There really are no such thing as "must-win" games in baseball, at least not until a team is one loss from elimination. So a late-August date in Miami probably shouldn't be viewed as do-or-die for the Nationals.
Having said that, the Nationals face as close to a must-win situation tonight as you're likely to find in this sport. Losers of four straight, they head to rainy South Florida for a two-game series with the last-place Marlins desperately needing to get back on track before this slump really turns into something of consequence.
The Nationals' cause was helped somewhat by the Braves, who late last night were shut out 3-0 in the opener of their three-game series in San Diego. Thus, Washington's lead in the NL East is back to five games after it slipped to 4 12 over the weekend.
Still, the Nationals can't just count on maintaining a comfortable lead via losses by their lone remaining challenger for the division crown. They're going to need to win their share of games as well, and what better time to start than tonight against a reeling Miami club that has gone 14-25 since July 17.
And what better time to send a red-hot Stephen Strasburg to the mound for one of his final starts of the season. The right-hander, whose closely monitored innings count stands at 145 13, has pitched brilliantly this month (4-0, 1.50 ERA) after an erratic July (2-2, 4.13). Strasburg also has owned the Marlins this season, going 2-0 without allowing a run in three head-to-head starts.
Strasburg's chances to earn his 16th win of the year also will increase if the Nationals get two of their offensive stalwarts (Michael Morse and Ian Desmond) back from minor injuries. Morse has appeared since getting hit in the right wrist by a pitch during the first inning of Friday night's game in Philadelphia. Desmond hasn't played since hyperextending his knee and suffered a mild hamstring strain on Wednesday.
Both players hope to be back in the lineup tonight, though both will need to participate in pregame workouts without hindrance to convince manager Davey Johnson they're ready to return.
Key for Ryan Zimmerman was the simplistic act of staying on his grumpy feet for nine innings. The idea had been elusive for weeks. Zimmerman last played a full baseball game on April 27. Plantar fasciitis sent him to this fate, and each time he progressed, an ache pulled him back.
Monday, Zimmerman played nine innings for Double-A Harrisburg. He picked up two hits, but more vital was the ability to play a full game his third time on the field in four days. Zimmerman played Friday and Saturday before taking Sunday off. Tuesday becomes decision day: is Zimmerman ready to join the team Wednesday or does he have to wait? He'll wait at least another day since he is in the Senators' lineup as the designated hitter Tuesday.
There's a benefit to waiting. Washington goes to Detroit for interleague play this weekend. That affords them a chance to use the designated hitter and a window to play both Howie Kendrick and Zimmerman throughout the series without greatly taxing either.
Bringing Zimmerman back sooner also has the benefit of putting his glove on the field and expanding bench options for manager Davey Martinez. The veteran can be protected in a rotation at first base. The Nationals have Brian Dozier hitting and fielding well. Kendrick hits line drives whenever he is in the lineup. Matt Adams provides a powerful matchup option. This is how things were supposed to work from the start of the season. But, they did not come to order until late June.
Zimmerman's injury has also decided the fate of his $18 million club option for next season. It has graduated from unlikely to no chance. Though, he appears open to coming back at a much lower price. Zimmerman's body has forced him into a position of being a part-time player only, at this stage. He said last week his body "felt great" outside of the plantar fasciitis issue in his foot. Don't be surprised if he and the Nationals work something out for one more season.
For now, the club has to decide when Zimmerman will be back on the field. If he felt good Tuesday following another rehabilitation game, he could be ready as soon as Wednesday. Which prompts another decision: Do they release spirit animal Gerardo Parra to make space? Would they entertain a change for Michael A. Taylor? Something has to give if Zimmerman is finally ready.
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The Nationals are calling up veteran left-handed reliever Jonny Venters to join the team Tuesday, according to a source.
Venters, 34, has undergone three Tommy John surgeries in between his five seasons in the major leagues. Venters entered the league in 2010 and was dominant before his first ulnar collateral ligament tear. Washington signed him May 29, then sent him to Double-A Harrisburg. Venters put together a 1.29 ERA in seven innings with the Senators.
Also joining the bullpen Tuesday is veteran Fernando Rodney. Calling up both will force the Nationals to make a 25-man roster move. Washington is likely to send down Kyle McGowin. It also needs to open a 40-man roster spot. Transferring reliever Austen Williams to the 60-day disabled list would accomplish that.
Washington's maligned bullpen comes into play Tuesday with the major league's second-worst ERA after spending the majority of the season as the league's worst bullpen.
Venters' promotion was first reported by 106.7 The Fan.
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