As break ends, Nats try to shift focus back to field

PHOENIX – The All-Star break should be a time for rest and relaxation, a chance to get away from it all and clear your mind before gearing back up for the second half of the season. For the Nationals, this All-Star break wasn’t at all about rest, and nobody was able to relax.

The last four days have seen the franchise under the bright spotlight of the baseball world, all because of the sudden possibility Juan Soto could be dealt before the Aug. 2 trade deadline, with just about every other team in the sport trying to figure out if it has enough top prospects who could be packaged together to get the Nats to say yes.

There also, of course, was the MLB Draft, which began Sunday night and continued through Tuesday, using up a large chunk of front offices’ time and energy during what traditionally has been a welcome break from the grind.

Now, though, the break is over. The second half begins tonight. And for the Nationals, that means the focus potentially turns back to the field. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Let’s not forget these guys lost 15 of their last 17 games heading into the All-Star break. And one of those wins came Sunday in the first-half finale, in a bullpen game started by Erasmo Ramirez against a Braves team that seemed content to just coast into the break.

The Nats have been losing at an alarming rate. They own the majors’ worst record at 31-63. That’s a .330 winning percentage that would equate to an abysmal 53-109 record at season’s end should they keep this up.

You’d like to think they won’t continue to lose at this pace, but then take a look at the upcoming schedule and try to convince yourselves there’s any kind of prime opportunity for improvement here.

This weekend’s series against the Diamondbacks is the only respite awaiting the Nationals. Arizona sits last in the NL West at 40-52, having just lost eight of its last 11, ranking 12th in the NL in runs scored and 10th in runs allowed.

But then comes another gantlet of contenders. The Nats head to Los Angeles after this for a three-game series with the best-in-the-NL Dodgers. Then they come home to face the second-place Cardinals and first-place Mets.

That’s no picnic for any team, let alone one struggling as much as this one.

Then shudder to think what the Nationals might look like in August and September without Soto or Josh Bell or Nelson Cruz or Kyle Finnegan or Carl Edwards Jr. How exactly would that stripped-down roster be in a position to win more than once or twice a week?

But before we go that deep into the gloom-and-doom future, let’s focus instead on the more immediate task at hand. The Nationals just need to start playing better baseball, no matter the opponent. They’ve been getting better pitching performances and will hope for more of that this weekend against the Diamondbacks. They hadn’t announced their rotation plans as of late Thursday night, but Patrick Corbin is expected to start tonight’s series opener against his former club.

What they really need, though, is more consistent offensive production. As a team, they’ve hit a paltry .218/.289/.335 with 13 homers and 46 RBIs so far in July. But that includes Soto and Bell, who have been on fire at the plate.

Take out Soto and Bell’s contributions, and here’s what you’re left with: a .189/.245/.255 slash line, five homers and 31 RBIs. That’s it. That’s all the rest of the team has produced over the last 16 games.

Now imagine a lineup two weeks from now without Soto and Bell. It’s enough to send shivers down your spine, no matter how hot the thermometer says it is right now.

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