Earlier this week the Nationals lineup against the Angels featured a starting outfield of Howie Kendrick, Adam Lind, and Michael A. Taylor with Wilmer Difo starting at shortstop. This was not due to a 1 p.m. start or the marathon games over the weekend against the Giants. Rather, due to the state of the Nationals disabled list (a loooong list) the team has had to make due with players that are playing out of position or ones that weren’t even on the roster to begin the year. Given the state of the lineup and the shuffling of the defense, the Nationals can be excused for potentially going through a slump or a cold streak. Instead, the backups and bench guys have helped the Nationals go to a season-high 25 games over .500 and a 14+ game lead in the division.
The long litany of injuries began when Adam Eaton tore his knee at the end of April. That forced Taylor (who was a bad spring away from possibly being released) into the starting lineup where he’s thrived. While he’s still striking out a little too much and missed time himself with an injury, Taylor has earned the trust of Dusty Baker by playing great defense and making consistent contact more than ever before. When Jayson Werth went down at the beginning of June, Brian Goodwin was called up and has been an extra-base hit machine since his call-up, generating 35 extra-base hits in his 74 games. Of course, he now is on the DL with a strained groin that is sure to sideline him for at least a couple of weeks.
On and on the injuries began to pile up, but the Nationals have continued to roll due to the strong performances of the players filling in. After Trea Turner went down, Difo came in and has been a sparkplug atop the lineup after briefly getting benched due to a slow start. Adam Lind has been pinch-hitter and spot-starter extraordinaire filling in for Ryan Zimmerman and in left-field when needed. Even when Bryce Harper went down with a horrific-looking (thankfully not season-ending) knee injury, Kendrick has stepped up and hit 3 home runs in the last 2 games, including a walk-off grand slam to end the weekend marathon Sunday night. Losing Joe Ross and Stephen Strasburg has barely slowed the team down given the strong performances of Edwin Jackson and AJ Cole spot-starting when needed.
With a huge lead in the division that won’t be relinquished, the focus down the stretch will be on getting all the key cogs healthy and ready to roll in time for the postseason. Strasburg is due back on Saturday after a strong rehab start in Potomac earlier this week. Having missed 2 of the 3 division series the Nationals have participated in, the onus will be on Stras to remain healthy and continue dealing down the stretch. Trea Turner and Jayson Werth should soon follow at the end of the month, although Werth’s timetable has continued to shift further and further back. The consensus with Harper’s injury seems to be that he will come back with a week or two left in the season, but he said that he will not return until he’s 100% healthy.
The silver lining in all these injuries? Barring any further injuries, the Nationals will have their strongest bench crew to date heading into the postseason. With professional hitters such as Kendrick and Lind raking and young guys such as Taylor, Goodwin, and Difo getting consistent at-bats, the team will have reliable options in key pinch-hitting opportunities in the postseason. While not planned or expected, the exposure that the backups and rookies have received might give them the confidence in a key spot in October. Combine the strong bench with the best offense in the National League and a bullpen that has been lights-out since the trade deadline, the Nationals could finally have the right ingredients for a deep run in October. If all clicks and the injuries don’t resurface, D.C. could finally host its first League Championship Series game in history.