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Washington Nationals have hauled themselves back from the edge and have a chance to prove they belong

With a tough stretch of games coming up for the Nationals, it could be a make-or-break run for the team this season...

MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Waking up on June 13th, just over two weeks ago, the Washington Nationals found themselves with a 26-35 record, nine games under .500, in last place in a poor National League East, 8.5 games behind the division-leading New York Mets.

Despite a plea from Kyle Schwarber to stick with them after the game that day, the Nationals hadn’t exactly given people much reason to believe they could turn it around.

There were still 101 games left at that point, but the product they put on the field wasn’t indicative of a team that had aspirations to play into October.

Since then though, led by the man who asked for everyone to stick with the team, the Nats might finally be playing up to the standard that they expect of themselves by rattling off 11 wins in their last 14 games, vaulting them back up the standings.

Now, on June 28th, they are one game under .500 at 37-38 and four games back of the Mets.

Yes, half of those games were against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins, but you can’t fault the Nationals for beating who was in front of them on this stretch.

After all, they hadn’t been consistently beating those kinds of teams before they hit this purple patch.

As ever, Nationals skipper Dave Martinez wants to keep his focus on the next game, using the same 1-0 mentality that took his team to the World Series just 20 months ago.

“I tell you what I believe, I believe every team you play on any given day is tough,” Martinez told reporters after his team won on Sunday to split with the Marlins.

“We just got to focus on one game at a time and come out tomorrow and play with the same intensity we’ve been playing, and do what we do best, get good pitching, jump on teams early and hold the lead. If we can do that I think we can play with anybody.”

It’s a mindset that’s important for a team that’s been behind the eight-ball for much of this season. They can’t just flick a switch and be right back in the mix again, it’s going to take time.

“For me, you can only win one game at a time. You can’t win two or three in one day unless you have a doubleheader,” shortstop Trea Turner said of their mentality in making up ground.

“It’s like the old, you can’t get all the runs back with one swing. You got to get a rally or you’ve got to put at-bats together. So we’ve been doing that in the sense of winning ballgames and we just got to keep doing what we’re doing, don’t try to do more or less, go out there and compete, and whoever is in front of us give it our all and move on to the next day.

“Today we won and tomorrow I think we have the Mets, I believe, and we got to do it all over again tomorrow, so whoever we’re playing it is what it is, but we got to focus on us, and I think when we play our best that’s what we do.

“We play defense, we hit, get the timely hitting, and we pitch, so we just got to keep doing those three things, and I don’t think it will matter who we play if we take care of business.”

Even if the team doesn’t want to look too far ahead, it’s hard not to with the fate of this season still in the balance as a potentially crucial trade deadline looms in a month’s time.

It begins with a tough slate right before the All-Star break. Starting tomorrow, the Nationals face a run of 14 games in 14 days against would-be playoff teams if the season ended today.

First up, the Mets come to town to play a single, rearranged game tonight.

They’re followed by both of last year’s World Series participants, the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers, to complete a tough seven-game homestand.

To close out the first half of the season, Washington heads out west for seven games against the holders of the NL’s best and third-best records in the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres.

“This is what you play for,” Max Scherzer explained. “You want to play the best teams in the game. We have a stretch here where we’re playing a bunch of really good teams across the league, we got to take care of business.

“This is when you find out about yourselves when you start facing the best. So we’re playing good baseball now, so hopefully, when we see these teams, we can win a few series and keep this momentum going.”

If they want to keep the momentum going, they’ll have to improve on their 11-20 record against teams who are above .500 this season.

All five opponents on this run sit above that mark, perhaps making this one of the most intriguing stretches of the year for this team.

This run is no guarantee to determine the organization’s plans at the trade deadline though.

What these games might do is give the Nationals a test to see if they can stack up to some of the best MLB has to offer. A test they definitely need to see who they are going to be in 2021.

If they come out of it with more wins than losses, it might give the front office that extra bit of confidence in being aggressive at the trade deadline. On the other hand, if they fall back to old ways and struggle against stiffer competition, then questions will mount about whether this group can truly push on and make a dent in the postseason picture.

An opportunity that seemed unlikely for this team two weeks ago has presented itself. Can the Nationals prove that they belong in the postseason race? We might be about to find out...