- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2016

When assessing the pre-all-star goodies put forth by the Nationals — leading the division by six games, best ERA in baseball, multiple contributions — clubhouse sensei Jayson Werth is pleased but steady.

He’s always viewed the time before the break as a coming together period, one that can produce bonding and fun, plus allows roles to be meted out. After that, things change.

“It’s all business,” Werth said in New York last week.

The Nationals resume play Friday in front and rather healthy when a three-game series against the fledgling Pittsburgh Pirates begins. Their six-game lead in the division was earned with a final pre-break push during a four-game series with the New York Mets. Winning three of four bloated their front-running status, putting them next to fellow division leaders Chicago and San Francisco. Each has a hearty head start to a playoff spot.

“I don’t put a whole lot of weight in where the standings are until September rolls around,” Werth said. “I’ve been on too many teams that come September, things can change. Until we get there, I don’t really look at it a whole lot up or down.

“I think we just need to keep doing what we’re doing. We got a good thing going. Like [I’ve] said, we’re really starting to mesh. You can kind of feel it. You’ve got that good feeling going into the break, you come back and you can really do some things in the second half. Hopefully, that will be us.”

The positive work in New York just before the break was enormous for the Nationals. They are 9-4 this season against the injury-riddled and turmoil-filled Mets with just six head-to-head games remaining. Those don’t come until September and the final three are in Washington.

The August schedule is gift-filled. The Nationals play 19 games against teams that are below .500. Ten of those are against teams in last place. In the National League, only the Chicago Cubs have played as many road games as the Nationals. The hardest part of the schedule has already been conquered.

The non-waiver trade deadline hits Aug. 1 at 4 p.m. Nationals manager Dusty Baker has been asked often if he thinks the team needs to make a move. Per usual, since he is sitting in the manager’s seat, Baker deflected the question, explaining that he can’t receive full effort from a player before he is traded if Baker puts a name or position out to the media.

A common answer from self-appointed general managers is that the Nationals need bullpen help. It feels like a sound conclusion since closer Jonathan Papelbon has wobbled, though he has blown just two saves. Left-hander Sammy Solis has helped steady the bullpen in the wake of Felipe Rivero faltering. Shawn Kelley has provided setup and closing work. Though the bullpen often seems on edge, it has the second-best ERA in the National League and third-best in Major League Baseball.

If the Nationals are interested in bullpen help, they will join other contenders by watching the New York Yankees’ start after the break. New York is 44-44 and 7.5 games back in the American League East. Its first seven games are against the leaders of the division: three at home with second-place Boston are followed by four in the Bronx against first-place Baltimore. Lose four or five of those games and the Yankees are likely to become sellers of enthralling (but expensive) bullpen parts like Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman.

The Nationals considered acquiring Chapman in the offseason before a domestic violence allegation against the left-hander surfaced. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said at the time the Nationals stopped their pursuit of Chapman because of the allegations. Chapman served a 30-game suspension at the start of the season because of the allegation.

Washington does have two questions in its rotation. Joe Ross remains on the 15-day disabled list because of right shoulder inflammation. He is eligible to return July 18. Gio Gonzalez has not been injured, but his results have fluctuated. His 1.42 April ERA was followed by a 5.32 ERA in May and a cantankerous 6.95 ERA in June. July has been better, a 3.86 ERA, and the Nationals are hoping that Gonzalez’s final outing before the break — 5 innings, four hits, four walks, two earned runs — while not great, is a harbinger of better things.

At the least, the Nationals are operating from a position of strength. Since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, the NL East division leader at the all-star break has finished in front seven times.

“I’m very pleased with the first half that we had,” Baker said. “We know we can get even better.”

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