Reporting David Elfin
Despite being swept at home by the damn New York Yankees over the weekend, the Nats resume play tonight with a 38-26 record, good enough for a four-game lead over the second-place New York Mets in the National League East.
Only the Los Angeles Dodgers, who boast the majors’ best record and are the only other team to sweep the Nats, have a bigger division lead than Washington. And only the Dodgers, Yankees and defending American League champion Texas Rangers have better records.
Aside from the fact that Washington didn’t finish better than .500 during any of its seven previous seasons, what’s really remarkable is that the guys with the curly W’s on their caps are in such solid position 40 percent of the way through the campaign despite having been so incredibly decimated by injuries.
The Nats have lost a whopping 580 games to various ailments which translates to nearly 10 missing players per game.
Start with standout closer Drew Storen, who has been out all season following elbow surgery and doesn’t figure to return until next month. Left fielder Michael Morse, last year’s top slugger, missed the first 50 games with a strained back muscle.
Fifth starter Chien-Ming Wang was absent for the first 41 games because of a very tender hamstring while right fielder Jayson Werth has missed 39 with a broken wrist and isn’t due back until August.
Brad Lidge missed 38 before being designated for assignment after pitching so poorly after his recent return from a pulled abdominal muscle. Fellow reliever Henry Rodriguez has now been gone more than two weeks with a broken finger.
Mark DeRosa has been out 47 games with an oblique muscle that hasn’t healed while fellow veteran utility man Chad Tracy followed 26 games later with an even worse groin injury.
Reliever Ryan Mattheus just returned from 24 games on the shelf with a broken foot, but catchers Wilson Ramos (34 games, knee surgery), Sandy Leon (32, high ankle sprain) and Carlos Maldonando (back, 18) remain sidelined, with Ramos done for the year.
All of those extended stints on the disabled list make the early-season absences of center fielder Rick Ankiel for eight games with a quadriceps and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman for 13 with an ailing shoulder seem like mere blips and bruises.
Noticeably absent from this lengthy list of battered bodies are Washington’s top four starters: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson, who have combined for a 22-13 record, a 2.77 earned run average and a staggering 322-93 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
First baseman Adam LaRoche, who missed most of an ugly 2011 Washington debut with a shoulder that required surgery, has rebounded to full health and leads the Nats with 12 homers and 43 RBI. The rising, young double-play combination of shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa has also been good to go as have reliable relievers Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Craig Stammen.
It needs to be said that Washington isn’t baseball’s most battered bunch. The Boston Red Sox are well in front with over 800 man-games missed. The San Diego Padres and those Yankees have also lost more games to injuries than the Nats.
However, some teams have been amazingly fortunate. The Rangers have averaged just one missing player per game. The Miami Marlins have had just three players on the DL while Texas and the Chicago White Sox (fewer than two players lost per game) have only had four apiece and Atlanta Braves, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds all have had just six players on the shelf.
But since the Nats have been able to outpace the Mets, Braves, Marlins and perennial division champion Philadelphia Phillies with their athletic training staff busier than Giant Food on a day forecast for snow through the first 40 percent of the season, you have to like their chances to remain atop of the NL East for the remaining 60 percent of the year as long as Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Jackson don’t fall victim to the injury plague that has caught up with so many of their teammates.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin