What the Nationals are playing for

brushback_harperDavey Johnson hardly slept Monday night. In the hours after the Washington Nationals had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, the what-ifs kept passing through his mind. Still restless Tuesday afternoon, he came to Busch Stadium and felt off. He had started making preparations for a playoff series.

“All of a sudden, it hits you like a ton of bricks,” Johnson said. “Oh, dang, now what am I gonna do? I go home, that’s what I do.”

For the first time since the final day of the 2011 season, the Nationals played a game that held no bearing on the standings. They are playing out the string, tasked with finding meaning in five games they will because the schedule dictates it. Each player, for a handful of games, will have to come up with a new reason to play.

“We’re playing for our pride,” center fielder Denard Span said. “[Monday] night definitely hurt, just knowing the realization that it’s over, our season’s over. But we’ve come this far. There’s no sense in cashing it in. We might as well finish it off strong and go home with a good taste in our mouth.”

“You play because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “You get paid to be a professional and play. We don’t really think about it like that. Just go out and enjoy it, play and finish out the season strong.”

The Nationals never expected to play games that didn’t matter to their playoff status. They used to call the portion of the schedule when games stopped to matter “May.” Now, it’s a surprise and a letdown.

“Look how far we’ve come from three or four years ago,” Zimmerman said. “No one thought about any of this kind of stuff. Not making the playoffs is disappointing. Having almost 90 wins is not a good year, which is good. That’s we want. It stings right now, but you got to learn from it and come back next year.”

Johnson felt different coming to the park Tuesday, the day after the Nationals had been eliminated. The Nationals did not look especially motivated as they managed zero hits out of the infield, but that seemed to have more to do with Michael Wacha’s excellence than the Nationals’ approach.

“It’s the same every day for me whether we’re one game out of the wild card, one game into the season or in the World Series,” Zimmerman said. “I treat every day the same. That’s just kind of the way I’ve always been taught to do it.”

FROM THE POST

Michael Wacha came within one out of a no-hitter in the Nationals 2-0 loss to the Cardinals.

John Feinstein says the Nationals missed the playoffs in 2013 because they shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012.

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Storen earns $250,000 bonus

Nats playing regulars

Lombardozzi excelling in a pinch

Feinstein is wrong

What could have been

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