Looking back on an eventful and successful first half

The break has arrived.

Sleep in past the alarm. Play some golf. Hit up the beach and improve that tan.

OK, maybe not you. You might end up losing your job if you decide to just not show up these next four days.

The Nationals, however, get to enjoy a well-deserved break after playing 83 games over the last three months. They enter this relaxation period on a bit of a sour note after yesterday’s loss to the Rockies, but had no reason to hang their heads leaving the home clubhouse last night. Davey Johnson’s bunch played a hell of a first half.

Given where the Nationals are at the All-Star break, holding the best record in the National League and sitting four games clear of the Braves for the lead in the division, it’s easy to forget the type of issues that they’ve dealt with this season. The last two weeks have been fairly smooth sailing, but the Nats had to overcome some major obstacles throughout much of the first half.

The injury list is lengthy and includes ailments to pretty much every area of the body. You start feeling ill yourself just reading through the names.

The Nats have spent significant time without the face of their team, Ryan Zimmerman (missed 17 games, was bothered by his shoulder injury for many more); cleanup hitter Michael Morse (missed 50 games due to a strained lat); starting right fielder Jayson Werth (has already missed 55 games and is out until August with a broken wrist); starting catcher Wilson Ramos (out for the season with a torn ACL); closer Drew Storen (has missed all 83 games so far after elbow surgery); most experienced bench player, Mark DeRosa (missed 50 games with an oblique strain); and most productive bench player, Chad Tracy (has already missed 37 games with a groin injury).

They dealt with an offense that needed a GPS to find home plate through the first couple months of the season. The Nats averaged 3.3 runs per game in April, fourth-fewest in the majors. That month included a 12-game stretch where they scored more than four runs in a contest only once.

They’ve been left working with their fourth-string closer after the injury to Storen and the struggles of Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez.

And yet, despite all that, here they are atop the National Leauge, just percentage points away from posting the best first half in Nationals history.

They’ve got a pitching staff which has been truly exceptional, highlighted by an All-Star 1-2 punch of Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, who combined for 21 first-half wins. They have a bullpen which contains five relievers with sub-2.00 ERAs. They have a middle of the order which finally looks as Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo expected it to, and an offense which goes into the break having scored an average of 6.9 runs per game over the Nationals’ last 12 games. They have three rookies who have become major contributors despite playing positions largely unfamiliar to them.

A lot hasn’t gone right. Still, the Nats will come back from the All-Star break in a spot they haven’t been in for some time.

They’ve set themselves up for a successful season with a strong first half. Now it’s time to embark on the playoff push.

“I think it’s been a good character-builder, but the real fun, the real push, comes in the second half,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing that beats a pennant race. And we’re right in the thick of it.”

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