Repeat past September performances
For whatever reason, Washington has been strong each of the past few Septembers. Last year, the Nats cruised along after putting the division away early. But in 2013, faced with a similar uphill climb, they played some of their best baseball of the year. In 2012, they fended off the Braves, while in 2011 they showed the first signs of being a competitive team for years to come.
In all, the club has gone 72-42 since Sept. 1 over the past four seasons combined, a .632 winning percentage. If they were to win at the same rate over their final 31 games, they would close 20-11, leaving them at 86 wins. If the Mets keep up their current pace, that won’t be enough. But they’d still have to go at least 14-18 down the stretch. That might not seem like a tall task, but there are still the six head-to-head games remaining.
Once the Nats leave St. Louis, those will be their only remaining games against a team with a winning record.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Hope Scherzer becomes Mad Max again
Max Scherzer has been the unquestionable ace of the staff. But as brilliant as his first four months of the season were, he was a quiet disaster in August.
April-July: 11-8, 2.22 ERA, 150.0 IP, 0.83 WHIP, 172 K, 13 HR allowed
August: 0-3, 6.43 ERA, 28.0 IP, 1.43 WHIP, 37 K, 7 HR allowed
Scherzer’s strikeout numbers are still there, but he’s allowed far more baserunners and batters have made better contact against him over the past month. Nearly half (16 of 33) of the hits he allowed in August went for extra bases — including seven home runs — compared to just 28 percent (30 of 106) through July. That makes it harder to write off the rise in BABIP (from .255 through July to .366 in August) as something fluky.
It’s great that Washington finally lined up its rotation to have Scherzer face the Mets twice. But if it’s the Scherzer who has pitched in August, that won’t be any help. His return to form is essential for the team to have any chance.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Put the defense in position to succeed
Washington’s offense has been rejuvenated by the return of Ryan Zimmerman (5 HR in his last 8 games) and Jayson Werth’s emergence from his season-long slump (.308/.410/.577 his past 13 games through Monday). But even with the excellent Michael Taylor in center field, the Nationals continue to cost themselves runs through poor defensive alignments.
Both Anthony Rendon and Yunel Escobar have been playing out of position all year, which is especially insane considering that their most natural positions are one another’s. Rendon’s at a -2 Defensive Runs Saved at second after posting a +12 at third last year. His injuries may have limited his range, but they clearly haven’t hampered his reaction time or his arm — the most important components at third base — as evidenced in the video above.
Meanwhile, Escobar’s limited defensive abilities have been under a spotlight at third, where his -9 DRS and -5.8 UZR (through Monday) have been costly. This isn’t only a reaction to his two costly missed catches Tuesday night — just tell me Rendon doesn’t make these plays. With Danny Espinosa (+10 DRS at 2B) available on the bench and posting a better fWAR (2.3 to Escobar’s 1.8) in 80 fewer plate appearances, it’s a wonder we haven’t seen him more at second with Rendon at third.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Win at least five-of-six vs. New York
The Nats have to keep themselves within striking distance until they host their division rivals early next week. But that’s when the real work begins. Washington needs to win at least five of the six matchups remaining between the teams which, realistically, probably means sweeping them in Washington. The Nats enjoy the advantage of not traveling the day before the series and having a day off after it, so everyone should be as rested and available as they can be for the three-game set.
If they win at least four of the remaining games, the Nats will own the season head-to-head tiebreaker in the event both teams finish with identical records, meaning they would host the one-game, winner-take-all playoff Monday, October 5. But really, they need the first three games to bring these possibilities into play.
A sweep cuts three vital games off the deficit. But a simple series win only gains one game, a far less damaging blow. Any other result, and the division may slip beyond reach, the final weekend series in Queens notwithstanding.
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Hope the Cubs’ tough finish sinks them
The Wild Card is a very faint glimmer at this point, after Chicago strung together a 19-9 August to pull away from the pack with the final playoff spot. But the Cubs’ finishing stretch has plenty of land mines, and the young roster has not been pushed to this point.
Chicago still has six games against the Cardinals and seven against the Pirates, including a road doubleheader in Pittsburgh. They have a makeup game at home against the AL-leading Royals that will eat up their last remaining off day. And they finish with six straight away from home.
With no more head-to-head matchups remaining and now a nine-game climb to make, it is a very long shot. But the schedule favors the Nats as much as they could ever hope for.
(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
WASHINGTON — Baseball’s a funny sport. It is full of individual moments of excitement trapped within the six-month slog of the regular season, within which each game is but a minute element.
And while September games may feel more important than April games, they all count equally. The only games that inherently carry more weight are those against a division rival with whom you are fighting for a postseason spot. That’s the main reason why, as the Washington Nationals’ mathematical odds grow long as the twilight shadows, especially after deflating losses like the past two, their path to the postseason is not entirely blocked just yet.
Washington is 6.5 games back entering play Wednesday, but only six losses behind the New York Mets. With six head-to-head matchups remaining, the teams could conceivably play at the same pace the rest of the way for all their non-head-to-head games, and the Nats could catch up simply by winning the six remaining contests between them.
According to Baseball Prospectus, the Nationals had an 8.1 percent chance to make the postseason heading into play Tuesday (6.5 percent to win the NL East, 1.6 percent to make the second Wild Card.) FanGraphs likes Washington’s chances better, listing their playoff odds still at 14.3 percent (12.3 for the division, 2.0 for the Wild Card). Those odds were likely narrowed ever-so-slightly with both teams losing Tuesday night.
The Nationals hit a peak of 90 percent (per BP) back on May 28, but have been as high as 89 percent on July 5, 85 percent on July 17, and 81 percent on July 30. But a moribund 12-17 August, combined with New York’s torrid 20-8 stretch over the same span, has put the season on the brink.
If Washington is going to make it to the playoffs, it will need a number of things to happen, other than
the increasingly obvious ones mentioned here before. See the slides above for what it will take for the Nats to keep playing into October this year.