The Nationals are 33-43 as they arrive in Atlanta for their last three road games of the first half. Those three games, against the NL East-leading Braves, start a 13-game stretch that will probably define whether the Nationals can spend the second half being competitive or whether they'll be embedded among the worst teams in baseball again.
All 13 games are against playoff contenders - the Braves, Mets, Padres and Giants. But the Nationals are 7-4 this season against the Braves and Mets, and probably should've won series in San Francisco and San Diego last month.
There's no question this could be a defining stretch for a team that's actually played better against winning teams (16-20) than against teams below .500 (17-23). But the way the Nationals are playing, it could also be what locks the door to the NL East basement, again.
They've lost 12 of 15, 20 of their last 24 on the road and became the first team since 1971 to blow leads of five or more runs in back-to-back games against the same opponent when they did it against the Orioles on Friday and Saturday. If there's a turnaround bubbling, it would run counter to almost everything they've done in the last month.
And there's this: The Nationals haven't had a 13-game stretch better than 8-5 this season. Of the 10 stretches they've had at 8-5, they've failed to outscore opponents four times. They haven't put together two weeks of commanding baseball yet, which is part of the reason they've slipped as far below .500 as they have.
Let's say the Nationals can go 8-5 before the break. They'd still be 41-48, well out of the race for anything meaningful. They need a 13-game stretch where they can reel off 10 or 11 wins. This is a bad time to try and do that, unless they can get back to beating good teams. Maybe they can; obviously, playing soft teams hasn't worked for them.
But if they went 5-8 - and that might be optimistic - they'd be 38-51. That's a 69-win pace, setting them up for a second half where they're solely trying to figure out who will be part of their future.
It starts with Stephen Strasburg on the mound tonight and the Nationals badly needing a lift from their young ace. They need to continue it over the next two weeks, though, to set up their second half.