The Nats' status at the break

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With the All-Star break upon us, it's a good time to look back on the first half of the season, speculate on the second half and evaluate our Nationals at this important juncture of the season.

Satchel Paige once said, "Don't look back. Someone might be gaining on you!" I believe you have to look back before you can look ahead.

April was solid as the Nats went 13-10 and were in the top 6 in the National League in team defense. Ryan Zimmerman hit .362 for the month, led the team in RBIs with Josh Willingham, and 12 of his 17 hits were for extra bases. The staff ERA was 4.54, 11th in the league and it was obvious the offense and defense kept Washington within 1 game of the first-place Mets at the end of the month.

May saw the Nats go to 20-15 after a win at Colorado on the 13th, but the second half of the month was a disaster on the road as Washington went 6-11 and finished the month at 26-26. The ERA had fallen to 4.26, but the defense made 29 errors, offsetting the offense that had risen to 8th in the NL in batting average. Willingham finished the month with a team-leading 35 RBIs and Cristian Guzman led the way with a.327 average.

June brought Stephen Strasburg, interleague play and an 8-19 record for the month, 5-13 versus the AL. The ERA shrunk further to 4.10, but the defense gave away far too many unearned runs and the Nats sank to last in the league in defense. Washington was okay at home against the AL except for the White Sox, winning series from the Orioles and Royals. But trips to Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore yielded 1 win and 8 losses. No regulars were hitting .300, but the big 3 of Zimmerman-Dunn-Willingham continued to do damage whether anyone was on base in front of them or not.

That brings us to the mythical halfway point this weekend.

The four-day break next week will help the guys recharge from the daily grind that is the major league season, but danger awaits.

With a road record of 14-29, second half answers may come quickly on a 10-game trip to Florida, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. The Marlins are always tough on the Nats in South Florida; the Reds are in first place; and the Brewers have firepower in Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart that will be a problem for Washington's starting rotation.

In the last 73 games after the break, the Nats need to:
-Catch the ball and throw it to the right places, on target.
-Get some injured starting pitchers healthy.
-Have starters pitch at least 6 and often 7 to 8 innings so the bullpen doesn't wear out.
-Get Morgan and Guzman on base more for the big guns in the middle of the lineup.
-Show toughness and character and become regular winners on the road.

This season will definitely be better than '08 and '09 were; we all know that. But, to take that quantum lead we're all looking for, the second half will have to be fundamentally better than the first.

In George Will's great baseball book "Men At Work," Rick Dempsey talked about the little things you do for six months: catching the ball, moving runners, pitching well. Then at the end of the season, "You look up, and you've won."

Baseball is like that. Sudden change is hard to accomplish, so you do one little thing at a time. It's time for the Nationals to take those baby steps and get better. It may not show up next Friday, or by the first of August.

But, by the end of September, this team has a chance to have a special season that will set the stage for years to come.