David Huzzard: Time to let pitching carry injured Nats

With Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper out, the Nationals are missing three of their best hitters, and in the cases of LaRoche and Zimmerman, they are missing the two highest OPS players on the team. While the addition of Kevin Frandsen, the emergence of Zach Walters and the resurgence of Danny Espinosa have improved the Nationals bench with so many key offensive weapons missing, it is like putting a band-aid on a bullet hole. Scoring runs is going to be a daily struggle for the Nationals until they start to get players off the disabled list.

The Nationals have had their full complement of players for only a few innings on opening day, but after that, they’ve always been missing at least one piece. And yet through April, they were one of the best offenses in baseball. The amount of injuries has caught up to them and the loss of LaRoche was the final blow. The Nationals now have an offense that may average three runs a night until the missing players return.

That doesn’t mean the Nationals can’t still win. They have two things on their side. The Nationals were not built to be a team that scored a lot of runs. The focus for the Nationals has always been pitching and with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark, the Nationals have an excellent starting five. All of them have had their struggles this season, but they’ve also had moments where they’ve looked unhittable.

Now that the Nationals rotation is whole and on a normal rotation, perhaps they can get into a rhythm. When pitching on the normal four days rest, Nationals starters have a 3.50 ERA and are averaging just over 5 2/3 innings a start. But in 13 starts with six-plus days rest, Nationals starting pitchers have a 4.94 ERA and are averaging closer to 5 1/3 innings pitched an outing. With weather the only factor that can jumble the rotation, they should be able to go most days on normal rest and start producing like they’re capable.

Without Zimmerman, LaRoche and Harper, the pitching is going to be the key. The Nationals were not built to outslug their opponents the way the 2008 Phillies were with a rotation of Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton. The Nationals were built as a team that wasn’t going to allow many runs and so far they’ve won more games by outslugging their opponents than outpitching them, and that simply isn’t a brand of baseball they’re going to win with.

The Nationals, in many ways, are lucky to be where they are right now. So much has gone against them early in the 2014 season. They’re missing a third of their lineup, the defense hasn’t been anywhere close to acceptable and the starting pitchers have been unable to work into any sort of rhythm. Yet, the Nationals have found a way to be two games over .500 and are now returning to Nats Park to take on the Mets and the struggling Reds.

Even lacking the offensive firepower the Nationals thought they’d have, their pitching should be able to carry them through this homestand, and then with any luck they will start to receive positive news about injured players because they’re going to need it. After a brief series on the road against the Pirates (who still won’t have called up Gregory Polanco), the Nationals return home to face the surprising Marlins and the always dangerous Rangers. With any luck, they’ll at least have LaRoche back for those series and may have a date on Zimmerman’s return.

The Nationals have survived this long without being whole, but they aren’t going to make it much longer. Cracks are starting to show and weaknesses in the lineup are being exposed. If there was ever a time for the Nationals starting pitchers to get on a roll and reel off a number of excellent starts in a row, this would be it because for the offense, runs are going to be hard to come by and it’s time the Nationals ride their strength instead of trying to be a team they’re not.

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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