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State of the Nats: Delicate balance to stay healthy in final week

State of the Nats: Delicate balance to stay healthy in final week

Team Record: 91-65

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The final week - Manager Dusty Baker and his Nationals have a delicate balance to maintain over the next week-plus as they get set to play the Dodgers in the NL Division Series on Oct. 7. They need to remain sharp while still giving some of their regulars rest before the grind that is October. It sounds simple, but it has been proven over and over to be much more complex than it sounds.

The most important objective through all of it, of course, is avoiding injuries and both Sunday and Monday's games illustrated how difficult that can be. Any time players are on the field, they are at risk of hurting themselves. On Sunday in Pittsburgh, Bryce Harper jammed his thumb sliding into third base on a triple against the Pirates. X-rays were negative, but it could have easily been serious. The Nats dodged a bullet.

One night later, catcher Wilson Ramos hurt his knee on a throw home. Ryan Zimmerman threw high over Ramos' head, requiring him to jump and catch it. He landed on his right leg and his knee buckled slightly. It wasn't even a contact play, yet now the catcher's immediate future hangs in the balance.

Both of these injuries come on the heels of Daniel Murphy injuring his left buttock and Stephen Strasburg suffering a strained right flexor mass. That's four of their five 2016 All-Stars, all injured to different degrees in a span of just three weeks.

No one wants to put their players in harm's way unnecessarily, but the alternative can also be bleak. It's an inexact science trying to keep players sharp down the stretch of the regular season ahead of the playoffs, especially with a four-day layoff awaiting them while the MLB wild card games are decided. That's basically an All-Star break, an unusually long respite right before the intensity of games goes up several notches.

The Nationals know this all too well, as in 2014 they had the four-day layoff and came out of it flat on offense. They won 17 of 22 down the stretch of the regular season, but then had four days off. They did their best with a simulated game at Nationals Park. Aaron Barrett famously sang the national anthem. It sounded like a fun time, but it couldn't prevent the Nats from hitting just .164 in their series against the Giants. Their bullpen stood out in that series loss, and so did some managerial decisions, but bottom line is that they scored nine runs in four games.

Their pitching was mostly good. They also held the Giants to just nine runs in the series. The Nats just couldn't score when they needed to.

Baker has plenty of experience heading into the playoffs both as a player and as a manager. He told a story on Monday about the 1977 season when he was an outfielder for the Dodgers that has stuck with him ever since:

"I know that when I was a player back in ’77 Steve Garvey and I were the only ones that played all the way to the end because I was trying to hit 30 home runs and he was trying to get 200 hits. Consequently, Reggie Smith and Ron Seay when we started the playoffs they weren’t sharp because they took three or four days off because they already had their 30 home runs. So Garv and I were the only two that were really hot and we got to the World Series and we weren’t that hot but the other guys that had gotten the rest were hot. It’s a thin line between playing a whole bunch and not playing enough."

It may not affect how they play in the postseason whatsoever, but it would be a good idea for the Nats to hold an open workout this time. In 2014, they closed their workout to both fans and the media. They basically remained silent for four days heading into the postseason.

The Kansas City Royals, conversely, held a workout open to fans in October of 2014. They called it a playoff rally and around five thousand people showed up to Kauffman Stadium.

Now, that's just an idea that could bring some fun to the whole experience. It offers no solution to the conundrum of keeping players rested, yet sharp for the playoffs. Though, the Royals reaching the World Series that year at least proves it can't hurt.

Truthfully, there is probably no right answer in how to handle the Nationals over the next 10 days. Would you rather run the risk of injury, or risk losing rhythm and momentum entering the playoffs? It's not an easy call to make.

NL East Standings

Offensive game of the week: Ryan Zimmerman 9/23 vs. Pirates - 2-for-5, 2 2B, 2 R, RBI

Pitching line of the week: Reynaldo Lopez 9/24 vs. Pirates - 5.1 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 6 SO, 2 BB, 85 pitches (57 strikes)

Quote of the Week 

"That's what I came here for. I'm telling you -- let these young men have a great time tonight, back to work tomorrow. First step in a four-step process. This step is the hardest to get. I'm just so happy for these guys. I love them. I love this team."

- Dusty Baker on the Nats clinching the 2016 NL East

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Road Ahead

Mon. - 14-4 loss to Arizona
Tue. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Scherzer vs. Godley)
Wed. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Gonzalez vs. Miller)
Thu. - 1:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (Ross vs. Ray)
Fri. - 7:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Cole vs. Chen)
Sat. - 4:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Roark vs. Phelps)
Sun. - 3:05 p.m. vs. Miami Marlins (Scherzer vs. Urena)

[RELATED: Ramos set for MRI as Nats hope injury isn't serious]

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Can Gio Gonzalez lift Nats out of losing streak in series opener vs. Giants?

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USA TODAY Sports

Can Gio Gonzalez lift Nats out of losing streak in series opener vs. Giants?

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Giants right-hander Chris Stratton will seek to duplicate two impressive efforts when he takes the mound for the opener of a three-game series against the Washington Nationals on Monday night at 10:15 p.m. ET.

The series is the first in San Francisco since Giants reliever Hunter Strickland plunked Nationals star Bryce Harper with a pitch last May, triggering a brawl at the mound that resulted in the ejection of both players.

The Giants got the worst of the altercation, with slugging backup Michael Morse suffering a career-ending concussion in a collision with teammate Jeff Samardzija near the mound.

Stratton wasn't with the Giants at the time, but he contributed one of the best-pitched games of his young career when the clubs met again in Washington in August.

RELATED: BRYCE HARPER HOME RUN TRACKER

Making just his third career start, the 27-year-old shut out the Nationals on five hits over 6 2/3 innings in a 4-2 win. He struck out 10.

It's the only time he has faced Washington.

Stratton (1-1, 2.22) has won just four times since, and came close to a fifth when he limited Arizona to one run in seven innings in his last start on Wednesday. He did not, however, get a decision in the 4-3 win, during which he recorded eight strikeouts.

The Giants will be opening a 10-game homestand following a 10-game trip on which they went just 4-6. Statton started two of the four wins.

Stratton wasn't the only Giants starter who pitched well on the trip. The club is coming off a series win against the Los Angeles Angels in which both Samardzija and Johnny Cueto took shutouts late into wins.

Strickland saved Sunday's 4-2 win for Cueto, and afterward was asked about his thoughts of seeing Harper again.

"Win a series," is all he would say.

RELATED: LATEST MLB POWER RANKINGS

In the Nationals, the Giants will be seeing a team coming off a high-profile series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, one that included a meeting on Sunday Night Baseball.

Washington lost two of three in the rematch of 2017 division winners, scoring a total of just eight runs on 21 hits in the three games, which ended with the Nationals stranding two in the top of the ninth of a 4-3 loss on Sunday.

Harper went 2-for-10 in the series, which the Nationals played without injured regulars Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Adam Eaton. They remain out.

Left-hander Gio Gonzalez (2-1, 2.49) will oppose Stratton.

The veteran has made 12 career starts against the Giants, going 5-4 with a 3.06 ERA.

He restored order to the Nationals-Giants series in San Francisco last season the day after the brawl, pitching 6 1/3 innings in a 6-3 win. It improved his record at AT&T Park to 2-3 with a 3.95 ERA in seven starts.

Gonzalez threw 97 pitches in beating the New York Mets 5-2 in his last start, allowing two runs and eight hits in 5 1/3 innings on Tuesday.

That pitch total wasn't even five times the number Giants first baseman Brandon Belt saw in one historic at-bat Sunday against the Angels' Jaime Barria in the first inning.

Belt fouled off 16 pitches and flied out on the 21st pitch of the at-bat, the most pitches in a Major League Baseball at-bat since 1988.

Afterward, Belt apologized.

"When I'm in the field, I hate it when a batter keeps fouling pitches off," he insisted. "I'm like, 'Dude, just put it in play. It's not that hard. Let's go.' So, I basically had to apologize to everybody after that."

RELATED: HOW NATS DROPPED FINAL GAME VS. DODGERS

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Bullpen falters as Dodgers rally from 3 runs down to top Nationals

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USA TODAY

Bullpen falters as Dodgers rally from 3 runs down to top Nationals

LOS ANGELES  -- Although Cody Bellinger's fierce line drive drove in the tying run, it hit the center field wall so quickly that the throw back to the infield beat him to second base.

No problem: Bellinger adroitly avoided the tag with a swim move he learned from watching Mike Trout on television, and the Dodgers kept charging toward the latest win in their comeback surge.

Bellinger followed Yasmani Grandal's two-run double with an RBI double in the sixth, and Corey Seager drove in Austin Barnes with the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of Los Angeles' sixth win in seven games, 4-3 over the Washington Nationals on Sunday night.

With smart plays by Bellinger, Barnes and almost everybody else, the Dodgers (10-10) got back to .500 after a rough start for the defending NL champions. They were largely dominated by Jeremy Hellickson until they erased a three-run deficit in the sixth with three big hits from their patchwork lineup.

"There were signs of that old ballclub when we were coming from behind," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "That was good to see."

Los Angeles went ahead shortly after Barnes was hit by a pitch from Trevor Gott (0-1). Barnes wisely advanced to third on Chris Taylor's single and scored on Seager's fly.

"You've got to make something happen in that situation," Barnes said of his dash to third. "We're trying to get runs on the board late in the game. It was worth a shot. Be aggressive and play our kind of baseball, and eventually it'll pay off for us."

Alex Wood pitched six innings of six-hit ball for the Dodgers, and Josh Fields (1-0) survived a rocky seventh inning.

Kenley Jansen pitched the ninth for his first save since April 10 and his third of the season -- but not without drama. The Dodgers' vaunted closer began the ninth by yielding two singles, but then struck out Andrew Stevenson and Trea Turner before ending it on Howie Kendrick's fly to the warning track.

Michael Taylor homered, doubled, singled and walked for the Nationals, who have lost seven of 11.

Hellickson retired 14 straight Dodgers before doubles by Chris Taylor and Grandal, with a walk by Seager sandwiched between them. Bellinger followed with his go-ahead line drive against Sammy Solis.

"The one that Taylor got was probably just a tad up," Hellickson said. "(The pitch to) Grandal was down. Probably the only at-bat I'd like to have back is that one to Seager."

Michael Taylor put his first homer of the season into the home bullpen beyond left field in the fourth. He then doubled, advanced on Wood's pickoff throw into center field and scored on Moises Sierra's mid-length fly in the sixth for a 3-0 lead.

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