Leading the NL East at the All-Star break has fans wondering if the Washington Nationals can really make the playoffs.
Sure -- why not? With a 49-34 mark, they're slightly more than halfway through the season. Washington has played a large enough sample to prove it's a good team. This isn't the Redskins starting 3-1 last year and suddenly collapsing. Four games were shown to mean nothing, but 83 games confirm the Nats are good.
Washingtonians are bred to be skeptical, though. Maybe it's all the politicians in town and campaign promises that are broken as soon as elections end. We get a first-hand look at disappointment on a daily basis.
Nothing good has happened in local professional sports since the Redskins won the 1991 Super Bowl. The Capitals regularly disappoint in the playoffs as favorites. The Redskins are largely awful no matter how many quarterbacks and coaches they rotate. The Wizards flat out stink annually.
Local fans flinch from success. They remember the 2005 Nats opening 50-31 in their first season in the District. Baseball returning to Washington was a dream in itself, but leading the division at midseason seemed like an embarrassment of riches. Sure enough, the Nats finished 31-50 to go 81-81 -- the high-water mark for a franchise that soon lost 100-plus games two straight years.
But this feels different, largely because of the Nats' pitching. All-Stars Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg are a combined 21-7. That's the best 1-2 of any staff, and Jordan Zimmermann (2.61 ERA) is the best No. 3 pitcher despite a 5-6 record.
The Nats will be getting a boost from the return of some injured players, too. The biggest addition will be reliever Drew Storen, who will be back soon after missing the first half of the season recovering from elbow surgery. Outfielder Jayson Werth will also return soon. And Ryan Zimmerman's cortisone shot to his injured shoulder has transformed the third baseman into a hitting machine. But Storen will be the most important. He will seal wins.
What about Strasburg's innings limit that will likely end his season in mid-September? Nats general manager Mike Rizzo has proven himself in assembling this roster so have some faith in this decision. It means Strasburg will miss a handful of starts, but if the Nats are truly worthy of making the postseason then Strasburg's late absence shouldn't be the difference. Washington shouldn't overspend for a starter before the July 31 trade deadline because the Nats have the needed pitching.
The next two weeks will reveal whether Washington is postseason worthy. They will play NL East rivals Miami, New York and Atlanta in their first 14 games after the break. Defending champion Philadelphia is buried 14 games back so forget the Phillies, and Miami is improbable at nine games out. However, Atlanta and New York are only 4 and 4? games back respectively, so Washington needs to win those series to prove to themselves and skeptical fans that the first half wasn't a fluke.
Suddenly, baseball season doesn't end when Redskins training camp begins.