We're now officially into the second half of the Major League Baseball season, as teams got back on the field Friday night for the first time since the All-Star break.
For fans of the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals, the excitement has got to be building. Both teams were in first place entering Friday -- the Orioles held a four-game lead over Toronto in the A.L. East and the Nationals were tied with Atlanta in the N.L. East -- and a playoff trip for both teams is looking like a very good possibility.
Can Baltimore and Washington keep their grasps on first place in their respective divisions?
Let's start with the Nationals. Most people probably expected them to be exactly where they are right now, sitting atop the National League East. But just a few weeks into the season and it seemed like Washington was teetering on the possibility of an injury-plagued collapse reminiscent of the 2013 season.
Starting pitcher Doug Fister, the Nats' key offseason acquisition, didn't make it out of spring training before landing on the disabled list and catcher Wilson Ramos broke his hand on opening day. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman then broke his thumb two weeks into April and outfielder Bryce Harper tore a ligament in his thumb later in the same month. First baseman Adam LaRoche hit the DL with a quad injury in early May and pitcher Gio Gonzalez was shelved with shoulder inflammation on May 18.
By late May, Washington was 24-25. But the Nationals were still in the thick of things in a relatively weak N.L. East division and a strong finish the season's first half had Washington sitting at 51-42 going into Friday.
The Nats are now fully healthy -- although pitcher Jordan Zimmermann suffered a biceps strain before the break and is on the mend -- and that is good news for the Washington fan base. If the Nationals could finish the first half of the season tied for the division lead while missing many of their key pieces for most of that stretch, then their chances of winning the N.L. East look very good.
Washington will need to improve at the plate -- the Nationals were batting just .246 as a team at the All-Star break, a mark good for 23rd in the majors -- but much of that inconsistency can be attributed to the injuries. When healthy, guys like Harper, Jayson Werth, Zimmerman, Ramos and LaRoche pack as good a punch as anybody, and the emergence of infielder Anthony Rendon has given the Nationals yet another offensive weapon.
On the mound, Washington has been as good as advertised, even with the late arrival of Fister into the starting rotation. The Nationals ended the first half of the season with a team ERA of 3.08, the best mark in the majors, and that trend should continue over the next few months. I don't see Washington reaching the World Series this season, simply because they can't seem to stay healthy enough to maintain a consistent offense, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Nationals' pitching carry them to an NLCS appearance.
The Orioles haven't been bitten as hard by the injury bug as the Nationals have this season, but Baltimore still suffered a big loss with catcher Matt Wieters undergoing Tommy John surgery, and third baseman Manny Machado missed the first month of the season coming back from offseason knee surgery. The O's have also had several injuries that sent a few pitchers to the DL.
But Baltimore hasn't missed a beat. Despite the struggles of first baseman Chris Davis and the lack of power production from shortstop J.J. Hardy, the Orioles have been one of the premier offenses in the MLB and boast a 52-42 record. The Orioles hit 114 home runs before the All-Star break, the second most in the majors this season, and their .265 team batting average pre-break was fourth best in the MLB.
Machado began heating up over the last several weeks, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis have been efficient all year and Steve Pearce has entrenched himself as an everyday player with his solid play, but offseason pickup Nelson Cruz has been truly phenomenal. Cruz bashed 28 homers and tallied 74 RBIs in the first half and was second in the MLB in both categories. There's no reason to believe Cruz won't continue to produce runs in the Orioles' potent lineup in the second half.
If Davis can figure things out at the plate and Hardy can find his power stroke, Baltimore could easily be the best offense in baseball even while rolling with a mash-up of Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley at catcher.
If Baltimore doesn't make the playoffs, it will likely be due to pitching. Although the Orioles surprisingly finished the first half ranked fifth in the A.L. in team ERA (3.83), pitching continues to remain a big question mark. Baltimore doesn't have one standout guy, and Ubaldo Jimenez has been a very expensive bust so far.
Baltimore faces a tough slate coming out of the All-Star break, but I can see the Orioles making the playoffs this season, though it will likely take the addition of an impact arm at the trade deadline for Baltimore to make a deep postseason push.