Livan Hernandez wasn't worried when he pitched in the All-Star Game in Detroit on Tuesday night. And he certainly won't fret when he faces the Brewers this week in Milwaukee, where the Nats start the remainder of their season. But the 245-pound pitcher's heart was definitely in his mouth in the 12th inning of Sunday's game in Philadelphia.

"I looked down the bench and it was just me and Guze," said Hernandez, meaning shortstop Cristian Guzman, whose strained hamstring wouldn't let him play. "If the game kept going, I was scared I'd have to play the outfield."

That's how beaten up, undermanned and desperate the Nats became by the final innings before the all-star break. They were both the surprise story of the season's first half and, at the same time, the most endangered of all the sport's contending teams.

The Nationals hobbled into the break the way some teams stagger to the last game of the season. They looked like a team that had just finished a pennant race, not one that was about to begin one.

By Sunday, three regulars couldn't play -- Nick Johnson, Ryan Church and Guzman. Catcher Brian Schneider became ill and left in midgame. Jose Guillen played despite bronchitis. Reserve Tony Blanco had vertigo. Last Saturday, Junior Spivey, who looked like valuable July 31st trade bait, broke his wrist while hitting off a tee. Reliever Luis Ayala was so overworked he simply went home a day early to attend to personal matters. At one point, ancient Wil Cordero, who can't hit, replaced ancient Carlos Baerga, who can't run. The Nats' motto: When you can't be picky, call Matt Cepicky. The rookie had three RBI in Philly.

For the next 32 days, from July 14 to Aug. 14, the Nationals have a choice.

First, let's consider the easy road. After all that they've endured in the first half, the Nationals could be forgiven for taking it. They can probably enjoy life for the next month, play around .500 ball, and nobody will know the difference. In that span, they face the last manageable part of their schedule: 20 games against lousy, injured or mediocre teams (the Brewers, Rockies, Astros and Dodgers) vs. just nine against tough customers (Atlanta, Florida and San Diego). With three straight Mondays off, on top of the three-day all-star rest, there's no reason the pitching staff should get tuckered out.

Also, a corps of injured Nationals should return over time. Lefty Joey Eischen is back in the bullpen. Jose Vidro returned last week after two months on the DL and had three hits on Sunday. Washington still has no concept of what Vidro can do when he's hot. On Thursday, the .325-hitting rookie Church returns after three weeks recovering from a wall encounter in Pittsburgh. Within days after that, the cleanup-hitting Johnson presumably will be back from a bruised heel.

At that magic moment (sarcastic applause), the Nats might field what appears to be their optimal offensive lineup: Brad Wilkerson, Vidro, Guillen, Johnson, Vinny Castilla, Church, Schneider and Guzman.

To add to the feel-good theme, the Nats acquired veteran lefty Mike Stanton yesterday. If he can still get out the occasional left-handed hitter, Stanton also has value as a good luck charm. Has any other pitcher with a career record of 58-52 been a (quite useful) part of 11 postseason teams?

Finally, yesterday GM Jim Bowden wrapped up his trade of disgruntled pitcher Zach Day for center fielder Preston Wilson, a clubhouse class act who may be a steal. Forget his recent Colorado stats -- both great (141 RBI in '03) and bad (29 in '04). From '99 through '02 in Florida, he averaged 26 homers and 82 RBI. Wilson turns 31 soon. After an awful injured '04 and (adjusted for Colorado stats) a nondescript '05, does he have a second act in him?

At the least, Wilson is a significant power upgrade over Marlon Byrd as a platoon center fielder with Church. And he provides needed insurance in the middle of the lineup if Johnson returns as belatedly as Vidro. If so, at least there's a Plan B that maintains a strong Nationals defense: Wilkerson plays first base with Wilson in center.

However, the fascination of the Wilson trade is what comes next. Any long-term thinker would insist that Church's development take precedence over Wilson's arrival. But Church's stock is as high as his .325 average. What starting pitcher could you get for Church and Tony Armas Jr.? The answer might be, almost anybody on the market.

These Bowden moves inject energy into the Nats. But will that be translated into victories? Hypothetically, if on Aug. 15, the Nats wake up having gone 13-16 in the 29-game soft patch in their schedule that they are about to enter, it's unlikely they'll be criticized. They'd still have a 65-52 record and, at the least, still be considered a reasonable wild-card contender. There'd still be pats on the head all around for the guys in the red "W" hats.

But if this is the path the Nats take, their chance to be one of baseball's truly remarkable stories almost certainly will be dead, although the corpse may not be discovered until Labor Day.

Why? The final 45 games on the Washington schedule include 39 against teams that have records of .500 or better.

That ratio -- 39-6 -- is so extreme it looks like a misprint. And it may overstate the case a bit. Of those games, 19 are against the Mets (44-44) and Phillies (45-44). Also, the Nats have 17 games in September at RFK. So, that should help.

However, if the Nationals want to be a long-remembered team then they will probably need to attack the second half of their season immediately, not ease their way into it. That's asking a lot of a club that has been summoning its resources to the last man since the day Vidro got hurt in Los Angeles. A team-wide letdown, a sigh of premature relief, may be overdue after so many come-from-behind and one-run wins. Such sins may be easy to forgive.

Still, the facts are the facts. In about a month, the Nationals will face a concluding seven weeks of the season in which they play only six games against weak teams -- three each with the Reds and Giants. Aside from that, Washington will face week after week of games against the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Phils of the NL East, as well as the first-place Cardinals and Padres.

These next 32 dog days of sweltering summer will tell a tale. If the Nationals regain their health while holding on to their first-half willpower, they may be in a commanding position -- at least for the wild card -- far sooner than anybody suspects.

But if they don't move even farther above .500 at this moment, when the chance awaits them, then, without knowing it, they may squander a perfectly realistic chance to be part of a historic September pennant race.

Nationals Manager Frank Robinson led his team to a wholly unexpected 52-36 first-half record. The question is, can the team keep going at that pace?