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HARRIS: Nationals inch back toward relevance heading into home stretch

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

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our weeks from Sunday, Major League Baseball's regular season ends. That doesn't seem possible. Wasn't the season opener just yesterday? Surely you remember. Stephen Strasburg retiring 19 Marlins in a row and Bryce Harper hitting home runs in his first two at-bats of the season.

On that afternoon, 162-0 seemed entirely possible. The playoffs were a certainty, the World Series a good possibility.

Fast forward to now, and the smart bet is on the Nationals packing up their gear and going home the day the season ends. Heading into Thursday's game against those same Marlins (too bad they couldn't play them 162 times), the Nats were only two games over the .500 mark and among those on the short list of the major disappointments for the 2013 season.

But what fun is life if you only make the smart bet? Don't risk the mortgage or even the car payment, but maybe it would be fun to wager a little lunch money on these seemingly rejuvenated Nats we've seen the past few weeks.

As Jayson Werth told the media after Wednesday's victory, "We've got a heartbeat." Werth, in addition to being an excellent baseball player, is a pretty wise man and a bit of a sage. Yes, the Nats do have a heartbeat. A faint one, perhaps. A faint heartbeat is better than no heartbeat at all.

This will not be an easy task. But strange things happen every baseball season and some team is going to die on the vine as the season nears an end. Maybe, just maybe the Nats will stay hot and it will be the Reds who do a fold-up job similar to what Atlanta did in 2011 or Texas did last year (though the Rangers still made the playoffs).

The NL East is out of the question. Atlanta has a 13-game lead and isn't giving that up. Going into Thursday's games, the Reds led the Nats by seven games in the "battle" for the second wild card spot. Significant, yes. But it is 3 ½ games smaller than it was just 10 days ago. Arizona is also a factor as it is between the Nats and the Reds, but the D-backs are only a game ahead of Washington. If the Nats play well enough to catch the Reds, they're going to pass Arizona, too.

So what will it take and why do we think there is even a remote chance?

Let's go back to Werth the wise one for a moment. Last week in Chicago, he said the Nats could probably afford to lose only 10 more games the rest of the way. That seemed high at the time he said it, maybe by 3 or 4 games. But Werth is smarter than we are as well as being a better ballplayer. It seems as if he was spot on. Washington has lost once since he said that. That means it probably needs a 21-9 finish. Even if it gets that, Cincinnati holds off the Nats if it can manage to go 15-15.

Is 21-9 even realistic?

Washington still has a three-game visit from Atlanta ahead. Atlanta has pretty much abused the Nats this season. It also closes the season with three games in St. Louis (which will be trying to clinch the NL Central) and three in Arizona (which also has wild card dreams). It is not unreasonable to say five of the "available" losses will come in those three series and that may be generous.

That leaves four "available" losses for the other 21 games against the Marlins (8), Phillies (6) and Mets (7). A 17-4 mark against any collection of opponents over a 21-game stretch is a pretty tall order.

But remember, these are the rejuvenated Nats and not those imposters who somehow stole their uniforms for the first 4 1/2 months of the season. Washington had two five-game winning streaks in August. It has won seven of its past eight.

The pitching hasn't been as good as last year and the rotation has taken much more of an injury beating. Still, pitching is not the reason the Nats are facing a maybe-impossible climb. For much of the year, they couldn't hit. Manager Davey Johnson earned some nationwide yuks recently when he cracked his guys couldn't date porn stars because they can't score. Somewhat funny and mostly true.

Since firing hitting coach Rick Eckstein and replacing him with Rick Schu in July, they've been noticeably better. They've hit .271 since July 21 after hitting .240 before that. Their on-base percentage is .336 as opposed to .300. They're walking a little more, striking out a little less. Let's not bruise Schu's back by pounding it too hard. Some of the Nats were so bad they couldn't help but get better, even with one of the Racing Presidents as their hitting coach. But the change has had a positive impact, there is no denying that.

Maybe it is too little, too late. Maybe the Nats are setting their fan base up for one more disappointment.

Or maybe not. Thanks to these New Nats of 2013, the last four weeks will at least be interesting and worth watching.

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