Hitting the halfway point

The Nationals have reached the halfway point of their 2013 season the owners of a 41-40 record.

Not where they thought they'd be right now, that's for sure.

The first three months have been one extended dance, with the Nats taking a step forward with a positive showing, like yesterday's 13-2 romp over the Mets, followed - usually immediately - by a step backwards.

It leaves the team many considered to be World Series favorites entering the season, one that's still hovering around .500 with 81 games to play.

"Every team would want to be in first place and be 10, 15 games over .500. That's not always how it works," said Ryan Zimmerman, when asked to assess where the Nats are at the midway point. "We've gone through a lot of things, and we're still in position to make a run, which is all you can ask for."

Well, you could also ask for a record that's a few more games above .500 and a deficit in the division that isn't as steep as it currently is. The Nats trail the Braves by 6 1/2 games at this point, the highest margin between first- and second-place teams in any division in baseball.

But Zimmerman's point is well-taken.

Despite all that's gone wrong, the Nats are still within striking distance at this point, with a flawed Braves team treading water ahead of them. Atlanta is just 36-33 since a 12-1 start, and while they haven't played poorly, the Braves haven't done enough to fully capitalize on the Nats' mediocre first half.

When you look at the Nats closely, there's a good bit to like about where things stand at this point.

Their top three starting pitchers - Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann - have been tremendous the last couple months. That trio has posted a remarkable 2.15 ERA over 192 2/3 innings since May 5, giving the Nats gem after gem.

"I feel like (if) we give them two or three runs, we can win any ballgame," Adam LaRoche said. "We felt that way all last year, and when we would score five or six, it was just a bonus. A lot of times didn't even need them. Keep everybody healthy and if we score two, three or four, we're in good shape."

LaRoche isn't wrong. When the Nats score (and we can go on and on about their inability to do that), they usually emerge victorious. They're now 36-10 when scoring three runs or more this season, which is just an absurd stat. They're 30-2 when scoring five runs or more.

They're also getting Bryce Harper back from left-knee bursitis today, and barring any unforeseen issues, they should get Wilson Ramos back from a strained hamstring later this week. It's been 69 games since the Nats last had their eight opening day starting position players on the field, but they might soon have their full roster back in action.

Ian Desmond had 28 RBIs during June, most in a single month by one player in Nats history. Denard Span is hitting .342 with five extra-base hits in his last 10 games. Kurt Suzuki is batting .389 in his last five games, including two extra-base hits and four RBIs. Jayson Werth has reached base in 13 of his last 28 plate appearances with four extra-base hits in that seven-game span.

Oh, and it sure sounds like Werth will be moving back to the No. 2 spot in the Nats' order when Harper returns today. Manager Davey Johnson seems intent on structuring the lineup similarly to how he did in the season's first few weeks, before injuries derailed things.

That likely means we'll see Werth in the No. 2 spot, Harper third, Zimmerman hitting cleanup, LaRoche fifth, Desmond sixth and Anthony Rendon (who was red-hot for much of the last month but is in a 1-for-17 slump) down in the No. 7 hole.

The Nats have now gone 7-4 in their last 11 games, have at least earned a split in each of their last three series and now get four games against a Brewers team that's tied for the third-worst winning percentage in baseball.

Is this recent stretch anything to write home about? No. Is it a step in the right direction? Yeah, I guess.

I'm not suggesting that we should expect a winless seven-game homestand or anything. We've been down this road too many times this season. A 13-2 win one day guarantees nothing the next, and the Nats will need to carry this solid play over a much longer period.

But things might - might - be trending upwards. The Nats are 25-18 in games in which Harper is in the starting lineup, and they get their slugging 20-year-old back to a team that is getting really good starting pitching and is flashing some signs of offensive life.

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