“Just can’t do it. You know what I mean?”
Absolutely. With 49 games remaining, the thinking goes, it would be bad form for the club with Major League Baseball’s best record to suddenly become chatty about its obviously strong position. There’s no need to provide opponents with bulletin-board material or potentially anger the “baseball gods,” who could spring a long losing streak on the Nationals at the drop of a cap. The Nationals’ aversion to publicly commenting about the playoff chase is actually as much a part of the game as uniforms and chalk. But we’re not bound by such constraints.
The Nationals have shown no signs of slowing down. If anything, the winners of seven straight have floored the accelerator toward clinching the District’s first baseball postseason appearance since the long-departed Senators celebrated in 1933. We haven’t experienced the thrill of meaningful late-season games around these parts in generations, so it’s time for a primer on a few key story lines to watch as the Nationals make a final kick to the finish in their transformative season.
Despite everything the National League East leaders have done well, they still can’t shake those pesky Atlanta Braves. Beginning play on Saturday, the Nationals held only a 4½-game lead over the division’s second-place club. The Braves also have the best record among teams vying for the two NL wild-card spots.
I’m convinced that the Nationals are headed to the playoffs. Under this season’s expanded postseason format, they’re as much of a lock to get in as Roger Bernadina is to bail out closer Tyler Clippard with a season-defining catch.
But after being the division doormat for most of their existence, the Nationals want to win the NL East title. It’s an important destination for them to reach, some in the organization privately acknowledge, along their rocky road from disgraceful to dominant.
The Nationals are scoreboard watching. They’re keeping tabs on the Braves “because it’s only human nature to want to know what your competitors are doing,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said in a phone interview on Friday. “We know there are a lot of valleys and peaks still ahead. But when you’re in the hills, you want to look around and see what’s out there.”
Scoreboard monitoring, at this stage of the season, is also a necessity for true Nationals fans. It’s simultaneously one of the game’s greatest joys and horrors. Learning that your favorite team’s closest pursuer has lost a game — especially on the same day the “good guys” have won — provides a sense of comfort about the standings. Conversely, if the lead shrinks, concerned fans lament about wasted opportunities earlier in the season.