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Rays of Hope for Nats at Halfway Point of Regular Season

by David Elfin
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Bryce Harper. (Photo credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Bryce Harper. (Photo credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

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At the halfway point of the 2012 season, the surprising Nationals were 48-33 and led the second-place New York Mets by four and a half games in the National League East race. Washington, of course, went on to win the division for the capital’s first baseball title in 79 years.

After crushing the host Mets 13-2 yesterday, the disappointing 2013 Nats reached the season’s midpoint at 41-40, trailing the division-leading Braves by six and a half games.

And yet, there were definite rays of hope for Washington as the area’s soggiest June in memory transitioned into July.

First, 2012 Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper is supposed to be activated from the disabled list Monday and be in the lineup for the first time since May 26. The 20-year-old standout is one of five members of the Opening Day lineup who has spent time on the DL, joining catcher Wilson Ramos and second baseman Danny Espinosa, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and right fielder Jayson Werth. The Nats are 25-18 with Harper starting, 16-22 when he’s absent from their outfield.

Also, Washington was 7-4 during its past 11 games, its best stretch since an 8-4 spurt ended on May 17. Its 14 games before the All-Star break are against Milwaukee (32-48 and on a five-game skid), San Diego (40-42), Philadelphia (39-44) and Miami (a league-worst 29-51).

The bad news for the Nats is that they were only a half game behind the Braves back on May 17, meaning they lost six games in the standings during the intervening 44 days. What’s more, there’s nothing that Washington can do to affect Atlanta until they meet again on Aug. 5 by which point only 51 games will remain on the schedule.

However, the Nats do have an ace in the hole. Make that three aces.

While Washington has the NL’s worst defense and has scored its second-fewest runs, only four teams in the league –- all currently playoff-bound — have lower earned run averages. And that includes the Nats’ production from an often-shaky bullpen and shoddy fourth and fifth starters.

Manager Davey Johnson’s top three starters, Jordan Zimmermann and 2012 All-Stars Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, have been spectacular at times.

The under the radar Zimmermann (11-3, 2.28 ERA, 80-17 strikeouts-walks ratio) should be back at Citi Field for the All-Star Game two weeks from tomorrow.

Over his last 10 starts, left hander Gonzalez –- third in last year’s Cy Young vote -– had a 2.01 ERA, lowering his season mark from an ugly 4.97 to a good 3.09.

Over his last eight starts –- he missed two with a right oblique strain — former No. 1 overall draft pick Strasburg had an absurd 1.46 ERA, lowering his season mark from 3.45 to 2.41.

The top three have been so good that despite its pathetic performance at the plate and frequent fumbles in the field, Washington only trails Cincinnati by just four and a half games for the final NL playoff spot.

Imagine if Johnson had reliable fourth and fifth starters. Ross Detwiler, who had a 2.03 ERA in April, posted a dreadful 6.02 mark in May and June while injuring himself twice. Free agent signee Dan Haren didn’t even have a hot start with which to console himself, registering a league-worst 6.15 ERA before going on the DL last Tuesday with a sore right shoulder.

Whether Detwiler can recover his early-season form and Haren ever returns to the rotation are both in serious doubt, but Harper’s presence forecasts a 47-34 second half, exactly the record that Atlanta posted in the first half. So if the Braves play .500 ball over their final 80 games …

In the mean time, the Nats can be thankful that they’re not in the NL Central in which they would trail Pittsburgh by a whopping 10 games and St. Louis by eight.

“We’ve gone through a lot of things and we’re still in position to make a run, which is all you can ask for,” said Zimmerman, along with Desmond the only regulars left from the bad old last-place 2010 Nats.

They can also ask for the Braves — who just finished a three-game sweep of Arizona that the Nats missed matching last Thursday — to cool off a little despite playing nine in a row against the Marlins and Phillies before meeting the Reds in the final four games before the break.

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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.

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