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Nats are flawed, but still winning

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Nats are flawed, but still winning

Look up and down the Nationals' team stats page -- ignoring their 26-18 record -- and try to come away convinced this is a first-place club. It's not easy.

Yes, the starting rotation continues to excel, with a 2.71 ERA and ridiculously good 3.68-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But that pitching dominance has overshadowed some other obvious flaws on this roster.

The starting second baseman has an embarrassingly low .649 OPS, and the starting center fielder isn't much better at .673. Yet the numbers at those positions look All-Star worthy when compared to the stats Nationals left fielders have collectively put up this season: a .153 batting average, .240 on-base percentage and .245 slugging percentage that adds up to a .485 OPS.

Meanwhile, the Face of the Franchise and star third baseman has only eight extra-base hits while hitting .167 with runners in scoring position. The shortstop has a .299 on-base percentage. And the new starting catcher is reaching base at a .280 clip.

There's no designated closer in the bullpen. But there are three long relievers, just in case that MLB-best rotation can't get through five innings on a consistent basis.

How again is this team in first place?

Well, there is that MLB-best rotation, which certainly covers up a lot of other flaws on the roster. And there's the surprising production the Nationals have gotten out of Adam LaRoche (.937 OPS) and Ian Desmond (.477 slugging percentage). And there's a 19-year-old in right field named Bryce Harper who seems to find a way to positively impact every game he plays.

There's another factor, though, one that's easy to overlook: Pretty much every other team in baseball is flawed, too.

Everyone's dealing with injuries. Everyone's trying to generate more offense. A lot of teams are struggling to find an effective closer.

The Nationals are just doing a better job compensating for their flaws than most.

Which isn't to say this isn't an extremely talented team. Several prominent national baseball writers covered this week's series in Philadelphia, and the following question was posed to them: If every team in the majors was 100 percent healthy, where would the Nationals rank?

The consensus opinion: The Texas Rangers are clearly the best team in the sport, but the Nationals would absolutely be in the discussion.

That's quite a remarkable thought to consider. A franchise that has yet to produce a winning season since arriving in the District is in the conversation for "best team in baseball" among a group of the most-knowledgeable writers in the business.

This, of course, guarantees nothing. For one thing, the Nationals are nowhere close to 100 percent healthy. And though there's hope they will get several key injured players (Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Brad Lidge, Jayson Werth) back in the next few months, there's no telling how they'll perform or what impact they've have on the club's fortunes.

There's also no telling how the current group will perform moving forward. Can LaRoche keep up his hot start (he's shown signs of fading over the last week)? Can Desmond continue to be among the most-productive shortstops in the majors? Can the rotation continue to dominate to this extent?

But if nothing else, the Nationals have put themselves in a position to find out. By taking advantage of their early season schedule and hot pitching staff, they managed to thrive at a time when plenty of other clubs around the sport were foundering.

There's a long way to go. But if the Nationals could play .600 baseball while dealing with so many injuries and other issues, who's to say they can't continue to do it once they have their full arsenal back in the dugout?

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

Baseball fans love the long ball. They love the flashy plays. They love the no-hit bids and the rare perfect game. All of these things dominate headlines and capture our attention. 

The often overlooked bullpen of a club, however, almost always serves as the glue holding everything together. Relief pitching is derived of unsung heroes who are asked to perform on short notice and in sticky, high-pressure situations. 

Head skipper of the Washington Nationals, Dave Martinez, is being criticized for his handling of the bullpen during the first half of the season. 

By now it's well-documented that the Nats played their first 96 games at .500 leaving the club in third place in a division the team has dominated much of the last two years. 

Sure, one can chalk it up to injuries, lack of roster changes or an inexperienced first-year manager working through kinks. But, there's a reason this team expects to compete for a pennant year in and year out: depth. The buzz around Martinez's decision-making continues to point toward his inability to dish out relief pitching assignments to the player's liking.  

Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis and Matt Grace once made up the team's relief staff in May. Between disabled-list periods for Kintzler and Madson, and Sammy Solis being sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, the staff took a beating in the month of June. 

Nats relievers aren't necessarily upset about overuse, but more so because of a lack of communication between player and manager. 

“A lot of times when Davey asks, you just tell him, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m good,’ ” Madson said. “He’s got a lot of stuff to worry about. It’s typical for bullpen guys not to be as honest with the manager. That’s just the dynamic there.”

But there did reach a point where relievers -- Kintzler, Madson and Solis in particular -- felt overworked and that their wishes were not being acknowledged nor granted by Martinez. 

Sean Doolittle was quick to point out that the addition of Kelvin Herrera, who joined the team on June 18, sparked a change in Martinez's approach. 

“Over the last maybe month or so, maybe since we got Herrera, he’s gone around to the relievers and been a lot more proactive with that communication,” Doolittle said. “I think that’s helped.”

On a more complicated note, trust has also been targeted as an area needing improvement. 

When a starter gets in a jam or doesn't seem like he is 100%, Martinez often calls on reinforcements to begin the warming up process. Guys have noticed a pattern in which relief pitchers who initially warm up are often not the ones who start the following inning. 

From a relief pitcher's perspective, this is a sign of Martinez's distrust. Dramatic or not, there was a glaring disconnect throughout the first half of play. 

“With a veteran group, I think we all expect to come into a team and say we’ve all been there; we just want things to go boom, boom, boom and be a piece of cake. But we also all know it’s not like that,” Shawn Kelley said. “ . . . It’s funny: I think you could probably go anywhere and complain about the manager 

as a reliever. I don’t know if any manager has ever had seven relievers say, ‘He was perfect.’ ”

Handling his veteran rotation in the second half of the season should become easier for Martinez as Stephen Strasburg is expected to start Friday. The right-hander was placed on the disabled list June 10 with right shoulder inflammation. 

Strasburg pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday, allowing three runs while striking out seven and walking one. It was his second rehab start since going on the DL. He allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings for Potomac on July 11. Strasburg is 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA this season, striking out 

95 in 80 2/3 innings.

One thing that hasn't been criticized is Martinez's positive attitude. Players often rave about him as a person and how he brings a source of energy in the clubhouse. 

This was on full display during Monday night's Home Run Derby at Nationals Park. 

Moments after Bryce Harper won the Derby, Martinez was among the first to congratulate his All-Star slugger as he hoisted him in the air. 

As the second half of the season gets underway Friday, expect to see a manager who brings forth an openminded approach to his club while in pursuit of a deep October run. 

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Max Scherzer thoroughly enjoyed the All-Star experience in D.C.

Max Scherzer thoroughly enjoyed the All-Star experience in D.C.

All-Star Weekend is entertaining for fans and provides and much-needed break in the 162-game MLB season.

It’s not all just for fun, though. Following his start Tuesday night, Max Scherzer shared the benefits of being able to spend a few days sharing a locker room with players from across the league.

Being in the clubhouse, talking to veterans, talking to guys who have been here, getting to know everybody, getting the personalities, you can actually learn a lot from the other players in the league. They’re watching you, they’re watching your team and you get these conversations and it’s great. You’re talking about everybody and you find little things in the game that make them successful and what made you successful and see if you can get better.

Scherzer also didn’t hold back when talking about how great a job the city and his team did hosting the rest of the league. This is his sixth season as an All-Star, so he's speaking from quite a bit of experience.

It was awesome, what an atmosphere. I thought we were a great host team, all the other players in here loved the facilities and the treatment they received - D.C. did it right.

So according to Max Scherzer, the All-Star Game is great, but All-Star Weekend in D.C. is as good as it gets.

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