BALTIMORE, MD - JUNE 23: Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson looks on during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on June 23, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Not everything they touched turned to gold in the first half. As much progress as Henry Rodriguez made at the end of the 2011 campaign and the beginning of this season, he was back to being wild and flamed out quickly in the closer's role when pressed into duty. Danny Espinosa has continued to struggle at the plate (from the left side) since exploding on the scene in a first-half of the '11 season that had him talked about as a potential ROY candidate. Chien-Ming Wang's positive signs from late last season may have been misinterpreted. But for every SMH-Rod, Espinosa and Wang, (and Rodriguez and Espinosa have shown signs of progress lately to be fair though Wang's struggled and landed on the DL) there's a Tyler Clippard, Ian Desmond or Gio Gonzalez. Though some didn't see it coming and the GM himself may not have expected it to happen so soon, the Nationals are basically right where Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo expected them to be after the first half of the 2012 schedule.
When the 69-year-old Johnson told reporters he'd be back in D.C. to lead his 16th major league team, he said he decided to come back at the end of the 2011 season, three months after he'd taken over following the abrupt departure of former skipper Jim Riggleman, "When I had kind of more the mixture of talent I wanted on the ballclub and [saw] how they all worked together. That was when I really felt, 'Man, there's so much more we can do here and I need to be here to help see it along.'"
While Rizzo spoke often of the goal of playing "meaningful games in September," the Nats' manager told the press his goal was a pennant. "Winning the pennant. Winning the division. Winning the National League," Johnson said, "I couldn't have said that last Spring. I didn't think the talent was ready, but after being there and seeing the progress that some of the young players made, I think we definitely can contend and I would be sorely disappointed if we didn't do just that."
That was in late October. By the time Spring Training started Johnson declared in an interview with CSNWashington.com's Kelli Johnson that the team could fire him if he didn't lead this club to the first postseason appearance since baseball returned to the nation's capital. The Nationals had added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to a collection of pitchers that already featured Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang and John Lannan. Ryan Zimmerman was locked up long-term. Adam LaRoche was healthy. Jayson Werth had something to prove, Wilson Ramos, Espinosa and Ian Desmond were a year older and wiser, and Bryce Harper was on the way.
Johnson told the CSNWashington.com reporter he was prepared to compete.
"No question in my mind" Johnson said, and if they don't make it, "They can fire me.'"
"Strong words," CSNWashington.com's Kelli Johnson said.
"We should make the playoffs," Davey Johnson responded, "There's no doubt in my mind."
After the first half of the 2012 schedule the Nationals are in first place in the NL East. They've been in first place since retaking it on May 22nd. They've spent 73 days of the season in first place so far. They're 16-9 in the division. They have the NL's lowest team ERA. The starting rotation has the National League's lowest ERA (3.25), FIP (3.37), highest combined fWAR (+9.9), the second-highest K/9 (8.21 K/9) and second-lowest HR/9 (0.76 HR/9). A middle of the pack (.251/.314/.414) offense has the fourth-highest wRC+ (96) and the eighth-highest combined fWAR in the NL (+11.9 fWAR).
They're about to get Drew Storen back (though not quite yet), Jayson Werth's expected back (by August?) and Bryce Harper just got to play in the All-Star Game as a 19-year-old. Have you heard about Stephen Strasburg's innings limit? Think Davey Johnson's confident heading into the second half? The Nats' 69-year-old skipper talked to CSNWashington.com's Kelli Johnson again and reiterated his opinion that he thinks this team can win the NL East and more. "It's right where I expected us to be," Johnson said of their current place in the standings, "If I didn't muck it up along the way."
"The guys are really playing good. They're playing up to their potential," Johnson said, "And that's really just come about here lately. We've been kind of struggling the first couple months. Of course we had some key injuries to players, but by and large, we're just now rounding into shape." Johnson told everyone he was waiting for the offense to wake up for over a year before they started to late in the first half. Can the offense improve in the second half? Will the pitching continue to do as well as they have thus far? Can the defense remain strong as it has been? The second half of the 2012 season starts tonight at 7:10 pm EDT in Miami. It's time to find out.