It's not just the fact this team, now sitting a game under the .500 mark and seven games behind the Braves in the NL East, needs to go on a hot streak. It's also a convergence of decisions that must be made over the next week that could go a long way toward determining the Nats' long-term fate.
Let's start, though, with the actual games at hand. The Nationals play host to a six-game homestand, with a pair of sub-.500 teams coming to town in the Mets and Twins. Obviously, there are no sure things in baseball, but the Mets are a trainwreck (having just been swept by the even-worse Marlins) and won't have young ace Matt Harvey pitching in this series.
The Twins, meanwhile, have been hot lately in winning six of seven, but those all came against the Brewers and Mariners. Prior to that, they went 1-11 against the White Sox, Red Sox, Braves and Tigers.
So there is, if nothing else, a favorable opportunity for the Nationals to feast on some sub-par competition over the next six days.
In the larger picture, though, this week figures to set the course for a much longer time frame, with several important decisions upcoming for the Nationals.
It begins tonight when Jayson Werth is activated off the disabled list. Someone will need to be dropped from the roster to make room for the veteran outfielder, and it's all but certain to be one of the eight relievers currently active. Will Mike Rizzo cut ties with struggling long man Zach Duke? Will he finally decide he's seen enough of Henry Rodriguez? Or will he stay the course and simply demote the just-promoted Erik Davis? That decision could tell us much about Rizzo's mindset at this stage of the season.
There's another, far more significant, decision to be made in the next few days: Whether to place Stephen Strasburg on the DL. The Nationals say they want Strasburg to throw on Wednesday and test his strained right lat muscle. In theory, if the right-hander feels fine, he could return to the mound Saturday against Minnesota. But is that worth the risk? These type of muscle strains generally take longer to heal, and attempting to pitch through them could lead to worse injury.
Given the way they've been overly cautious with Strasburg over the years, it seems unlikely the Nationals would take the chance of putting him back on the mound at anything less than 100 percent. If he does go on the DL, there's no telling how much time he'll miss, or how the club will fill that major void.
The fates of several other Nationals pitchers are tied to Strasburg, because his status will directly affect how they are used moving forward. Nate Karns is waiting to find out if he'll make another start in the big leagues. Craig Stammen also is waiting to find out if he'll be needed in a starting role or if he's headed back to the bullpen.
And all of that is connected to Ross Detwiler's attempt to return from a strained right oblique muscle. Detwiler played catch over the weekend in Atlanta and reported no problems, so he may be ready to come off the DL sometime during this homestand, a development that would impact those others pitchers.
And then, of course, there's Bryce Harper. He's not eligible to come off the DL until next Monday, but if he's going to return for the start of the Nationals' road trip in Colorado, he's going to have to make enough strides this week in his recovery from a swollen left knee to convince team officials he's good to go.
No one player's status has had more impact on the Nationals' fortunes this season than Harper; they're 25-18 when he's in the lineup, 3-11 when he's not. If they want to have him back in action as soon as he's eligible, he's going to need to show some significant improvement during a very important week for this team.