If the Washington Nationals are to remain within striking distance of the first-place Atlanta Braves in the NL East, they'll need to do so without one or maybe two of their talented young stars for the time being.
With the reality of injuries to Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg casting a shadow over the club, the visiting Nationals hope to bounce back from a rough loss to the Braves on Sunday.Washington (28-28) dropped four of six this week while Harper sat with bursitis in his left knee. The Nationals placed the outfielder on the disabled list Saturday, hours before they fell 2-1 in 10 innings at Atlanta (33-22).Harper is batting .287 with 12 homers and 23 RBIs in 44 games."You always do what's best for the player," manager Davey Johnson said."If the club felt that he would be able to come back in three or four or five days, we wouldn't have DL'd him."Strasburg, meanwhile, is dealing with a slight strain in his right side. The club hopes the right-hander can avoid joining Harper on the DL.Those injuries pose more obstacles for the Nationals, who have lost 13 of 21 and are 5 1/2 games behind the Braves.Gio Gonzalez allowed one run and three hits over seven innings Saturday, but Washington matched the Braves with five hits and lost on B.J. Upton's RBI single to even the three-game set"I'm proud of these guys," Gonzalez said. "They worked their tails off. They do it every game. I'm not disappointed at all. They're playing their hearts out."Hitting .145 heading into Saturday's contest, the slumping Upton was held out of two straight starts by manager Fredi Gonzalez, who even toyed with the idea of asking him to work out his problems during a minor-league assignment.Upton was 0 for 12 in his previous five games versus Washington, which had its three-game winning streak against the Braves snapped."Everybody knows how hard he's been working to try to get things back on track," Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said. "Hopefully this is just a small sign of things to come. Everybody is really happy for him and it was exciting to see."Scheduled Atlanta starter Paul Maholm (6-4, 3.74 ERA) is 2-1 in his last four starts but has a 4.94 ERA during that span. After giving up one run in 7 1/3 innings of an 8-3 win over Minnesota on May 22, Maholm yielded five, including four in the first frame, and 10 hits through six of a 7-6, 10-inning win at Toronto on Tuesday.The left-hander is 2-7 with a 4.64 ERA in 12 starts versus Washington, but has allowed only a two-run homer to Ian Desmond and six other hits over 15 2/3 innings while going 1-1 against the Nationals this season.Washington counters with right-hander Nathan Karns (0-0, 6.23), who allowed three runs and five hits -- including two homers -- in 4 1/3 innings of a 9-3 win over Baltimore in his major league debut Tuesday."I thought he handled himself well," Johnson said. "I know he was nervous but I like the way he went after the hitters."Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman had two hits Saturday after he went 0 for 8 in the previous two games.
The Nationals enter today at .500, 2nd place in the NL East, but their struggles this season encompass each area of the game -- hitting (27th in runs scored), pitching (18th in bullpen ERA) and fielding (T-27th in errors).