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As the Nationals enter the MLB wild-card stretch run, the stakes are higher than imagined

Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, left, talks with pitcher Max Scherzer.
Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, left, talks with pitcher Max Scherzer. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

A September baseball battle, right down to the wire, has not happened in Washington in generations. But here it comes.

The Nationals close the regular season with 17 games in the next 17 days with a spot in the playoffs at stake. In the process, the Nats, who lead the Cubs and Brewers by 3½ games for the National League’s first wild-card spot, also have a chance to toughen themselves against top competition while working pitchers Max Scherzer and Sean Doolittle back to top form.

What a rare opportunity, wrapped up in a nasty challenge. The Nats are in a 27-game gantlet to season’s end in which they play 24 games against contenders, including 13 games with division leaders. They essentially are facing playoff-quality foes for an entire month. At least they still have 11 games left at Nationals Park, where they plead to their fans: Please make noise.

September is the month when things come together or fall apart for contenders. Right now, the Nats are on that knife’s edge. For the season’s first 50 games, they played like clowns; for the next 85, like champs; and for the past 10 (4-6), like a team that has cooled off while facing a stern schedule.

Despite a wild-card lead that puts the Nats’ chance to make the postseason at 97.9 percent, this is a direction-of-the-franchise test of a shaky rebuilt bullpen, a second-year manager and a franchise with a bitter history of poor pressure play. As Anthony Rendon, in his walk year, and Stephen Strasburg, with an opt-out in his contract, decide about their futures, they will be watching how this team plays.

If any team ever had a toughen-’em-up-for-October test, it’s the Nats now. For years we have heard the Nats had it too easy in romping to their four division titles. Well, “problem” solved. Unless, of course, the Nats keep stumbling. Then this month could be crack-’em-up, not shape-’em-up.

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Eight years ago, the Red Sox and Braves entered September with even better odds at a wild-card spot than the Nats have now. They went 7-20 and 9-18, respectively, to miss the postseason on the last night of the regular season and become catastrophic lore. Nats Manager Dave Martinez, then a coach with Tampa Bay, can tell his team about it. On the last night, the Rays trailed 7-0 but won and snatched the wild card as Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon blew a save in Baltimore.

With a roster as close to full health as teams get this late in a season, the Nats are in fine position to avoid any such nightmare. While the Nats add pieces — the pickup of Asdrúbal Cabrera (29 RBI in 24 games) and the return of Ryan Zimmerman (10 RBI in 24 at-bats) — those trying to catch them have had horrible injury luck. The Cubs lost star Javier Báez (broken thumb) for the rest of this month; their closer, Craig Kimbrel, (sore forearm) isn’t back from the injured list yet. The Brewers just lost superstar Christian Yelich (broken kneecap) for the year.

Meanwhile, the powerful Dodgers have a problem. Hyun-Jin Ryu, who had the lowest ERA in baseball in 2018-19 (1.68) just a month ago, has been getting bombed with a 9.95 ERA in four starts. Has this key member of L.A.’s Big Three hit a workload wall? After missing almost all of 2015-16 following elbow surgery, Ryu has worked just 126⅔ , then 82 ⅓ innings the past two years. This year, he’s at 161⅓ and counting.

With slugger Max Muncy not quite back yet from a fracture in his wrist and Los Angeles just 14-12 during Ryu’s funk, the Dodgers are still the NL’s best team. But is the gap over the Braves, Nats and Cardinals shrinking from miles to yards?

As for the Phillies, who are ­5½  games behind the Nats, every time they turn around someone gets hurt with their M.A.S.H. list now 10 deep.

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The Nats have their worries, too. Doolittle is their only true high-quality reliever. Yet this week, back from the IL, he’s still being used only as a middle-inning matchup lefty, not back as closer. Is that a small “Yikes”?

As for Scherzer, after two months of back misery, rehab and training-wheel starts, he finally looked semi-Mad in six winning innings in Atlanta on Sunday. Watch his rematch with the Braves this weekend in D.C. to see whether he will be full-bore Hall of Fame Mad Max by the wild-card game Oct. 1.

This month will be about not only who makes it to October but whom they will match up with if they get there and whether their club will arrive in top form or severely hobbled. If the Nats have a wild-card matchup to worry about, it’s the Mets, who have had their number and have Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard as starting options.

Washington sports fans often seem to live to worry. They have reasons. And a wild-card game was created to be an instant heart attack. No pitching matchup can prevent a defeat in one lone fluky ballgame.

But as counterbalance, after Thursday’s game, the Nats were not only 97.9 percent to make the playoffs but 54.1 to win the wild-card game and also 25.3 to win a division series over Los Angeles to reach the NL Championship Series. Those are all better numbers than I would have expected.

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What, you’re not interested in a one-in-four chance to reach the semifinals in a major sport, something just two Washington teams (both times the Capitals) have done in the past 28 years? People who lay money for a living think the Nats have a 15.1 percent chance to go to the World Series. That’s plenty to get my attention as I wait for the Redskins to have their first 11-win season since 1991.

It’s easy to underestimate the value of being a wild card. Under the current format since 2012, most Octobers have brought us a team that, after winning its life-or-death game, went on to win at least one more series.

The 2017 Yankees, 2016 Blue Jays, 2015 Cubs, 2014 Giants, 2014 Royals and 2012 Cardinals all won their division series against foes who had had better regular season records (by an average of nine wins). Those Yankees and Cardinals eventually got knocked out in Game 7s of their league championship series, one win from the World Series. Their fans probably weren’t too disappointed with such a wild ride. San Francisco and Kansas City went all the way to the 2014 World Series, won by Madison Bumgarner’s Giants.

Tough Septembers can be excellent preparation for fine Octobers. On Sept. 15, 1924, the Washington Senators, led by Walter Johnson, were tied for first place in the American League with the New York Yankees, led by Babe Ruth, with 13 games left in the regular season. The Senators went 10-3, nipped the Yankees on the last weekend, then won Washington’s only World Series. Battle-hardened.

In 17 days, the Nats will complete a four-week trek through some of the best teams in both leagues with tons of playoff-level pitching. If they earn the right to play another game Oct. 1, even that might not be their last. Wild-card game winners always play with house money. And they just let it ride.

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