Washington Nationals have first half down, with big goals to go

The Post Sports Live crew assesses the Nationals at the midway point of the season, and look at which players need to lead the team down the stretch to a potential National League East crown. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

At this time last year, the Washington Nationals reconvened after the all-star break and essentially destroyed their season. They limped into the break one game over .500, then lost the first six games afterward and fell nine games behind the Atlanta Braves. By late July, the Nationals’ collapse under the weight of expectation was complete.

From that perspective, this season’s Nationals have accomplished something in their injury-filled, pitching-rich, never-boring first half: They have drawn a clear line between last year’s disappointment and this year’s possibility.

Entering’s Friday night’s home game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Nationals are tied with the Braves for first place in the National League East, a season-best nine games above .500, a mark they did not reach in 2013 until Sept. 13. Their lineup is fully healthy, their defense has recovered and their pitching has dominated. They’ve gone 24-14 since Ryan Zimmerman returned from injury June 3, playing their best as the season nudges toward its latter stages.

“I feel like we’re set up perfect to get on a run and get separation in first place from the Braves,” all-star reliever Tyler Clippard said. “We’re finally healthy. We’re finally kind of kicking on all cylinders as far as the way we want to play defense. Our lineup is where we want it. Guys are in spots where they’re comfortable. It’s kind of all just coming together. Our starting rotation has been great. As long as we stay healthy, it’s going to be a lot of fun in the second half.”

At the all-star break in 2012, the year the Nationals won 98 games and the division title, they had outscored opponents by 58 runs. The Nationals’ current run differential stands at plus-61.

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether Bryce Harper's comments about manager Matt Williams's lineup are potentially damaging for a team that just got back to full strength on Monday. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“I think it’s important for us to continue to do things right,” Manager Matt Williams said. “Offensively, create opportunities and deliver on those opportunities. The bullpen has been good. Our starters have given us a chance. That combination works. We have to execute though and do things right.”

The Nationals’ most crucial improvement — and a key for second-half success — has been their defense, which had cost them 14 runs through 36 games, worst in the majors, according to FanGraphs.com’s Defensive Runs Saved statistic. In their 57 games since, their defense has prevented 32 runs. Overall, their 18 DRS ties them for sixth in the majors.

“A great pitcher can shut down a great offense, but we have great pitching, too,” Clippard said. “So we’re going to play some games that are going to be 2-1, 3-2. We’re winning those games in the last month, where maybe we lost a few more that we shouldn’t have early in the season.”

For the Nationals to win the division, they will have to shake the reputation that has clung to them since they lost Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series: When stakes rise, the spotlight brightens and pressure mounts, the Nationals play beneath their talent level.

“I think my guys over in Atlanta are going to pull it out,” said San Francisco Giants right-hander Tim Hudson, who pitched nine years in Atlanta before this season. “The Nationals are really good. They have a lot of talent. If they can ever put it together, they’re always going to be tough. I think it’s going to be a hard-fought division, but the Braves are going to eventually pull it out.”

The Nationals believe they can use the past two years to steel themselves. Maybe they could not handle postseason stress in 2012 or expectations in 2013, but now they understand both.

“This year, we have a different outlook on it because we have that experience,” Clippard said. “It just comes down to that experience factor. We expect to be there, and we know what it takes to get there. When we’re there, we know what to do. Those kinds of things we didn’t have in 2012.”

Given the ages and contract statuses of their core players, the Nationals may never have better championship chances than this season and next. With two weeks remaining until the trade deadline, the Nationals are in a position that demands they do everything possible to augment their big league roster with the present season in mind.

The Nationals have capable starters at every position, so the cost of acquiring a major bat would outweigh the added value. Their offense isn’t beyond improvement, but it may be too balanced to sensibly upgrade in midseason.

The Nationals’ rotation has been among the best in baseball, and unless Jordan Zimmermann’s biceps strain becomes something more concerning, they would have no need to add a starter. Their No. 5 starter, Tanner Roark, owns the fifth-best ERA in baseball since last year’s all-star break (minimum 130 innings), albeit in a lighter innings load than competitors. Even if they suffer an injury, Blake Treinen has served as a worthy understudy.

The Nationals view themselves as remarkably fortunate with bullpen help this season; nonetheless, they have discussed dealing for another reliever to add durability and protect against injury. In 2012, their staff tired down the stretch.

The Nationals also could explore smaller deals based on roster considerations, such as players who run out of minor league options next season (such as Tyler Moore, Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano) and minor leaguers who would be exposed to the Rule 5 draft if they are not added to the 40-man roster this winter.

Whatever moves the Nationals make, they will be with the highest aspirations in mind. They have to get past the Braves, who are 7-3 against them this season even though the Nationals’ run differential is better by 49 runs. But unlike a year ago, the Nationals have given themselves a strong chance.

“Last year, we got behind the eight-ball, and we were reeling,” Clippard said. “We were trying to play catch-up all year long. The expectations were there, and we just never could really get on a roll. We feel like we’re on that roll here in this season.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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