NEW YORK -- The Nationals have reached the halfway point of the season and find themselves with a 40-40 record, 6 1/2 games behind the Braves in the National League East entering Sunday's action.
Washington entered the 2013 season as the favorite to win the NL East because of its stellar pitching staff and an offense that was improved after acquiring center fielder Denard Span in a trade from the Twins. But the Nationals have struggled all season -- they are the worst-ranked defensive team in the NL and rank near the bottom in almost every offensive category.
It also doesn't help that the Nationals have been without outfielder Bryce Harper and catcher Wilson Ramos for more than a month. Harper had has been on the DL since June 1 because of a left knee injury and Ramos has had left hamstring issues since May 16.
But talk to reliever Tyler Clippard and outfielder Jayson Werth, and they believe the Nationals can still win their second straight division title.
"We are not where we want to be, that's for sure," Clippard said. "The baseball season is funny. It's a long season, a lot of things happen. We kind have been searching a little bit, but at the end of the day, we've had a lot of things not go our way as far as injuries, even on the field, little stuff, where last year, they went our way.
"We are looking to get on a roll. It's going to happen. That's the type of ballclub that we are. We are very capable of winning 10, 15 games in a row. If we hit a stretch like that, that's all it's going to take. We are right at .500 and within arm's reach of the leaders of our division, so that's nice."
Werth has a reason to be optimistic. In 2007, the Phillies were barely over .500 and trailed the Mets by six games at the halfway point but went on to win the division that year.
"I like where we are at," Werth said. "So what we need to do is kick it in gear, start playing better and winning some games, but I think that will come as time goes on in the second half. For me, this is where you want to be."
On Monday, Harper will be activated from the disabled list and is expected to be back in the middle of the order. During the month of June, the Nationals were 12-13 during Harper's absence and Werth said Harper will make a difference to the lineup.
"He is a great player. He is probably going to hit somewhere in the middle of the lineup," Werth said. "People would like to trade for a bat like that. That will be a great addition."
Harper set to come off DL, boost lineup Monday
NEW YORK -- Nationals infielder Chad Tracy said it best. Getting outfielder Bryce Harper off the 15-day disabled list is like acquiring a power hitter before the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Harper, who missed the entire month of June because of a left knee injury, is expected to be activated from the disabled list on Monday and hit third against the Brewers at Nationals Park. Before he injured his knee slamming into the wall at Dodger Stadium on May 13, Harper, 20, was clearly the best player on the Nationals. At the time of the injury, he was leading the team in almost every offensive category. Harper didn't go on the disabled list until June 1.
"Bryce is a big part of this team," right-hander Jordan Zimmermann said. "Our lineup hasn't been 100 percent all year. He is a great hitter, great defender. It's definitely good to get him back. He's definitely young and has a lot of learning to do. He is a an energetic player and he is going to give it his all every time out. That's all you can ask for."
Right-hander Dan Haren said the lineup will be a lot deeper with Harper in it. Haren said Harper brings energy not only to the team, but to the home crowd as well.
"He is almost a villain on the road. It's fun having him back," Haren said. "I think the team will feed off that energy and be dying to get back."
Haren has the distinction of playing with Harper and Angels outfielder Mike Trout. Haren is not surprised that both players have had an impact on their teams at such a young age.
"That's kind of the way baseball is going nowadays. There are so many young superstars -- Trout, [Manny] Machado, a lot of guys throwing 100 miles per hour," Haren said. "It's really an exciting time for baseball. It really says a lot for the way they were brought up. They are mature and they are able to handle the big league life, media, all the things that come along, because it's not easy."
Adam LaRoche jokingly said he and his teammates need to keep Harper out of trouble. There is a good reason for it.
"We have to keep away from anything dangerous, and he is going to be all right," LaRoche said.
One person who can't wait to see Harper back in the lineup is manager Davey Johnson.
"It's good to get Harper back. He is going to be aggressive [at the plate], and we just need to keep that momentum going," Johnson said. "He carried us for a couple of months. [The pitchers] had to pitch him tough. … It's going to be good to get him back. I have to figure how to put him back in. I'm leaning toward the original way I had [the lineup]."
• Right-hander Dan Haren threw a bullpen session Sunday and didn't have any complaints about his shoulder, which landed him on the disabled list last week. Haren is slated to throw a simulated game on Wednesday or Thursday. Manager Davey Johnson said Haren could avoid a rehab assignment and rejoin the team July 8.
• Left-hander Ross Detwiler told Johnson that he is feeling better and could make his start on Wednesday against the Brewers. The big test will come Monday, when Detwiler will have a bullpen session at Nationals Park. Detwiler complained after back issues after he pitched in Friday's game against the Mets.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.