Chain Reactions: The Nats' Biggest Competition; D-Day Coming For Wizards

WASHINGTON - APRIL 07: Ian Desmond #6 of the Washington Nationals is congratulated by third base coach Pat Listach after hitting a home run in the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on April 7, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

This week's "Chain Reactions" have a double shot of Nats thoughts. Plus, a look at the D-Day that's coming for 'Dray and the Wizards.

So, it turns out I got really lucky break when planning to get away from the DMV for some R&R with the family at the beach this past week. Instead of dealing with power outages, I was dealing with hot sand and crowds at a couple different beaches. Not that I'm complaining, no, I'm giving the double finger points to the heavens!

The one positive of the hot weather is that the first-place Nats' offense continues to heat up as they rallied for a sweep of the San Francisco Giants Thursday night. The Nationals now have won 4 straight and 7 of 10. It is a good time to be hanging out in Natstown.

In this week's "Chain Reactions," we hit the red hot All-Star who has shined the brightest, the Nats' real competition in the National League East, and the Wizards' approaching D-Day on Dray.

One Nationals All-Star Shines Brightest

Gio Gonzalez has made Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo look really smart for not just trading for Gonzalez this past offseason, but signing him longterm. Gio is second in wins in the NL (11), 5th in strikeouts, and 5th in win percentage.

It is no surprise the Nationals are set to send their two aces to next week's All-Star game in Kansas City. Stephen Strasburg was the number one overall pick for a reason. Despite some recent bumps in the road, he's been phenomenal this season. Strasburg is 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA and ranks 2nd in strikeouts in the NL.

However, the team's lone position player on the All-Star team, Ian Desmond, is the best story of the Nationals' 2012 season, in my opinion. The shortstop is having a career year offensively hitting down in the order at the 6th spot.

Desmond has already hit more home runs this year than in any other year in his career (15)and is hitting .282 with a .502 slugging percentage and a .816 OPS.

The numbers are just half the story with Desmond, who has been in the crosshairs of the media and fans for his first two full big league seasons. The criticisms have concerned his defense at shortstop and whether or not he's truly a leadoff hitter. We have the answer to the latter: he's much better down in the order.

Each year since he's been the everyday shortstop, the questions about Desmond's defense have dogged him. A 34-error season in 2010 will do that, but last year the error number was down to 23. This season his 11 errors have him on pace for a career low.

Many Nats observers have felt a flip-flop of the middle infield would suit Desmond and Danny Espinosa's skills best. But the organization stuck with Desmond and, once again, are looking real smart for doing so. He's been the club's first half MVP in my book.

Nats Biggest Competitor in NL East?

Entering this weekend's series, the Nationals sit at 48-32 and are 4.5 games in front of the second place Mets in the NL East. The Braves and Marlins were expected to contend this year, but both are both toiling at around .500. And then there are the 5-time reigning NL East Champs, the Philadelphia Phillies, who are in the basement 13 games back at 37-47.

How bad are things for the Phillies? Well, this week, trade rumors swirled around pitcher Cole Hamels, who is set to become a free agent at season's end. The fan base is down in the dumps.

How down are they, you may ask? My son spent the week on the Jersey Shore wearing red Nationals gear and not a single fan threatened to kick his ass. Some Phillies fans (my in-laws) are way too complimentary of our Nationals. They love are envious at the way the Nats are built for the long haul.

We need to tap the brakes, though. There is still way too much time left in the season to either print playoff tickets if you are the Nationals or wave the white flag if you are a Phillies fan. We have not even seen slugger Ryan Howard in the Phillies lineup, which could be coming soon.

The Mets also worry me because they seem to have that special something working for them with so many dramatic wins. However, part of me also wonders if R.A. Dickey's knuckle ball will continue to be unhittable ( The Philies teed off on him Thursday night for 11 hits).

To me, the biggest enemy of the Nationals is the Nationals. How will this team handle the success and pressures of contending down the stretch for the first time as an organization? How effective will the pitching staff be without their ace once he is shut down?

So far, the Nationals have been a great story and hopefully will continue to be, but baseball can be a cruel sport and there are still plenty of questions to be answered about this team before we get to October.

D-Day Coming for Dray

As was expected in the free agent market, the Wizards are sitting and waiting for the right price and player. They need a veteran point guard to back up John Wall, as well as another shooter. But that stuff is not nearly as interesting as what the franchise will do next week with Andray Blatche.

The NBA's amnesty window is open between July 11 and July 17. During that time, teams can buy out players and not be penalizaed on the salary cap. Blatche has three years and $23 million left on his deal The Wizards publicly are not tipping their hand.

"He's under contract with us," he said. "He's out working out with John Lucas right now. Working hard. Trying to get back into shape and doing the kind of things that he needs to do."

The Wizards have tried unsuccessfully to shop Blatche and will likely continue to try. The decision comes down to this question: Will Ted Leonsis allow Ernie Grunfeld to pay a player to go away or will they suck it up for another season in hopes of Blatche building back some value?

Most Wizards fans would vote for the amnesty. However, none of them have to stroke the check. We don't have enough space to lay out why Blatche needs to go. To be kind, his time has run its course in D.C. Clearing him out sends a clear message that the Wizards are serious about the "culture change."

If Blatche stays, it will only be a financial move. When I've talked to team officials this offseason, none of them have mentioned Blatche when talking rotation possibilities. So either way you look at it, he's not a part of the future here, whether he actually is here or not. At least get him out of town so he's not a potential distraction once again.

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