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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.

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Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Though they’re still fighting for home field advantage in next week’s division series, the Nationals understand they’re in a strange part of their season.  

Sure, playoff seeding is plenty important. These last regular season games count, et cetera et cetera. But Washington already clinched the NL East title, and already knows its playoff opponent is going to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. So it’s not a surprise that players are willing to admit how difficult it can be to keep their foot on the gas pedal these days.

“Once you win the division, there’s that exhale, that sigh of relief,” said Jayson Werth after Friday night’s 7-4 loss to the Miami Marlins.”..You kind of let off the throttle a little bit.”

And when a team takes that approach, health becomes the top priority. It’s a mindset that was on full display Friday night when Werth was removed from the game in the seventh inning as a precaution due to back and side tightness.

 “We can't afford to lose anybody else,” manager Dusty Baker said. “So we decided that, it was wet, on the chilly side, and I decided I couldn't take a chance on him being injured too.”

Werth said that team trainers ruled out a strain or a pull, and that he’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the lineup on Saturday afternoon.  

Still, any injury the Nats suffer this time of the year feels magnified, especially given the last week: Bryce Harper jammed his left thumb, Wilson Ramos tore his ACL and Daniel Murphy was shut down until the playoffs with a glute strain. Not to mention that Stephen Strasburg will likely miss the club’s entire October run.

“The biggest thing is right now is to get everybody healthy for the postseason,” Stephen Drew said. “I think that's key. We got some guys out and hopefully we'll be ready for the playoffs.”

So while every team says it’d like to head into the postseason firing on all cylinders, the Nats’ case shows that it’s not always realistic. Bottling up momentum and carrying into the biggest games of the year is the ideal, of course. But sometimes heading into the tournament with all your horses in tact works too — seeding be damned.

“Obviously home field advantage is important to us, and we want that,” Werth said. “But at the same time, we also feel like we’ve done our job a little bit. So there’s a balance there.....you don’t want to do something where you can put yourself in jeopardy, where you can really get hurt.”

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Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-4 loss over the Miami Marlins on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: If the Nationals want to sew up home field advantage in their first playoff series, they still have more work to do — and only have two more games to do it.

The Nats were unable to help their cause Friday night, falling to the Marlins 7-4 in a rain-soaked affair that began nearly two hours after its scheduled start time.  

While the offense couldn’t come through late, it was starter A.J. Cole that put the Nats in a bind in this one. The 24-year-old rookie right hander forcing Dusty Baker to go to his bullpen early after yielding four runs (two earned) on six hits in just three innings of work.

But all it took was one inning for the Nats to even things up. Anthony Rendon and Stephen Drew opened the fourth with back-to-back solo home runs, and RBI hits by Jose Lobaton and Trea Turner make it 4-4 heading into the fifth.

The bullpen subsequently cracked, however, yielding a runs in the sixth, seventh and ninth innings to give the Marlins a 7-4 edge. The offense couldn’t mount a late rally, and that was all she wrote.

What it means: The magic number for home field advantage in the NLDS remains at two. As of this post, the Dodgers have yet to complete their game against the Giants, so there’s still a chance it could fall to one by Saturday morning.

Rendon reaches homer milestone: With his fourth-inning solo shot, Rendon became the latest Nats hitter join the 20 home run club. In fact, the Nats tied the 1965 and 2003 Braves as the only National League clubs with six players with 20-plus long balls in a season. (Interestingly enough, the Cardinals mathed that feat the Nats later in night after a Matt Holliday home run.)

But back to Rendon: For all the talk that the Nats offense sans Wilson Ramos will suffer, remember that Rendon has been one of the team’s best hitters since the All-Star break. Since then, he’s notched 11 homers, 20 doubles and 51 RBI. In other words, he’s fully returned to his ‘Tony Two-Bags’ form of 2014.

More accolades for Turner: D.C.’s favorite rookie had another one of his patented performances Friday night, going 2-for-3 with an RBI single, a triple and two stolen bases. He became the fourth player in MLB history to notch 10 home runs and 30 steals in less than 100 games, joining Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonds and current Nats first base coach Davey Lopes. Since the break, he leads the team in both extra-base hits and steals. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Harper struggles: In his first game back since injuring his left thumb, Bryce Harper looked looked very much like a hitter trying to regain his timing at the plate. In four at-bats, he struck out four times — three of them swinging. It’s just one game, of course, but he and the Nats are quickly running out of time to rev up for October.

Up next: The Nats will continue their quest to gain home field advantage in the middle game of this three-game set. Washington will send Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.86 ERA) to the hill to oppose Marlins lefty Wei-Yin Chen (5-4, 5.02 ERA).