Fauber: O’s, Nats look to get healthy

The Nationals and the Orioles are getting very close to returning some key pieces to their ball clubs in the coming weeks, as Washington starting pitcher Doug Fister and Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado work their way back from injuries.

Fister — Washington’s marquee pick-up in a trade with the Tigers during the offseason — is in the final stretch of working his way back from a right lat strain that has sidelined him since the start of the MLB’s regular season.

Fister, who has yet to throw a meaningful pitch for Washington, made his second start in extended spring training in Florida earlier this week and is scheduled to throw in a rehab assignment on Sunday, which will likely come at Class A Potomac. It sounds like the plan is for Fister to throw four innings on Sunday before stretching out to five innings in another rehab start. After that, Fister could return on May 7 to pitch against the Dodgers if he remains on schedule.

The Orioles’ Manny Machado is also on the tail end of his recovery from offseason knee surgery. Machado, who injured his knee running the bases late last September, has slowly been increasing his baseball activity since going under the knife last October and was scheduled to begin his rehab assignment at Class-A Advanced Frederick on Friday. Machado will likely play with Frederick through the weekend before being re-evaluated, and the hope is that he could return to the majors as early as next weekend.

It’s safe to say that the return of Fister and Machado will certainly give their respective teams a boost, and the Nationals and Orioles certainly could use it.

Washington’s rotation, though currently on a bit of an upswing after a rough start to the season, ranks in the bottom half of the majors in team earned run average. Nationals starters had pitched to a 4.48 ERA entering Friday night, and that mark was as high as 5.19 last week. Not exactly what Washington fans had in mind.

Only two pitchers in the Nationals’ starting rotation — Gio Gonzalez (3.00) and Tanner Roark (3.80) — have an ERA below 4.00. Surprisingly, Stephen Strasburg is 1-2 this season with a 5.33 ERA. He’s still getting a ton of strikeouts — 42 in 27 innings pitched — but opponents are batting .269 off him and he is averaging just over five innings per start.

Jordan Zimmermann (4.05 ERA in five starts) hasn’t quite looked like the dominant pitcher he was from a season ago, and young right-hander Taylor Jordan (0-3, 6.23 ERA, .320 batting average against) — who likely wouldn’t be in the rotation if not for Fister’s injury — is struggling in his second year in the majors.

If Fister returns at 100-percent health and looks like the pitcher who went 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA for Detroit last season, it could be just the jolt that the Nationals’ starting rotation needs, and Washington should have a top five rotation at the end of the season.

Like the Nationals, Baltimore has also been riding out the storm while waiting for Machado to return to playing shape, and his absence has shown just how badly the Orioles need him in the lineup.

Machado’s glove alone is good enough to earn him a spot on any team’s roster, and that aspect of his game has been sorely missed in Baltimore during the first month of the season. Machado’s two replacements — rookie Jonathan Schoop and Ryan Flaherty — haven’t exactly been rock solid at third base, as they have combined for six of Baltimore’s eight errors this season.

They’ve also been pretty bad at the plate. Flaherty — who is widely despised by O’s fans for his inability to hit big league pitching — is batting an atrocious .179 at the plate. Schoop has fared better, though, as he entered Friday batting .261 with two home runs and 10 RBIs.

Machado, who was a doubles machine a season ago, should slot right into the second spot in the batting order upon his return, and Flaherty could be the odd man out.

My guess is that Flaherty is demoted to Norfolk when Machado comes back, providing Schoop more opportunities to play his natural position at second base. Baltimore can afford to be patient with Schoop’s bat given the talent up and down the lineup.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD