The Washington Nationals return to Nationals Park Friday after a week away. They do not do so triumphantly after a .500 road trip that needed to be better. Such is the story of this season, in which their record has hovered around .500. Over and over, they have squandered chances to gain ground. Over and over, they do just enough to hang in there.

They begin this weekend’s series against the Brewers 7 1/2 games out in the National League East and wild card races. They will play three games against the Brewers, one of the teams currently in position for a wild card spot.The Nationals can gain significant ground with a sweep, but still have a handful of teams in front of them. As has been the case for months now, their best hope is to win and cross their fingers. The former, however, has been more difficult this year than it has for this team in some time.

WILL THE ROSTER REMAIN INTACT?

Friday is the last day teams can acquire players who will be eligible for their postseason rosters. A player must be in the organization by Sept. 1 to be eligible, meaning a flurry of waiver deals could come Friday. The Nationals could be involved. Several of their veteran players, including Gio Gonzalez, have cleared waivers and are therefore eligible to be dealt freely. They placed reliever Ryan Madson on waivers as soon as he was activated from the disabled list, and the Dodgers claimed him, according to reports. The Nationals have until Friday to work out a deal, and are prone to last-minute machinations.

Whatever happens, a roster that already sold off Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams could lose a few more key pieces, making any hopes of a late-season push less realistic, and leaving Dave Martinez to manage a clubhouse to whom the message from ownership (surrender and save money) is now clear.

ROSTER EXPANSION

Starting Saturday, rosters expand, giving teams the freedom to call up as many as 40 players (anyone eligible on their 40-man roster) for the stretch run. As they always do, the Nationals seem likely to call up a few players, particularly pitchers, though those players likely will not be active in the big leagues before their minor league seasons end.

Victor Robles seems the most likely position player to get a call, though Adrian Sanchez could resurface and the Nationals might decide they need a third catcher, too. Erick Fedde pitched a rehab outing Thursday night and will be eligible to return next week, while Joe Ross seems to be closing in on a big league return down the stretch. Perhaps one or more players will join the team this weekend if the Nationals need help, though more reinforcements will likely arrive next week. Regardless, the annual September slog created by bullpens a dozen men deep will ensue this weekend, meaning these games will likely be longer and include more late-game matching up than earlier this season.

HARPER’S HEALTH

Bryce Harper has been dealing with what Martinez described as a severe cough, and was out of the starting lineup Wednesday in Philadelphia. The six-time all-star had found his way in the second half but hit a bit of a slide on this road trip when he went 3 for his last 20. The Nationals need Harper, who is still well within reach of his first career 100-RBI season just in time to hit free agency. For all he has been through this season, for all the relative struggles, he is still compiling one of his best all-around offensive seasons yet (by the numbers), and none of that will be lost on him as he tries to bolster his resume in what could be the last month of his Nationals tenure.

PITCHING PROBABLES

Fri.: RHP Tanner Roark vs. RHP Jhoulys Chacin

Sat.: RHP Stephen Strasburg vs. RHP Chase Anderson

Sun.: RHP Max Scherzer vs. RHP Junior Guerra