WASHINGTON — When they came together in the spring, the Washington Nationals often heard a phrase that reminded them of the team's task in relation to the state of the franchise. The maxim, manager Jim Riggleman said, was "keeping the needle moving forward."
The Nationals' 39-50 record at the All-Star break left them with a tinge of disappointment after a promising start that had them a game out of first in mid-May. The Nationals could have played better; they believe they should have.
Despite the letdown of again finding themselves in last place, the Nationals no longer must ward off ridicule, charges of incompetence or the league's worst record. The team is improved.
Their mission, as the second half of the season opens today with Stephen Strasburg on the mound against the Florida Marlins, remains the same: "Create momentum and get this team to the next level," general manager Mike Rizzo said.
Playoff contention, from 101⁄2 games out of the wild-card spot, remains a far hope. Still, in the aim of forging respectability, every victory will matter. The Nationals are not chasing the pennant this season, but they open this second half could catapult them into doing so, possibly as soon as next year.
"If we play well in the second half, creep back up in the standings a little bit, maybe not be there in the end as far as winning first place, but be there as far as making an impact," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Free agents look at that. They want to go to teams that are going to compete. It's hard to get free agents when you lose 100 games every year. It's important for us as far as building some momentum, some confidence that we can play with anyone. It could be a big steppingstone for us.
"I think this year is the first year where we can kind of see over the hump. Next year -- I hate talking about next year already -- but next year we have a possibility to do a lot of damage. For now, the second half, our goal is to play over .500 and just be consistent."
Along the way, as the Nationals play 42 of their final 73 games within the National League East, several themes will likely dominate the next two months. The first will determine the potential course of the next two or three seasons in Washington: Should they trade Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, sign them to contract extensions or stand pat?
"You'd like to keep it together," Riggleman said. "A lot of things go into those decisions. Whatever decision Mike comes to along those lines, I'll support him."
But Riggleman made clear he would like to keep Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham -- the heart of his batting order -- in Washington. "From a selfish standpoint, I'd like to keep 3, 4 and 5 together," he said. "But we also want to add to the group."
Dunn and Willingham have expressed their desire to remain in Washington, although Dunn's interest in staying could be waning given how long he and his representatives have been negotiating a new contract with the front office without reaching an agreement.
Dunn and Willingham surely would help the Nationals build momentum, one of the reasons Zimmerman wants to keep his teammates. He believes the importance of the final 73 games of the season, regardless of the standings, is one reason to keep both sluggers in Washington.
And the Nationals have to stop making errors. They committed 75 errors in the first half, most in the major leagues and just seven off the wretched 143-error pace they set last season. The front office believes defense stands in the way of real progress.