MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Snake-bitten Nats can't dwell on injuries

Harper is the latest star to go down on a team that plans to go deep into October

Snake-bitten Nats can't dwell on injuries

Things just got ridiculous for the Washington Nationals. Their team slogan just changed to, "You're kidding, right?"

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Bryce Harper's injury alone would be a tough to blow to both the lineup and the psyche. Only thing is, the Nationals have already had a season's worth of adversity in injuries to Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Doug Fister, Denard Span and Jayson Werth.

Is that an injury list or an All-Star team? Rendon, Span and Fister are back -- knock on wood -- and Strasburg could return soon. But Zimmerman and Werth seem likely to miss another huge chunk of the season.

On Thursday night, the Nationals gasped yet again when Harper ended up lying on the ground in right field, clutching his left leg.

All things considered, it could have been worse since the diagnosis is that the injury is to his hamstring and not his knee. The Nationals hope it's not serious and that he'll miss only a day or two.

But there should be a more definitive prognosis coming. When Harper first hit the ground, his first thought was that he'd ripped up his left knee.

So he'll miss at least a few games, and possibly quite a few more. And once more, the Nationals are being challenged. As Nationals manager Matt Williams said after the game, "It's time to step up."

Williams on Nationals' 5-3 loss

At least the Nationals don't have to worry about replacing Harper's production -- for however long he's gone -- because that's not going to happen. In his fourth full season, he's emerged as maybe the best baseball player on the planet.

He's first in the Majors in OPS (1.197), second in home runs (22) and third in batting average (.344) and RBIs (53). If you project this start over a full season, you come up with 53 home runs, 34 doubles, 131 walks and 128 RBIs.

In a season in which Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt are both off to breathtakingly great starts, Harper was right there with them. (Goldschmidt is 27, Stanton 25, Harper 22. This is a reminder that the kids have taken over the world.)

What a strange season for the Nationals. On Opening Day, they appeared to be the best and deepest team in baseball. General manager Mike Rizzo had built a franchise stacked with power arms and enough depth to withstand almost anything.

There was almost no scenario in which the Nationals weren't going to be playing deep into October. That was before the Baseball Gods began taking gashes out of the roster. And just when the Nationals had gotten Rendon and Fister back, they're hit again.

What now? That's the easiest question of all. Baseball is unforgiving. The Pirates are bringing baseball's best rotation (33-15, 2.83 ERA) to Nationals Park this weekend for three games. In order, the Nationals will get A.J. Burnett (6-2, 1.89), Francisco Liriano (4-5, 2.94) and Charlie Morton (5-0, 1.62).

And the Pirates will be followed by the Braves, who have flirted with .500 in a season in which they were believed to be rebuilding.

The Nationals are 5-1 against the Braves this season and had their single finest moment against them on April 28 by rallying from a 10-2 deficit to win, 13-12. The Nationals were 7-13 when that day began, and that comeback propelled them to a 20-5 run that opened up a 2 1/2-game lead in the National League East.

Nationals storm back for the win

And one by one, guys went down. Fister on May 14, Werth the next day. Strasburg hasn't started since May 29. Just as Rendon was about to return, Zimmerman got hurt.

Here's what the Nationals have going for them. First, they're in a division in which none of the other four teams is likely to take control. The Mets (36-32) are the only other club above .500, and they're far from a perfect team.

And the Nationals will have a rotation with Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Fister. Even without Strasburg, that easily is a top-five rotation.

Offensively, the Nationals have Span, Rendon and Yunel Escobar at the top of the lineup. What needs to happen now is guys like Ian Desmond and Michael Taylor are more important than ever, especially until Harper returns.

So are Rizzo's conversations with Billy Beane regarding Ben Zobrist. No trade seems close, but Rizzo's urgency could change depending on what the prognosis on Harper is today.

Beyond that, there's going to be a sense of urgency about the whole team. They are no longer the team that was supposed to win the NL East by 10 games. Between 2012-14, the Nationals won more regular-season games than any team in baseball. But they hadn't won a postseason series, and this season was about taking the next step.

Harper's injury will present them with a new reality. The Mets' rotation may be as good as Washington's. The Mets' offense may be better than Washington's -- at least for now. So like last season, when the Angels rallied around Garrett Richards' injury and went on a 19-5 run to take control of the AL West, the Nationals don't have the team they hoped to have. But they still may have enough.

Besides, just think how satisfying this season would be if they still win the NL East against all odds. They'll enter October with confidence that they can overcome almost anything. They also should have Zimmerman, Werth and Harper back by then. At the moment, though, they're going to be living that one-day-at-a-time cliche. In this case, it's true.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.