- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

There are no goals as the Washington Nationals enter the second half of their 2008 season, no statistical benchmarks by which the team can erase a first half that played out in a fashion only the most sadistic minds could have conjured up.

That’s not to say, however, that Washington has nothing to play for.

As the Nationals begin the post All-Star break schedule Friday night in Atlanta with the worst record in baseball, the team is still driven mostly by the sheer curiosity of seeing what it can accomplish in two months with the team it hoped to have all season.

While many of Washington’s core players weren’t playing particularly well even when they were healthy, it has become so tough to separate ineffectiveness from injuries that there’s a sense the Nationals at least could put some kind of positive cap on the season with a couple months of quality baseball.

“That wasn’t our team the first half. No one in here makes excuses because that’s not the type of team we are, and [manager] Manny [Acta] would never let us do that, and he never makes excuses either,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We’re not the first team to get injured like that. Hopefully we can get healthy and just try to do our best the second half.”

Washington is still several weeks from having a healthy core of players on the field. It could get Zimmerman back as early as this weekend from a labral tear in his right shoulder, but Lastings Milledge (groin injury) won’t return before the end of the month and Elijah Dukes (torn right patellar tendon) might be out until mid-August.

There is no timetable for when starter Shawn Hill could return from the forearm soreness he has battled all season, and key players like Nick Johnson and Chad Cordero won’t be heard from until next spring.

Still, there is likely to be at least a month when the Nationals can field a lineup of Jesus Flores, Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard, Cristian Guzman, Zimmerman, Dukes, Milledge and Austin Kearns. Though there are still a few uncertainties - like Guzman’s pending free agency and Johnson’s return - that’s as close as Washington will get this season to the lineup it presumably will use to begin next season.

For players like Milledge, Dukes and Flores, there’s a certain anticipation to see what they could do given the kind of protection they have lacked most of the season.

“It’d be nice to finish the year, especially with our young players like Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, even Shawn Hill,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “It’d be nice if we can get them healthy, so the last month-plus, they’re on the field preparing for next year.”

Bowden said nothing will redeem the Nationals’ grisly first half. But the chance to see something resembling the everyday lineup would be instructive for a team still building for the future.

“I always talk about progress, and I do feel that we’re going to get better,” Acta said. “Kearns is swinging the bat better; he’s healthy now. Zimmerman is going to come back. I’m expecting a better second half out of them. I’m not putting numbers on our goals. Just continue to make progress, add a couple of those guys that are hurt and just play better.”

What that will mean for next season is unclear. As Zimmerman said, the Nationals generated optimism by finishing 64-64 after a 9-25 start last season.

A strong finish this year, however, at least might give signs Washington has part of its core in place.

“It’s just about coming together as a team more, building some confidence, kind of realizing what we can do,” Zimmerman said.

Hood agrees to deal

The Nationals announced Thursday they agreed to terms with second-round pick Destin Hood, a high school outfielder from Mobile, Ala. Hood, who had signed a letter of intent to play football at Alabama, will receive $1.1 million over the next five years and start at the Nationals’ rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate in Viera, Fla.

The team paid more than slot money ($726,000) and spread out the bonus because of baseball’s draft rules regarding two-sport athletes.

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