may miss time. Pound your fists, stomp your feet, throw that tantrum that’s been building since April.
Now take a deep breath. Almost nothing has gone according to plan. When Harper went down Thursday night, another box was checked on the list of things that could have gone wrong and have this season. Perhaps it feels like there are not many of those boxes left unchecked.
Should these Nationals be better, based on the career numbers of every player on their roster? Almost certainly. Would they be better if it weren’t for injuries? Probably. Do should and would matter? Yes, in the sense that they fan flames of frustration. Beyond that? No. The Nationals are 34-33 on June 19. They are not better than that, and injuries are a big reason why. The Nationals are also not worse than 34-33. Their division and schedule are some reasons why. There are other reasons, too.
Could the Nationals have expected injuries? Yes. Almost everyone on their roster has a history with them. Citing one or two injuries as the cause of a team’s demise qualifies as an excuse. Teams like the St. Louis Cardinals build World Series runs, patching as they go. The Nationals came into this season with a talented roster and an ultra-talented rotation, reasonably expected to contend for the World Series. They still might. But they are not cruising as they were expected to do — in part because injuries came, and continue to come. And it wasn’t one or two of them.
Three of four infielders are not playing in their intended positions — Yunel Escobar (third base, not second), Anthony Rendon (second base, not third), and Danny Espinosa (first base, not up the middle). Two, Escobar and Espinosa, are playing positions they have never played before. Every starting outfielder has missed a game or more because of at least two different injuries. Two-fifths of their starting rotation, Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg, hit the disabled list by early June. One of them, Strasburg, did so after the worst month of his career. He has not pitched like himself yet.
Their projected eighth-inning guy, Casey Janssen, did not make an appearance until late May. Reliable inning eater Craig Stammen was lost for the season. They have used more pitchers in the first half of this season (23) than they did all of last season (18).
“Every year you deal with injuries,” Denard Span said. “It’s bad luck, but at the same time, nobody’s obviously feeling sad for us, so we gotta try to pick it up and hold the fort down until these guys get back on the field.”
Injuries make intact starters more important. Outside of Max Scherzer, the rotation has not pitched consistently. Needing as much or more than the daily quality starts the resumes of these starters suggested one could expect, the Nationals have had to battle with Gio Gonzalez struggling with command more often than he would like, and Jordan Zimmermann enduring more ups and downs than he has in the past. Ian Desmond is struggling offensively, sometimes stumbling into bad defensive stretches. Before he landed on the disabled list, Ryan Zimmerman was not hitting well, either. With few regulars still in the lineup, some of them struggling, and the rotation not performing consistently, the Nationals are relying heavily on players intended for bench roles.
No one could have predicted a Nationals lineup would include Clint Robinson in the cleanup spot with Danny Espinosa in the fifth hole. It did earlier this week. Both players have been pleasant surprises this season, with Espinosa providing a massive boost. But this is not the Nationals lineup or defensive alignment that earned expectations.
“I think when Zimmerman and Strasburg recover, Jayson Werth, the group that we thought we’d play the whole season with, I think we’ll be a strong team,” Escobar said. “Right now, we’re playing with the bench and they’ve done a good job to me.”
These Nationals are frayed by injury, patched from within. In that form, are a game over .500. Their sometimes taped-together lineup started the season 7-13, then went 21-6, and is in a 6-14 stretch. Reshaped by injuries and individual inconsistencies, they are streaking around .500.
They have played three games against a team that made the 2014 playoffs, their April series against the Cardinals. The rest of the schedule brings difficult challengers. The Pirates come to Nationals Park this weekend, riding an eight-game winning streak with one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. The second half brings the Dodgers and the Pirates and the Giants, the Padres and the Cardinals. They play the Mets nine times.
But they trail those Mets by a game and a half in the National League East, because they play in the most forgiving division in baseball. The Nationals’ .515 winning percentage would leave them no higher than third in any other division in baseball. In the NL East, they are a game and a half out of first. For all that has gone wrong — and when Harper went down Thursday night, it felt for a moment like that was everything– they are still contending for a playoff spot, a couple of wins away from being a division leader.
IN THE POST
On a gloomy night at Nationals Park, the Nationals fell to the Rays 5-3 as Bryce Harper left the game with injury.
IN THE JOURNAL
Bryce Harper left Thursday’s game with what Matt Williams says is a strained left hamstring.
When Bryce Harper went down, his Nationals teammates were understandably concerned.
With Fister back and Strasburg nearing a return, the Nationals rotation will shuffle.
NATIONALS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 13, Toledo 5: P.J. Walters allowed four runs on five hits. Matt Grace, Evan Meek, Rich Hill and Jose Valverde combined for 3 2/3 scoreless innings. Darin Mastroianni went 3 for 5 with a solo home run. Emmanuel Burriss went 3 for 5 with a two-run home run.
Harrisburg 7, Richmond 6: Matthew Spann gave up four runs, only three earned, on six hits in three innings. Bryan Harper, Paul Demny and Gilberto Mendez combined for five scoreless innings. Sam Runion allowed two unearned runs and notched the save. Wilmer Difo went 2 for 5. Christoper Bostick doubled.
Carolina 5, Potomac 3: John Simms coughed up three runs on three walks and six hits over six innings. Derek Self took the loss after giving up two runs on four hits over two innings. John Wooten went 2 for 4. Brandon Miller homered.
Kannapolis 13, Hagerstown 5: Joan Baez started and allowed eight runs on three walks on five hits in one inning. Three more pitchers allowed five more runs. Osvaldo Abreu went 2 for 4 with a home run. Matt Reistetter drove in two runs.