Improving Nats now face critical 11-game homestand

Unless you’ve been traveling around the country with them, you probably haven’t seen very much of the Nationals in person the last three weeks. They may be finally playing their best baseball, going 12-5 since a late-May sweep in New York, but only six of those 17 games have taken place in D.C.: four against the Marlins, two against the White Sox.

So the Nats will be a sight for sore eyes tonight when they take the field for the opener of an 11-game homestand, their longest of the season. And by the time it ends, we may just know whether this team truly is back in the race or not.

nats-nationals-park-overhead.jpgThis has the potential to be a real make-or-break homestand. The Nationals open with four games against a solid Diamondbacks team that comes to town with a winning record. Then come the headliners: four games with the Phillies, three games with the Braves.

That’s as significant a homestand as you can get in June, especially with the second and third legs coming against the two teams currently atop the National League East. The Nats’ performance during this stretch is probably going to go a long way toward determining their ultimate fate.

Davey Martinez doesn’t like to look at the big picture, preferring instead to focus simply on the task at hand on any given day. That’s fine for a manager and his players, and probably the smart way to go. It doesn’t do anyone in uniform any good to go into an 11-game homestand with a specific number of wins in mind.

But it’s impossible to ignore the larger ramifications of this upcoming portion of the schedule. The Nationals have begun to turn things around in part because they’ve faced easier competition: the Marlins, Braves (only two games), Reds, White Sox and Padres.

They’ve taken advantage of that to inch closer to the .500 mark and pick up a few games in the standings. But now they have a real opportunity to get over the hump and make up real ground by beating two of the teams they’re chasing.

If you want to dream big, an 8-3 homestand would even the Nationals’ season at 39-39, only days before it reaches the halfway mark. A 7-4 swing would be perfectly fine as well, provided at least four of those wins came against the Phillies and Braves.

A 6-5 record? It wouldn’t drop the Nats out of contention, but it wouldn’t exactly help matters. It would merely take days off the calendar and increase pressure to make up the ground later on. They may have to settle for something like that, but in the big picture it wouldn’t help much.

Anything worse than that? Now we’re talking bad news. The Nationals would still reside well below the .500 mark, likely having lost ground in the standings. They’d still have 84 games to get back on track, but the margin for error the rest of the way would be razor-thin.

Is this a make-or-break homestand for the Nats? That may be a bit extreme. But there’s no doubt this is a critical 11-game stretch for a team that has clawed its way back to the precipice of contention but now needs to prove it can take the next important step.

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