Previewing the Nats’ last-ditch series vs. Philly

If the Nationals have any hope whatsoever of storming back to win their fifth National League East title in seven years - and yes, we fully acknowledge the odds of it are rather slim at this point - they’re going to have to win a whole lot of their remaining games with the Phillies and Braves.

Twelve of the Nats’ final 37 games come against the two teams they’ve been chasing in the NL East all summer, nine of those against Philadelphia. They enter play tonight 7 1/2 games back of the Braves, 6 1/2 back of the Phillies.

So, suffice it to say, the three-game series that opens tonight on South Capitol Street represents something of a now-or-never moment for this underachieving club.

Roark-pitches-beard-gray-sidebar.jpgThe good news: The Nationals have lined things up to be able to send their three best pitchers to the mound for the series. Tanner Roark starts tonight’s opener, with Stephen Strasburg returning from the disabled list Wednesday and Max Scherzer on the hill for Thursday’s matinee finale.

Roark has completely turned his once-wayward season around over the last month. He entered the All-Star break an abysmal 3-12 with a 4.87 ERA, 1.395 WHIP and all seemingly diminished confidence in his abilities.

Since then, Roark has been nothing short of brilliant. He’s now 5-0 with a 1.77 ERA and 0.925 WHIP since the break, and he’s carrying himself with the confidence that he owned for several years earlier in his career.

The Phillies send Vince Velasquez to the mound tonight, and the Nationals know the erratic right-hander all too well. They’ve faced Velasquez six times over the last three seasons, during which they’ve experienced the full gamut: complete ineffectiveness to utter dominance.

Wednesday’s game could prove a critical moment for the Nationals. If they have any chance of making a race out of this, they’re going to need Strasburg to recapture his elite form, and immediately coming off the DL.

The good news is that they’ve seen him do it before. After missing a month last summer with a nerve issue in his arm, Strasburg returned to the active roster August 19 and promptly went 5-1 with an 0.84 ERA. And then capped that off with a brilliant postseason performance.

Is it asking for too much for Strasburg to return from this nerve issue in his neck and do the same thing? Maybe, but the Nationals have to ask that of him at this point.

The Phillies start right-hander Zach Eflin (who pitched well over five innings earlier this year in his only prior start against the Nationals) on Wednesday, but then they’ve got their own ace taking the mound Thursday in a star-studded showdown against Scherzer.

While Scherzer and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom have received the lion’s share of late-summer Cy Young Award chatter, Aaron Nola deserves to be in the conversation as well. The 25-year-old righty is 14-3 with a sparkling 2.24 ERA and 0.981 WHIP this season, and he’s 2-0 against the Nats, having allowed only three runs in 13 2/3 innings.

We’ve seen Scherzer go up against elite opposing starters several times and not emerge with the win (often the result of his bullpen, not his own failures). The three-time Cy Young Award winner is going to have to be in peak form to win a must-win game Thursday, and Davey Martinez may have to be willing to push his ace farther than he normally would given the stakes.

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