The Washington Nationals made a big, headline grabbing type of move earlier this week, trading for Philadelphia Phillies’ closer Jonathan Papelbon. The move gives the Nationals arguably the best one-two punch for the eighth and ninth innings going forward. It was, however, not the most important move the team made at the deadline.
Since the All-Star break, the Nationals have seen Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, and Jayson Werth return to action from the disabled list. Denard Span got a cortisone shot in his back nearly two weeks ago, and is working towards beginning a rehab assignment. Stephen Strasburg made a rehab start Wednesday for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. It wasn’t a great start, but still a step in the right direction. He went four innings, allowing three runs on four hits, while striking out five. Strasburg threw 64 pitches, 44 for strikes.
Seeing all of these players return to health serves essentially as one big, blockbuster trade deadline acquisition for the Nationals. Thanks to a myriad of injuries, the Nationals have not been able to shake free of the New York Mets, and lead the NL East by just three games. They were expected to hold at least a 10-game lead by this point of the season, but injuries have hampered the World Series hopefuls beginning Opening Day.
Anthony Rendon won the Silver Slugger in 2014 and finished fifth in the National League MVP vote. He has played just 23 games this year and has not homered yet, while slugging just .341. Jayson Werth, who has at least come close to living up to his lofty contract the past three seasons, had been out of the lineup since May, and is batting just .209 as he reacquaints himself with Major League pitching. Ryan Zimmerman, in his first full season as a first baseman, missed basically the entire months of June and July with plantar fasciitis. Zimmerman has played in just 59 games this year, and batted just .209 before being shut down. In his first series back from the disabled list, Zimmerman went 4-for-10 with a home run.
Now, the Nationals wait on only Denard Span and Stephen Strasburg. When those two are healthy, the team may finally be able to consistently trot out its intended Opening Day lineup. The expected heart of the Nationals order — Rendon, Werth, and Zimmerman — has collectively played just 112 of a possible 300 games this season. Span’s absence has forced rookie Michael Taylor into the leadoff spot for much of the year. It is a role he is not quite ready for at this level of professional baseball.
Despite all of the injuries and lineup turnover, the Nationals have still scored the fifth-most runs (419) in the National League and have the second-best run differential (+61) behind only the St. Louis Cardinals. Not too shabby, considering Yunel Escobar and Clint Robinson have occupied the middle of the order (how’s that for protection, Bryce Harper?) for much of the season and Dan Uggla has been given 124 plate appearances leading to a .194/.298/.296 slash line.
Injuries are an unavoidable part of professional sports, but very few contending teams have had to deal with the loss of half of their position players in a single season as the Nationals have this year. They have managed to hang in there, however, and things are looking up. The 2015 season has not gone as the Washington Nationals would have drawn it up in March, but along with their new closer, and a renewed, healthy lineup, they finally appear poised to storm away with the division title and pursue the franchise’s first World Series title.