The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals entered the All-Star break headed in opposite directions and meet on Friday night in the nation's capital to open a three-game series between second-place teams.
Both Los Angeles and Washington came into 2013 as favorites to win their respective division; the Dodgers due to their $200-plus million payroll bolstered by the signing of pitcher Zack Greinke and the Nationals because of their status as reigning NL East champs.
Los Angeles didn't get off to a great start, however, and saw numerous players such as Greinke, Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford make trips to the disabled list.
The Dodgers found themselves a season-worst 12 games under .500 on June 21, but own baseball's best record at 17-5 since. That stretch, combined with a 14-4 record in their past 18 against fellow NL West mates, has the Dodgers just 2 1/2 games back of the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks.
"I think that's been the key," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "Early on, we didn't play well against our own division and we got ourselves in trouble. At this point, we're in it. We got hot at the right time, when everybody else cooled off."
The Dodgers are also getting healthy. Though Beckett and Billingsley won't pitch again his season, Kemp is expected to return from his second stint on the DL this season on Sunday, having been out since hurting his left shoulder on July 5.
Rookie Yasiel Puig (left hip), hitting .391 since his call-up on June 3, and Crawford (back) were also slowed heading into the break due to injury, but both were able to appear in Sunday's finale versus the Colorado Rockies.
That game was started by Ricky Nolasco, who gets the call tonight for his third start with the Dodgers since being acquired in a trade with the Miami Marlins.
Nolasco won his Los Angeles debut with seven innings of one-run ball in Arizona on July 9, but dropped his home debut by a 3-1 decision. The righty yielded three runs on eight hits and three walks in five innings of work.
"Ricky kept us in the game, he threw the ball fine," said Mattingly, who noted that the offense was shut down by Rockies starter Jhoulys Chacin. "We couldn't get the big hit."
Nolasco was 5-8 with a 3.85 earned run average in 18 starts with the Marlins before the trade and owns a 2.98 road ERA this season. The 30-year-old has lost both of his starts versus the Nats this season, moving to 11-7 against them lifetime with a 3.66 ERA in 22 meetings (20 starts).
The Nationals have spent the majority of the season in second place in the NL East and lost five of seven heading into the break. They were able to win their finale last Sunday versus Miami, giving the Nationals a 48-47 mark that has them six games behind first-place Atlanta.
"It's always important to get a win before the break," said All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper. "We have the Dodgers (to begin the second half). I don't think anyone is looking forward to that. We have four days off, and it would be good for everybody to clear their minds, get ready for that second half. We are excited to get going. We'll try to get to first place."
Harper didn't get much relaxation as he was named to his second All-Star team in as many years in the majors. He was the runner-up to Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes in the Home Run Derby and started in center field for Tuesday's game.
Washington's Stephen Strasburg is looking to rebound as he opens up the second half, having been hammered in his previous outing last Friday versus the Marlins. The righty yielded seven runs on five hits and four walks in just two innings of work, falling to 5-7 on the year in 18 starts while seeing his ERA jump from 2.45 to 2.99.
Strasburg matched the shortest outing of his career, though his two-inning stint on May 31 was caused by a strained right oblique. The five runs he allowed in the first were also the most he has ever allowed in an inning in his career.
"I couldn't throw a strike," said Strasburg, who turns 25 on Saturday. "It's frustrating to throw ball one, ball two to every single batter."
Strasburg, owner of a 1.65 ERA at home this season, has faced the Dodgers twice before without a decision despite 12 combined innings of one-run ball. He has fanned 13 in that span.
The Dodgers took two of three at home over the Nationals from May 13-15, giving them a victory in eight of the past 11 meetings.