The road ahead gets a little smoother

Believe it or not, the Nationals' second-to-last homestand of the 2013 season begins today.

In some ways, it feels like we just left Viera, Fla., a week ago. In others, it feels like the season has been going on for 2 1/2 years.

The Nats open a three-game set with the Marlins tonight, followed by three against the Mets. Then it's off on a 10-game road trip to Philadelphia, Miami and New York, followed by a 10-game homestand with the Phillies, Braves and Marlins all coming to town.

Add it all up and the Nationals will play 26 consecutive games against division foes.

Considering how weak the National League East has been this season, this could be a chance for the Nats to rattle off a bunch of wins in a hurry and make one final push. They'll need some major help from the Reds in order to have a shot at a wild card spot, but crazier things have happened.

Speaking of the Reds, if any Nats fans were watching last night's Cardinals-Reds game, I'd imagine it was pretty weird rooting for St. Louis after what happened in the National League Division Series last year.

The Cardinals did the Nats a favor last night, however, coming back to beat Cincinnati, moving the Nats a half-game closer in the wild card race. The Nationals now sit eight games back with 32 games remaining on their schedule.

The Nats will catch a break these next three days against the Marlins, as they'll avoid Miami's stud right-hander Jose Fernandez, who has a ridiculous 2.30 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 152 2/3 innings in his first major league season.

Fernandez hasn't allowed more than two earned runs in any of his last eight starts and has surrendered just one earned run in his last 20 innings. The guy is a freak. Fortunately for the Nats (but unfortunately for those who love watching good pitching), the 21-year-old won't take the mound in D.C. this week, and if the Marlins rotation stays aligned as it is currently, the Nats won't face Fernandez in Miami next weekend, either.

The Nats also won't have to see Matt Harvey for the rest of the season. The Mets' young ace was found to have a partially torn UCL in his throwing elbow, which will likely result in Tommy John surgery and force Harvey down the same rehab path as Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and so many other promising young hurlers.

Another case where the Nats benefit from not having to face a young ace on top of his game, but this is awful news for a starter who was putting together a season that would've left him in the top three in the Cy Young Award voting.

I'm sure despite the division rivalry between the Nats and Mets, Strasburg, Zimmermann and others found it tough to hear yesterday's news on Harvey.

Regardless, the Nats embark on a stretch where they have a relatively favorable schedule, won't face Harvey and likely won't see Fernandez over the next two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Reds will continue to grind things out against their foes in the much tougher NL Central. Again, I'm not saying a comeback is likely. But if the Nats can keep things rolling, anything is possible.

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