The importance of a strong September for the Nationals

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The notion of strong-finishing teams thriving in the playoffs is one of those baseball platitudes that sound so cliché it cannot possibly be true. But it turns out that one might actually be spot on. Recent fall history reveals the team that holds up the trophy at the end of October usually started its postseason joyride in September.

The past 10 World Series champions have combined to go 178-105 in September and any regular-season games that spill over into October. That comes out to a .629 winning percentage, or 102-win pace over the course of a full season.

The 2003 2006 Cardinals, may be the most bizarre World Series winner of all time, went 12-17 in the final month, finished 83-78 overall and then, behind Albert Pujols, David Eckstein and a million pitching chances by Tony LaRussa, won the whole thing. The next-worst September team of the past 10 years was the 2007 Red Sox, who went 16-11 – still 96-win pace over a full season.

The September-success data is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy – World Series winners tend to be excellent teams, and excellent teams win a lot of games just about every month. Still, aside from those goofy 2003 2006 Cardinals, every World Series winner of the past 10 years matched or exceeded their regular-season winning percentage in September.

All of this is relevant to the postseason-bound Nationals. They are currently 13-10 in September, which is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s 91-win pace over 162 games. If a strong finish foreshadows playoff success, though, it’s not the greatest sign. It would be their worst month since June. They have played pretty decent in September, but they have not played their best.

That may not be reason for panic, but more food for thought. The Nationals have a chance to stem any concern tonight, when John Lannan takes the mound at Citizens Bank Park. As far as history goes, they could have gotten a better mixture of pitcher and place. In seven career starts in Philadelphia, Lannan is 1-5 with a 7.06 ERA.

Lannan’s most recent start at Citizens Bank Park offers a more helpful picture. On Sept. 21 last year, he lasted five innings and allowed three runs to earn his first win there. It was not the prettiest performance – eight hits and a walk – but it was a clear improvement.

Lannan will try to rebound from his last start, when he allowed six runs in 3 2/3 innings, as the Nationals try to make sure their September points them in the right direction.  

Oh, if you were curious, here’s how each recent World Series champion fared in the final month (with their overall record):

2011 Cardinals: 18-8 (90-72)

2010 Giants: 19-10 (92-70)

2009 Yankees: 20-11 (103-59)

2008 Phillies: 17-8 (92-70)

2007 Red Sox: 16-11 (96-66)

2006 Cardinals: 12-17 (83-78)

2005 White Sox: 19-12 (99-63)

2004 Red Sox: 21-11 (98-64)

2003 Marlins: 18-8 (91-71)

2002 Angels: 18-9 (99-63)

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