Washington Nationals hope to keep improving in second half of season

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010

When they came together in the spring, the Washington Nationals often heard a phrase that reminded them of the team's task in relation to the state of the franchise. The maxim, Manager Jim Riggleman said, was "keeping the needle moving forward."

The Nationals' 39-50 record at the all-star break left them with a tinge of disappointment following a promising start that had them a game out of first in mid-May. The Nationals could have played better; they believe they should have.

Despite the letdown of again finding themselves in last place, the Nationals no longer must ward off ridicule, charges of incompetence or the league's worst record. The team is improved.

Their mission, as the second half of the season opens Friday with Stephen Strasburg on the mound against the Florida Marlins, remains the same: "Create momentum and get this team to the next level," General Manager Mike Rizzo said.

Playoff contention, from 10 1/2 games out of the wild-card spot, remains a distant hope. Still, in the aim of forging respectability, every victory will matter. The Nationals are not chasing the pennant this season, but they hope this second half could catapult them into doing so, possibly as soon as next year.

"If we play well in the second half, creep back up in the standings a little bit, maybe not be there in the end as far as winning first place, but be there as far as making an impact," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Free agents look at that. They want to go to teams that are going to compete. It's hard to get free agents when you lose 100 games every year. It's important for us as far as building some momentum, some confidence that we can play with anyone. It could be a big steppingstone for us.

"I think this year is the first year where we can kind of see over the hump. Next year -- I hate talking about next year already -- but next year we have a possibility to do a lot of damage. For now, the second half, our goal is to play over .500 and just be consistent."

Along the way, as the Nationals play 42 of their final 73 games within the National League East, several themes will likely dominate the next 2 1/2 months. The first will determine the potential course of the next two or three seasons in Washington: Should they trade Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, sign them to contract extensions or stand pat?

"You'd like to keep it together," Riggleman said. "A lot of things go into those decisions. Whatever decision Mike comes to along those lines, I'll support him."

But Riggleman made clear he would like to keep Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham -- the heart of his batting order -- in Washington. "From a selfish standpoint, I'd like to keep 3, 4 and 5 together," he said. "But we also want to add to the group."

Dunn and Willingham have expressed their desire to remain in Washington, although Dunn's interest in staying could be waning given how long he and his representatives have been negotiating a new contract with the front office without reaching an agreement.

The presence of Dunn and Willingham surely would help the Nationals build momentum, one of the reasons Zimmerman wants to keep his teammates. He believes the importance of the final 73 games of the season, regardless of the standings, is one reason to keep both sluggers -- his "partners in crime," he's called them -- in Washington.

"We're so close," Zimmerman said. "I mean, they know. Mike and [team President] Stan [Kasten] are smart. They're one of the biggest reason why we're so much better this year. They drafted well. They traded well. They know what we need to do to win. I don't think either of them want to get rid of either of these guys. They understand what we have, and they're proud of the team that we have."

The Nationals cycled through 10 starting pitchers in the first half, and the Nationals Park mound has not seen anything yet. Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang and Jordan Zimmermann could make their debuts in the coming weeks. John Lannan, Scott Olsen and Jason Marquis could return from either injury or ineffectiveness.

How will they all get their shots? With injuries, trades and demotions, the Nationals aren't worried. "Amazingly, somehow or another, these things usually take care of themselves," Riggleman said.

The biggest question mark is Wang, who the Nationals hoped would be ready by early June but has yet to schedule a rehabilitation start. Wang's unique shoulder injury -- a shoulder subluxation injury more common in football -- has made pinning down any kind of timeline for his return tricky.

"I don't think anybody has given up on this season yet," said Alan Nero, Wang's agent. "We're not 100 percent sure when he's going to be able to go out on the rehab assignment. I've got to commend the Nationals on being so devoted to protecting him."

While the status of Wang's return remains a mystery, Zimmermann's has become a sure thing, or at least as close to a sure thing as a pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery can have. After throwing 53 pitches in four innings Wednesday night, Zimmermann has not allowed an earned run or a walk in nine innings spread over three starts with Class A Potomac.

No matter who's hurling, the players behind him must offer more help. The Nationals committed 75 errors in the first half, most in the major leagues and just seven off the wretched 143-error pace they set last season. The front office believes defense, more than any malady that cropped up in the first half, stands in the way of the Nationals' progress.

"We need some of the younger guys to mature and stop making the same mistakes," Zimmerman said. "That's going to lead to wins. I think the second half, our goal should be more consistent, not have to worry the highs and lows as much."

Before they can make progress, the Nationals have to define what that means for them right now. It might be letting shortstop Ian Desmond work out his kinks so he can blossom when the team is ready to do the same. It might be determining which outfielders, if any, are long-term fixtures. Eventually, they want progress to be measured only in the standings.

"I think we're closer to that," Riggleman said. "That's where we want to get to, where the only thing that matters is wins and losses. Right now, we're in that kind of transition period where we need to make progress. We've tasted a little bit of winning here where we say, 'Let's go. Let's get over the hump.' "

This second half may not get them there, but it could serve as a step backward or a leap forward, a warning of more of the same or promise for what's next. The payoff, they hope, will be a winning baseball season in Washington for the first time since 1969. That's something that would really move the needle.

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