WASHINGTON - When spring training started in February, Nationals manager Davey Johnson made it known he felt he had a team that could contend for the National League East.
At the season's midway point, the Nats are making Johnson look like the smartest man in the room once again.
His team lost 4-3 to the Rockies Sunday, but the Nats head into the All-Star break with the best record in the National League at 49-34. The Nats currently enjoy a four-game lead over the Atlanta Braves and a 4 1/2 game lead over the New York Mets.
The club went 17-11 in its last 28 games, and has shared the NL East lead for 85 of the season's 95 days.
It is not hard to look at this team and see why it has been so successful to this point: starting pitching.
A rotation that is headed by Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez has not disappointed.
Strasburg, despite losing his last three decisions, has a record of 9-4 with an ERA of 2.82. Gonzalez is tied for the Major League lead in wins with 12 and has a 2.92 ERA.
The offseason trade by Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo to acquire Gonzales from Oakland looks like a stroke of genius.
Jordan Zimmermann is one of the tough-luck pitchers in baseball, and Sunday was another example. He left with a 3-1 lead, but the bullpen had one of its few hiccups this season. Despite getting little support, Zimmerman is 5-6 with a 2.61 ERA.
Edwin Jackson, Gonzalez and Zimmermann are on the way to giving this team close to, if not more than, 200 innings.
"Stras, Gio, Zimm have been outstanding," Johnson says. "Jackson has pitched great games and has gone deep in games, and [Ross] Detwiler has really pitched well too.
"Our starting staff is as good as anyone's in baseball as far as I'm concerned."
When starters can get a team into the sixth and seventh inning on a consistent basis, it makes the Nationals' already good bullpen even better.
The seven-man pen has five relievers right now with ERAs lower than 2.00 (Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Michael Gonzalez, Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen). In fact, the collective ERA of those five is 1.68 in 155 1/3 innings.
Defense is another reason this team has a chance to contend in the second half. Once the Achilles' heel of the team, the Nationals have only committed 47 errors so far this season and rank third in defense in the NL behind Cincinnati and Arizona.
"This team was built on defense, starting pitching and athleticism," Rizzo says. "Run prevention was as important as run production for us. We had a good plan in place and we executed it and we are starting to reap the benefits of it."
Offensively, the Nationals are hitting .251, but in the last two weeks, the team has shown signs of becoming the kind of offensive team many thought they had the potential to be.
Most of the reason for that is the return of a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse to the middle of the order. Morse has hit .396 with three homers and nine RBI in his last 11 games before Sunday. He raised his average from .217 to .282 during that stretch.
Ryan Zimmerman took a cortisone shot for his ailing shoulder and since then has hit .333 with five homers and 13 RBI in his last 13 games.
Having both Zimmerman and Morse healthy makes everyone else in the lineup better.
"Adam LaRoche has had a great first half and he has 50-some RBIs," Zimmerman says. "And obviously with me and Mikey healthy and Desi [Ian Desmond] and Danny [Espinosa] have been swinging the bat a lot better now, and Jayson [Werth] should be back in about a month or so and this offense is going to go from very inconsistent to way more consistent like we thought it was going to be from the beginning of the year.
"I think it's a good thing for us and hopefully we can give the starting pitchers a cushion every now and then instead of those one-run games."
The Nationals have had to endure a fair share of injuries this season with 17 different players going on the disabled list at various times, but they have been able to withstand the injuries and continue to win games.
"It's a good group of guys we have here," Ryan Zimmerman says. "I think with the amount of adversity and injuries we have had to go through, it kind of built our character and built us up a little bit almost as to say, 'If we can make it through that, we can make it through anything.'"
The question now is can they make it through the second half and get to the playoffs? Johnson is looking forward to getting even more people healthy for the stretch run.
"It's going to be real fun when we get back to full strength," he says. "We will get [Chad] Tracy back and also my closer of last year, Drew Storen. He's getting close so it's going to be great. We have been decimated with injuries and I'm proud of everybody and the way they have pulled together and put together a heck of a first half."
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