- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Washington Nationals are .500 as the second half begins for the first time since 2005, their first year in D.C. After a first half that featured gut-wrenching losses, an eight-game win streak, the sudden resignation of a manager and 36 one-run games, they open the second half Friday with a chance to finish with their best record in the nation’s capital.

A brief look at the first half and what to expect in the second:

Issues facing the Nationals

Their offense: A common refrain for the first half of the season was that the Nationals were going to be dangerous - as soon as they started hitting. Their pitching was an unquestioned strength, but the offense was more often anemic than effective. The Nationals are 46-35 when they score at least one run. Laynce Nix and Michael Morse have been the team’s most consistent hitters, and when the Nationals put out a healthy lineup that hits to its potential, they’re a sound offensive team. But the production from Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman has fallen far short thus far, putting two gaping holes in the lineup.

Jayson Werth: The $126 million man had a first half to forget. He limped into the All-Star break with a .215 average, his lowest this late in a season since 2003 when he was with the Toronto Blue Jays. Werth’s been booed at Nationals Park with each passing strikeout or inning-ending play. He’s been serviceable in right field, and no one would question his effort. But none of that carries the weight of his bat. The Nationals signed Werth coming off a career year, and so far he’s produced a career-worst. He’s known as a second-half player; the Nationals hope that holds true. Ryan Zimmerman’s numbers haven’t been up to par, but the third baseman missed the first two months and won’t be fully recovered from abdominal surgery, perhaps, until next season.

Maintaining their starting pitching: As the Nationals wait for the hitting to come around, one thing they keep reminding everyone is that water eventually seeks its level. In essence, guys who have a track record of performing are eventually going to perform. By that same token, they have to hope that doesn’t happen with their pitching staff. Jordan Zimmermann is unquestionably the best pitcher on the staff, but what happens when he reaches his innings limit? John Lannan has been outstanding as well, but in his last start before the break he took a line drive off his face. There’s no way of knowing if that affected him until he gets back on the mound. If the Nationals are going to give their offense a chance to prove them right, they need their pitching to continue being as effective.

Biggest first-half surprises

Michael Morse and Laynce Nix: When the Nationals broke from spring training, Laynce Nix was a minor league free agent who made the team and Michael Morse was handed the job as the starting left fielder. Nix, with his consistent average (.274) and steady power (12 homers), played well enough to force his way into the cleanup spot and the everyday left fielder’s job. Morse was rejuvenated when he took over at first base for the injured Adam LaRoche and became the team’s best hitter with a .306 average, 15 home runs and 49 RBI at the break.

Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond: If anyone told you Espinosa, with his 16 homers and 52 RBI (both team highs) and sterling defense at second base wasn’t exceeding expectations, they’d be lying. He’s been one of the team’s best players, and his clutch stats are off the charts (.358 average with men on base), putting him at the top of the conversation for NL Rookie of the Year. Pitchers have adjusted to Desmond after his fine rookie season, and the shortstop still is re-adjusting. His defense, however, has been outstanding in light of his 34 errors in 2010. Desmond has slowed the game in the field and makes not just routine plays but exceptional ones, consistently.

Biggest first-half disappointment:

Free-agent acquisitions: Joining Jayson Werth in this group are outfielder Rick Ankiel, first baseman Adam LaRoche and utilityman Matt Stairs. LaRoche attempted to play through a torn labrum, finally succumbing to season-ending surgery with a .172 average, three home runs and 15 RBI. Ankiel has had two stints on the disabled list and is batting just .232. ), but he has been impressive off the bench since returning to the active roster July 1. Matt Stairs, signed to provide a left-handed bat off the bench, has just nine hits in 63 at-bats.

Possible trade pieces

Jason Marquis: The veteran right-hander generally does one thing all teams need: eat up innings. On his good days, he has an impressive sinker that can baffle teams. Marquis could be a quality pick-up for a contending team with a good defense. He has playoff experience and can swing the bat. Chances are he wouldn’t fit too well in the American League - he’s 10-8 in 27 Interleague starts with a 5.50 ERA - but could shore up the back end of a contending team’s rotation for about $2.5 million, which is what’s left on his two-year, $15 million deal.

Livan Hernandez: Like Marquis, Hernandez is a workhorse who’s capable of turning in seven or more innings while allowing three runs or less. Teams would have to pay him relatively little on the $1 million deal he signed last year to stay with the Nationals. He’s a mentor to the young pitchers, though, and has a long history with the organization. But the Nationals have traded him before, to Arizona in August 2006 for pitchers Matt Chico and Garrertt Mock. It wouldn’t be surprising to see history repeat.

Ivan Rodriguez: As soon as San Francisco catcher Buster Posey went down with a broken leg in late May, the rumors began to swirl that Rodriguez would be heading west. Those rumblings have quieted, but the Nationals have made no secret that they’d trade the future Hall of Famer, who is 158 hits shy of 3,000. But even at age 39, he still provides value to their team. The chances of them being able to deal him - and get a return worth anything - took a hit last week when Rodriguez went on the disabled list with a strained right oblique. Both he and manager Davey Johnson insisted it was a slight strain and didn’t expect a prolonged absence. Rodriguez’s injury allows for Jesus Flores to get an extended look at the major league level for the first time since his 2009 shoulder surgery. He can either prove himself a viable backup to Wilson Ramos and make the Nationals even more willing to move Rodriguez, or perhaps showcase himself for a trade. Catching depth is one of the Nationals’ strengths, with Derek Norris, 22, still in Double-A and Ramos just 23.

Todd Coffey: The right-hander has gone through stretches where he’s been as reliable in the bullpen as their stalwarts, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, and he’s gone through stretches where he gets hit. Still, the roughly $450,000 left on his one-year deal and his numbers on the whole (35 2/3 IP, 3.28 ERA) will be attractive to a contender looking for a veteran reliever. The Texas Rangers were said to be interested earlier this season, but that seems to have faded.

New faces in second half?

Chien-Ming Wang: The right-hander’s rehab stint runs out July 27, and the Nationals will have to make a decision with him at that point. Several team officials feel they may finally see Wang take the mound in Washington for the first time since he signed almost two years ago. Having overcome major shoulder surgery, Wang touched 92 mph in his rehab appearance with Double-A Harrisburg and continues to improve his control each time out. The key for him will be getting to 90-100 pitches per appearance and be able to throw a bullpen session two days later with no issues. Trading one of the sarters could open up space for Wang, a former 19-game winner for the New York Yankees.

Tom Milone: The organization’s Pitcher of the Year in 2010 has been dominant in Triple-A this season. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 107 to 7, and he pitched a scoreless inning in the Triple-A All-Star Game. After one of his final starts before the break, Milone told reporters he feels he is ready to compete at a higher level. Between Jordan Zimmermann’s expected shutdown at about 160 innings and potential trades from the rotation, Milone could be making his major league debut before the year is out.

Stephen Strasburg: The Nationals’ ace continues to rehab from last September’s Tommy John surgery and is progressing in Viera, Fla. Strasburg threw off a mound for the first time in May and has continued slowly from there. He’s close to 100 percent and has begun mixing in his breaking pitches and off-speed pitches as well. He’d have to go on a rehab assignment and make a few starts before the Nationals considered adding him to the active roster, and if he doesn’t begin that process soon, he may not appear in Washington this season. It’s difficult to say if the Nationals would activate him for one start and get him ramped all the way up only to shut him down for the offseason.

Brad Peacock: The Nationals’ representative, along with Bryce Harper, in the Futures Game on Sunday, Peacock earned a promotion to Triple-A shortly after he threw one perfect inning (nine pitches) in the showcase game in Phoenix. A former 41st-round pick, Peacock has worked to improve his deception and his delivery, and it’s paid huge dividends in Double-A. Peacock heads to Triple-A Syracuse with a 10-2 record. He’s struck out 129 and walked only 23 and was named to the Eastern League All-Star team. If he continues to dominate, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in Washington come September.

Stephen Lombardozzi and Matt Antonelli: Neither Lombardozzi (a Columbia, Md., product) nor Antonelli began the season with Triple-A Syracuse, but both middle infielders have performed well there. Antonelli, a former first-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres, has hit .308 with a .395 on-base percentage, was a late addition to the Triple-A All-Star Game and reports on his defense have been positive. Lombardozzi is batting .348, and Nationals officials are high on his baseball acumen and makeup. Both could earn call-ups this fall.

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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