Pitching leads Nats to strong first half

Washington's impressive rotation leads Majors in ERA

Pitching leads Nats to strong first half

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals just completed perhaps the best first half in franchise history. They entered the break 54-36, matching the 1994 Expos for the most wins prior to the All-Star break in franchise history.

Washington owns a season-high six-game lead in the National League East, capped by winning three out of four games against the Mets at Citi Field to close the first half. So far so good for Dusty Baker in his first season as the Nationals' manager.

But these Nats want to play deep into October, and their strong pitching staff and a trio of All-Stars in the middle of their lineup could give them the strength to do it.

The Nationals have built their division lead on the backs of their pitching staff, which leads the Majors in ERA at the break. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg anchor the rotation at the top, backed up by strong contributions from Tanner Roark, Joe Ross and a solid yet inconsistent Gio Gonzalez. Washington's offense has been carried through stretches by different members of its lineup -- Bryce Harper's scorching April, Daniel Murphy's league-leading batting average, Wilson Ramos' breakout first half and Danny Espinosa's spectacular June.

Strasburg, Murphy shine for Nats

Even though so many things have gone right for the Nationals, perhaps they still have not played to their full potential. Their lineup can be dangerous and deep at times, but they have struggled to hit consistently and have received little contribution from the leadoff spot all season long. Ben Revere has started to show signs of a breakout lately, however, he spent the first month of the season on the disabled list and has struggled for much of the first half. Ryan Zimmerman slumped badly before landing on the DL. Washington's bullpen has been strong, but it could use another dominant reliever to help pitch late in games.

These Nationals are a resilient bunch that seem unlikely to fade down the stretch like they did toward the end of last season. They have withstood injuries to key contributors -- Strasburg, Revere, Jonathan Papelbon and currently Ross and Zimmerman have all spent time on the disabled list -- but have found capable replacements in their absence. The Nats even responded after their season-high seven-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak.

Not even the greatest of optimist could have predicted this for Murphy when he signed a three-year deal. Murphy finished the first half hitting .348/.387/.598 with 17 home runs, which is already a new career high. He has been the Nationals' best and most consistent hitter and deserves to be in the discussion for the NL Most Valuable Player Award.

Murphy's two-run homer

Strasburg has enjoyed perhaps the best first half of his career. He owns a career-best 2.62 ERA to go along with an unbeaten 12-0 record, making him the first starting pitcher since Scherzer started 13-0 in 2013. Not to mention the Nats inked Strasburg to a seven-year contract extension during the first half to avoid free agency this offseason.

Strasburg earns his 12th win

The Nationals have not had to rely much on rookies through the first half of this season, thanks to the health and production of their veteran players. But Trea Turner did go 3-for-3 with a walk in his first start this season, and he could have the opportunity to make his mark in the Majors at some point down the stretch.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.