Daniel Murphy trotted slowly around the field at Nationals Park on Monday, moving at a minimalist pace in order not to aggravate his strained buttock. During his laps, Murphy moved past pitcher Stephen Strasburg who threw gently in the outfield for about five minutes. Strasburg slightly kicked his front leg a few times before throwing on the flat ground in right field.
Those two are nestled among the issues that the Washington Nationals will try to resolve the final week of the regular season and before the playoffs begin. They know they are in the playoffs after clinching the National League East division title on Saturday night. They know they will play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, thanks to the Dodgers clinching the National League West title on Sunday. What they don’t know is if Strasburg will be able to pitch in that series, the status of Bryce Harper’s right thumb or when Murphy may be back.
First, Murphy: The MVP candidate and second-leading hitter in the National League has not played a game since Sept. 21. He has been used as a pinch-hitter twice since Sept. 17. Nationals manager Dusty Baker said Murphy is hitting and throwing. But, they are keeping him from playing in a game in order to make sure he is ready for the postseason, which Baker said Monday he expects Murphy to prepared for.
“That’s why we shut him down,” Baker said. “He’s working tirelessly with our fitness guys.”
The expectation for Strasburg is less clear. Asked if Strasburg (strained flexor mass) could possibly pitch in the division series, which begins Oct. 7, Baker answered with a simple, “I don’t know.”
Baker also said the team did not know Monday the results from X-Rays on Harper’s left thumb, which was injured Sunday afternoon on a slide into third base. Harper was removed from the game after the slide. Yet, the Nationals had no update 24 hours later. Harper was not in Monday’s lineup.
The Nationals did receive positive player information Monday when left-handed reliever Sammy Solis was activated from the disabled list. Solis threw 25 pitches Sept. 23 in Viera, Florida at the team’s spring training facility. He threw 25 more on Sunday in a simulated game. Solis was placed on the disabled list Aug. 17 with left shoulder inflammation. He has been the Nationals’ most effective left-handed reliever this season. Left-handed batters have hit just .200 against him. He could be a crucial element against the left-handed heavy Dodgers lineup.
In a way, the Nationals remain in a race. They came into Monday just 1.5 games in front of the Dodgers for home-field advantage in the divisional round of the playoffs. If they have home-field advantage, that means they travel to Los Angeles just once, even if the series goes five games. Baker first mentioned holding off the Dodgers months ago, though does not think home-field advantage is crucial.
“It’s not necessary because you’ve seen sometime the home field doesn’t really matter,” Baker said. “It depends who’s hot during that series. Right now the Dodgers are playing well. Sure, anytime I can get home-field advantage, we’ll take it, especially because you don’t have to go back to the Coast twice. Let them come to us. Right now we have the lead over them and so there’s no sense giving it up. Sometimes it can be taken from you, but that’s up to us. It depends on how we play. I’d like to finish strong. We have a situation here where we’re at home and we have a chance to finish strong.”
Baker will spend the final week of the regular season working bench players into the lineup, something he would have done even without injuries. He will try to balance gaining rest against dulling skill. Baker remains hopeful first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has struggled all season, is getting on track at the end of the season. Same for outfielder Ben Revere.
“You can’t have everything,” Baker said. “You can’t have rest, and win games and home-field advantage, have everybody rested and strong. We’ll see. A lot of times we play it by ear. I mean, you make plans, but then invariably … you have Plan A, B, C and D sometimes. Then you activate that plan whenever it’s that time. I always plan stuff. It doesn’t necessarily work to plan.”
The benefit for the Nationals is they have a week-plus before the playoffs begin. By then, Harper and Murphy could well be healed and Strasburg will continue to move forward. At least, that would be Plan A.