Nats return for most important homestand of season

Step back far enough to get a broader view of the six-month schedule and the swings of a baseball season become easier to predict.

The Washington Nationals have struggled against good teams, but haven’t made up for those failures against weak competition enough to make the difference. Coming into the last stretch of games before the All-Star break, they were presented with a huge opportunity.

Now begins the most crucial stretch of this slate. The Arizona Diamondbacks have slithered their way above .500, giving the Nats 10 straight home games against quality competition, including the chance to make up ground in back-to-back series against the two teams with the best chance to beat them for the NL East crown.

Entering Thursday’s game against surging Arizona, the Nats have just 14 wins against teams over .500 (14-20 overall). No team in the National League has fewer. What may surprise you is that they’ve played the fewest such games. Every other team has played at least 36 games against winning teams, ranging all the way up to 49 such games. That team at the top? The Arizona Diamondbacks. (Ed. Note: With the Padres falling below .500, the Nats are now 11-16 against winning teams. No other NL team has fewer such wins or games played. This has also affected Arizona’s numbers.)

Following those four games against the Diamondbacks, Washington will get the Phillies for four and the Braves for three. To this point, the Nats are just 15-15 in the division. They’ve taken the only two games they’ve played against Atlanta, while splitting the eight with Philly so far. After that, they play the bottom-feeding Marlins six times and the hopeless Tigers and Royals three each heading into the break.

The Nats have another three-series homestand in July, and play what may well be a make-or-break seven games against Philly and Cleveland to close the regular season at home. But they won’t get another chance like this — the two teams they are chasing, together, back-to-back, amid a stretch of otherwise putrid opponents.

Recently, the Nats have finally begun to do what good teams are supposed to do — they’ve beaten the bad teams in front of them. Following the nadir in New York — the four-game sweep in Flushing that left them 19-31 — they’ve gone 12-5 against middling-to-bad teams. In a normal year, over the course of 162 games, that’s often enough to get you to the playoffs. But the Nationals didn’t start the year doing that.

They’re still just 17-16 against teams .500 or worse, putting that much more pressure on the divisional head-to-head matchups remaining. For Washington to get back to .500 at the break, they’ll need to go 14-9 over their last 23 games. That doesn’t sound unreasonable, given the opponents. It’s also not something they’ve managed over any 23-game stretch yet this year.

Before Tuesday’s games, FanGraphs had the Nationals’ chances of making the playoffs at 44.1%— above the Phillies, a team they trailed by six full games in their own division (they’re now seven back, after Tuesday). FiveThirtyEight had a more tempered perspective, giving Washington a 28% postseason chance, and a 14% chance to win the division. Baseball Prospectus had the Nats at 21.6% for the playoffs, 9.5% to win the East.

Those numbers all took a hit with the Phillies and Braves both winning and the Mets splitting a Subway Series doubleheader while the Nats fell in Chicago Tuesday night. While nobody would call them optimistic (save, perhaps, the FanGraphs ones), they’re not terribly dire, all things considered. But if the picture isn’t noticeably rosier when the team breaks for the Midsummer Classic, it will be time to reevaluate.

If this team can’t make a push through this section of their schedule, it’s hard to believe they’d do so down the stretch.

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