Nationals beginning homestand that could shape their second half

The Nationals return home tonight to Nationals Park, where they’ve got a 22-13 record this season, for their longest homestand of the year. They’ll play 11 games in the next 10 days, making up a rainout from May in a doubleheader with Pittsburgh on Saturday, and they’ll face three teams - the Pirates, Cubs and Rockies - who are a collective 15 games under .500.

By all accounts, the Nationals should have an opportunity to rack up some wins here. And if they want their second half to matter, they’ll probably need to do it.

They’ve slipped to a game under .500 while the Braves have surged to 47-35, meaning the Nationals trail them by 6 1/2 games in the NL wild card standings. If they want to stay in the race, at least for part of the second half, it means getting on win streaks like the one they had two weeks ago, because they’re going to be chasing teams that start to round into playoff form.

It’s still farfetched to expect the Nationals to end up in the thick of the playoff race. But they’ve got a .628 winning percentage at home this year, and they’ll play 46 of their final 81 at Nationals Park. If they keep with that percentage, they’ll go 7-4 on this homestand, and come into the All-Star break at 47-45, with a key series against the Braves coming out of the break. And after that, they’d still have three series against the Marlins, two against the Dodgers and Astros and one against the Rockies and Cubs still on the schedule.

But if they carry their poor defense from the Angels series into this homestand, and wind up with a losing record over the next 11 games, they’ll have wasted a major opportunity to make some noise in the second half.

It’s far too early, and the Nationals’ postseason chances are still too remote, to call this a make-or-break homestand. It’s certainly an opportunity, though: the Nationals have a chance to end the first half on a roll, and at least put a whiff of playoff race buzz in Washington for a few weeks.