Nationals' identity crisis creates October questions

WASHINGTON -- These days, Dusty Baker's team looks more like the Washington Generals than the Washington Nationals.

With a bunch of starters out due to injury and a few more resting after a nightmare road trip commute, the division-leading Nationals spent the first eight innings giving the struggling New York Mets about as much of a fight as the Harlem Globetrotters used to get from their long-time puppet opponent. Washington mustered just a run on five hits in 7 ⅔ innings against de facto Mets ace Jacob deGrom en route to a snooze-inducing 4-2 series-opening loss. The result was hardly surprising given the squad that took the field Friday night.

For months now, the first-place Nationals have been playing without some of their most important players. Leadoff man Trea Turner, who's currently on a rehab assignment and isn't far from returning from a broken wrist, has been out since June. Left fielder Jayson Werth, also on a rehab stint, has missed nearly three months. All-Star right fielder Bryce Harper is on the disabled list with what's officially being called a bone bruise after suffering a gruesome-looking knee injury earlier this month. Center fielder Adam Eaton suffered a season-ending injury in April.

On top of that, Baker revealed following Friday's loss that cleanup man Ryan Zimmerman, who was out of the lineup, had hurt himself sliding into home in Houston on Thursday night. As if that weren't enough, reigning NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who was tentatively slated to return from neck pain that forced him to the DL, stayed on the shelf and was replaced on the mound by Triple-A hurler A.J. Cole.

Then there's this: The Nats, who beat the Astros in extra innings in their road trip finale Thursday night, didn't return from Houston until 4:30 on Friday morning, prompting Baker to rest MVP candidate Anthony Rendon and starting catcher Matt Wieters.

The result? A makeshift lineup that would have been nearly impossible for fans to recognize under normal circumstances. Making matters worse, it was the kickoff of Players Weekend, where instead of last names on the backs of uniforms, there were just nicknames. No wonder the Nats looked like a shell of their regular selves against the Mets. It's a look that folks have gotten pretty used to by now.

Despite the constant flux in the lineup, Washington has managed to stay on cruise control in the NL East and appears headed for its fourth playoff appearance in the past six seasons. It's a testament to the job that Baker has done, the production that he's gotten from Rendon and fellow last-man-standing Daniel Murphy, and the stopgap performances of rookie backups such as outfielder Brian Goodwin and shortstop Wilmer Difo and veteran trade acquisition Howie Kendrick. While it remains unclear whom Washington would face in the National League Division Series, it's just as unclear -- if not unclearer -- who the Nationals themselves really are.

Despite playing the past three months undermanned, the Nats boast a .603 winning percentage that's the third-best record in the majors. What's more, their combined record against the other nine teams currently in playoff position is even better (16-10, .615). In other words, it's scary to think how dangerous the Nats will be if they're able to get back to full strength by the time the playoffs start.

Given that Turner and Werth appear close to returning, both of them should have ample time to work out the kinks and approach midseason form by the postseason. Despite Eaton being gone and not coming back (unless he pulls a Kyle Schwarber miracle recovery), Washington has shown that it can win without him.

But the biggest question mark of all is Harper. It remains to be seen when the face of the franchise, who was putting up MVP-caliber numbers prior to his freakish injury, will return. It has already been more than 10 days since he went on the 10-day DL, and on Friday afternoon he still appeared to have some semblance of a limp as he walked around the clubhouse. With the minor league seasons about to come to an end, it seems unlikely that Harper would have a chance to round back into form with a rehab stint down on the farm. Instead, he'll have to do it at the big league level. That is, if his knee even heals in time for him to so. If not, the Nats might not know what Harper is capable of until October.

Until then, it's hard to say just what the Washington Generals, er, Nationals are capable of.