- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2017

MIAMI — Friday in Cincinnati the Nationals‘ problems and promise remain the same.

They have 77 games remaining to get to the end. At that time, they are expected to still be in first place in the National League East, having won the division handily and for the fourth time in six years.

Washington opens the post-All-Star break schedule with a 9 ½-game lead on the surprising Atlanta Braves. The Miami Marlins (10 ½) and New York Mets (12) are close to Atlanta. Philadelphia is a head-shaking 22 ½ games out of first. Its season is over.

The proximity of Atlanta in the standings has the attention of Max Scherzer. He, like so many baseball veterans, has seen substantial leads leak through the grate until the end only has questions of how it arrived in such a dire state.

“We have a good-size lead, I understand,” Scherzer said. “But, if we’re going to win this division, we’ve got to stay healthy. That’s our first and foremost thing. If we go out there and stay healthy and play the ball we’re capable of, we can pay with any team in this National League. I firmly believe in that and I firmly believe we can be in the postseason. If we run into a few injuries, and we come up lame in certain areas, these other teams in the division can catch us. They’re good enough. I know that sounds crazy, but trust me.”

Scherzer’s paranoia has backing. Jayson Werth has not played since June 3. Trea Turner is two weeks into what could be a two-month long hiatus because of a non-displaced fracture of his right wrist. Adam Eaton will not be back this season and one his replacements, Michael A. Taylor, is on the disabled list because of an oblique strain. Manager Dusty Baker has tried to protect first baseman Ryan Zimmerman by giving him eight games off out of the first 88. The bullpen is slammed with injuries: Sammy Solis (elbow), who was sent to Triple-A Syracuse on Thursday, Shawn Kelley (neck), Koda Glover (back, shoulder).

So, the framework for Scherzer’s concern is clear. As are the Nationals‘ issues and power.

They lead the National League in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) at the break. No team has scored more runs, and the gap is significant. Washington is 23 runs in front of Los Angeles. The Nationals are on pace for more than 900 runs this season. That would easily eclipse last season’s Nationals record of 786 runs. The 1999 Cleveland Indians were the last team to score more than 1,000 runs in a season. Before them, it was the 1950 Boston Red Sox.

It seemed, at first, that Baker was joking when he said his solution for the bullpen problems was to score more runs. At this point, it’s the one thing holding the MLB’s worst bullpen ERA at bay.

Washington will watch what happens out West. The Dodgers went into the All-Star break with the league’s best record built on a crop of young stars and the guarantees of Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen. The Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks are well-positioned to be the Wild-Card teams. Should the standings hold, which is unlikely this far from the finish, the Wild-Card teams would come out of the same division. The Dodgers would be the top team. Washington and Milwaukee would be division winners. That would match the Nationals and Brewers in the first round.

The Cubs want to change that. Chicago manager Joe Maddon said he felt weird not to be surrounded by a bunch of his players when being honored at Wrigley Field for being the National League All-Stars manager. The Cubs have wandered through the regular season after their angst-busting World Series win last year. Chicago is two games under .500 and 5 ½ game behind Milwaukee. Thursday, it traded two top prospects, and two other minor leaguers, for Chicago White Sox starter Jose Quintana.

“I’m really looking forward to our second half,” Maddon said. “I have a strong belief system in our guys. I really do. I’m not just saying that. It’s not lip service.”

As much as teams try to avoid the standings, they know who is where. Colorado closer Greg Holland mentioned what a good position the Nationals are in. Scherzer outlined his understanding. Jansen had a five-game tussle with Washington last season. He expects another head-bumping series.

Washington’s a really great team,” Jansen said. “They’re going to be there in the playoffs. If we want to accomplish our dream, we’re going to have to go through them again. They’re not an easy team to deal with.”

They just need to get there first. Preferably, for Scherzer, at maximum health.

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