The Nationals have known for some time they're going to clinch a division title and then have multiple weeks of games left to play before the postseason begins, creating an awkward situation in which Dusty Baker has to find a balance between resting his regulars while still keeping them sharp.
There may, however, be a new goal for the Nats to chase even after they officially win the National League East: the league's best record and No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
What once seemed unfathomable suddenly is within the realm of possibility, thanks to the Dodgers' surprising freefall over the last two weeks.
When play concluded on Aug. 25, the Dodgers led the Nationals by 14 1/2 games, cruising toward one of the greatest regular season win totals in major league history. Since then, Los Angeles has gone 1-13 while Washington has gone 11-4, which means that 14 1/2-game lead is now down to five games.
And that could change the way the Nationals view the season's final three weeks, especially with the Dodgers playing on South Capitol Street next weekend.
"We're still trying to win as many games as we can," Baker said. "A month ago, people thought catching the Dodgers was an impossibility. Now we're a lot closer than we were before. Plus, they're coming in here for three days."
It's still a significant amount of ground to make up at this late stage of the season. Both teams have 21 games remaining on the slate entering today. But it's not an outrageous thought.
Baker has been watching the standings all along, keeping tabs on the NL's other contenders throughout the season and comparing their records to his team's record. He knows all the tiebreakers and knows what it would take to earn home-field advantage vs. each potential opponent.
"I don't tell the team this, because it's hard for them to look that far ahead," the manager said. "But I've been there before and I know ... it doesn't guarantee anything, but it certainly feels a whole lot better with home-field advantage than it does going on the road. Even though we've been a good road team. You'd rather have these games in front of your home fans, sleep in your own bed. There's a lot of advantages to being at home."
No matter how things shake out, the Nationals are in very good position to hold home-field advantage in the National League Division Series. They entered the day leading the Cubs (currently atop the NL Central) by 10 games.
How, though, would things look if the Nats caught the Dodgers for the league's best record? The No. 1 seed faces the winner of the one-game wild card in the NLDS. The red-hot Diamondbacks will be one of the participants, facing either the Rockies, Brewers or Cardinals.
Also, for what it's worth, if the wild card champion unseats the No. 1 seed in the NLDS, that club's record does not matter for home-field purposes. The division champ that wins the other NLDS would be guaranteed home-field advantage in the National League Championship Series.