Marty Niland: Home cooking will be crucial to Nats' stretch run

Even after Sunday's 5-2 extra-inning win over the Marlins, it's hard to describe the Nationals as doing anything but limping into the All-Star break with a 48-47 record.

However, the Nats still have a chance to take advantage of a post-break schedule that's loaded with home games, division opponents - and for the most part - kinder, gentler road trips.

After starting July with a 5-2 homestand in which the offense finally seemed to be getting in gear, last week's disastrous 2-5 swing through Philadelphia and Miami exposed the Nats' tragic flaws: the inability to score or win on the road.

It's hard for any team to win away from home. Only three teams in the National League currently boast a winning road record. But at 21-29, the Nats are a cut below the teams they are chasing in the division and wild card standings. The Braves and the Reds are both 23-26 on the road, and only four teams outside the division have a worse road winning percentage than the the Nats' .420.

The good news for the Nats is that 36 of their 67 remaining games are at Nationals Park, where they are playing .600 ball at 27-18. Only the Braves, Reds and Pirates have won more home games than the Nats, and all of them have more home games in hand.

The time to enjoy that home cooking will come in the in the next month, when the Nats play 20 of their next 25 in front of their own fans. That includes their longest homestand of the season, 11 games, coming out of the All-Star break.

It won't be easy, of course. The first three are against the Dodgers, winners of 17 of their last 24. The next four are against the Pirates, owners of the second-best record in the National League at 56-37. The last four are against the Mets, the only team in the NL East with a winning mark on the road at 24-23.

But for all their recent success, the Dodgers are still 20-24 on the road, and since winning nine straight, the Pirates have stumbled, losing seven of 12. The last time we saw the Mets, the Nats were rocking rookie Zack Wheeler in a 13-2 romp.

After a five-game trip to Detroit and Milwaukee, the Nats come home again to play nine against Atlanta, Philadelphia and San Francisco. That long stretch of home games will be the perfect opportunity to gain ground on the first-place Braves.

Another piece of good news for the Nats is that their schedule is heavily stacked with division games from here on out. They play no one but NL East opponents from the last week in August until the last week in September, when they finish the season with a trip to St. Louis and Arizona. That last weekend of the season against the Diamondbacks also marks the only time after the break that the Nats will play out of the Eastern or Central time zones.

The Nats have enjoyed their greatest success this season in front of the home fans. The first month after the All-Star break, when they'll be playing in front of those fans for all but a week, will set the tone for the rest of the season.

A strong showing will keep them in the running for what could be a classic stretch run with the Braves. Anything else, though, and baseball will become just an afterthought after Labor Day.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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