Bryce Harper tosses his helmet after grounding into a double play in the eighth inning Monday night. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Sports columnist

At 10:59 p.m. Sunday, I was convinced the Washington Nationals were going to make the playoffs, and be dangerous once they got there. They had absorbed a galling loss to the best-in-the-National League Chicago Cubs on Friday, responded with a resounding win Saturday, handed the ball to the best pitcher on the planet Sunday and pushed across enough runs to win. They would sail to St. Louis closer to the National League East division lead than they had been since late June. They would be getting back pieces of their broken bullpen before the playoffs. Watch out.

And at 11:02 p.m. Sunday — and at all points since then — I have been convinced there’s no way this group can reach October. None at all.

On back-to-back nights, we now have the most harrowing results, the kind that can change the feeling from anything-is-possible to we’re-playing-out-the-string. At 10:59 p.m. Sunday and before, the Nationals had a statement-making, 3-0 victory until it became a 4-3 loss to the Cubs on the most imaginary of all baseball plays — the two-out, two-strike, down-three, pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam.

That was the hard right cross. Then, at 11:32 p.m. Monday, the left-hand uppercut: Paul DeJong’s bottom-of-the-ninth shot that provided St. Louis a 7-6 victory, a game the Cardinals trailed by two in the eighth.

The Nats are staggered, and reeling into the ropes.


“It’s about how you respond to this,” Max Scherzer said after Sunday’s gut-punch. (Jon Durr/Getty Images)

“It’s about how you respond to this,” Max Scherzer told reporters at Wrigley Field on Sunday night, in between disasters.

Two potential responses: an impressive finish to this road trip against the Cardinals that yields meaningful and crucial games against Philadelphia next week, or a fold.

The fold appears to be the early favorite.

The Nats themselves will have a role in deciding. But David Bote’s last-gasp swing against Ryan Madson, followed by DeJong’s blast off Koda Glover on Monday — they not only felt crippling. They exposed issues that would have, eventually, shown up for the Nationals, win or lose Sunday or Monday.

When General Manager Mike Rizzo made one trade for two players last summer — bringing in Madson and Sean Doolittle from Oakland — he solidified a bullpen that had been a disaster. When he traded for Kansas City closer Kelvin Herrera this June — getting ahead of the trade deadline — the Nats had a back end of the bullpen needed to compete not only for a spot in the postseason, but in the postseason.

Now that bullpen doesn’t exist. Doolittle has been on the disabled list since before the all-star break with a foot injury; he’s likely to throw off a mound this week, but that doesn’t mean he’ll pitch in a major league game before the end of the month. Herrera struggled upon his arrival, experienced shoulder pain and went on the disabled list. He is throwing now, but we don’t yet know when he’ll do so from a mound.

And now Madson — the author of Sunday’s collapse — said he couldn’t finish his pitches because he couldn’t properly grip the ball because of pain that goes shooting down his leg.

What else? Throw in the fact that Rizzo jettisoned two relievers — Brandon Kintzler, who got one out and gave up two runs for the Cubs on Sunday, and Shawn Kelley — because, as he said, they were “in the way.” This is a fragile and frail group.

So who’s the closer right now? Glover? Ouch. But it’s not just that. If there are six more meaningful outs, they go to . . . some combination of Wander Suero, Sammy Solis, Matt Grace, Justin Miller and Greg Holland?

That just doesn’t seem like a formula with which to climb back into the race. Madson was Bote’s victim Sunday. Glover coughed up DeJong’s bomb Monday, but only after Solis allowed an even-worse three-run jack to Matt Carpenter — with first base open. There are no good choices.

These two games created two kinds of obstacles for the Nationals, and it’s hard to say which is more daunting. There is what they will have to do to piece together the final three innings of a game in which they lead. And there is the potentially more difficult task of simply showing up in the right frame of mind to go out and take a series from the Cardinals in St. Louis, then the Miami Marlins back home, and then the visiting Phillies next week.

On moving forward: This might seem crazy, but there’s still a path to the postseason here. As Bote’s ball sailed over Wrigley Field’s ivy, it seemed unlikely or impossible. As Carpenter’s exited Busch Stadium, it seemed even worse. But look at the math.

The Nats are 60-59, seven games back. For three weeks or so — basically since the all-star break — I have had in my head a number of wins it will take to win the NL East: 87. In fact, I was talking to an NL executive from another team last week, and when he said, “What does it take to win that division?” we both said “eighty-seven” at the same time.

Yes, it seems like an arbitrary number. And, yes, we both might be wrong. But the thinking is twofold. First, there isn’t a juggernaut in the division. And second, since the two wild-card format was put into place for the 2012 season, 87 wins has been the best line of demarcation for making the postseason. In that span, 63 teams have won at least 87 games, and 59 have made the playoffs.

So, how to get there? The Braves’ emphatic doubleheader sweep of the Marlins on Monday gave them a one-game lead over the idle Phillies. Philadelphia would have to go 22-23 to finish 87-75. Atlanta, similarly, could play sub-.500 ball — 21-24 — to get to 87 wins.

The Nationals would have to go 27-16 — a .628 clip — to reach that number. You’re essentially asking a team that has needed 119 games to get one above .500 to play the final 43 games 11 above. It’s difficult — really difficult. But not impossible.

Which is kind of the way the Nationals have to approach getting over the dizzying events of these games against the Cubs and Cardinals. Difficult. Really difficult. Not impossible. Regardless of how it has felt since 11:02 p.m. Sunday, and all the minutes and hours since.