Nats return home from brutal trip desperate to make up ground

It’s been 12 days since the Nationals last played a ballgame in D.C. Derek Lilliquist was still their pitching coach. Juan Soto and Matt Adams hadn’t gone on the injured list yet. Gerardo Parra was still employed by the Giants.

Yeah, a lot has happened since then. Most of it negative, with a few positive developments sprinkled in around the edges.

When the Nationals finally return home tonight to open a week’s worth of games on South Capitol Street against the Mets and Cubs, they’ll do so with a 16-24 record, eight games behind the Phillies in the National League East. The season is now one-quarter complete, and there’s a significant amount of ground to be made up.

This just-completed road trip didn’t help matters. The Nats went 3-7 against the Phillies, Brewers and Dodgers. And truth be told, it could’ve been even worse. Two of those three wins required dramatic, eighth-inning rallies. Only once did they take an early lead and hold it the entire night.

And yet, there was a glimmer of optimism as the trip wrapped up. Heading into Dodger Stadium, where the home team had won 10 in a row, the Nationals managed a four-game series split. That’s a far better result than most would’ve assumed when the series opened.

The return of Soto and Anthony Rendon helped bolster a lineup that sorely needed it, and also bolstered the club’s defensive alignment. The Nats infield played some of its best defense of the season in L.A.

Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin all pitched exceptionally well. Parra turned into an unlikely hero, not only at the plate but at - who knew? - first base as well.

Turner-Injured-Finger-Sidebar.jpgAnd there could be more encouraging news coming in the next few days. Trea Turner appears to be close to heading out on a minor league rehab assignment, the final step before his return from a broken index finger. Shoot, even Trevor Rosenthal threw a scoreless inning of relief (on only 11 pitches) for Double-A Harrisburg over the weekend.

If you’re looking for reason to be hopeful, here’s some fuel for you: The schedule is finally going to ease up a bit.

That road trip, against three of the National League’s best, couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Nationals. But now they get to face a Mets club that has lost 10 of 16. The Cubs are playing well, so that makes this weekend’s series another tough one, but then the Nats get the Mets (again), the Marlins, the Braves, the Reds and the White Sox.

No, you shouldn’t assume anything, as we’ve already seen this year. But if a team needs to go on a nice run to make up ground in the standings, these next few weeks offer a more conducive schedule than the last few weeks did.

None of this means anything if the Nationals don’t play good, clean baseball. They need to start producing at the plate more than once or twice a game (they’ve only scored a run in nine of their last 72 innings). They need to get quality outings not only from their big three starters but from Aníbal Sánchez and Jeremy Hellickson as well. They need to get more zeros out of their bullpen.

But it’s fair to wonder if the worst is now behind them. The Nationals couldn’t have had many more things go wrong the last two weeks. Maybe it’s time for things to start going right at last.

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