But this is the reality the Nationals have played themselves into with 10 days and 11 games left in their regular season. They have no choice but to beat up on the Marlins in Miami this weekend. They open the series at 7:10 p.m. Eastern Friday. They lead the Milwaukee Brewers by just a game for the National League’s top wild-card spot. The Chicago Cubs are just a game behind the Brewers. The Nationals have lost of 10 of their last 16 games and, in the process, turned a surefire playoff spot into a question mark.
About three weeks ago, in the first days of September, Washington had a seven-game cushion between making the postseason and not. That’s all but disappeared and now, with three whacks at one of baseball’s worst teams, the Nationals’ margin for error has, too.
“It just takes a team effort. Everybody has to have a hand in it. It can’t be one guy. It can’t be two guys. It’s got to be all 25,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said in St. Louis on Wednesday of how they can get back on track. “We have to be out there getting contributions from everywhere. Everybody has a hand in why we win. So if we’re in a little funk, fine, so be it. But we can easily get out of it.”
Scherzer’s assessment came after the Nationals dropped two of three to the St. Louis Cardinals. That finished a 13-game stretch against first-place teams — including the Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, the Braves again and the Cardinals — and it was fair for the Nationals to regress a bit. But their record against winning teams is concerning. They went 2-5 against the Cardinals this season. They went 8-11 against the NL East-leading Braves, 2-4 against the Brewers, 3-5 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-4 against the Arizona Diamondbacks and, maybe most consequentially, 7-12 against the New York Mets.
They are 9-5 against the Philadelphia Phillies, whom they host for five final games next week, but the rest makes simple logic apply: If you don’t excel against contenders, and still want to be one, you better beat up on easy opponents. That’s how the Nationals vaulted themselves up the standings this summer, easing the sting of a 19-31 start and eclipsing teams that weren’t as sharp facing lesser clubs. And it’s exactly how Washington needs to view this weekend.
The Nationals have been mostly handled the Marlins this year. Losing two of three in April was the exception. Their 13-3 record in the season series is the full picture. The Brewers, who have won 12 of 14, close their season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies, all sub-.500 teams. The Cubs have six more against the Cardinals, the team both they and the Brewers are chasing in the NL Central, and that logjam could actually help Washington in the end.
All of the popular projections still give the Nationals a 90 percent chance or better at playing in the wild-card game on Oct. 1. But the Nationals’ breakneck September only has one short break, algorithms aside, and that’s this series in Miami. They otherwise finish with the five-game series against the Phillies, equipped with a split doubleheader Tuesday followed by three with the Cleveland Indians next weekend. The Phillies are clinging to wild-card hopes and, either way, will be interested in playing spoiler. The Indians are right behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League’s second wild-card spot.
They’re all playing for something. The Phillies and Indians want to make the postseason despite themselves. The Cubs and Brewers want to challenge the Cardinals in the Central and, if they can’t, overthrow the Nationals atop the wild-card standings. Washington wants to host the wild-card game, like it was all but locked into earlier this month, while avoiding a complete collapse.
The Marlins, however, don’t have any short-term objectives. They went into this season with eyes focused on a distant future. They have the NL’s worst record at 53-99 and are an even 40 games back of the Braves in the NL East. Washington has Aníbal Sánchez pitching Friday, Stephen Strasburg on Saturday and rookie Austin Voth on Sunday. Voth’s start is the most vulnerable. Sánchez has been great since mid-May and Strasburg has won his last 12 appearances against Miami.
That’s a decent start. But it will all mean nothing unless the Nationals take three games before flying home Sunday night. That’s how must-wins work.