After punches to gut, gut-check time for Nats

After punches to gut, gut-check time for Nats
May 14, 2012, 1:34 pm
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Any ballclub that has visions of serious contention is going to have to prove its mettle at various points of the season. It's one thing to play well when everything's falling into place. It's quite another to play well when things are collapsing all around you.

The Nationals are about to face one of those challenges. Considering the injuries they've sustained and the red flags that have been popping up on the field in recent days, there's ample reason to question whether they're capable of hanging on.

Jayson Werth's broken wrist was bad enough. Then Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee. Combined with the extended losses of Michael Morse, Drew Storen and Brad Lidge, it's a minor miracle the Nationals found themselves in position to sweep the Reds yesterday afternoon.

Yet there they were taking the field for the bottom of the ninth at the end of an interminable day of rain delays, up 6-5 and on the verge of heading home on a four-game winning streak.

And then Henry Rodriguez threw the first of his 15 balls in a 28-pitch inning. Before anyone knew what hit them, Rodriguez left a 2-2 fastball over the plate to Joey Votto and watched in horror as the Reds' 200 million man crushed it to center field for a walk-off grand slam.

And just like that, all those good vibes the Nationals seemed to have stored up for weeks disappeared into thin air. Just like that, they went from a gutsy ballclub that managed to overcome injuries with brilliant pitching and clutch hitting to a broken-down, offensively challenged team with a serious question mark at the back end of their bullpen.

Oh yeah, they also fell out of first place in the NL East for the first time in 33 days.

Is that a fair assessment of Davey Johnson's club? No, not really. The outcome of one pitch may alter the outside perception surrounding a team, but it doesn't truly change who they are.

The Nationals returned home late last night the same club that left town a week ago, aside from the loss of Ramos. But that doesn't mean they haven't reached a critical juncture in their season.

The Nats have every reason to be down on themselves after the events of the last 36 hours. And if ever doubts were going to start trickling their way into players' heads, now would be the time.

But they also have every reason to believe they can continue to enjoy the success they've experienced over the last six weeks. Banged-up lineup or not, this team still has a rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler at its disposal. And that rotation should keep this team in the hunt all summer long.

Which isn't to say there aren't some major obstacles for the Nationals to overcome. They aren't getting any of the prominent injured players back for a while, so they're going to have to find another way to manufacture runs. Several slumping regulars finally showed signs of progress this weekend -- most notably Danny Espinosa -- but this team still squanders far too many golden scoring opportunities.

And even if the lineup does manage to scratch out a few runs in support of its rotation, there's still that pesky ninth inning lurking in the shadows. As much as some would prefer to see Johnson insert someone else into the closer's role, the 69-year-old manager is most likely going to stick with Rodriguez.

The young right-hander has experienced just about every possible high and every possible low in his brief stint as Storen's fill-in closer. There is no middle ground with him, only dizzying highs or terrifying lows.

There's only so much the Nationals can do to try to prevent Rodriguez from experiencing those lows. Ultimately, it's going to be on him to learn how to maintain his composure on the mound, how to continue to thrive even after putting a man on base. We're about to find out what Henry Rodriguez is made of.

We're also going to find out what the Nationals as a whole are made of. Few would fault them for complaining about all the injuries, using that as a perfectly viable excuse when they lose. But they have, to date, exhibited a grit and determination not previously seen in these parts.

Perhaps Ian Desmond put it best eight days ago after Werth broke his wrist.

"I've obviously never been on a championship team, but I'm definitely a fan of baseball," the shortstop said. "And it seems like championship teams overcome things like this."

They do. But whether the Nationals have what it takes to overcome it all remains to be seen.

One way or another, we're about to find out.