Nats hoping good health carries over into regular season

VIERA, Fla. - As they count down the final days of spring, the Nationals also can count their blessings, thankful they have mostly avoided the kind of significant injuries that have plagued them in previous years.

Think back only 12 months ago. When the Nationals headed north for opening day, they were without their projected No. 1 (Denard Span), No. 2 (Anthony Rendon) and No. 3 (Jayson Werth) hitters. They were without their projected primary set-up man (Casey Janssen). And though he wasn't on the disabled list, Stephen Strasburg was still feeling the effects of an ankle sprain that wound up being the root of his many health issues during the season.

zimmerman-deep-thought-sidebar.jpgNow, one week from opening day in Atlanta, the Nationals expect to open the season with only two players on the DL: Aaron Barrett (recovering from Tommy John surgery) and Bronson Arroyo (attempting to rehab from a tear in his shoulder).

They're keeping an eye on some of their regulars who have dealt with nagging ailments in the past (Ryan Zimmerman's foot, Werth's shoulder), but they expect to open the season as close to 100 percent healthy as any team is likely to get.

"I think we've done outstanding ... knock on wood," manager Dusty Baker said, tapping his knuckles on the handle of his fungo bat. "I don't believe in jinxes or anything, but things are going pretty well right now. I have to commend the guys that are coming in, working, stretching, the postgame workouts, the guys are running when they come out of the game like they're supposed to do. And I've got to commend the fitness and the medical staff, for getting these guys ready pre- and post-game."

The Nationals revamped their medical and training staff over the winter and implemented a new program that intends to utilize analytics in an attempt to prevent injuries before they happen. It will be some time - perhaps years - before we know what kind of difference this program will make, good or bad. But the reviews so far have been positive.

Now comes the next step, one that might well be more important than the one that preceded it: keeping guys healthy through the rigors of a long season.

Baker prides himself as something of an expert in this area, having learned plenty in his four decades as a big league player, coach and manager. This is a guy who averaged 141 games played during the 12 years of his career when he was a lineup regular, so he feels like he's particularly well-equipped to establish a ramp-up schedule for players in spring training that best prepares them for the grind.

"That's just what I learned from my own playing days, and my own experiences as a manager trying to get guys ready for the race," he said.

In season, there will be regular days off, even for the best players on the team. Baker still subscribes to a philosophy his old Braves teammate Hank Aaron instilled in him: Everyone should take two games off per month for non-injury reasons. The goal shouldn't be playing in 162 games; it should be playing in 150.

So, how does Baker decide when those two days off should come each month?

"This is really where the dilemma comes in, and where my expertise comes in," he said. "If a guy's hot, you don't tend to give him a day off. Just what I've been told, and this is how it was for us: If you're hot, you ride that surfboard all the way to the beach and then jump off the bridge. If things are going bad, you might need a mental day off."

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