Nationals reaching the tipping point

The Nationals wake up this morning at 40-53, losers of five of their last six and the farthest below .500 they’ve been all season. Any chance of turning the 2010 season into a competitive one - if it existed coming out of the All-Star break - is mostly gone, and the end result of the year is looking more and more like it will be the same as the last two: a last-place finish, if not with quite as ugly a record.

Even catching the Marlins for fourth place in the NL East is getting tougher. After losing two out of three to Florida over the weekend, the Nationals are 5 1/2 games behind the Marlins.

Manager Jim Riggleman told his players at the beginning of the month he was hoping for a surge in July so general manager Mike Rizzo was convinced to keep the team together, not look at shipping off pieces. And Rizzo has said the Nationals wouldn’t necessarily be a seller, in the strict sense of the word, even if the team’s record dipped south. But the Nationals are close to a point now where setting up for 2011 is more important than salvaging 2010.

That could mean trading Adam Dunn or Josh Willingham for prospects, if Rizzo feels like the Nationals aren’t close to competing in 2011. They cut a trio of veterans - Paul Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada and Felipe Lopez - right after the trade deadline in 2008. There’s not the same group of veterans on this team, but a change or two in the middle infield wouldn’t be a huge surprise.

“If you get traded, you go wherever you go, you turn the page and you try to help that team win,” outfielder Willie Harris told a group of reporters last night. “But right now we’re here, and our job is to help the Nationals win.”

Mostly, the Nationals need to start identifying answers to a few key problems the rest of this year. Do the Nationals need to search for a leadoff man? How many of the pitchers coming back from injuries can be mainstays next season? Aside from Ivan Rodriguez and Livan Hernandez, the free agents they signed haven’t filled any holes - the Nationals still don’t know who their second baseman will be in 2011, and their rotation still could take a number of different forms before next year.

The final two months of the season are about figuring those things out, or starting to piece together some answers. With the Nationals 13 games under .500, they can’t be about much else.