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NATIONALS: Five Storylines To Watch As Second Half Begins

By ZAC BOYER | zboyer@freelancestar.com | @ZacBoyer

WASHINGTON – After finishing the first half of the season with the best record in the National League, the Washington Nationals will return to the field Friday in Miami to resume their chase for their first National League East division title since moving from Montreal in 2005.

The Nationals carry several questions into the second half, most of them about the team’s sustainability and its realistic chances of qualifying for the playoffs. There are also concerns about individual players and overall inexperience, but there’s no reason to believe their 49-34 record before the All-Star break was a fluke.

Five storylines to watch include:

1. Strasburg. What is likely to be the most hotly debated issue in all of baseball is whether the Nationals will stick to their plan of limiting pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s innings, effectively ending his season in the final month. Strasburg, the hard-throwing righthander, is still recovering from a torn ulnar collateral ligament and resulting Tommy John surgery, and the Nationals believe the best course of action to ensure his durability in the future is to allow him to pitch approximately 160 innings.

He has thrown 99 innings; in those 17 starts, his 128 strikeouts are tied for the major-league lead, while his 2.82 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and nine wins (with four losses) are amongst the top 10 in the National League in those categories. Strasburg fueled the flames during the All-Star break, telling MLB Network Radio “they’re gonna have to rip the ball out of my hands” when asked if he’d be OK with sitting during the a playoff run, but the conundrum boils down to whether the Nationals believe they can compete for several years or if they think this season may be their best chance at winning the National League pennant and the World Series.

2. Injuries. Manager Davey Johnson said before the All-Star Game that the players’ character allowed them to adapt to the variety of injuries that have sent key contributors to the disabled list. Fifteen players who made an appearance for the Nationals this season spent time on the disabled list, including outfielder Michael Morse, who missed the first 50 games with an oblique injury, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has been bothered by a right shoulder injury, and catcher Wilson Ramos, who tore ligaments in his right knee in May and is out for the season.

Outfielder Jayson Werth broke his left wrist in early May, closer Drew Storen had surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow at the end of spring training and starter Chien-Ming Wang wasn’t the same after returning from a left hamstring injury in late May. All three should return if not by the end of the month, certainly in early August, which should boost an already thriving team.

3. Hitting. The Nationals were hitting a combined .238 as recently as June 25, when they lost 4-2 at Colorado and ranked in the bottom three in the National League. The bats have come alive in the 12 games since, surpassing 10 hits in eight of those games, and they’ve scored an average of 6.9 runs a game – including a three-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants in which they scored 24 runs and batted .343.

Part of that renaissance can be attributed to turnarounds for Morse and Zimmerman, each of whom have returned to their pre-injury form. Morse went 4-for-5 against the Rockies on June 26 and has hit .404 since, while Zimmerman, who received a cortisone shot in his shoulder on June 24, is batting .333.

Ian Desmond, in his third full season, was named an All-Star for leading the team with a .285 average, 98 hits and 17 home runs, and rookie Bryce Harper has lived up to the hype, hitting .282 with a .354 on-base percentage, 43 runs, 25 RBIs, eight home runs and 10 stolen bases.

4. Pitching. What the Nationals could expect from Strasburg this season was fairly certain. It’s the other pieces of the rotation that have been the pleasant surprise. Gio Gonzalez, acquired via trade with Oakland before the season, is tied for the National League lead in wins with his 12-4 record. Jordan Zimmermann has a 2.61 ERA, the lowest of any starter, and gone at least six innings in all 17 starts, while Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler have filled in well in the back of the rotation.

Johnson has also been effusive in his praise of the bullpen – and for good reason. The Nationals’ bullpen is holding opponents to a .225 average and its ERA is 3.13, both of which rank fourth in the National League. Tyler Clippard, who took over as closer on May 22, has gone 14-for-14 in save opportunities. Craig Stammen, in for long relief and crucial one-inning situations, and Sean Burnett, now the eighth-inning setup pitcher, have each been reliable.

5. Experience. At 27 years, five months on opening day, the Nationals entered the season with the second-youngest roster in the National League, and only five players currently on the active roster, and three on the disabled list, have appeared in a playoff game. That’s no guarantee of a late-season struggle – consider Tampa Bay in 2008 – but having the attention on such an inexperienced club could be a factor as the season continues. Johnson, of course, led the New York Mets to a World Series victory in 1986 and also took Cincinnati and Baltimore to the playoffs, and he understands the challenges involved with doing so.

One factor that could help? The Nationals play 41 of their last 79 games at home, and only 35 games remain against teams who currently hold winning records. Plus, 21 of their first 25 games after the break are against other NL East teams, allowing them the immediate opportunity to gain ground on their division rivals.

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/dcsports/2012/07/13/nationals-five-storylines-to-watch-as-second-half-begins/

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