The Nationals season has teetered dangerously close to the edge for weeks. Every win renews dreams of an improbable and dramatic late-season surge to the playoffs. But every loss feels larger than just one defeat because, well, there is just so little time left to correct a season’s worth of mistakes. After Wednesday’s 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, could the fading dream now be completely lost?
“We just can’t afford to lose,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “It’s that simple. We just need to get back at it [Thursday].”
The Nationals’ playoffs odds have dipped as low as 1.5 percent, according to coolstandings.com, after Wednesday’s loss. Their magic number for playoff elimination sits at five, while they are five games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the second wild-card spot in the loss column with 10 games left to play. To reach 90 wins, the number Johnson believes could put them in the playoffs, the Nationals would have to go 9-1 in the final week-plus.
“We’re doing the same thing we’ve been doing all year, trying to be professionals and play the game the right way and put our best foot forward,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “We did that [Wednesday] and we lost.”
The Nationals welcome the Miami Marlins into town on Thursday to begin a four-game series, an opponent that could help disguise some disappointment. The Marlins will be without starter Jose Fernandez, the 20-year-old sensation who was shut down because of the workload in his rookie season, so an already weak team will be weakened. Instead, the Nationals will face Henderson Alvarez (3.97 ERA), Jacob Turner (3.51 ERA) and Tom Koehler (4.51 ERA) instead. The Nationals should settle for no less than a sweep. Any loss to the Marlins would essentially squash every final ounce of the Nationals’ last hopes.
After the Marlins, the Nationals have three games against the Cardinals in St. Louis and close the season with three games against the Diamondbacks in Phoenix. The Reds, on the other hand, are coming off a three-game sweep of the Houston Astros and will finish the season with two three-games series against the Pittsburgh Pirates and a three-game series against the New York Mets. As some players were after Wednesday’s loss, the Nationals have been reduced to scoreboard watching, glued to the Astros-Reds game on television and rooting for any team to topple the Reds.
“It’s tough counting on another team to melt down for you,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
The only scenario in which the Nationals could reach the playoffs involved them praying the Pirates, who have dropped three straight games, surge towards the finish line. If the Nationals were to reach 90 wins with a 9-1 finish in their final 10 games, they would need the Reds to go 3-6. The Pirates would potentially have to sweep the final two series or take five of six games, and then the Reds would have to drop at least one game to the depleted Mets. The Nationals may even be chasing the Pirates after Friday night as Pittsburgh leads the Reds by only half a game and play the San Diego Padres on Thursday night.
The Reds will have their top starters pitching against the Pirates’ best this weekend. It will be: Mat Latos-Francisco Liriano on Friday, Homer Bailey-A.J. Burnett on Saturday and Bronson Arroyo-Jeff Locke on Sunday. Liriano has a 1.37 ERA at home this season and Burnett has also been strong at PNC Park, but Locke has struggled mightily of late.
There are just too few openings in which the Nationals could sneak into the playoff. One more loss and the dreaming may end. Following Wednesday’s loss, the clubhouse was somber. Their strong play over the last month-plus has been encouraging for next season, but masked the reality of this season: their late-season surge likely came too late.
FROM THE POST
The Braves rally and the Nationals falls, 5-2, writes Adam Kilgore. Is this is for the Nationals and their season?
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL