Time is short and the possibilities many for the Nationals as October baseball approaches.
There are just 14 games to go out of the full 162. No one involved wants to look beyond Monday's series opener against the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite leading the National League wild card chase for months, Washington's playoff hopes remain tenuous.
The Nationals haven't been out of a playoff position since July 3. They haven't been in the second wild card spot since Aug. 4. They have held the top wild card spot alone every day since Aug. 11. And yet they still don't know if they can hang on to host a potential one-game N.L. wild card game – or if they'll be in it at all.
Winning the N.L. East was a pipe dream smashed for good when the Atlanta Braves took five of seven from Washington over the past 10 days. Now the deficit is 9 ½ games and the Braves are going to win the division for the second year in a row.
The focus turns to that No. 1 wild card berth, which would at least allow home-field advantage in a winner-take-all single game. Of course, that hasn't helped the Nationals much in previous playoff series when they were eliminated at home in Game 5 of the National League Division Series in 2012, 2016 and 2017. You can excuse fans if they are a little scarred.
Entering the St. Louis series, Washington is 82-66 with a 1 ½ game lead on the Chicago Cubs (81-68) and 2 ½ on the Milwaukee Brewers (80-69). That's not much of a margin for error. Slip below those teams and you're suddenly out of the playoffs altogether.
"We don't know who we're playing, but we've got guys already watching all the teams that are still in it, getting ready," manager Dave Martinez said on Friday. "We won't know until this thing plays out a little bit. Our big concern is today."
Missing out would be a bitter pill for a team that used the motto Stay in the Fight to rally from a 19-31 start to the season. On the morning of May 24 there was talk of major changes coming and Martinez faced increasing scrutiny about his job status. The Nationals have gone 63-35 since then, but a 5-8 skid in September has allowed the other playoff contenders to close the gap.
What once seemed like a formality when Washington was seven games clear of the playoffs on Sept. 1 is far more tense two weeks later. But the Nationals are still in a good enough position after Sunday's 7-0 win over Atlanta that it's not too early to scout potential playoff opponents. There are a lot.
The Cubs and Brewers have one less game to play with 13. But Washington can't quite ignore the New York Mets (77-72), who are four games out of the No. 2 wild card, or the Philadelphia Phillies (76-72), who are 4 ½ back of it. The Mets also have 13 games to go. The Phillies have 14. Even the Arizona Diamondbacks (76-74) can't be completely discounted at 5 ½ games back of the Cubs.
For now, the Nationals have their analytics department breaking down numbers and trends for each of the teams remaining in the hunt, including the Cardinals, who have a slim hold on first place in the N.L. Central.
They also have scouts on the road looking at the other contenders to do the same thing in person. Playing the Mets and Phillies 19 times during the season makes that less of an issue. These teams know almost everything about each other by now. But there were only six games against the Cubs and Brewers and seven against the Diamondbacks to draw upon during the regular season
On the field, Washington has work to do with 11 of the final 14 games against teams with a winning record (St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cleveland) and three against the Miami Marlins (52-97), who have the N.L.'s worst mark.
"We'll be well prepared when that time comes," Martinez said.
Here's a look at the N.L. wild card contenders who are trying to chase down the Nationals at the wire:
The two teams are familiar with do-or-die games at Nationals Park. The Cubs won the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS in 2017, a brutal 9-8 loss where Washington blew a 4-1 lead early and had an epic fifth inning meltdown before a late rally fell short.
Chicago saw the Nationals at their worst in May when injuries and bullpen struggles left it struggling to stay afloat. The Cubs took two of three in Washington on May 17, 18 and 19. Four days later the Nationals looked left for dead at 19-31 after a four-game sweep by the Mets at Citi Field. Things were much different when Washington pummeled the Cubs for 23 runs in a three-game sweep at Wrigley Field on Aug. 23, 24 and 25.
One complication: Chicago is only two games behind St. Louis for the N.L. Central lead. So by winning against the Cardinals, Washington could be switching its most likely opponent. The Cubs play St. Louis seven times down the stretch. Given the huge advantage of avoiding the one-off wild card game, Chicago really can't afford to set up its pitching staff for a wild card game. It will need all hands on deck for the two St. Louis series.
The Cubs don't have an ace having a dominant season anyway. But Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Jon Lester all have extensive postseason experience. Look out for Darvish, especially. He has allowed a run or less in four of his last five starts and struck out 14 San Diego batters on Thursday. Kyle Hendricks has the lowest ERA (3.26) among the starters and – for now – would be lined up to face the Nationals in the playoffs.
A big concern for Chicago. Starting shortstop Javier Baez (fractured thumb) is likely out the rest of the regular season and on Sunday first baseman Anthony Rizzo sustained a sprained right ankle.
The seven Cardinals games are massive as the rivals try to club each other out of the playoffs entirely. The four-game series is at Wrigley Field starting Thursday. The final three games (Sept. 27-29) are in St. Louis. The Cubs play Cincinnati at home the next three days and also get three games against Pittsburgh. They scored 47 runs in three games against the Pirates this past weekend.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Nationals get three games against the Cardinals in St. Louis starting tonight. It's a huge series with the potential to impact the wild card race and the N.L. Central. The Cardinals took over first place on Aug. 23, but a lead they built to four games by Friday has been cut in half by Monday. The Cubs and Brewers are on their tail and losing a series to Washington could spell trouble given who Milwaukee and Chicago play early this week.
The Cardinals are as healthy as they can be this time of year. Not all contenders can say that.
As tough as it gets. The Nationals are no easy task with Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Max Scherzer all scheduled to go this series. Jack Flaherty has pitched like a Cy Young candidate since the All-Star break with a 0.76 ERA, but Washington misses him. St. Louis goes with Miles Mikolas (4.28 ERA), Dakota Hudson (3.38 ERA) and veteran Adam Wainwright (4.00 ERA). The seven games against the Cubs should be exhausting, exhilarating wars.
And while we're leaving them off this list of N.L. wild card contenders, St. Louis' three-game series at the Arizona Diamondbacks is rough, too. Arizona is technically still in it at 5 ½ games out of the final playoff spot and it has a +58 run differential and a winning record (76-74). There's at least a chance those games are still meaningful to the Diamondbacks when that series starts. Arizona has six games against the Padres (68-81) and Marlins this week to stay alive before the Cardinals visit.
Can't discuss the Brewers' playoff hopes without the obvious: Reigning MVP Christian Yelich is lost for the season. It's a brutal September blow. He fouled a ball off his knee on Sept. 10 and sustained a fracture. Milwaukee had won four games in a row going into that game against the Miami Marlins. They won that night anyway and have taken nine of 10 games overall, including five of six against the Cubs and Cardinals. Yes, they lost a player with 44 home runs, 97 RBI and a .329 batting average. But Yelich got them this far. They just need a strong finishing kick against a favorable schedule to get into the postseason tournament.
Milwaukee doesn't have a true ace. The closest is trade rental Jordan Lyles, who has a 2.39 ERA in nine starts since arriving from Pittsburgh. The pitching staff getting Brandon Woodruff (3.75 ERA) back would be big. He sustained an oblique strain in July, but has slowly worked his way back and could serve as a long man out of the bullpen. Keep this in mind in a wild card scenario where Milwaukee needs innings to get to ace reliever Josh Hader (2.70 ERA). For now, Lyles would be on track to start the wild card game, but Milwaukee has one off day on Sept. 23 to move Lyles up, if needed, for the last game of the year in Colorado.
Yelich's absence is awful if the goal is to win a World Series. But for now Milwaukee just wants to make the playoffs. The lineup is probably deep enough to hold its own without him for 13 games. Third baseman Mike Moustakas returned to contribute last week after not starting 11 of 12 games thanks to a bone bruise in his left hand. Second baseman Keston Hiura (hamstring), batting .302 with 16 home runs, made pinch-hitting appearances this weekend after missing 12 games. Milwaukee could use his bat back full time. Woodruff could pitch out of the bullpen as soon as this week.
A seven-game homestand against the Padres and the Pirates should keep the Brewers in it until the end. Then they finish on the road against the Reds and Rockies. None of those teams will sniff the playoffs. Anything less than a 9-4 run to end the season would be a disappointment even with the Yelich injury. That would mean 89 wins. Would that be enough?
New York Mets
The team no one wants to face in a wild card game. Why would you? Reigning Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom (2.61 ERA) would make that a miserable experience for anyone. It's a long shot, especially after a brutal los to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday night. New York will likely have to finish 11-2 to pass two of the Brewers/Cubs/Cardinals/Nationals group and sneak in.
But unlike the other teams on the fringes, it knows Noah Syndergaard (4.15 ERA) can toss the season finale and it could save deGrom for the actual playoff game. That's how it lines up now. The Nationals have lost eight of the last 10 games to the Mets and it took a miracle comeback win Sept. 10 to avoid that being nine of 10. This is one scenario they'd rather not see unfold. Add in Zach Wheeler (4.09 ERA), Marcus Stroman (4.50 ERA) and Steven Matz (3.84 ERA) and this rotation should give New York a chance every night. Can its combustible bullpen hold on if they do?
New York is also relatively healthy. No key starters are missing. Infielder Robinson Cano is batting .400 in September after returning from a hamstring tear to lengthen an already deep lineup featuring Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil, among others.
The Schedule Gods were kind to the Mets. The next 10 games are against the non-contending Reds (70-80), Rockies (65-85) and Marlins (52-97). Then they do get the Braves at Citi Field to finish the season, but Atlanta will have long clinched the N.L. East by then. Unless the Braves are still playing for home-field advantage they should be an easy mark that weekend. If 10 or 11 wins is a long shot for New York, at least the schedule is kind.
In about the same position as the Mets with one extra game to play to make up 4 ½ games on the leaders. But Philadelphia doesn't have a Cy Young favorite to throw out there three times. The theatre of Bryce Harper coming to the plate against the Nationals in a playoff game would be delicious. But this will probably take an 11-3 record and some luck to overtake a playoff spot.
The good news for the Phillies? They play the Nationals five times at Nationals Park next week thanks to a doubleheader from a canceled game earlier in the season. There's nothing right now indicating this team can win four or five of those games, but momentum swings fast in September. The Phillies just need to play well in Atlanta starting on Tuesday and go from there.
When starter Jake Arrieta was lost for the season after hamstring surgery on Aug. 31, Philadelphia was in trouble. He'd give them a legitimate arm to pair with Nola down the stretch and big-game experience.
The Phillies would like to keep the Braves from clinching the N.L. East this week while they watch. Survive that one and another series on the road against the Cleveland Indians and they will get their punchers' chance against the Nationals. That series in Cleveland will be tough, though. The Indians are also a desperate team 1 ½ games out of the second American League wild card spot. After five games in four days in D.C., if they are still alive, the Phillies would be in good shape with three games against the Marlins at home to close it out. Top starter Aaron Nola is in line to pitch the finale. But who Philadelphia would turn to in a wild card scenario is anyone's guess. Drew Smyly (4.14 ERA) is the likely choice. It's not an ideal one.
MORE NATIONALS NEWS:
Getting Their Act Together: 'We've got to regroup'
Surprise Team: Brewers unlikely run continues
Sunday Scare: Martinez hospitalized
Nationals prepare for multiple wild card scenarios in a tight playoff race originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington