The Washington Nationals had a four-day All-Star break to pause and enjoy a rare view from the top -- first-place in the NL East and the best record in the National League. The upstart Nats will need to get right back to work as the second half of the season begins, opening with a tough four-game series within the division at the Miami Marlins.
While the Marlins are trying to recover from a disastrous June and have fallen under .500, they have plenty of talent to make this series a good test. The Nationals are seeking their first win in the colorful new Marlins Park, having dropped three games there in May.
Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins
Friday, July 13, 7:10 p.m. EDT
Jordan Zimmermann (5-6, 2.61) vs. Josh Johnson (5-5, 4.06)
Saturday, July 14, 7:10 p.m. EDT
Gio Gonzalez (12-3, 2.92) vs. Mark Buehrle (8-8, 3.25)
Sunday, July 15, 1:10 p.m. EDT
Stephen Strasburg (9-4, 2.82) vs. Ricky Nolasco (8-6, 4.35)
Monday, July 16, 7:10 p.m. EDT
Edwin Jackson (5-4, 3.73) vs. Carlos Zambrano (4-7, 4.20)
Season Series: The Nationals are 2-3 this season against the Marlins, winning a pair at home in April but suffering a three-game sweep in Miami in May. The division foes will play a total of 18 games.
The Nationals won't surprise anyone in the second half after rolling off a 49-34 record and sending four players to the All-Star Game. The Nats have held onto first place for nearly all of the season, and accomplished this despite a staggering number of injuries. The inconsistent offense may be rounding into shape, averaging nearly six runs per game so far in July. The pitching has carried the team and shows few signs of slowing down, leading the majors with a 3.20 staff ERA.
The Marlins had plenty of optimism heading into the season, and at one point Miami looked like the Nationals' prime competition in the division. But in a stretch that encompassed much of June, the team dropped 17 of 20 games to tumble back in the standings. The Marlins stand at 41-44 at the break, nine games back and in fourth place. Giancarlo Stanton will be missed following knee surgery, but the team traded for slugger Carlos Lee right before the break. The pitching staff has fallen short of expectations, headlined by the disastrous first half by new closer Heath Bell.
The Nationals keep plugging away and have the potential to get even better. The young team hasn't been intimidated by any situation to date, which bodes well as they head into the second half trying to protect a lead in the standings. They shouldn't need a wake-up call, but a trip to Miami should provide a good gauge right after the break. The Marlins have stumbled but can still turn to Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, and now Carlos Lee.
The Nats have the starting pitching to compete every day, so they can expect to get their first win in the lime green surroundings of the new Marlins Park. Throwing their top four starters at Miami, they can realistically hope to win a tough divisional series on the road. But don't count out the Marlins starters, who have underachieved as a group but are all capable of posting quality starts.
KW Rosenfeld is a lifelong baseball fan who visited every major league ballpark in the summer of 1991. A longtime resident of Northern Virginia, he's still thankful that baseball has returned to D.C.