On Sept. 1, 2011 the Boston Red Sox had the best record in the American League, a 1 1/2-game lead over the Yankees for the AL East and a nine-game lead over the Rays for the wild card. On that same date, the Atlanta Braves had a nine-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL wild card. Both teams ended 2011 by missing the playoffs.
One year earlier, the Braves entered September with a three-game lead over the Phillies in the NL East. That season, the Braves fell into the wild card, but the team they beat out for that spot, the San Diego Padres, were not so lucky, as they had entered September with a four-game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the NL West and missed the playoffs entirely.
With two games left in August, the Nats will, at worst, enter September with a 3 1/2-game lead over the Braves and at best a 6 1/2 game lead. In the last 10 seasons, a team with at least a five-game lead on the division entering September has won the division. The complete collapses by the 2011 Braves and Red Sox are the exceptions more than the rule. For the last few Septembers, there has been a team that has lost the division lead due to a hard charge by a division rival, but what happened to the 2010 Padres or the 2009 Tigers has no bearing on the Nats.
There is an importance given to September baseball that it might not deserve. It is almost certain that there will be a team that will lose its division lead. In recent seasons, it has become almost a tradition. Look back at the standings for September for any recent season and there will be teams leading a division that either lost out on winning the division or missed the playoffs entirely. There is no doubt that the 2011 Red Sox and Braves are an anomaly, but there are smaller stumbles every season.
For example, the 2010 Padres held a four-game lead on the Giants heading into September. Over their final 31 games, the Padres went 14-17 while the Giants went 19-10. If the Braves were to have a similar hot streak to end the season 20-11 in their final 31 games, the Nats would have to go 15-18 in their final 33 games to lose the division. For a team that hasn't had a losing month all season long, the last full month of the season would be an odd place to start.
Nothing says that the Nats can't have a down month. By all logic they should, but the Nats' September swoon would have to be special or the Braves' play amazingly hot. The Nationals are the only team in baseball that hasn't suffered through at least one down month.
Of the other division leaders, the New York Yankees went .500 in both May and July, the White Sox had a .500 month in April and were 13-14 in June, the Rangers had a .500 May and were 9-14 in July, the Reds have only a .500 April on their record and the Giants were .500 in July. A 14-14 September for the Nats would mean that the Braves would have to go 19-8 to take the division lead if the Nationals enter September with a 4 1/2-game lead.
The Nationals' worst month of 2012 was May when they went 15-13. With 33 games left, the Braves will make it tight. The race for the NL East crown has come down to its final month with only the Braves and Nationals left. By going 15-13 with only one game left in August, the Braves have clinched a winning month, but the Nats' August was better with a record of 17-10. The perception of the Nats fan is that the Braves won't go away, but the perception of the Braves fan is that the Nats are always one step ahead.
September has the appearance of importance because it is the final full month of the season. September breeds the appearance of a collapse. A bad September looks different than a bad June, but both have the same amount of importance on the standings. It will be said that these are the games that matter most, but the Nats are only playing meaningful games in September because they won in April, May, June, July and August.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.