The Washington Nationals barely needed an airplane as they flew to Miami from Atlanta last Sunday night, having completed their first series sweep this season. The flight home Wednesday wasn't nearly as sweet, though, after they were swept by the Marlins.
But the Nats have no reason to feel down. Every NL East opponent continues to look up at Washington, in its first-place perch.
Entering Friday's opener of a three-game series with the Braves, the Nats have spent 55 days atop the division. They haven't gotten too high or too low, with five-game streaks being their longest for consecutive wins or losses. They are 11-4-2 in their 17 series while boasting the majors' second-best home record (15-8).
All of that is well and good. But the Nats' most-amazing aspect through two months isn't their respectability. It's their resiliency.
Manager Davey Johnson and his team would deserve props for their performance under any circumstances. However, they get extra credit when you consider the massive losses they've endured since the end of spring training.
Few teams would be as admirable in overcoming the loss of their cleanup hitter (Michael Morse), closer (Drew Storen) and fifth starter (Chien Ming-Wang) before Opening Day; a key reliever (Brad Lidge) and key reserve (Mark DeRosa) in late April; and their starting catcher (Wilson Ramos) and right fielder (Jayson Werth) days apart in early May.
We won't dwell on the other myriad injuries that pushed Washington's disabled list onto a second page. But the Nats have thrived more than survived, perhaps taking a cue from their rookie utility man Steve Lombardozzi.
He just does whatever it takes, any way he can, whenever he's asked.
Resilience is "the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed or stretched." Lombardozzi has been bent, learning new pitchers, stadiums and the big-league lifestyle. He's been compressed, forced into a part-time role after getting about 550 at-bats in each of his past two minor-league seasons. And he's been stretched, fielding four positions for Washington, including left field, which he never played before this season.
Johnson was enamored with Lombardozzi early in camp and vowed to get the 23-year-old enough playing time to warrant keeping him. Now Johnson couldn't get rid of him if he tried.
Injuries and results have combined to make Lombardozzi a de facto regular who could be a fixture as the leadoff hitter and left fielder for the foreseeable future. He tops the team in batting average (.320), is tied for the lead in on-base percentage (.381, with Adam LaRoche), and he's fourth in on-base plus slugging (.769).
The Nats would sacrifice a bit of defense with Morse in right, Lombardozzi in left and Bryce Harper in center, but that's a fair trade-off for Johnson.
The pitching staff showed its resiliency by carrying Washington's anemic offense through April. The attack began coming to life around the time Lombardozzi began playing more regularly, initially in place of injured third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. If the hitters have to pick up some slack to compensate for the outfield alignment, it's in keeping with the theme this season.
Besides, Washington's pitching affords the team more leeway than most.
Morse is expected back this weekend, but we're still a long way from the Nats being at full strength. Ramos is out for the season (thank goodness for depth in Jesus Flores, Jhonatan Solano, Carlos Maldonado and Sandy Leon), but the Nats will be a much better team with Morse and Werth in the lineup and Storen in the bullpen.
Better because those players are back, but also better because the Nats learned to succeed without them. Starters and relievers, regulars and reserves, they all adjusted to the missing personnel and kept on pushing, all the way to first place.
Like Lombardozzi pushed his way into the heart of matters and the top of the order.
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