The Nationals’ focus on the Reds

brushback_harperThe final quarter or so of the Nationals’ season is nearing. On Tuesday, the Nationals opened a three-game series against the San Francisco Giants, a defending world champion fallen on hard times and last place. The Nationals’ three-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies over the weekend lightened the mood in the clubhouse and kept alive their flickering hopes to make the postseason. An opening win against the Giants only preserved it.

“A good little streak we’re on,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Better late than never. We’re still in the hole pretty good. So we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

LaRoche is indeed correct, but it is perhaps time to start focusing your scoreboard watching on the Reds. The Nationals don’t need to bother worrying about the Braves, who remain 14 games ahead of them in the NL East thanks to a 3-1 win over the Phillies on Tuesday. The Braves have a 100 percent chance of reaching the playoffs and winning the division based on Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds, the highest of any team in baseball.

The second wild card remains a remote possibility, but a possibility nonetheless. The Nationals trail the Cincinnati Reds by 8 1/2 games with 44 left. Baseball Prospectus’ playoff predictor gives the Nationals a 2.5 percent chance of catching the Reds, while Coolstandings.com is more generous with a 3.1 percent chance. The Nationals, in fact, would have to also pass the Arizona Diamondbacks, too, who trail the Reds by 5 1/2 games, to claim the second wild-card spot. This is no easy task.

If the Reds go 21-22 over their final 43 games, the Nationals would have to go 30-14 to match them at 88 wins. There are two problems with that: The Reds are really good, and the Nationals have not shown any indication in their first 118 games that they have the ability to run off that kind of stretch.

The Reds have shown signs of vulnerability, having played near-.500 ball (26-24) during their past 50 games, despite having won seven of their last ten contests. The Nationals can draw hope from the Reds’ schedule. The Reds play 19 of their last 43 against teams that currently own a winning record, including 13 against the Cardinals and Pirates, two very good teams likely fighting until the end for the NL Central title. The combined winning percentage of the Reds’ remaining opponents is .494.

The Nationals’ schedule isn’t exactly easy, but it’s easier than the Reds’. They still have six games against the Braves, and 15 against teams with winning records. The Kansas City Royals series coming up next week in Kansas City looks a whole lot tougher than it would have a month ago. But they also get a healthy dose of the New York Mets, Phillies and Miami Marlins. The combined winning percentage of the Nationals’ remaining opponents is .473.

The Nationals should direct their attention inwards and worry about ensuring their play remains consistent and even for the final six-plus weeks of the season. If they can make an improbable run, they will need plenty of help from their opponents — but worrying about that may be counterproductive. Maybe now, with the pressure of the division race lifted, the Nationals can just relax, play baseball and improve their slim odds of catching the Reds.

FROM THE POST

Tempers flare as Nationals beat the Giants, 4-2, for the fourth straight win, writes Adam Kilgore.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Wilson Ramos re-injures hamstring

Gio Gonzalez and Jayson Werth exchange words after first inning of Nationals-Giants game

Updates Ross Detwiler, Ross Ohlendorf and Taylor Jordan

Anthony Rendon staying fresh in his longest season

Bryce Harper out with the flu

The Nationals who see the most fastballs

Ian Desmond comes to play

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 13, Buffalo 4: Taylor Hill earned his first AAA win. He allowed three runs, two earned, on 10 hits, walked two and struck out five over six innings. Mark Lowe tossed two scoreless innings and Cole Kimball allowed a run. Josh Johnson went 3 for 5 with a two-run home runs and four RBI. Chris Rahl, Tyler Moore, Jeff Kobernus and Zach Walters each drove in two runs. Moore hit his ninth homer and has 45 RBI on the season. Walters hit his 27th homer.

Trenton 8, Harrisburg 2: Robbie Ray allowed six runs, five earned, on six hits and walked three over 4 2/3 innings. Billy Burns went 3 for 5 and is hitting .308 since his promotion.

Potomac 9, Carolina 8: Brian Rauh coughed up six runs on seven hits over 4 1/3 innings. Rob Wort earned his sixth save. Cutter Dykstra went 1 for 3 with three RBI. Brandon Miller and Francisco Soriano each drove in two runs each.

Hagerstown 4, Delmarva 1: Ian Dickson allowed one run on five hits and struck out six over six innings. Ronald Pena allowed only one hit over three innings of relief and earned the save. Shawn Pleffner hit three-run home run. Narciso Mesa went 2 for 4, as did Khayyan Norfork.

Auburn was off for the all-star break. David Napoli was the lone Auburn representative.

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Davey Johnson: Wilson Ramos re-injures hamstring