In 10 days in August, the Nationals can make their September boring but their October thrilling.
In a homestand that began with a 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday night, the Nats have a rare chance to do much more than add to their six-game lead in the National League East. While the Atlanta Braves face 10 straight games against contending teams, including the ornery Oakland A’s this weekend, the Nats have an opportunity few teams get: to set themselves up like kings for the rest of the regular season and the postseason, too.
In the next fortnight, the Nats can make it hard on themselves or they can make it oh-so-much-easier. If they add a couple of games to their lead with their home crowds behind them, they will face six games with the Braves in September with far less tension. If they spurt, they could actually run away, just as Atlanta did last year, turning a four-game race in July into a 151 / 2-game blitz in August. Turnabout?
Just as vital, a Nats cushion could prevent a crash. Washington hasn’t had a slump all season. A four-game losing streak, a needle prick in a six-month season, is their worst. The Braves are in a 4-12 fold; even good teams often have one of them a season. A fat lead is the best Nats inoculation for such a disease.
The Nats see another big benefit that could impact their October. Few teams have as many proven young players in the minors as Washington. After rosters expand Sept. 1, the Nats — should they have a healthy division lead — can lean more on those fresh troops to give rest to Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Denard Span and Anthony Rendon, who all have been driven hard.
Waves of injuries have put many Nats on a forced march for 120 games. Ryan Zimmerman is expected to miss about another month. The last thing the Nats need is a tight pennant race.
How big could the stakes be? Perhaps the difference between a division flag with a quick playoff exit and a healthy fresh team — something the Nats have been for only a handful of games all season — that could have a big shot at the World Series. Even black-and-blue they have the NL’s second-best record and the third-best run-differential in the sport. What would this team — intact — look like in October? If the Nats want to know, this homestand could help their chances plenty.
“The beauty of September is the expanded roster, especially for the bullpen to give us the rest we need,” all-star reliever Tyler Clippard said. “We have polished guys to bring up. We know what [lefty Xavier Cedeno] can do. And [righty Aaron Barrett] has done it time and time again earlier this year.”
However, if the Nats are protecting a slim lead, they will have less appetite to put Steven Souza Jr. or Michael A. Taylor in the outfield or use Asdrubal Cabrera and Danny Espinosa to spell Desmond at short.
“In September, you can give some rest, get guys healthy,” Clippard said Friday. “The down side — you can’t rest on a lead and come into October with a lax mind-set. Push to the end. Stay sharp. So it’s a double-edged sword.” The Nats just want to build the kind of lead that creates such nice problems.
Opportunity has this nasty habit of only knocking once. The Nats play the contending Pirates, struggling Diamondbacks (four times) and the solid Giants in the next 10 days — not an easy schedule but manageable. And there’s a kicker: Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, Nats killer, and Arizona home run champ Paul Goldschmidt — who finished Nos. 1-2 in the ’13 MVP voting, are both on the disabled list.
This sort of mental exercise is called “playing the game on paper.” Everybody, including players, does it. But it’s especially hard because that dastardly word “expectation” entered the picture. Instead of simply playing game by game and pitch by pitch, there’s a temptation to swallow the game in gulps that are indigestible. It’s a delicate balance.
“We refuse to look at anything that is not right in front of our face. And that’s good,” Manager Matt Williams said after Friday’s win. That is proper peak-performance athletic theory; small focus wins, big think means big problems.
Perhaps that will help solve problems the Nats have had grabbing chances in the past.
In April, the Braves’ pitching was demolished by injuries. The Nats had a chance to play from in front all season. Instead, Washington lost five of six games to the Braves. As a result, the Nats spent four months gaining back that ground. If they had just gone 3-3 in those games, this whole season would have felt different — almost easy.
If the Nats have a pattern of squandering opportunities, why bring it up? Because it has become clear this season that the Nats really are one of the game’s powerful teams, not just a club that had a magic 98-win season in ’12. The evidence, please? The Nats, despite all their handicaps this year, are on pace to outscore opponents by 0.75 runs a game. How unusual is that?
Since 1961 (or the team’s inception), the Padres, Rockies and Marlins have never had a year when they outscored foes by 0.75 runs a game — even though those franchises have gone to five World Series. The Rays, Royals and Expos/Nats have had only one such season (the Nats in ’12). The Cubs, Rangers and Blue Jays have done it only twice in all those decades. The Diamondbacks, Mariners, Angels, Brewers and Astros have done it only three times since they were born or since ’61.
At times like this, when the Nats reach a potential turning point in their season, it’s worth remembering Washington may field two teams as talented — in ’12 and ’14 — as some cities get to watch in a 50-year period. So don’t yawn. The baseball on view doesn’t get this good very often. And when it goes away, it can disappear for a generation. The Phillies had one plus-0.75-run-a-game team from 1902 to 1976. From 1934 to 1971, Washington had zero.
No club maximizes its ability unless it faces reality, including the weight of expectations. Hard things, like taking charge of a division race before Labor Day, don’t become easier by ignoring the challenge.
The odds say the Nats probably have won the NL East in the last three weeks. That’s not for certain, but they have a 93.8 percent probability of winning their division, the highest of any team, according to FanGraphs.com. And a 96.2 percent chance at the playoffs.
What happens in the next 10 days — and not an easy 10 games, to be sure — can be a major bonus. The Nats can set up a final 32 games that have tension but little trauma and give them enough cushion to rest and heal at their preferred pace for October. In that treacherous month, Clayton Kershaw, the torrid A’s and many other menaces reside. Win now, then prepare, prepare.