Pain, pain go away …

As I watched Nate McLouth injure himself on a check swing and heard the news of Jason Heyward heading to the disabled list this evening, it made me wonder about the rest of the injury concerns in the NL East.

Nate McLouth winces in pain after hitting himself with a foul ball on Sunday. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The Phillies remain atop the division despite injuries at several key positions, most notably 2B Chase Utley and closer Brad Lidge. Second base has been a black hole for a struggling Phillies offense with Wilson Valdez and Pete Orr hitting a combined .232 with no home runs and only nine RBIs. The five-time All-Star Utley, if healthy, will add an essential dynamic missing from the club the entire year. Going into the season, Phillies fans were concerned about missing their sometimes dominant/sometimes nerve-racking closer in Lidge, but veteran pitcher Jose Contreras filled in well, initially. Then he got hurt, but no worries as Ryan Madson stepped in and converted eight straight save opportunities. Then he got hit with a line drive on May 20 on his pitching hand and is day to day. SP Joe Blanton and CF Shane Victorino are also out, but the Phillies have been able to keep their slim lead over the Marlins. Despite any offensive woes they may be experiencing, their starting pitching, as expected, has helped them to have the second most wins in baseball as we approach Memorial Day.

Part of the reason that the Marlins have kept the East race tight is that they have been the healthiest team in the division so far. Unfortunately, that may change as their staff ace Josh Johnson was sent to the DL on May 21. No other starters are currently unable to play, so when Johnson returns, hopefully they are still in the thick of things.

The Braves fortunes began to turn around in May after another poor April performance. They kept the division a three-team race with their improved play. But May has been most unkind the their players’ health. Rookie SP Brandon Beachy was off to a very good start until he strained his oblique and was sent to the 15-day DL on May 15. McLouth hurt himself after only the fourth pitch he saw against the Angels on May 22 with what may also have been an oblique strain and Heyward went to the DL the same day with a stiff right shoulder. Stiffness (in his back) will also cause SP Tim Hudson to miss at least one start after his worst performance of the year. RP Peter Moylan was also moved to the 60-day DL this month following back surgery on May 16.

The Nationals have three pitchers on the 60-day disabled list starting with rookie phenom Stephen Strasburg. Neither he nor Chien-Ming Wang nor Elvin Ramirez have seen the big leagues this year. Starting 3B Ryan Zimmerman (abdominal tear) and CF Rick Ankiel (sprained wrist) need to return and contribute to an offense that’s near the bottom of the league.

The Mets have had their share of injuries, too, with 3B David Wright recently suffering a stress fracture in his lower back. The Mets have been improving, having won six out of their last 10 games, but losing Wright is a major blow. Add to that the loss of 1B Ike Davis (sprained ankle and bone bruise) and CF Angel Pagan (tenderness in his side) and their recent good fortune has cause for concern. Starter Chris Young is out for the season and staff ace Johan Santana isn’t expected to return until at least mid-season.

All teams go through stretches dealing with injuries. However, key injuries to certain players and a lack of depth can doom any team. The Phillies, Marlins and Braves have been able to keep their starting pitching healthy (for the most part) and that’s why they are the top three teams in the division as May winds down. Here’s hoping that all the teams can recover from these setbacks so that the 2011 NL East race will be one to remember.

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