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Elfin: The Nationals Have Set A Grueling Pace For The Second Half

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As the Nats closed out their pre-All Star break schedule yesterday, it was stunning to realize that four of the six players on the left side or the middle of the diamond were current or former All-Stars. Shortstop Ian Desmond and center fielder Bryce Harper were chosen for tomorrow’s game in Kansas City while reliever Tyler Clippard won last year’s Midsummer Classic and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman represented Washington in 2009.

That collection of sterling talent – which doesn’t even count All-Star bound starting pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez – is one indication of how far the Nats have come since they were a laughingstock just three years ago. That season began with the resignation of general manager Jim Bowden in the wake of an FBI investigation of alleged skimming of signing bonus money from Latin-American players, continued with a game in which the team name was misspelled on the jerseys of Zimmerman and then-first baseman Adam Dunn, featured the mid-season dismissal of manager Manny Acta, and concluded with a baseball-most 103 losses.

This year’s Nats have been on the totally opposite end of the spectrum. Having never finished above .500 during their first seven seasons in Washington, the Nats reached the All-Star break this morning atop the National League East by four games. Of baseball’s other five first-place teams, only the perennially powerful New York Yankees have a more commanding division lead.

“We’re all satisfied with where we are right now,” Clippard said. “(But) you don’t ever want to get too comfortable or too confident out there.”

However, at 49-34, the Nats are on pace for a franchise-record 97 victories. Their .590 winning percentage leads the NL. Drew Storen, their superb closer of 2011, is scheduled to make his elbow surgery-delayed 2012 debut soon after the break while right fielder Jayson Werth could return before the end of the month from the broken wrist he suffered on May 6.

Desmond and Zimmerman have been red-hot. Strasburg, Gonzalez and hard-luck third starter Jordan Zimmermann have combined for 27 victories. Despite Sunday’s game-costing hiccups, Clippard, Sean Burnett and the rest of the Storen-less bullpen has been superb.

Manager Davey Johnson, whose teams finished first or second in their divisions in 12 of his previous 15 seasons, has pushed seemingly almost all the right buttons, whether replacing fire-balling but wild closer Henry Rodriguez with Clippard in late May, making Bryce Harper an immediate regular upon the rookie outfielder’s summons from Class AAA Syracuse after Zimmerman was hurt in late April, or constructing a productive lineup despite the lengthy absences of Zimmerman, Werth, 2011 slugging sensation Michael Morse and No. 1 catcher Wilson Ramos.

Sure, Ramos’ replacement, Jesus Flores, is struggling at the plate as is second baseman Danny Espinosa. The fifth starter role has yo-yoed from Ross Detwiler to Chien-Ming Wang and back to Detwiler with uneven results. The Nats were no match for the Yankees, were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers and lost the season series to the lowly Colorado Rockies and the usually cellar-dwelling Baltimore Orioles.

However, none of Washington’s NL East rivals have been able to take advantage of its vulnerabilities so the Nats have been in first or second in the division all year and have been alone in the top spot going back to May 22.

The Philadelphia Phillies, who won the past five NL East titles, are in last place, a whopping 14 games behind the Nats. The Miami Marlins trail Washington by nine games leaving only the Atlanta Braves, who hold the NL’s last playoff spot, and New York Mets within striking distance.

All but four of Washington’s first 25 games after the break are against its division foes. If the Nats are still comfortably ahead following that stretch, they should be in great shape for the final third of the season and looking at the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 1981.

Having covered Redskins teams that turned 7-1 and 6-2 first halves into also-ran finishes, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but just past the halfway point of the Nats’ season, I have to ask, what’s not to like?

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.

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