Nationals among baseball's first-half surprises

Strasburg, Harper, Gonzalez, Desmond keys to Washington's success

By Joey Nowak / | 07/11/12 2:00 PM ET

Nationals: First-half highlights00:03:52
Bryce Harper makes his Major League debut and Stephen Strasburg's 13-strikeout performance in Boston highlight the first half

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals can feel it when they're at Nationals Park, of course, but it's when the players walk the streets of Washington that they really notice what kind of effect their first half has had on the city.

The National League East leaders enter the All-Star break with not only the best record in the NL (49-34), but that winning percentage (.590) is narrowly the second-best at the break since the franchise moved to Washington in 2005. That year, the club was 52-36 at the break, a .591 mark. Now, with a few days to relax, players can travel home or stay in Washington, where they're more likely than ever to be spotted.
"I think it's been great," said left-hander Gio Gonzalez, in his first year with the club. "When you go to areas and restaurants and fans are coming up to you and shaking your hand and saying, 'We appreciate what you've done for us and this city,' it's unbelievable."
Count Gonzalez among the core of Nationals players to help revive baseball in the nation's capital this year. A combination of offseason acquisitions and homegrown talent has brought the club to the forefront of baseball again.
The pitching led the way early this season, as Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Michael Morse succumbed to injuries and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman battled shoulder issues. Even without closer Drew Storen, the club leads all of baseball in ERA and sent two starters (Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg) to the All-Star Game.

First-half awards

MVP: IAN DESMOND Desmond is already off to a banner season, having anchored an oft-quiet lineup this year with a team-high 17 homers and 51 RBIs from the shortstop position.
Cy Young: GIO GONZALEZ With due respect to headliner Stephen Strasburg and rotation ERA leader Jordan Zimmermann, Gonzalez entering the All-Star break tied for the Major League lead in wins (12) to go with 118 strikeouts in 101 2/3 innings earns him the nod.
Rookie: BRYCE HARPER No newcomer in the National League has made a splash like outfielder Bryce Harper, who has helped propel the Nationals to the top of the league while becoming the youngest position player to be named to the All-Star Game.
Top reliever: TYLER CLIPPARD It's hard to choose just one from such an exemplary group, but no one has provided stability like Clippard, who has stepped into the closer's role and gone 14-for-15 in save opportunities with a 1.93 ERA.

Gonzalez became the first Washington pitcher since Livan Hernandez in 2005 to rack up 12 wins before the All-Star break, and Strasburg is tied for the Major League league in strikeouts. They were joined in the Midsummer Classic selection by rookie phenom Bryce Harper and shortstop Ian Desmond.
Desmond -- who sat out the All-Star Game due to an oblique injury -- deserves a bulk of the credit for keeping the offense afloat during some early-season lulls, and heads into the break leading all Major League shortstops in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage.
He's already tied Orlando Cabrera (2003) for the franchise record for home runs in a season by a shortstop (17) and is on pace to more than triple his previous season-high (10) set in 2010.
"He's still learning about himself and learning his happy areas," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's being a better hitter as he gets more experience and knows more about where he's real successful in the strike zone. I don't think it's really a surprise to him or anybody, because everybody that I know has seen the talent since he first came here three years ago."
Speaking of newfound talent, Harper has taken the NL rookie class by storm after debuting in late April. He's hitting .283 with eight home runs, 25 RBIs and 43 runs and 10 stolen bases, and is just the ninth player in baseball history to hit as many as eight homers in a season at age 19, and the first since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989.
"Every game that Harper plays," Johnson said, "the more comfortable he gets."
Comfort is hardly an issue with this club, which Johnson says has a makeup that is "off the charts." It's customary, he says, for a pinch-hitter or a reliever to get up and ready before he even makes the call. And the off-the-field connection has led to on-the-field results.

Players to watch in second half

DREW STOREN After recording 43 saves last season, the reliever has yet to appear in a game this year due to a bone fragment in his right elbow that was surgically removed in early April. He's been rehabbing, and plans to return to an uncertain role in a bullpen that has been anchored recently by his good friend Tyler Clippard.
JAYSON WERTH The outfielder has not played a game since May 6, when he fractured his left wrist, but should return by early August. Werth is an excellent outfielder and averages 24 homers and 81 RBIs per 162 games, so his presence in a resurgent lineup will be appreciated.
RYAN ZIMMERMAN The third baseman played with an aching right shoulder much of the early season before getting a cortisone shot on June 24. Since then, he's raised his batting average from .218 to .243 while hitting three homers this month after just five entering July.

"We have a great team. We have a lot of guys on this team that everybody likes and the game of baseball likes and the fans like," Harper said. "It's an exciting time for us and an exciting time for the fans. It's a lot of fun to come to this clubhouse every day."
The only question that remains is whether the club can continue this torrid, surprising pace in the second half. Storen, who recorded 43 saves last year, is expected to return after the break, with utility player Chad Tracy and outfielder Jayson Werth shortly thereafter.
Washington held the top spot in the NL East for 85 of the first half's 95 days, but will see its division lead put to the test out of the second-half gates with its first 14 games against NL East foes.
But this group feels it's up to the task, with hopes of bringing playoff baseball back to D.C. in 2012.
"The organization has been great," said Desmond, the team's third-round selection in the 2004 Draft. "Ever since the Lerners came in, there's been a steady increase in the talent level we've had and the desire to win. [General manager] Mike Rizzo goes without credit sometimes. He put together a great team this year, some great character guys, veterans especially.
"We've set new standards here."