The Washington Times - July 23, 2012, 01:49PM

NEW YORK — The Nationals salvaging a series split with the Atlanta Braves — and heading to New York exactly where they were when the Mets left D.C. last week — was a victory in a lot of ways. It was also, as manager Davey Johnson put it, bittersweet because it came on the same day as an MRI on Ian Desmond’s left oblique that revealed a tear. He will be out for weeks, at least two of them, and almost certainly more. 

So goes the Nationals’ season. Victory after victory, positive after positive and one crushing injury blow after another.

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There are a few things about this particular injury that make it unique, though. Desmond has easily been the Nationals’ most irreplaceable player this season. Their most consistent offensive force and one of their best defenders, Desmond’s loss is a difficult one. Mark DeRosa called him the Nationals’ MVP. Danny Espinosa said he won’t try to replace him, only to play his best each day. 

But they’re also well-equipped to handle this loss perhaps more than others.

When Ryan Zimmerman went down early this season, Steve Lombardozzi filled in admirably at third base. But Lombardozzi won’t replace Zimmerman’s production in the No. 3 spot in the lineup. Jesus Flores has been doing well behind the plate as the starting catcher after Wilson Ramos’ injury, but Ramos hit .267 with 15 homers in 2011 and Flores’ production is not as robust. 

The Nationals will most certainly miss Desmond in the lineup. You can’t remove a player hitting .286 with 17 home runs and 24 doubles and not miss them. But for good portion of the Nationals’ season he was one of the only ones producing. That has changed.

Zimmerman, hitting .218 less than a month ago, has raised his average to .273 with production over the previous 25 games that is mind-boggling. Since receiving a cortisone shot in his shoulder, Zimmerman is hitting .392, slugging .804 and has an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.255. 

Espinosa, too, has been steadily improving. After seeing his average hover around .230 and below through the season’s first three months, Espinosa has hit .354 in the month of July with nine extra-base hits (two homers) and a .394 on-base percentage. 

Michael Morse continues to prove his breakout 2011 season was no fluke, hitting .300 with five homers and nine doubles in the 44 games since he returned from a torn lat muscle. Roger Bernadina has excelled in a bench role to give him a .292 average, .372 on-base percentage and .401 slugging — all well higher than his career averages.

The list goes on. 

Espinosa will take some time to feel truly comfortable back at his natural position, as will Lombardozzi, and the chemistry between the two will continue to grow.

The Nationals will miss Desmond, there’s no question. But there was also a reason for the timing of his DL stint — a reason for when he and the Nationals finally decided to take him out of action for a while. They’re in better shape to cope with his loss now than they have been at any previous point and a healthy Ian Desmond for the stretch run is what they want most.

And then there’s the one truth about the Nationals’ season that DeRosa pointed out: “(A lot of guys) have had their (injury) hiccups,” he said. “But the pitching’s held true the whole time. I think if that holds up their end of the bargain, the way they’ve been going, I think we’ll be able to make do.”

– One thing that probably went overlooked in the flurry of news that came out of the Nationals’ post-game on Sunday afternoon was indeed another strong pitching performance. This one was from Ross Detwiler and what’s important for Detwiler is that it was the second straight solid outing for him. 

Detwiler was authoritative on the mound. He threw 98 pitches — the most he’s thrown this season outside of a 4 1/3-inning, 100-pitch outing in Atlanta in May right before the Nationals moved him temporarily to the bullpen — and 64 of those pitches were strikes. That is the most strikes Detwiler has thrown in any start this season.

In situations where he once might have faltered, Detwiler is excelling. He loaded the bases and allowed two harmless runs (one earned) in the sixth inning on Sunday but got out without any further damage. That, his manager figured, was enough. But Detwiler, normally one to take what he’s told and live with it, protested.

“It was kind of just reactionary on my part,” he said. “I usually wouldn’t do something like that. But I felt like I needed to go back out there for another inning. It ended up working out, and I had to thank him for that.”

“We had a little interchange after the sixth inning,” Johnson explained. “Hot day. He was still throwing the heck out of the ball. He came in. We had a nice cushion, seven run lead. I shook his hand. He said, ‘I want to go. I want to stay. I can’t leave it on that inning.’ Usually I don’t get talked out of things like that. But I said, ‘The way you finished that last inning. I thought you were a little wild.’ He said, ‘Ok. Just hitter by hitter.’ He walks the first hitter. ‘No, I’m staying.’ And he thanked me after the game. But I thanked him. We didn’t know who was thanking who.”

Then Johnson said the one thing the Nationals have been hoping would be said about Detwiler for years.

“He’s just turned into one heck of a pitcher,” he said.

The Nationals are going to need him to continue to be one as they tread further down this road of contention. As it stands right now, Detwiler would likely be one of the Nationals’ four starters in the playoffs. More starts like Sunday’s, however, will be a prerequisite.

– Sandy Leon could be in for more playing time after an offensive afternoon on Sunday. Leon, who spelled Jesus Flores in the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader as well as in Sunday’s game, was 1-for-4 with a two-run double on Sunday and is now 5-for-13 since being called up on Thursday.

With Flores nursing a stiff back and his offensive production having dropped as he’s gone through a grueling transition back to the Nationals’ starting catcher, Leon could be in line to spell him more than the once per week or so that Solano had been. Johnson mentioned Leon’s productive day in his post-game comments, saying it was nice to get some offense out of the catcher’s spot in the order and if the Nationals are going to depend on Flores down the stretch, they’re going to need to keep him fresher than he has been recently. 

– Andy Martino of the New York Daily News wrote an interesting column in today’s paper about the Mets and how race relations in their clubhouse have improved over the past few years. It’s an interesting issue, albeit a touchy one, and it got me thinking about what I’ve witnessed inside the Nationals’ clubhouse.

The word “chemistry” gets thrown around an awful lot in sports and the teams that are winning, of course, always say they have great chemistry. But in the Nationals’ case it really appears to be true. Even last year when they were not winning at this clip, the Nationals’ clubhouse appeared more unified than most. Pitchers hung out with position players, English speakers spent time with Spanish speakers, etc. That appears to have continued this season.

When you ask about things like this, the first thing most players, coaches and officials will say is that it’s a credit to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and his scouting staff for making character one of the main things they look for in players. As the Nationals have ascended fairly rapidly this season Rizzo has gotten a lot of due for his work with in turning the organization around. Even with all of that, one of the more astute players in the Nationals’ clubhouse said he reads it all and doesn’t think Rizzo is getting enough credit for the things he’s done.

There’s no real news value to this point, but I thought it was an interesting issue and wanted to pass the article along.