A Second Look at the first third

With their loss to the Astros last night, the Nationals hit the 54-game mark, meaning they’ve played a third of the 2010 season. All things considered - expectations for the team at the beginning of the year, the .502 winning percentage of their opponents and the injuries that have put two of their five would-be starting pitchers on the disabled list - a 26-28 record doesn’t look so bad. But since starting 20-15, the team is on a 6-13 skid, and some of the errors that hurt them last year have started to crop up again.

For most of the year, the Nationals have played above their Pythagorean win expectation; now, they’re just a game above it. That looks like a classic regression to the mean after the team had won so many close games early. But with better pitching on the way (Stephen Strasburg, most notably, but also Chien-Ming Wang and Jordan Zimmermann later in the summer and possibly Ross Detwiler before that), the Nationals believe a playoff run isn’t out of the question.

All that in mind, we’re going to review the season at the one-third mark, with a special edition of Second Look:

Golden Geese
Livan Hernandez: Who would’ve imagined that the 35-year-old, signed for a modest salary (a $900,000 minor league contract) with minimal expectations (eat innings until the Nationals were ready to replace him with a younger pitcher), would have wound up being the ace of the staff early this year? Hernandez has a 2.15 ERA and a 1.104 WHIP, having coaxed some early magic out of his underwhelming repertoire. His fastball might top out at 86 mph on a good day, but Hernandez can still paint with an impressionist’s touch; a big, looping curveball and a changeup that he can slow to 64 mph and use to make a hitter look silly. It might not last, but on a staff that’s running below capacity, Hernandez has been a godsend.

Matt Capps: Remember last year, when the Nationals were blowing late leads with such regularity it almost became a scheduled event? That’s gone this year, thanks largely to Capps, who converted 17 of 19 save opportunities after the Pirates non-tendered him and the Nationals picked him up in December. Capps, like many members of the Nationals’ bullpen, has gone through a little lull lately, but he leads the league in saves and could wind up in the All-Star Game.

Ivan Rodriguez: The third slot could go to a number of players (Ryan Zimmerman, Tyler Clippard or Josh Willingham) and no one would complain. But Rodriguez, whose two-year deal with the Nationals at age 38 elicited plenty of chuckles around baseball, has been as big a revelation as Hernandez. He’s hitting .325 this year, after posting a .280 on-base percentage last year, and has won rave reviews from the Nationals’ pitching staff. When he gets back from the 15-day DL next week, he’ll restore a sorely-missed presence to the lineup.

Goose Eggs
Jason Marquis: A 20.52 ERA in three starts and elbow surgery after signing a two-year, $15 million deal? It’s tough to find a bigger disaster in the first third of the Nationals’ season than Marquis, who won’t be back until after the All-Star break and will find competition for a rotation spot stiff at that point in the season. The Nationals signed him to be their No. 2 starter, and they have to hope he can turn in a second half like the first half that got him to the All-Star Game for Colorado last season.

Brian Bruney: Another offseason acquisiton that was supposed to shore up an area of need (the bullpen), Bruney couldn’t keep his walks down and was released late last month after the Nationals decided to bring up rookie Drew Storen. Bruney went from a possible setup man to an afterthought - or probably more accurately, a liability - in the bullpen. The Nationals gave up only a Rule 5 pick to get him, but he was expected to help the bullpen much more than he did.

Nyjer Morgan: No one could have expected the center fielder to sustain the .351 average he put up in 49 games with the Nationals last season. But a rough spring training gave hints that Morgan was headed for trouble, and he’s certainly found it at the start of the regular season, hitting just .256, being thrown out on eight of 17 stolen-base attempts and making a number of unsightly gaffes in the outfield (including slamming his glove on the ground after he thought the Orioles’ Adam Jones had hit a home run, while Jones instead raced around the bases for an inside-the-park homer on May 22). Morgan has surged this week in the No. 2 hole, but if the Nationals are going to win, they need him as their leadoff hitter.

In Case You Missed It:
--The Nationals have a higher ground ball-to-fly ball ratio at the plate than any other team in the majors except the Astros, according to FanGraphs. They’ve hit homers on 9.9 percent of their fly balls, 10th best in the majors, but their Gb/FB ratio of 1.43 puts them in line more with lower-division clubs like the Astros, Pirates and Indians than contenders.

--Nationals pitchers throw fastballs 61.8 percent of the time, eighth-most in the majors. But the Nationals’ average fastball is 89.4 mph, slowest in the majors. That’s as accurate a statistical picture as you’re likely to find of a staff that includes John Lannan, Hernandez, Craig Stammen and Luis Atilano.

--Washington defenders are still making their fair share of errors, but part of the reason for the Nationals’ improvement is the increased athleticism on the field brought by players like shortstop Ian Desmond. The Nationals’ team Ultimate Zone Rating is 7.9 runs better than average, 10th-best in baseball.

Talking Points:
1. Who’s your team MVP in the first 54 games of the season?

2. Pick your favorite moment in the first 54 games - was it Willie Harris’ diving catch to beat the Mets in April, or maybe Josh Willingham’s walk-off homer against the Orioles in May? This isn’t a multiple-choice question, so any suggestions are welcome.

3. In another 54 games, the Nationals will be four days past the trade deadline. What do you expect the roster to look like at that point? And will this be a team in playoff contention?

Leave your answers in the comments, like usual. I’ll have a live thread in a little bit for Nationals-Astros, as well as Stephen Strasburg’s final minor league start at Syracuse.