Fauber: Nats still in good shape

I imagine by now most Nationals fans are probably thinking, “Here we go again.”

Last season, a year that was filled with heaps of preseason optimism and talk of Washington perhaps reaching — and winning — the World Series, didn’t quite pan out the way anyone in D.C. would’ve liked. The Nationals were marred by injuries, fell behind the rest of the pack early and simply couldn’t scratch their way back into contention.

We’re nearly two months into the MLB’s 2014 campaign, and there is this eerie feeling of déjà vu that is surrounding D.C. this season. The Nationals are again dropping like flies and have yet to put out a lineup and pitching rotation that resembles the projected Opening Day roster.

That’s a difficult task for any team — injuries are always going to happen. It’s just something that teams have to cope with. But Washington seems to be especially unlucky in that regard.

It didn’t take long for the injury bug to bite in D.C. Starting pitcher Doug Fister, the Nationals’ marquee offseason pickup, landed on the disabled list before the regular season even started. Then, catcher Wilson Ramos, perhaps the unluckiest of all the snake-bitten Nationals (don’t forget that in addition to a slew of injuries that have plagued him over the last two-plus seasons, he was also kidnapped in his native Venezuela in 2011), didn’t make it through Opening Day before fracturing the hamate bone in his left hand.

Oft-injured third baseman Ryan Zimmerman followed suit when he broke his thumb diving back into second base on April 12, and things went from bad to worse two weeks later when Bryce Harper tore a ligament in his thumb while sliding head-first into third.

In continuing with the spirit of the season, first baseman Adam LaRoche was shelved earlier this month with a nagging quad injury, and starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez landed on the DL on May 18 with shoulder inflammation.

It’s not as if these injuries are minor, either. Both the Ramos and Harper injuries required surgery, and Zimmerman’s thumb has not fully healed yet despite the end of his four to six week timetable for return fast approaching.

And yet, despite all of these injuries, Washington was 24-23 entering Friday and just 2 ½ games behind Atlanta for the lead in the National League East. Not too bad for a team that has been forced to play without a handful of its best players for most of the first two months of the season.

There is still plenty of baseball left to be played and the Nationals are in fine shape (in terms of team standings, anyway). Washington would probably be running away with the division if it could stay healthy, but I’m sure the Nationals will accept being where they are at right now, all things considered.

I still like Washington to win the NL East at this point, mainly because the division isn’t very strong. Philadelphia is having a down year, and the Mets are still the Mets. Miami is currently second in the division — I’m not really sure how — but the Marlins lost ace Jose Fernandez for the season and I just can’t picture them maintaining enough momentum to stay in the conversation.

Atlanta figured to be the Nationals’ stiffest competition for the division crown this season, and the Braves have been just that despite multiple pitching injuries. It will be interesting to see if Atlanta can continue its magical mound work and maintain its spot at the top of the East.

The Nationals are also starting get healthy again, which is a good sign and another reason for optimism right now. Fister made his Nationals debut on May 9 and is 1-1 with a 3.93 ERA in three starts, and Ramos returned to action a few weeks ago. LaRoche is expected to return after this weekend’s series against the Pirates, and Gonzalez’s injury doesn’t sound too serious and he should only miss a couple of starts.

It’s unclear when Zimmerman will be back — a recent X-ray revealed that there is still some healing that needs to take place before he can return to the diamond — but if Washington can stay within striking distance until Harper returns in July, then the Nationals should be in a great position to win the division.

Hopefully by then the Nationals will be back at full strength. They just have to cross their fingers and hope they avoid any more injuries.

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