Nats will keep foot on gas pedal for final three weeks

And on the day after, Dusty Baker played his regulars.

Though their latest division title has already been secured, the Nationals don’t appear to taking their foot off the gas pedal anytime soon. Baker’s lineup for tonight’s series opener against the Braves - all the currently active regulars are starting except for Jayson Werth, who is dealing with a sore left shoulder - is evidence of that, as are the manager’s answers when asked how he plans to handle the final three weeks of the regular season.

Baker-Maddux-Speier-Sidebar.jpg“If there’s a game to play, you might as well play to win,” Baker said. “Or else you’re wasting everybody’s time.”

The Nationals officially clinched their fourth National League East title in six years late Sunday afternoon, when - 90 minutes after they defeated the Phillies 3-2 in their fastest game of the season - the Braves beat the Marlins 10-8 on a walk-off homer by Lane Adams in the bottom of the 11th. Players stuck around through the long wait and still celebrated with just as much vigor as if they had clinched on the field at the end of their own game, then enjoyed a well-deserved day off Monday.

Now, though, there are 19 games left to play over the regular season’s final 20 days. And though the outcome of those games may not matter in the bigger picture, there are both individual and team goals left to pursue.

Most notably, there’s the possibility of clinching the best record in the NL, or possibly the majors, thanks to the Dodgers’ stunning 11-game losing streak. After play on Aug. 25, the Nationals trailed Los Angeles by 14 1/2 games. Entering play tonight, that deficit has shrunk to a mere 3 1/2 games, with the Dodgers coming to town this weekend for what could be a far more meaningful series than anyone expected.

Is home-field advantage worth playing for down the stretch?

“It doesn’t matter,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I think that’s how all of us feel, player-wise. We had home-field advantage last year, it didn’t matter. You’re still going to have to win on the road. We’ve played good ball on the road this year. Wherever we have to play, we still have to win.”

Which doesn’t mean that Nationals players are ready to mentally check out for the next three weeks before coming back in time for the playoffs.

“I think we’re here because we compete,” Turner said. “Losing’s not fun. So we’re going to try to win, try to compete, try to play well. That’s all you can do.”

Baker does intend to give his regulars days off, as he has all season, ensuring nobody is overworked. He likely won’t push his starting pitchers must past 110 pitches, depending on game situations. And he will pay particular attention to his relievers, wanting them to pitch regularly but not excessively down the stretch.

“In my experience, it was told to me, which I found to be true, that pitchers and players rust out before they wear out,” the manager said. “There’s a fine line. You want them healthy. You want them not to forget what it’s like to call up on your adrenaline in the game. But you also don’t want to press them too much.”

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