MIAMI - Good morning from Florida, where the Nationals will finish their season in the next three days by helping the Marlins close down Sun Life Stadium as a baseball facility. The Marlins, of course, move into a new ballpark in Little Havana next year (and will be known as the Miami Marlins from here on out), so for those of you who get misty about the sight of unoccupied orange seats, take your opportunity to see them now.
If the Nationals sweep the series, of course, they'll finish 81-80, ending the year with their first winning record since moving to Washington (even if that's with some slight help from a rained-out second game of a doubleheader against the Dodgers on Sept. 8). They closed their home schedule yesterday with a 3-0 win over the Atlanta Braves, before a raucous crowd of 37,638 that clearly had visions of better times soon to come.
There was plenty to like about the Nationals' performance - Ross Detwiler's six shutout innings, Henry Rodriguez's seventh-inning dominance and a two-run homer to right field on an 0-2 pitch by Michael Morse - and the Nationals have delivered positive signs all month. Their team ERA of 3.36 this month is the ninth-best in baseball, and their bullpen has been especially good (with baseball's third-best Fielding Independent Pitching mark this month at 2.94). And the numbers have translated to wins on the field; the Nationals' 15-9 mark this month is tied for the third-best in baseball, and they would match their 17-10 record in June with a series win in Florida.
But as well as the team has played, it's worth invoking a traditional baseball caveat: Always be careful about placing stock in spring training and September results.
The Nationals took two of three from the Braves, but those games are the only ones they've played this month against a team with something on the line. Their four-game sweep in Philadelphia came after the Phillies had clinched the best record in the National League, and their other wins have come against the Marlins, Mets, Dodgers and Astros, who are a combined 74 games under .500 this year.
Even shortstop Ian Desmond was careful to get too euphoric about the team's performance in September. While he said he was excited to think about what would happen in the future, when he was asked on Sunday what the September results meant, he said, "Nothing. We're not going to the playoffs. That's the goal."
None of this is to say the Nationals haven't made progress this month; they were still playing a supremely talented, if not supremely motivated Phillies team, and the two games they took from the Braves helped reduce Atlanta's lead to one game in the wild card race. But the Nationals have done this before; they surged to a 15-12 record in September 2007, helping the Phillies catch the Mets in the NL East in the process, and went into the offseason with all sorts of optimism. The next year, they won 59 games.
There's no question the Nationals have more talent in place now than they've had at any point since coming to Washington, and a couple moves could make them relevant in 2012. What they're doing in September, though, doesn't guarantee that will happen.