- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2014


The Washington Nationals haven’t been the Washington Nationals one single day this season — not the Nationals roster that general manager Mike Rizzo put together to compete for the 2014 season.

From the day they took the field in New York on March 31 to face the Mets in the season opener to their series this week at Nationals Park against the Cincinnati Reds, the Nationals have not been truly whole.

Their biggest offseason acquisition, starting pitcher Doug Fister, didn’t take the mound until about two weeks ago, when he was lit up in Oakland. Wilson Ramos batted cleanup on Opening Day and broke a bone in his left hand before the game was over. A week later, pinch hitter Scott Hairston went on the disabled list with an oblique strain.

Two weeks later, Ryan Zimmerman went on the disabled list with a broken thumb two weeks later and is now shagging fly balls in the outfield. Who knows what that is about.

Two weeks after that, Bryce Harper injured his thumb sliding into third base, and had to undergo surgery. He’ll likely be out until July.

A week ago, Adam LaRoche went on the disabled list a week ago with a right quad strain.

Now, shortly after getting Fister back and finally having a full, healthy rotation that lasted less than two weeks, Gio Gonzalez went on the disabled list last weekend with a sore shoulder — although an MRI revealed no structural damage or tears and he is expected to return to the rotation after his 15-day DL stint.

Then again, hangnails sometimes wind up being amputations with this organization.

When this happens — when the starting players who nearly everyone predicted for the second straight season to lead the Nationals to the NL East title and the postseason aren’t starting — then the season falls on the spare parts used to carry the team until they get whole.

The season falls on general manager Mike Rizzo.

Last year the narrative was all about the manager, Davey Johnson, and the team coming up short. But this season’s success and failure rides with Rizzo, the roster he put together to get the Nationals through these injuries, and the rookie manager he hired to take this talent to the playoffs.

Sometimes Matt Williams screws up — like he did Monday night when he failed to bunt in the 14th inning of a 3-3 game against the Reds. With Kevin Frandsen on second with no outs and the pitcher scheduled up to bat, he sent up Jose Lobaton instead to swing away. He struck out, and Frandsen remained stuck on the bases. The Reds would go on to win the game 4-3 the next inning.

Williams — managing in his first 14th inning of a 3-3 major league baseball game — told reporters he wanted to “take a shot.”

“We’ve got one guy left on the bench and we’ve got to take our shot to win the game,” he said after the loss. “You could bunt him to third, or try to bunt him to third with a pitcher, but Loby’s on the bench. We’ve got to take a shot. He hoped to get a ball over to the right side.”

You have to wonder if Williams will do the same thing the second time he manages in the 14th inning of a 3-3 major league baseball game.

If Williams somehow is not up to the task this year, and this team misses the playoffs for a second straight season, the fingers will point to Rizzo — for the hiring of a first-year manager for a playoff-ready team and the bench and pitching depth Rizzo gave this team to survive the wave of injuries.

Davey Johnson would say the game was his bench against the other guy’s bullpen, and vice versa. From the outstanding bullpen work so far, Rizzo certainly game Williams what he needed there. And so far, while the individual numbers have been mixed among their role players, collectively they — and Williams — have managed to allow this team to tread water just over .500 and stay close to the Atlanta Braves in the NL East.

Rizzo signed Nate McLouth as the fourth outfielder, a two-year, $10 million deal. He has woefully underperformed at the plate, batting just over .100. Just as spring training ended, when the Philadelphia Phillies released Frandsen, Rizzo picked him up. He has done his job, batting over .250 and filling in at several positions on the field when needed.

Rizzo traded for Lobaton in February, and he’s been an able backup while Ramos was out. Hairston came off the disabled two weeks ago, and, though he had some fielding miscues, has done well at the plate, going 7 for 16. Add Tyler Moore to the group, called up twice so far from Triple-A Syracuse.

That group collectively will have to do better while LaRoche, Zimmerman and Harper are all out.

If the Nationals can get through the injuries, remain competitive and then start dominating opponents when they are fully healthy and reach the playoffs, Rizzo should get the credit, putting together a roster strong enough to weather the storm while a rookie manager is tested every day. If not, he’ll take the hit.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com



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