The hits just keep on coming for the Nationals — and not the good kind. Already without Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman due to injuries, Washington placed Adam LaRoche on the disabled list on Sunday due to a right quad strain, adding to the insult of a 2-6 skid.
The 34-year-old LaRoche has been the team's top hitter thus far this year: At .319/.421/.504, he's leading the Nationals regulars in all three slash categories as well as OPS+ (157), and his five home runs are tied with Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa for the team lead. While he's unlikely to maintain that sizzling performance even in the best of health, it's been a vast improvement on the .237/.332/.403 he hit last year.
Via the Washington Post's James Wagner, LaRoche had been playing through quad soreness for over two weeks, hobbling around both on offense and defense. During the team's three-game series in Oakland, he was limited to DH duty on Friday night, sat out Saturday and underwent an MRI before going on the DL prior to Sunday's game. He and the team had finally reached the realization that the injury wouldn't subside without rest; here's what he told Wagner:
“The one thing I do feel pretty good about is that I gave it every opportunity to try to go out and play through it and see if this thing would go away. The last couple days have proven that it’s not going to happen. Probably 10 days of hurting. Every time I’d make a move it wasn’t going to be better. Try and take two weeks to try and make it right or risk six or eight weeks.”
That LaRoche is hitting the DL so quickly may actually be a good sign. While the Nationals ranked near the bottom of the majors last year in total days lost to the disabled list, their management of several injuries — particularly those of Espinosa, Harper, Werth and Wilson Ramos — was questionable. They allowed key players to play though lesser complaints until they turned into more substantial ones, cutting into their production while they were well below 100 percent and then costing them additional time on the DL than if they'd addressed their problems in a more timely fashion. Perhaps the lesson sank in.
To fill in for LaRoche, the Nationals recalled 27-year-old Tyler Moore from Triple-A Syracuse for the second time this season. Moore enjoyed great success as a rookie in 2012, hitting .263/.327/.513 with 10 homers in 171 plate appearances, but he slipped to .222./.260/.347 with four homers and an unsightly 58/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 178 PA last year. He's 6-for-33 in spot duty off the bench this year, including two homers.
Though the Nationals took two out of three from the Dodgers at home last week and briefly tasted first place in the NL East, that series win was sandwiched by road series losses to the Phillies and A's, the latter of which was a sweep. The 2-6 slide has bumped them to 19-18, third in the division at 2 1/2 games out; Sunday's 9-1 loss knocked their run differential into the red (147 runs scored, 150 runs allowed). Aside from a 1-5 record against the Braves during the season's first two weeks, they've kept their heads above water about as well as could be expected given the losses not only of Zimmerman (out since April 13 due to a fractured right thumb) and Harper (out since April 27 due to torn ligaments in his left thumb) but also Denard Span, Wilson Ramos and Doug Fister. Span missed seven games due to a concussion in April, while Ramos lost 32 to fractured hamate bone in his left wrist, and Fister missed 36 games due to a strained latissimus dorsi. The latter two players returned this past week, with Fister getting pounded for seven runs (five earned) in 4 1/3 innings during his debut for the Nationals on Friday.
Zimmerman (.364/.405/.636 in 37 PA) should be back later this month, but Harper (.289/.352/.422 in 91 PA) is likely out until July after undergoing surgery on April 29. Espinosa (.243/.286/.441) has filled in for the former by bumping incumbent second baseman Anthony Rendon to third base, providing some pop but also a hacktastic 36/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 119 PA. That's at least something compared to what leftfield fill-ins Kevin Frandsen (.254/.323/.305) and Nate McLouth (.078/.254/.157) have delivered for manager Matt Williams; since Harper went down, the two have combined to "hit" .244/.279/.366 in 43 PA
Amid all the injuries, the Nationals are scoring 3.97 runs per game, exactly the league average, and while their .251/.318/.393 line isn't much to write home about, they rank fifth in the first two categories and sixth in the third. Aside from LaRoche, Harper and the fleetingly available Zimmerman, Rendon (.285/.319/.490 for a 121 OPS+) and Jayson Werth (.307/.395/.445 for a 134 OPS+) have been the lineup's only above-average performers. On the pitching side, every starter but Fister and the exiled Taylor Jordan has an ERA below 4.00, but only Jordan Zimmermann (2.92 ERA, 123 ERA+, 9.2 K/9) and Stephen Strasburg (3.42 ERA, 104 ERA+, 12.17 K/9) have been better than average. The unit's 3.83 ERA is tied for just 10th in the league, and while they lead in strikeout rate on a per-inning basis (8.9), they're tied for sixth on a per-plate appearance basis (19.2 percent). The bullpen's 2.40 ERA is the league's third-best, but their 31 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score is just 11th. All things considered, the Nationals have hung in reasonably well given their injuries, and they have a fairly soft schedule immediately ahead of them. Among the opponents they'll face over their next 25 games, only the Marlins (20-18) are currently above .500, while the Rangers (19-19) are right there but with a −28 run differential. Meanwhile, their other opponents in that stretch — the Diamondbacks, Mets, Reds, Pirates, Phillies and Padres — are a combined 24 games below .500. That should buy them some time to get whole, but another ding or two could well knock them down to the level of the struggling teams they'll face.