When injuries wreck a fine team’s chances to fight for a pennant, no experience in baseball tastes worse for a franchise and its fans. September arrives and the wounds have often healed, but a deficit amassed over a whole season is too much to beat. Work, hope and a whole season are lost.
But when that same team bails water, plugs leaks and fights circling sharks all summer, then arrives in autumn healthy, still in the race or even in first place, few experiences in the sport are sweeter or remembered longer. Such teams are actually fresh, with time on the disabled list akin to a vacation, and have an ultra-strong bench because the unheralded have been forced into months of heroics.
Which will the Nationals be?
In just 43 games, they’ve broken thumbs and wrists, torn ligaments and strained lats, gotten concussed and cussed at their quads. And on Sunday, Gonzalez joined the disabled list with an inflamed pitching shoulder, sometimes the worst of hurling red flags because bad shoulders that eventually need surgery tend to damage career arcs much more than injured elbows.
Gonzalez will miss 15 days, but in what Manager Matt Williams called “good news on him,” an enhanced arthrogram taken Sunday showed “no structural damage” and only inflammation. In fact, Gonzalez’s fastball touched 95 mph on Saturday, and the spin-rate on his curve was “the best he’s had all season — a sign of strength,” Williams said. “But it’s in there,” he said of tightness that Gonzalez described and a lower arm slot on some pitches, which usually means an angry shoulder. Another day, another key man down.
So how did the Nats respond to what seems like an endless oscillation of injuries? Fister returns, but Gonzalez goes down. Ramos returns, but LaRoche misses 15 days. And Zimmerman, for the third straight day, took pregame drills specifically designed for outfielders because Harper won’t return until July. Get ready for left fielder Zim because it’ll get his bat in the lineup but mask his throwing problems while allowing the strongest defensive infield with Anthony Rendon at third and Danny Espinosa at second.
The response was simple and professional. Jordan Zimmermann beat the Mets, 6-3, as Ramos, finally getting his timing back at the plate, drove in four runs from the cleanup spot and Ian Desmond, who has been hot for a week, blasted a 430-foot homer to get himself on a 27-homer, 97-RBI pace.
Then the 23-20 Nats waited in their clubhouse to see whether they would actually nose ahead of the Braves into first place in the National League East. Pros act like they don’t care with 119 games to play. The only player watching every pitch in the clubhouse as Atlanta was down to its last ninth-inning strike in St. Louis was Ross Detwiler. But when the Cardinals walked home the tying run, then wild pitched home the eventual losing run, disgusted groans came from the coaches’ room and a couple of curses escaped the players’ food room. Gene Mauch once said his worst day as a manager was when he realized that “you care more than the players.” That doesn’t appear to be the case with the Nats.
Many don’t understand how “just-another-day-on-the-endless-job” baseball is. But even in the midst of that daily-ness, some teams have an undercurrent of anxiety when they have injuries. Talent-lite teams know they aren’t deep enough to avoid a major slump, so the notion of 2-11 is always there.
The Nats may be whistling in the dark, but even though they’ve barely outscored foes (172-169), they think they’re in decent shape. “We’re persevering,” said Drew Storen, whose scoreless inning lowered his ERA to 1.26. Along with Rafael Soriano (1-2-3 save), Tyler Clippard, Aaron Barrett and Craig Stammen, the quintet have a combined 1.57 ERA in 87 appearances. That’s a life preserver.
“The vibes are good right now,” Clippard said. “It’s not that we don’t care [about the injuries], but we have a lot of depth. All these guys that we have, we’re confident that they are going to pick us up.
“The ’11 Cardinals had a lot of injuries. They battled all year. Then they snuck into the playoffs and came together, and they won the World Series,” added Clippard, who after his problems in April has fixed his fastball command and change-up movement so that “I can kind of do what I want out there right now.”
Fans often focus on this week or month’s injury. Players think bigger picture. “Lot of injuries,” Clippard said, “but no season-enders. That does matter. We know when everybody is coming back. You can play for the light in the distance when the core guys are back. Keep the boat afloat. I still feel like we have a really good chance every day. We’re probably going to have to play a lot of close [low-scoring] games. But that actually prepares us well for the stretch.”
Fans — and the Nats drew more than 112,000 for the weekend series — often see the dark side of injuries more clearly than athletes who have no proper professional choice except to think “overcome.” Yet it’s central to a player’s dignity — and our respect for them — that he says, as Storen does, “We’re just persevering.”
“In ’01, [when Arizona won the World Series], Craig Counsell was forced to play almost every day at some position for us,” Williams said of the veteran utility man who tripled his at-bats from 152 in 2000 to 458 in ’01. “Then he won the MVP in the NLCS [hitting .381] to put the D’backs in the Series.”
Every player wants to be that next man up. “I was on the DL for two years in a row. You have to keep your head up,” Ramos said. Now the situation is reversed, he’s back in the lineup as others ail and “I want to pick those guys up. Oh, yeah, that’s what I want to do. Come back strong.”
Right now, aside from their bullpen, the Nats may not have a player who is having an all-star quality year. They’ve fielded atrociously and gotten disappointing pitching from their entire starting rotation except Tanner Roark. Yet they have a better record than seven of the 10 teams that made the playoffs last year, would be in the playoffs if they started today and are a half-game out of first place.
“This isn’t how we planned it,” Williams said.
But sometimes that’s the way you have to play it.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.