The first test: Did you check the late Phillies score before you grabbed your coffee?
We’re getting there, Washington. It’s not yet mid-August, but a real-life pennant race could well await. Such a circumstance can make the mind start to race with if-this-then-that thoughts. If Jefry Rodriguez can beat the Atlanta Braves in the opener of a doubleheader (as he did Tuesday) and Max Scherzer was set to pitch the nightcap (as he was Tuesday), then — quick math — the Nationals could easily be 2½ games behind the Braves by night’s end, which would then have you racing to check the result for division-leading Philadelphia, which played late in Arizona.
“I feel like we’re starting to click, you know?” was the estimation of shortstop Trea Turner, who had three hits in the 8-3 opening victory at Nationals Park, before Scherzer took the hill.
And then, the thud that starts all those thoughts over again: a ninth-inning loss in the second game in which Kelvin Herrera first surrendered Ender Inciarte’s two-run triple that provided the Braves with a 3-1 victory, then exited with two words pitchers never want to say — shoulder tightness.
Still, the moments. Atlanta didn’t close it out until the tying runs were on base and Matt Wieters hit a screamer to third — only to get Ryan Zimmerman doubled off second.
“Matt Wieters can’t hit the ball any harder,” Manager Dave Martinez said.
Whew. Did we say 2½ games? Sorry. Back to 4½ games, just as the day began — and six games behind first-place Philadelphia after the Phillies’ 5-2 victory over Arizona late Tuesday.
These are the pushes and pulls we could experience over the season’s final seven weeks. Bryce Harper and Zimmerman hit back-to-back homers to help fill-in starter Rodriguez in a keep-it-rolling opener. Scherzer delivered what he needed to — seven innings of one-run ball — in the nightcap, only to be foiled by Herrera’s collapse in the ninth, not to mention Atlanta reliever Jesse Biddle, who struck out four of the five men he faced.
Yes, the Nats are trending the right way, winning eight of their past 12. But beating the sub-. 500 New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds is merely what’s required to stay on the fringes of the race. Beating the two teams ahead of them — and even after Tuesday’s twin bill, the Nats have five remaining against Atlanta and nine left against Philadelphia — is what’s required to climb into the thick of it.
Which makes this four-game series against Atlanta a contender as the most important regular season series the Nationals have ever played — until the Phillies arrive here in two weeks. Think I’m wrong? Sure, it’s debatable. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.
It’s worth remembering that these Nationals, for all their success dating from 2012, really haven’t successfully navigated the uphill climb they face now. They certainly haven’t trailed by this much just as they started playing well.
“We’ve never really had to do it this way,” said Zimmerman, who went 6 for 8 with three doubles and a homer in the doubleheader. “I’d take the other way every single time, but this is the situation we’re in now.”
Take the Nats’ four division championships — as well as the two seasons that got away in the midst of them.
● On Aug. 7, 2012, the Nats beat Houston for their fourth straight win in what would become an eight-game winning streak. They led the National League East by four games, and the lead didn’t get smaller until after they clinched.
● On Aug. 7, 2014, they walked off the Mets to take a 4½ -game lead in the division. After Aug. 12, their advantage was never less than five games.
● On Aug. 7, 2016, Tanner Roark outpitched Madison Bumgarner in a 1-0 victory over San Francisco to push the Nats’ lead to seven games over Miami, which would pull closer than that for just one day over the remainder of the season.
● And a year ago, they beat the Marlins to go 22 games over .500 and increase their lead to 14½ games. No one even threatened to threaten the rest of the year.
So if the Nationals are to win this division — an accomplishment they can only see through a telescope at the moment, but it’s getting closer on the horizon — it will come in a manner in which they have never done it before, and both the Braves and the Phillies will have a direct impact on whether it’s possible. By this point in 2013, they were six games under .500 and 15½ games out — dead. By this point in 2015, they were just 2½ games behind, but they played .500 ball the rest of the way, ceding the division to the Mets.
Now, about those important regular season games in Nationals history. The inaugural 2005 season contained a mid-September series in San Diego, and when they won the opener the Nats were 2½ back in the wild-card race. But the next night, they blew a five-run ninth-inning lead, and that was essentially it.
If you remember that series as important, and can name the characters who made it such — John Patterson! Hector Carrasco! Jon Rauch! Chad Cordero! — then you’re among the most established (sickest?) Nats fans out there.
The more realistic answer — not to mention the one that’s more at our fingertips — has to be a September series three years ago. The Nationals, preseason favorites but disappointing to that point, had won five straight to pull back into a division fight. The Mets, sparked by a trade-deadline deal for slugger Yoenis Cespedes, arrived at Nationals Park leading the division by four games. A Nats sweep, and the last 3½ weeks of the season were going to be a blast.
Instead, Scherzer couldn’t hold a lead in the opener, and they lost. That was followed by the absolute dagger — a blown 7-1 lead a night later, with the lead characters being Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero and Drew Storen, who combined to walk six men in a six-run Mets’ seventh inning. That was all before old pal Jonathan Papelbon gave up the game-winning homer in the eighth. The division, not to mention the managerial career of Matt Williams, was over.
You remember those games? You do, of course, because they mattered. If you wear a red cap bearing a Curly W, you might not like the way they ended. But there was a feeling of possibility going into that series, just as there was a feeling of possibility going into Tuesday night’s conclusion of the doubleheader. That didn’t work out.
“Come back tomorrow,” Martinez said.
“We’re not out of it,” Zimmerman said. “We’re not even close to out of it. I think we play the Phillies nine times. We play [Atlanta] like five more times. So obviously those games are huge. We’re not going to win every one of them. But we’ve got to win series. You’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Winning the series now means beating the Braves behind Stephen Strasburg’s replacement, Tommy Milone, on Wednesday, then behind Gio Gonzalez and his 6.75 ERA over his past 10 starts on Thursday. Do that, and it earns these Nationals the right to more important games later this month — and into September.
“We’ve been playing really well,” Martinez said.
True enough. What’s the Phillies score, again?
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.