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Keeler: Nationals lead in push to playoffs

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Tommy Keeler

By Tommy Keeler - tkeeler@nvdaily.com

Take a long look at the Major League Baseball standings. Look two or three times if you have to -- let it sink in. The Washington Nationals have the best record in the National League.

It's not a typo. It's not your eyes playing tricks on you. The Washington Nationals have the best record in the NL. They are 15 games above .500 at 49-34.

In fact, the latest odds have them at 8-1 to win the World Series -- they started the season at 60-1. What in the name of the Montreal Expos is going on?

The big question is, are the Nationals for real? Or is this simply a team that's been lucky, and their nine lives are about to run out?

My answer is the Nationals are for real, and I think they're here to stay.

Last year I finally caved in and bought DirecTV. I also bought the baseball package, which allows me to watch practically every game during the season. I no longer have to waste my time going to a ballpark, when every ballpark comes directly to me.

Naturally, I have been able to watch a lot of Nationals games this season, and I have been very impressed. The thing that has stood out most to me is their ability to win the close games.

They have won 16 games by one run, and have had quite a few walk-off wins this season. If they are able to make the postseason, their ability to come through in the clutch could take them along way.

They are a respectable 24-16 at home, but they also are a solid 25-18 on the road. You need to be able to win both at home and on the road in the postseason.

Another thing I like about the Nationals is they are solid in both pitching and hitting. Offensively, they have Ian Desmond (17 homers, 51 RBIs, 11 steals, 46 runs scored), Bryce Harper (43 runs scored, eight homers and 10 steals) and Ryan Zimmerman (eight homers, 40 RBIs, 42 runs scored). The numbers for the team aren't flashy, but they seem to be able to find a way to get a run across when needed.

The pitching has been great for the Nationals. The starters have given everything they have. Gio Gonzalez has 12 wins, while Stephen Strasburg has nine. Jordan Zimmermann's ERA is only 2.61, while Strasburg and Gonzalez have a combined 246 strikeouts.

The bullpen has been just as strong, which is part of the reason the Nationals have won so many close games this season. Sean Burnett has 17 holds, while Tyler Clippard has 14 saves.

Another asset for the Nationals is manager Davey Johnson. He has been around for a long time, and he knows how what it takes to be successful.

The Nationals have a lot of young players, and have every reason to be optimistic not only about this season but the future as well.

However, let's not get carried away too soon. In 2005, the year the Nationals moved to Washington, they were 52-36 at the All-Star break. The team collapsed after the All-Star break and didn't make the postseason.

One big problem looming is what to do with Strasburg. He had Tommy John surgery and general manager Mike Rizzo said before the season started that Strasburg would have an inning-limit this year and the team would shut him down at some point.

Of course, that was before they were in first place and 15 games over .500 at the All-Star break. Rizzo is still saying he will shut down Strasburg, who has currently thrown 99 innings, at some point. Rizzo has said 200 innings would be too much for Strasburg.

Tommy John surgery is very serious, and the Nationals would be smart to be very cautious when it comes to the 23-year-old's health.

The question is how do they handle it, and how will it affect the team as a whole. Whatever they do, they will certainly need him in the postseason. Maybe a short stint on the disabled list would do Strasburg some good. Then the Nationals could bring him back for the late-season and postseason run.

Things won't be easy for the Nationals in the second half of the season. The Atlanta Braves are only four games behind them, with the New York Mets a mere half-game behind them. If the Nationals go into a slump, they could quickly fall out of the NL East and NL wild-card picture.

I don't know if the Nationals will make the playoffs this year, but it will certainly be interesting to see if they do. And being in the playoff hunt is a whole lot better than be out of it by the end of April.

-- Assistant sports editor Tommy Keeler can be contacted at tkeeler@nvdaily.com.

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