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.

Nats Stock Watch: Strasburg establishing himself as one of game's top arms

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Nats Stock Watch: Strasburg establishing himself as one of game's top arms

Each week this season, we’ll take the temperature of the Nationals roster to see which player's stock is rising or falling.  

Record: 4-3

Team slash: .256/.326/.415

Team ERA: 2.61

Runs per game: 4.42 

 

STOCK UP 

Daniel Murphy, 2B: .393 AVG, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 1.076 OPS

It was just another ho-hum week for the sizzling Murphy, who posted five multi-hit efforts in the last seven games. In fact, in 46 games played this season, he's now logged more than one hit an astounding 24 times. So we're way past the point of this being considered merely a hot streak; this is nearly two months' worth of consistency from the Nats' second baseman. Dusty Baker said recently that he believed Murphy has been the acquisition of the year in baseball. There's not much room to argue. 

Ben Revere, CF: .450 AVG, 5 RBI, 5 R, 2 SB

You know things are going well for Revere these days when he's trotting around the bases after hitting a rare home run. His solo shot in Tuesday's 7-4 win over the New York Mets was just another sign that the Nats' leadoff man is starting to regain his pre-oblique injury form. But aside from the long ball, he's starting to do all the things a prototypical table-setter is supposed to do: see pitches, hit line drives into the gaps and be a pest on the base paths. That's what the Nats thought they were getting when they acquired Revere last winter from the Torono Blue Jays, and it looks like that's what he's becoming once again. 

Stephen Strasburg, SP: 2-0, 12.2 IP, 3 ER, 21 K

He doesn't get mentioned with the likes of Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw, but Strasburg is putting together the type of season that unequivocally cements his status as one of the game's top arms. He's now 8-0 with a 2.79 ERA, and his 86 strikeouts on the season are second in the majors to the aforementioned Kershaw.

So what's the difference for the 27-year-old right hander this year? For one, he's stayed healthy and continued the momentum that was established late last year after he came off the disabled list. He's also added a slider/cutter to his repertoire to keep hitters off balance, especially in fastball counts.

However, you don't get to 8-0 without a little bit of good fortune, either, and Strasburg has certainly that: In his 10 starts this season, the Nats offense has averaged 6.7 runs per game. Still, he's undoubtedly pitched well, so there's not much one can do to try to cheapen his fast start.

STOCK DOWN

Bryce Harper, RF: .190 AVG, .507 OPS

When the Nats' skipper feels the need to give Harper a "mental rest day" against a chief division rival like the Mets, that's a telltale sign that things aren't going so well for the reigning NL MVP. Harper's frustration has been quite evident for the last week; he apparently took extra batting practice immediately following Monday's 7-1 loss, and then the next day went out onto the field early — a rarity for 23-year-old slugger — to take even more hacks.

Harper's slump is unique in that, despite his struggles, opposing teams are still pitching around him. He's hitting .195 in May despite a .454 on-base percentage, a very Barry Bonds-ian gap between his average and OBP. And like Bonds, Harper is only getting about one or two pitches he can work with per game, but he's been unable to take advantage of those of late. 

Despite lopsided games, Nats and Mets remain closely matched

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Despite lopsided games, Nats and Mets remain closely matched

After waiting six long weeks for the first matchup between the Nationals and Mets of 2016, they played six games all within a stretch of nine days with each team taking three of them. 

That leaves them at .500 against each other, which is as close a head-to-head record as you can possibly get. Yet despite that fact, consider this: three of their games have been blowouts, two were shutouts and one - Tuesday's 7-4 Nats' win - was never really that close.

The season series has been an eventful one so far, yet none of their six contests has provided the late-game thrills we witnessed last year, at least when it comes to testing the Nationals' bullpen. Now we wait another full month before they square off again on June 27.

Because of the unusual results, the Nationals could only really draw conclusions from the overall record when asked about the rivalry after Wednesday's 2-0 loss.

"We've gone 3-3, .500," former Met Daniel Murphy said. "It's a good club. I think this is the way everybody kind of drew it up at the beginning of the year."

"It makes us about even," manager Dusty Baker said. "We've matched up good against them and they've matched up good against us."

The Nationals and Mets remain close in the NL East with just a half-game separating them in the standings, the Nats sitting just ahead of the reigning division champions. As Murphy said, both teams are about where they were expected to be.

How they got there, though, has perhaps been unexpected. The Nationals have paced a 28-19 record despite Bryce Harper hitting just .245 and Ryan Zimmerman batting .236. Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth have come around lately, but have not been themselves for the majority of this season. Given how healthy the Nats' lineup has been, it may come as a surprise they rank about average as an offense.

The Nationals' starting rotation has been as good as any in baseball, but their lineup is working to find consistency. And until we see Jonathan Papelbon and others in more high-pressure games, the jury is still out on their bullpen.

The Mets are in second place despite going through a whole lot more than that. Their pitching staff has seen Matt Harvey stumble through the worst stretch of his career and Jacob deGrom deal with velocity issues. The Mets are 23rd in runs scored and just lost Lucas Duda for who knows how long with a stress fracture in his back. 

For the Mets to be where they are is impressive all things considered. And, like the Nationals, it still feels like we haven't seem them at their best.

Neither team has fully hit their stride and neither truly separated themselves in the few times they've played. 

NL East: Mets vet Wright says Harvey should have spoken to media

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NL East: Mets vet Wright says Harvey should have spoken to media

Mets pitcher Matt Harvey didn't only duck the media on Tuesday night after his start, he also avoided them on Wednesday morning before the team's series finale at Nationals Park. Reporters approached him, but he declined. At some point he'll talk, of course, but he has essentially been delaying the inevitable.

The backlash for Harvey in New York for not talking was strong. One Mets columnist even said the move speaks to Harvey's entitlement and went into detail about how he's been enabled by the Mets. 

Nationals manager Dusty Baker admitted on Wednesday that it may have made things easier for Harvey if he had addressed the media. And now Mets teammate David Wright has said about the same. 

"Accountability is big and I think [Harvey] just had a bit of a lapse in judgement," Wright told the New York Post. "I think the consensus is we should all be accountable for what we do on the baseball field."

Wright has been with the Mets for 13 years and has a strong voice in their clubhouse. It wouldn't be surprising at all if he is speaking for a large number of Harvey's teammates with those words.

Whether Mets fans actually care may be another story, but we now know how at least one of his teammates feels.