The Nationals open tomorrow what promises to be the most compelling second half to a season since the franchise arrived in town in 2005, owners of the NL's best record but saddled with several major questions that need to be answered.
Today we're counting down the five most significant storylines to the remainder of the Nationals' season. Last up is storyline No. 1: The race to reach the postseason for the first time since the franchise arrived in town...
At what point does a pennant race truly begin? When is it OK to start watching the out-of-town scoreboard? To start calculating magic numbers?
This is uncharted territory for the Nationals, who haven't found themselves even on the fringes of contention since their inaugural 2005 season. And it's completely uncharted territory for just about any fan of Washington baseball, unless there's anyone still around who remembers the 1945 Senators, the last D.C.-based club to miss the postseason by fewer than eight games.
Members of the 2012 Nationals insisted throughout the last three months they were not thinking that far ahead, they remained focused on that day's game or that week's series. It was too early to look at the standings or discuss a pennant race.
Well, it's not early anymore. When the Nats take the field Friday night in Miami for the season's second-half opener, they'll have fewer games remaining on their schedule than they've already played. Memorial Day, Father's Day and Independence Day have all passed. The July 31 trade deadline will be only 18 days away.
And should they take a glance at the standings, the Nationals will find themselves four games up in the NL East, 4 12 games up in the NL wild-card race and two games ahead of anyone else in the National League.
Start paying attention to those numbers, because they're going to become more and more important with each passing day.
This isn't the 2005 club that turned a 50-31 first half into a 31-50 second half. This team is built to keep winning through the remainder of the season. It's got the deepest pitching staff in baseball, deep enough even to survive the September shutdown of Stephen Strasburg. It's got an improving lineup that will be further bolstered by Jayson Werth's pending return. And it's got a seasoned manager in Davey Johnson who has guided five of his last seven big-league clubs to the postseason.
None of that, of course, guarantees anything. But there are far more reasons to believe these Nationals can stay in the race through the finish line than reasons to believe they cannot.
And that race begins in earnest on Friday.