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July may be one of the most important months in Nationals history

The Fourth of July crowd saw the Nationals' fifth straight loss Monday, but pivotal things are happening behind the scenes. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Whether beleaguered lefty Patrick Corbin beat the apparently unbeatable Miami Marlins on a glorious Independence Day at half-full (or half-empty?) Nationals Park is immaterial. The holiday crowd could well be disappointed that Juan Soto was out of the lineup with a sore left calf because that’s one of the best reasons to come to the ballpark this summer: to see Juan Soto hit four or five times.

But whether Corbin pitches well (which he did Monday) or Soto plays (he only pinch-hit) are the stuff of snapshots. Forget that the Nationals were swept by the once-lowly Marlins, the finale a 3-2 loss in 10 innings Monday. Don’t get caught up in the road trip to Philadelphia and Atlanta that awaits. Lose ’em all or win ’em all — no big deal either way.

What matters more: July 2022 could be among the most important months in the history of this franchise. What could even compete? Maybe April 2005, when baseball returned to Washington? Certainly October 2019, when the Nationals earned the right to fly the championship flag that proudly flapped Monday in right-center field.

But the month ahead figures to be at least as enormous because it could move the tectonic plates that determine the franchise’s direction. They’re shifting even now, in so many ways.

Nats get good news on Juan Soto but take yet another loss to the Marlins

Start with Soto, a cornerstone until he’s not. He and the Nationals are at least discussing the parameters of a massive deal that could keep the 23-year-old superstar in the District into his late 30s.

“Juan is a National, right?” Manager Dave Martinez said after Monday’s loss. “And I always feel like he’s going to be a National.”

That’s the intent, at least, and these are important times for sorting it out. Forget that he’s hitting .226 and couldn’t start on the Fourth of July. Remember that the most electric moment of the afternoon came when he appeared on the top step of the dugout — helmet on, bat in hand — to hit for Victor Robles in the eighth. Remember, too, that his on-base-plus-slugging percentage on July 4, 2021, was .831, and it ended up at .999. His OPS after a four-pitch walk Monday: .833.

The crowd of 25,129 had waited — and finally had their man in his spot.

“It was very good, very exciting,” shortstop Luis García said. “Something unexpected.”

Whether Soto plays has an outsize impact on the atmosphere at the ballpark on a given day. Whether he stays will have an outsize impact on the team’s fortunes for years.

When the holiday weekend began, the Nationals took the first important step on matters extending beyond this season when they announced the Lerner family would pick up the 2023 options on the contracts of General Manager Mike Rizzo and Martinez, in his fifth season here. That’s important because it provides stability in the direction of the roster, the farm system and the clubhouse as the franchise navigates a more momentous change: finding a new owner.

The sale front seems quiet, but it is absolutely moving forward. In recent weeks, according to multiple people with knowledge of the process, two potential ownership groups visited the Nationals in person, touring Nationals Park and sitting through presentations from high-level club staff in baseball and business. Another such in-person meeting with a third group is scheduled for this month, according to those people. More will certainly follow.

Publicly, the Lerners have said that they are merely exploring a sale, that they would even consider taking on new minority partners. Internally, the expectation is that this is a sale, not an exploration. The sale won’t be completed in July. That’s much more likely for November, when — if things run smoothly — a new owner could be approved at the next MLB owners meetings.

Only then will we truly know the path forward. But there’s much that Rizzo and his staff can determine before that. These most recent Soto talks can’t be happening in a vacuum. There must be a sense from potential new owners that having him locked up as part of the future makes the entire operation a more attractive commodity — adding an asset to an asset.

So, on to the next important portions of the month ahead — the draft, which begins July 17, and the trade deadline, which arrives Aug. 2. Because of their deadline sell-off and plunge to the bottom of the standings a year ago, the Nationals hold the fifth selection in the first round — their first selection that high since they took Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper back-to-back at No. 1 in 2009 and 2010. That’s four division titles and five postseason appearances ago.

Four outs in an inning? It was a surprise to the Nationals, too.

The three days of the draft should help the organization get deeper. But the two weeks after that will accelerate that process. We’ve reached that time of summer when it’s becoming clearer which contenders need what kind of help. The Nationals, at this point, are a storefront with its shiny wares in the window. That kind of status can overtake a clubhouse.

Anyone not named Keibert Ruiz, Luis García, Josiah Gray or Patrick Corbin could be moved. Yes, Soto was omitted purposefully — not because I expect him to be dealt but because if he turns down a lengthy, legitimate offer, something that tops $400 million, then a trade at least has to be explored, right?

“Hopefully no one’s really worrying about it,” Corbin said after his second straight strong start, seven innings of one-run ball. “Things obviously happen. I’m sure something’s going to happen. But we still have to come here every day, try to go out there and win. Hopefully that’s everyone’s mind-set.”

The mind-set in the clubhouse is decidedly different from that across the rest of the organization. The Nationals won the 2019 World Series by adopting Martinez’s mantra: Go 1-0 today.

“I can’t think about deadlines,” Martinez said. “I got to think about sitting home tonight and figure out who’s going to play right field tomorrow if Soto can’t play — and the bullpen and things of that nature. But we’ve got to keep going.”

Keep going, into the unknown. Martinez sees his job as going 1-0 against the Phillies on Tuesday. Outside the clubhouse, that mantra mostly doesn’t matter.

This franchise is about to undergo a seismic transformation — probably on the major league roster and throughout the minor leagues, almost certainly as it pertains to who determines the payroll and signs the checks. A winning or losing month won’t determine much about the future of the Nationals. Everything else that happens around the club — the draft, the trade deadline, the auditions for new owners, the negotiations with Soto — will chart the course. It’s all impossibly important.

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