Unlucky Nationals keep facing obstacles
Injuries makes scoring a challenge but improvement is possible
PITTSBURGH -- "Tragic." That's the word Davey Johnson used to describe the loss of Jayson Werth to a broken left wrist.That's "tragic," as in catastrophic. As in heartbreaking. As in -- gasp -- deadly. All right, so nobody's life is at risk here, and Werth, in fact, should be able to resume baseball activities in about six weeks, thanks to a clean fracture that was, as general manager Mike Rizzo put it, "as good a break as you can have, if you're going to have a break." But Johnson's use of the word "tragic" sums up the severity of an up-and-coming club losing a middle-of-the-order bat for a sustained stretch. And Werth's woes, which will likely keep him out of the lineup for 10-12 weeks, are merely the latest wallop to a Nats club that passes the smell test but is flunking Luck 101. Chien-Ming Wang strained his hamstring in the midst of a splendid spring. Michael Morse suffered a lat strain in March and then aggravated it in April, delaying any encore to his breakout 2011 until perhaps the second half. Closer Drew Storen had a minor elbow procedure that will cost him much of, if not all of, the first half. Reliever Brad Lidge and utilityman Mark DeRosa are both on the disabled list, and Ryan Zimmerman just came off it. All this and it's only May 9. "It's been a weird year with injuries," Johnson said. "In all the years I've managed, I've never seen so many accidents or whatever happen. And to key players, too." Getting Zimmerman, who had a sore shoulder, and Adam LaRoche, who missed a few days with a sore oblique, back in the lineup Tuesday night against the Pirates was a boost for the bats -- artfully illustrated when Zimmerman singled and LaRoche homered off Bucs closer Joel Hanrahan to give the Nats a (temporary) ninth-inning lead. But the Nats, who would lose that game on Rod Barajas' walk-off homer off Henry Rodriguez, are obviously in a fragile state, should Zimmerman's or LaRoche's conditions flare up. "We'll find out, I guess," Zimmerman said. "But I feel good, I feel healthy, and we needed to get Adam back and playing healthy again. The strength of our team has been pitching and defense. As long as we have that, we're in every game. And if you're in every game, you have a chance to win." The Nats have been one of the best stories in baseball in the early going primarily because of said pitching. Their starters have a 2.19 ERA, by far the best in the big leagues. It's a miniscule tally that is as awe-inspiring as it is unlikely to be sustained over a six-month stretch. Surely, some regression is in order over the long haul, but that doesn't betray the bottom line that Washington has a remarkably young staff with remarkable depth of potential. "We can grind it out with the best of them," Stephen Strasburg said. What has to worry the Nats, though, is that too much pressure will be placed on those young arms if the offense, besieged by the bruises, can't keep up. Already, Washington ranks 13th in the 16-team National League in OPS (.668), next-to-last in runs scored (100). Losing Werth in the midst of his comeback campaign -- he had an .810 OPS in 27 games -- after an abominable 2011 is a big blow to an offense already struggling to score. Because while Werth hasn't proven his worth, in terms of the lucrative contract the club bestowed upon him, he certainly has more to offer than the Nats' other internal options, both in production and presence. "It definitely stinks," said left-hander Ross Detwiler, who is to take the mound at PNC Park on Wednesday night, "because he's one guy who has won before and knows how to go about his business for the entire season. We're going to have to find a way to win without him." By and large, this club has shown that ability. The Nats have won six games in which they trailed at any point in the seventh inning or later. They've won nine one-run games. To date, they get a medal for mettle. But as the injuries add up, that mettle is getting thoroughly tested. "We have a quiet confidence about us," Zimmerman said. "But we're still a young team, still learning." And in the coming weeks, they're going to learn a lot about themselves. Is Zimmerman ready to shake off his slow start (.226 average, .658 OPS)? Is Danny Espinosa's vicious sophomore slump (.186, .517) ever going to end? Will the league adjust to Bryce Harper (.300, .905), who has already moved up to the top third of Johnson's batting order? When will Morse make it back, and what kind of impact will he make when he does? We'll find out all this and more. "We've been playing short-handed all year," said Rizzo, who indicated he has no current plans to seek outside help to account for the loss of Werth. "We're not the only team in baseball that has injuries. We're not using them as a crutch. That's the reason you have depth on your roster. We like the makeup of the team and the construction of the team, and we're just going to take it game by game and get after it every game and see what happens." This is a team that entered the season 100-percent primed to take the next, natural leap into contention, with a burgeoning core that includes two of the most prized Draft pickups in history. And for more than a month now, the Nats have lived up to their promise and potential, thrusting their way to the forefront of a deep division. Here's hoping the Werth injury and all the other ailments that have been piled upon this club don't derail that forward momentum. Because that would, indeed, be tragic.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.