The Nationals closed out the season's first half with their toughest two-week stretch to date: 14 games in 14 days, all of them against contenders. The goal at the time: Survive and reach the All-Star break in one piece.
How'd they do? Things started off swimmingly with three straight wins over the Mets and Rays. Then Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber got hurt just as the Nats were about to face the National League West's three top teams, and they proceeded to lose nine of 11, limping into the break with a battered and bruised roster.
Now, having had a chance to rest and refresh over the last four days, the Nationals open the second half of the season with a decidedly different kind of stretch: 13 games in 14 days, only three of them against a team that currently owns a winning record.
The goal now, beginning with the Padres this weekend and then followed by the Marlins, Orioles and Phillies: Thrive enough to be right in the thick of the NL East race two weeks from today when the trade deadline arrives.
There's no precise record or games back the Nationals need to be come July 30 to convince general manager Mike Rizzo (and, perhaps more importantly, ownership) they should be deadline buyers and not sellers. But they certainly need to be closer to the .500 mark than they are today at 42-47. A 7-6 record after this upcoming stretch wouldn't sink them, but an 8-5 or 9-4 record would certainly get the job done.
The good news: The roster slowly is starting to get healthy again. Turner, Erick Fedde, Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan all came off the injured list before the break. Joe Ross and Alex Avila should be back very soon. Stephen Strasburg faced live hitters over the weekend for the first time and now is just building his arm back up to game shape. The club hopes Schwarber and Yan Gomes' muscle strains aren't too bad.
But the roster isn't all the way back to 100 percent yet, and this weekend's pitching schedule against the Padres underscores that. The Nats announced Fedde will start tonight's second-half opener against Chris Paddack, which means the right-hander will end up starting back-to-back games, since he pitched Sunday's first-half finale in San Francisco.
Patrick Corbin then gets the ball Saturday against Blake Snell, which means Max Scherzer doesn't take the mound again until Sunday against Joe Musgrove, giving the ace a couple extra days to recover from his scoreless top of the first in the All-Star Game.
In an ideal world, manager Davey Martinez would be able to pencil in Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin (in that order) for the first series coming out of the break. That's not the case right now, and even though Corbin starts Saturday, the lefty doesn't exactly come into this one firing on all cylinders.
We still don't know who the fourth and fifth starters will be, whether Ross will be ready to return from his brief IL stint to face the Marlins, whether Jon Lester will get another shot to start after a miserable couple of weeks, whether Paolo Espino will continue to pitch out of the rotation or be sent back to the bullpen.
For now, the Nationals will need to go with what they have, hoping a four-day break was just what they needed to open the second half on the kind of run that will propel them into the trade deadline as legit contenders.
Note: The club announced it has signed four of its recent draft picks, headlined by third-rounder Branden Boissiere. Others signed were fourth-rounder Dustin Saenz, sixth-rounder Michael Kirian and ninth-rounder Cole Quintanilla.
Teams have until 5 p.m. Eastern on Aug. 1 to sign all 2021 draftees.
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