WASHINGTON -- No matter how one looks at it, the Nationals made progress during the first half of the 2011 season. It's more than just the games they won; it's how they won them.
Pitching and defense, which had been missing since they arrived in D.C., were the main reasons the Nationals were within striking distance from the Wild Card lead heading into the All-Star break.
But there was turbulence along the way. Jim Riggleman left his post as manager of the club on June 23 because of a contract dispute with general manager Mike Rizzo. The team was a game over .500 at the time, and Riggleman felt that he needed be secure in his future with the club. Rizzo declined to commit, and Riggleman quit after the Nationals defeated the Mariners, 1-0.
Davey Johnson took over as skipper of the club four days later, and the veteran big league manager quickly made decisions that Riggleman was reluctant to make.
Two such examples: Johnson decided that outfielder Roger Bernadina was going to play every day, and he put Rick Ankiel on the bench as the fourth outfielder.
Matt Stairs hardly saw any action under Riggleman. But Johnson said he needed all 25 players to win the game, and he has kept that promise. Players such as Stairs and Ankiel have not been forgotten on the bench.
Like he did with previous clubs he managed, Johnson showed patience. Players like Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond didn't find their rhythm with the bats, but they continue to find themselves in the lineup on a daily basis.
Even though he is patient with certain hitters, Johnson would like changes on the roster. He pointed out that this team still needs a lot of work to get better. He acknowledged there are some question marks in the lineup and on the pitching staff.
AT THE BREAK
MVP: Danny Espinosa, 2B: Forget about the batting average. Espinosa is the most complete player since Vladimir Guerrero wore an Expos uniform in the early 2000s.
Cy Young: Jordan Zimmermann: He is already the ace of Washington's pitching staff. Zimmermann is the first Nationals starting pitcher to enter July with at least 12 starts and have an ERA below 3.00.
Rookie: Espinosa: Not only is he a clutch performer with men on base, Espinosa is the best defensive second baseman in the National League.
Top reliever: Tyler Clippard: Now in his second season as the Nationals' primary setup man, Clippard finished the first half with an ERA under 2.00 and made his first All-Star Game roster.
Players to watch in the second half
Stephen Lombardozzi: If Ian Desmond continues to struggle, look for the Nats to switch Espinosa to shortstop and Lombardozzi to get promoted to the big leagues to play second base.
Brad Peacock: Peacock is considered the best pitching prospect in the Nationals' organization. Once he reaches the big leagues, Peacock will likely form a top 3 with Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.
Strasburg: The Nationals have yet to make an announcement, but Strasburg's goal is to pitch during the month of September. He has yet to play this season because of Tommy John surgery.
"I'm not comfortable with the way everything fits together right now," Johnson said. "I love the ballclub, and I love the talent level, but I'm not really comfortable with all the pieces and the way they fit together.
"It's wonderful being around a .500 club, but that doesn't win championships. My job is to look at all the things, make decisions, and establish young players in the lineup. By the end of the year, I'll have just one or two question marks going to Spring Training."
Johnson would like to have a sixth starter who can also serve as a long reliever. If something happens to one of his starters in the rotation, he doesn't want to have to turn to a reliever who is able to pitch only limited innings.
Johnson would like to have a little more left-handed presence in the bullpen. Right now, Sean Burnett is the only southpaw reliever. Johnson would also like to have more offense off the bench.
"[A better bench would] causes more problems for the opposing manager and creates better matchups for us," Johnson said. "It protects certain batters in the lineup. [I don't want] a left-handed hitter always getting a left-handed pitcher.
"There are a lot of issues in my mind I would like to improve on."
It will be interesting to see what Rizzo does to improve the team. One thing Johnson didn't mention was acquiring a leadoff hitter. They have already used five -- Ankiel, Bernadina, Desmond, Werth and Danny Espinosa -- and none of them has been able to produce.
If the Nationals can't acquire a leadoff hitter, don't be surprised if 22-year-old prospect Stephen Lombardozzi gets a callup as the new table-setter. He has been a hitting machine since his promotion to Triple-A Syracuse.
"We would like someone within the ballclub or organization to step up and be that guy," Rizzo said. "If we can't find that guy within the organization, we will look elsewhere."
The Nationals have a long way to go, but they are taking steps in the right direction to be contenders.