It’s becoming an issue. And, going into the playoffs, the Washington Nationals are now in a state of flux.

Stephen Strasburg, who was once having a Cy Young-caliber season, is injured again. The latest injury occurred when Strasburg was forced to leave his start against the Atlanta Braves in the third inning after feeling a pinch in his right elbow. It looked bad – Tommy John surgery bad.  Fortunately for Strasburg and all parties involved, after the MRI on Thursday, he was diagnosed with “just” a strain. One day later, he was diagnosed with a strained flexor mass but was given no timetable for a return.  This puts the team in a precarious position for the postseason.

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws during the third inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws during the third inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

If Strasburg doesn’t return this season—and it doesn’t look likely—who will become the No. 2 starter behind Max Scherzer? With Joe Ross still out of the rotation–it doesn’t look like he will be available to start any potential postseason games–Gio Gonzalez just doesn’t have the stuff to take that spot and run with it. The three kids (A.J. Cole, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez) haven’t shown enough to be trusted for such a huge task so maybe Tanner Roark will have to pick up the slack as he’s seemingly done his whole Nationals career.

In winning five of six games this past week against Atlanta and Philadelphia, one would think things would be looking up for the team.  Sometimes numbers do not lie, and while the team has done well against these two bottom-rung teams, the caliber of opponent will obviously be much better in October. And, right now, the offense must step up in a major way.  Ryan Zimmerman continues to slump hitting a depressed .217, Danny Espinosa and even Wilson Ramos have hit a shade under .200 since early August.  This team cannot compete with teams such as the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals with a leaky rotation and slumping lineup.

Washington Nationals' Trea Turner breaks his bat as he hits a two-run single during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, in Washington. The Nationals won 9-7. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington Nationals’ Trea Turner breaks his bat as he hits a two-run single during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, in Washington. The Nationals won 9-7. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

It’s not all gloom and doom in Natstown, however, as Trae Turner and Bryce Harper hit back-to-back game-winning home runs in the final at-bat in consecutive nights.  Turner hit his second home run of the game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Sept. 9, a solo shot that gave the Nationals a 5-4 victory over the Philadelphia. It was the first career multi-homer game for Turner, whose two-run drive in the seventh initially put Washington up 4-1. Turner has eight home runs to go with 21 stolen bases in a mere 52 games this season.

Harper hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning to lift the squad to a 3-0 victory over the Phillies on Saturday night.  After striking out three times earlier in the game, Harper punctuated his clutch homer with a demonstrative bat flip and fist pump towards the Nationals dugout.

Washington Nationals' Michael Taylor (3) is safe at third as Atlanta Braves third baseman Adonis Garcia can't catch the throw from catcher Tyler Flowers after a bunt by Washington Nationals' Ben Revere during the eighth inning of a baseball game at Nationals Park, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, in Washington. Taylor scored the go ahead run on the throwing error. The Nationals won 9-7. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington Nationals’ Michael Taylor (3) is safe at third as Atlanta Braves third baseman Adonis Garcia can’t catch the throw from catcher Tyler Flowers after a bunt by Washington Nationals’ Ben Revere during the eighth inning of a baseball game at Nationals Park, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, in Washington. Taylor scored the go ahead run on the throwing error. The Nationals won 9-7. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“That was a dramatic home run,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “It just shows how strong he is mentally after you strike out three times and hit a homerun. He had a rough night going up to then.”

While it’s great to be clutch when it matters most, the lack of offense in the earlier innings put this team in these sort of situations and, honestly, they are too talented for this to be the norm. With three weeks remaining in the season questions still linger.  Will the players take it personally and step up when it’s winning time?

 

Dion Johnson

Special to the AFRO