There’s no arguing that the Washington Nationals come out of the All-Star break in Atlanta tomorrow in better shape than they were in any season since their 2005 debut in the nation’s capital.

At 46-46, the surprising Nats are ahead of seven of their National League rivals and just half a game behind the New York Mets for third place in the NL East. Those facts wouldn’t impress fans of longtime contenders St. Louis, Philadelphia and Atlanta, but in Washington, which hasn’t fielded a winning baseball team since 1969 (albeit with a 33-year gap), it’s cause for excitement.

Making the Nats look even better is that they reached .500 at the break with ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg yet to take the mound as he recovers from Tommy John surgery on his multi-million dollar right arm and with 2009 All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman having missed 58 games himself.

A year ago, Washington was 39-50 at the break. In 2009, the record was much uglier, 26-61, a mark that caused manager Manny Acta to be fired and replaced by Jim Riggleman, who turned the Nats around this June before resigning and leaving the club to Davey Johnson.

The Nats were 36-60 at the break in 2008, 36-52 in 2007 and 38-52 in 2006 so 46-46 seems pretty sweet. Zimmerman termed it “a mini-accomplishment.”

Assuming that they hang around .500 during the next two weeks, the Nats won’t be sellers at the July 31 trade deadline unlike last year when they dealt All-Star reliever Matt Capps and former All-Star shortstop Cristian Guzman for four prospects (one of whom turned out to be starting catcher Wilson Ramos).

On the other hand, given the fact that they trail the Braves (by eight games) as well as the Milwaukee Brewers, Arizona Diamondback and Pittsburgh Pirates in the battle for the lone wild card playoff spot, it’s hard to see the Nats being serious buyers at the deadline either.

And with Strasburg and top prospect Bryce Harper not due in D.C. until 2012, the current roster is the likely crew the rest of the way in 2011.

That means the final 70 games are mostly going to be about seeing if such pleasant surprises as first baseman Michael Morse (team-leading .306 batting average), second baseman Danny Espinosa (team bests of 16 homers and 52 RBI as a rookie), right-hander Jordan Zimmerman (2.66 earned run average) and relievers Tyler Clippard (an All-Star at 1.75), Henry Rodriguez (2.37) and Drew Storen (2.53) are for real.

The next two and a half months are also enough time for outfielder Jayson Werth (.215, 10 homers, 31 RBI) to show he’s only overpaid, not ridiculously expensive, and for Ramos, shortstop Ian Desmond and maybe even outfielder Laynce Nix to show they deserve to be regulars in 2012.

There’s also the not small matter of how the team plays for Johnson in the long run and whether the 68-year-old who led the Mets to the World Series title 25 years ago wants to return for a full season in 2012.

The best news of all is that for the first time in six years, it will be interesting to be a Nats fan down the stretch.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.


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