Three games remain before the Nationals hit the All-Star break. As the first half of the season winds down, Washington is in a prime position to make a run at its second NL East title in three years. Here’s how the Nationals rate through the first 3½ months of the 2014 season.
Injuries have limited the Nationals’ power, with Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman missing extended periods of time. Entering Thursday’s game, the sluggers had combined for just four home runs this season. The Nationals rank 20th in batting average (.246) and 17th in runs scored (367). However, Washington has posted five or more runs in 13 games since June 1, indicating the bats have picked up after a slow start. Prior to Thursday, Ian Desmond’s 16 home runs led the team, with Anthony Rendon in second with 13. Grade: C+
The bench has held its own after being called upon due to an early rash of injuries. Jose Lobaton filled in at catcher admirably and has built a strong relationship with pitcher Gio Gonzalez. Utility man Scott Hairston has a .270 average in 37 at-bats. Though Danny Espinosa has struggled at the plate, he’s proved to be one of the better defensive second basemen in the NL. Utility player Kevin Frandsen has a .990 fielding percentage. Grade: B
There may be no better rotation than Washington’s this season, and it hasn’t been because of Stephen Strasburg (3.47 ERA) or Gonzalez (3.52). Doug Fister (2.90), Jordan Zimmermann (2.79) and Tanner Roark (3.12) have been exceptional through the first half, while Strasburg and Gonzalez have had their fair share of quality outings as well. Entering Thursday, the Nationals had the best team ERA (3.07) in the majors, having given up only 276 earned runs. Grade: A-
Has there been a better setup man and closer combo this season than the Nationals’ Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano? It’s tough to argue against them. Before Thursday, Soriano held a 1.00 ERA with 21 saves. Clippard, who started slow, has bounced back and now has a 1.85 ERA in 39 innings pitched. Drew Storen has a 1.24 ERA and Craig Stammen has been valuable with his ability to pitch in any spot. Grade: A
The Nationals began the season sluggish defensively, but 2013 Gold Glove finalist Denard Span and Co. have since rebounded and are now statistically in the middle of the pack. In its first 89 games, Washington committed 54 errors, which was the 14th fewest in the majors. That’s a significant improvement since late April, when the Nationals were leading the league in errors. Entering Thursday, Desmond led the Nationals in errors with 14, but the shortstop hadn’t committed one since May 26. Grade: B-
In his first season as an MLB manager, Matt Williams has adjusted on the fly to situations that could have allowed this team to crumble. He navigated through a slew of early injuries and has put his team on a pace to battle for the NL East crown. Williams’ public handling of Harper’s comments about how he’d arrange the lineup upon his return was an example of how to quickly defuse what otherwise could become a distraction. Grade: B+
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