- Associated Press - Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sitting in the visitor’s dugout last weekend 90 minutes before batting practice, Ian Desmond stirred and stared with bat in hand. As usual, Desmond looked like his skin would be challenged to contain his insides. After a career-worst his first half, the taut disposition for the perpetually intense Desmond was not surprising.

Desmond’s dismal pre-all-star break results are among the pervasive irregularities in the Washington Nationals’ first 87 games. Yet, they sit atop the National League East, holding a meager two-game lead over the New York Mets with the possibility of facing further sunshine. A grand offseason effort to make the World Series, filled with surprising trades and eye-popping contracts, is yet to be undone, injuries be damned.

The disabled list was swarmed with Nationals stars before the all-star break. Outfielder Jayson Werth moved past offseason shoulder surgery only to be struck in the wrist by a pitch, placing him back on the roll call of the injured. He began a rehabilitation assignment at Single-A Potomac on Thursday night. Center fielder Denard Span was slowed by offseason core surgery before back spasms put him on the disabled list. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman has plantar fasciitis. Starter Stephen Strasburg was placed on the disabled list on July 5 with a left oblique strain. Third baseman Anthony Rendon has been absent much of the season since a seemingly innocuous dive in spring training turned into an unshakable malady. At the time, manager Matt Williams said Rendon had a bruise and his absence from the lineup was precautionary. Rendon has 69 at-bats this season.

The Nationals‘ voodoo doll is filled with pins.

“I think we know what we have when all the players are healthy and playing,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We can’t dwell on them not being here. We’re not thinking and talking about the guys that we don’t have. We’re thinking and talking about the guys that are here and playing for us. Those are the important guys.

“The Werths and the Rendons and the Zims and the Strases, those are guys that have their own jobs to do right now and that’s to rehab and get healthy and help us down the stretch. We’re talking about the 25 guys that are here right now. We don’t talk about injuries, we don’t talk about replacement values and that type of thing. We just talk about winning today’s game in any way, shape or form that we can.”

Three players have become the plowhorses and few elements of stability this season. Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer are in line for MVP and Cy Young award consideration, respectively. Closer Drew Storen has a 1.89 ERA at the back of the bullpen. Otherwise, a bevy of underachievement has been propped up by spot starts and rescuers from the bench.

Before the season, the Nationals‘ starting rotation was chuckled at with envious disbelief — “Where’s my ring?” Harper asked after Scherzer was signed. Instead, it has been inconsistent and in parts below average outside of Scherzer’s multifaceted dominance.

Jordan Zimmermann has dragged his ERA down to 3.22, though that’s still more than half a run higher than last season’s 2.66.

Doug Fister, who also visited the disabled list this season, has a 4.08 ERA. Last year, his ERA was 2.41. For his career, it’s 3.39. Fister has a WAR of just 0.1.
Strasburg is working to fix his injured body with a bloated 5.16 ERA stuck in the books. His career ERA is 3.21. He has a -0.6 WAR this season.

Gio Gonzalez starts the second half with a 3.99 ERA, up from last year’s 3.57 and a career number of 3.62. Since 2012, his ERA has gone up annually: 2.89, 3.36, 3.57, 3.99.

However, the staff’s walk rate is extraordinarily low, indicating a pull-down in ERA may be coming. The Nationals have allowed the fewest walks in Major League Baseball by a wide margin. They have walked 186 batters. The Mets are second at 215. Zimmermann is sixth in walks per nine innings. Scherzer is third. He has not walked anyone since June 14.

The trade deadline comes in just two weeks, on July 31. The amount of internal damage managed before the all-star break is expected to become a boon afterward. Zimmerman is projected to start a rehabilitation assignment soon. Span seems to finally have an answer on how to manage his spasmodic back muscles, though he will need time to rest. Rendon has been running. Hope for a surge is focused simply on recouping assets already possessed.

“I look at it a little bit like this: Sometime after the break, somewhere maybe around the deadline, we may be able to make a deal for some bats, but they all come from within our system,” Williams said. “We get a chance to go out and get three or four of them, but they’re already on our team. That will help.”

Despite being stuck in survival mode, the Nationals are fifth in runs in the National League and sixth in ERA. For all the talk about the frontline elements Washington compiled, the roster’s depth has kept a championship pursuit afloat and produced logical projections that things will get better.

“They know where we’re at,” Williams said of the players after Sunday’s game. “They know the opportunity presented to us going forward.

“Just continue to grind. It’s not going to be easy to get to where we want to get to.”

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