- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes the playoff-aspirations portion of our flight. Hope you enjoyed the ride and please come back next year.

The slow start after the All-Star break pretty much answered the question of whether the Washington Nationals would be buyers or sellers as the trade deadline approached. With a grand opportunity to distance themselves from mediocrity and rise above the blasted .500 mark, the Nats floundered, opening the second half with a 4-10 record entering Sunday’s series finale against the New York Mets.

Little has gone right since Jordan Zimmermann pitched 6 1/3 innings July 10 to beat Colorado at Nationals Park. That gave Washington its best-ever first half, 46-46, and left it eight games back in the wild card race. Looming series against the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers - 32 and 10 games below .500, respectively, entering the break - seemed promising. But the Nats lost those series, as well as matchups against Atlanta and Florida, before Sunday’s 3-2 victory snapped the streak.

It was nice to see the Nats to win a game, compiling their first back-to-back victories since July 5-6. It was nice to see Zimmermann’s strong outing, rebounding from back-to-back losses in which his ERA was a combined 9.26. And it was nice to see Ryan Zimmerman extend his hitting streak to nine games, giving him a .333 average since the break.

But the best sight for most fans materialized in the ninth, when closer Drew Storen trotted in from the bullpen. The entire day at Nationals Park had been spent with one eye on the diamond and the other on Twitter and news alerts, looking for the latest on Storen-for-Denard Span trade rumors.

Storen’s entrance made it clear that the Nats and Minnesota Twins failed to consummate a deal. Though Storen’s performance - a blown save on a solo homer - undoubtedly led to second-guessing among skeptics, the rousing ovation and comments in cyberspace indicated that few fans favored trading the Nats’ homegrown closer.

General manager Mike Rizzo publicly has stated his reluctance to part with Storen, but he was prepared to do it at the right price. The idea of landing Span to fill the Nats’ long-time void in center field was tantalizing, but only if the Nats didn’t yield too much in the process.

“It’d have to be a special deal,” Rizzo said afterward in the Nats’ clubhouse, adding that every team he’s spoken with is interested in Storen. “We got to a very specific stage toward the deadline. But we would’ve had to give in to their demands.”

The Twins reportedly wanted Storen plus a few other players, and Rizzo couldn’t find an equitable balance he could live with. The GM’s hesitancy to ship Storen resonated with the closer, who struggled to block out the swirling rumors.

“That really means a lot,” said Storen, who didn’t feel safe until he was called to warm up for the ninth. “My goal when I signed here was to be one of the core pieces to turn this organization around.”

As promising as turnaround seems, it’s unlikely to occur this season and acquiring Span wouldn’t change the probability. But Rizzo did improve the roster in the short-term by adding Jonny Gomes, giving manager Davey Johnson more versatility (minus Matt Stairs). And, if nothing else, the addition of minor leaguers Zachary Walters (for Jason Marquis) and Erik Komatsu (for Jerry Hairston Jr.) gives Rizzo more trading chips, perhaps for next season when the Nats might be buyers for a change.

Despite the lack of a big-name addition, the Nats (51-56) still have a lot to play for - as in a winning record. Just don’t tell right fielder Jayson Werth that’s the main target.

“Our goal still is to make the playoffs,” he said. “We have to go on a run to do it; that’s no secret. But I think we have the team to do it. We stopped the bleeding, have a lot of divisional games coming up and anything can happen. We have a good group of guys.”

The group will remain intact for the time being. Storen has become a sentimental favorite in addition to a top closer, and his presence would make for a better story when the Nats finally contend.

But with so many teams showing interest in him, this might not be the last trading deadline he sweats out. “Though I understand this being a business decision, I want to stay,” he said. “I’m happy it didn’t happen.”

We are, too.

Now we return you to the Nats’ original dramatic series, “Search for .500.”

The ending is uncertain, but the cast is set.

• Deron Snyder can be reached at deronsnyder@gmail.com.

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