After struggling through the first half of an injury-riddled 2013 season, the Washington Nationals now set their sights on the second half and their push to the playoffs.
Prior to the MLB All-Star break, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Ross Detwiler, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Dan Haren and Wilson Ramos all missed extensive time in the first half due to injuries. Despite their absences, the Nationals were still able to pull into the break with an above-.500 record and only face a six-game deficit to the Atlanta Braves for the lead in the NL East.
The second half of the season looks much more promising. The lineup is healthy even though they still have a couple of notable players missing. Ryan Mattheus is expected to return in the coming month and Detwiler is recovering from a minor injury as well. The Nationals proved in the final week prior to the break that a full lineup means trouble for the rest of MLB.
In addition, the team is also reaping the benefits of a quality farm system thanks to Anthony Rendon. He’s replaced Danny Espinosa as the team’s second baseman and has batted over .300 since his return back in early June. Along with Rendon, outfielder Jeff Kobernus, first baseman Chris Marrero, pitcher Ross Ohlendorf and reliever Ian Krol have all made substantial contributions.
When it comes to how they’ll handle the deficit against the Braves, Washington will have plenty of opportunities to make up ground and even take the top spot in the NL East standings. Just about ever other series from here on out will be played against an NL East opponent, including a 26-game stretch from the end of August through the middle of September which will all be against NL East foes.
Three weeks ago, I would’ve written that the Nationals’ biggest second-half question mark will be their offense. After seeing how they finished the first half, the biggest question mark coming will be their pitching.
While Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg have all been stout and reliable, Haren and Detwiler have both had difficulties. At one point in the season, Haren was statistically the worst starting pitcher in baseball.
The bullpen has been far less reliable this season than it was last season, and that’s even after they dumped Henry Rodriguez. While closer Rafael Soriano has been everything they hoped for and more, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard have fallen extremely short of expectations this season.
Just a year ago, Clippard was one of the most talked-about relievers in baseball, and now he’s almost a non-factor of the Nats. Storen … well, he’s been just plain bad.
Outside of the bullpen, the Nationals appear to be set to make another post-season push. The pieces are all still there, and the main thing is just to keep guys healthy and in the lineup. If you’re a Nationals fan, you’ve got a lot to be excited about. Keep an eye on Washington D.C., baseball world. They’re going to be having a lot of fun between now and October.
Who knows? Maybe that fun will extend well into the postseason.