The Nationals are almost two thirds of the way through the regular season, and in two days they’ll learn two important things:  how they stacked against divsion-leading Atlanta and how they’ve addressed their issues at the trading deadline.  Yes this is now  no longer the “non-waiver trading deadline” as in previous summers, but the actual hard-line trading deadline.  Unless you’ve been on vacation since mid-March, you probably realize what the Nats’ needs are this late-July (as has been the case most midseasons during this recent run of contention):  the bullpen.  The relief corps has given little relief (a big league-worst 6.04 ERA is 2.63 runs higher than the starters’, the biggest gap in the majors) and for every Sean Doolittle (6-2 with 23 saves and a 2.72 ERA) there’s a Matt Grace (5.93 ERA over 45 appearances) and Kyle Barraclough (6.66 over 33 outings), with experiments like Trevor Rosenthal (don’t get me started) blowing up in their face.  Who will they bring in and at what cost are two key questions this week- because one of the byproducts of contending for the better part of this decade has been that the Nats have been buyers more often than sellers at the expense of the farm system.

 

Digesting the Division-  NL East-leading Atlanta went 2-3 to slip to 62-44 as their lead over the Nationals shrinks to five and a half games.  The Braves have also lost 7 of their last 11.  The Nats (56-49) lead Philadelphia (55-50) by a game;  the Phillies’ 3-2 week saw them almost get swept by the Braves at home.  The New York Mets (50-55) are coming off of a 5-1 week and seemingly look like buyers (Marcus Stroman?).  Even Miami (40-63 after a 4-2 week) is regressing to the mean.

The Wild Wildcard- while technically there’s a three-way tie for two spots, either St. Louis or the Chicago Cubs (or Milwaukee who’s a game off the pace) would grab the NL Central-meaning there are five teams within three games fighting for two spots.  San Francisco (54-52) brings up the rear but just like the Nats has stormed back from being 12 games under .500 to contend.  The Giants were sellers one month ago at 35-47, but after a 19-5 run now might not have bullpen pieces (Mark Melancon) available for rental.

O’s Woes- don’t look now, but the Birds are 8-8 since the All Star Game and at 35-70 are on pace to finish seven full games better than last year’s disaster.  Hats off to outfielder Stevie Wilkerson, who became the first position player in MLB history to save a game last week.  Bats off as well–as the rookie is hitting .223 this year with 11 walks and 72 strikeouts.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce batted 3-for-19 with 11 strikeouts as his average drops to .254.  The former face of the franchise is on pace to hit 28 homers with 112 RBI.  While he’s likely going to set a career high for doubles (Harper’s got 30 already–eight shy of the 38 he had during the MVP year of 2015) Bryce is also on track to strike out 195 times.

Last Week’s Heroes- Stephen Strasburg went 2-0 while striking out 17 over 13 innings while driving in a run to help his cause Sunday.  For the record, the Sledgehammer has more RBI (6) this month than earned runs allowed (4).  Sean Doolittle saved a pair of games while Patrick Corbin tossed six scoreless innings in his lone outing.  Gerardo Parra hit .667 with 5 RBI and continues to get the DC area exposed to the “Baby Shark” song. Anthony Rendon hit .320 with 9 RBI while Trea Turner batted .367 and scored 6 runs.

Last Week’s Humbled- Howie Kendrick hit 3-for-17 while Juan Soto hit .192 for the week.  The Nats bullpen remains an occasional disaster with Kyle Barraclough (ERA of 27.00) and Tony Sipp (20.25) coughing up leads and Joe Ross (11.57) making shaky spot appearances. Max Scherzer’s back is still not right and he may miss his scheduled start this week against Atlanta.

Game to Watch- Monday the Nats battle the Braves as Patrick Corbin (8-5, 3.25 ERA) faces Dallas Keuchel (3-3, 3.50 ERA after his midseason signing).  With Max Scherzer a question mark and Strasburg not starting in this series, the opener looms even larger.

Game to Miss- Tuesday if Scherzer can’t go, it will likely be another “opener” or “staff” game.  The 21st century has seen a lot of great advances in sports. This is not one of them.