As second half opens, Nats try to sustain positive momentum

With a torrid, 6 1/2 week stretch to close out the first half of the season, the Nationals got themselves into a pennant race that felt entirely out of reach when they were 19-31 and owned the National League’s second-worst record.

Now comes the tricky part: sustaining the turnaround and making sure the last 6 1/2 weeks were not in vain. And doing that while facing much stiffer competition than this previous stretch offered.

The schedule the Nationals face to open the second half is no joke. It begins tonight in Philadelphia, where a Phillies team desperately trying to get itself back on track awaits for three games. After a quick, two-game interleague series in Baltimore, it then continues in Atlanta, where the first-place Braves await for a huge, four-game series that could redefine the division race.

If the last 6 1/2 weeks offered an opportunity for the Nationals to resurrect their season, these next 10 days offer an opportunity either to ratchet things up to another level or fall back to earth.

What effect will the four-day All-Star break have on them? Did it help them get healthy and recharge, or could it have killed their momentum they worked so hard to establish?

Dozier-Trots-Home-Red-sidebar.jpg“You sort of wish you could keep playing because we’re on a roll right now,” second baseman Brian Dozier said following Sunday’s first-half finale. “But at the same time, we got a lot of guys beat up, playing through some injuries, and that comes with the territory.”

Indeed, there were no shortage of prominent Nationals who desperately needed a few days off. Anthony Rendon has been dealing with a left hamstring and quadriceps issue since early June and skipped the All-Star Game to treat it. Trea Turner had been in the starting lineup 46 consecutive games, never missing any time after returning from his fractured index finger.

Ryan Zimmerman sat out last weekend after an active Friday night game that tested his ailing right foot. Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes looked beat up at times during the first half. Sean Doolittle appeared to be running on fumes in his last few relief appearances.

“As well as we’ve played, part of us wants to keep going,” Doolittle said. “But I think we got a bunch of guys that are little banged up, maybe playing through some stuff right now. For the schedule that we have to start the second half, it’s a good time for a break so everybody can kind of regroup and recharge and be ready to go for the second half.”

That, of course, includes Max Scherzer, who dealt with his own ailment over the final week of the first half: a stiff back that forced him to sit out the All-Star Game.

Manager Davey Martinez had already planned to hold Scherzer back until Sunday’s series finale against the Phillies. Now those extra couple days of rest could be especially beneficial.

Stephen Strasburg is slated to start tonight at Citizens Bank Park against Nick Pivetta. Patrick Corbin and Aaron Nola square off Saturday evening. Then Scherzer is expected to face the ailing Jake Arrieta (pitching with a bone spur in his elbow) on Sunday afternoon.

The Nationals haven’t announced any pitching plans beyond that, but the way things are set up, Aníbal Sánchez would start Tuesday against the Orioles, with a No. 5 starter called up from Double-A Harrisburg (Austin Voth, Erick Fedde or Kyle McGowin) for Wednesday’s game at Camden Yards.

That, in turn, means Strasburg, Corbin, Scherzer and Sánchez would be lined up to face the Braves next weekend. It’s a critical series that could have major implications on the NL East race.

Just one more reason this opening stretch coming out of the All-Star break is so meaningful for the Nationals.

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