WASHINGTON—Max Scherzer had earned a chance to catch his breath.

After winning 12 games to help keep the underachieving Nationals semi-buoyant in the National League East pennant race, Scherzer joined teammate Bryce Harper as ambassadors for D.C. during this week’s All-Star festivities. He pitched the first two innings for the NL in Tuesday’s homerfest, an 8–6 victory by the American League, allowing a towering blast to the Yankees’ Aaron Judge in the second frame.

Asked about his immediate plans, Scherzer said he needed a break from baseball. “We have two off-days,” he said early Wednesday morning, “but we have a big series against Atlanta Friday. We can’t relax too much.”

That’s an understatement. After treading water for 3 1/2 months, the Nationals (48–48) jump into a gauntlet to open the season’s unofficial second half. They host the Braves for three games this weekend, then visit Milwaukee for three starting Monday.

Those clubs just happen to be the current leaders for the NL’s two wild-card spots. As play resumes Friday for everyone except the Cubs and Cardinals (who play Thursday night), Washington sits 5 1/2 games behind NL East leader Philadelphia and five games shy of the Braves, the No. 2 wild card team.

A week from now, the Nationals may have righted their foundering ship, with Stephen Strasburg scheduled to return Friday and Ryan Zimmerman due back soon. Or, if they stumble against their rivals, they could dig themselves a daunting deficit for a team with a rookie manager and a history of postseason flops.

All-Star week gave Washington a chance to show off in front of a national audience, and the city took full advantage. Harper christened a new youth field complex in nearby Herndon, then won Monday night’s Home Run Derby in dramatic fashion. Said Scherzer: “D.C. did it right.”

But the sport’s annual midseason gathering also shined a somewhat unflattering light on the team’s inconsistent play.

Alex Rodriguez, hardly one to talk about comportment, blasted Harper for his alleged “selfish” attitude and for his failure to run out a ground ball last weekend. As if Harper’s .214 average, lowest among All-Star position players, wasn’t incriminating enough. And it will be interesting to see if Harper’s Derby victory results in a changed swing and even more second-half struggles, as have befallen several former winners.

Aside from Scherzer (12-5, 2.41 ERA) and All-Star closer Sean Doolitte (22 saves, a 49/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio), Washington’s pitching has been forgettable as well. Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are each 6–6, and Tanner Roark, who has twice won 15 or more games, is 3–12 with a 4.87 ERA. Meanwhile, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, traded away for the oft-injured Adam Eaton two years ago, have flashed signs of potential for the Chicago White Sox.

If the fragile Strasburg can’t stay healthy for the final 10 weeks (and possibly, even if he can), general manager Mike Rizzo may be forced to upgrade his rotation before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. To do so, he may have to offer one of his prize prospects, like outfielders Juan Soto or Victor Robles or Double-A shortstop Carter Kieboom. That would upset Rizzo’s carefully crafted plan to mitigate the void if Harper leaves via free agency after the season.

It remains to be seen whether the young Braves and Phillies can sustain their surprising pace atop the East. But the veteran Cubs and Brewers don’t seem likely to falter, and the resurgent Dodgers will be even stronger if, as expected, they acquire Manny Machado. Meanwhile, the Nationals may be forced to rely on players with histories of injuries like Zimmerman, Eaton and Daniel Murphy.

D.C. reveled in the All-Star spotlight. The cameras have left town, but the glare will get even brighter in the next week.

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443


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