- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Washington Nationals tore through the final days of June, putting the finishing touches on a stretch that included 14 wins in 17 games, placing the team firmly in the NL East mix. Kyle Schwarber was the driving force of that revival, which saw the Nationals finish the month two games back of the first-place New York Mets.

But after a torrid finish to the month of June, the Nationals are limping into July — literally. The most notable and concerning loss is Schwarber, who rounded the first-base bag Friday and pulled up with a hamstring strain.

Manager Dave Martinez and head trainer Paul Lessard immediately ran out to Schwarber, and the left fielder — who had clubbed 16 homers in 18 games — hobbled off the field.

Schwarber was placed on the 10-day injured list Saturday, becoming one of nine Nationals with that injury designation. Three others are on the 60-day injured list. As Washington attempts to stabilize after suffering a four-game sweep to the Los Angeles Dodgers to begin July, the club is banking on a hodgepodge group of players to carry the load heading into another pivotal series — this time against the San Diego Padres — until the scores of injured players can return.

“I don’t feel like we have an injury bug; we have an injury rat running around the clubhouse,” Max Scherzer said after his start Friday. “It just feels like it’s biting everybody at this point in time.”

That rat has proved more prolific than might’ve been initially suspected. Schwarber doesn’t know the timeframe for his recovery from the significant hamstring strain he suffered. Catcher Alex Avila, who played five innings at second base Thursday to cover for Washington’s injury shortages, landed on the 10-day injured list this weekend with strains in both calves.

A day before that, the Nationals placed infielder Jordy Mercer on the 10-day injured list with a strained right quadricep. Relief pitcher Tanner Rainey was placed on the shelf with a stress reaction in his right tibia. Shortstop Trea Turner hasn’t played since he jammed a finger sliding into third base to complete his cycle on Wednesday. Martinez expects Turner, who wasn’t placed on the injured list, to play again at the beginning or middle of this week.

The list of injuries goes on, and on, and on, with incremental progress for those who’ve been injured longest — Stephen Strasburg threw a 51-pitch bullpen Friday — coupling with Martinez’s call for positivity.

“We’re gonna keep battling,” Martinez said. “It’s unfortunate we have so many injuries, but in this game, it happens. We gotta keep going, we gotta keep battling, we gotta find a way. We gotta kind of will it some days.”

Washington turned its season around with 19 wins in June, but most of those series came against bottom-tier clubs. To reach the playoffs, those are wins a team must get. But with the Nationals already in a hole, the final two series ahead of the All-Star Break against the Padres and San Francisco Giants — two teams in the playoff picture if the season ended now — comes into focus.

The Nationals are two games under .500 and 7.5 games back of a wild card spot. They’re four games back of the Mets, leading the NL East. For general manager Mike Rizzo to decide whether to sell or buy at the trade deadline, the next seven games in California could play a role.

“We’re in a critical stretch here, and we’re having guys dropping like flies right now,” Scherzer said. “It’s unfortunate.”

For the moment, though, Washington must rely on a cast of players the team didn’t expect to carry such large roles. With Turner sidelined, the Nationals traded for 34-year-old shortstop Alcides Escobar, who had been playing Triple-A ball in the Kansas City Royals’ system. Yadiel Hernandez could see major time in the outfield, along with Gerardo Parra. Tres Barrera will back up Yan Gomes behind the plate until Avila returns.

The bullpen is full of more questions. Closer Brad Hand entered in the seventh inning during Sunday’s loss to try to keep the game close in a spot Rainey, Kyle Finnegan or Daniel Hudson might’ve taken if healthy.

But down by four runs, the Nationals’ offense went quietly, without the usual firepower that helped guide the club through a resurgent June. That’s the way the first four games of July have gone, creating distance once more in the standings while casting doubt over a push for the playoffs — at least externally.

“I can tell you now these guys are positive before the game, and they want to play well, and they want to pick up the guys who aren’t able to play right now,” Martinez said. “I know they’re going to come out tomorrow and play hard again.”

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