- - Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Nationals’ 28-11 surge to end the “first half” of the season was not only impressive, but the team now holds the third-best winning percentage in the National League and the first wildcard spot in a competitive playoff race.

Still, hardly anyone expects the Nationals to keep winning at a pace of .718.

While the Nationals (47-42) seem to have saved their season, there are several questions — and concerns — as the second half begins Friday night in Philadelphia against Bryce Harper and the Phillies (47-43):

The fifth starter

Veteran right-hander Jeremy Hellickson began the season as the fifth starter and had mixed results. He is 2-3 with a 6.23 ERA in nine games (eight starts), but went on the Injured List May 21 with a stiff right shoulder. On June 25, he was transferred to the 60-day IL, which means his return is down the road.



The Nationals also used Erick Fedde (1-1, 3.79) to start six games, though he has been more effective in five outings as a reliever. He was sent back to the minors.

Right-hander Austin Voth (0-0, 5.52) made his third start at home July 5 against the Royals and gave up five hits and four runs in 41/3 innings. Voth was sent to Double-A Harrisburg after, but could be back if the Nationals need a fifth starter.

The other four starters are solid, including fourth man Anibal Sanchez and lefty Patrick Corbin, who enjoys working with new pitching coach Paul Menhart. “He comes out to the mound and gives you confidence going forward, which is great,” Corbin said.

The Nationals are 34-25 since Menhart came on board May 3.

“I can’t take credit for how they are doing,” Menhart said. “The pitchers make the pitching coach, to be honest with you. I think it is a matter of them being prepared.”

The eighth inning

The bullpen, and specifically the eighth inning, has been a concern all season. Washington’s relievers have a league-worst 6.08 ERA, while the starters are at 3.55.

Since spring training, the Nationals have acquired several MLB veteran relievers and sent them to the minors before calling them to Washington. That includes Fernando Rodney, 42, who spent time at Triple-A Fresno, and lefty Jonny Venters, who pitched at Double-A Harrisburg.

The Nationals on Wednesday sent veteran reliever Kyle Barraclough to Harrisburg after a minor league rehab stint. Washington tried to get Trevor Rosenthal straightened out by sending him to Harrisburg, but he was let go and is now in the Detroit farm system.

“Baseball is a hard game,” Harrisburg All-Star catcher Tres Barrera said of catching Rosenthal. “It is a hard game in every aspect.”

Closer Sean Doolittle has been used to try to get saves of more than three outs, and that could be taking its toll.

The schedule and the pennant

The Nationals are 25-17 against the National League East and have played six more games in the division than the first-place Braves (54-37), who are 22-14 in the division. The Phillies are 24-22 in National League East contests.

Washington starts a three-game series at Philadelphia with Stephen Strasburg (10-4, 3.64) pitching Friday, Corbin (7-5, 3.34) on Saturday and Max Scherzer (9-5, 2.30) on Sunday.

After an off day, the Nationals play two games at last-place Baltimore and then four in Atlanta starting July 18.

Washington then has a challenging homestand July 22-31 with four games with the Rockies (44-45), three with the first-place Dodgers (60-32) and three more with the Braves.

The Nationals and Braves meet seven times before the trade deadline at the end of this month. They also meet seven times in September.

Who’s on first

Manager Dave Martinez will be challenged to get enough at-bats for Ryan Zimmerman and back-up first baseman Matt Adams.

And veterans Howie Kendrick, who can play second and third, and outfielder Gerardo Parra have also seen limited time at first. Zimmerman (.240, three homers) came off the IL on June 28 after he dealt with plantar fasciitis.

Kendrick (.327, 12 homers) may have been the most valuable player in the first half for the Nationals.

Adams (.234, 13 homers) has had huge games as a starter and also comes through as a pinch-hitter.

Keeping Rendon, Turner healthy

When healthy, third baseman Anthony Rendon and shortstop Trea Turner start nearly every game.

There is no logical replacement on the 25-man roster for Turner, which would mean Wilmer Difo or Carter Kieboom would have to be summoned from Triple-A Fresno if Turner is out. Kendrick could fill in at third in a pinch for Rendon if need be, or Difo could be summoned from the minors.

Turner missed 38 games earlier this season with a broken right index finger while Rendon was out nine contests with a left elbow contusion.

Rendon, named an All-Star for the first time, is a free agent after this season, and it will be worth watching if the Nationals can sign him to a long-term deal before the season ends.

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