Five key second-half storylines for the Nationals

The Nationals are going to be playing meaningful baseball through the rest of the summer, and perhaps into the fall. Given the state of things only seven weeks ago, that’s a pretty remarkable development in its own right.

Of course, the Nationals’ goal was never simply to be playing meaningful baseball the rest of the way. They want to make sure it all ends with even more meaningful baseball. And to do that, they’re going to need to overcome some more obstacles and make some critical decisions along the way.

It took a sustained stretch of .718 baseball to get them into this position going into the All-Star break. Now it’s going to take more coming out of the break to keep the ball rolling in the right direction.

Here, then, are five key storylines to the second half of the season, the outcomes of which may well determine the Nationals’ ultimate fate in 2019 ...

1. Can they beat tougher competition?
It’s no secret the schedule was very much in the Nats’ favor as they closed out the first half. Their final 12 games came against the Marlins, Tigers and Royals (combined winning percentage: .345), and they took advantage of that to go 10-2 and improve from three games under .500 to five games over.

The creampuff portion of the schedule, however, is now over. Aside from next week’s two-game series in Baltimore, the Nationals face nothing but contenders the rest of this month: the Phillies, Braves (twice), Rockies and Dodgers. That’s a far more daunting slate, and it’s fair to wonder if they’re about to get a hard dose of reality.

Here’s the thing, though: The Nats have already gone 13-10 against those four teams this season. They have winning records against both the Braves and Phillies and split a four-game series at Dodger Stadium back in mid-May (when they were a hot mess). This roster as currently constructed is perfectly capable of emerging from these next three weeks with a winning record.

2. How will Martinez handle playing-time decisions?
Davey Martinez didn’t play with a full deck for much of the first half, but he’s got close to one in his hand now. Which means he’s facing some tricky decisions both in his lineup and in his bullpen.

Who’s on first? Is Ryan Zimmerman (7-for-21 since coming off the injured list) going to get the bulk of the at-bats, or will Matt Adams (or Howie Kendrick) force his way into more playing time? Will Kurt Suzuki start more games behind the plate than Yan Gomes? Will Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon ever get a day off?

In the bullpen, can Martinez start to pare down Sean Doolittle’s heavy workload from the first half and trust anyone else to pitch the ninth inning with a three- or four-run lead? Are Fernando Rodney and Jonny Venters go-to guys now in high-leverage spots? Will Tony Sipp and Matt Grace ever pitch after getting tons of work early but then wasting away over the last month?

Rizzo-Martinez-Dugout-sidebar.jpg3. Can Rizzo work his magic at the trade deadline?
In July 2015, general manager Mike Rizzo acquired Jonathan Papelbon. In July 2016, he acquired Mark Melancon. In July 2017, he acquired Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. Suffice it to say, Rizzo knows how to go get prominent relievers at the trade deadline.

But it’s going to be a tougher challenge to do it this year than in previous years. There’s now only one trade deadline (July 31) and there are probably way more buyers than sellers (especially in the relief market). The Nationals’ farm system isn’t as loaded as it has been in the past, so Rizzo has fewer appealing young players to offer up. And he doesn’t have a whole lot of financial wiggle room to take on salary (unless ownership allows him to exceed the luxury tax threshold).

So it’s no given the Nats will be able to pull off the kind of July bullpen trade that has been their hallmark of years past. But they could certainly use one, if Rizzo can find a way to do it again.

4. Can they lock up Rendon?
We knew this was going to be one of the overarching storylines of the season way back in February, and nothing has changed since. Rendon still remains unsigned beyond 2019, and he has only bolstered his case for a big-time contract with the best first half of his career.

Last weekend’s face-to-face meeting between Scott Boras and Ted Lerner can only be viewed as a positive development, but positive developments aren’t the same as done deals. And so far, no deal is done.

So what happens if the two sides still aren’t in agreement come the end of the month. If the Nationals were clearly out of the race, they’d have no choice but to try to trade Rendon and get some nice prospects in return. But if they remain in the race, they aren’t about to trade away their best all-around player. Which means this situation could look an awful lot like Bryce Harper’s situation one year ago. The Nats may play out the season with their best player headed for free agency, running the risk of losing him over the winter and getting nothing in return.

5. Can they pull off a historic comeback?
We’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: Only one team in wild card era (i.e. since 1995) has opened a season 19-31 or worse and still made the playoffs: the 2005 Astros, who went from 18-32 to 89-73.

The 2019 Nationals are attempting to do it themselves, and what a story it would be if they can pull it off. But it’s no simple task. They’re going to need to play roughly .600 ball the rest of the way (a 97-win pace) to end up with 90-91 wins, which should be enough for a wild card berth. If they want to win the National League East, they’re probably going to need to be even better than that.

Martinez did a masterful job keeping his clubhouse together during bad times and keeping everyone on a one-day-at-a-time mindset. As this thing progresses, it’s going to get harder and harder for players not to think about the big picture.

The good news: The Nationals still have 14 games left with the Braves. If they can go, say, 9-5 in those head-to-head contests, they could pull this off. Then again, if they go 5-9, they not only can forget about a surprising division title, they might well end up spending October at home and making this remarkable turnaround all for naught.

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