Friday afternoon, my Strike Zone battery-mate Jay Jaffe lamented the Nationals' disappointing performance and bleak outlook this season. Within hours, Stephen Strasburg was leaving that night's game with what proved to be an oblique injury. Less than 24 hours later, Bryce Harper hit the disabled list due to the left knee bursitis, stemming from his May 14 collision with the outfield wall at Dodger Stadium, that had kept him out of action since May 26. If it was true on Friday afternoon that, "the Nationals have to play much better to avoid ranking among this year’s more crushing disappointments," that challenge became even greater on Saturday after they lost their two franchise players to injury, then dropped a ten-inning contest to the first-place Braves to fall back to .500, 5 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East and six full games out of the second wild card spot in the NL.
To be fair, Strasburg has not been placed on the disabled list, and the Nationals are still hoping he can make his next start given the extra day of rest provided by Monday's off-day. However, the Nationals are struggling far more at the plate than on the mound this season, and Harper has been far and away their best hitter, leading the team's hitters in all three slash stats (batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage) as well as home runs (12), runs scored (29), walks (25), and wins above replacement (1.8), all despite already missing a dozen games this season. Losing Strasburg, who has posted a 2.54 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 3.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio, for any length of time would hurt, but given the struggles of the rest of their offense, losing Harper is worse.
Because Harper had already been shut down due to the knee injury, his DL move is retroactive to May 27, making him eligible to return on June 11, a week from Tuesday. The Nationals are hopeful that Harper will be able to return then, but as Jay pointed out on Friday, the Nationals might be pushing their players a bit too much this season be it out of, "their self-imposed pressure to live up to lofty expectations," or the urgency created by the knowledge that this will be potential Hall of Fame manager Davey Johnson's final season.
If the Nationals had put Harper on the disabled list immediately after his collision with the wall, he would have been eligible to return by now and may never have developed the knee bursitis that has now forced the Nationals' hand. If they had put him on the DL when the knee first forced him out of the lineup on May 18, he would have been eligible to return this weekend. I'm not saying the Nationals should have made either move, I certainly didn't first-guess those moves, nor could I have, but for a team that has been so careful with their young pitchers in recent seasons (not just Strasburg but fellow Tommy John patient and current ace Jordan Zimmermann, as well), one would think they would apply the "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" maxim elsewhere on their roster as well. In the meantime, the Nationals have scored just 2.9 runs per game in the nine games Harper has missed since hitting the wall, going 2-7 in those games. They'll play at least least seven more games without him this month, and there's every chance that he won't be ready to return on June 11. If Strasburg joins him on the disabled list before making his next start, the Nationals, a team that the SI.com baseball writers unanimously picked to win the NL East this year and heavily favored to win the pennant, could hit the All-Star break as an als0-ran with a losing record.