At 8 1/2 games up in the division, it would take a momentous collapse for the Washington Nationals to lose it. Think about it this way. If the Nationals go 9-10 in their remaining games to finish with a record of 98-64, the Braves would have to win every game to win the East outright or go 17-1 to tie. As commanding as the Nationals' lead is, nothing is over. Every one of the Nationals' remaining opponents are over .500 and in the hunt for the wild card, the two most dangerous being the suddenly hot Brewers and Phillies.
The Nationals shouldn't look at this as a tough schedule. They should look at the Braves, Dodgers, Brewers, Phillies and Cardinals, and see an opportunity. An opportunity to send a message of, "We'll be waiting." Of the teams that the Nationals could possibly play in the NLDS, the only team they won't play is the Pirates. In many ways, the Nationals control the fate of the wild card as much as any team in baseball, especially for the Phillies.
Six of the Nats' final nine games will be against a Phillies team that no longer has Hector Luna at first and Pete Orr at second. Once the Phillies got their core back, they started to win. Too big of a deal was made of the Phillies' plight when they traded away the defensively inept Hunter Pence and free agent-to-be Shane Victorino. Since the trade deadline, the Phillies are 26-14, and in games Chase Utley has started, 34-28. The Phillies team that is currently on the field is not the one that put them in the position to be sellers at the deadline.
As good as the Phillies have played, it presents a challenge, and Davey Johnson and the Washington Nationals like challenges. Forget the Phillies for a moment and look at where this tough stretch will begin. The Nationals will start their march through contenders in Atlanta. In order to have a glimmer of hope in the NL East, the Braves need a sweep, and while the Nationals can't clinch the division in Atlanta, they can start to get the nails lined up and the coffin lid in place.
After finishing up in Atlanta the Nationals will come home to play a Dodgers team that took on nearly every bad contract in baseball. They got some talented players in Victorino, Hanley Ramirez, and Adrian Gonzalez, but they were players that other teams didn't want for a reason, and they have had trouble gelling in LA. The Dodgers have gone 18-20 since the trade deadline and 6-10 since completing their monster trade with the Red Sox. The Dodgers are the first team back of the second wild card and the ones the Nats have to beat to clinch a playoff spot. The Nats will soon be presented with the chance to take care of business themselves and clinch their first playoff berth since moving to DC.
Once the Nats are finished with the Dodgers, the Brewers will come to town for a four game set. The Brewers, much like the Phillies, have been hot of late. Since trading away Zack Greinke they have gone 26-16, and Ryan Braun has set himself up as favorite for a second MVP award. Of the remaining teams on the Nats' schedule, the Brewers are playing the best baseball, but it still is an opportunity for the Nats. Every remaining series is.
In all likelihood, the Nationals are going to be playing one of the five remaining teams on their schedule in the NLDS, and the Nationals' desire should be to leave them with a lasting memory. In Atlanta, the Nats can drive the message home that the Braves have no more shot at this division. Against the Dodgers, they can demonstrate they are a different team than when they were swept in LA. The Nats can make the Brewers remember when they came back from being down 7-3 and then 9-2 to win 11-10 in extra innings. Sweetest of all, the Nats can march into Philly with the cure for wild card fever. And, last of all, the Nats can do to the Cardinals what they did just a couple weeks back and make them understand why it is "men against boys," to steal a line from Cubs manager Dale Sveum.
Greek Historian Thucydides said, "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." The Nats' remaining schedule may look tough on paper, but they are the strong with an opportunity to make a few contenders suffer.
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.