Nationals still in firm control of playoff fate despite sweep

It’s easy, following a three-game sweep at the hands of division rival Atlanta Braves at this point in the season, to grow concerned. Uneven play, defensive errors and gifted base runners weren’t pleasant sights. The three loses shaved the Nationals commanding 8 ½-game lead in the National League East at the start of the weekend to 5 ½. And after the Braves toppled the Miami Marlins 7-5 on Monday night, the idle Nationals’ lead dropped to five games.

This, however, is still not cause for major alarm just yet. Again, the Nationals still hold a sizable lead with 16 games to play. Sure, they breathed a small measure of life into the Braves’ division hopes and boosted their confidence should they meet again in the playoffs. But the Nationals’ playoff and division odds are still extremely high.

Consider this: If the Nationals played .500 baseball, 8-8 over their final 16 games, the Braves would have to be a near-perfect 13-1 over their final 14 games to win the division. Let’s say you’re even more pessimistic and imagine it being worse, that the Nationals went 4-12 against their tough remaining schedule. The Braves, however, would still have to go 9-5 to claim the division. It’s not impossible, but the Nationals would have to play worse than their worst stretch of the season for this to happen.

According to the Web site coolstandings.com, which runs simulations of the remaining games of the season a million times, the Nationals have a 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs and 95.5 percent chance of claiming the division crown. (With a combination of wins and loses, the Nationals could lock up a playoff spot as soon as Wednesday.)

The toughest hurdle that remains for the Nationals is one that, a few weeks ago, didn’t appear like one: their end-of-season schedule. The Nationals face much stiffer tests than the Braves over the remaining two weeks of the season. All four of the Nationals’ remaining opponents have records at .500 or above. In fact, the combined winning percentage of the remaining teams on the Nationals schedule is .509, while the Braves’ remaining opponents sit at .469.

The Nationals have games remaining against the Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, surging Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies — all teams in contention for playoff spots. The Braves, on the other hand, have eight games against the Marlins and New York Mets, along with series against the sinking Pittsburgh Pirates and Phillies. Against those remaining opponents, the Nationals have a combined 11-12 record against them already this season, while the Braves are 32-15 against their remaining schedule. So it’s possible, based on previous performance, that the Braves could shave the Nationals’ lead down even more.

It would take an epic collapse for the Nationals to miss the playoffs and a large one for them to lose out on the division title. The Nationals haven’t had less than a two-game division lead since early June when the Braves struggled some. The remaining road isn’t easy, but the Nationals need not rely on other teams’ fates; their playoff hopes rest solely in their hands.

 

FROM TODAY’S POST

Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper form an untraditional 1-2 punch atop the Nationals lineup, Adam Kilgore writes.

 

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Best/worst case scenario for Espinosa

Sorting out the sweep

Concerned about the sweep?

 

THE PLAYOFF PICTURE

Nats’ magic number to win the division: 11

To clinch a wild card: 3

Current NL matchups

Nationals vs. Braves/Cardinals*

Reds vs. Giants

*The Braves lead the Cardinals by 7 1/2 games. The Cardinals lead the Dodgers by one game, the Brewers  and Pirates by 2 1/2, and the Phillies by 3 1/2.

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