KANSAS CITY -- The standings tell a good bit of the story without much help. The Nationals are already going places the franchise has not gone since moving from Montreal, holding a four-game lead atop the National League East at the All-Star break.
As recently as three years ago, the Nats went 59-103. They lost at least 90 games for five straight seasons from 2006-2010 before beginning their turnaround last year, and now they're halfway to a playoff berth.
But as much as the Nats' record shows in black-and-white how far the organization has come, the 83rd All-Star Game sheds a kind of light on the team that even first-place status doesn't necessarily offer. Washington had four players named to the NL roster, the most for the franchise since the 1994 Expos sent five players to Pittsburgh.
Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg represent the hard-throwing pitching staff, joined by outfielder Bryce Harper and injured shortstop Ian Desmond, who did not make the trip. It's the kind of contingent usually seen from the biggest markets and from defending league champions, not from rising powers like Washington. But here they are, and it would seem that the best is yet to come.
"It's just getting the right pieces together," Strasburg said Monday during the annual All-Star player media availability session. "Obviously we have a lot of talent, but we've got a lot of room to grow and get better. I think 'Rizz' [general manager Mike Rizzo] has done an awesome job, and having [manager] Davey [Johnson] in there, and [Steve] McCatty, our pitching coach, they've really helped us understand what we're capable of and what we can do if we play the game the right way. It's fun to be a National."
It's not just fun, it's exciting. The core of this club is first-rate, with the four All-Stars joining stars like left-hander Jordan Zimmermann and veteran third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. And the majority of that core is young. Strasburg is 23, Gonzalez and Desmond 26, and Harper won't turn 20 until October.
Whatever they accomplish this year, the hope is that it's only the beginning.
"It's huge," Strasburg said, "and I think it's not just us here. It's not just me, Gio and Harper that have turned this team around. It's guys like Ian Desmond, and Ryan Zimmerman being here through all the losing streaks and losing seasons. Guys like Jordan Zimmermann coming off of Tommy John and pitching really well. ... We've got a lot of young guys that go out there and compete very hard, and I think the greatest thing about us is that we're not satisfied. We're not just playing for one year."
Washington acquired Gonzalez in trade over the winter, and quickly signed him to a long-term deal. He's under team control through 2017. Strasburg is controlled through 2016, Harper through 2017, Desmond through 2015, Zimmerman through 2020 and Zimmermann through 2015.
These guys are going to be together for a while. It's expected that they're going to do a lot of winning in that time.
"This is pretty impressive, having Gio and Desmond and Stras and me," said Harper, "but there's a lot of guys on our club that could have been All-Stars last year. ... I think having the type of talent that we have on our team, having the type of guys that we do, it's great. It's great for Ryan Zimmerman. He's been through the good and the bad with this organization, and he's very happy with everything. It's so exciting for him and the town of D.C. It's just an exciting time for everybody.
First, though, they have to complete the job in front of them. The break provides respite for the Nationals who aren't in Kansas City, and it's a break the organization actually would have loved for Harper to have been able to take. Instead, he's here, enjoying the time with his teammates as they gear up for the second half. He knows the real goal just as well as anyone.
National League lineup
1. Carlos Gonzalez, COL
2. Melky Cabrera, SF
3. Ryan Braun, MIL
4. Joey Votto, CIN
5. Carlos Beltran, STL
6. Buster Posey, SF
7. Pablo Sandoval, SF
8. Dan Uggla, ATL
9. Rafael Furcal, STL
Matt Cain, SF
"This isn't the end of the season," Harper said. "The end of the season is the World Series, hopefully, and that's what I'm looking forward to. Of course, this is a great honor to be here. I'm so excited to be here, and I'm going to enjoy it as much as I can, but we've got a whole second half to look forward to, and hopefully the Nationals can get going."
Of course, they already have gotten going. That part has been accomplished. It's keeping it going that will be difficult.
"I think 'Rizz' did a great job of putting it all together, and the Lerner family [owners] taking a chance with all this," Gonzalez said. "So far, we're doing our job. We're playing one step at a time. We're having fun. Some of the guys are resting up, getting ready for the second half. Because it's not how you start, it's how you finish."
The 83rd Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS, and worldwide by partners in more than 200 countries via MLB International's independent feed. Pregame ceremonies begin at 7:30 p.m. ET. ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide exclusive national radio coverage. MLB Network, MLB.com and Sirius XM also will provide comprehensive All-Star Game coverage.
Fans will also have the opportunity to participate in the official voting for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player presented by Chevrolet via the 2012 MLB.com All-Star Game MVP Vote during the All-Star Game on MLB.com.