WASHINGTON (AP) - As bottles of Korbel champagne sat inside lockers and some players wore the red “NL East Champions” shirts they received days earlier, the Washington Nationals tried quickly to move on to the next step.
The first team to pop bottles as division champions this season has bigger goals. Washington is only 3 1/2 games back of the languishing Los Angeles Dodgers, losers of 11 in a row, for home-field advantage throughout the postseason, something manager Dusty Baker has been monitoring even as West Coast start times test him.
“I’ve been paying close attention to them the whole time - the teams that have a better record than us or are near us,” Baker said Tuesday. “I pay attention to it all.”
Baker knows all about the Dodgers’ struggles and, just in case the Nationals make the World Series, the Cleveland Indians’ winning streak and the status of the Houston Astros. But he’d prefer his players focus on their day-to-day job with the Atlanta Braves in town this week before the Dodgers visit for what could be an important three-game series over the weekend.
No problem there, especially for the players who think home-field advantage is worth less than the corks they had strewn all over the clubhouse Sunday.
“It doesn’t matter,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I think that’s how all of us feel, player-wise. We had home-field advantage last year. It didn’t matter.”
As Turner pointed out, not only has Washington lost in the NL Division Series with home-field advantage before, but this year’s team is tied with Houston for the second-most road victories in the majors. That’s why the Nationals consider the next two-plus weeks a chance to peak at the right time for October and get some guys healthy.
“Ultimately we just want to get everybody as healthy as possible once the playoffs start,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “We want to win every game we go out there and play, but at the same time we want to have as many of our guys back as we can and also keep the guys that we have right here now healthy.”
No one is more important in that department than outfielder Bryce Harper, who has been out since mid-August with a significant bone bruise in his left knee. Baker said trainers would like to ramp up Harper’s baseball activities soon because running, sliding and cutting will be the 2015 NL MVP’s biggest obstacles to being 100 percent.
Baker would also like to get outfielder Jayson Werth, who missed time with a broken food and is dealing with a sore left shoulder, and Turner, who was out a while with a broken wrist, back up to full-speed before a potential NLDS matchup with the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Colorado Rockies or Arizona Diamondbacks. Infielder Stephen Drew (abdominal strain) and outfielder Brian Goodwin (groin strain) are still on the disabled list late in a season that has tested Washington’s organizational depth.
“They’ve had a lot of injuries, but it doesn’t seem to affect them,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “They still offensively are as good as anybody out there. … And I think they’ve done a great job in how they upgraded their bullpen.”
Baker is conscious of managing the back end of his bullpen with lefty Sean Doolittle and righties Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler while keeping the rest of his pitching staff from getting rusty or overused. That’s the delicate balance the rest of the way as the Nationals try to keep meaning in games after clinching.
“We’re here because we compete, and losing’s not fun,” Turner said. “We’re going to try to win, try to compete, try to play well and that’s all you can do each and every pitch. If you put your focus on what’s in front of you, then I think down the road comes quickly and you’ll be prepared for it.”
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