The Nationals’ first half, in review

The Nationals flew back to Washington early this morning having played exactly half their schedule, after a sweep against the Los Angeles Angels cost them a chance to end the first half over .500 for the first time since 2005.

They are sitting in better shape after 81 games than at any time since then, but how this year is measured depends on what your expectations are. If winning 75-80 games - by all accounts a sizable improvement over last year’s 69-93 record - would make this season a success, the Nationals are well-positioned to do that. But if a push into the upper 80s and wild card contention is what you’re looking for, that may be a year away.

It’s because of games like the one the Nationals lost on Wednesday that they’re not several games over .500, when they’ve done everything else well enough to get there. Jordan Zimmermann - who’s surged back from Tommy John surgery and is transforming into a cornerstone of the rotation - threw an eight-inning complete game and allowed only an unearned run, shutting the Angels down with a filthy slider. But the Nationals couldn’t score for him. They lost 1-0, wasting the best start of the 25-year-old’s career and handing him a loss for the third time this season in which he’d given up two runs or less.

If there’s been an overriding issue with the Nationals the first half of this year, that’s it; they’ve gotten better pitching than anyone expected them to have (their starters close the first half with a 3.63 ERA, fifth-best in the NL), but they’ve been shut out 10 times, and have lost eight games where they’ve allowed two runs or less. Turn half of those into wins, and the Nationals are 44-37, tied for the third-best record in the National League.

It’s startling to think just how close the Nationals have been to pushing themselves into the upper reaches of the National League. As it is, they’re 40-41 having gotten a .259 on-base percentage from their leadoff hitters, a .717 OPS from Jayson Werth and 23 games from Ryan Zimmerman. Those numbers suggest a team ready to break out if only its best players start playing like it, and with Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa adding power to the lineup, the pieces would seem to be there for the Nationals to make some noise in the second half.

But then there’s the other side of the equation; the Nationals’ starters have probably outdone themselves, and could be due for a fall. They’ve only given up homers on 7.6 percent of their fly balls, behind the Giants and the Phillies (who both have star-laden pitching staffs) and the Padres (who play in the game’s most cavernous ballpark). In neutral Nationals Park, that number is likely to climb at some point, especially if Jason Marquis, whose career ERA is more than half a run worse in the second half than it is in the first, starts to lose his touch on his sinker. The Nationals’ starters also have thrown the sixth-fewest first-pitch strikes in the NL, and gotten the second-lowest percentage of swinging strikes - numbers that suggest the results could turn at some point. Zimmermann has thrown 102 2/3 innings; he’s only slated for 160 this year, or about 10 more starts. As it is, when the Nationals have only had to use six starting pitchers all year and none of their current five has an ERA higher than 4.18, they’re still a game under .500.

That’s the puzzling thing about the 2011 Nationals: they’ve been just good enough to approach respectability, even without their two best players performing (and first baseman Adam LaRoche out for the year), but not good enough to have a true breakout season, especially when their pitching staff has outperformed expectations. And as they get into July, their place in the middle of the National League will lead to all sorts of interesting decisions from general manager Mike Rizzo - does he trade a veteran starter like Marquis or Livan Hernandez? Does he move some of the team’s bullpen surplus for a leadoff hitter (get ready to hear that Tyler Clippard-for-B.J. Upton rumor all month)?

The Nationals have an 11-game homestand before the break to push their season in one direction or the other, and the schedule is certainly inviting; the best team they play is Pittsburgh, at 40-39, and the Nationals are 22-13 at home this season. How they come out of that stretch and head into the All-Star break will have plenty to say about whether their second 81 games is more memorable than their first.