Nationals end first half with victory, face tall task in second half

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MIAMI — The Washington Nationals turned the music up loud in the visitors’ clubhouse at Marlins Park on Sunday afternoon. They smacked hands and joked with one another. They smiled and packed.

They said their goodbyes for a four-day break that will take two of their teammates, their manager and their head trainer to the All-Star game this week in New York City and send the rest of them in search of badly needed relaxation.

They also left with a stark reality.

The Nationals avoided a getting swept by the Miami Marlins on Sunday with a 5-2 victory in 10 innings that helped them stay above the .500 mark at the break. At 48-47, the Nationals’ mood was upbeat, but their task for the rest of this season remains tall.

As manager Davey Johnson made his way around the clubhouse before his players scattered, he left them with one central message: “We’ve got work to do.”

“I told them to be safe and just enjoy your break, but we’ve got a lot of work to do in the second half,” Johnson said. “We’re an awfully good ballclub and we just need to play like it.”

At the close of business Sunday, the Nationals, preseason World Series favorites, are in second place in the National League East. They’re six games behind the Atlanta Braves and a half-game ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Their win Sunday, in which a three-run 10th inning salvaged another game where they struggled to score runs but featured plenty of hits and a fine six-inning start from rookie Taylor Jordan, left them with a positive feeling. Johnson was pleased with the way his new-look lineup, with Bryce Harper at the top and Denard Span in the No. 7 spot, meshed together.

Span drove in two of the Nationals’ five runs, including the game winner, while Harper was on base twice, scored once and spoke effusively of his enjoyment hitting in that spot.

But it didn’t change the fact that they went 2-5 on their just-completed road swing, either. Or that through nine innings they’d been able to rap out 10 hits, but just two runs. Five times in the game’s first eight innings the Nationals put a runner on base with no outs or one out. Only once did they bring that runner home.

When Ian Desmond reached on a fielder’s choice in the 10th, Span doubled him home for the go-ahead run. And suddenly, the production the Nationals had lacked all afternoon — all road trip, really — emerged. Wilson Ramos singled Span home. Chad Tracy doubled Ramos in.

“I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to try and go out there and try to end this first half on a good note,’” said Span, who reached base four times. “I couldn’t play any worse than I have this first half.

“I wanted to go out feeling good, and go home feeling good. I didn’t want to go home feeling in more of a stale mood than I’m already in.”

Their cushion was plenty for closer Rafael Soriano, who locked down his 25th save of the season one night after blowing his fourth. The final out came on a groundout by Giancarlo Stanton, who crushed a game-tying home run off Soriano on Saturday evening to send the game to extras.

So with a fresh result Sunday, they celebrated. They looked forward to their four days of rest, save for Bryce Harper and Jordan Zimmermann who will attend the All-Star festivities. And toward a second half that will start with the first 11 games at home and just 24 of their final 67 games against teams currently above .500.

But they understand, too, that in order to ensure their disappointing first half doesn’t translate into a disappointing season, they must be better.

“We got some work to do,” said right-hander Tyler Clippard, a bright spot with an All-Star-worthy 1.99 ERA out of the bullpen. “Obviously we’re not where we want to be. We’ve just been grinding. Everyday it’s been a battle.

“We obviously expected to play better than we have, but we’re still within arms’ distance of where we want to be. It’s going to be good to go home, reset the batteries for the break and come back and get the ball rolling on a positive note for the second half. We’re all very excited for this break and looking forward to the second half.”

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