Welcome to the second half, when tension elevates daily as July humidity threatens to melt into October chill.
With 67 games remaining of a less-than-stunning season, the Washington Nationals find themselves in an unfamiliar position. They are entering a period when each game means more with the same aspirations for the postseason they entertained last year. However, this year they lack the comfortable cushion of a lead in the division.
In 2012, the Nationals came out of the All-Star break with a 49-34 record, in first place and four games ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. They went 49-30 after the break to cruise to a 98-64 finish, still in first place and still four games ahead of the Braves.
In 2013, the Braves hold the top spot in the division, and sit at 54-41, due greatly in part to their 12-1 start to the season. The Nationals have a 48-47 record, and have a six game deficit to overcome to win the NL East.
As Jayson Werth noted earlier this year, the young Nationals are uneducated in how to play from behind, which is a skill they will need to master in the remaining two and a half months of the season if they are serious about catching up to Atlanta.
Though it won’t come with the ease it did in 2012, winning the division in 2013 is a feat the Nationals can still accomplish, if they show improvements in several key areas.
1. Get healthy
The Nationals have spent large chunks of this season without some of their best players in the lineup. Werth, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and others have all spent time on the disabled list.
Fortunately, it looks as if they are on the road to recovery, as they are coming out of the break with the healthiest lineup they have had all season. Only pitchers Ross Detwiler and Ryan Mattheus remain on the DL, and both are expected to return soon.
If the rest of the roster can resist injury, the Nationals will be in good shape to play for a strong finish.
2. Solidify the starting rotation
The Nationals need to be able to rely on the fourth and fifth spots in their pitching rotation. It is impossible to generate any kind of momentum when the team’s odds of losing are high every fourth and fifth day.
The team is 34-22 in games started by Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, but the fourth and fifth spots have a 14-25 record.
Dan Haren in the fourth spot has been a Nationals frustration all season, as he has pitched for the worst numbers of his career with a 5.61 ERA and a 4-10 record. Haren gave the Nats a slight glimmer of hope during his last two starts after returning from the DL, pitching to a 1.64 ERA through 11 innings with 14 strikeouts. If Haren can at least revert to his career average performance (3.75 ERA), the Nationals will breath easier every time Haren’s turn on the mound rolls around.
Related to the “get healthy” proposition is the Ross Detwiler predicament. Several different spot starters, some whose major-league readiness was in question, have pitched in the fifth spot in the rotation as Detwiler has spent a scattered 40 days on the DL.
Hopefully the extended time off during the All-Star break will allow Detwiler time to recover, so that the Nats can finally field a pitching rotation more similar to the one that was incredibly influential in their 2012 success.
3. Improve on offense consistently
The Nationals’ offense has possibly been the biggest disappointment of the season, as their propensity for stranding the few base runners who reach base has left Nats fans exceedingly frustrated.
Their team batting average (.241) is fourth worst in the majors, and their on-base percentage (.301) is third worst. They average 3.76 runs per game, which is the fourth-lowest in baseball.
Numbers like that won’t carry the Nationals to October. Nats players will need to start hitting up to their career averages (which many of them are currently below) if they want to see their team’s stats and standings improve.
4. Play ball
Earlier this season, Rafael Soriano commented that he thought the Nationals were playing too tense, as if they were so caught up in living up to the steep expectations set for them before the season that they forgot that their jobs are supposed to be fun.
“Let’s play baseball, let’s have fun and let’s do this. Let’s feel relaxed. There are some who have been here before, including last year. They’re the same pitchers, batters. So what’s the fear of doing the same thing again? Let’s do the things we can. Let’s just play baseball and not think about it too much.”
Though Soriano was not a part of the Nationals 2012 dream team, it seems it would do the team good to listen to the veteran’s advice.
It’s not as if the Nationals have to worry about being outshined by other, better-staffed teams. They already have the talent. Now if they can just play like the “awfully good ballclub” they are, as Davey Johnson has implored, the final stretch of this season will be theirs to dominate.