The champagne is poured, the beers consumed, and the temporary carpet in the Nationals clubhouse all but destroyed. The division is won, though it was never in much doubt, and the Nationals have not played a game with genuine urgency for quite some time.
But as Max Scherzer said of the Nationals’ remaining schedule, spitting away the champagne sliding down his face, “these games may be meaningless to you, but they aren’t to us.” While the Nationals can rest key players, align their pitching, and give the big weapons in their bullpen a much-needed break, these next three weeks do carry meaning. Below, find five story lines to watch as the Nationals wind up the regular season.
CATCHING THE DODGERS
As Scherzer said, these next three weeks will not be meaningless. Though he left the reasons unsaid, one has been made clear by Nationals Manager Dusty Baker: This team still has a chance to catch the Dodgers for the best record in baseball, and in so doing secure home field advantage throughout October.
The Dodgers have lost 15 of their past 16 games. They began this month on a legitimate quest to be one of the more dominant teams in baseball history. But by beating the Phillies Sunday, the Nationals moved within four games of the Dodgers for the best record in the big leagues. The two meet for three games at Nationals Park next weekend, and while the Nationals will not throw their all-star starters in that series — intentionally or unintentionally, depending who you talk to — they could have a chance to overtake Los Angeles right then and there. If they do, they will play the winner of the wild card game instead of the National League Central champion.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Scherzer declared the next three weeks meaningful, given that he has as much to play for as anyone on the roster. Scherzer is a legitimate candidate to win the National League Cy Young Award again. He might even lead that race. Scherzer leads the National League in strikeouts per nine, is second to Clayton Kershaw in ERA, and is holding opposing hitters to a .174 batting average against, which is 15 points lower than any other qualified starter.
Bryce Harper has probably missed too much time to win another National League MVP. Daniel Murphy has not quite been dominant enough. But National League WAR leader Anthony Rendon could just work his way into that discussion, though he seems unlikely to win against stars such as Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt. Nevertheless, any major surge in the past three weeks could stick in voters’ minds. The race is not over.
WERTH THE WAIT?
Since returning from the broken foot that cost him three months, Jayson Werth has played in nine games and sat out six, bothered by a sore shoulder caused by an errant fastball on his rehab assignment. That shoulder seemed to hobble Werth as he struggled through an 0 for 20 slump that leaves him hitless in September as this week’s series with the Braves begins. Dusty Baker said he and the Nationals would reassess Werth’s situation Tuesday, hoping the veteran can play and get three weeks of at-bats before October.
But in the meantime, the Nationals’ other October option for left field, Howie Kendrick, continues to hit. The Nationals acquired Kendrick thinking he would provide veteran at-bats off the bench and experienced depth all over the field. He has done better, hitting .322 with a .925 OPS in 37 games. If Werth continues to struggle Kendrick might make more sense to start in left field, though Werth has six-plus hard-fought years with the Nationals and is entering his last guaranteed postseason in D.C. Werth has said this October will make or break his perception of his tenure here. His role in October likely depends on how that shoulder — and his bat — bounce back over these next three weeks.
JOSTLING FOR PLAYOFF POSITION
Less than a month from now, the Nationals will have to decide on their 25-man roster for the National League Division Series. It will likely include four starting pitchers, the eight regular position players and the bench locks — Kendrick, Adam Lind, Jose Lobaton and Wilmer Difo. The bullpen will definitely include Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Matt Albers, Oliver Perez and Enny Romero. But outside of those four on the bench and those six in the bullpen, the Nationals have decisions to make about the other three roster spots.
They will take at least seven relievers, meaning Sammy Solis, Matt Grace, Joe Blanton and Shawn Kelley will spend the next few weeks on a strange playoff bubble. They will need a backup center fielder, but if Brian Goodwin isn’t ready, could they take Andrew Stevenson and Rafael Bautista over toolsy young center fielder Victor Robles? Could they include catcher Pedro Severino as a late-game, pinch-running option and insurance for beat-up Lobaton and Wieters? The options abound, and some clarity will probably come over the coming weeks — particularly if anyone on the bubble suddenly pops it with a late September surge.
Perhaps the most important story line of the last three weeks will be the status of Harper and his bruised knee and strained calf. Harper has not been seen doing any kind of agility work outside walking up and down stadium stairs last week, but has begun playing catch from distance, seemingly with his usual vigor.
Neither Harper nor the Nationals has committed to a timetable, though he did tell a young fan in a mock news conference at the Nationals’ season ticket event Saturday that he will play in the playoffs. Front office members expect Harper to play and are mulling plans for him to get at-bats despite the fact that the minor league season has ended and instructional league is in peril due to Irma. Whatever happens, however well they’ve fared without him, the Nationals need Harper in October.