Atlanta swept three games from the Nationals over the weekend in a disheartening affair that Bruce Springsteen, who appeared at Nationals Park on Friday night, might well have called a "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out." Averaging almost 40,000 for the first two games, the Braves gave the Nationals a look at playoff atmosphere and pressure. The Braves were playing with their backs to the wall, 8 1/2 games behind Washington. But they showed how it's done, battling back Saturday and winning three tough, well-contested games.
On Sunday night, Gio Gonzalez was going for win No. 20, hoping to present the closing argument for the National League Cy Young Award. But despite having pitched extremely well in his recent starts, he was not sharp against the Braves as Mike Minor and the Braves staff shut the Nationals down for a disheartening 5-1 loss.
The Nationals are still in the driver's seat, still have the best record in baseball. They return to D.C. on Tuesday for seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers. Nationals Park is where this season first took off back in April when Washington baseball first announced itself by storming into first place in the NL East. The Nationals have been there almost the entire season. The historic nature of this season and the looming playoffs should be enough to bring many thousand loudly cheering fans out to greet their heroes. The fans and the players can unite in what Springsteen might call a "Land of Hope and Dreams."
One thing to cheer is that the Nationals closed out the season series against the Braves with 10 wins against eight losses. But the series may well not be over. They may yet get a chance to prove that they learned something from this last trip to Turner Field. The path to the National League championship may well go through Atlanta. Another and a very different kind of series may loom at Turner Field all too soon.
If the playoffs began today, Atlanta and either the Cardinals or Dodgers would play in a one-game shootout to become the wild card team in the National League. If the Braves were to win that game, in all likelihood behind Kris Medlen, they would host the first two games of the National League Division Series against the team with the best record, currently the Washington Nationals.
As weird and perhaps unjust as that may be, the historic first playoff games in the history of this Nationals franchise could be played at Turner Field or some other venue. This year's playoffs will give the team with the worst record the first two games at home followed by three away games. In theory, the home field advantage is maintained because the best team plays the final three at home. But it is easy to see how this scenario benefits the wrong team by giving them the early advantage. The concept of home field advantage is turned on its head since most series do not reach their final game.
The stated rationale for moving away from the 2-2-1 scenario, where the best team gets the initial home field advantage, is to eliminate a day of travel. Whatever the reason, playing the first playoff games in the history of the franchise away from home seems worse than unfair.
The good news is that the Braves - or any other Wild Card team - would be stretched by the one-game shootout. Atlanta would likely be forced to use Medlen to assure that they do not end up watching at home as they did last year.
An alternate scenario could develop if Cincinnati finishes better than Washington. In that case the Nationals most likely would play the San Francisco Giants, whose current record is 83-63. Again, the series would start in California if Washington maintains the better record.
Washington has played the Giants well this season. In early July, after Washington won the first two games in D.C., Matt Cain tried to salvage one for the NL West-leading Giants in a turn-back-the-clock game in which the 1924 World Series was simulated on the scoreboard, by the uniforms and by the announcers.
The Nationals completed a sweep against the Giants that night, beating Cain with two come-from-behind runs in the bottom of the ninth for a 6-5 win.
The Nationals won two of three in San Francisco in August and so took the season series by a 5-1 margin. In the postseason, all bets are obviously off and there is almost nothing the Nationals can do to control who they play or when. They can only play the best baseball possible, hoping to win them all.
However the cards fall, so to speak, Nationals Park should still be the "Land of Hopes and Dreams" for Washington's young baseball team when all is said and done. Springsteen may be long gone, but the ghosts of greatness are still there. They were there for the Turn Back the Clock Night against the Giants for three games in July and Tuesday, like the Nationals, they will be back.
Ted Leavengood is author of "Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball," released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the "Outta the Parkway" Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com's effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. 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.