Nats thrived in Desmond's absence

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Nats thrived in Desmond's absence

They survived without Michael Morse for two months. They made do without Jayson Werth for three months. And they held it together without Drew Storen for 3 12 months.

But when Ian Desmond succumbed to a torn oblique muscle four weeks ago, it appeared the Nationals had finally sustained an injury that could not easily be overcome.

Turns out the Nats didn't just overcome Desmond's stint on the disabled list. They played their best baseball of the season in spite of it, going 19-6 since their All-Star shortstop last appeared on the field during the July 21 doubleheader against the Braves.

And their reward for it all? It appears they'll be getting Desmond back on the field sooner than anyone expected.

After a week's worth of full workouts with the club while it was on the road in Arizona and San Francisco, Desmond is all but ready to return. He's scheduled to get at-bats against Chien-Ming Wang today in a simulated game, and barring any major setbacks, the Nationals plan to activate him off the DL before tomorrow night's series opener against the Mets.

It would be stunning recovery for a player widely expected to miss at least six weeks when he was first shut down. Desmond won't appear in any minor-league rehab games or get any at-bats against live pitching other than Wang's simulated game, but he and the Nationals are convinced he'll be able to make a seamless transition back into the lineup.

There's no debating Desmond's significance to this team and the difference he should make as soon as he returns. But there's also no debating how well the Nationals held up over the last four weeks without the heart and soul of their infield.

Danny Espinosa, a natural shortstop who had become a top-flight second baseman in the big leagues, transferred back to his old position and showed no signs of rust, proving quite adept at playing shortstop in the big leagues over a prolonged stretch. He also picked up his performance at the plate, hitting .288 with five homers, 16 RBI and a .500 slugging percentage over the last 25 games.

And Steve Lombardozzi, who was beginning to make a name for himself as a rookie utilityman, ably took over everyday duties at second base and hit .308 with a .351 on-base percentage and six extra-base hits.

It's enough to make you wonder why the Nationals feel the need to rush Desmond back so soon. Sure, he was missed and his return will make them even better, but it's not like the Nationals suffered in any real tangible way without their starting shortstop.

Desmond's return also bumps Lombardozzi to the bench just as he's begun to find a consistent stroke at the plate as an everyday player. Manager Davey Johnson says he will continue to find ways to get the versatile rookie into his lineup, but obviously he won't get as much playing time as he had over the last month.

The Nationals feel like it's worth the challenge in order to get Desmond back. And over the long haul, they'll benefit from his return.

But the Nats had better hope Desmond picks right up where he left off four weeks ago. Because the last thing the best (and hottest) team in baseball needs right now is anything that might tinker with a formula that has been wildly successful.

Nationals turn to Strasburg as they start series with Cardinals

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Nationals turn to Strasburg as they start series with Cardinals

Nats (14-7) vs. Cardinals (12-10) at Busch Stadium

The Nationals will look to bounce back after getting swept by the Phillies as they head to St. Louis for a series with the Cardinals.

Stephen Strasburg (3-0, 2.17) will take the mound for Washington looking to continue his impressive start to the 2016 season. Strasburg has never started a season 4-0.

The Cardinals will turn to Mike Leake who has allowed at least four runs in each of his four starts this saeson.

First pitch: 8:15 p.m.
TV: MASN 2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Stepehen Strasburg vs. Cardinals - Mike Leake

NATS

CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
RHP Stephen Strasburg

CARDINALS

3B Matt Carpenter
RF Stephen Piscotty
LF Matt Holliday
1B Matt Adams
CF Randal Grichuk
2B Jeed Gyorko
SS Aledmys Diaz
C Eric Fryer
RHP Mike Leake

Follow along with GameView here.

Nats see tough road trip as good test for where they're at

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USA Today Sports Images

Nats see tough road trip as good test for where they're at

There is a significant contrast in the quality of teams the Nationals have faced thus far this season through 21 games and the caliber of clubs they are about to see on their upcoming 10-game road trip. It's a major scheduling quirk and as of Friday morning, the Nats are standing right on the middle of it.

Behind them is the second-easiest schedule in baseball to this point based on opponents win percentage. And up ahead are three teams that finished among the four best records in baseball last season. The worst team they will play coming up on this road swing based on their 2015 regular season record is the Kansas City Royals. They led the American League with 95 wins and later won the World Series.

The trip begins in St. Louis against a Cardinals team that led baseball with 100 wins last season. And the journey closes with the Chicago Cubs, a 97-win team that reached the NL Championship Series.

It's an unusually difficult road trip, to say the least.

“It’s one of the tougher trips I think I’ve probably ever been on," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

"There are three or four times on the schedule where you say, 'Hey this is going to be a heck of a road trip,'" manager Dusty Baker said. "It's going to be a test."

The Cardinals and Cubs boast the two highest-scoring offenses in baseball right now. The Cards have a +48 run differential and the Cubs - who have the best record in baseball at 16-5 - are +74. 

The Cubs and Royals rank in the top 10 in MLB in team ERA, the Cubs are second only to the Nats in baseball in the category. The Royals have the seventh-best bullpen ERA and everyone knows they can play defense.

All three teams will present challenges and, if you ask some members of the Nats, that could be a good thing.

"This is going to be a test to see -- a barometer to see how good we are right now," Baker said. "We're not full-forces yet, we haven't been and we've done pretty well, because Ben Revere, one of our igniters, is getting ready… but it's going to be exciting."

"You enjoy the challenge," Zimmerman added. "I think you get to see what we’re really made of. Go out and play three really, really good teams and I think the guys in here are excited for it.”

The Nationals are going to learn a lot about themselves over the next 10 days, that's for sure.

Nats not worried after sweep: 'Everybody needs to just calm down'

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Nats not worried after sweep: 'Everybody needs to just calm down'

As the Nationals lick their wounds following their first sweep of the 2016 season, there are a few things that stand out about where they currently sit.

At the moment, they are truly terrible at scoring runs. A full 22 innings have passed since the Nats last crossed home plate and the result has been two consecutive shutout losses to the Phillies.

The Nats' bullpen is also showing cracks for the first time this season. On Tuesday, Oliver Perez let the go-ahead run score in the series opener. And on Thursday, Felipe Rivero and Jonathan Papelbon tag-teamed a disastrous ninth inning in the series finale.

This is all coming just in time for the Nats to embark on their toughest road trip of the season, a 'best teams in baseball' obstacle course through the Midwest featuring the Cardinals, Royals and Cubs. Ryan Zimmerman called it one of the toughest road trips he's ever had.

Yet still, after getting swept by Philadelphia, the Nationals are in first place at 14-7. They've won two-thirds of the games they have played. And even though the road is about to get tougher, the Nats feel good about where they stand, all things considered.

"If somebody told me we'd start off 14-7, I'd be very, very happy," manager Dusty Baker said. "We kind of spoiled everybody by starting the way we did, so we'll get it back together."

"It’s nothing to worry about," Zimmerman said. "It’s not the last time we are going to get swept all year.”

Zimmerman, in fact, got a bit frustrated at the mere suggestion that it was time to worry.

"I think everybody needs to just calm down,” he said. "If every 21 games we went 14 and 7, I think we’d be alright."

A 14-7 record does put the Nationals on a good pace. That's a .667 win percentage, which would equate to a 108-54 record over 162 games. No team has won that many since the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who posted the best record in MLB history at 116-46.

The flip-side of all that is whom the Nationals have done this against. The only team they've faced with a winning record is the Phillies, a team that finished last in the majors in 2015. The Nats have the second-easiest strength of schedule so far with a combined .444 win percentage. 

The Nats are capable of getting back on track, of course. But if that happens soon, it will have to come against some really good teams.

Baker remains confident, even with the difficult road ahead. 

"Everybody knows. These guys are big guys. They're men. They feel the same thing I feel. Guys are hustling, we're trying everything. But you're gonna go through some ups and downs during the season."