- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Washington Nationals open the second half of the season Friday night in Miami as the best team in the National League, leading the East Division by four games. The second half will bring a pennant race to D.C., and the Nationals will be tested.

“Pressure,” said manager Davey Johnson, “is self-imposed. We’re not going to play it like it’s the seventh game of the World Series. We’re enjoying sitting where we’re sitting. It wasn’t easy getting here, and it’s fun to have everybody having an ‘X’ on your back. It’s nicer there than trying to get to the top, so I don’t look at it as being any more difficult in the second half.”

Without further ado: the Top 5 storylines for the Nationals in the second half:

How will shutting down Stephen Strasburg affect the Nationals?

The shutting down of Strasburg around 160 innings has become one of the hot topics in baseball this season. Seems everyone has an opinion on the Nationals‘ decision to limit the 23-year-old in his full recovery from Tommy John surgery. But what the Nationals need to know is how it will affect them when he’s no longer contributing after roughly the first week in September. They have John Lannan, Zach Duke and Yunesky Maya at Triple-A, Chien-Ming Wang rehabbing a hip strain and the possibility of adding another starter at the trade deadline. Using one of the in-house options to make five September starts, however, seems more likely than the latter choice. The other question is how they’ll cope with the loss of Strasburg’s bat from the lineup every five days.

What will the back end of the bullpen look like when Drew Storen returns?

Tyler Clippard is the closer now, but Storen is expected to be activated this weekend. He’ll be eased back in at first, serving in a set-up role to Clippard — who has yet to blow a save since he was handed the job at the end of May. But how Johnson juggles them the rest of the season will be interesting. Storen saved 43 games in 2011, but he’s well aware of how effective Clippard has been. The Nationals likely will need both to be at the top of their game — and closing games — down the stretch. If they get to the playoffs? It’ll be intriguing to see who is the closer then.

How will Jayson Werth’s return impact the Nationals?

It has been 67 days since Jayson Werth broke his left wrist. For 10 weeks, the Nationals outfielder has been relegated to spectator. But his rehab is progressing. He’s expected to begin swinging in the coming days, and the Nationals are hoping he might be ready to return in the first week of August. But the strength of that left wrist — which Werth has a long, sordid history with — will be key. His return will force Michael Morse back to left field, and Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore back to the bench. The leadoff spot in the lineup will be juggled (options include Danny Espinosa and Werth), and decisions will be needed with the roster. But if Werth’s the same player who hit .276 with a .372 on-base percentage before the injury, he could be one of the best deadline additions of the season.

What will the Nationals do at the July 31 trade deadline?

A lot depends on how the team views its most pressing needs. The Nats’ previous desire for a long-term solution in center field has since been placated by Bryce Harper’s emergence, and with Werth coming back, there’s nowhere to put a new starting outfielder. If there’s value to be had in the starting-pitching market, the Nationals could opt to fill out their rotation in preparation for Strasburg’s shutdown. There are still more than two weeks for the market to develop, but one Nationals official previously speculated the team might actually be in position to sell from its deepest parts (such as relief arms). Too early to handicap it now, but for their first deadline as a team in the heart of the race, the Nationals‘ needs aren’t that plentiful.

Can the Nationals run away with the NL East?

They have the best starting staff in baseball. Their bullpen should be stacked with two bona fide closers and several elite or highly capable set-up men. And they hope their offense — led by shortstop Ian Desmond — will continue to progress as it gets healthier. The Phillies are a mess (though getting healthier). The Mets just lost starter Dillon Gee for the season. The Marlins appear to be in disarray and will be without slugger Giancarlo Stanton for at least a month. The Braves, the Nationals‘ closest competitor in the standings, have their own holes. The division hasn’t evolved the way many expected, but there’s no doubt it’ll be one of the most intriguing down the stretch of any in baseball. Johnson said when the Nationals got to 15 games over .500 that their next goal was 20. How many will be enough to lock it down? There are 79 games to find out.

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