Nationals fans need not get ahead of themselves. Yes, Washington entered play on Tuesday with a comfortable 4?? game lead in the National League East. But the calendar also hasn't yet flipped to August and there were enough late-season collapses last year to limit any premature celebrations this time around.
From fresh injuries (Ian Desmond's oblique) to Stephen Strasburg's early shutdown to some regression on the pitching staff, there are some concerns as the second half is underway. And there are still 34 division games left -- time enough to slip in head-to-head competition.
"It's just a grind," Nats manager Davey Johnson said of the constant series against division opponents. "Sometimes just to split is like picking up ground. It's like maintaining your momentum."
But maybe the most encouraging sign for Washington is that it's division rivals aren't exactly doing their part to keep the pressure up. The Philadelphia Phillies, five-time defending division champs, were supposed to be the big hurdle. But injuries and age have crippled them. Even with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back and even after showing signs of life early this week, the Phillies were still 14 games behind the Nats.
The Miami Marlins entered the year with high hopes but haven't performed as expected. This week they began retooling with the trade of second baseman Omar Infante and pitcher Anibal Sanchez with multiple media outlets reporting more to come. Miami has tumbled double-digit games behind the Nats now.
How about the New York Mets? Injuries are eating away at the rotation and the bullpen is a continuing nightmare. Most experts had the Mets ticketed for last place before the season and that is exactly where they're sinking after losing nine of the first 10 to start the second half. Not even David Wright can save them.
That leaves the second-place Atlanta Braves, who have an excellent lineup and a capable bullpen. But the rotation isn't good enough after losing ace Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery and it doesn't help that Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster, a solid veteran, has apparently nixed a trade to Atlanta.
- Brian McNally