There are only 12 games remaining on the Nationals’ 2018 schedule, and all of those games will come against the Marlins, Mets and Rockies. Which means there are no more opportunities to gain ground on the two clubs that have sat above them in the National League East all summer via head-to-head wins.
No, the Nats have seen the last of the Braves and Phillies this season. Barring a miracle, Atlanta is going to emerge as division champs for the first time in five years. Philadelphia is 6 1/2 games back but does have seven games against the Braves still on the slate to make a last-ditch attempt to reach the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
The Nationals? They’re just hoping to 1) stay above .500 and extend their streak of winning seasons to seven, and 2) perhaps leapfrog the Phillies and finish in second place, some minor consolation.
In the end, though, were the Nats worse than the Braves and Phillies? The standings will say yes. The eye test might not be as conclusive.
Not that the last week is the sole arbiter of such things, but the Nationals did just go 5-1 against those two teams, all on the road. And their final head-to-head records (9-10 vs. Atlanta, 11-8 vs. Philly) suggest the clubs were pretty evenly matched.
The Braves have a better lineup, or at least a more consistent top of the lineup in the form of Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis. But their pitching staff doesn’t look better than the Nationals’ pitching staff at the moment.
As things currently stand, manager Brian Snitker is looking at a postseason rotation of Mike Foltynewicz, Aníbal Sánchez, Kevin Gausman and either Sean Newcomb or Julio Teheran (who each got rocked by the Nationals over the weekend). His bullpen has nine blown saves and a 1.47 WHIP since the All-Star break.
The Phillies, meanwhile, have been in a free fall for weeks now. Since Aug. 18, they’ve gone 8-18, the worst record in the National League. Their pitching staff owns a 4.80 ERA during that span, and manager Gabe Kapler has been resorting to pulling his starters after four, three, even two innings in recent days just to get a pinch-hitter to the plate in an attempt to generate offense.
None of this is to suggest the Nationals are more deserving of the NL East title than their competitors. They missed their chance all summer to take back control of the division when it was there for the taking. The Braves are going to emerge champs because they were consistently the most successful team in the East from start to finish.
But as the days wind down and they prepare to head home to watch the playoffs from afar, the Nationals probably won’t be able to help but look at how things turned out and believe in their hearts they lost this division more than the eventual champion won it.