The Big Picture
As September wears on, the Nationals are looking at plenty of firsts, as well as plenty of lasts. One victory from their first-ever 90-win season, the club enjoyed its last scheduled off day of the regular season on Monday, then got an unexpected breather with Tuesday’s rainout. Coming off an up-and-down road trip, it was the final day without a scheduled game for the Nats before what they hope is their first playoff appearance.
With the Magic Number to reach the postseason at three – but still 10 to win the National League East outright – it’s easy to get greedy. And, to be honest, with the evolving playoff structure and added importance of avoiding the new play-in game, it’s not a bad idea. So while it can be tempting to rue the missed opportunity to shave that figure to single digits over the weekend in Atlanta, it is important to remember to look at the big picture when it comes to the regular season.
Even just one win would have made the entire series and road trip feel better, but this simple fact remains: the Nationals woke up Wednesday 5.5 games ahead of the Braves – the exact margin they held over second place when the road trip began – with six games fewer remaining on the schedule. In comparison, after the Nationals dropped five straight in late August, they sat just 4.0 games up on Atlanta. The team is still well in control of its own destiny, which is all you can really ask for at this point in the season. For Davey Johnson, that means not being content with hitting that first Magic Number (which the Nats could do with a doubleheader sweep tonight), but rather maintaining focus on a division crown with the NL East title set squarely in his sights.
“The extra Wild Card just put a burden on me, because nobody wants (to be) it,” he explained over the weekend in Atlanta. “Celebrating a one-game playoff has no appeal to me.”
Of course, like any of the successes in this tremendous season, nothing will be easy. In fact, each of the Nationals final 16 games will be played against teams with playoff aspirations, with all four teams (the Dodgers, Brewers, Phillies and Cardinals) likely fighting for that fifth and final spot. Any one of them might be a postseason preview, depending on how everything plays out.
However, one thing is for sure, after a notable event quietly occurred over the weekend. The Phillies dropped three-of-four to the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros, officially eliminating them from contention for the National League East title. That means that there will be a new champion of the division for the first time since the Mets won 97 games in 2006 before falling to the eventual champion Cardinals in the playoffs.
But with six of the Nationals final 10 games against the Phillies, including the last three games of the regular season in D.C., questions of playoff eligibility and seeding may not be answered until the very last series, or even the last game, of the year.
Hey, that’s September baseball. Isn’t it fun?