O.K., everybody take a deep breath…good. Now look around…what do you see? Surprised? Yeah, me too. The Washington Nationals are in first place at the All-Star Break for the first time since their inaugural season in 2005. As much as I'd like a ticker tape parade down Constitution Avenue, (or is it Pennsylvania Avenue? It's been so long since D.C. has had one, I'm not even really sure what the parade route would be) there are still 79 games left to play. So before we get rolling onto the second half, let's take a look back at a very surprising and exciting first half of the season.
Ah, April. The cold, the rain outs, blind optimism from Cubs fans (sorry, couldn't help it). The Nationals started in Wrigley Field against those Cubs and took two of three. It started a trend where the Nats took two of three or three of four in every series during April except two (took first two from the marlins before a rain out and getting swept out in L.A. against the Dodgers). Winning all but one series in April, the Nationals finished with a 14-8 record and a half game lead in the NL East. April showed us a lot of things to come. You saw it in the box scores and on the stat sheets. The Nationals rotation was dynamite. Not just Strasburg and Gio, either. Night in and night out, the Nationals were in the game because teams could not score on them. As strong as the rotation was, the lineup was the opposite. After re-injuring his oblique, Michael Morse was shelved before the season so the Nationals were without their biggest bat. Ryan Zimmerman struggled, as did Jayson Werth. April was sprinkled about with 2-1, 3-2, 3-1, and 4-3 games. It is how they won early. It was still April, still early. Could the rotation keep pitching lights out like that? Would the lineup start hitting and scoring runs on a consistent basis? For the Nationals to stay in first, the answer needed to be "yes" for both questions.
May brought highs and lows for the Nationals. Two series wins against the Phillies were great statements, and started what many think is the changing of the guard in the NL East. The Nats got their first real sweep of the season against the Braves, down in Atlanta. The Nationals also finished another month with a winning record, at 15-13 for May. It wasn't all sunshine and (double) rainbows. Jayson Werth fractured his wrist against the Phillies early in May and still has not returned to the lineup. The Nationals felt the void in their lineup with Morse and Werth out. The lack of production showed while scoring only seven runs while getting swept by the Marlins to close the month. Losing "Battle of the Beltways" part one at home to the Orioles was also disappointing. Even with concerns in the lineup and a few tough series loses, the Nationals still held a 29-21 record and still a half game lead in the NL East.
June was the month of Ian Desmond. The homegrown shortstop stepped up his game, found his true spot in the lineup and began to seriously mash. The return of Michael Morse and the resurgence of Ryan Zimmerman stopped the shuffling of Desmond in the Nationals lineup by finding a true home in the six spot. With Desmond swinging a hot bat, teams could no longer pitch around Morse, and in turn, Zimmerman. The three of them have turned it on and it began in June. The Nationals rotation was finally getting support and scores of 3-2 were getting replaced by scores of 8-7, 12-5, and 11-5. That's not even getting into that 19 year old in the outfielder (more on him in the 2nd half preview). Swinging hot bats, having strong pitching outings, and building a strong team chemistry the Nationals closed June with a 15-11 record and 44-32 record overall, leading the NL East by two and a half games.
Seven games into July, the Nationals are 5-2 and are a season high 15 games over .500 at 49-34. That is on pace for 96 wins and assured playoff spot. However, baseball is game that is a marathon like none other. The dog days of August are around the corner, followed by the nail-biting, scoreboard watching nights of September. As the calendar pages turn, the games get more important and the tension rises. Every decision matters, every pitch counts. Can this Nationals team, infused with youth and talent handle the pressure of a late season pennant race? Will the rotation hold up? With Mets and Braves lurking, can the Nats withstand a long losing streak? Questions will be answered and all Nationals fans are along for the ride to see what those answers are. Stay tuned as we look at the issues and questions facing the Nationals in the 2nd half preview.
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