What lies ahead

Believe it or not, the Nationals will open their last homestand of the 2013 regular season tonight.

The final stretch is here, all right.

Sixteen games are all that remain on the Nationals’ schedule. Ten of those 16 are at home, then the Nats will head on the road for their final six contests of the season.

Over the last few weeks, the Nats have started to heat up. They’ve won 23 of their last 32 games, going from a team that was six games under .500 to one that is currently a season-high eight games above the .500 mark at 77-69.

The Nats have played great baseball lately, there’s no doubt about that. Their offense has come alive, averaging 5.3 runs and 1.4 homers per game during this 32-game stretch. Their defense has been much improved. And their staff ERA has checked in at an impressive 3.47.

The level of play has risen, but you also can’t ignore the fact that the Nationals have had a very soft slate of opponents over the last month or so. Of course, you can only play the games that are on your schedule, and the Nats won’t apologize for beating non-contending teams. But there’s no doubt the Nats have taken advantage of their schedule of late.

Of these last 32 games the Nats have played, just six have come against teams with an above-.500 record. Twenty have come against teams that are at least 15 games under .500 at the moment.

These opponents haven’t just been teams that are out of the playoff race, they’ve been teams that haven’t been a part of the playoff picture for months now.

That’s about to change over the season’s final two-plus weeks.

From here on out, the Nats will have a tougher slate of opponents. On this 10-game homestand, the Nats will have three games against the Phillies (who have gone 5-1 in their last six games, including a three-game sweep over division-leading Atlanta), three games against the Braves and four games against the Marlins.

Then, the Nats will head on the road for their final six games of the season - three in St. Louis against the playoff-bound Cardinals and three in Arizona against the Diamondbacks, who are currently a game over .500.

Being at home for the bulk of these games will help, and I’m not suggesting that the Nationals’ final stretch will be a death march against the best-of-the-best. But after pushing around cellar-dwelling teams in empty stadiums for much of the last few weeks, things will get a bit tougher from here.

The Nats do catch a break in that they won’t have to face Cliff Lee in this upcoming series with the Phillies that starts tonight at Nats Park. We will see Kyle Kendrick (10-12, 4.51 ERA) against Stephen Strasburg (7-9, 2.96 ERA) tonight, Cole Hamels (7-13, 3.45 ERA) against Gio Gonzalez (10-6, 3.31 ERA) on Saturday and Tyler Cloyd (2-4, 4.56 ERA) against Jordan Zimmermann (17-8, 3.36 ERA) on Sunday.

Both BaseballProspectus.com and CoolStandings.com currently give the Nats a 2.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. They sit 5 1/2 games back of the Reds (five in the loss column) at the moment.

The Nats have played at a 116-win pace over their last 32 games. They’ll have to keep that level of play up against tougher competition and hope for the Reds to keep slipping in order to have a real shot at this thing.

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