“The real fun, the real push comes in the second half,” he said. “… There’s nothing that beats a pennant race and we’re right in the thick of it.”

For the Nationals, life as a contender has been plenty busy. They have overcome a myriad of injuries and slumping hitters to become one of the most surprising stories in baseball in the first half and grab the best record in the National League. The second half, however, is when it counts most.

“I don’t think anybody really thought or knew what kind of club we were,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “We had a lot of new faces, and we knew we had a lot of talent, but I think we’re all satisfied with where we’re at right now.”

When asked about whom he wanted to see a big second half from, Johnson offered a handful of names:

On Danny Espinosa, who has shown only slight improvement hitting left-handed: “I’ve liked the progress that I’ve seen in Espinosa, from the left side hitting.”

On Ryan Zimmerman, who has become a red-hot hitter since his cortisone shot on June 24: “He doesn’t anticipate more treatment but he knows it’s there and it can always help him if it goes south on him again.”

On Michael Morse, whose batting average has jumped nearly 70 points in three weeks: “I thought he was still kind of not quite feeling totally comfortable. I feel like he should be more consistent the second half.”

On Jesus Flores, who took over as the primary catcher when Wilson Ramos was hurt: “He puts a lot of pressure on himself instead of relaxing more and getting in the way of his ability. I think he’s a little too mechanical.”

On Bryce Harper: “I think that every game that Harper plays, the more comfortable he gets.”

On Craig Stammen, who is tied for third-most innings (46 2/3) of relief work: “I promised I wouldn’t overwork him the second half but don’t hold me to it.”

When the Nationals return from the break, they will face an immediate test. They will travel for a four-game series in Miami against the Marlins, who swept them in May. That will be the first of four straight series against division opponents: two series against the New York Mets and one against the Atlanta Braves. Of their final 79 games, 47 will be within the NL East.

“We’ve got a big game every day for the next three months,” Johnson said.


The Nationals bullpen squandered, a rarity, a strong Jordan Zimmermann start in a 4-3 loss to the Rockies — but they still have the best record in the NL.

Nats pitching prospect Alex Meyer makes the most of his Futures Game appearance, Adam Kilgore writes. He is 6-foot-9 and can hit 99 mph.


A short trip home for Harper at the break?

Nats’ probable post-break rotation

Futures Game: Meyer impressive


Pawtucket 4, Syracuse 1: Yunesky Maya (6-7, 3.68 ERA) allowed four runs on nine hits over seven innings and was handed the loss. Designated hitter Jarrett Hoffpauir drove in the team’s lone run.

Harrisburg 3, Erie 1: Ryan Perry picked up his first win as a starter, giving up only two hits over five innings. Sandy Leon went 1 for 2 with a walk.

Carolina 3, Potomac 2: Second baseman Adrian Sanchez went 1 for 3 and had a two-run double.

Hagerstown 6, Lexington 3: Left fielder Caleb Ramsey went 3 for 4 and third baseman Matthew Skole drove in two runs.

Hudson Valley 7, Auburn 2: Designated hitter Carlos Alvarez went 3 for 4 and is hitting .295 in 11 games.