Nats in much better standing as road trip shifts to West Coast

LOS ANGELES - The Nationals left Washington five days ago, reeling from a 3-7 homestand, heading to New York to face a red-hot Mets club that had opened up a six-game lead in the National League East division, all the while knowing they still had to head out west to face the Dodgers and Giants to conclude this long road trip.

Well, the East Coast portion of the trip is now complete, the West Coast portion is set to begin, and the Nationals find themselves in much better shape than they were in when this whole thing started.

In taking two of three from the Mets, the Nats righted a ship that was beginning to veer wayward. They’re not entirely back on course just yet, but they’re headed in that direction.

The lineup, despite the absence of Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy, managed to scratch together 18 runs in three days. Ryan Zimmerman finally got hot, homering twice and tripling during Wednesday’s loss. Trea Turner reached base six times during the two victories. Role-players including Wilmer Difo, Pedro Severino and Moisés Sierra delivered clutch hits.

Jeremy Hellickson was effective in his season debut, though in being held to 88 pitches in 4 2/3 innings Monday he set in motion a chain of dominos that left the Nats bullpen completely gassed by Wednesday night. (More on that in a moment.) Tanner Roark was excellent for seven innings in the series finale, and in the larger picture looks like the 2016 version of himself, with three quality starts in four attempts and a 0.920 WHIP.

And thanks to a lopsided loss in Atlanta on Thursday night, the Mets now are the reeling ones, having dropped three of four and seen their lead over the Nationals shrink to 4 1/2 games (though the Braves and Phillies, it should be noted, are only two games back).

Eaton-Writes-in-Pain-Sidebar.jpgThere’s more good news on the horizon: Rendon expects to return from his bruised toe and be in tonight’s lineup against the Dodgers, and Eaton is eligible to come off the disabled list today (though it remains to be seen if he will). Murphy, meanwhile, is getting at-bats in extended spring training in West Palm Beach, inching ever closer to his long-awaited season debut.

So that’s the good. There are still, however, some concerns.

We’ll start with the bullpen, which was running on fumes at the end of the Mets series and was directly responsible for blowing a late 4-2 lead and a shot at a three-game sweep. Hellickson’s early departure Monday meant five relievers had to combine for 4 1/3 innings. Gio Gonzalez’s departure in the sixth Tuesday meant four relievers had to combine for 3 2/3 innings. By the time they got to Wednesday’s finale, even Roark’s seven-inning start wasn’t enough to avoid the problem. Three relievers pitched the final two innings, with Ryan Madson (appearing for the third straight day) coughing up the lead.

Three weeks into the season, the Nationals bullpen workload is pretty striking. Five relievers have pitched in at least nine of the team’s 19 games. (That works out to 77 appearances over a full season, a total reached by only four pitchers in all of baseball last season.) Sammy Solís has pitched in 10 games. Madson has pitched in 11, tied for third-most in the majors.

And none of this includes unofficial relief appearances, those times when someone warms up in the ‘pen but doesn’t appear in the game. Those are tracked as well, and it was one of those warm-up sessions Tuesday that left Shawn Kelley unavailable to pitch Wednesday when the Nats certainly could have used him.

So manager Davey Martinez and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist are going to need to be a bit more careful with their bullpen management in the coming days. And the Nationals are going to need their starters in this series to give them innings. With Max Scherzer on the mound tonight and Stephen Strasburg pitching Saturday night, that seems a reasonable request.

Scherzer will represent one-half of tonight’s marquee pitching matchup at Dodger Stadium. When veteran Rich Hill had to go on the disabled list with a crack on his fingernail, the Dodgers decided to bump Clayton Kershaw up a day and have him go head-to-head with Scherzer in the opener.

According to the Dodgers’ PR staff, this will be only the 13th matchup in history between two pitchers who each owned three or more Cy Young Awards at the time of the matchup, the first since Roger Clemens vs. Greg Maddux in 2006. The other matchups: Steve Carlton vs. Tom Seaver (four times), Seaver vs. Jim Palmer, Clemens vs. Maddux (three times), Clemens vs. Pedro Martinez (three times) and Maddux vs. Randy Johnson.

Not a bad list.

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