Nats hope to open second half as strong as they closed first

Dusty Baker believes strongly in entering the All-Star break on a high note and coming out of the All-Star break on a high note, likening this portion of the schedule to the final minutes of the first half and the opening minutes of the second half of a basketball game, when momentum swings often feel more pronounced.

Baker’s Nationals did their part in entering their four-day break on an upswing, winning 11 of their last 14 games, including 6-of-7 against the Mets. Now they’ll see if they can pick up right where they left off when they open the season’s second half tonight against the Pirates at Nationals Park.

This upcoming nine-game homestand presents some challenges. The Pirates have been hot themselves of late, going 9-2 before the break to thrust themselves back in the pennant race. And then the Dodgers, who come to town Tuesday through Thursday, have won 10 of their last 14 while also owning a series sweep over the Nationals late last month in L.A.

The Nationals like where they currently stand, though, and the All-Star break did afford them the opportunity to align their rotation as they pleased.

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The end result of that process: Stephen Strasburg will start tonight’s opener against the Pirates, bringing his 12-0 record and 2.62 ERA to the table. Strasburg has been dominant since returning from his brief stint on the disabled list for an upper back strain, allowing a total of two hits over 13 2/3 innings.

When it was announced he wouldn’t be pitching in the All-Star Game in his hometown of San Diego, Strasburg mentioned his desire to make up the two starts he lost while on the DL, preferring to pitch tonight’s second-half opener. He’ll get that opportunity, going up against Pittsburgh left-hander Francisco Liriano.

In aligning his rotation after Strasburg, Baker elected to send Tanner Roark to the mound next. Roark, who tossed 2 1/3 perfect (and surprising) innings of relief Sunday in New York, will be plenty rested before he takes the mound again Saturday night against Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole (scheduled to return from his own DL stint).

Max Scherzer, who replaced Strasburg on the NL’s All-Star roster and did throw a 1-2-3 inning of relief in the game (hitting a season-high 99 mph three times), will get four full days of rest from that brief outing before starting Sunday afternoon against rookie right-hander Chad Kuhl.

The Nationals haven’t yet announced their rotation beyond the weekend. With Monday off before the Dodgers come to town, they could start Gio Gonzalez on Tuesday and then bring back Strasburg, Roark and Scherzer on normal rest to fill out the week.

That would allow them to continue until next Saturday (July 23) with an extra man in their bullpen before they need to add a fifth starter to the active roster. The club could then either activate Joe Ross (right shoulder inflammation) off the DL or recall top prospect Lucas Giolito from the minors to make that start.

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