Nationals clinch wild card spot, but can they finally win a series in October?

Mark TownsendYahoo Sports Contributor

For the first time in franchise history, the Washington Nationals will play in the National League wild card game.

The Nationals punched their ticket to the win-or-go home contest on Tuesday thanks to a 6-5 win over the Philadelphia Phillies coupled with a 9-2 Chicago Cubs loss.

The Nats are currently in line to host the wild card game on Tuesday, since they have a one-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers, but there’s still work to be done there. The Chicago Cubs, five games back, are also still in the mix.

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It’s the fifth time the Nationals have earned a postseason berth since they moved from Montreal to Washington, D.C., in 2005. Amazingly, the franchise, whether as the Nationals or the Montreal Expos, has never won a postseason series. That’s something they’ll be looking to change in October.

On the same day they eliminated the Phillies from postseason contention, the Nationals clinched with a win in the second game of a doubleheader. A Trea Turner grand slam in the sixth inning gave them a lead they would never relinquish, despite Bryce Harper’s best efforts.

Once the game was over, the Nationals players stayed on the field to watch the Cubs lose on the big screen moments later, confirming their October plans.

Outfielders Victor Robles and Adam Eaton are two of the reasons the Nats are back in the playoffs despite losing Bryce Harper. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
Outfielders Victor Robles and Adam Eaton are two of the reasons the Nats are back in the playoffs despite losing Bryce Harper. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)

How the Nationals won the wild card

Offensively, the loss of Bryce Harper put a slight dent in the Nationals’ power production. But that's about it. Despite dropping from eighth to 14th in home runs, Washington’s offense is still top eight in runs scored, batting average and OPS thanks to solid contributions from all throughout the lineup.

Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto have been the anchors. They are 1-2 on the team in home runs, hits, total bases, runs scored and RBIs, and are among the league leaders in all those categories, as well. Adam Eaton, Trea Turner and Victor Robles have excelled as table setters and could give Washington five different players with 90 runs scored.

While the Nationals may have lost one offensive star in free agency, they gained another in the starting rotation. Left-hander Patrick Corbin was among the best additions made by any team during the offseason. He instantly gave Washington a third ace, to go along with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, and it was behind those aces that a contender was built.

Only the Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting rotation has posted a lower ERA than Washington's this season, and only the Houston Astros’ rotation has more strikeouts. Those numbers reaffirm just how dangerous Los Angeles and Houston will be in October, but they also signify how dangerous Washington could be if it advances beyond the wild card.

What the Nationals have to do to win the World Series

What would Washington’s reward be for winning the wild card game? An immediate trip to Los Angeles to square off against the Dodgers.

It’s a daunting task, but if any team on the National League side can give the Dodgers a scare, and perhaps knock them off in a short series, it would be the Nationals with their trio of aces.

That highlights the biggest key for Washington to play deep into October. The Nationals will need their rotation to carry a heavy load, including No. 4 starter Anibal Sanchez. That's because the bullpen remains a work in progress despite the trade deadline additions of Hunter Strickland, Daniel Hudson and Roenis Elias.

Lingering questions

The Nationals’ bullpen isn’t just a lingering question, it’s a season-long concern.

Sean Doolittle is still working to reclaim his closer role after missing time with a knee injury. Elias is sidelined by a hamstring injury. As much as we respect Fernando Rodney, he’s pitching in high-leverage situations despite nearly being out of the league in April.

Overall, there hasn't been any consistent success from this group regardless of how manager Davey Martinez deploys them. If the bullpen is required to get 9-12 outs in a given game, the Nationals will likely be facing an uphill battle.

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