What the First Half is Saying About the Second
The first half is in the books. Can it be trusted? It has great legs and whispers sweet words to us, but is it telling us the truth about what will happen in the second half?
The Washington Nationals have been down this road before as have we all. Best first half in team history chirped Chelsea Janes on Saturday morning like a bird too early for the sunrise. I heard Dave Sheinin opine on MASN Friday afternoon that the one thing you can count on is that the Nationals will continue to hit. I knew as soon as the words left his mouth we had problems. Sure enough it took Washington fourteen innings to score three runs on Friday night.
The first half has seen Daniel Murphy, Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa lead an attack that has scored 4.66 runs per game, fifth best in the National League. The pitching staff, led by Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, has allowed only 3.57 runs per game for a fun differential that is second only to the Chicago Cubs. Eighty-one games is a nice sample size, but what tale will they ultimately tell?
Can young pitchers like Joe Ross keep it up? Can the bullpen be shored up with whatever the trade market will allow? Is Bryce Harper going to turn it around in the second half?
The last question may be the one that intrigues the most fans, but has the least value. On Friday night Bryce Harper stood and watched from home plate as he crushed a long fly ball into the night. It was the bottom of the fourth inning, his team was tied with the Reds 1-1 and the game would drag fourteen innings before being settled by Ben Revere. Harper’s ball bounced off the top of the wall and since he never ran a lick, he ended up on first base chatting amiably with Joey Votto instead of with a lead-off double where he might easily have scored the go-ahead run.
The question for Harper going into the second half is whether the hair flips and home plate styling will translate into any advantage for his team or just marketing shots for MLB, Inc.? Daniel Murphy is the de facto leader in the clubhouse with a .346/.387/.586 slash line that is among the best in the NL. Wilson Ramos is the best catcher in the NL not named Buster Posey and Danny Espinosa’s 16 home runs have been a lot louder than Harper’s. He is the third best shortstop in the league behind Corey Seager and Brandon Crawford.
The starting rotation has been outstanding, though Gio Gonzalez has headed into a very dark place of late. The question is not whether Gonzalez can stop the descent into the nether reaches of National League starting pitching, but how the Nationals deal with it. Lucas Giolito’s place in the rotation may not depend upon Stephen Strasburg so much as Gonzalez.
Giolito--the 22 year old, No. 1 Prospect–gave a glimpse into the future of more than the second half in his first big league start last Tuesday. Not surprisingly, he loves the big stage, pitching better in the Majors than he had in the minors before the call-up. He gave up not a run in four innings and was impressive until the rains came. He is a measure of the depth that the Nationals can bring to bear in the second half.
Trea Turner is playing center field for Syracuse now in an effort to carve out a space on the Nationals 2016 roster as a utility player. It was not unrelated that Ben Revere–the reigning center fielder hitting just above the Mendoza Line–suddenly went 7-for-12 after Turner appeared in center at Triple-A. Turner could be a nice boost off the bench, resting not only the middle infielders but the outfielders during the second half.
With a more dependable bullpen, the Nationals can contend with the Cubs for the NL crown. There is of course the question of the San Francisco Giants, but one thing at a time. This may be the best Washington Nationals team to play in DC since 2005. It has the potential to become something historic.
There are numerous marketing scenarios that would warm the cockles of old Senators hearts, such as a Texas Rangers–Washington Nationals World Series. Texas has never won it all since leaving Washington at the end of the 1971 season and of course the Nationals have never been anywhere near the World Series. Be still my heart, there are still three crucial months of baseball and the playoffs.
The second half for Washington will depend on the strength of the bullpen and which Bryce Harper shows up for the final months, the baseball player or the marketing idol. In the playoffs the bullpen will matter more.
If the Nationals need any motivation for the coming months, they should be able to find it by looking over at Dusty Baker. There is no one that does not love Dusty. How could the Nationals not want to win for him? His best team may have been the 1993 Giants that won 103 games but did not even make the playoffs. He has managed in only one World Series, in 2002. Then John Lackey beat Livan Hernandez in Game 7 to send the Giants home. Those are names that still resonate and it would be good to see Baker get another chance. Winning one for Dusty should be the motivation that builds on the best first half in DC and crafts something truly amazing in the second.