The Washington Times - July 1, 2011, 10:44AM

The Nationals are 40-41 as they open a 10-day, 11-game homestand to close the first half. They finished the first 81 games one game under .500 and that was with dropping the last three games of the mathematical first half of the season.

Sure they just lost consecutive games for the first time since June 8 and 9. Sure they just got swept by the Angels in the first three games of Davey Johnson’s managerial tenure, but the Nationals, as Jayson Werth said are “far ahead of where anybody thought we’d be at this time.”

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The next 11 games, though, are pivotal for this Nationals team and this Nationals season.

“This homestand is important,” admitted Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “If we have a winning homestand, we’re over .500 at the break, close to 50 wins. Take three or four days off, and then saddle up.

“I think we have to have a winning homestand. And then after the All-Star break, we get to that second part of the season where, hey, we got a shot.”

The Nationals dealt with what Elias Sports Bureau called the toughest schedule in the major leagues for much of the first half and they played 46 of their first 81 games on the road to a .391 win percentage. At home, where they’ve played 35 games to this point, they’re a much better team, one with a 22-13 record and .629 winning percentage.

Lucky for them, they’ll play more games at home from this point out than they will on the road.

“Ahead of schedule, I guess you could call it,” Werth said. “But me personally, I thought this was the type of ball we were going to play from not long after I got here in spring training. I was able to see the talent first hand and see the type of guys we got. We’ve got a lot to look forward to in the second half and years to come with this organization. I’m excited.”

Johnson, still searching for his first managerial victory in a Nationals uniform, echoed those sentiments.

I loved this team from spring training and I love them even more now,” Johnson said. ‘It’s a good ballclub. We’ve just got a few things we’ve got to straighten out and we’ll be fine. This was a tough series. (The Angels) played good over there and we didn’t get it done over here, but it’s a long season. We kind of got hit with some injuries but hopefully we’ll be better by Friday.”