This disappointing little 2-2 homestand marks the end of the Nats' "easy" stretch to open the season. Out of the 7 NL teams currently under .500, the Nats have played series against 5 of them. They've exhausted their home series against 4 of these clubs and they are completely done with the Pirates and the weakest team in the NL, the Padres. They've played 20 games at home, which is a series more than the Braves, Marlins, or Phillies. The parity of the NL makes it so the Nats schedule hasn't been super easy, but all in all it has been favorable to them and has contributed to the fast start.
Now what happens? Ten out of the next 11 series are against teams that currently sit at .500 or better, the Red Sox being the 11th, with slightly more games away than at home. These teams are going to provide a challenge for a Nats pitching staff that suddenly looks vulnerable. Boston is the 3rd highest scoring team in the majors, the Braves 4th. Colorado is a good scoring team too and they'll be playing in Denver. Hell, the entire AL East is above league average in R/G.
What can we reasonably expect from the Nats? Let's break down these series, under the same assumption I've been using all year, that the Nats are a good team:
Interleague Rivalry Weekend (no really this time!)
Orioles - Home : For years this series has been between two dead clubs walking, already playing out the string to a season that seemed like it would last forever. We expected the Nats would change that up this season, but the Orioles being good? Icing on the cake. As for the series, the Nats should take 2 at home against all but teams demonstrably better than them. Right now no team fits that description.
NL East - Away Swing
Phillies, Braves, Marlins - Most important set of games the Nats have had so far? Yep. Every win here is a loss for a direct competitor in a home game for them, and it's the first time playing the Braves which will be huge. 4-5 is probably the most reasonable expectation. Win one series, lose other two, but no sweeps.
NL East - Home Swing
Braves, Mets - Seriously, when are the Mets going to start to lose? That offense can't be that good, can it? 4-2 sounds right.
Touring the AL East
Red Sox (away), Jays (away), Yankees (home), Rays (home), Orioles (away) - These are all good teams so standard procedure would be 2 wins at home, 1 away, for a 7-8 stretch, but I'm going to lower expectations by a game because I'm an AL East homer. 6-9. This is also when Mike Morse should be back in the lineup. Will he make a difference?
Finishing up Away
Rockies (4 games), Braves - These aren't actually part of the 11 series, but the Nats don't really face any terrible travel burdens this year. Since this might be the worst, going from Baltimore, to Colorado, and finishing in Atlanta, I figured I'd include it in the "hard" stretch. I'm going to say 3-4 because I can't see the Braves sweeping the Nats or the Rockies taking more than 2.
So the reasonable expectation is 19-21 for a 42-36 overall record going into an easier stretch around the All-Star break. I would take that right now if you gave it to me.
I think the real key is going to be that first away swing. A breakdown there say, 3-6 or 2-7, and it sets the Nats up for an uphill climb. They'll have an immediate chance to make it back versus the Braves and Mets but with a losing series vs Baltimore it would drop the Nats right near .500. That psychological barrier and the chance that any other NL East team could be on fire, would give the Nats season a sense of... desperation is too strong a word, but close to that... it hasn't had yet. The rest of this hard stretch would seem much harder when games start to take on the "must win" label.
On the other hand, if they can manage to come out of that away swing with a winning record they'd have most likely distanced themselves from two of their challengers, and would be almost certain of reaching the "Morse is back" point in good position, several games over .500 and close to first place, if not in it. Being in first when the guys start coming back from injury and playoff dreams start becoming playoff realities.
Anyway that this stretch turns out, hopefully we'll see a lot very good baseball these next few weeks.