After improving their record to 33-36 by sweeping the Cardinals last night, the Nationals moved themselves out of last place in the National League East at the latest point in their season since 2007. And they're taking a six-game win streak into one of those stretches against teams they theoretically should be able to beat.
They begin a three-game series tonight with the Orioles, who have lost four of five and will have to put Vladimir Guerrero - who hit the game-winning homer in Baltimore's last game against the Nationals on May 22 - in the field if they want to use him this weekend. Guerrero hasn't played in the field all season.
Then comes another home series against an American League team: the Seattle Mariners, who aren't scheduled to start 2010 Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez in the series. They are 35-34 at the moment, but have been outscored for the season.
The six-game road trip after that sets up as the toughest part of the Nationals' schedule before the All-Star break, with three games in Chicago against the White Sox before another trip out west to face the Los Angeles Angels. Both teams, though, have disappointed with 33-37 records. Then, the Nationals close the first half with another long homestand, where they'll really have a chance to get on a roll.
They're 17-12 at Nationals Park this season, and they'll get four games against the Pirates (including a makeup of their May 17 postponement), four against the Cubs and three against the Rockies. Pittsburgh is overachieving at 35-33, but the Cubs have the second-worst record in baseball and the Rockies are 33-35 after winning 92 games in 2009 and 83 in 2010. Between now and the break, the Nationals have 23 games, none against a team better than two games over .500 and all but six at home.
Of course, the catch is, the last time the Nationals had one of these so-called easy stretches, they didn't do so well. They won just two of seven against the Pirates, Mets and Orioles last month, before running into a buzzsaw in Milwaukee where they faced a Brewers team getting on a roll. Playing teams at the right time can lend some help to a club's record, and the Cardinals came to town after having lost three straight. The Nationals face the Orioles at a good time, but it's still up to them to take care of business. And if they're serious about keeping themselves in the wild card race, somehow, they'll have to rack up some wins in the next few weeks.