- - Sunday, July 7, 2019

Going into the All-Star break, the Washington Nationals have roared back so quickly from a laughingstock loser to playoff contender — from 19-31 on May 24 to 47-42 with Sunday’s 5-2 win at Nationals Park — that it has left them too bruised and battered to take part in one of baseball’s most important marketing tools, the All-Star Game.

You remember the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, don’t you? The big event that was here just last year when Washington hosted the Midsummer Classic? Hall of Famers like Johnny Bench and Juan Marichal walking around the city? The fun of Bryce Harper’s Home Run Derby victory?

Did any of that really happen? Harper is gone, and no Washington National will make an appearance on the field for Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Cleveland.

I guess it’s not that big of a deal after all.

Two players were picked — Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer — but they are too damaged from this team’s remarkable comeback season to play in an exhibition game. Rendon has a hamstring problem, and Scherzer, who struck out 11 Saturday in a 6-0 win over the Royals, has a back problem.

Going 28-11 over your last 39 games is hard work. It takes its toll, I guess.

So Rendon and Scherzer better rest up, because the hard part is still ahead of them — catching a good Atlanta Braves team in first place in the National League East.

“You want to continue to play,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “It is still a long way to go. But the days off will be good.”

They are going to need more than days off. They’ll need some help.

I know they are a wild card team now, but that’s a rocky ship to navigate over July, August and September, one that the Nationals have never used. In their four playoff appearances since 2012, all were as NL East division champions. None involved the one-game wild card playoff to move forward to the division series.

The division winner may be decided in the front office, before the trading deadline.

The Nationals’ obvious need is bullpen help. General manager Mike Rizzo has managed to stabilize things for now, with his tryout camp finding 42-year-old Fernando Rodney and other spare parts here and there. But they’ll need more come August and September, and it will be on Rizzo to bring in the help. He won’t be alone. Other contenders need bullpen help as well.

Rizzo has done it before, in 2017 with the July trades that brought relievers Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle to Washington. But in 2015, the deal that brought Jonathan Papelbon to the Nationals blew up in the dugout when Papelbon got into a fight with Harper and choked the star outfielder.

That season, Rizzo was hamstrung by the owners, who told him he could add players at the trading deadline, but no payroll. So when they needed a closer, the only deal that worked was with the Phillies, who agreed to play Papelbon’s salary for the rest of the 2015 season.

He may or may not have similar restrictions when this July 31 trading deadline comes. The Lerners have made it clear they are not thrilled with the idea of going over the luxury tax threshold and paying the penalty for that spending. Currently the Nationals are within $13 million of that threshold. The owners have had discussions with the front office about a strategy as sellers going into the trading deadline, sources said, though how aggressive they may be is still unknown.

Washington’s competition in the NL East has much more of a cushion before reaching the luxury tax penalty for payroll — $51 million for the Phillies and $54 million for the Braves. They will likely be aggressive.

After Sunday’s win, Martinez, clearly proud of the way his team has played, described them as a “bunch of guys in there playing with heart.”

New blood can make that heart pump stronger.

The trading deadline pickup can have more of an impact than just more talent on the field. I’ve seen clubhouses get a huge emotional lift when they see ownership willing to bring in more help for a playoff run. It’s a signal to the players that the owners believe in them and are willing to put their money behind that faith.

That would mean a lot more than a few days off in July.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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