There was a moment Sunday afternoon, with the Washington Nationals staring at a seemingly insurmountable deficit for the second consecutive day, that Ian Desmond stood at shortstop and Ryan Zimmerman to his right at third base. The rest of the Nationals' Opening Day lineup was either in the dugout, in the minor leagues, on the disabled list or possibly headed there.
Before the game, Dan Haren was told the team was planning to place him on the DL with shoulder stiffness. Outfielder Jayson Werth, playing in his 17th game since returning from a hamstring strain that cost him 28, left in the fourth inning with a left groin pull but hopes to avoid a similar fate to Haren's.
For the second straight day, manager Davey Johnson was forced to pull his starting pitcher because of ineffectiveness before the end of the fourth inning. In the Nationals' 7-6 loss to the Colorado Rockies, Ross Detwiler managed one more out than Haren did the day before.
"He's still very young, still learning how to use all the weapons in his arsenal," Johnson said of Detwiler. "Today he didn't feel like he had a good sinker or could locate it real good, so he threw more change-ups. But it's sequence pitching. He's been relying since he's been here on his fastball. And it's a good fastball-hitting club and if you don't hit your spots on sinkers down and away, they're going to hurt you."
But the Nationals wrote a different script as the game went on. They rallied in the eighth. The backup players they probably never expected to be using all at once — and almost certainly not as they approached the mathematical halfway point of the season — helped them do it.
They scored four runs in the eighth inning to make a five-run blowout turn into a one-run nail-biter. But they fell short. Most of the players they expected to be there to help them win these kinds of games weren't around, or couldn't be. And Johnson relied on younger players instead of turning to experience in some situations, because he wanted them to know he needs them to come through.
And as their flirtation with mediocrity dragged into their 75th game, the Nationals split the four-game series with the Rockies and fell below the .500 mark again.
"Last year was good, but not many teams play 15 over .500 the whole year," Zimmerman said. "A lot of teams struggle, go up and down. We need to get to that five or six games over .500 mark and then go from there. ... There's a long way to go still. We just have to keep taking the positives like [Sunday's late rally] and go with that."
Compounding their problems is the fact that the Nationals have not had their Opening Day lineup together since April 14.
Outfielder Bryce Harper is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment this week, but there are plenty of unknowns about how long the bursitis in his left knee will stay away. Catcher Wilson Ramos, too, could be nearing a rehab assignment for his strained left hamstring, but he has already missed 49 games.
Werth was hopeful that the tightness he felt in his groin Sunday came from dehydration. The outfielder was scratched with flu-like symptoms Saturday and he said he's been fairly sick for the past few days. He knew he was dehydrated, but felt playing was a risk worth taking.
The groin tightened on him making a play in the outfield in the third. After a hit in the fourth, Johnson had seen Werth stretching and grimacing enough.
"I didn't really feel like I could help my team anymore so I came out of the game," Werth said. "I got some treatment and got looked at by the doctors. I'll know more tomorrow, but I think I'll be all right. Groins are pretty straightforward. I've had a couple of them in the past, but I didn't miss any time so I hope that'll be the case."
Haren's issues are more open-ended. The right-hander achieved the worst ERA in the major leagues (6.15) with his performance Saturday, and an issue getting loose before the past few starts — which he described as "nothing I haven't pitched through in the past" — gave the Nationals reason to take him off the active roster.
"He's a gamer," Johnson said. "He wasn't particularly pleased to go on the disabled list, but he knew it was probably the best thing."
Haren will have an MRI on Monday to determine the severity of the injury.
"I'm not really concerned about it, but they wanted me to take some time to get back to 100 percent," Haren said. "But I definitely don't want to use this as an excuse for the first three months of the season. That was more due to lack of execution instead of an injury."
In truth, he could have been speaking about the Nationals' season as a whole.
Maybe they are the juggernaut everyone expected, and they've been hindered by relentlessly nagging injuries. The possibility that they are simply this team, however, still exists. After another downward slide that followed a small but encouraging climb, there they were again: below .500.
"Every team has to deal with [injuries]," Zimmerman said. "It happens at this level. Guys have to step up and do some things they wouldn't get a chance to. We're past the point now where it's too late to make excuses with injuries. We all need to step up and start winning games no matter who's out there."
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