Four weeks from today, the Nationals will begin the second half of the season in Miami, and they'll presumably look very different than they do today. Stephen Strasburg will begin another pitching plan, one that's likely to limit his innings far more than the Nationals' schedule did in the first half of the season. The Nationals presumably will have at least one of the following pitchers - Ross Detwiler, Jason Marquis and Chien-Ming Wang - available to them, and Jordan ZImmermann should be weeks away from returning. And general manager Mike Rizzo could be burning up phone lines looking for another piece to put the Nationals in contention.
But what that all means will likely be decided in the next three weeks.
The Nationals return home tonight, sitting at 31-36 as they begin a three-game series with the White Sox, and what they do between now and the All-Star break could well determine their season.
Sixteen of their next 22 are at home, and they open that stretch with nine straight against losing teams - the White Sox and Royals at home, and the Orioles on the road. Strasburg will pitch five times in that stretch, four of those games coming at home.
But despite the number of games at home (where the Nationals are 18-12) and the soft opening, this stretch is much tougher than it looked a month ago.
After three games with the Orioles at Camden Yards, the Nationals face a who's who of NL playoff contenders: the Braves, Mets, Padres and Giants. Those four teams have a combined .575 winning percentage, and their pitching staffs are all in the top six in the NL in ERA. The only relief for the Nationals is that 10 of the 13 games against those teams are at home.
They've put themselves in a bit of a mess by playing so poorly on the road, especially against teams they should beat (the Astros and Indians, specifically). If the Nationals come out of this 22-game stretch with, say, 11 wins, they'll still be five under .500 at the break. But if they could win two out of every three at home (call that 11 wins) and split on the road (that's another three), they'd have a 14-8 stretch that would put them a game over .500 at the All-Star break and send them home with a full steam of confidence heading into the second half.
So far, this has been a team that's played better against tougher competition, but the key could be reeling off some wins in the soft part of the schedule. If the Nationals could get seven wins in their next nine, they'd only need to go 7-6 the rest of the way to get to that 14-win mark.
Given their current state, it might be asking too much for the Nationals to play six games over .500 against that list of opponents. But any playoff chance may be riding on it.
This is the stretch last year where the Nationals came home, having taken two out of three at Yankee Stadium, and watched things really unravel. They went 7-15 in the final 22 before the break, culminating in a disastrous 1-6 road trip to Colorado and Houston that ultimately cost manager Manny Acta his job.
There's a different set of stakes this year, and the next three weeks will probably determine if the Nationals have anything significant to play for when they open the season's second half.