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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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Harper Among 4 Nats' Starters Out Vs. Padres Sunday

Harper Among 4 Nats' Starters Out Vs. Padres Sunday

National League home run leader Bryce Harper is among four starters out of the lineup for the Washington Nationals in their series finale against the San Diego Padres on Sunday.

Daniel Murphy, Jayson Werth and Matt Wieters also did not start for the Nationals, who open a nine-game, 10-day road trip Monday afternoon in San Francisco.

Murphy missed the previous two games due to illness, Chris Speier said Saturday. Speier, serving as acting manager with Dusty Baker away this weekend to attend his son Darren's high school graduation in California, did not meet with the media before Sunday's game.

RELATED: Nationals' Joe Ross to Start Against Team That Drafted Him

Harper is batting .337 with 15 home runs and 41 RBIs.

Washington won the first two matchups in the three-game series.

Joe Ross (2-0, 5.32) faces fellow right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (4-4, 5.74) on Sunday.

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Nationals' Joe Ross to start against team that drafted him

Nationals' Joe Ross to start against team that drafted him

WASHINGTON -- On Dec. 19, 2014, the San Diego Padres traded pitcher Joe Ross and a player to be named later -- it would be Trea Turner -- to the Washington Nationals in a three-team deal that included the Tampa Bay Rays.

Since that trade, the Padres have posted a record of 160-215 while the Nationals are 208-166 after they won 3-0 Saturday as Stephen Strasburg struck out a career-high 15 batters in seven innings and the Washington staff fanned 17.

As a reminder of what could have been, Ross (2-0, 5.32) makes the start Sunday against San Diego right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (4-4, 5.74) in the finale of the three-game series at Nationals Park.

First-place Washington is 30-18 while last-place San Diego is 18-33.

Ross was drafted by the Padres in the first round out of his California high school in 2011. Ross is 2-0 in his career against San Diego with a 2.25 ERA in two starts. Last year, he went six innings and allowed six hits and three earned runs in a win against the Padres.

"I was not around Joe at all," said Andy Green, in his second year as the San Diego manager. "We saw him last year; he is a sinkerballer."

The Padres did acquire All-Star first baseman Wil Myers in the trade.

The Nationals have scored a record 62 runs in the four starts made this year by Ross, more than any other pitcher has received in his first four starts of a season. That included a 23-5 victory at home April 30 against the New York Mets and a 10-1 win Tuesday against the Seattle Mariners.

Ross, who broke into the majors with the Nationals in 2015, was in the rotation last season and made 19 starts before going on the disabled list. He was in line to be the No. 5 starter, but began the season at Triple-A Syracuse.

Chacin is 3-2 in six starts against Washington and has a 3.09 ERA. He has made three career starts at Nationals Park and is 1-1 with a 0.45 ERA while allowing only one run in 20 innings.

The Nationals played their second game in a row Saturday without second baseman Daniel Murphy, who was ill.

Nationals bench coach Chris Speier, filling in for manager Dusty Baker, said before the game that Murphy was ill. Murphy entered the day hitting .316 with nine homers and 33 RBIs.

"He's available. This is Dusty's theory: Usually when somebody comes in and says, 'I'm ready,' then he usually gives him one more day. But he's available," Speier told reporters before the game.

Murphy entered Saturday seventh in the National League in hits with 56, just ahead of teammate Bryce Harper (55). Murphy was also among the league leaders in multi-hit games and road batting average.

Washington shortstop Turner, drafted by the Padres in the first round out of North Carolina State, had two hits, including a homer, Friday and was 1-for-4 Saturday.

Another hot hitter for Washington is center fielder Michael A. Taylor, who hit a homer for the second day in a row Saturday and has four homers in his last 14 games.

"I'm looking for my pitch and staying in my zone," Taylor said. "I'm not trying to do too much."

MORE NATIONALS: Stephen Strasburg has career-high 15 strikeouts in Nationals win over Padres