- - Thursday, July 19, 2018

The term “underperformed” has been thrown around Nationals Park the past few weeks by everyone from general manager Mike Rizzo to the fans to even some players.

The third-place Washington Nationals, who won the National League East by 20 games last season, find themselves in a rare second-half hole, 5½ games back of first-place Philadelphia (53-42) and five games behind second-place Atlanta (52-42).

When does a sense of urgency begin? As soon as the Nationals step back onto the field, manager Dave Martinez said.

That would be Friday night, with the team directly ahead of the Nationals in the standings coming to town for the first of a three-game weekend series.

“For me it is Friday. We play the Braves right off the bat,” Martinez told 106.7 The Fan. “Come Friday be ready. We are starting to get healthy.”

But if the Nationals expect to make a run in the second half of the season, they’re going to need more than just the emotional lift the team and its fans got from seeing Max Scherzer on the All-Star mound and watching Bryce Harper claim the Home Run Derby.

Improved starting pitching

Who would have guessed this would be a weakness? The Nationals starters have an ERA of 4.00, the seventh-best mark in the National League through Wednesday.

Right-hander Stephen Strasburg (6-6, 3.46 in 13 starts) is slated to come off the disabled list and start Friday against the Braves. That is a step in the right direction.

But the Nationals need lefty Gio Gonzalez (6-6, 3.72), on tap to start Saturday, and right-hander Tanner Roark (3-12, 4.87) to perform up to their previous norms. Gonzalez has not won a game since May 28 and the last win for Roark was June 6.

Scherzer (12-5, 2.41) is scheduled to start on Sunday at 1:35 p.m. Jeremy Hellickson (4-1, 3.29) has been a key pickup after struggling last season with the Phillies and Orioles.

The Nationals need to go 42-24 the rest of the way to reach 90 wins, which may or may not be enough for a playoff spot. “It can happen — easy,” Martinez said of a possible comeback.

Stop stranding runners

The Nationals continue to put runners on second with less than two outs and fail to have them score.

Washington is hitting .295 with a runner on third and two outs. That is the 10th-best mark in the league.

Washington has also been slacking on the bases. During a recent road trip, infielder Daniel Murphy, who came off the disabled list June 12 after knee surgery, was twice thrown out trying to go from first to third on a single.

Leaders need to step up

It was Scherzer that led a team meeting after a fifth straight loss July 4.

“I don’t think leadership has to be in the lineup every day,” said Danny Hill, a teammate of Scherzer in college and a former minor league pitcher.

Maybe so, but this Nationals club appears to need veteran players to step up — on and off the field.

Ryan Zimmerman (.217 in 33 games) has been on the disabled list since May 12 with a right oblique strain. He played for Double-A Harrisburg on Wednesday and was 1-for-4 as the DH against Akron. Zimmerman could be activated in time for the Atlanta series.

Close out the close ones

The bullpen has dramatically improved since the beginning of the season, and that includes veteran Shawn Kelley.

The relievers have a combined 3.64 ERA, the fourth-best mark in the league through Wednesday. But the team is 10-16 in one-run games and has not won back-to-back series since late May.

Closer Sean Doolittle has been on the disabled list with left toe inflammation and his health is a key. The former University of Virginia standout has 22 saves and an ERA of 1.45. He was placed on the 10-day DL on July 10, retroactive to July 7.

Harper has to get hot

Harper showed a boyish passion during the Home Run Derby.

Harper, who becomes a free agent after the season, may need that in the second half. His batting average is .214 with 23 homers, and during the first half, he didn’t appear to be having much fun.

Still, he was clearly the local star of All-Star Week, and he seemed to be enjoying the attention — as well as the expectations — that come with the spotlight.

“What pressure do I feel running out to right field every day?” he said Monday. “It’s the game that I love to play. I’m getting chills. There’s nothing better than going out there and putting on 34 and being Bryce Harper and loving the game that I play.”

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