At this point, the Nationals are saying all the right things about finishing the season strong. Many of the players who will finish the 2011 season with the team will be back in 2012, and they know there's a chance to set a tone for next year by playing hard through the end of the season on Sept. 28.
But they've said those same things the last three years, and as the losses mounted, they've seemingly become easier and easier to digest. The Nationals went 7-17 in September in 2008. In 2009, they were 9-17 in September before winning four games in October. And last year, they limped home with a 12-17 record in their last 29 games in September and October.
Each season, they were stuck in last place without much chance of escaping, and each following spring, players talked about how there was a new sense of urgency, an intolerance for losing that might not have been there the previous season.
The Nationals will have scores of faces in their clubhouse this month who haven't been with them in previous Septembers. And if they'd like to set a tone for 2012, there's still plenty to play for.
They can finish out of last place in the National League East for the first time since 2007; they currently are 3 1/2 games ahead of the Marlins. Third place is also still within reach; the Nationals trail the Mets by three games, and play them seven times in the next two weeks.
Washington is currently 63-72. If the Nationals can play a game over .500 this month, they'd finish 77-85. That'd be eight wins better than last year, and the second-best season in franchise history. Even an 11-16 finish would give them 74 wins, better than every season except their first in Washington.
They're modest goals, sure, but the Nationals have to start somewhere. And if they want to stick to the story that there has actually been a culture change, they'll need to back it up by playing well in a month where they don't have much to play for.