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Bench delivers for the Nats in season's first half

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Bench delivers for the Nats in season's first half

BALTIMORE — The key rally in Sunday's 3-2 victory over the Orioles may have aptly encapsulated much of what the first half of the Nationals' season has been about.  

Thanks to three consecutive two-out base hits from Clint Robinson, Dan Uggla and Tyler Moore -- none of whom were intended to be regulars before the year began -- the Nats drove in all the runs runs they would need in the fourth inning to give Max Scherzer some breathing room to seal a win. 

There's no denying that the 2015 season has been headlined thus far by the Herculean efforts of All-Stars Scherzer and Bryce Harper. But it's also been highlighted by who hasn't been on the field; Sunday's lineup was without four preseason projected starters in Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Denard Span because of various injuries. For most teams with championship aspirations, that's a death knell. But for the Nats, it's given the bench players a chance to show that they're good enough to keep the club afloat. 

"Just because they aren't everyday guys, doesn't mean they can't play," Uggla said of his fellow reserves. "When they get an opportunity, they're going to rake. It's always fun watching those guys."

The fill-ins are a confluence of fascinating (and unlikely) stories. Uggla, for example, was fighting for a roster spot in spring training before barely making the team and eventually notching arguably the biggest hit of the season so far. Robinson was essentially a career minor leaguer before he made his first prolonged stint in the big leagues this year at age 30; now he's hitting near the middle of the order. Danny Espinosa's bounce back campaign has exceeded Nats fans' expectations by miles. Rookie Michael A. Taylor is trying to prove he's ready to be an everyday outfielder in 2016 and beyond.  

The tales go on and on, but the bottom line is that collectively, the reserves have sent a strong message about what they're capable of. 

"It says something for our everyday guys, too," Moore said. "We're kind of giving them some help and taking some of the pressure off those guys."

All of it has helped add up to a two-game lead in the NL East as the club heads to the All-Star break. And as Moore mentioned, the bench has given the regulars high hopes for the season's second half. 

"Having those [bench] guys just excites you for the postseason even more," said Bryce Harper. "You have those guys on the bench and hopefully we're going to get the guys back that we need to get back and our bench is going to be stronger than ever."

"It's awesome," added Ian Desmond. "To see the work they put in on a daily basis, kind of their patience and perseverance pays off. They're grinding every day and we've got a special group of guys coming off the bench for us."

As the second half of the season begins, all of the Nats' preseason goals are still there for the taking. Sure, the road to get to this point has been fraught with far more trials and tribulations than most baseball pundits would have expected. But thanks to its motley crew of contributors, the club can still dream big once play resumes Friday. 

"Every team's going to go through [injuries]. But it's how you handle the adversity when you go through the marathon. We've had guys step up," said closer Drew Storen. "Everybody's happy with where we're at. We're going to pretty much get a good team back when guys come off the DL, so it's going to be exciting."

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Murphy's big hit helps Nats beat Mets 6-1

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Murphy's big hit helps Nats beat Mets 6-1

Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner each hit a two-run single in Washington's five-run seventh inning, helping the Nationals beat the New York Mets 6-1 on Sunday.

Matt Adams added two hits and scored a run as Washington salvaged a split of its four-game set against New York. A preseason favorite to win the NL East and contend for a World Series championship, the disappointing Nationals hit the All-Star break with a 48-48 record, good for third in the division.

Jeremy Hellickson (4-1) pitched six crisp innings in his second straight win. The veteran right-hander allowed one run and two hits, struck out six and walked two.

Jose Reyes drove in Michael Conforto with a fielder's choice in the second, tying it at 1, but Washington grabbed control in the seventh.

Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon opened the inning with walks against Anthony Swarzak (0-2). Tim Peterson then came in and surrendered singles to Adams and Murphy, who came off the bench to hit for Michael A. Taylor.

Jerry Blevins replaced Peterson with two out and runners on second and third. But he hit Wilmer Difo and Adam Eaton before Turner's single gave Washington a 6-1 lead.

New York wasted a solid start by Corey Oswalt, who allowed two hits in five innings. The Mets got off to a fast start this year, but hit the break last in the division with a 39-55 record, a percentage point behind fourth-place Miami.

WAITING

A steady drizzle delayed the start by 47 minutes.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac. He allowed three runs, struck out seven and walked one. Strasburg has been on the disabled list since June 10.

Mets: Yoenis Cespedes is scheduled to play five simulated innings in left field at the team's facility in Florida on Monday. Mets manager Mickey Callaway said the 32-year-old outfielder, who has been sidelined by a right hip flexor and strained quadriceps, could return as the designated hitter next weekend against the Yankees If he is able to play on consecutive days.

MAKING MOVES

The Nationals recalled right-hander Trevor Gott from Triple-A Syracuse. Right-hander Austin Voth, who took the loss in his big league debut Saturday, was sent back to Syracuse.

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Taking a look at the numbers behind the Nationals' three All-Stars

Taking a look at the numbers behind the Nationals' three All-Stars

With a win on Sunday afternoon, the Nationals come into the All-Star break at 48-48. 

That's not great! It's certainly an underperformance given all the expectations, but the season hasn't been without some stellar individual performances . 

Take, for starters, Max Scherzer. Scherzer's on pace to have an even better year than his 2017 Cy Young-winning effort, which is mind-boggling. 

An even-more-refined command is what's made him better this season, as his walk rate is down below seven percent again after creeping up to 7.1 last year. It hasn't affected his strikeout rate, either, which has stayed steady at 34 percent. If the season ended today, it'd be the 4th straight year where he set a career-best in that department. 

Of all starting pitchers, he ranks second in WHIP, and K/BB percent. He has the third-lowest average against (.178) and third-best strikeout percentage (34.5). He's got a top-10 ERA and FIP as well. He's been the best pitcher in baseball this season, and will probably be in the conversation for N.L. MVP as well. 

If only the Nats could just go from Scherzer to Doolittle. The closer stopped walking people, too, and already has 22 saves after ending last year with 24. Had he not been put on the D.L. with a toe injury about a week before the All-Star game, he more than likely would have set his career high in saves before the break. 

He's currently on pace to post the second-best year of his career when it comes to strikeouts, too. He's getting Ks 37.1 percent of the time, which would be the highest since he posted a 37.7 in 2014. Same goes for his K/9. He also has a top-10 ERA and FIP. He's been one of the few relief pitchers that have been consistently reliable through the first half, and the Nats will need his toe to get real healthy real quick. 

And lastly there's Bryce Harper, who you've surely heard is not having an All-Star caliber season. His batting average is hovering around .200, he's striking out more than he has in four years, and he's getting eaten alive by the shift. He's also on pace to have one of his best power-hitting seasons ever and finish with close to 40 home runs, so even his bad years still find a way to be impressive. 

Harper also benefits from being one of the faces of baseball playing in front of his home fans. He's one of the most popular players in the league, and All-Star games find a way to get those people in. An All-Star game in D.C. without him would be objectively less enjoyable, so it was in everyone's interest to have him there. Stars just get the calls sometimes. 

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