A lot to watch for before and during tonight’s Nats game

If your attention has been diverted from baseball to hockey in recent days, you are forgiven. Hey, this kind of thing hasn’t happened in these parts for 26 years. It’s OK to get swept up in it.

But if you need something to keep you occupied for the next 48 hours until they carry the Stanley Cup into the building in Las Vegas, you should know this could be an eventful week for the Nationals.

After a tough weekend in Atlanta to cap an otherwise excellent 7-3 road trip, the Nats are back home tonight to face the Rays in a two-game interleague series - they’re off again Thursday, and how fortuitous is that, eh? - before they host the Giants this weekend.

Here are some things to watch for tonight ...

* A decision on Daniel Murphy: The rehabbing second baseman is scheduled to be back in D.C. after playing six games for Double-A Harrisburg, with team doctors and officials deciding how to proceed at this point.

If you’ve watched the video clips of Murphy on his rehab stint, you know he’s still not running well. He does look normal hitting, though. The question the Nationals now face is this: Will Murphy’s surgically repaired right knee get better with either more rest or more rehab, or is this as good as it’s going to get?

Again, microfracture surgery isn’t like reconstructive knee surgery, where there’s a clear objective (repair a torn ACL). It’s done to try to help an athlete’s damaged knee heal on its own, but there’s no firm timetable for that to happen - or even a guarantee that it will happen. Murphy essentially has arthritis in his knee. He may never be able to run in a pre-surgery fashion.

And so what the Nats have to decide is whether they’re willing to take a chance and activate Murphy and see how he does out there (assuming they don’t believe he can injure himself further) or whether they need to take a different route at this point. It’s not a simple decision, but it is an important one.

* News on Jeremy Hellickson’s hamstring injury: If you watched Hellickson pull up lame trying to catch a ball at first base in the first inning Sunday, you know the injury looked significant. Hellickson insisted this one isn’t nearly as bad as the one he suffered in spring training 2011, which still allowed him to make 29 starts and win American League Rookie of the Year honors.

But it’s hard to believe the right-hander won’t need to miss at least some time now. He was due to undergo an MRI on Monday, the results of which should be made public today. If Hellickson goes on the disabled list, the Nats have a decision to make. Because of four off-days the next two weeks, they could go with a four-man rotation until June 19. Or they may decide they’d rather give those four rotation regulars some extra days of rest and use another No. 5 starter in Hellickson’s place.

That could be Erick Fedde, who impressed in his one major league start last month. It could be Jefry Rodriguez, who dazzled in 4 2/3 innings of emergency relief Sunday afternoon. It could be Austin Voth, who has enjoyed a nice bounceback season at Triple-A Syracuse. It won’t be Edwin Jackson, who opted out of his minor league contract over the weekend and is now a free agent.

Thumbnail image for Eaton dejected looking down NEW.jpg* Updates on Adam Eaton, Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Adams: Eaton began a rehab assignment with Harrisburg over the weekend and is expected to continue this week at Single-A Potomac. He’s eligible to come off the DL on Friday, only four weeks removed from arthroscopic ankle surgery, and if all goes well, that just might happen.

Zimmerman, who teamed up with Max Scherzer on Thursday night to don hockey sweaters, helmets and gloves and lead the “Let’s Go Caps!” cheer before Game 4, appears to be close to a rehab assignment for his oblique strain. He may not quite be ready for that yet, but it should be soon.

Adams, meanwhile, is hoping to return three days after fouling a ball off the top of his right foot. X-rays were negative, but he was unable to play Sunday due to swelling and soreness. These things aren’t supposed to be serious injuries, but you know the history of Nats players and foul balls off their feet. Assume nothing.

* Wilson Ramos’ return to Washington: “The Buffalo” last played at Nationals Park on Sept. 26, 2016, the night he landed awkwardly trying to catch a high throw to the plate from Ryan Zimmerman and suffered the second torn ACL of his career.

Ramos, who signed a two-year deal with the Rays later that winter, played in 64 games in 2017 and hit .260 with 11 homers. But he has returned to peak form this season and will carry a .301 batting average, seven homers and 29 RBIs into tonight’s game.

Nationals fans have supported few players over the years more than Ramos, and he deserves a warm welcome back to town tonight.

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