David Huzzard: Nationals reaching a critical juncture

There is some solace in the fact that a team that has had its opening day lineup on the field for all of three innings and has relied largely on backups is only 1 1/2 games back of the division lead, but how much longer can backups be expected to tread water? The injury to Wilson Ramos was one the Nationals were built to withstand. They acquired Jose Lobaton expressly for that purpose. The loss of Ryan Zimmerman was a blow that was not going to be easily recovered from. Zimmerman was off to a great start and was by far the best bat in the Nationals lineup with a 1.042 OPS over his first 10 games.

For a while, Danny Espinosa was more than an adequate fill-in with his OPS topping out at .901 on April 24, but since that date, Espinosa has managed to hit a paltry .148/.176/.309. With everyday playing time and consistent at-bats the warts of backup players become exposed. They can perform great in short bursts, but once the league adjusts to them, they have difficulty adjusting back, and just as Espinosa’s downward slide was starting Bryce Harper had his best game of the season. The only bad news from that is that he tore a thumb ligament stretching a double into a triple.

Since Harper went on the disabled list, the Nationals have been playing without three of their better bats in the lineup, and the return of Ramos did nothing to ease that - as soon as he was back, Adam LaRoche hit the DL. Now the Nationals’ backup-filled lineup has done a good job at treading water. The team is 11-11 since Harper went on the DL and has scored a below-league average 3.5 runs a game. The offense being down shouldn’t be a surprise, as missing three everyday players is a blow few teams could recover from.

What the Nationals have down without Harper, Zimmerman, Ramos and LaRoche is what they were supposed to do: hold the line. They’ve treaded water admirably, but it can’t keep up much longer. The longer the bench players are forced into everyday action, the more exposed they become, and it is showing as the Nationals have scored two or fewer runs in four of their last 10 games.

The Nationals are three games away from getting LaRoche back, and that is going to provide a big boost, but they have to survive those next three games. There is a chance that the Nationals will be under .500 when LaRoche returns. The Pirates have underperformed this season, but are a very talented team capable of turning it around at any minute.

Pitching has been the weakness of the Pirates in 2014, as their 4.49 runs allowed per game is the third-highest in the National League. But the Nationals, with a lineup full of backups, have demonstrated an ability to struggle against mediocre pitching, and with the possibility that the Pirates won’t need many runs to beat the Nationals, Andrew McCutchen and his career .395/.458/.825 batting line against the Nationals may be enough to get the job done.

Given all the injuries they have suffered in 2014, and how they’ve once again happened to be concurrent injuries, the Nationals are in a good position. The backups have helped the team to tread water and stick within striking distance of the Atlanta Braves, but this series against the Pirates is sink or swim for the Nationals. They are three games from getting LaRoche back and then have three to five weeks to hold out for Zimmerman and Harper, as those two continue to work their way back from injured thumbs. This is an important juncture in the season for the Nationals. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but they have to not stumble before reaching the end of the tunnel.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.

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