Crystal ball time: Who makes the playoffs?

Let the second half begin. The Nationals enter Act Two four games ahead of the Braves in the NL East. The Orioles are seven games behind the Yankees in the AL East.

It would be beyond exciting to see both teams make the playoffs for the first time since baseball returned to Washington in 2005. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening. Absent the luxury of a crystal ball, my prediction is we are going to see two teams trending in different directions in the second half.

The Nationals are going to continue their reign at the top of the standings. At the very worst, I see Davey Johnson's group grasping that first NL wild card spot. Pitching will be the reason.

The Nats' starting rotation was the best in baseball in the first half, going 35-23 with a 3.25 ERA. Four of its five starters could be No. 1s on many other major league ballclubs. Couple that with a bullpen that is fourth in the NL, and you have one of the best staffs in baseball.

The back end of the Nats' pen is only going to get stronger with the return of Drew Storen shortly after the All-Star break. Storen saved 43 games for Washington in 2011. As Gio Gonzalez said, "They're always cleaning up our mess. They're always cleaning up our laundry and putting it away for us. I feel the back end of our bullpen is incredible."

Meanwhile, as refreshing as it's been for Orioles fans to have a first half worth watching, I just can't see the Orioles catching the Yankees. Even though the Yanks have taken big hits in the pitching department with injuries to Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia, their bats are just too potent. New York's hitters can jack three-run homers at any minute. It'll be hard for anyone to outslug them. Plus, they get Sabathia back next week.

Buck_Showalter-sidebar-over_shoulder.jpgIf I had to call the AL East now, I'd say the Yankees win the division, while the Rays slip into second place and the Orioles and Red Sox battle it out for third. Toronto will finish in the basement.

I know, I'm not exactly being optimistic, but I am being realistic. The O's just don't have the starting pitching. Playoff teams have at least two shutdown pitchers at the top of the rotation. Jason Hammel and Wei Yin Chen have surpassed expectations in the first half, but can they remain consistent through 162 games?

Chen doesn't have a big league track record to reference, and Hammel's track record shows he's never sustained this pace through a complete season. Hammel is 29 years old and has been in the big leagues since 2006.

Forget the top of the rotation. Most teams have decent ones and twos. What separates contenders and non-contenders is the quality of a team's third and fourth starters. Look at the Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann. He's heading into the second half with a 2.61 ERA. The Nats' fourth starter, Edwin Jackson, has a winning record (5-4) with a 3.73 ERA. Plus, he's on pace to pitch 200-plus innings this year. Not many fourth starters are as effective and can eat innings.

Meanwhile, Buck Showalter is uncertain who his third, fourth and fifth starters will be in the second half. Sure, Chris Tillman put together a nice outing in his one big league start this year, but if your house was on the line, would you put your money on Tillman?

Who knows what Miguel Gonzalez is capable of? That will be a wait-and-see, as well. Meanwhile, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter have all been demoted to the minor leagues. If two of the three miraculously get back on track and start dealing, then maybe the O's fate will change. For now, fans can only hold onto that hope.

At least the Orioles' bullpen is still tops in all of baseball, but eventually they can't keep picking up the slack for an ineffective back end of the rotation. All bullpens, even the best, will wear down over time.

Pitching will undoubtedly be the deciding factor for both the O's and Nats in the second half.

Question for the blogosphere: Who has a better shot of making the playoffs? O's or Nats?