Nationals like their position for baseball's stretch run, even as they look up at the Mets

LOS ANGELES – Not long before the Washington Nationals went live here Tuesday night, Bryce Harper was scratched from the lineup because of a swollen knee and the New York Mets won again, the two presumably unrelated.

But you never know.

Bryce Harper missed the Nationals' loss to the Dodgers on Tuesday with a swollen knee. (AP)
Bryce Harper missed the Nationals' loss to the Dodgers on Tuesday with a swollen knee. (AP)

It's beginning to look like one of those summers for the Nationals, the kind where just enough men play not enough innings, when an all-grown-up team appears in their division, when odd outcomes (like losing five of five games to the Cincinnati Reds) grind at their souls, and then on consecutive nights in August they'd find Zack Greinke and then Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium.

This isn't to say every team doesn't get its share of trying pitching matchups, but the Nationals have seemed lately to attract aces like their town does comb-overs. They get on with it and, above all else, try not to stare.

There's plenty of time, of course, to make something of 2015, the season that saw four of their first five hitters (which, exactly, depends on where you'd prefer to slot Harper in the order) trudge from the field and, for a long time, stay off.

This isn't to say every team doesn't have its share of injuries, but the Nationals have seemed to attract those sorts of lineup issues like their town does eye-rolls.

So it appears the Nationals won't be the big-league juggernaut most thought they would be, unless they happen to get very good right about … now. They've got a fight on their hands with the Mets, who any day will talk themselves into being a team of destiny. By the looks of things, the wild-card game could be an NL Central affair. If so, then it's the Mets or them, which would be great theater, particularly if it came to the final games of the season – three October games at Citi Field.

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The Nats are a veteran bunch, so probably wouldn't give too much thought to anything bigger than hunting for a Greinke fastball and maybe getting Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon hitting again, and (as of Tuesday night) Harper upright again. But I figured I'd check with Werth in case. He's 36 years old, has been a big-leaguer for 13 years, has rehabbed a sore shoulder and a broken wrist this season alone, and generally says what he wants to say, whether people want to hear it or not.

If there's sentiment the Nationals needed to pick up the pace, or stop feeling so comfortable about being, you know, just fine, Werth wouldn't simply smile and shrug. He's not that way.

Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .232 with nine home runs this season. (Getty Images)
Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .232 with nine home runs this season. (Getty Images)

So on Tuesday night, with the Nats sitting at 58-53 and going especially lukewarm since the All-Star break, Werth listened intently to a question about where the team is and where maybe everybody thought they'd be and he … smiled and shrugged.

They will count all this up in the first week in October, not before. They will, presumably, be a more potent offensive club between now and then. First off, he's been on the field again for two weeks, as has Zimmerman. Second, the end-to-end talent will play, given 50 more games and so many more opportunities.

Other than Denard Span, whose back issues apparently will linger, this is the team that was supposed to get into mid-August with hardly a worry. Given the days lost to the disabled list, Werth said, the story might just as well be about how the Nats have resourcefully hung in there while healing.

"You gotta feel good about it," he said. "Not to make an excuse or anything, but that's the reality of it.

"OK, we're a game-and-a-half back. Everybody can speculate, talk [stuff], whatever, but we're where we need to be."

Then they played the game, after the Mets won, and were shut out 5-0 by Greinke and three innings of a Dodgers bullpen that lately hasn't preserved shutouts as much as it has burned them down. Werth was hitless in four at-bats, rookie right-hander Joe Ross didn't get out of the fifth inning, and the Nationals, who'd won Monday night in L.A., have won back-to-back games once since the middle of July. So they're 2½ games back in the NL East, matching their largest deficit since May, which is nothing or something, depending on how they're playing today.

"I don't mind being in stalking position," Werth said. "When you make the run at it down the stretch, it's easier to chase than to be chased. You know? I like these guys. We're good. You see these teams having internal problems and stuff, that's not us. We're good."

So, now Kershaw, and then four in San Francisco, and three in Colorado. Harper said late Tuesday his knee remained swollen and sore. He couldn't guarantee he'd play Wednesday night. And manager Matt Williams, asked about the inconsistencies of the second half, shrugged and smiled.

"Well," he said, "if we had that answer we certainly would fix it. It's the way baseball is at times."

Maybe it's just one of those summers. But, hey, you never know.

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