Marty Niland: Hang on, help is on the way

What a frustrating weekend for the Nationals and their fans.

After beating up on the hapless Houston Astros and another of their characteristic come-from-behind victories in the series opener in Philadelphia, the road trip went south in a hurry. The Nats' bats fell silent at the hands of A.J. Burnett and Roberto Hernandez in a pair of losses to the middling Phillies.

To make matters worse, each of those losses cost the Nats a chance to take over first place in the National League East from the Atlanta Braves, who have lost six straight. The Nats wasted two seemingly perfect opportunities, just as they wasted 16 opportunities with men in scoring position over the last two days.

On top of that, the Nats are facing what is certainly their most challenging six-game stretch so far this season, as they host the Los Angeles Dodgers, then visit the Oakland Athletics to start the first of three West Coast road trips this season.

The defending National League West champion Dodgers have been treading water without their ace, 2013 Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, who will return to the mound Tuesday against the Nats. The A's have the best record (19-12) and lowest earned run average (3.00) in the American League.

The good news for the Nats is that help is on the way. The clutch bat of Wilson Ramos and the intimidating, groundball-inducing Doug Fister are both likely to return to the Nats this week. Ramos, out since opening day with a broken bone in his left hand, has been swinging the bat well in extended spring training games and minor league rehab assignments, going 2-for-3 with a three-run homer Sunday night in Hagerstown.

Another big bat is a relief for a lineup that will be without Ryan Zimmerman for at least another few weeks and Bryce Harper possibly until after the All-Star break. Adam LaRoche and Anthony Rendon have been carrying the team in recent games, but went just 2-for-12 combined in the two losses in Philadelphia. Rendon had an especially miserable afternoon Sunday, going hitless in four at-bats and stranding six baserunners.

Fister, who has not pitched in the majors this season after battling forearm tightness and a strained lat muscle in spring training, has been working his arm into game shape. Pitching in Oakland's spacious O.co Coliseum will be helpful in case his command hasn't returned.

His return could solidify a rotation that has been giving up early runs regularly, putting undue pressure on the offense and the bullpen to bail out the starters.

The other good news is that the schedule lightens up considerably after the Oakland series. After closing the trip with three games against bottom-dwelling Arizona, the Nats play 15 of their next 19 at home, mostly against sub-.500 teams or clubs they have handled in Nationals Park in recent seasons.

If reinforcement from Ramos and Fister can help The Nats weather this six-game stretch, the rest of the month of May could be a big break for a team that is desperately in need of one.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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 roster of writers.

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