With each step the Washington Nationals have taken this season, each win that’s brought them closer and closer to being a playoff team for the first time in their history, they’ve taken an even-keeled approach. There’s still a long way to go, they’ve said. Nothing has been won yet, they’ve insisted. No one in the clubhouse is looking ahead, they repeat.
But just because they’re not, doesn’t mean we can’t. And as of this Friday morning, with the Nationals set to face the Philadelphia Phillies for three games at Citizens Bank Park, the road ahead for the Nationals looks relatively smooth.
With 41 days remaining until the end of the regular season, the Nationals have exactly four series against teams with any vested interest in the victory. Four series against teams with designs on the postseason. That’s it. Four.
The St. Louis Cardinals, currently 68-56 and in possession of the final NL Wild Card spot by one game over the Pittsburg Pirates, will come to town next weekend for four and be waiting for the Nationals in St. Louis at the end of September on the team’s final road series of the season. The Los Angeles Dodgers will make their one and only trip to Washington on Sept. 18. And, of course, the Atlanta Braves will welcome the Nationals one more time on Sept. 14-16 for the teams’ final head-to-head match-up of the year.
When the Braves left Nationals Park Wednesday night, they stared at a mountain getting all the more treacherous to climb, but refused to accept defeat.
“We’re still within shouting distance,” said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. “There’s nobody giving up in here. We still have our sights set on the division. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re not just going to concede it to them. They’ve gotten the best of us through this point of the season but we’re still a couple games back and a sweep later on in the season from getting right back into it. It’s been done before.”
Then the Braves flew across the country to San Francisco and lost to the Giants to make that mountain at least a half-game taller.
With the new payoff format, the weight of winning the division is greater than it has been since the inception of the Wild Card and the teams in the race certainly know that.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson went on at length about it on Tuesday night, saying “there’s 10 times more pressure” to win the division because of how the one-game wild card playoff sets you back, even if you win it.
“(The Braves) have got a pretty good lead on the wild card but they don’t want the wild card,” Johnson said. “Believe it. Everybody was all excited about the new wild card being added. I wasn’t real keen on it. I knew right away that you could be the second club in your division and you’ve got a one-game playoff. It’s not a comfortable feeling for clubs fighting for the pennant. Same way with San Francisco and L.A. There’s heat on them.”
The Nationals will have a few decisions to make in the coming days. Rosters will expand on Sept. 1 and the pool of players from which they can select their playoff roster will also have to be submitted at that point. But for the players, for the 25 (or more) active players working through the games everyday, the Nationals’ couldn’t have asked to be in much better position.
Four more series against potential playoff teams, 21 more games at home, and a 6 1/2 game lead with 38 total games to play.
“That’s huge for us,” outfielder Bryce Harper said of the lead on Wednesday night. “Being ahead like that really (sets it up) for us. Hopefully we can keep playing like we are, and keep it going.”