Nationals Poised for Playoff Run

Charles E. Sutton | 7/13/2012, 6:38 p.m.

One of this year's biggest surprises in Major League Baseball has been the Washington Nationals. They have a 49-34 record and a four-game lead in the National League East, despite injuries to several key players. With 79 games left in the season, the Nationals have genuine playoff hopes.

Young stars like Bryce Harper, having a great rookie season, and Stephen Strasburg, the ace right-hander, received a lot of praise during the All-Star break in Kansas City, Mo. But let's not forget left-hander Gio Gonzalez also made the All-Star team, and so did shortstop Ian Desmond, who decided not to play because of an injury. Desmond, in fact, has become one of the game's best shortstops. Can this marvelous season continue?

"We obviously believe in ourselves. We've been there, we've done that this year," Desmond said. "We've won so many one-run ballgames that it is kind of - not second nature but we always think we have a chance. We don't ever throw in the towel."

The opening stretch following the All-Star break will be a real test because 21 of the first 25 games between now and August 5 will be against NL East opponents. It won't hurt that closer Drew Storen (elbow surgery) and outfielder Jayson Werth (broken wrist) are close to returning to the lineup. Storen could return as early as next week. If the Nationals are still in first place after this initial stretch, the playoff talk volume will increase dramatically.

"We've been playing good all year. A lot of guys have stepped up," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "I don't think anybody really thought or knew what kind of club we were. We had a lot of new faces, and we knew we had a lot of talent. But I think we're all satisfied with where we're at right now."

Washington's challenge, of course, is to hold on to the lead. The Atlanta Braves are in second place with a 46-39 record, and the New York Mets are in third place at 46-40. There isn't much separation between these teams and the Nationals. But after a string of losing seasons, Washington really likes their current position.

"The real fun, the real push comes in the second half. That's been our conversation with the players individually," manager Davey Johnson said. "It's nice to have a break, nice to relax. But there's nothing that beats a pennant race, and we're right in the thick of it."