Nats will have real impact on fate of NL East race

The Nationals are nowhere near the pennant race this season. They enter the week an astounding 41 games back in the National League East, the largest deficit in club history.

But make no mistake, the Nats will play a significant role in determining who wins the division and who qualifies for the postseason as a wild card, because they’re about to play the majority of their remaining games against those teams.

There are 16 games left on the schedule, 13 of which come against the Braves, Phillies and Mets. It begins tonight with a three-game series at Atlanta. Then, following a three-game respite in Miami, the Nationals host the Braves for three and the Phillies for four in the final homestand of 2022 before finishing the year with a three-game series at New York.

What’s at stake? For the Mets and Braves, a division title. For the Phillies, a chance to end an 11-year playoff drought.

In the only truly close division race in the majors right now, the Mets hold a one-game advantage on the Braves (though they’re tied in the loss column, with Atlanta having two more games than New York still to play). Both have dominated the Nationals this season – the Braves are 10-3, the Mets are 11-5 – but the Nats haven’t faced Atlanta since the All-Star break.

With Cory Abbott, Patrick Corbin and a still-to-be-determined starter taking the mound against a dangerous lineup at Truist Park, these next three days figure to present a real challenge. The Nationals will need to find a way to score runs, unlikely to be able to count on their pitching staff to eke out low-scoring wins.

Why is it such a big deal who wins the NL East when both of the top two teams are all but guaranteed to make the playoffs no matter what? Because Major League Baseball’s new expanded postseason adds some extra incentive to winning a division: The ability to skip right ahead to the best-of-five NLDS.

The second-place finisher, meanwhile, will be forced to host a best-of-three wild card series. In this case, the opponent will probably be the Phillies or Padres. Even if they emerge victorious, the Mets or Braves would then have to go straight into the NLDS against the top-seeded Dodgers having already burned up at least their top two starting pitchers

So, yeah, there’s a distinct reason why the Mets and Braves want to win the East and secure home-field advantage for an NLDS most likely against the Cardinals.

The Phillies, meanwhile, are just hoping to get into the tournament for the first time since 2011. Remarkably, only the Mariners have had a longer postseason drought across the entire sport.

Bryce Harper and Co. are in a three-way battle with the Padres and Brewers for two spots, entering the week 1/2-game behind San Diego and two games up on Milwaukee after dropping four straight. They, too, have dominated the Nationals this season to the tune of a 13-2 record and a recent three-game sweep at Citizens Bank Park.

They’ll be coming to South Capitol Street from Sept. 30-Oct. 2 for a four-games-in-three-days series that includes a Saturday doubleheader (the byproduct of last winter’s lockout, which forced the insertion of a week’s worth of games into the existing schedule).

Speaking of that long-forgotten lockout, it really makes an impact at the very end of the regular season. The original schedule would’ve had the Nationals wrapping things up at home against the Phillies. Instead, what was supposed to be the season-opening series at Citi Field was tacked on to the end of the schedule, making those three games now the final chapter of 2022.

Wouldn’t it be something if after all that, the Nats find themselves in a position to deny Max Scherzer and the Mets a division title?

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