MLB.com Columnist

Bill Ladson

Leading men: Nats start 2nd half on top

Scherzer, Harper carry load for NL East's 1st-place club

Leading men: Nats start 2nd half on top

WASHINGTON -- Nationals manager Matt Williams said the first half of the 2015 season was challenging primarily because he had a tough time putting a lineup together with so many injuries hampering the team.

Still, the Nationals busted their hump. They enter the second half in first place, two games ahead of the Mets. It helped that the Nats had two superheroes to lean on, in Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer.

Harper has acted like Gigantor and the Incredible Hulk against opposing pitchers. He is among the league leaders in almost every offensive category.

After signing a seven-year, $210 million contract, Scherzer is the ace everyone expected him to be. Who can forget the no-hitter he pitched against the Pirates on June 20? An ace indeed.

Here's a look at what unfolded in the first half of the season and what faces the Nationals now after the All-Star break.

FIVE KEY DEVELOPMENTS

1. The Boy Wonder
Harper did it all during the first half. Not only did he carry the team offensively, he was an above average defender in right field. Opponents didn't dare run on him. Harper wasn't making clumsy baserunning mistakes like he had in the past, and he stayed healthy, for the most part.

Harper's 26th homer of 2015

2. Get smart
Scherzer appears to be worth every dime. With the exception of his start July 7 against the Reds, he was in the zone. Scherzer hasn't walked a batter since June 14 against the Brewers. That's 38 2/3 innings in five starts.

3. Goon squad, Part 2
Tyler Moore is the only one left from the 2012 version. For the first time since, the players on the bench have been productive fill-ins. Players such as Moore, Danny Espinosa, Clint Robinson, Michael Taylor, Dan Uggla and Jose Lobaton have contributed to a team that is on top of the National League East.

4. M.A.S.H. unit
Five major players -- Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman and Denard Span -- spent significant time on the disabled list and the three of the five -- Rendon, Werth and Zimmerman -- are expected to be on rehab assignments for some time.

5. Desi in despair
So far, shortstop Ian Desmond picked the wrong time to become a free agent after the season. Not only is he struggling at the plate, he is second in the Major Leagues in errors (20), which has baffled the Nats. Desmond has proven he is better than a .211 hitter and can hold his own with the glove. He has the track record.

Must C: Desmond's monster blast

FIVE STORYLINES TO WATCH

1. Bryce needs help
Harper can't be expected to carry the team during the second half. He has been walked intentionally eight times already. If no one -- like Zimmerman, Rendon or Desmond -- steps up, most opposing teams would rather have Harper take a walk. And Harper has been walked a career-high 63 times this year, the second most in the NL.

2. Is Stras a factor?
It depends. Strasburg has had his share of injuries, which have been primarily associated with his mechanics -- though it's unknown if that's the reason he is currently on the DL. If he isn't a factor, look for Tanner Roark to return to the rotation.

3. The leadoff man
If Span misses a significant amount of time during the second half, who should be the leadoff hitter? Williams usually goes with the hot hand. Yunel Escobar and Taylor have been used at the top spot, but they are not prototypical leadoff hitters. Williams should consider Werth once he comes back. Remember, he was the leadoff guy in '12. And Werth has had a high on-base percentage in recent seasons.

4. The Trade Deadline
It looks like the Nationals need bullpen help -- an eighth-inning guy in particular. With the exception of Drew Storen, the rest of the bullpen hasn't been consistent. The Nats need a setup man before they can get to Storen. What about David Carpenter? He has done well in his brief time in Washington but hasn't pitched in a game since July 5.

5. The postseason
The Nationals are expected to be in their third postseason in four years. But can they get past the NL Division Series, something they were unable to do in 2012 and last year? Everything has to click in all phases of the game. In '14, the offense was nonexistent against the Giants. In '12, lack of postseason experience arguably was the reason they lost to the Cardinals.

FIRST-HALF AWARDS

MVP: Harper. There are not enough words to say what he has done this year. He has carried the team offensively and has held his own defensively.
Cy Young: Scherzer. "Dominant" is the word to describe his first half. He was clearly the ace of Washington's pitching staff.
Rookie: Robinson. He was a long shot to make the team, but he was arguably the Nats' best bench player. His short stroke gave him a lot of playing time.
Top reliever: Storen. His slider and changeup were deadly. That's why his ERA was under 2.00 during the first half.

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN SECOND HALF

Desmond: He is not a .211 hitter. He is expected to rebound before becoming a free agent after the season.
Werth: He should be back with the team before the month is over. He missed more than two months because of two small fractures in his left wrist. He brings a high on-base percentage to the starting lineup.
Span: He is the best leadoff hitter in Nationals history, but will he be healthy to play during the second half of the season? He will start the second half on the DL with back problems.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.