Nats look to build on momentum coming out of break
Strong finish to first half has club tied with Braves atop NL East
WASHINGTON -- Before the 2014 season started, the Nationals were heavily favored to win the National League East. But the first half wasn't that easy. On May 24, the Nationals were 24-25 and sputtering. It didn't help that they had to deal with a lot of injuries.
Nationals manager Matt Williams came away satisfied with what his team was able to accomplish during the first half and was pleased to be in a first-place tie.
"Considering everything that is going on, we are OK," Williams said. "We are right in the thick of our division. We have a chance. That's all we could ask for ... I'm happy about it."
Five key developments
1. Injuries hit key players. The Nationals were hit hard by injuries. Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos and Ryan Zimmerman missed most of the first half because of injuries. Even first baseman Adam LaRoche missed two weeks because of a right quad strain. Their absences were the main reasons the Nationals were 23rd in offense in the Majors.
2. Zimmerman makes a smooth transition to left field. After coming off the disabled list, Zimmerman was moved from third base to left field and doesn't miss a beat. He plays the position as if he'd been playing there his entire career. Who can forget the diving catch he made against the Giants on June 20? After Michael Morse doubled with two outs, Brandon Crawford looped a ball to left field. Zimmerman dove and made a spectacular catch to end the inning.
|MVP: Anthony Rendon.
He is among the team leaders in home runs, RBIs and runs scored. He's also an above-average second baseman and third baseman. Put him at either position, Rendon plays Gold Glove Award-caliber defense.
|Top starter: Doug Fister
His season didn't start until May because of a lat strain, but he ended up leading the team in wins with eight to go with a 2.90 ERA.
|Top rookie: Aaron Barrett
Matt Williams relied on Barrett during the late innings. He ended with a 2.64 ERA.
|Top reliever: Rafael Soriano
He had a 0.97 ERA, and his 22 saves were tied for ninth in the Major Leagues. Soriano needs to have a combined 120 games finished between this season and last to get a guaranteed contract for the 2015 season. Entering Sunday, Soriano had a combined 88 games finished.
3. Rendon emerges as a star. Without question, Anthony Rendon was the Nationals' MVP during the first half. He was among the team leaders in home runs, RBIs and runs scored. He's also an above-average second baseman and third baseman. Put him at either position, and Rendon plays Gold Glove Award-caliber defense. Rendon began the season as the starting second baseman, but when Zimmerman broke his thumb in April, Rendon took his place at third and thrived. So good is Rendon at third that there is already talk about sticking him at the hot corner permanently and putting Zimmerman at first base as early as next year.
4. Trade for Fister pays off. In 2012, it was Edwin Jackson. In 2013, it was Dan Haren. They were supposed to be the veterans guiding the pitching staff, but neither worked out. Last December, the Nationals acquired Doug Fister from the Tigers, and he started the season on the disabled list because of a lat strain. But once he returned in May, he ended up being Washington's biggest winner, winning eight games.
5. Bullpen unstoppable. Led by Rafael Soriano, the bullpen was virtually unhittable, posting a 2.67 ERA. Aaron Barrett emerged as one of Williams' reliable relievers, while Craig Stammen, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Soriano made it a seven inning game for opponents.
Five second-half storylines
1. Can Zimmermann stay healthy? The first order of business is to find out if right-hander Jordan Zimmermann can avoid the disabled list. He suffered a biceps strain just before the All-Star break and the Nationals are hoping that the time off will heal the injury. The team will hold a practice Thursday at Nationals Park, and Zimmermann will test the arm that day.
Players to watch in second half
Look for him to find his swing and live up to the hype.
The batting average is up, but expect the power numbers to be significant after the All-Star break.
Can he stay healthy during the second half? We'll find out on Thursday when the Nationals have their practice at Nationals Park. Zimmermann suffered a biceps strain Friday and was not placed on the disabled list before the All-Star break.
2. Harper will be in the lineup. Harper is expected to be healthy during the second half and provide the power that they lacked from the left side of the plate. Harper is expected to balance a lineup that was mostly right-handed.
3. Trade Deadline approaches. In 2012, the Nationals didn't make any moves before the Trade Deadline, but they did acquire catcher Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics on Aug. 3 of that season. This season, the Nationals might not make any moves, because their starting eight is healthy and the pitching staff is stellar. They could try to improve their bench. Pinch-hitters are hitting .157 this season.
4. Can the offense carry the Nationals to the division crown? Washington must improve its inconsistent offense. It sputtered during the first half because of injuries, but the lineup is back intact starting Friday against the Brewers.
5. Is this LaRoche's last year? LaRoche and the Nationals have a mutual option for 2015. As of now, the two sides have not talked about an extension, and with Zimmerman possibly becoming the everyday first baseman next year, LaRoche's future is unclear. Keep in mind that LaRoche has been a positive influence in the clubhouse and on the field since he arrived in Washington in 2011.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.