Ted Leavengood: A midterm examination

The first half is in the books, and perhaps the better word to describe it is midterm exclamation. Even after losing the series to Colorado, there have still been 83 games played through injury and devastating heat to a result that few Nationals fans would have believed possible at the start. Suffice it to say that the Nationals have aced the first half of the season. They have the best record in the National League and are on pace to win 97 games.

It is not difficult to think back to March 2012, to remember the optimistic speculation that the Nationals could be a playoff team given the new additional wild card slot added by Major League Baseball. All the Nationals have to do is win 88-89 games and they will make the playoffs for the first time in their history - that was common conjecture.

Study of the Nationals first half performance, however, shows that by playing slightly better than .500 ball in the second half, they can reach 90 wins. The St. Louis Cardinals, the 2011 World Champions, were the NL wild card team with a record of 90-72, something very much within the Nationals’ grasp. There is realistic reason to expect more, to believe that the team can remain atop the NL East and that it may be fraught with less drama than the first half.

The first three months have been a tightrope walk of one-run games, a paucity of offense that left everyone holding their breath until the last out. The pressure on the pitching staff to hold firm throughout may have taken a toll, but there is hope that such games will be less common after the All-Star break. Since the team ventured to Denver to play at mile-high Coors Field, they are scoring runs at a 6.5 per game clip.

That recent surge in offense has pushed the runs-scored-per-game total to 4.21, up from mid-June levels that were still below 4 runs per game. The return of Michael Morse to the lineup and Ryan Zimmerman to complete health have been part of the magic. Ian Desmond is looking more and more like this year’s Michael Morse. What is now a league-average offense could become something just as formidable as the pitching staff in the second half.

The pitching remains the best in baseball. The starting rotation has been almost human in recent weeks. But steady production from the bullpen and outstanding starts from Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann have kept the team ERA at 3.20. The return of Drew Storen after the break will only make the pitching better in the second half.

And now for the essay question:

During the San Francisco series I sought out several Giants fans to ask them about their miracle World Series championship season in 2010. The Giants were picked to finish, at best, third or fourth in the NL West, yet they came in first and went on to win it all. “What was special about that team,” I asked? “What made them the champs?”

The first answer was the pitching, of course. And it was totally dominant. It begins to sound familiar almost from the jump. The Giants’ team ERA of 3.36 was almost two-thirds of a run better than the best of the rest of the NL. They talked about the total domination by Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez, the lights-out, late-inning drama from closer Brain Wilson, and setup men Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla. But they were equally quick to point out the career years of players like Aubrey Huff and Juan Uribe, factors no one could have guessed going in. And who could have imagined Cody Ross would hit three home runs against the Phillies in the National League Championship Series? It was a convergence of talent with a dash of luck - or players rising to the occasion - that made it so inspiring.

When you hear their tale, you cannot help but see much of the same in the Nationals at mid-season. There is the dominant starting rotation and players like Desmond having what could be career or breakout years. As Tom Boswell said several days ago, this team has the chance to be scary good in the second half.

Yet they will still need that convergence of talent and luck that almost always blesses the champions. Watching the Giants and Nationals playing in their 1924 uniforms Thursday night, it was impossible not to remember the ball serendipitously leaping over Freddy Lindstrom’s glove twice in the seventh game of the 1924 World Series to help the Senators win their only championship.

There is a celestial script writer at play in the game of baseball and one can only hope he will smile on the Nationals during the second half. But regardless what happens in the coming three months, this team is a fated one. The only question is: How good they will be?

How far they will go? As of July 2012, it’s a straight-A season, with no reason to expect less in the months to come.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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