MIAMI — Before Monday night's 7-2 win over the Miami Marlins, a growing September horde of Washington Nationals pitchers moved slowly toward the back of the clubhouse, hunting for chairs in front of the monitor on which pitching coach Mike Maddux would go over some video before the series opener.
"We've played the Marlins like three times in the last month," one of them called from the back, jokingly questioning the need for another introductory pitchers' meeting.
By now, Nationals pitchers know the plan for Marlins hitters so well they could recite it in their sleep. By now, after 17 games with the Marlins not including spring training, Nationals hitters know the Marlins' pitching staff so well that they could likely provide a detailed scouting report on any of its members off the top of their heads.
With 25 games left in the regular season and a lead as comfortable as theirs, the challenge the Nationals face these days goes far beyond a game plan. With so little urgency, and so much accumulated weariness, they must find a way to avoid resenting the routine. After all, that routine is what got them here, with their magic number to clinch a second straight division title at 10.
"You come, you go to the post, prepare yourself just like you would any other day. Offensively the same, defensively the same," said Daniel Murphy, who broke out of a short slump with a three-hit evening as the Nationals' offense broke out with him.
"Hopefully we can, as the season is finishing up, the regular season, we can just start get all pistons firing at the same time."
Murphy was one of the key Nationals pistons not firing lately in the midst of a rare power outage. Murphy arrived in Miami having struck out seven times in his past four games. For reference, he struck out eight times in June.
On Monday, he homered, singled and added a bases-loaded double in the seventh inning to give the Nationals room to breathe. Murphy is 8 for 11 with the bases loaded this season and hitting better than .440 in those situations in his career. Murphy's average had dipped to .315 entering Monday's game, tied for the lowest it has been for a day this season. After his first three-hit day in exactly a month, his average rose to .318.
"I try to get a good pitch to hit, put a good swing on it," said Murphy, who had three RBI. "That's pretty much the goal 600 times."
Anthony Rendon drove in four in the win. He continues to lead the NL in wins above replacement (WAR) if one uses the FanGraphs calculation of that statistic. He is, by that measure and in a growing number of arguments from those inside and outside his clubhouse, the strongest MVP candidate on a roster full of them.
Rendon always jokes that he is tired and always seems to break out after a day of rest. But however much he treasures a breather now and then, his teammates say the most impressive thing about Rendon is the fact that he never actually takes a day off — he sticks to the routine.
"He's just really consistent, every single day. First and foremost, he goes to the post every single day," Murphy said.
"A great attitude every day," said Ryan Madson, asked to describe his early impressions of Rendon, "and the same attitude every single day."
Among veterans such as Murphy, Madson and so many others in the Nationals' clubhouse, consistency of approach earns as much respect as consistency of results. Madson, for example, will tell you that his pregame and postgame routines are what have allowed him to pitch so well into his late 30s.
Madson threw a scoreless eighth inning in relief of A.J. Cole, who threw 5⅔ innings on 100 pitches and allowed one earned run — Giancarlo Stanton's 53rd homer. Despite the fact that the Nationals carried a five-run lead to the bottom of the seventh, Manager Dusty Baker chose to use Brandon Kintzler, Madson and Sean Doolittle to close out the game. Baker has talked about wanting to preserve those three, to avoid using them when he doesn't have to.
"This is a big offensive team like ours. They can score a lot of runs in a hurry. You don't want to wait to get in trouble and then bring those guys in," Baker said. "You're never really comfortable until the game's over."
These days, no one is comfortable. Everyone in the Nationals' clubhouse is aching, one way or another, dealing with fatigue and soreness and the general malaise that sets in after five months of baseball leave the sixth month hovering in less meaningful purgatory.
The Nationals can afford a grumble now and then, or even a three-error night like they overcame with a strong late-inning defensive showing Monday. They do not have to be perfect from now until October. They must just be consistent, even when being consistent can be boring, and when the routine feels rigorous. Adrenaline will inspire them soon enough.