Upcoming stretch is key for their chances

The Nationals have spent the first half of the season enjoying their status as one of baseball's biggest surprises. Despite injuries to multiple key players, they have a 49-34 record and a comfortable four-game lead in the National League East and harbor legitimate playoff hopes heading into the final 79 games.

Much of the All-Star Game festivities in Kansas City, Mo., were spent in praise of young stars Stephen Strasburg, the ace right-hander, and Bryce Harper, in the midst of a stellar rookie campaign. But lefty Gio Gonzalez made the All-Star roster, too, and so did shortstop Ian Desmond, who pulled out of the game because of injury yet has become one of the game's top shortstops. Can this dream season continue?

"We obviously believe in ourselves. We've been there, we've done that this year," Desmond said. "We've won so many one-run ballgames that it is kind of -- not second nature but we always think we have a chance. We don't ever throw in the towel."

Up next
Nationals at Marlins
Jordan Zimmermann (5-6) vs. Josh Johnson (5-5)
When » Friday, 7:10 p.m.
Where » Marlins Park, Miami

It won't hurt that outfielder Jayson Werth (broken wrist) and closer Drew Storen (elbow surgery) are close to returning -- Storen possibly as soon as next week. The immediate stretch after the All-Star break will be a test thanks to 21 of the first 25 games between now and Aug. 5 against NL East opponents. If they make it through that stretch with a lead intact, playoff talk will begin in earnest.

Washington still needs to stay healthy, however. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman feels better after having a cortisone shot in his right shoulder, but there's no telling how long the inflammation will stay down. Michael Morse is rounding into shape after missing the first two months with a strained lat muscle. But catcher Wilson Ramos is done for the season with an ACL tear. There isn't much margin for error if more injuries crop up. In some ways, given those health issues, the Nats didn't expect to be in first place at this point anyway.

"We've been playing good all year. A lot of guys have stepped up," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "I don't think anybody really thought or knew what kind of club we were. We had a lot of new faces, and we knew we had a lot of talent. But I think we're all satisfied with where we're at right now."

Now comes the hard part: holding that lead with second-place Atlanta (46-39) in reasonable striking distance and holding the final NL wild-card spot, too. The next teams behind the Braves are the New York Mets (46-40), third in the NL East but just 4? games behind the Nats and tied with both St. Louis and San Francisco. It's a crowded field with little separation. Yet after one losing season after another, there's no other position in which Washington would rather be.

"The real fun, the real push comes in the second half. That's been our conversation with the players individually," manager Davey Johnson said. "It's nice to have a break, nice to relax. But there's nothing that beats a pennant race, and we're right in the thick of it."