The left side of the screen showed in big letters the Cubs walloping the Cincinnati Reds; the right, the Brewers cruising against the San Diego Padres. The in-control nature of those contests was a contrast with the game being played below the screen.
The Nationals were desperate to maintain what was left of a diminished lead in the National League wild-card race, and the Cardinals were frantically trying to keep their own flimsy cushion in the NL Central.
The Nationals fell behind in the first inning while, on the scoreboard in right-center, the Cubs and Brewers jumped to early leads they would never relinquish. The Nationals fought back but watched as a familiar Achilles’ heel — the bullpen — doomed them in the seventh of an eventual 4-2 loss.
Their lead for a playoff spot two weeks ago was seven games. This defeat, the Nationals’ ninth in their past 14 games, shaved that lead to 1½. The Cubs now sit just a half-game back of the wild card’s top spot, which the Nationals have held for the better part of three months. The Brewers, even without reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich, who’s out for the year with a broken right kneecap, are a game behind the Cubs.
The Nationals still seem likely to make the playoffs — they have a 91.8 percent chance, according to FanGraphs — but those odds have decreased slightly seemingly every day for the past two weeks. The Nationals have 82 wins and, with 13 games left, the counting is on to see how many it will take to make the playoffs. It seems that 89 or 90 should do it. This simple math helps the Nationals, because the NL Central race is now, in a way, their race, too.
This cluster of NL Central teams marginally helps the Nationals. If the third team in the race was an NL West team, for example, and each team was independent of one another, their spot might be more vulnerable. But the Cubs’ schedule includes seven head-to-head matchups with the Cardinals, which could minimize the opportunity for any gains in the standings.
The Cardinals now have a two-game lead over the Cubs for the division, and they want to create a comfier cushion over the team’s four games in Chicago this weekend and three in St. Louis to finish the season. (The Cubs’ intervening series is three in Pittsburgh; the Cardinals’ is three in Arizona.) Those two series between the NL Central’s top teams could become the league’s most important to end the season — and the Nationals should be thankful they’re happening.
If the Cubs beat up on the Cardinals, the Nationals probably must deal with a stronger contender for the wild card. If the Cubs and Cardinals effectively split, the status quo remains. If the Cardinals slam the Cubs, the scenario Nationals fans should hope for, it helps keep the Nationals’ primary nemesis down and provides some margin for error.
The Nationals currently don’t have any leeway. The Brewers are in the thick of the hunt and face the easiest schedule of any contender down the stretch, 12 games against well-below-.500 squads: three more against the Padres, three against the Pirates and three-game road sets with the Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies. The Brewers have small odds of winning the division, but their soft slate means they’re a threat. Their record and schedule have positioned them to leapfrog into a playoff spot if either the Nationals or Cubs (or both) falter.
There exists a fix for the Nationals. They have two games left with the Cardinals, including the most favorable pitching matchup of the series Tuesday night with left-hander Patrick Corbin against right-hander Miles Mikolas. Then they play three at Miami against the lowly Marlins and five at home against the Philadelphia Phillies, who will be finishing one of the most difficult stretches in baseball this season — a 10-day, 11-game road trip against three of baseball’s top eight teams. They finish the season with three against the Cleveland Indians, a team just as eager to secure a trip to the postseason. The Indians are 1½ games out of an American League wild-card spot.
There is danger in that schedule with a division rival, and someone like Bryce Harper, ready to play spoiler, as well as the Indians clawing for their own spot. But even if the Nationals only take one game of this series with the Cardinals and that one with the Indians, they’re still at 84 wins. That means they’d need to win five of eight against the Phillies and Marlins to hit 89 and have a solid chance of making the playoffs.
The Nationals, two weeks ago, seemed as though they’d challenge for the NL East title and, if they missed it, waltz into the playoffs anyway. They’ve now given back almost all of the cushion they had built during their three-month stretch as the best team in baseball. But it isn’t all gone and, however tenuous, they’re still the wild-card leader.
The most effective solution now, the one that will best quiet the rising panic, is to win.