Nationals need to improve clutch hitting, Orioles' ascent to top of AL East won't be easy

As baseball moves into the third month of the season, here are some things to think about as burgers go on the grill:

* If you think the Nationals' first half has been marked by a lack of clutch hitting, check out the Braves: Going into Monday, they have the National League's worst average (.221) with runners in scoring position. The Nats are at .247. Both teams are running on parallel tracks: Each has a strong rotation and bullpen, but no ability to sustain rallies.

* It is obvious that the Orioles, after a weekend sweep, are going to bury the Yankees in the second half. The Orioles are healthier and younger than the Yankees. But it's not going to be easy. Boston will have starters Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester back. Tampa Bay will have a re-energized Jeremy Hellickson and a healthy David Price back, and Toronto will have plenty of hitting and pitching in the form of Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle.

* July is trade rumor month. How accurate are trade rumors? "Well, they are entertaining, but 99 percent are not true,'' says Cleveland manager Terry Francona.

* The Braves retired future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones' No. 10 over the weekend. Here are guys that are virtual locks to have their numbers retired by their teams: Jim Thome (Cleveland); Todd Helton (Colorado); Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter (Yankees), and Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle). Paul Konerko is near the end of his career, and should be heading in that direction with the White Sox. ... The Orioles' policy is to retire numbers of players that go into the Hall of Fame as Orioles, so the next number retired could be Mike Mussina, who should make the Hall of Fame with 270 wins. He played 10 seasons with the Orioles, eight with the Yankees and won 147 games for the Birds. ... It would be a long time, but of the current players from the local nines, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Jones have the best chances to have a retired numbers in D.C. and Baltimore.

* How happy are the Red Sox that Alex Rodriguez is with the Yankees? A-Rod has three AL MVPs, 647 career home runs and 1,950 RBI, but he's been injured this season and could be facing a 100-game suspension, depending on how Major League Baseball's investigation into the Biogenesis mess. The Red Sox were close to acquiring A-Rod in a trade from the Rangers before the 2004 season, but a snag in the contract talks derailed the deal.

* Outfielder Yasiel Puig, 24, has energized the Dodgers with a bat and arm, but the Dodgers hope that he can learn to tone down the intensity without losing aggressiveness. Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman told me on Sirius-XM Radio that Puig is learning that he can't make a sensational play all the time. "He needs to temper it,'' Hillman said. That's the same lesson that the Nationals' Bryce Harper is learning, as well.

* San Diego has rebounded from a 5-15 start, and they are contending in the National League West. They're already making plans to stretch out their best pitching prospect, Andrew Cashner, so that he can be strong in case they are in the race in September. Cashner, who has been limited to a combined 57 innings in the last two seasons because of injuries, pitched Sunday. He will be the Padres' No. 5 starter after the All-Star break, giving him plenty of rest. Throughout the second half, the Padres will give Cashner extra rest between starts.

* It seems like the starting pitchers for the AL and NL in the July 16 All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York are coming into focus. How could AL manager Jim Leyland of Detroit not pick his own Max Scherzer, who has started 12-0 with a 3.10 ERA? The other candidates are Seattle's Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, Texas' Yu Darvish and Oakland's Bartolo Colon. Colon deserve to be on the team, but should his steroids suspension at the start of the season work against him? ... In the NL, the Nats' Jordan Zimmermann is a strong candidate, but imagine the buzz in New York if the Mets' Matt Harvey, the NL's strikeout leader who has taken a no-hitter in the seventh inning three times in the first half, is on the mound?

* With guys like Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, the last guy that seemed to be manager material from the 1984 World Series champion Tigers is Kirk Gibson, who is managing the Diamondbacks. Gibson said he learned fundamentals and humbleness from former Tigers manager Sparky Anderson. One time, after a game-winning home run, Anderson reminded Gibson that he would have never gotten the chance to be the hero had Whitaker not gotten on ahead of him. "When reporters came up to me after the game, I told them, 'You're at the wrong locker,' and then pointed toward Lou Whitaker,' '' Gibson said. "It's dangerous poison to get yourself full of yourself. Sparky always taught that.''

* The Orioles' Manny Machado is on pace to set the single-season record for doubles, but here's another doubles record that might happen this year: The Cardinals' Matt Holliday leads the majors by grounding into 20 double plays, the same number as the NL leader last season, which was Zimmerman of the Nationals. The NL record is 32 by Miguel Tejada with Houston in 2008 and the big league record is 36, by Jim Rice of the 1984 Red Sox. Nick Markakis has hit into 10 double plays to lead the Orioles while Adam LaRoche leads the Nationals with nine.