Washington Nationals' Offense Finally Catching Fire; Rotation Questions For Second Half...

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 04: Gio Gonzalez #47 and Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals watch the game against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park on July 4, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

"Middle of the lineup is the key," Davey Johnson told reporters after the Washington Nationals' 9-4 win over the NL West's second-place San Francisco Giants, "When they do it, we're pretty good." The four home run game, which saw Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Jhonatan Solano and Rick Ankiel go deep, was just the latest in a stretch of high scoring affairs over the last eight games. In total, starting with the Nats' 12-5 win over Colorado in the second game of four with the Rockies in Coors Field, the Nationals' offense has put 70 runs on the board while going 6-2 in three with the Rockies, three with the Braves in Atlanta and two with the Giants at home in Nationals Park.

"We had a couple of injuries to the middle of the lineup," the Nats' skipper said when asked if he thought the offense was sustainable, "[Zimmerman] didn't feel right until probably a week, ten days ago, and we didn't have Morse. So he's just now coming around and Desi's been doing the things we all know he's capable of doing and the rest of the guys are doing their part too. We're doing the things I know we're capable of doing, which is fun to watch."

After going 2 for 5 with a home run and a double that fell a few feet short of a dinger, Ryan Zimmerman's now 17 for 46 in the ten games since he received a cortisone shot to reduce the inflammation around the AC joint in his right shoulder. The Nationals' third baseman has a .370/.408/.739 line since then, with five doubles, four home runs, three walks and eight K's in 49 PA's. Michael Morse had a .215/.238/.316 line back on June 24th. Morse has gone 17 for 43 (.395/.422/.628) with a double and three home runs in the ten games since then, raising his line to .288/.312/.441 on the year. Ian Desmond, who's been in the lineup all along, has a .375/.419/.825 line in the last ten games, and a .297/.309/.491 line overall in 2012.

"I always put it back to the middle of the lineup," Davey Johnson explained, "Those are the guys that are obviously your best hitters and when they struggle, it has an effect on everybody else. Trying to do too much. Trying to pick it up. Maybe try to hit the ball out of the ballpark. But when [the middle of the lineup is] doing [its] thing, and everybody else is just looking for a pitch to hit hard, and consequently you get better pitches to hit and you're a better hitter."

Strong as the offense has been recently, it's the Nationals' pitching that's carried the team so far this season. Or the pitching and the defense as the Nats' GM explained to FOXSports.com's Jon Morosi in an article entitled, "Plan won't hinder Nats' playoff bid":

"'We knew with the starting pitching we had, the bullpen we had, the defense we had, we were going to be in a lot of games. Then when the offense would catch up, we would have a chance to go on some streaks.'"

After 79 games, the Nationals' rotation (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang) has the NL's lowest team ERA (3.28 to the Dodgers' 3.32), the lowest FIP (3.37 to the Cards' 3.49), the second-lowest xFIP (at 3.61 behind the Phillies' 3.60), the highest fWAR (+9.6 to the Phillies' +8.9), the highest K/9 (8.27 to the Brewers' 8.15), second lowest HR/9 (0.76 to the Cardinals' 0.75), the fourth-highest GB% (at 47.3 behind St. Louis' NL-leading 50.0%) and the fourth-lowest BABIP-against (with opposing hitters posting a .278 BABIP on the year).

The Nats' bullpen has the third-lowest team ERA (3.03), second-lowest FIP (3.51 to the Reds' 3.35), third-highest fWAR (at +2.4) and the lowest HR/9 (tied with the Giants at 0.66 HR/9). Defensively, the team has committed the third lowest error total in the NL thus far, and posted the second-highest FLD% (.985). While the Nationals are middle of the pack in runs scored this year, they've given up the least runs in the majors.

Rizzo told FOXSports.com's Mr. Morosi that in spite of the way things are going for the Nationals, they will eventually shut Stephen Strasburg down, which will be a blow to the Nats' rotation, but it's something the team has anticipated doing from the start, with the Nats' GM explaining as far back as last August that the 23-year-old right-hander will eventually be shut down in his first full-year back from Tommy John surgery. Davey Johnson, who has often said that he doesn't like to look ahead to decisions that will have to be made down the road, told reporters on Wednesday that he knows he'll eventually lose Strasburg, and after Wednesday's game he admitted that he has actually been studying the schedule in September to see what his rotation will look like when Strasburg's no longer available.

"I've looked at the schedule," Johnson said, "And the last part of it is kind of weird, we don't play our division. I don't like that. But, I never worry about things I have no control over. I was curious as to who we were playing and what our schedule was that last month, you know, absent Strasburg and what type of pitcher might fit in best for going against the clubs we're going to play that month. But that's as far as I go."

Was Davey Johnson talking about what pitchers the Nationals have in the system? Potential trade targets? FOXSports.com's Mr. Morosi, who's publicly questioned the Nats' plan to eventually shut Stephen Strasburg down, does again in today's article, but he also writes that he came away from the conversation with the Nationals' general manager convinced that Rizzo's going to stick to the plan he's been discussing in the press since late last year, and since they are sticking with it, Mr. Morosi writes, "... soon the focus will turn to how the Nationals can account for his absence." It could be John Lannan called up to fill in for Strasburg, which the FOXSports.com writer says, is a better alternative that some other teams like the Mets and Braves have available to them. Will the Nats explore a trade for a starter?

The Nationals' general manager talked about the team's plans going into the trade deadline later this month in a separate article by FOXSports.com's Mr. Morosi entitled, "Nats’ Rizzo: 'We’re always looking long-term'", in which Mr Morosi writes that Rizzo, "... says he doesn’t feel pressure to make a big move at this month’s non-waiver trade deadline." The FOXSports.com writer alsoquotes the GM repeating a variation of his oft-repeated mantra about always being open to deals that help the team long-term:

"We’re always looking to upgrade, if there’s an upgrade we can make and it fits for us in the long term," the general manager said in an interview this week with FOXSports.com. "We’re always looking long-term. We’re never going to do a knee-jerk reaction to win now.

"I’m not looking to do anything (at the moment), but we’re certainly always open for ideas that would help improve the club."

Will the Nats make a trade for a starter? A reliever? Bench bat? Will they go into the last month (and potentially the post season) with Gio, Zimmermann, E-Jax and Det? The "first-half" is almost over, those are going to be big "second-half" questions.

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