Yesterday, Nationals fans saw - for the first time this season, really - the Ryan Zimmerman who has been the most enduring Nationals All-Star since 2006. His two-run double in the first inning off Tim Hudson was the telling blow in an 8-4 win to take another road series against perennial National League contenders, the Atlanta Braves. He had a solo home run as well, his third longball in a week, and another clutch hit in the ninth to help put the game out of reach. He is hitting .378 for the past week's games.
Michael Morse has been even hotter over the past week. He is hitting .419 for the past 10 games and it was his 4-for-4 and eighth-inning home run Friday night that beat the Braves in the series opener. With both Zimmerman and Morse healthy, the Nationals lineup has the muscle at its heart that has been missing much of this season. It is the first time since the signing of Adam LaRoche that the three most explosive Washington players have been healthy at the same time.
As important as the win on Sunday was for the Nationals, who take another road series against a key NL East opponent, there was something of greater significance to players and fans alike. Major League Baseball and 2012 All-Star manager Tony La Russa named the official rosters for the 2012 All-Star Game. The two best Washington pitchers, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, and the best offensive shortstop in the NL, Ian Desmond, were named to the team.
Stasburg and Gonzalez have done more than anyone in the first three months of the season to keep the Nationals atop the NL East. Along with Matt Cain and R.A. Dickey, they have been the most dominant pitchers in the league and much deserving of the recognition.
Desmond's monster week against Colorado and Atlanta may have made it impossible for La Russa to ignore his All-Star credentials. Desmond hit over .400 for the past seven days with two home runs that brought his total to 13 for the season, second on the team only to LaRoche. But in naming Desmond, La Russa also recognizes the clutch hits and the flashy plays in the hole or behind the bag that have marked this breakout season for the young shortstop. St. Louis' Rafael Furcal will start at shortstop for the NL and Chicago's Starlin Castro was also named, but neither of them have offensive credentials to hold a candle to Desmond's.
There was also a potential All-Star spot carved out for Bryce Harper, which could give the team four players making the trip to Kansas City if Harper survived the Final Vote fan balloting. Neither Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. nor Al Kaline were named to the team as 19-year olds, so making the All-Star team at his age would be a singular honor. It is a tribute to the level of excitement he has brought to the game that he is being considered along with Chipper Jones, Michael Bourn, Aaron Hill and Michael Freese for the final roster slot to be filled by fan votes over the coming week.
The three - possibly four - Nationals named to this year's team are the most in a single season since the team moved from Montreal. It is a testament to the depth of excellence on this team that several of its best players - including Morse, Zimmerman and LaRoche -- were not named. Jordan Zimmermann ranks among the best NL pitchers in many categories with an ERA that is better than either Gonzalez or Strasburg. And there are numerous other Washington players who can and likely will be named to future All-Star Games. They will have the breakout seasons like the one Desmond is having now.
That depth of quality is why the 2012 Nationals will be contenders - not just for the coming months of the 2012 season, but for the longer term as well. In 2005, at this same juncture in the season, the Nationals also stood atop the NL East. Yet that team would win only nine games in July 2005 to fall out of contention. These Nationals, with an All-Star pitching staff and an offense that is just beginning to find itself seem more likely to just keep getting better as the dog days of July and August continue.
Desmond said in the past few days that the most important milestone he wants for himself is to play in a World Series. The individual honors for Strasburg, Gonzalez and Desmond as All-Stars are important recognition for them as players and for the team. But they would all likely agree that they want something more. And if the Nationals' pitching staff continues its dominance in the second half and the offense continues to surge, there will be plenty more All-Stars where these have come from.
Harper may be the best representative of that potential, which is why Washington fans should vote early and often for one of the most exciting players in the game today. Let's put Harperin Kansas City, because there are more than four All-Stars in Washington and the future is waiting for all of them.
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.