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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Nationals showing baseball what they're made of

After struggling early, club has taken off since Zimmerman returned from DL

Nationals showing baseball what they're made of

Maybe the Nationals are going to end up being exactly who we thought they were. That would be a team with virtually no serious flaw, a team capable of playing deep into October.

At the moment, that's exactly what they are. Their starting pitching is the best in baseball. Their bullpen has a 2.20 ERA, which is No. 1 by a wide margin. Even at 34-29, the Nats have a plus-46 run differential, third best in baseball behind only the A's (plus-124) and Giants (plus-57).

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Offensively, the Nationals are a different team with Ryan Zimmerman back in the lineup. They are 12-5 and scoring 6.2 runs per game when he's in the starting lineup. During Zimmerman's 46 games on the DL, they were 22-24 and scoring 3.5 runs per game.

And to think there was local debate about whether Zimmerman's return last week would be disruptive. After all, Anthony Rendon seems on his way to establishing himself as one of baseball's elite third basemen at Zimmerman's old spot.

First base? Adam LaRoche's .947 OPS is tops in the National League at that position. He's also one of the guys that make the clubhouse work, a consummate pro on the field and off.

Where would Zimmerman play? He took a few balls in left field and agreed to give it a try. Zimmerman has started eight games there since coming off the DL, and Washington has gone 7-1 and earned a share of first place in the NL East.

There are plenty of other things clicking with the lineup, from Denard Span at the top of the order to Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond and LaRoche behind him. Like almost every winning team, it's a bunch of little things all fitting together.

So, finally, are these the Nationals we thought we were getting last season? Are these the Nats we thought might just win the World Series two years ago?

Or should we just slow things down a bit and allow the season to unfold? If they really are the best team in the NL East, they'll show us.

They're an interesting team in that way. We've rushed to crown them a few times already instead of understanding that winning can be a long, tough trial-by-suffering process.

The Nationals were easy to love because they seemed to be a model organization. Ownership allowed general manager Mike Rizzo the freedom to do things right. In other words, to pay a short-term price in return for building something that will last.

From 2008-10, the Nats averaged 99 losses a season. But those losses put them in position to draft Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Rendon and others. On a club that already had Zimmerman and Ian Desmond, suddenly there was a core of players as solid as any.

We assumed immediate gratification, especially when Washington won 98 games in 2012. The Nationals let a 7-5 ninth-inning slip away in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals, and in two years since, they've been reminded that winning is difficult.

Last season, when they were designated the best team in baseball on Opening Day, they were gutted by injuries and slumps and missed the postseason. They did make a late run, going 32-16 down the stretch to keep heat on the Braves.

And they did win 86 times, which doesn't necessarily qualify as a disaster. Still, for a team with all those expectations, 86-76 was a huge disappointment.

Rizzo went right back to work, adding Doug Fister to the rotation and Kevin Frandsen and Nate McLouth to the bench. But the going has been slow. The Nats have spent most of the season flirting with .500 and in a three-way fight with the Marlins and Braves in the NL East.

Now, though, these are the Nationals we expected to see. Strasburg has a 2.04 ERA in his last 10 starts, but the entire group has been good. In their last 21 games, the Nats have 17 quality starts. In the last seven games, starters have one walk, 50 strikeouts and a 1.26 ERA in 50 innings.

Washington is doing all of this with two important players -- Gio Gonzalez and Harper -- on the disabled list. But maybe this is part of growing up. Good teams find a way to absorb some injuries, to perform as a group and to keep moving forward.

If the Nationals keep going, a lot of good work may end up being rewarded. Ownership has spent competitively. Rizzo has built a great top-to-bottom organization, one built around veteran leadership and power arms.

It would be a sweet day for guys like Zimmerman and Desmond, who've seen the organization grow up. But it's only June.

The Marlins and Braves feel pretty good about things, too. The NL has as much top-to-bottom parity as it has ever had. But the Nationals definitely are in the mix, and maybe, just maybe a little more than that.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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