The Nationals did not play tonight, and still results elsewhere pushed them into new territory. The Cincinnati Reds’ 11-5 loss to the Padres tonight dropped the Reds a half game behind the Nationals and left the Washington team alone with the best record in baseball this late in the season for the first time since 1933.
At 61-40, the Nationals have a better mark than every team in baseball. The Yankees, whom they were tied with after Thursday night in Milwaukee, have fallen off the Nationals’ pace and sit at 60-42. The Reds had won 10 straight games, but they dropped to 61-41.
They do not fly flags for finishing the regular season with the best record in the majors or even the league, but when you peek at the second, look not only for Atlanta but also Cincinnati. The reward for finishing with the best record in the league has not been of such primary importance since the days when each team sent one club to the postseason.
Under the new playoff format, the league’s top finisher will play the winner of the one-game playoff between the two wild cards. The benefits are obvious. The surviving wild card will have had to play a do-or-die game and exhaust its best pitcher just to reach the division series.
The team with the best record will have to play a tired, beat-up team with its rotation not aligned by choice. The team with the second-best record will play another division winner, which will have the same opportunity to prepare for the division series as it does.
On July 31, having the Best Record In Baseball is a pleasant reward for the Nationals in the kind of season, so far, that can be cherished. As they churn through August and September, it could be crucial to their October success that they hang on to the title. Looking down on the league does not mean much at this point in the season, although it is better than any alternative, you’d have to say. By early October, it could mean everything.