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Reasons to Believe the Washington Nationals Can Still Make Big 2nd-Half Surge

Robert WoodCorrespondent IJuly 19, 2016

Reasons to Believe the Washington Nationals Can Still Make Big 2nd-Half Surge

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    Summer is officially here. For the Washington Nationals, things just got real.

    The Nationals are currently 39-39. They are still in second place in the NL East standings at 5.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves, and also 5.5 games behind the leaders in the NL Wild Card standings.

    But with 84 games remaining on their 2013 schedule, this team can ill afford to lose any more ground in the playoff race. For the Nationals, the second half begins now.

    With that sentiment in mind, here are five reasons to believe the Washington Nationals can still make a big second-half surge.

     

    Note: All statistics updated through June 27 courtesy of MLB.com unless noted otherwise.

5. Bryce Harper Is Ready to Return

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    Bryce Harper claims Mickey Mantle as his childhood idol. But another Yankees legend may have best described the role of a player of Harper's caliber. 

    Reggie Jackson summed up his importance to the team by saying, "I'm the straw that stirs the drink."

    The same can be said for Harper. He is hitting .287 in 150 at-bats for the Washington Nationals this season, with seven doubles, one triple and 12 home runs. Harper has 23 RBI with 29 runs scored, with a .386 on-base percentage and a .587 slugging percentage. 

    To demonstrate his importance to the Nationals, Harper has only played in 44 of the Nats' 78 games this season, and he is still second on the team in home runs. Plus, he leads the team in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage of those with a minimum 100 at-bats. 

    Harper has not played since May 26. That was his last game before going on the 15-day disabled list with bursitis in his left knee. Harper received a cortisone injection on June 11, and the knee was immobilized to ensure proper rest and healing. 

    This week, Harper began his rehab assignment. First, he played two games with the Single-A Advanced Potomac Nationals, on June 25 and June 26. Then, he played one game with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators on June 27. After the game with Harrisburg, Chase Hughes of CSNWashington.com reported that Harper is ready to return to the big club: 

    Over his three rehab games, Harper has homered, drawn walks, and done just about everything he can on the base paths. He’s gone from first to third, first to home, he’s slid into base head first, he’s even slid leading with the left knee. Baserunning was said to be the key to Harper getting the clearance to return to the Nationals. If that was the most important test, he seems to have passed. In Thursday’s outing Harper went 2-for-4 with a two-RBI triple, a walk and a single. He looked every bit the player he usually is at full health, after playing two games in Potomac that tested his knee in a variety of ways.

    Hughes stated that Harper is aiming for a Monday return against the Milwaukee Brewers. But with little left to prove on his rehab assignment, Harper could join the Nationals this weekend as they face the New York Mets in New York.

    Whenever he ultimately returns, the Nationals will love to have Harper's bat and energy back in the lineup. And Harper will be delighted to find that the Nats lineup is much more potent than when he left. 

4. Anthony Rendon Makes Lineup Stronger

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    When Bryce Harper last played for the Nationals on May 26, Anthony Rendon was playing for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. Since then, the 23-year-old prospect has returned to the Nationals, receiving his second MLB call-up on June 5. 

    Rendon has been on fire ever since. 

    In the month of June, Rendon has 29 hits in 79 at-bats with nine doubles, one home run and 41 total bases. For the season, Rendon is batting .337 in 104 at-bats, with 11 extra base hits, six RBI and 12 runs scored. He is slugging .462 with an on-base percentage of .384. 

    Count manager Davey Johnson as one person who has been impressed with Rendon's performance, as he told Mark Zuckerman of CSNWashington

    He's swung the bat like a veteran. He's hit every pitch that's thrown up there at him. He's got a quick bat. And he's aggressive. He hits all types of pitches. Just a good-looking young hitter. 

    The Nationals manager knows his lineup is stronger with Rendon. It will be that much stronger when Harper joins him. 

3. The Big 3 Are Coming Up Big

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    The Washington Nationals have their own version of the Big Three.

    Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann give the Nats a formidable trio at the top of the rotation.

    Each could be considered an ace. Washington skipper Davey Johnson is lucky enough to have all three in the same rotation. And all three have pitched to their capabilities in recent weeks.

    Here are the statistics for each pitcher over their last 10 starts:

    PITCHER W  L   ERA  IP H   ER 
    BB  SO 
    Stephen Strasburg 3 2 2.03 62.0 43 14 19 62
    Gio Gonzalez 2 1 2.32 66.0 47 17 24 61
    Jordan Zimmermann 6 2 2.67 70.2 62 21 10 53
    TOTAL 11 5 2.36 198.2 152 52 53 176

     

    The Big Three have certainly done their part. A continuation of this trend bodes very well for the Nationals as they push for the playoffs in the second half of the season.

2. Dan Haren Experiment May Be Over

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    The Nationals' starting rotation has been very good this season. Led by the Big Three, Washington has a starter ERA of 3.62, ranking sixth in all of baseball. 

    But the weak link in that rotation has undoubtedly been Dan Haren, the veteran starter signed by the Nationals to a one-year contract worth $13 million in the offseason.

    Amanda Comak of The Washington Times tweeted the cold, hard truth about Haren after his latest start on June 22, in which he surrendered six earned runs in only 3.1 innings pitched:

    That same day, Dan Kolko of MASN tweeted that Davey Johnson was nearing a tough decision on Haren:

    The next day, Haren was sent to the disabled list. But in a very telling quote, Haren himself revealed that the move may have just been a cover to get him out of the rotation, as he told Chase Hughes of CSNWashington.com:

    According to the Nationals' 2013 schedule at ESPN.com, Taylor Jordan is slated to start for the Nats on June 28 in place of Haren. This 24-year-old right-hander is currently ranked 17th among the Nationals' top-20 prospects

    Dan Kolko of MASN speculates that Jordan will fill Haren's spot in the rotation at least temporarily. Kolko also provided an update on Jordan's recent performance in the minor leagues:

    Jordan has been tremendous this season, posting a 1.00 ERA in 15 games split between high Single-A Potomac and Harrisburg. Since getting the bump up to Double-A in mid-May, Jordan has a ridiculous 0.83 ERA over nine games.

    In those nine games, he has two shutouts, hasn't surrendered more than a single earned run in any appearance, is allowing opposing hitters a batting average of just .194 and has posted 43 strikeouts to just nine walks over 54 innings.

    If Jordan can translate that success to the big leagues, he would be a definite improvement over Haren. He may fuel a second-half surge in the process.

1. Atlanta Has Left the Door Open

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    With the Washington Nationals hovering at the .500 mark for most of the season, the Atlanta Braves have been given a golden opportunity to slam the door on the reigning NL East champions and move into the penthouse atop the division all by themselves.

    But, so far, the Braves have failed to do so.

    Right now, the Braves are 45-34, giving them a .570 winning percentage. They are still in first place in the NL East standings, but they sit only 5.5 games ahead of the Nationals. The Braves' play in the month of June has hurt them dearly.

    After the first two months of their 2013 schedule, the Braves were 28-17. Meanwhile, the Nationals were 28-27 after the first two months of their 2013 schedule. Going into June, the Braves had a lead of 5.0 games over the Nats.

    In June, the Nationals have not done themselves any favors. They have continued to struggle, going 11-12 so far this month. Meanwhile, the Braves have gone 13-12 in June. So, even as Washington has put together a losing month, Atlanta has only gained 0.5 games on their closest rivals in the standings.

    Perhaps the biggest cause of the Braves' missed opportunity to control the division has been Atlanta's offense, once considered the team's biggest strength. To that effect, Buster Olney of ESPN tweeted an interesting stat after the Braves' loss to the Brewers on June 22:

    This is a very disturbing sign for the Braves and their fans, but a very welcome one for the Nationals and theirs. The Braves have left the door open for the Nats, who are still in position to kick it down. 

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