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Nats remain confident entering pivotal second half

Club looks to ignite offense, move past first-half troubles to chase first-place Braves

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals entered the 2013 season as the favorites to win the National League East. In fact, manager Davey Johnson thought so highly of his team, he announced, "World Series or bust." There were good reasons for Johnson to feel good about the team.

It was believed that the pitching staff was even better after the team signed closer Rafael Soriano and starter Dan Haren in the offseason. The Nats were even better in the outfield, acquiring leadoff hitter and center fielder Denard Span from the Twins.

However, the Nationals stumbled into the All-Star break with a 48-47 record, six games behind the Braves.

"As soon as everyone says you are going to win 110 games, an easy season -- nothing in this game is ever easy," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think a lot of us knew that. But fans, people who talked about this team, don't really know that it's hard and it isn't easy.

"Obviously we are a better team than what we have shown. ... You have to take it in stride. Whatever happened in the first half has happened. You can't do anything about it. You have to learn from it. Just go out, play the second half. ... If we go on a run, have a good 25-game stretch, we are right back in it."

One reason for the disappointing first half was the offense, which ranked near the bottom of almost every category, including on-base percentage and runs scored.

Washington's bench was one of the reasons it won the NL East last year. This year, the bench hasn't been productive and Johnson would like to add another veteran player. The Nats already acquired Scott Hairston from the Cubs last week.

Even more shocking was that the Nationals were one of the worst defensive teams in the NL, committing 67 errors. The Nats are not planning to make any changes to improve the defense. It also didn't help that the team had to deal with its share of injuries. It was without Bryce Harper (left knee) and Wilson Ramos (hamstring) for more than a month. When they were out, Washington had a tough time scoring runs.

First-half awards
MVP: Ian Desmond Besides playing outstanding defense, Desmond leads the Nationals in almost every offensive category.
Cy Young: Jordan Zimmermann He has dealt with neck issues since May, but it hasn't affected him on the mound. In 19 games, Zimmermann is 12-4 with a 2.58 ERA.
Rookie: Ian Krol He helped stabilized the bullpen and is often used in the late innings.
Top reliever: Rafael Soriano He has lived up to expectations and already has 25 saves.

The pitching staff was a bright spot for the team. Led by Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals are fifth in the Major Leagues in ERA. After a slow start, the bullpen is better than ever after adding left-handers Ian Krol and Fernando Abad to the fold.

Although they are a game over .500, the Nats believe there is still time to win the division.

"There is a lot of baseball to be played. If you are looking at the stats right now, you are looking at them way too early," infielder Chad Tracy said. "You can change that in a matter of a week. If the Braves lose five and we win five, we are right there."

First baseman Adam LaRoche didn't expect the Nationals to run away with the division title, but he expected the team to score a lot of runs.

"I thought we would have more offense. It didn't happen," LaRoche said. "Absolutely nothing we can do about it. We hope to continue forward. It's not over and we are still in position [to win the division]. As bad as it was and still be where we are at, that's pretty darn good."

"We are still in arm's distance of where we want to be. It's going to be good to kind of go home, reset the batteries for the break, come back and get the ball rolling on a positive note for the second half," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "We are all very excited for this break. I'm looking forward to the second half."

Players to watch in second half
Denard Span He was the team's leadoff hitter for most of the season, but he didn't get on base often enough and will now hit seventh to start the second half.
Dan Haren He had a disappointing first half because of shoulder issues. After spending two weeks on the disabled list, Haren had two straight quality starts.
Wilson Ramos He will be the everyday catcher for the second half, but can he stay healthy? Only time will tell.

The Nats need to see more production from the offense during the second half. Johnson took steps on the last day of the first half to try and make it click. Johnson decided to put Harper and Anthony Rendon at the top of the order and drop Span down to the seventh spot. Harper and Rendon have high on-base percentages, while Span is having the worst year of his career, hitting .260 with a .317 on-base percentage. Span is an excellent defensive center fielder, which is why Johnson has never thought about sitting him down.

For one day, anyway, the lineup change worked in a 5-2 victory against the Marlins on Sunday. Johnson said he is going to stick with this lineup for quite some time. Harper, for one, is not complaining about being a leadoff hitter.

"I was getting in there and getting the ABs that I did. I was able to get five at-bats. That was pretty awesome," Harper said. "I like doing it. I did it in high school, so that was pretty cool. I would be pretty comfortable out there. I got a pretty good pitch to hit in the first AB -- fastball right down the middle. It was a good day. I liked it."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats.
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