A look back at the first half

We’ve officially finished up the first half of the 2013 season. We’ll ignore the fact that the Nationals have already played 95 games (59 percent of their season) and continue calling the pre-All-Star break portion of the schedule the first half.

Is it weird that’s a little bit of a pet peeve of mine? Yes? I thought so.

The Nationals head into the All-Star break with a 48-47 record. They went 27-18 at home, 21-29 on the road and have a run differential of minus-14 to this point. They’ve gone 17-20 against teams within the National League East, which certainly could be argued is the worst division in baseball.

They’re currently six games back of the Braves in the NL East, and five games back of the Reds for the final wild card spot.

All of those numbers are surprises. At least, they are to me and the vast majority of people around the league.

We all know the expectations surrounding this team and its players this season. We certainly know the expectations held by Nats manager Davey Johnson, who I seem to recall making some sort of public statement back at the Winter Meetings about how far the Nats could go this season.

To this point, most of those expectations have not been met.

The Nats have been in first place in the division for a total of seven days to this point. Their high point came all the way back on May 10, when they were five games over .500.

On an individual level, there have been positives, for sure.

Jordan Zimmermann (2.58 ERA), Stephen Strasburg (2.99 ERA) and Gio Gonzalez (3.03 ERA) have become one of the top starting pitching trios in the majors. Tyler Clippard (6-1, 1.99 ERA) has again showed that he’s one of the most reliable set-up guys you’ll find around the league. Lefties Ian Krol (1.80 ERA) and Fernando Abad (1.83 ERA) have been tremendous since their promotions to the big leagues, giving Johnson a far more balanced, trustworthy bullpen.

From an offensive standpoint, Anthony Rendon has been a major factor in his first major league season, hitting .301/.352/.460, producing anywhere from second to seventh in the order. He’s also given the Nats an everyday second baseman who has some pretty good pop in his bat. Jayson Werth missed a month with a hamstring injury, but he’s posted a strong .297/.363/.466 line with 10 homers in 64 games. Ian Desmond has been a consistent force all season long, leading the Nats in home runs (15) and extra-base hits (41), and ranking second in RBIs (49). The guy should have been an All-Star.

When healthy, Bryce Harper has been tremendous, but injuries have limited him both in terms of playing time and production on the field at points. He finishes the first half with a .264/.371/.522 line with 13 homers. Another guy who has battled injuries, Wilson Ramos, has again flashed the power that has the Nats so excited about his future, hitting .300/.341/.513 with nine extra-base hits in 23 games.

Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman have been solid and productive, even though their numbers won’t jump off the page and wow you.

For every positive thus far, however, it seems there has been a negative.

Danny Espinosa battled injury and ineffectiveness this season, and was sent down to Triple-A after hitting a lowly .158/.193/.272 in 44 games. Denard Span has had issues finding his swing this season and is hitting .260 with a .317 on-base percentage, numbers that got him dropped from the leadoff spot yesterday for the first time this season. The bench guys have largely struggled, as a whole. Tyler Moore hit .151/.195/.283 in two stints with the Nats. Chad Tracy is hitting .157 and slugging .289. Roger Bernadina isn’t doing much better at .187/.252/.288.

Somehow, Steve Lombardozzi’s .234/.246/.293 slash line looks impressive by comparison.

Dan Haren has had a handful of really strong starts, but he’s posted a robust 5.61 ERA in 17 outings, not what you want from your $13 million man. Ross Detwiler has struggled staying healthy and has made just 13 first-half starts, going 2-7 with a 4.04 ERA. Ryan Mattheus broke his hand punching a locker. Drew Storen has been up and down and takes a 4.81 ERA into the break. Zach Duke and Henry Rodriguez were let go after struggling mightily out of the ‘pen.

The Nationals had hoped that when they got some of their walking wounded (Werth, Harper, Ramos, Detwiler) back, they’d take off on a run. But there has been no such run.

Their longest winning streak this season has been five games, done in early May. Their longest losing streak has been four games, which they’ve hit twice.

Overall, the pitching numbers have been fairly impressive. The Nats rank fifth in the majors in team ERA (3.58), sixth in starters’ ERA (3.61) and 14th in bullpen ERA (3.51).

The offense, largely, has been the issue. The Nats are 27th in the league in batting average (.241), 28th in on-base percentage (.301) and 23rd in slugging (.385). They’ve scored just 3.75 runs per game, fourth-worst in the majors. The three teams lower than the Nats in the runs-per-game department (the White Sox, Astros and Marlins) are a combined 69 games under .500.

The playoffs, shockingly, are still within reach, both because of the Braves’ flaws and inability to create more separation within the division and the addition of the second wild card spot last year. But this much is clear: The Nationals will need to play much better ball at a much more consistent level to even have a chance at the postseason, and they need to see major improvements from an offense that has scored two runs or fewer in 43 percent of their games this season.

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