The Nats have already used up all their mulligans for 2013, slogging their way into the All-Star break with a 48-47 record that falls well below Opening Day expectations but still leaves them with an opportunity to play meaningful baseball right through September and perhaps into October.
What has to happen between now and then to make that reality? And what else should we keep an eye on over the remainder of the season? Let's count down the five biggest second-half storylines for the Nationals...
5. STRASBURG'S FIRST FULL SEASON
Remember the sideshow that was the Great Stephen Strasburg Shutdown of September 2012? (How could anyone forget, even if they tried in desperation to erase those images?) Well, the good news is that we won't be subjected to such drama this fall.
Strasburg is free to pitch straight through the end of the season, which makes this his first complete season as a professional pitcher, and that's a mighty compelling storyline if you think about it. The right-hander has never pitched a full, six-month baseball season, but he's going to get the chance to do it this time, and we're going to find out just how his body holds up through the grind.
Beginning tomorrow night against the Dodgers, Strasburg is scheduled to make 14 more starts this season. To date, he has averaged 6 innings per start, though if you throw out his two abbreviated, two-inning outings, that average jumps up to 6.5 innings per start. If he's able to maintain that pace, he would finish the regular season with ... 199 innings. That's exactly where the Nationals want him to be, and if they're fortunate enough to reach the playoffs, they wouldn't hold him back at all.
4. CAN THE LINEUP START CONSISTENTLY PRODUCING?
This really was the No. 1 storyline of the season's first half. A star-studded and deep lineup that should have been among the most-potent in the majors proved to be one of the sport's least-productive units, hitting a collective .241 with a .301 on-base percentage and only 3.76 runs per game.
Is there reason to believe those numbers can significantly improve over the rest of the season? Well, yes. Provided the Nationals stay relatively healthy.
From April through June, the Nats hit just .236 and averaged 3.6 runs per game. But since July 1 (when Bryce Harper returned from the DL, three days before Wilson Ramos rejoined the roster) they're hitting .267 and averaging 4.4 runs. Obviously, they haven't been real consistent during these last two weeks, but clearly the talent is there and we've seen some evidence it can all come together on any given night.
Davey Johnson, though, is going to have to settle on a lineup that works. He switched things up again in Sunday's first-half finale, bumping Bryce Harper to the leadoff spot and Denard Span down to the 7-hole. Will he stick with that look, or will Harper find his way back into the No. 3 position before it's all said and done?
3. WILL RIZZO DO ANYTHING AT THE DEADLINE?
Mike Rizzo has maintained all along he doesn't expect to make any "major splashes" before the July 31 trade deadline, believing he has a roster already in place capable of winning the NL East and making a deep run in October. Which may be true. But unless he sees serious evidence of improvement over the next two weeks, Rizzo may have no choice but to consider a bold move at the deadline.
The key: How do Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren look during this important stretch? If each pitcher comes back strong from DL stints and solidifies the back end of the rotation, Rizzo may not need to seek reinforcements. But if one or both continue to look shaky, Rizzo may have to do something to bolster his pitching staff.
Offensively, it still seems unlikely Rizzo will acquire another everyday bat. He could still look to add to his highly unproductive bench, perhaps bringing in a veteran left-handed hitter if Chad Tracy and Roger Bernadina don't start doing something productive soon.
Either way, these figure to be two highly compelling weeks that should help determine Rizzo's course of action.
2. DAVEY'S LAST HURRAH
Though he usually hates looking more than a day or two down the road, Davey Johnson has started talking a bit more wistfully about his final few months as Nationals manager. He even mentioned on Tuesday some places he and his wife plan to visit next spring once he's retired, including Bora Bora.
So despite some early season suggestions he wasn't ready to hang up his spikes, Johnson seems now to have accepted and embraced the notion. It remains to be seen how that translates into his job performance the rest of this season.
Will Johnson be motivated to try to go out in style, making bold decisions and getting the Nats' clubhouse collectively to play for him down the stretch? Or will the lure of retirement leave Davey complacent and simply counting down the days until October?
That's a fairly compelling storyline to monitor.
1. WILL THERE BE ANOTHER PENNANT RACE THIS FALL?
Everything came so easily to the Nationals in 2012, we kind of got spoiled and didn't get to truly experience the grind of a tough pennant race. Well, it isn't coming easily to them in 2013, so if a race is to develop, the Nats are going to have to claw their way through it right down to the wire.
Is there enough time left for the Nationals to do it, or at 48-47 is it already too late? Consider this: In order to get to 90 wins this season, they'll have to go 42-25 the rest of the way. And that's not such a preposterous notion.
If you break out 67-game stretches from the 2012 season, the Nationals went at least 42-25 on 47 separate occasions. Their best 67-game stretch was a 45-22 run from July 1-Sept. 12. So, absolutely, it's doable.
The problem: The Nationals' best 67-game stretch so far this season is 36-31. They simply haven't been able to get onto any kind of sustained, positive roll. So if they're going to do it this year, they're going to have to play the rest of 2013 like they played for much of 2012.
Even if they don't, there's reason to believe the Nationals will remain in the pennant race deep into September. It may not take 90 wins to reach the postseason. The Cardinals snagged the final Wild Card berth last season with 88 wins. Stay at least a couple of games over the .500 mark, and you're in the race down to the final week.
This season won't be considered a success in D.C., however, if the Nationals merely hang around the race in late-September. This team won the division last year and was expected by everyone to win it again this year.
So the pressure's on. The Nationals spent the season's first 3 1/2 months hovering around the .500 mark, keeping themselves within striking distance but never making a serious push to catch the Braves. If they're going to do it, now is the time.