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Victory has often been just out of the Nationals' reach since the All-Star break.
The team that returned home on a red-eye from Los Angeles Sunday night is frustrated by its play, still struggling to produce at the plate on a regular basis and showing some cracks in its previously air-tight pitching staff and defensive alignment.
With the exception of an 11-1 thumping in Atlanta to open the season's second half, the Nationals have been highly competitive. Seven of their last nine losses have come by one run; Sunday's loss to the Dodgers came by two runs. That only compounds the frustration level among a clubhouse of players and coaches that believes this team should be winning more of these close games.
They'll have a chance to get themselves back on track during a nine-game homestand that begins Tuesday, a homestand that could be as significant as any this club has experienced in 2011.
From a straight competitive standpoint, these nine games against the Marlins, Mets and Braves are important. All are division opponents, the Marlins and Mets currently in a three-way battle with the Nationals for third place in the NL East, the Braves having separated themselves from the pack to take a four-game lead in the wild-card race.
Just as significant as the games, though, are several decisions general manager Mike Rizzo and his staff must make over the next week, decisions that could shape the Nationals' roster not only for the remainder of this year but for future seasons as well.
Rizzo and Co. already made one key decision Sunday evening, announcing Chien-Ming Wang will come off the disabled list for the first time in two years and start Friday against the Mets. The Nationals have been waiting to see some sort of reward for their investment of Wang since Feb. 2010, and at last we'll find out if the 31-year-old right-hander still has the ability to get big-league hitters out.
Wang's return, though, will require the removal of someone else from the Nationals' rotation, and that decision still looms large.
Will it be Jason Marquis, touted as a trade target all summer but coming off a somewhat-disappointing outing in Los Angeles in which he surrendered three early runs and suffered his third loss in four starts?
Will it be Tom Gorzelanny, Rizzo's biggest offseason pitching acquisition who has been unable to maintain a level of consistency and labored through three innings Saturday night at Dodger Stadium?
If there isn't a trade and someone gets demoted to the bullpen, what becomes of Ross Detwiler? Does he remain as a long reliever, or does he get sent back to Class AAA Syracuse to continue his development as a starter?
The possibility of a Marquis trade has been bandied about for months, but there are plenty of other moves Rizzo could make before Sunday's 4 p.m. deadline. Is there a market for one of his veterans on one-year deals: Todd Coffey, Laynce Nix or Rick Ankiel? Would he be willing to part with one of his two young late-inning relievers: Tyler Clippard or Drew Storen? Is there any chance he really does something bold like trade away shortstop Ian Desmond, who is liked by several other clubs but continues to be touted as a key, long-term piece to the Nationals puzzle?
And what if instead of dealing away someone off his major-league roster, Rizzo seeks to move some of his minor-league talent in exchange for an established player who could help this team both now and down the road? Perhaps a leadoff-hitting center fielder like Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton.
The moves Rizzo makes (or doesn't make) will go a long way toward determining where the Nationals wind up in the standings at the end of this season. Can they add a piece or two that gets them over the .500 hump and allows them to finish with a winning record for the first time since the franchise arrived in town? Or would some moves not be greeted warmly by a clubhouse that seems pretty content with what already exists, believing this group is good enough to win once it everyone gets on track at the same time?
By the end of this week, we may start to have some answers. A long homestand against division rivals, combined with the trade deadline and the return of a long-awaited right-hander, makes for plenty of intriguing storylines.