The Nationals have 23 more chances to keep their razor-thin playoff hopes alive. They trail the Cincinnati Reds by seven games for the second wild-card spot, the same margin as the Arizona Diamondbacks. And there may be no more fruitful opportunity than this weekend for the Nationals to shave down that margin.
The Nationals (71-68) open a three-game series against the Miami Marlins (52-86) on Friday. The Reds (79-62), on the other hand, open a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers (83-56). If the Nationals can’t take advantage of playing one of the worst teams in baseball while the Reds face one of the best, they surely don’t merit being considered a playoff outlier at all.
Imagine the best-case scenario: the Reds drop all three games to the unbelievably hot Dodgers, who have won 23 of their past 30 games, while the Nationals sweep the Marlins. The Nationals could slash their second wild-card deficit from seven games to four in three days. The Nationals have beaten the Marlins nine of 12 times this season. Then they would have 20 games to make up the remaining margin on the Reds.
If the Nationals can accomplish that, it would be the start of a favorable stretch for them. After the Marlins, they get four games against the New York Mets, three against the Philadelphia Phillies and, after three against the Atlanta Braves, they face the Marlins another four times. In order words, for the next three weeks, the Nationals will play 14 of their next 17 games against teams with winning percentages of .457 or less.
The Reds get an equally easy schedule. After the Dodgers, the Reds get three against the Chicago Cubs, three against the Milwaukee Brewers and three against the Houston Astros. The Reds close out the season playing six of nine games against the NL Central-leading Pittsburgh Pirates. The Nationals will play the St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks over the final six games.
The Nationals recently had a better opening to make a dent — the Marlins, Mets and Phillies over the past week — and only picked up one game on the Reds, the type of play that inspires little confidence in their postseason hopes. But the remaining schedule still gives them the slight edge; the Nationals’ remaining opponents have a combined .473 winning percentage, while the Reds’ remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .487. If the Reds play .500 baseball for the rest of the season, the Nationals would have to go 18-5 to match them.
This weekend, however, could prove difficult. Like they have all season, the Nationals make nothing easy on themselves. Plus, the Marlins will start their rookie phenom, Jose Fernandez (10-6, 2.33 ERA), on Friday. Hard-throwing Nathan Eovaldi, who is 1-1 with a 3.75 ERA in two starts against the Nationals this season, will start Saturday. Jacob Turner (3-5, 3.13 ERA) starts Sunday. The Marlins send their best against the Nationals, who will start Dan Haren, Tanner Roark and Stephen Strasburg.
The Dodgers will start Chris Capuano, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw against the Reds this weekend; Capuano’s 4.41 ERA is the worst in the Dodgers’ rotation.
After this weekend, the Nationals will have 20 more games, but their season could really hinge on these next three games. If they hope to make a move on the Reds, now is the chance. If they fail, this could be the final chapter in their season of squandered opportunities.
FROM THE POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Erie 2, Harrisburg 1 (12): Erie evened the Eastern League’s best-of-five Western Division Championship Series at one game apiece. Sean Nicol’s error allowed the winning run to score in the 12th. Both Erie runs were unearned; the other error was committed by Carlos Rivero. Taylor Hill allowed one unearned run over six innings on five hits. Jeff Howell drove in the lone run. Brian Goodwin went 3 for 5 and Rick Hague finished 1 for 5.
Potomac 3, Lynchburg 2: The Nationals completed a two-game sweep in the Carolina League Northern Division Championship Series to advance to the Mills Cup Championship Series. Blake Schwartz tossed eight strong innings, allowing two runs, one earned, on eight hits and five strikeouts. Greg Holt tossed a scoreless ninth. Kevin Keyes went 2 for 4. Adrian Nieto and Adrian Sanchez each drove in a run. Will Piwnica-Worms smacked the game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth.