Sometimes it's hard to believe this is really the Nationals sending out one top pitcher after another. The rotation has lived up to all expectations with a combined 3.25 ERA among six starters, with Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler splitting No. 5 duties. The Dodgers are second best at 3.43. Two of Washington's starters were on the All-Star team -- Stephen Strasburg (2.82) and Gio Gonzalez (2.92) -- and yet Jordan Zimmermann (2.61) has the lowest ERA.
This is another strength. Despite missing closer Drew Storen, his good friend Tyler Clippard has made a seamless transition to that role with 14 saves. Lefty Sean Burnett shook off early season back spasms and has a 1.99 ERA. Craig Stammen (1.74) and Ryan Mattheus (1.82) have been excellent bridges from the starters to the back-end relievers. The worst pitcher on the staff has been Tom Gorzelanny (3.92), and he's been a valuable long man. Storen should be back next week.
The offense has been better with 348 runs scored so far (20th overall) and a team OPS of .728 that says they could have put up even more. After a rough start, both Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse have returned from injuries to anchor the middle of the lineup. Ian Desmond (team-high 17 home runs) might be the best offensive shortstop in the National League. And they hope to have Jayson Werth (broken wrist) back by early August.
Steve Lombardozzi, an infielder by trade, has adapted to a part-time role in left field. Roger Bernadina is the late-game defensive replacement. Tyler Moore (four homers, 12 RBIs) has provided power off the bench in 31 games. The team eagerly awaits the return of pinch-hitting specialist Chad Tracy, who had 12 RBIs primarily in that role before needing surgery to repair a torn adductor muscle. The Nats are second in the majors with a .901 OPS in 93 at-bats from their pinch hitters.
Players to watch
The offense needs to be better than 20th in the league if Washington wants to win a World Series, and Werth (broken wrist) is the best option to push them forward when he returns next month. He stabilizes right field with solid defense. They already know Bryce Harper can handle center now, and Michael Morse will shift to left. If Werth can just match his .810 OPS from the first 27 games, the Nats will be in good shape.
Bone spurs in his right elbow cost him the first half of the season. But Storen is progressing in his minor league rehab assignment and could be back soon after the All-Star break. That's a huge addition to a unit that's already pretty good (3.13 ERA). Storen won't be the closer to start off, according to manager Davey Johnson. But even in a setup role, he will be invaluable.
Jackson has provided about what the Nationals expected when they signed him to a one-year contract. He is 5-4 with a 3.73 ERA -- among the best numbers of any fourth starter in the game. But he will need to give more in the second half once Stephen Strasburg hits his innings limit. Jackson will be the one to help Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez if the team is fortunate enough to make the playoffs.
The cortisone shot to the AC joint in Zimmerman's right shoulder seemed to have a positive effect. His power numbers returned with six doubles and five home runs since June 24. But will that continue? Zimmerman and the team's trainers will watch that closely. A shot earlier this season had a limited impact and eventually wore off. He can probably take one more, but doctors don't like to go to that well too often.
Lannan has had a roller-coaster season after being demoted to Triple-A out of spring training and starting off terribly at Syracuse (6-8, 4.60 ERA). But with Stephen Strasburg scheduled to be shut down and Chien-Ming Wang struggling, there is an opportunity here in the second half. Lannan has slowly responded with 18 earned runs in his last 512Ú3 innings there. It's not great, but he has the experience to handle starts late in the season.