If they glanced at the standings, the Nationals would receive a daily reminder that their best baseball of the season probably won’t matter. And so they ignore the standings. “We gotta win,” Ryan Zimmerman said last night with a shrug. “If we don’t win, nothing’s going to matter anyway. We know. We’ve put ourselves in this situation. It’s not an ideal situation to be in. But nothing really matters unless we win.”
And the Nationals have won. They’ve won three straight after what felt like a nail-in-the-coffin, 7-0 loss Friday night in Miami. They have gone 20-9 since Aug. 9, which ties them with the Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They’re five games over .500, which matches a high-water mark.
As the Nationals have won, they have received a cold reminder of how much they lost earlier in the season and how much help they need now. The Reds went 6-1 last week in seven games against the Cardinals and Dodgers – when it seemed like the schedule presented a perfect chance to make up ground, the Reds did not comply. So the Nationals still trail Cincinnati by seven games with 19 to play, even after the Reds lost last night.
As the Reds closed off one route for the Nationals to reached the postseason, the reeling opened another when, immediately following an 81st win that guaranteed the franchise its first non-losing season in 20 years, they lost four straight. The Pirates beat the Rangers last night to keep their edge over the Nationals at eight games.
In their final three weeks, the Pirates still have to play the Reds six times and the Rangers two more times. The Nationals’ odds at October baseball remain vanishingly remote – 0.4 percent at Monday’s outset, according to Baseball Prospectus. The postseason remains more in the realm of fantasy than reality for the Nationals. But if the Reds or Pirates can beat up on the other in those six head-to-head meetings, it may at least, improbably, give the Nationals a pulse.
The Nationals have kept winning because of an offense that has woken up. The have scored 5.3 runs per game over those 29 games as hitters up and down their lineup have heated up, especially these four:
>>> Zimmerman has six homers in seven games, giving him 21 for the season – after a season-long power outage, it now seems like he’ll wind up with his customary 25 or so home runs.
>>> Denard Span led off last night with his fourth homer since July 27 after hitting none in his first 97 games. On Aug. 16, Span was hitting .258. After he went 3 for 5 last night, Span extended his hitting streak to 20 games and raised his average to .282, just one point off his career average. Span’s on-base percentage still lags behind his usual standard, but it has still been a huge turnaround for Span.
“Denard has been unbelievable lately,” Zimmerman said. “That’s credit to his work ethic and what he’s done. Things didn’t get off to the start he wanted, but he stuck with it and he works hard every single day. He’s showing you guys and everyone the kind of player we knew he was. It’s a long season. You’ve got to finish strong, and Denard has been doing great with that.”
>>> Catching 16 consecutive games has not slowed down Wilson Ramos. He homered for the second straight game last night. On the year, Ramos has 12 homers, one per every 18.9 at-bats. For a 25-year-old catcher, that’s pretty uplifting.
>>> Jayson Werth has put himself in range to win a batting title. He ranks third in the National League hitting at .324, just five points behind leader Chris Johnson. He also ranks fourth in on-base percentage (.398) and first in slugging (.534). He went 2 for 5 with his 22nd homer last night. His scalding second half hasn’t slowed down yet.
“It was just a matter of time before we started hitting,” Zimmerman said. “It was not going to be the whole year like it was in the beginning. It’s coming around a little bit. It’s contagious and everybody’s having fun.”
FROM THE POST
Gio Gonzalez came within nine outs and one inch of throwing the first no-hitter in Nationals in a 9-0 win over the Mets.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Hagerstown 6, Savannah 1: The Suns took a 1-0 lead in the South Atlantic League championship series. In his second start since making the jump from rookie ball to Low-A, this year’s second round pick Jake Johansen allowed no runs over five innings on three hits and two walks, striking out two. Wander Ramos went 2 for 4 with two doubles. Tony Renda went 1 for 3 with a double, a walk and three RBI. Stephen Perez went 1 for 2 with a double, two walks and a steal.