Jul 18, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
After four long days without baseball (at least, anything other than the exhibition variety) the Nationals are back on the field tonight, hosting the Brewers in a nice weekend showdown between first-place clubs. Thus begins the unofficial second half of the season, the final 70-game stretch that will determine whether this team returns to the playoffs after missing out last fall, or whether October baseball simply isn’t in the cards again.
What will determine whether the Nationals get back there or not? There are any number of factors and players that will play a role in deciding this team’s fate. But here are the five most-significant ones, the top storylines of the second half of the season for a ballclub with grand visions of extending this season well beyond Game 162. We’ll count down from No. 5 to No. 1…
5. WILL STEPHEN STRASBURG STEP UP AND BECOME THE ACE, OR IS THIS SIMPLY WHO HE IS?
For the record, there’s nothing particularly wrong with who Strasburg is at this point of his career. He’s a very good pitcher, the league leader in strikeouts, capable of completely dominating an opposing lineup anytime he takes the mound. But it’s no secret that much more than that has been expected of Strasburg for some time, and he’d be the first to admit that he has not lived up to his full potential.
So, what can the 25-year-old do to take that next, all-important step? He can pitch deeper into games. Despite being tied for the NL lead in games started (20), he ranks only 10th in innings pitched (125). If Strasburg can more consistently finish the seventh inning — more specifically, if he can finish the seventh inning without giving up another run or two — he’ll put himself in position to earn more wins and improve that pedestrian 7-6 record. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll still wind up with roughly 210 innings and 250 strikeouts, both far surpassing his previous career marks.
4. THE TRADE DEADLINE
There are 13 days remaining in July, which means there are 13 days to go until MLB’s non-waiver trade deadline, which means Mike Rizzo has less than two weeks to decide if he needs to acquire any reinforcements for the stretch run.
The answer, for now, appears to be no. When healthy, the Nationals are set at every position. They’ve got eight proven starting position players. They’ve got five very good starting pitchers. They’ve got perhaps the deepest bullpen in the majors. And they’ve got a veteran bench. Would another bat be nice? Sure. But where is that guy going to play, and who is going to be removed from the roster to make room for him? Would a lock-down lefty reliever be nice? Absolutely. But who is going to get dumped in favor of such a pitcher?
There is one caveat to all this: If Ryan Zimmerman proves incapable of playing third base on a regular basis (more on him in a moment), Rizzo might feel the need to acquire a second baseman who is more of a sure thing at the plate than Danny Espinosa.
3. BRYCE HARPER’S HEALTH AND PRODUCTION
Harper was basically nonexistent through the vast majority of the season’s first half, a torn thumb ligament having shelved him for nine weeks. And since coming back June 30, he has struggled mightily at the plate, going just 6-for-40 with two extra-base hits, two RBI and 16 strikeouts.
Club officials have insisted all along they’re not concerned, because Harper simply needs time to see more pitches and get his swing in order. Which is probably true. It took Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos several weeks to get on track after prolonged stints on the DL. Harper has played in only 12 games since the injury.
But in the big picture, it is fast becoming time for Harper to not only keep himself on the field but to become the all-around player we’ve been waiting to see since the day he was drafted No. 1 overall. Did you know that since he first hurt himself running into the wall in Atlanta on April 30, 2013, Harper has played in 126 games, posting a .251 batting average, 13 homers, 51 RBI and .748 OPS? Obviously, he was playing at something less than 100 percent for most of that time. But the time has come for him to be healthy and live up to something closer to expectations.
2. RYAN ZIMMERMAN AT THIRD BASE
A potentially major crisis has been averted so far since Harper’s return from the DL forced Zimmerman back to third base. The throwing-challenged Zim has successfully handled all 26 fielding chances presented to him, including 16 throws, without being charged with an error.
Obviously, it would be naive to believe Zimmerman can go the rest of the season without making a mistake in the field. But if he can continue to hold down the fort at third base and not let runs score, the Nationals are in much better position to win more games.
But what happens if Zimmerman can’t do it, if he goes through a sudden and ugly stretch in which he launches throws into the stands and hurts his team? That’s when things get dicey for Matt Williams and Co. If Zimmerman has to switch back to left field, the domino effects will be considerable. And the end result might well be fewer wins.
1. BEAT THE BRAVES
At this point, it’s not really going out on a limb to suggest the NL East is a two-team race. Either the Nationals or Braves will win the division, with the Mets, Marlins and Phillies bringing up the rear. Washington and Atlanta come out of the All-Star break in a virtual tie (the Nats have played two fewer games) so it’s now a 2 1/2-month mini-marathon to the finish line.
What will be the biggest factor determining a division champ? How about the nine head-to-head games these two teams still face? We know all about the Nationals’ longstanding struggles to beat the Braves, but their four-game split at Nationals Park last month might have been a turning point in the rivalry.
The Nats don’t necessarily have to trounce the Braves the rest of the way. But they absolutely cannot let the Braves walk over them as they have for much of the last two seasons and expect to emerge from the wreckage as NL East champs.
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