Another week, another benchmark.  The All Star break finds the Nationals two games ahead of the pack in the NL East after the team took two of three against the Orioles (now there’s a team tumbling– with 10 losses in 13 games).  Seven of last year’s ten playoff teams were in postseason position during the All Star break of 2014…and this year the Nats can be comfortable knowing that they are the only team with a positive run differential in their division.  While two wins can’t completely erase going 0-2 against Cincinnati, it’s nice to enter the break off a winning series where your ace has returned to form.  But seriously, what is it with the Reds?  The Nats are 0-5 against the NL Central’s 4th place team.

Alan Alda Would Be Proud– four of the Nats projected eight starting position players this year are on the Disabled List, not including last year’s #1 pitcher Stephen Strasburg.  Ryan Zimmerman (on a pace for 100 RBI when he went down) has missed 31 games.  Jayson Werth (hitting .250 with 2 HR and 6 RBI in 12 May games after hitting .175 in April) began the season on the shelf, has missed 60 games overall and won’t return until early August.  Anthony Rendon didn’t play until June 4th and was just beginning to hit his stride (batting 8-15 over his last four games) when he went down three weeks later…meaning the guy who scored 111 runs last year has missed 69 games in 2015.  Denard Span also began the year on the DL–and back issues sent him back to sick bay last week…making him the most active of the bunch at 28 games missed.  Thus, the projected 1, 2, 3 and 5 hitters in the lineup have missed a combined 188 games…and we’ve only just passed the halfway mark.  But that’s not all:  Stephen Strasburg’s in his second stint on the shelf (5 starts missed) while the guy who led the team in victories last year (Doug Fister) has missed 5 or 6 starts (depending on your rotational math with off days in the mix).  Not to mention the absence of bullpen bulldog Craig Stammen (who led the team in relief innings pitched last year)…who’s been an afterthought since tax day.  The fact that this team is even in contention– let alone in first place– is an achievement for the bench, the manager and the organization.

Digesting the Division– the New York Mets begin this week two games behind the Nats…thanks to their sweep of Arizona.  The Mets regained their mojo against the NL West, taking 7 of 9 games over the last week and a half.  Atlanta’s now five games under .500 after losing five straight entering the midseason hiatus.  Can either team make a second half run?  The Mets pitching (3rd in MLB in ERA and quality starts) is betrayed by their bats (28th in runs scored, 29th in slugging and 30th in batting average–clearly they’re spending too much time working on their 26th ranked on base percentage)… while the Braves are lucky to be in the conversation (22nd in runs scored, 21st in ERA–so at least they’re somewhat consistent).  Miami and Philadelphia continue to provide punchlines.

Division to Watch– Sunday night Pittsburgh’s Gregory Polanco belted a walk-off single to give the Pirates a 6-5 win over St. Louis for the second straight night.  The previous night Andrew McCutchen ripped a walk-off homer in the 14th to give the Bucs the W.  While Pittsburgh may have momentum, they still trail the Cardinals for the best record in the NL Central as well as all of baseball.  They’re two of the three teams currently playing over .600 ball (Kansas City being the other).  Two playoff teams from 2014 to watch out for this summer.  Meanwhile, the third place Chicago Cubs would also make the playoffs if they began today and they possess the freshest new face in Kris Bryant as well as a manager in Joe Maddon who’s known for getting the most out of his club.  Even the also-rans merit mention:  as previously dwelled upon, fourth place Cincinnati is 5-0 against the Nationals this year and last place Milwaukee boasts Bob Uecker as their announcer (he got locked in the team’s radio booth earlier this year and had to be rescued by ladder).

Last Week’s Heroes– Danny Espinosa led the team with 2 HR and 4 RBI while continuing to play the role of defensive Swiss Army Knife (he’s played 5 of the 8 positions in the field so far this year).  Max Scherzer bounced back from his worst start of the season to toss 8.2 solid innings against the Orioles while Drew Storen tallied saves at Camden Yards on consecutive days.  While much was expected from Scherzer and Storen this year, Espinosa’s risen above even the most inflated of 2015 hopes.  Despite playing 26 fewer games, he’s already surpassed his 2014 totals in runs scored, doubles, homers, runs batted in and walks.  While Bryce Harper is the team’s MVP, Espinosa and Yunel Escobar have been just as essential in their own way.

Last Week’s Humbled– San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy for not adding Drew Storen to the All Star team after Max Scherzer pitched Sunday.  Storen is currently tied for second in the NL in saves…and while Kershaw does lead the majors in strikeouts the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher is 6-6 to start the season.  Storen boasts a sub-2 ERA and has been the backbone of a bullpen that is still finding itself.  In the All Star Game, pitchers only throw 1-2 innings anyways and with Zach Grienke already starting do the Dodgers want to burn another starter?  Maybe that’s the Giants skipper’s MO.

Game to Watch– starters are not announced yet, but if one gives Max Scherzer his normal rest he’s back on the hill Friday in DC against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Do they bring Greinke or Kershaw (providing he pitches Tuesday) on two days rest?  Or do we get one of the staff Zeppos?  Regardless… it’s the Dodgers on a Friday night.

Game to Miss–  Sunday afternoon instead of being focused on the series finale with LA (and potentially either Greinke or Kershaw), I’ll be focused on golf’s British Open.  Spieth shooting for history and the “Hogan Slam” 62 years after Ben won back-to-back-to-back majors.  Is there a better place for a new generation’s Jordan to try to fly than St. Andrews?

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