Sep 16, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT
The Nationals have thrust themselves back into the pennant race thanks to a torrid month-plus of baseball in which they’ve won 25 of 35 games, leaving themselves 4 1/2 games behind the Reds for the NL’s final Wild Card berth with 13 games to go.
But it’s been no secret all along that the Nationals have pulled this off in large part because of an incredibly advantageous schedule that has seen them play all but six of those 35 games against sub-.500 opponents. That includes a just-completed, 19-game stretch exclusively against the Phillies, Mets and Marlins. The Nationals’ record in those 19 games: 14-5.
So, if nothing else, they’ve proven they can beat up on bad teams. The question now becomes whether they can beat up on good teams, their only hope of finishing off this remarkable late surge and actually making it to October.
The schedule-makers have thrown the Nationals a bone for much of the last month, but they’ll make up for it over the regular season’s final two weeks. The Nats’ final four opponents: the Braves, Marlins, Cardinals and Diamondbacks. Atlanta and St. Louis are headed to the playoffs. Arizona won’t but has kept itself over the .500 mark. And Miami … well, at least the Nationals still get four games with NL’s cellar dwellers.
The stretch run begins tonight when the Braves come to town to open a three-game series. Not that they needed any extra motivation against their chief division rivals, but there is this: The Nationals have to win two out of these three games to prevent Atlanta from clinching the NL East title on their home turf.
“We don’t want that,” manager Davey Johnson said.
Neither do Johnson’s players.
“You never want to see that,” said Denard Span, who carries a 26-game hitting streak into tonight’s series opener. “I hate seeing any type of celebration, especially on our field. I’ve seen that a couple times in my career, see teams jump up and down, and that’s something that we definitely don’t want to have that here.”
The Nationals harbor no false illusions about their chances within the division. They long ago conceded the NL East to the Braves, who led by as many as 15 1/2 games in early August and still lead by 10 games, with their magic number down to 4.
But the Nationals haven’t conceded that they fail to stack up to the Braves, despite the disparity in the standings (or the fact they’ve gone 4-12 in head-to-head matchups so far this season).
“The difference really in the year is we didn’t hold our own with Atlanta,” Johnson said. “We played them a lot of close games, but we didn’t hold our own with them. We need to at least send a message to them these next three days that we’re better than them.”
Better than them? Better than a team that should finish with at least 95 wins and will coast into the postseason?
Well, according to Johnson, yeah.
“I always believed we’re better than them,” the manager said.
That’s not an argument the Nationals are going to win in the court of public opinion, but at this point their only real concern isn’t proving they’re a better team than the Braves. It’s beating the Braves at least twice in the next three days, at least preventing them from dogpiling at the pitcher’s mound at Nationals Park and then spraying champagne all over the visitors’ clubhouse.
It may only delay the inevitable, but it will serve as some consolation to this team, which simply wants to prove to itself and the rest of baseball it actually can beat a good team for a change.
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