When Josh Bell exited Wednesday’s game with a knee injury, the few thousand Nationals fans in attendance and the more watching on television likely had two reactions.
“Please, not Josh,” as the power-hitting first baseman has been Washington’s most productive hitter on the young season. The other reaction — “not another one” — was a plea made to prevent the Nationals’ already large injured list from gaining another member.
Thankfully, both for the Nationals’ lineup and for a fan base that doesn’t want this season to feel like a sluggish rebuild any sooner than it needs to be, Bell’s knee flare-up was minor, and he returned to the lineup Thursday afternoon in Washington’s 4-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
While Bell’s knee only caused him to miss part of one game, several other Nationals players haven’t been as fortunate, including starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, utility man Dee Strange-Gordon and relievers Mason Thompson and Sean Doolittle. The Nationals and manager Dave Martinez are currently navigating a complex first month of the season, and the club’s growing list of injuries isn’t helping.
Due to MLB’s 99-day lockout this offseason, spring training was cut in half from the typical six weeks to just three. While many saw the truncated spring as necessary after contentious negotiations between the league and its players caused a delay to the season, others raised concerns about how it could lead to more injuries, especially for pitchers.
Martinez on Thursday likened this April to the first month of the 1995 season, when Major League Baseball also had a shortened spring training and a delayed opening day.
“When I went through this as a player in 1995, especially for the pitchers, April was pretty strenuous,” Martinez said. “I don’t know if it has anything really related to the short spring training, but you’ve got to look at the short spring training and try to ramp these guys up.”
Most of the Nationals’ ailments thus far have been to pitchers. Sanchez, projected to be the team’s No. 3 starter to open the season, has yet to step on the mound since returning north from spring training due to a neck injury. Martinez said Sanchez, a veteran right-hander who returned to the team after not pitching in the big leagues last season, still isn’t back to throwing.
Sean Doolittle, another veteran reunion, is also on the shelf. After six shutout relief appearances that featured improved velocity, the former Nationals closer was placed on the 10-day injured list Wednesday with an elbow sprain. Martinez said he’ll take 10-12 days off throwing, hoping the inflammation in his elbow subsides.
“We’re definitely going to be cautious,” Martinez said.
But those are just a few of the injuries on Washington’s roster. Thompson has been on the injured list since the first series of the season with bicep tendonitis. Strange-Gordon was placed on the list last week with an illness. And reliever Hunter Harvey, who replaced Thompson in the bullpen after his injury, is now out with a right pronator strain.
And on top of the early season bumps and bruises are the existing ones the club had entering the year.
Ace Stephen Strasburg, who has barely pitched since winning his 2019 World Series MVP and signing a $245 million contract, is also taking things slowly as he continues to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. Also rehabbing from injuries sustained last year or in spring training are starting pitcher Joe Ross, third baseman Carter Kieboom, utility infielder Ehire Adrianza and reliever Will Harris.
Martinez said the injuries have forced the organization to test out its depth. For example, Josh Rogers, Thursday’s starting pitcher, has filled in well after Sanchez’s injury. Aside from the three long balls Rogers allowed, he pitched well in his 4 1/3-inning loss. His first two starts were also serviceable, as the 27-year-old earned the Nationals’ second win of the season against the Braves with a five-inning, one-run performance and then allowed three runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Pirates.
All four of Arizona’s runs Thursday were from homers. Matt Davidson and Jake McCarthy both roped solo shots in the first and second innings, respectively, and leadoff hitter Cooper Hummel drove home the game-winning runs with a two-run slam in the fifth.
The lone bright spot offensively for the Nationals, who tallied only five hits, was Nelson Cruz’s two-run big fly in the fourth. The designated hitter tied the game at 2-2 by crushing a Zach Davies sinker 426 feet to left field. But Davies was efficient otherwise, allowing only two hits in five innings for his first win of the season.
Washington had its chances, though. Cruz and Keibert Ruiz both popped out with the bases loaded in the eighth, and Juan Soto did the same to end the game with the bags juiced in the ninth.
The Nationals (6-9) welcome the San Francisco Giants on Friday for the first of a three-game series.
• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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