The Nationals have searched all season long for a turning point, the one moment when, after a disappointing opening few months in a season of sky-high expectations, they would rattle off the hot streak that would mask all their ills. It has yet to come. They sit at 31-31 and seven games behind the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves. They have tread water for over nine weeks as the Braves have played at a 99-win pace.
With 100 games left in the season, the Nationals enter a critical portion of their season. (But, in all reality, what part of a schedule isn’t important for a chasing team?) The Nationals head to Denver for the beginning of a nine-game road trip. The Colorado Rockies, who sit at 34-30 and two games behind the NL West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks, pose a fruitful opportunity for the Nationals to gain ground in the playoff hunt. Consider the reasons why.
The St. Louis Cardinals (playing at a 105-win pace), Braves (99-win pace) and Diamondbacks (91-win pace) are the three division winners entering Tuesday’s games. The two wild-card leaders are both out of the loaded NL Central, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates. Just behind them are two teams from the historically topsy turvy and weak NL West, the San Francisco Giants and Rockies.
The Nationals sit two games behind the Rockies in the Wild Card standings. And oddly enough, the Nationals and Rockies face off seven times in the next two weeks beginning with the three-game series starting Tuesday in Denver. Until the Nationals face the Pirates in a four-game series in late July and the Braves on August 5, the Rockies are the only team Washington will face ahead of them in the playoff hunt. A strong performance against the Rockies over the next two weeks would not only boost their own standing in their division but directly chip at a rival wild card contender.
Historically, 90 wins is the benchmark that all but guarantees, at least, a playoff appearance in the wild card format. Last season, it took only 88 wins (the Cardinals) to earn the second wild card spot. In order to win 90 games, the Nationals would need to play .590 baseball (59-41) over the final 100 games of the season. That’s a reachable goal — but one that could certainly be attained only with the returns of Ross Detwiler, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos from the disabled list.
History has shown that all it takes is to make the playoffs. The 2006 Cardinals won 83 games, curiously enough to win the division that season, and then got hot in the playoffs and won the World Series. The 2011 Cardinals claimed the wildcard spot with 90 wins and repeated the same feat in the playoffs.
This season, however, it may take more to even earn a wild-card spot. As of now, the wild-card leaders, the Reds, are playing at a 96-win pace, and the Pirates are playing 95-win baseball. Those rates could obviously, and likely, cool down. But if the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers continue to struggle in the NL Central, three teams reaching the playoffs from one division seems possible. The NL West has traditionally been too even and is now again; the top four teams are six games apart.
The Nationals have two teams to contend with in their division, the Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves built their division lead and now have 30 games remaining against the New York Mets and Miami Marlins, the teams with the lowest winning percentages in the NL. The Nationals have 27 games combined against the Mets and Marlins, so the Braves have a decided advantage in maintaining their seven-game lead on the Nationals. The winning percentage of the Braves’ remaining opponents is .454, easier than the .467 winning percentage of the Nationals’ remaining opponents.
Eating into the Braves’ division lead will be difficult with the remaining schedules ahead, but the Nationals have an opportunity to improve their current fate with games against the Rockies. Then last this week, they face a three-game series against the sub-.500 Cleveland Indians and can stave off the Phillies, who sit a game behind them in the NL East. A hot streak over the next two weeks could be the perfectly timed turning point the Nationals need.
FROM THE POST
Status of Bryce Harper remains unclear after visit with Dr. James Andrews, writes Adam Kilgore.
The Washington Nationals haven’t met expectations, writes Thomas Boswell, so what now?
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Reading 6, Harrisburg 0 (7): Blake Treinen started and allowed three runs, only one earned, on five hits over four innings and struck out seven. Pat McCoy allowed three runs, two of them earned, over two innings of relief. Justin Bloxom and Jummy Van Ostrand mustered the only hits.