NL East race opens with Bryce Harper hurt

After badly underachieving for the first four months a year ago and playing themselves out of postseason contention, the Washington Nationals were looking forward to a fresh start and some more positive karma under new manager Matt Williams.

Other than leading the major leagues in errors and devastating thumb injuries, they have yet to distinguish themselves in a way they might have hoped.

The Nats suffered a blow two weeks ago when All-Star Ryan Zimmerman fractured his right thumb diving into second base on a pickoff play against Atlanta. Zimmerman’s thumb is in a splint, and the Nationals say the original four- to six-week prognosis still applies, which means he’ll probably be back sometime in mid- to late May.

He’ll return to a lineup without Bryce Harper, who will undergo surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb and is expected to be out until at least early July.

All the Nationals need now is for Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond or Adam LaRoche to hurt a thumb sliding into first base, and they’ll be three-fourths of the way to a cycle.

The injury is yet more fodder for critics who say Harper is “all hype” and doesn’t belong on the same planet with Mike Trout. That’s unfair, of course, but it’s still been a strangely off-kilter spring for Harper. After looking ready in the Grapefruit League, he struck out 10 times in his first 21 regular-season at-bats and pronounced himself “pretty lost right now.” Then Williams benched him for jogging out a ground ball, of all things. And there was that surreal moment last week when Harper smoked the ball in his first two at-bats only to gift-wrap an out for the Angels by trying to bunt for a hit in a big spot with a man on base.

Regardless of Harper’s meager power numbers at the time of his injury, his absence will hurt a Washington lineup that’s off to a strong start. The Nats rank second to Colorado in the National League with 115 runs scored and a .731 OPS, and Harper looked as if he might be poised to go on a roll with a season-high four RBIs Friday against San Diego. Now he’ll be replaced by Nate McLouth, a handy guy and a solid defender who won’t provide much thump.

The injuries will test the Nationals' fortitude and resilience, but any team with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann in the rotation is going to win its share of 2-1 and 3-2 games. Tanner Roark has been a revelation, and Doug Fister will complete his rehab assignment shortly and make it an even stronger contingent.

But this season clearly isn’t going to be the joyride that everyone expected when the Nationals were anointed as the clear NL East front-runner in spring training. For starters, the division is stronger than a lot of people expected. The Braves are off to a terrific start, and they’re about to get a boost from the return of Mike Minor to the rotation. They’re also 18-7 against Washington since the start of the 2013 season, and some people think they’re in the Nationals’ heads.

The Phillies just returned from a 6-4 West Coast trip, and Chase Utley is looking awfully spry. Terry Collins always gets the best out of the Mets, who have a solid rotation from the first through fifth slots. And the Marlins have a chance to be trouble, as well, if they can figure out a way to improve upon that 2-10 road record.

In late March, when ESPN released its “expert” predictions, 40 of the 44 folks surveyed picked Washington to win the NL East (with only four prognosticators going with Atlanta). Twelve of those 44 picked the Nationals to win the World Series.

Suddenly, Williams has to deal with the absence of Zimmerman, catcher Wilson Ramos and Harper and the potential for some flagging morale in the clubhouse. It might be time for him to deliver a pep talk to ensure the Nats don't fall victim to a case of “here we go again”-itis.

And while Williams is at it, he might want to mix in some remedial sliding lessons.