On Sept. 12, the Nationals held an 8 ½-game over the Atlanta Braves. In the 16 games since, they have gone 7-9, matching their worst 16-game stretch of the season, and their lead has dwindled to three games with three remaining. And they believe it might have been the best thing that could have happened.
In the home stretch, the playoff-inexperienced Nationals have played the toughest schedule of any contender, five consecutive series against teams who at the time were still fighting for a place in the postseason. The Nationals’ uneven patch has prevented them from clinching the National League East, but it has also allowed them to play pressure-packed, meaningful games.
“That’s important,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “As much as we would have liked to have locked down the division a week and a half ago, it’s a blessing in disguise. We’re getting these big games late in the season to get us ready for where we want to be and what we want to do.”
Saturday night, Ryan Mattheus faced Matt Holliday with two runners on base and the Nationals clinging to a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning. After he got Matt Holliday to fly out, he realized he had never pitched a more important at-bat, and most the pitchers on the Nationals’ projected playoff roster — everyone but Edwin Jackson and Michael Gonzalez — are in the same boat.
“Every out a lot of us get from here on out will be the biggest out of our lives,” Mattheus said.
“None of us have played meaningful games late in the year. It’s good we’re playing good teams, too. They’re running best lineups out every night. They’re not throwing September call-ups in there. It’s going to prepare us for it.”
The Nationals have, of course, never been to the postseason, and so trying to nail down the division is new to their mostly homegrown roster. On the likely playoff roster, only Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Gonzalez and Jackson have appeared in a postseason game.
“I don’t think anything can totally prepare us for that situation,” Mattheus said. “The playoffs are going to be a different beast altogether.”
But it would be difficult to come up with a better dry run than the past 16 games. The Nationals will play the Phillies tonight, the first time in more than two weeks they’ll face a team completely dead in the playoff race. They couldn’t pick up a division title during that stretch, but they gained something valuable, still.
“It’s a good test for us,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “I would much rather play teams that are in it as opposed to teams that are out of it. We’re getting their best. There’s no doubt about that.”
FROM THE POST
The Nats fell to the Cardinals, 10-4, and brought the NL East race back to Washington with a still-beating pulse.
The Nationals will hand the ball to John Lannan to try to clinch for a team that sent him to the minors in April, Barry Svrluga writes.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Nats’ magic number to clinch the division: 1
Nats’ magic number to clinch the top seed: 3*
*The Nationals are tied with the Reds for the best record in the National League (96-63), but since the Nationals beat the Reds in the season series (5-2), they’d hold the top seed in the event of a tie.
Current NL matchups
Nationals vs. Braves/Cardinals*
Reds vs. Giants
*The Braves have clinched a wild-card berth and home-field advantage in the play-in game. The Cardinals lead the race for the second wild card by two games over the Dodgers. Every other NL team has been eliminated.