The Nationals won 98 games last year. They aren’t going to cruise to the National League East title this year, and it’s going to be a grind just to make October. This time, they have to improve their hitting and get consistent pitching from No. 4 and No. 5 in the rotation.
Dan Haren has pitched well in his return from the disabled list, and Ross Detwiler should be back next week. They need to pitch well. The depth is not there.
The Nats offense is perplexing. At times, they surge. Then, they fall out of sight. Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos were their hottest hitters going into the break. Denard Span and All-Star Bryce Harper are the coldest. Overall, the Nationals rank 13th in team average and they are hitting .243 with runners in scoring position. And, the Nats hope that the three two-out hits in the final inning of Sunday’s win in Miami will be a sign of things to come.
Here’s a glimpse of how the Nationals’ competition shapes up when the season resumes Sunday:
* The Braves’ six-game lead over the Nationals in the NL East is the biggest of any division at the break. ... The Braves’ strength is their pitching, and given an inconsistent lineup, especially the outfielders, it’s amazing the Braves have scored 415 runs, third-best in the NL. The Braves lead the NL with 114 home runs, but also 826 strikeouts as well. ... Lefty Luis Avilan, who came up to the bigs last July, has established himself as one of the best setup men in baseball after the season-ending injuries to Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters. ... Brandon Beachy, 26, who had a 3.07 ERA in three seasons with the Braves, will boost the pitching staff when he returns from the disabled in the second half.
* Are the Phillies in or out? The Phillies went into the break winning nine of 13, including three of four versus the Nationals. The Phillies are at .500 for the first time since June 7, so the next two weeks will determine if they are buyers or sellers at the July 31 deadline. ... The case can be made that the Phillies, without Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay, have overachieved, but if they fall out of the race, will Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon and Michael Young be on the trade block? ... Prediction: Lee, an All-Star lefty, will stay in Philadelphia because teams won’t pay the price in prospects and will be turned off by the $77 million left on his contract. Plus, the Phillies can build around Lee and another lefty, Cole Hamels. ... The Phillies have waited a long time for Domonic Brown to deliver, and this season, he made his first All-Star team.
* The Reds have had trouble scoring runs, but they would like nothing better than a repeat performance of what they did last season coming out of the break, when they won 22 of 25 and took a lead they never lost in the NL Central. ... This year, the Reds have been without cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwig, No. 1 pitcher Johnny Cueto, catcher Ryan Hanigan, and relievers Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton. Marshall, Broxton and Cueto should be back soon after the break, and Ludwig, a power hitter they need, won’t be back until mid-August. There’s talk that the Reds will try to make a trade for a bat - Josh Willingham of the Twins is a possibility - but general manager Walt Jocketty says the team will win when it gets its injured players back.
* The Pirates need 25 wins to end their streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons, and they are once again the talk of Pittsburgh, not the Penguins or the Steelers. ... But the Pirates have been in this position before, and the last two years’ first-half hopes have turned into a second-half fades. ... The Pirates are reportedly looking for a bat in the trade market, but if Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez hit better when the season resumes, the Pirates should be fine. All-Star Andrew McCutchen’s increased production is a must. ... Another question is the young pitching: Can rookies Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke be counted in August and September? The return of Wandy Rodriguez is key for the rotation. ... The Pirates are 38-21 since May 10. ... Leadoff batter Starling Marte has been their MVP.
* At 57-36, the Cardinals have the best winning percentage at the break, but their rotation took a step back in the final weeks of the first half. Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn each have ERAs of higher than 5.00 since the beginning of June, begging the question about whether the Cardinals will make a trade for a pitcher or two before July 31. Or does Chris Carpenter have a chance to come back from injury and being a hero? ... The Cardinals average .337 with runners in scoring position and .328 with runners in scoring position and two outs, but will that timely hitting continue? ... Pete Kozma has played well defensively at shortstop, but he’s struggling to hit .190. Do the Cardinals make a change at that position? ... The player they can’t afford to lose, catcher Yadier Molina, has a sore knee and that could be an issue.
* The Diamondbacks, leaders in the NL West, have at least 50 wins at the break for the fifth time in franchise history as they take aim at their second division title in three years. ... The Diamondbacks need Ian Kennedy to shake his first-half slump (5.42 ERA) and they expect to get injured pitchers Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy back by early August. The excess pitching could mean extra rest for Patrick Corbin, who has thrown 130 innings. ... Manager Kirk Gibson’s biggest challenge is to get pitchers to settle into bullpen roles by August. For now, Gibson is using bullpen by committee. ... The Diamondbacks are also counting on outfielder Jason Kubel’s power to return. ... Paul Goldschmidt is the NL’s RBI leader at the break.
* The Dodgers survived an injury-plagued first half and rallied to win 17 of 22 to get back into contention, even though they are 47-47. They picked up seven games in the NL West during their streak. ... The rotation is strong, with Ricky Nolasco joining Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Chris Capuano, although the Dodgers might not be done acquiring players. ... Matt Kemp is expected to return from the disabled list Sunday in D.C., and the Dodgers should have a glut of healthy outfielders with Kemp, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford. Manager Don Mattingly will use them on a rotating basis. ... Shortstop Hanley Ramirez, 29, is happy in LA, and says he wants to stay, and his bat is making the Dodgers believe they’ll want to keep him.