The calendar is taking numbers with it, stripping the season down day by day, turning what was a tight wild-card race more into a fight for geography.
Washington enters the final week of the regular season with a hefty schedule ahead and its lead for the right to host the Wild-Card Game gone. The Nationals lost, 5-3, in Miami on Sunday because the bullpen blew yet another lead. As much as things have changed since April and May, one has remained constant: the Nationals' bullpen is the worst in the league and biggest threat to team success. Their wild-card magic number is four in spite of it.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee hung on for a 4-3 win against Pittsburgh to sweep the Pirates. The Brewers carried a perfect game through six innings. They used three pitchers -- including eventual winner Gio Gonzalez -- to do it. Milwaukee's blistering pace the last two weeks has pulled it into a virtual tie with Washington. The Nationals are .001 ahead of Milwaukee with a game in hand. The Brewers hold the tiebreaker should it come to that once 162 games are finally complete.
The Cubs are spiraling. St. Louis scored two runs in the top of the ninth then sent Andrew Miller to the mound to finish a four-game sweep of Chicago. The Cardinals won each game by one run, reaffirming how slight the gap between the postseason and disappointment may be. Chicago manager Joe Maddon is in the final year of his contract. Even with the currency from managing the Cubs' first World Series win since 1918, Maddon's chances of returning on a fresh deal appear slim. If Chicago misses the playoffs, they become more unlikely, and looking back at four one-run losses to a despised rival becomes an easy spot to start the grousing.
Chicago's six consecutive losses have turned the wild-card race into a two-team adventure. Increasingly, the main question is where the game will be played as opposed to its participants. The next seven days will determine that.
Here are the postseason chances for each team, according to fivethirtyeight.com:
Nationals, 98 percent
Brewers, 98 percent
Mets, 2 percent
Cubs, 1 percent
Phillies, less than one percent
Monday, Washington opens a final eight-game homestand with Patrick Corbin on the mound and Bryce Harper in the batter's box. Philadelphia lost Sunday to drop to 79-75. Its wild-card elimination number is a mere two, which provides the Nationals an opportunity for double satisfaction against the offseason's "stupid money" spenders. Washington could both eliminate and clinch against Philadelphia by the middle of the week.
The weekend delivers a tussle with Cleveland which could be meaningless or decide everything. An ideal setup would include Washington clinching its spot before the Indians arrive in town. To follow would be the question of how hard it wants to push for homefield. Can Davey Martinez rest his most-relied upon pitchers the final day of the season? Or will it be a desperate day just create another?
Watching Milwaukee will be more important. The Brewers' magic number is down to three. Their soft schedule continues this week with visits to Cincinnati and Colorado. Sonny Gray opens the series for the Reds. Luis Castillo closes it. So, Washington can take some solace in knowing Cincinnati's two top pitchers will be deployed against Milwaukee. However, Colorado, 67-89, is Colorado, and the final weekend against subpar competition gives Milwaukee ample chance to play at home Oct. 1.
One week to go.
Coming up Monday:
Philadelphia at Washington, 7:05 p.m. Eflin (9-12, 4.00 ERA) vs. Corbin (13-7, 3.10)
Miami at New York, 7:10 p.m., Smith (9-10, 4.24) vs. Matz (10-9, 4.16)
MORE NATIONALS NEWS:
Pizza his heart: Local pizza chain still trolls Bryce Harper
Doolittle: Something still doesn't look right
Scherz or Stras?: Wild-card options lined up
Wild-card tracker: Nationals hanging on with one week to go originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington