Are the Nats playing the spoiler, or just playing?
The whole concept of "playing the spoiler" has always seemed vague to me. It is probably more interesting for the Nationals to play games against teams with something real at stake, the presumably maximum effort by the opponent pulling out their own best effort. I'm not sure they really derive extra motivation from trying to ruin a season. If the Nationals needed something like that, I suspect few of them would ever have become professional baseball players in the first place.
That being said, it is something to cling to when there's little else to rally around. The Nationals can show up only because the schedule demands it, or they can convince themselves this is the way they can make an impact across the baseball spectrum.
"That's all we got right now in the last month of the season, is trying to spoil other people's season," reliever Sean Burnett said.
The Nationals' series win in Atlanta - their second road series victory in a row after not winning 17 straight - brought questions about the Nationals motive for the rest of the season. "Spoiling" makes for the easy narrative. (That's not necessarily going to stop me from avoiding it altogether in game stories and such, to be perfectly honest.) Justin Maxwell hit at something interest, that the notion can seem a little insulting.
"I don't like when people say that, because that's where we want to be," Maxwell said. "Hopefully next year, we'll be in their shoes, fighting for a playoff spot. To say that, that's what it is right now. But we're not really thinking about it that way. We're just trying to finish strong."
Then again, some Nationals pride in the role. They'd of course rather be playing for something themselves. But if not, the next best option is to make some kind of impact.
"The last few years I've been here, we've done a great job of making it tough for those guys to make the playoffs," starter John Lannan said. "That's our goal, to finish this year strong."
There is value in playing against the Phillies this weekend, in a rabid park against a team playing for its season. The intensity probably keeps the game sharper, which can only help the Nationals play better now and gain experience for the future. "It's good for our young guys to go against good competition, teams that are in pennant races in games that mean something," Burnett said.