- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2013

The All-Star game has come and gone. The season passed its halfway point three weeks ago. There are fewer than 70 games remaining on the 2013 schedule. And true to form, Wednesday morning the oddsmakers were resetting their predictions for the rest of this baseball season.

Three and a half months ago, the Washington Nationals were headlining almost all of these predictions. Picked to win the National League East. Picked to win the NL pennant. Picked as the favorites to win the World Series.

What the first 95 games have brought, however, is a different reality. The Nationals could still do all of those things, but they’ll have to play better than they did in a 48-47 first half that featured an often-punchless offense, a sometimes-injured starting rotation and more missed opportunities than they’d probably care to think about.

They also know they’re fortunate to be in a still-favorable position at the break. With that in mind, the five storylines for the second half:

Will their offense perform up to expectations and career norms?

After the Nationals‘ last game of the first half, Bryce Harper was asked to assess his season.

“I thought it was terrible,” said Harper, who missed 31 games with bursitis in his left knee. “I really do. I don’t think I did very well. Hopefully I can get into the second half and play a lot better.”

Harper, however, is not alone.

The Nationals‘ offense has languished among the worst in the majors throughout the season.

They rank in the bottom eight or lower in every offensive category — average, on-base percentage, slugging, on-base plus slugging. Manager Davey Johnson has altered his lineup construction multiple times already before settling Sunday on one he thinks he might stick with for a while, starting with Harper at leadoff, Anthony Rendon hitting second and Denard Span in the No. 7 spot.

“It was my fault, we were a little too easy to pitch to when they went to the bullpen,” Johnson said of his original lineup. “I want to make that a little more difficult.”

The Nationals are 47-23 when they score more than one run. They’re 5-36 when they score two or fewer.

Will the back end of the starting rotation stabilize?

After weathering the 2012 firestorm that surrounded the shutdown of Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals will have him in their rotation for the duration this season.

That’s good news because Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann have been the Nationals‘ saving graces this season. When one of those three pitches, the Nationals are 34-22, and Strasburg’s starts, in which the Nationals average a criminally low 2.94 runs, account for half of those losses. They are 14-25 in all other games.

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