After all the injuries, to the lineup and to the rotation, the Washington Nationals begin the second half of the season exactly where they want to be: in first place in the National League East.
No team in the NL has a better run differential (plus-61). That's a good predictor of which teams will make the playoffs. The starting rotation, missing Doug Fister for five weeks with an elbow injury and Gio Gonzalez (shoulder) for a month, still has a 3.28 ERA, third in the sport. The bullpen also ranks third overall (2.67 ERA). This is still a club built around its pitching. The offense just has to be good enough.
The Nats have scored 387 runs, middle of the pack at No. 15 in the majors and sixth in the NL. But that's with injuries to Bryce Harper (thumb), Wilson Ramos (hamstring), Adam LaRoche (quad) and Ryan Zimmerman (broken finger), among others. Is there more to give in the second half? That's one of several questions facing the Nats. The answers will determine if they pull away from the Atlanta Braves and win a second division title in three years.
"The last two, two-and-a-half weeks, we've been playing the baseball we expected to play," All Star reliever Tyler Clippard said prior to the break. "We've been pitching, timely hitting, playing defense. This is who we are."
But who will they be going forward? Here are three key questions heading into the second half:
Can the rotation continue at this pace?
If healthy, it should. There hasn't been a weak link yet. Even fifth starter Tanner Roark has been a big surprise with a 3.01 ERA.
The concerns? The biceps cramp suffered by Jordan Zimmermann last week is worrisome even if the team says he won't need to go on the DL. Gonzalez and Fister both look like their injury issues are behind them. But that leaves only Stephen Strasburg (3.46 ERA) as injury-free so far among the top four.
Washington can probably survive losing one of those pitchers. Any more than that and things get dicey.
Will veterans continue to accept their roles?
Nats manager Matt Williams has tried to finesse the complicated geometry of a stacked lineup. Zimmerman has moved back to third base from left field and seen time at first base, too. He's also been pulled from games late for defensive reasons — a move he has publicly agreed with, but must rankle him privately. Danny Espinosa has been relegated to the bench, and despite strong numbers against left-handed pitchers, he's not playing much against them.
Anthony Rendon is now back at second base, away from his natural position at third. Williams' juggling act will continue all summer. So far, despite Harper's comments upon his return on his preferred lineup that slighted Denard Span, it hasn't been an issue.
"I've grown more accustomed this year. It was a little bit of a challenge last year," Rendon said of playing second. "Then going into spring training this year, I got a lot more of the reps than I had in the past at third base. So I'm getting used to second base. It's actually gone pretty well."
Does the offense heat up?
Rendon, LaRoche and Jayson Werth are all having good offensive seasons, each with an OPS above .800. Zimmerman is heating up after a broken finger cost him two months. Ian Desmond's numbers are trending down again (.726 OPS), but at his position those numbers are still above average and he sees light at the end of the tunnel.
"It's been a grind," Desmond said. "But I want to be that example, like, hey, you can fight back. I've done it before and I hope to do it again this year."
The key is Harper. His thumb injury cost him months and despite a strong rehab stint at Double-A Harrisburg, his return to the majors hasn't gone well. But if he finds his swing, it changes the entire lineup and will take some pressure off the Washington starters and bullpen. But he is 5-for-37 with two extra-base hits in July. That slump has to end.
"[Harper] is a big bat for us," Zimmermann said. "We're happy he's back. It's one of the best lineups in baseball and pitchers are going to have a hard time with us."
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