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Washington Nationals storylines to watch in second half

- 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.

There are two things the Nationals need most in order to get more across-the-board consistency from their rotation: Dan Haren to continue to perform the way he has since coming off the disabled list, and Ross Detwiler to be healthy. Those are two big "ifs" right now, though.

Will a significant move be made at the trade deadline?

A lot of how this storyline may play out is tied into the "ifs" noted about their starting pitching. To this point, the Nationals have been steadfast in their feeling that Detwiler and Haren are the guys to do the job and they expect them to be able to do it.

That, along with the fact that the Nationals have no desire to give up what it would take to get a rental such as Matt Garza, and one source said they are "lukewarm" on longer-term contract guys like Bud Norris, would fit with what general manager Mike Rizzo has said publicly to this point: He doesn't see another "splashy" move in the future.

But they have two more weeks to evaluate their team and decide if they want to alter that line of thinking.

How will Davey Johnson's D.C. managerial career end?

At first it seemed Johnson was set to retire. Then, it became clear it was more of a mutual decision that this be his last season in the dugout — that the Lerner family wanted it to be and Johnson was fine with that. That left open the question: Is this his last season managing anywhere?

Maybe. Maybe not. But Johnson also wants badly to go out on top and bookend his career with another World Series title.

Johnson has spent the better part of the past 50 years in baseball, so regardless of the fact that his time with the Nationals is just a tiny part of that, how what could be his final season in the game ends is certainly worth watching.

Will the Nationals catch the Braves, hold off the Phillies and win the East?

The Nationals will open the second half Friday night sitting six games behind Atlanta and a half-game ahead of Philadelphia. They're still within striking distance of first place in the division, but to get there they'll need not only a cold stretch from the Braves but for it to coincide with their own prolonged run of success — which has been elusive this season.

They play only 24 of their final 67 games against teams currently over .500 and they play 36 of their final 67 games at home.

Baseball history, especially recently, is littered with World Series winners who were all but out of it at the break only to enjoy a steaming-hot second half. Could the Nationals follow suit?

We'll find out.

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