Nats blow opportunity to finish a strong trip

It was a golden opportunity for the Nationals. To start a difficult nine-game road trip against its National League East rivals, Washington won five of six games to take hold of first place.

But the trip sputtered to a halt in Miami, a place that has long been a nightmare for the Nats whether they are a contender or a pretender. The Marlins (29-22) swept a three-game series earlier this week to leave Washington (29-21) clinging to a half-game lead entering a six-game homestand at Nationals Park. This stretch will conclude 15 games in a row against division foes, with the Atlanta Braves (28-24) and New York Mets (28-23) coming to town starting Friday night.

Up next
Braves at Nationals
Mike Minor (2-4) vs. Stephen Strasburg (5-1)
When » Friday, 7:05 p.m.
Where » Nationals Park

Even after those three losses in Miami, overall the Nats are 11-6 against the NL East and in a solid position as the calendar flips to June. Right-hander Stephen Strasburg will pitch the opener against Atlanta on Friday. After a brilliant beginning to the season, the 23-year-old has managed just 14 innings in his last three starts, allowing 17 hits and walking another seven batters but still striking out 19. He has allowed nine earned runs during that stretch and experienced a bout of soreness after a May 20 start against Baltimore that may have been located in his right biceps. Strasburg and manager Davey Johnson offered differing opinions afterward on what was bothering him. For a mere mortal, those numbers aren't really a concern. But Strasburg's ERA has risen from 1.64 to 2.64.

Left-handed starter Gio Gonzalez has been even better than Strasburg with a 7-1 record, a 2.04 ERA and 79 strikeouts to 25 walks. He gave up just one hit in seven innings at Atlanta on Sunday and will get another crack at the Braves on Saturday afternoon. Jordan Zimmermann will start the series finale.

Health has been an issue for Washington, which hopes to take a step in the right direction beginning Friday. Outfielder Michael Morse has been out since the middle of spring training with a strained lat muscle. Morse, the Nats' top power hitter last season with 31 home runs, suffered a setback during a rehabilitation stint in April and is only now close to a return. After playing in three games at extended spring training in Viera, Fla., Morse this week started three more with high-A Potomac in Woodbridge, Va., including one Thursday night.

The hope is Morse will be ready to go against Atlanta. If that happens, manager Davey Johnson confirmed to reporters in Miami that he will shift rookie Bryce Harper to center field; keep Steve Lombardozzi, an infielder by trade, in left field because of his success as a leadoff batter; and have Morse play in right. That would move Rick Ankiel back to the bench. Jayson Werth remains out with a broken wrist.

Meanwhile, catcher Jesus Flores is expected back after straining his right hamstring Sunday against the Braves. He was not placed on the disabled list.