Handicapping NL playoff contenders: Nationals lead the pack


The Washington Nationals have been on fire, winning 12 of their last 14 games. (Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

Monday night in Philadelphia, the Washington Nationals played their 130th game of the season, not an apparent milepost in the six-month slog to the playoffs. But it is important in this regard: They, like the other National League contenders, have now played 80 percent of their season. Only the last fifth remains. Labor Day weekend is nigh. Thirty-four days stand between us all and the final Sunday of the regular season.

Much has been sorted out: The Boston Red Sox won’t defend their World Series title. The Milwaukee Brewers aren’t an early-season fluke. The Baltimore Orioles are close to dominant in a division in which they used to be dominated. But with just more than 30 games to go, there’s more sorting out to do. So over two days, we’ll break down the pennant races, starting with the National League.

Also see: Handicapping the AL pennant races

Washington Nationals

Current position: Lead NL East by 7 1/2 games

Playoff percentage: 99.7 percent* (according to Baseball Prospectus)

The chic pick in 2013 has become the chic pick in late summer 2014. Washington’s best-in-the-league rotation ERA of 3.18 has been even better since the all-star break (2.93), and one of the most interesting pre-playoff debates could be about who – among Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark – gets left out of a postseason rotation. And if Ryan Zimmerman returns from his hamstring injury, get ready for another round of debate – and scrutiny for rookie manager Matt Williams – because you can’t fit Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, Bryce Harper and Asdrubal Cabrera in the same lineup.

But the Nationals’ surge – highlighted by their 10-game, walk-off-fest of a winning streak that concluded last week – has been built on more than pitching. Since the all-star break, Washington has scored 169 runs, most in the National League. Yes, the bullpen has slipped from its best-in-baseball form early in the season (2.67 ERA before the break, 3.58 ERA since). But the other Nationals’ problems appear to be good ones – not enough spots for too many good players.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Current position: Lead NL West by 5 games

Playoff percentage: 98.3 percent


Clayton Kershaw could practically win a five-game series by himself. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

For such a would-be juggernaut, the Dodgers are kind of sliding into the postseason. They’ll make it, but why aren’t they better? They’re just 12-11 in August and have been outscored by 11 runs this month. Dan Haren, who has started as many games as Zack Greinke and more than Clayton Kershaw, has a 6.36 ERA since July. Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier have combined for nine home runs. Lefty Hyun Jin-Ryu is back on the disabled list with a strained glut, and right-hander Josh Beckett is there for the third time with a hip problem. Hanley Ramirez, just back from the disabled list himself, has become a liability at shortstop who has to be replaced late in games.

Still, who wants to draw Los Angeles in a five-game series to start the postseason? Three of those games would be started by Kershaw (league-leading 1.82 ERA, league-leading 0.828 WHIP) and Greinke (who has allowed two or fewer runs in 17 of his 26 starts). And Yasiel Puig gives them the kind of presence around which successful playoff lineups are built, a .305/.388/.501 monster who could be the star of October.

The best team $235 million can buy? Maybe not. A threat to win the pennant? Absolutely.

Milwaukee Brewers

Current position: Lead NL Central by 1 1/2 games

Playoff percentage: 87.6 percent


The Brewers’ lineup, led by Ryan Bruan, can mash with the best of them. (Jeff Roberson/AP File Photo)

Playing in a division that sent three teams (but not the Brewers) to the playoffs a year ago, Milwaukee climbed into first place on April 5 – and hasn’t vacated the top spot. Their .728 OPS, 559 runs scored and 132 homers are the best for any National League team that doesn’t play its home games in Coors Field. Yes, Ryan Braun has the lowest average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage of his career. Yet Braun’s .824 OPS still ranks 15th in the NL, and put him with catcher Jonathan Lucroy (.855 OPS), center fielder Carlos Gomez (.844) and third baseman Aramis Ramirez (.821), and the Brewers are the only team with more than two players in the league’s top 20 in that category.

Still, the Brewers can be had – and the Pirates nearly dealt them a significant blow when they took the first two games of a weekend series  by the combined score of 18-5. In stepped right-hander Mike Fiers, who was a fill-in starter when the month began but has a 1.29 ERA in his last four starts — all wins in which opponents are hitting .109 against him. Fiers could thus work his way into a postseason rotation that would seem to have openings. Would any combination of Matt Garza, Wily Peralta, Yovani Gallardo, Jimmy Nelson and Fiers strike fear into a playoff opponent, when power pitching dominates? Likely not.

St. Louis Cardinals

Current position: Lead NL wild-card race by 3 games

Playoff percentage: 75.1 percent


The Cardinals’ rotation has struggled since the All-Star break. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

How, exactly, St. Louis is currently in position for a playoff berth is tough to figure. St. Louis is second-to-last in the NL in runs scored, and since the All-Star break, their banged-up rotation has posted a 4.38 ERA – worst in the league. They are without their soul in catcher Yadier Molina (still on the disabled list with a thumb injury) and sophomore right-hander Michael Wacha hasn’t pitched since June 17 because of a shoulder problem. Their trades for veteran right-handers John Lackey and Justin Masterson haven’t worked out to date; the pair combined for a 6.38 ERA in nine starts before Lackey came through with seven one-run innings Monday in a key victory over Pittsburgh.

So through all that, the Cardinals hold the first wild-card position and are well within reach of the Brewers. Rookie outfielder Oscar Tavares, who got his full-on chance when St. Louis dealt Allen Craig to Boston in the Lackey deal, is coming around, hitting .343 over his last 10 games. But with closer Trevor Rosenthal (runs allowed in three of his five outings) no longer a sure thing, the playoff-hardened Cardinals have a lot of frail-looking parts.

San Francisco Giants

Current position: Hold second wild-card spot by ½ game

Playoff percentage: 64.8 percent


Hunter Pence has a knack for hitting bad pitches out of the park. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s hard to believe this team once led the NL West by 9 1/2 games. That, though, was long ago, back on June 8. Since then, the Giants are reeling – 26-41, with holes all over the place. Matt Cain, the kind of postseason stud who could anchor a playoff rotation even if he had a subpar year, is done after having bone chips removed from his elbow. Tim Hudson has completed seven innings just twice since July 1. Tim Lincecum has no-hit stuff but a 4.64 ERA. Even with Madison Bumgarner in fine form (2.03 ERA, 36 strikeouts and two walks in August), the rotation’s 4.11 ERA since the break is better than only Colorado and St. Louis in the NL.

What San Francisco has going for it: unorthodox outfielder Hunter Pence — who can hit any pitch out of any park at any time. The Giants also enjoy Manager Bruce Bochy, quietly among the shrewdest in the game, and 18 remaining games against Colorado, Arizona and San Diego – the dregs of the division. But given the direction this season has been pointed for two months, is there any team currently holding a playoff spot that seems less likely to hang on?

Atlanta Braves

Current position: Trail second wild-card spot by ½ game

Playoff percentage: 41.3 percent


B.J. Upton hasn’t paid dividends for the Braves. (Todd Kirkland/AP Photo)

How the Braves are within a whisper of the postseason may be among the year’s most significant mysteries. Half of their everyday players carry an OPS below the league average (.696) – shortstop Andrelton Simmons (.648), third baseman Chris Johnson (.674), rookie second baseman Tommy LaStella (.683) and the poster boy for bad contracts, outfielder B.J. Upton (.605). The rotation looks nothing like General Manager Frank Wren envisioned in February – with cast-off Aaron Harang on pace for 200 innings, and somehow turning in a 3.60 ERA. Is he the top contender to start Game 2 of a series, behind Julio Teheran?

Yet for all their flaws, the Braves have hung around, and can receive game-turning swings from Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and Freddie Freeman, who have combined for 62 homers. They also still have the ability to shorten games. Though their bullpen may not be as dominant as a year ago, closer Craig Kimbrel has allowed just two runs since June 20 – a 21-game span in which he carries a 0.83 ERA, has allowed a .111 batting average and hasn’t yielded an extra-base hit.

All of that said, the Braves were no match for the Dodgers in the playoffs a year ago. Why would they be this year?

Pittsburgh Pirates

Current position: Trail second wild-card spot by 1 1/2 games

Playoff percentage: 28.7 percent


Gregory Polanco’s struggles got him demoted to the minors. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

There wasn’t a more fun playoff venue last year than PNC Park, and it’s possible reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutcheon – with a stellar .309/.406/.542 season brewing – could will the Pirates back into that position. Even as they found it necessary to demote stud rookie Gregory Polanco (1 for his last 30) over the weekend, Pittsburgh has scored the second-most runs and produced the second-best OPS (.742) in the league since the break.

The iffy part comes on the mound. Last year’s all-star closer, Jason Grilli, struggled early and was dealt away to the Angels. Starters Jeff Locke, Gerritt Cole and Charlie Morton have all been hurt. The starting rotation’s ERA of 3.91 is the worst of any N.L. playoff contender. And at a crucial point in the year, the Pirates have lost nine of 12.

Still, the Pirates control their prospects. They have 12 games remaining against St. Louis, Atlanta and Milwaukee – the teams against which Pittsburgh is competing for a spot. And their remaining 19 games are against the reeling Reds and the last-place Cubs, Phillies and Red Sox.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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