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Posted at 07:30 AM ET, 07/13/2012

The Nationals’ second half begins, but can they keep this up?


The second half of the season begins Friday. The Nationals sit in first place in the National League East, with a four game lead of the Atlanta Braves, and boast the best record in the National League. The rest of their division is gunning for them now. There’s been added excitement about this team so far this season, with larger crowds and more attention. People have been thrilled to watch their ascension to this point.

Yet, how will this team handle it all? Will they be able to keep this pace up?

“The more we win, the more of a target there is on our backs,” Stephen Strasburg said. “We just got to keep focused. We can’t and try do too much out there. We just have to try and play, just get out there and have fun and play hard. Day in, day out.”

Overall, the Nationals have done well in those high-pressure and marquee situations in the first half. They took four of six games from their rival Philadelphia Phillies, took six of eight from the Braves, swept another league favorite San Francisco Giants, took two series from the playoff contender Cincinnati Reds and swept the Boston Red Sox.

But there have been some stumbles: the three-game sweep by the New York Yankees, dropping four of seven to the Colorado Rockies and being swept by the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers earlier in the season. In some of those games, they showed their youth and mistakes, and in other ones they were just plain beaten. The second half will be filled with many of these same chances to shine or fall, but they will have the added strain of being in the heart of a pennant race.

“It’s just trying to stay the same, man,” Gio Gonzalez said on how to handle the second half. “Don’t put any added pressure.”

In 2005, the Nationals’ first season back in Washington, they ended the first half with a .591 winning percentage, a point higher than this year’s squad’s mark before the all-star break. But by the end of that July, those Nationals had already fallen out of first place and went 29-45 to end the season. This year’s team has the pieces to potentially avoid that collapse. They boast the majors’ top pitching staff with its lowest team ERA, four all-star players and have the third-youngest average age among teams, so there’s a future.

The rest of baseball has noticed the transformation in Washington, and now they know exactly who they are having to chase.

“I check box scores all the time,” Atlanta Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said. “I’m watching the scoreboard. Now this late in the season, anybody in first place is going to have a target on them. That’s who we’re all going for. I’m not really looking up to see if the Phillies won or lost. I’m looking to see what’s going on with the Mets and Washington.”

FROM THE POST

After some struggles, Ian Desmond is putting it all together this season, writes Adam Kilgore.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Nats take it slow with Storen

Oddsmakers like Nationals’ chances

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NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 1, Syracuse 0: Seven Chief pitchers combined to allow only five hits and one run. Jeff Mandel made his second start of the season and pitched a scoreless five innings.

Richmond 12, Harrisburg 3: Second baseman Jeff Kobernus went 2 for 5 and drove in the Senators’ only runs, raising his batting average to .287.

Wilmington 8, Potomac 3: Xavier Nady (wrist) made his fifth rehab appearance, hitting third as a designated hitter. He finished 0 for 4. Overall, he’s 1 for 14.

Greensboro 4, Hagerstown 3: Designated hitter Steven Souza, Jr. went 1 for 5 with a solo home run in the second inning.

Auburn 6, Aberdeen 3: Brett Mooneyham started and tossed three scoreless innings. Center fielder Wander Ramos went 2 for 3 and drove in three r

By  |  07:30 AM ET, 07/13/2012

 
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