- CSNwashington.com - Sunday, June 29, 2014

CHICAGO — The optimist will look at the fact the Washington Nationals are tied for first place, with the best pitching staff in baseball, sporting a plus-39 run differential despite the fact they had their full, Opening Day lineup together for all of seven innings … on Opening Day.

The pessimist will look at the fact the Nationals are in the bottom half of the majors in runs scored, with a bunch of veteran regulars having been unable to sustain success, and question how this team can reach the playoffs (or perhaps even more) with a lineup that figures to feature a lot of moving parts over the next three months … not to mention some major defensive question marks.

So, what to make of this team at the official halfway point of the season? Through 81 games, the Nationals are 43-38 and jockeying with the Braves atop the NL East. Plenty of clubs would love to be in their position. The Nats, though, would love to be in better position.

“For me, certainly not where we’d like to be,” first-year manager Matt Williams said. “Also not where we could be with all that’s gone on. I think we’ve got a group of guys that continue to battle hard every day. They use nothing as an excuse and play. Would we like to be better than we are? Of course. Everybody would. But we are where we’re at.

“We have to look at … what we do moving forward. There’s nothing we can do about what’s happened other than forget about it and move forward. It’s a long season. We’ve got to keep doing that.”

In that regard, the Nationals have ample reason to believe that things will be better during the season’s second half than they were during the just-completed first half, if for no other reason than they are about to be fully healthy for the first time in 2014.

After watching five of their eight Opening Day position players — plus two-fifths of their rotation — spend time on the DL through the season’s first three months, the Nationals will have everybody on the active roster Monday night against the Rockies once Bryce Harper makes his expected return from a torn thumb ligament.

Certainly, there’s no guarantee they’ll make it through the rest of the season in one piece, but it’s hard to imagine the Nationals experiencing worse injury fortune over the second half than they did during the first half.

A healthy lineup should be a more-productive lineup, with everybody slotted where they should have been all along and no one player feeling pressure to carry the entire club (which has too often the case to date).

There is, however, one major dilemma facing Williams and Co. Harper’s return forces one of either two things to happen: Ryan Zimmerman must return to third base and confront his throwing demons, or somebody else must be benched.

Though he wouldn’t reveal his plan over the weekend, Williams strongly suggested he intends to put Zimmerman back at third base, at least to begin, a decision that would push Anthony Rendon back to second base and the struggling Danny Espinosa back to the bench. That won’t necessarily be the everyday plan — Zimmerman is likely to bounce around among third base, left field and first base — but it appears to be the initial plan, with Williams placing a greater emphasis on offensive production than defensive prowess.

One thing Williams doesn’t have to spend much time worrying about is his pitching staff, which leads the majors with a 3.07 ERA despite earlier injuries to Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister. The rotation has been utterly dominant at times, and though there have been a couple of hiccups along the way, it remains as formidable a starting five as there is in baseball.

The Nationals’ bullpen, meanwhile, continues to carry this club. The seven relievers who opened the season on the roster all have remained there from Day One (except for a brief period in early April when rookie Aaron Barrett was sent to Triple-A not because of poor performance but because the club needed to add a fresh arm for a few days). Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Barrett all boast ERAs of 2.00 or better. Craig Stammen remains as versatile a reliever as there is in baseball. Lefties Ross Detwiler and Jerry Blevins have been inconsistent but have shown flashes of effectiveness.

Stepping back and scanning the situation, the Nationals seem to be a better team at this point than they were a year ago at the same time. Their record is only marginally better; the 2013 Nats went 41-40 through the season’s first 81 games, but that club trailed the Braves by 6 1/2 games. With Atlanta having gone 26-31 since going 17-7 to burst out of the gates, and with the rest of the NL East under .500 and not realistically in contention, the Nationals find themselves in a fortuitous position.

It may not take 90 wins to capture the division title this year. And even if it does, this team seems better-equipped than any other in the NL East to go on the kind of sustained, second-half run that would be required.

“I like our position in the standings, and I like where our team’s at, for the most part,” Adam LaRoche said. “There’s always little things here and there that we can tighten up. But I like how we’re fighting back in these close games, even in some of these games we’re losing. I just don’t feel like we’re out of too many games. … That’s a good sign.”

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