The Nationals this season have scored 263 runs and have allowed 262. Stated differently: In the most efficient measure of a team, the Nationals are a smidge better than even (and they have the same 34-34 Pythagorean record as the Giants.) Another way of putting it: the Nationals are probably good enough to at least give the impression they will have a chance to contend for the wild card.
Are the Nationals playoff contenders? No, no one is saying that. But it is not very difficult to be, say, seven games behind the wild card leader with, say, two months left in the season. That at least offers hope, at least lets you cling to the chance. The Nationals have not been nearly good enough since the 2006 season to approach clearing even that very low bar. This year, they could be.
The illusion of contention isn’t the same as the real thing, but it’s better than nothing. It’s a step. You may have been tempted to peek at the wild card standings this morning, hours after the Nationals secured their first five-game winning streak since the final day of the 2009 season. If you did, you would have noticed they are stuck behind six teams, but a tidy 5½ games back. And it was probably fun for you to peek.
Last season in the National League, for example, a 55-52 record on the morning of Aug. 4 would have put a team six games out of the wild card lead. The Nationals, playing the majority of their games at home and presumably all of them with Ryan Zimmerman, would need to go 23-16 to match that. Likely? No. Doable? Sure. They would not be in a race, but they wouldn’t be out of it, either. Compared to their last five seasons, that would be a significant step forward.
The evidence from the first 68 games of this season suggests these two things: The Nationals still aren’t good enough to contend. But they might be good enough to at least fool you for a little while into thinking they will, anyway.