For the Nationals, winning the division was a long shot and even making the playoffs was going to be very tough, but no team in baseball could survive injuries to key players such as these and survive. For instance, if you look at the division leading Phillies, take away Shane Victorino, Kyle Kendrick, Carlos Ruiz, Brad Lidge, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, Pedro Feliz and then throw in Jayson Werth for good measure and you have an inkling of what the Nationals have lost this season. That's not to say that the Nationals players are as good as those named from Philadelphia, but it is to say that there isn't a team out there that could lose so many key players and still make a go of it.
In what is really a smart move, the Nationals are starting to hand things over to the stars of tomorrow. Kory Casto, Garrett Mock, Roger Bernadina and soon, Collin Balester have all hit town and are getting a chance to show what help they can provide to the Washington Nationals. Yes, rather than seeing the likes of a Tony Batista or veteran minor leaguers, we're getting to see what the future may hold.
Casto has taken over at third base and has also seen time in the outfield for the Nationals and so far, the offensive results haven't been stellar. He's hitting just .188 and has just a .291 on-base percentage, but he's getting some time in and working out the jitters. Casto was hitting .286 after his first week in the majors, but now, advance scouts are getting a hold of just what his weaknesses are and feeding the info to their respective teams. It will be up to the Nationals to help Casto adjust to how he's being pitched and from there, he can go about righting the ship for himself.
When Lastings Milledge went down with a groin injury, the Nationals didn't hesitate to bring up Roger Bernadina and insert him at the top of the lineup. To get to Washington, Bernadina had to jump over Triple-A Columbus, since he was playing at Double-A Harrisburg. Most assumed it would be Justin Maxwell getting another call, but with Bernadina hitting .323 at Harrisburg and Maxwell hitting just .233, the Nationals decided to give Bernadina a much deserved audition. With no definite timetable for Milledge to return and the fact that groin injuries can be a little tricky, the 24 year old Bernadina is likely going to see a decent amount of action in center field for the Nationals. He picked up his first Major League hit in Sunday's game, going 1-for-5 against Baltimore.
Mock has made two starts and both have gone pretty badly, but again, there's more to the story. If nothing else, he showed improvement from his first start to his second start and, like Casto, is working out some of those jitters that come with a trip to the majors. Plus, he's made two starts at home and it will probably do him a world of good to pitch away from D.C. where there might not be quite as much pressure on him as there is pitching in front of the hometown fans.
Balester has yet to officially be recalled, but he'll make his Major League debut Tuesday night on the road against the Florida Marlins. Balester was one of - if not the - hottest pitchers in the minors, going 5-1 in May and 4-0 in June at Columbus after starting the season 0-2. The Nationals challenged Balester to become more of a staff ace at Columbus this season and he has done all of that and more.
Another player who has made the most of his opportunity is Jesus Flores. The catcher, who spent the entire 2007 season in the majors, almost by default, was supposed to spend this season in the minors, but injuries changed those plans. The 23 year old Flores is hitting .292 and has knocked Paul LoDuca out of his starting job with his performance this season. Since his return from the DL, LoDuca has been coming off the bench and filling in both in the outfield and at first base when needed. LoDuca's signing was simply a mistake when you consider his time on the DL and the fact that he's hitting just .191 with four RBI on the season. Pitchers have also been more comfortable with Flores behind the plate.
On the farm, Chris Marrero's injury opened a door for Bill Rhinehart, who figured to be somewhat blocked by Marrero at first base. Now, Rhinehart has taken over first base at Potomac and is hitting .320 with two home runs in just seven games with the P-Nats.
Another injury, another opportunity.
It wasn't that long ago when the Marlins started to turn things over to their young players and then embarked on an official house cleaning. Those young players developed well and have Florida just a game behind Philadelphia in the NL East. In D.C., fans are hoping that the promotion of youth will lead down a road that will see the Nationals start to push their way up through one of the tougher divisions in baseball.