The importance of this week for the Nationals

The Washington Nationals began this past weekend’s three-game series against the Miami Marlins with a 7 1/2-game lead on the Atlanta Braves in the National League East standings. And after dropping two games — one narrowly, the recent one a whooping, and the Braves winning five straight — the Nationals’ lead dropped to 5 1/2 games. 

This is no cause for alarm. They finished an 11-game homestand 8-3. Their lead is the second-largest margin of any division leader in baseball: the Cincinnati Reds hold a 8 1/2-game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals, and the San Francisco Giants hold a 5 1/2-game heads-up on the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the two losses add a tad more importance to the three-game series at the New York Mets beginning Monday. 

While implausible given how well the Nationals have played the Mets all season, there’s less room for error against them now. Imagine this scenario: if the Braves sweep their upcoming opponent, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Nationals lose the series to the Mets by dropping two games, then more significance is added to the Nationals-Braves series starting on Friday. Let’s say that happens, then the Nationals lead would shrink to 3 1/2 games to start a three-game series in Atlanta.

But, of course, this is just a possibility to consider. The Nationals have a firm grasp of the division and have handled the Mets this season, beating them 11 of 15 times and outscoring them 69-48, both indications of what may come. The Braves swept the Brewers earlier this season, outscoring them 19-13. If the Nationals play worse than their established low for the season, the Braves would have to go on a tear to finish tied.

The Nationals’ lead in the division is sizable but not comfortable for them given how well the Braves have played of late. And it shows how big of a win Saturday’s dramatic 7-6 walk-off win over the Marlins in the long rain delay actually was. Dropping the series final, 8-0, stung a little.

“We could have lost all three of these games,” Adam LaRoche said. “And [Saturday] turned into a big win for us to force extra innings there. Take it for what it is, move on, keep doing what we do.”

Added Kurt Suzuki: “I don’t think it’s ever easy to shrug a game off, especially when you’re in a pennant race. So this was definitely a tough one, but at the same time you got to go back on it tomorrow and get ready to go.”

In other words, the Nationals understand that this pennant race rests solely in their hands. They’re on a 99 win pace, hold the best record in baseball and have enough of a cushion to withstand even a mini tough stretch or a Braves run. The Nationals are well aware of where they stand and what remains.

“Yeah, we don’t need to watch what [the Braves] are doing,” LaRoche said. “… We’re not relying on them to meltdown. We’re relying on ourselves to continue to do what we’ve done all year. And if we do that, it won’t matter if those guys stay as hot as they are now. So, again, this isn’t a sit and wait for Atlanta to fall apart. I don’t think guys care what they do; when they lose it; pick up a game, great; but we need to get locked in and be focused going into October.”

 

FROM TODAY’S POST

The Nationals were stomped, 8-0, by the Marlins, a team that has played them tough all season.

After so many dramatic wins, including on Saturday, the Nationals finally come back to earth with a stinker, writes Thomas Boswell. 

 

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

DeRosa talks with Strasburg

Burnett playing catch, feeling better

Storen’s dominant day

 

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Greensboro 7, Hagerstown 5 (Saturday): The Suns were swept 2-0 in the first round of the South Atlantic League playoffs. Billy Burns and Caleb Ramsey each had two hits. Hagerstown tied the score at 4-4 in the top of the fifth but Kylin Turnbull allowed two runs in the bottom of the inning. 

Auburn 5, Tri-City 2: The Doubledays tied their opening playoff series at 1-1 with the win. Brandon Miller went 2 for 3 with two RBI. Wander Ramos went 2 for 4 with two RBI. Mike McQuillan added a solo home run. Starter David Fischer allowed one run over 4 1/3 innings. Travis Henke allowed one run over 1 2/3 innings of relief, and Robert Benincasa and Derek Self completed the final scoreless three innings.

Also on Nationals Journal

Mark DeRosa talks with Stephen Strasburg: 'I don’t want to see him beat himself up'