Two days and two wins ago, Mike Rizzo stood in a semicircle of reporters, coffee in hand, and made a connection that was atypical for July at Nationals Park. He talked about the trade deadline and middle ground.

“In the past, we’ve usually been a buy-first team because we’re always in the midst of trying to win championships,” Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, said Tuesday afternoon. “I think we still feel that way as of right now, today. We’ll attack the trade deadline as we always do. We’ll be aggressive in whatever we do. This year it’ll be a little bit different because of where we’re at in the standings. I think we’ll kind of go by a dual path, try and maximize our place in the standings, wherever that is, whenever we make that decision.

“We’ll have our lines in the water on the buy side. We’ll also prepare some type of sell scenario if we have to,” he continued. “But we’re looking forward to playing better baseball for the next two weeks and see if we can creep closer to the New York Mets and see if we can make some noise in the National League East.”

The clock is ticking, though.

If the Nationals were 10 to 12 games out of first place, they would be obvious sellers. If they were two games out or in first place, they would be obvious buyers. But after taking two of three from the Miami Marlins this week — and losing Wednesday night — they are six games behind the Mets, so obviously in between that even Rizzo can’t make the usual promise to add, add, add.

The Nationals (45-50) have eight days until the trade deadline in which they have three games against the Baltimore Orioles and four with the Philadelphia Phillies. They have needs in the infield (to replace Starlin Castro), in the outfield (with Kyle Schwarber on the injured list) and in their bullpen (with Tanner Rainey on the IL and Will Harris still out after undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome). They also could use a reliable depth starter. But what if they just are what they are, a fourth-place team with good reason to wonder whether cosmetic fixes will up their chances or only delay a drop from the race? Their injuries and evident holes can be reasons to buy or sell.

“We’ll deal with the trade deadline closer to the trade deadline,” Rizzo said. “My thought process is to see where we’re at.”

Does he worry that could lead to missed opportunities?

“I don’t worry about that stuff, because if there’s a deal you can’t refuse, we’re going to be aggressive,” Rizzo replied. “Recently at the trade deadline, with more and more teams that are active in this thing and I think more teams feel they have a chance to win, I think the real deadline is later toward the actual deadline in the last couple years. I think that’s where we’re going to fall.”

This is rare for a GM known for hard-charging, annual quests for a World Series title. In 2017, the Nationals dealt top prospect Jesús Luzardo, among others, for relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. In 2018, they acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera in mid-June, struggled through July, held on to Bryce Harper despite a strong offer from the Houston Astros and parted with Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, Madson and Matt Adams in August. In 2019, they brought in relievers Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elías for a group of marginal prospects. In 2020, in an odd pandemic season, they underachieved and stood pat at the deadline.

For stretches, this year has felt similar. The Nationals followed a 16-5 run in June by going 3-11 in series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Padres again. But the difference now is that the division hasn’t buried them.

Injuries and inconsistent pitching have kept the Mets (50-43) from distancing themselves. The Philadelphia Phillies (47-47) and Atlanta Braves (46-48) are banged up, too, and both have shown their flaws. The Nationals have 11 games left with the Mets, 11 with the Phillies and nine with the Braves, a schedule Rizzo used to justify his optimism for a push. The catch, though, is that the lack of a clear favorite could entice each team to buy.

The Mets, armed with the aggression of new owner Steve Cohen, could make a big splash in the starting pitchers market. The Athletic reported Wednesday the Phillies would be willing to go over the competitive balance tax threshold for the right deal or deals. And the Braves made the first major move by trading for outfielder Joc Pederson, an effort to patch the massive void left by Ronald Acuña Jr.’s season-ending knee injury.

Rizzo always says that other teams’ behavior does not affect his. But if the Nationals believe they can catch clubs that are improving, there is only one reasonable direction. Should they remain stuck in the middle, anywhere from five to seven games out, it’s likely Rizzo’s bold style, a burning desire to remain competitive, surpasses the possibility of padding his bottom-ranked farm system. Sweep the Orioles this weekend and split the first two games in Philadelphia next week? The decision becomes much easier.

Or fail to handle the lowly Orioles, flop against the second-place Phillies and, by selling, deepen the pool of available relievers. Relievers Brad Hand and Hudson are attractive to contenders. So is Max Scherzer, of course, with the added layers of his standing with the franchise and ability to veto any trade. Soon, like just about any day now, the Nationals will know what buttons to press.

“If we turn into definite sellers, everything will be on the table, I would think,” Rizzo said. “Which I don’t foresee.”

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