The Nats are counting on Stephen Strasburg to be the same guy he was when he came off the DL last July. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

The Washington Nationals limped to the first-half finish line, dropping five of eight games against the Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets — not exactly a gauntlet. They’ll begin the second half facing stiffer competition with a pair of three-game sets against the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers. Both teams are playoff contenders, and neither will roll over.

The stretch starts Friday night at Nationals Park, where the Braves (52-42) lost two of three games in mid-April. Atlanta was a team without many expectations then. The division was the Nationals’ to lose. That has since changed, and the Nationals (48-48) find themselves playing meaningful games after the all-star break for the first time in three years.

THE STAKES ARE HIGH

For weeks the Nationals have insisted they are capable of turning things around, that their talent is too great to not sustain a run. But time is ticking and they know it. A players-only meeting was called. Urgency was discussed. And still, the wins didn’t come as often as they hoped. They must now.

Friday’s series opener is the first of nine meetings between the Nationals and Braves down the stretch. The first six are in Washington before the Nationals travel to Atlanta for three games in mid-September. All nine figure to be pivotal. The Braves begin the second half five games ahead of Washington and a half-game behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East. They’re a half-game in front of the Arizona Diamondbacks for the second wild-card spot. They’re in the playoff hunt for the first time since 2013.

The Nationals, meanwhile, aren’t cruising to a division title like they did in the previous two seasons. There’s a chance they’ll need to sneak into the postseason as a wild-card, something they’ve never done. They begin the second half 5 1/2 games behind the Phillies with 66 games to go. It’s doable, but the wins, particularly against the Braves and Phillies, need to start piling up quickly.

STRASBURG’S RETURN

Stephen Strasburg hasn’t thrown a pitch for the Nationals since June 8, and they have felt the repercussions. Since Strasburg landed on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation, Washington’s starting rotation has pitched to the worst ERA in the majors. Starters’ inability to eat innings placed the relief corps in a bind, which led to overload and struggles. Strasburg’s absence wasn’t the only problem — Jeremy Hellickson was also out for much of the stretch, while Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark were inconsistent at best — but Strasburg’s impact is significant. He is, when healthy, one of baseball’s best pitchers. His third-place finish in the NL Cy Young Award voting last season is evidence.

Strasburg wasn’t performing at that level before his injury, with a 3.46 ERA in 13 starts, but he also wasn’t before going on the disabled in July of last year. He returned a month later and was the best pitcher in baseball down the stretch. He had an 0.84 ERA and held opponents to a .440 OPS over his final eight starts before dominating in two playoff outings. If he resembles that pitcher again after a month-or-so off, the Nationals will receive a huge boost to their rotation when they need it most.

LOGJAM AT FIRST BASE?

Ryan Zimmerman is also expected to return Friday. His addition, however, isn’t as seamless. The Nationals already employ a potent platoon at first base with Matt Adams starting against right-handed pitchers and Mark Reynolds starting against lefties. Zimmerman will seemingly replace Reynolds in the platoon, but will he also take starts from Adams, who has 14 home runs and a .966 OPS against righties this season? And will Reynolds, and his .934 OPS, get designated for assignment to make room on the roster for Zimmerman?

Keeping Reynolds would limit the bench’s versatility — at nearly all times the bench would carry two players who are best at first base — but give it some significant pop from both sides. If Reynolds sticks then the Nationals would have to discard another position player. On most nights, the rest of the bench includes Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, Spencer Kieboom, and Michael A. Taylor. Kieboom is indispensable because he’s a catcher. Difo has value because he’s the only infielder of the bunch, which makes him valuable insurance for Daniel Murphy. And Taylor and Goodwin have been very good in their limited roles — Goodwin’s has been more limited — but pushed out of regular playing time because of the Nationals’ crowded outfield. The decision isn’t an easy one.

PITCHING PROBABLES

Friday: RHP Anibal Sanchez vs. RHP Stephen Strasburg
Saturday: LHP Sean Newcomb vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez
Sunday: RHP Mike Foltynewicz vs. RHP Max Scherzer

Read more on the Nationals:

From Arkansas to Nats Park: The story of Bryce Harper’s Home Run Derby headband

Wilson Ramos returns to Nats Park as a visiting all-star but receives a hometown welcome

‘A monumental moment for Washington’: MLB All-Star Game brings D.C. together