- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2007

Conventional wisdom says the Washington Nationals have exceeded expectations over the last three months. A ballclub panned by every preseason prognosticator as the worst in the major leagues, one capable of losing at historic rates, is anything but a pushover.

The Nationals reached the All-Star break with a 36-52 record. At this pace, they will finish 66-96, avoiding triple digits in losses.

They did so with a pitching staff decimated by injuries, a lineup boasting only two consistent threats and a roster full of rookies and not-ready-for-prime time players.

So there was genuine optimism within the Washington clubhouse as everyone prepared to disperse for the All-Star break and return refreshed for the second half of the season.

“I’m pretty satisfied with the way these guys have taken what we want to do here when it comes down to playing the game right and understanding what it takes to win ballgames,” first-year manager Manny Acta said. “That’s what I’m satisfied about. These guys, they believe in what we’re preaching, and they’re moving forward.”

And yet for all the good vibes surrounding the Nationals, there is also a sense of dissatisfaction. Sure, they have done better than expected and have earned the respect of their peers. But how much better could they be if everyone played to their potential?

“You could say on paper that we’ve overperformed,” right-hander Shawn Hill said. “But I think any time you’re 16 games under .500, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Even if you’re not expecting us to win the World Series, there’s always room to get better.”

So the Nationals begin the second half of their season tomorrow night in Florida, content with the progress they have made yet motivated to show more significant improvement over the next three months.

That shouldn’t be too much to ask for from a young ballclub that has slowly improved this year. After a 9-25 start that rekindled talk of the 1962 New York Mets, Washington proceeded to go 20-12 over a five-week stretch. And though his team lost 15 of 22 before the break, Acta believes this is a much-improved team.

“Yes, I’ve noticed it gradually from month to month,” the manager said. “Especially the way we’ve played the game. We’re not giving as many outs away on the bases. We are going to make our mistakes here and there. But guys are more patient at the plate. They’re playing smarter baseball, and it shows to me.”

Not that there aren’t areas of concern, particularly in a starting lineup that has only two regulars hitting over .259: All-Star Dmitri Young (.339) and veteran infielder Ronnie Belliard (.299). Both are prime candidates to be traded in the next few weeks.

Core young players like Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, Ryan Church and Brian Schneider all have struggled to some extent. And with team management watching closely over the next few months as it tries to determine who fits into the long-term plan and who doesn’t, those key position players must show improvement.

“Look, we have a great clubhouse with great guys,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “But productivity makes great guys on a baseball team. They have to produce. And as all of us head to the All-Star break, we all look into the mirror and see what we’ve done good, what we’ve done wrong, what we need to prove in the second half. The halfway point doesn’t make a season. These guys have a second half to make a stake on what their future is going to be.”

So, too, do several young pitchers who have shown flashes of promise to date.

Hill, who was beginning to emerge as staff ace before left shoulder and right elbow injuries landed him on the disabled list, will try to recapture his form once he returns (presumably within the next three weeks).

“Yeah, I pitched well to start,” Hill said. “But if I don’t come back and throw well, I’m a question mark for next year. If I come back and finish strong, then maybe I answer that question.”

Like Hill, Jason Bergmann dominated in April before making his own stint on the DL. The 25-year-old right-hander, though, returned earlier this month and again has pitched well.

The one mainstay in the rotation has been rookie Matt Chico, who was prepared to take his lumps in his first season above Class AA. The 24-year-old lefty, however, has displayed poise beyond his years and now looks like a key piece to the long-term puzzle.

“I’m not surprised at all [with my performance],” Chico said. “I expect myself to go out and give the team a chance to win every time.”

Hill, Bergmann and Chico could form the nucleus of the Nationals‘ rotation for years to come. Or they could find themselves leapfrogged by a deep class of top pitching prospects that pushes itself closer to the District each day.

Five pitchers in the Washington farm system — Class AAA Columbus’ John Lannan, Joel Hanrahan and Emiliano Fruto, Class AA Harrisburg’s Collin Balester and recently signed first-round draft pick Ross Detwiler — could make their major league debuts later this season.

“I think when we get to September, we’ll bring some players up to get a look at them to prepare for next year,” Bowden said. “We’ve tried our hardest not to bring them up before that, because we’re trying not to rush them. But certainly once September comes, there’s a possibility of three to five players coming up here who may fit into our plans.”

With such a young roster, the Nationals know they will continue to ride some ups and downs as the rest of the season plays out. But they also know they will be better for it and by season’s end will have gone a long way toward achieving the ultimate goal.

“The younger guys who are going to be here for the plan, they’re learning,” Acta said. “And someday, we’re just going to be able to sit back and put them on automatic pilot and play.”

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