If the Nationals somehow find a way to make October's postseason, they could be the favorite to go to the World Series. They are the hottest team in the National League. The question is whether they will have enough time to complete their comeback.
The best-case scenario is that the Nationals win their final 11 games and finish with 92 victories. Pittsburgh has 87 wins and the Reds 86. The Nationals winning their final 11 games isn't out of the question, but 9-2 is more realistic, especially with the Cardinals on the horizon next week. Obviously, one of the three NL Central teams - the Cardinals, Pirates or Reds - has to falter. All three have issues.
The Reds and the Pirates play each other six teams over the next two weekends. For the Nationals, the worst thing that can happen is for those teams to split.
St. Louis is the best team in the National League Central. The Pirates and Reds are leaking oil. The Cardinals need more offense from Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran. They need to survive their final road trip of the season in Colorado and Milwaukee, and then return home for two series to end the season.
The Pirates and Reds, though, aren't as secure.
* The Pirates aren't a lock to make the postseason. They have faded in August twice in the last two seasons, and now, they look like they could fade in September. Rookie Gerrit Cole is their best pitcher and the Pirates are holding their breath that he doesn't suffer September fatigue. Starters A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano have ERAs higher than 6.00 in each of their three September starts and No. 3 starter Charlie Morton is near 6.00. The Pirates are having their worst offensive month. The infield corners, Justin Morneau and Pedro Alvarez, aren't hitting. Starling Marte, their leadoff batter, is injured, and the bullpen is tired. Manager Clint Hurdle is trying to get Jason Grilli, his former closer, back into shape after a stint on the disabled list. Last week, Hurdle tried Grilli in a non-save situation and it wound up costing the Pirates a much-needed victory.
* The Reds say they aren't feeling pressure from the Nationals, but they have to be. The Reds shouldn't be in this position, but their inconsistent play has put them in a must-win situation. The Reds have been uneven all season, and just when it looks like they are putting a run together, they lose two of three to the Cubs and Brewers. Johnny Cueto, the former Reds ace, is the big question mark in the rotation, and he'll get one more start. Tony Cingrani is out with back spasms, and the Reds aren't sure when he'll be back or if he'll pitch in the rotation this season. That leaves Greg Reynolds, a minor league pitcher, as a starter who will make at least two more starts down the stretch.
* While the Braves are a lock to win the NL East, they are having their worst month. And given that they have faded in the last two Septembers, Braves pitcher Kris Medlen says it is important for the Braves to clinch as early as possible. They're struggling with scoring and their pitching is young and inexperienced. Freddy Garcia, 36, is the sixth starter whose job is to give the young arms rest. Medlen is at a career high for innings. Paul Maholm has a tender elbow. Mike Minor, Alex Wood and Julio Teheran are young. So who would be the Braves' first-game starter in the postseason? And the Braves aren't sure what they are going to get from their leadoff batter, Jason Heyward, when he returns from the disabled list with a broken jaw.
* The Dodgers are on the verge of clinching the NL West, but they have injuries and have struggled with the bats. Carl Crawford has neck and back issues. Andre Ethier has an ankle injury. Hanley Ramirez is running gingerly on a sore hamstring. But Matt Kemp started for the first time since July 21 when he injured his ankle sliding at Nationals Park.