There were two moments in the first half of the season - or two more than possibly any point since 2005 - when the Nationals became the talk of Washington, clambering up to the top of the local sporting conscience for a rare turn as the 'it' team. The first was a slow burn, building through the Capitals' early exit from the NHL playoffs at the end of April through the second weekend of May, when the Nationals hit 20-15 with a romp over the Rockies in Denver and got within a game of first place in the NL East.
The second came on June 8, when the Nationals hooked a pair of jumper cables to the right arm of Stephen Strasburg and watched the rookie light up Nationals Park like nothing else in its three-year history. More than 200 media members descended on the park for Strasburg's debut. Pitching dignitaries like Orel Hershiser and John Smoltz gushed about Strasburg's potential. And then the rookie went out and topped all the expectations, striking out 14 batters in his major league debut and sending baseball fans into a frenzy.
Strung around those moments, though, was a first half that left most in the Nationals' clubhouse feeling like they'd let something slip by them. Their solid start was followed by an ugly month of June, during which the Nationals went 8-19, the third-worst winning percentage for a single month in team history. The fact that it came in the softest part of their schedule, with series losses against the Astros and Indians - not to mention a sweep against the Orioles - made it even tougher to digest.
And at the end of it, outfielder Josh Willingham said on Sunday, "For the most part, I'd say we can play better, overall."
Where to start? The Nationals' defense is as good a spot as any. They made 75 errors in the first half, the most in baseball, though rangy, if erratic, players like Ian Desmond still helped nudge the team's Ultimate Zone Rating to four runs above average.
General manager Mike Rizzo said he was happy with the team's pitching staff, though its 4.26 ERA is 12th in the National League. But the way the Nationals have played defense hasn't helped that.
If Rizzo had a main issue, it was the idea of the Nationals playing "cleaner games," both on defense and on offense. They've been caught stealing 27 times, the third-most in the NL (though the Nationals are also third in the NL with 63 steals and have a 70 percent success rate). The Nationals have made an additional 27 outs on the basepaths (trying to advance on a fly ball, getting doubled off on a line drive, etc.).
They've also hit the second-most ground balls in the National League, and have the second-highest ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. Most of the time, that's not going to get the job done.
It's completely possible the Nationals don't have the players yet to make drastic improvements in the second half of the season. And at 39-50, their chance to make another surge is almost gone.
That means the Nationals will probably have to settle for modest improvements with a polite reception, not the fervor they seemed so close to sustaining at times in the first half.
"I think we've underachieved a little bit. I'm looking forward to a better second half, cleaner ballgames, play a little better, win a few more games," Rizzo said. "But as far as the effort level and the hustle, I've got no problem whatsoever. These guys are giving it their all. They're playing 27 outs every day. They really play hard, and (manager) Jim (Riggleman)'s done a good job with them.