Mike Rizzo's primary goal at the outset of each season is for his team to be playing meaningful games in late September. (The ultimate goal, of course, is to then be playing meaningful games in late October, but that can't happen without meaningful games in late September.)
Well, the good news is that the Nationals indeed will be participating in meaningful games during this final weekend of September. Alas, the games are meaningful only for the opposition: the Rockies, whose 2018 fate hangs in the balance over the next three days.
Colorado finds itself smack dab in the middle of a wild, down-to-the-wire National League playoff race. The Rockies currently sit atop the NL West, leading the Dodgers by one game and needing a strong finish to clinch what remarkably would be the franchise's first-ever division title in its 26th season of existence.
So the Nationals face an interesting dilemma this weekend: Do they approach these as must-win games, play all their regulars and try to make things as hard on the Rockies as they can, or do they still use this as an opportunity for veterans to get some rest and younger players to get some action?
Manager Davey Martinez has suggested he's still interested in trying to win as many games as possible, and that he'll treat the games the same way he has treated games all month even as it became clear the Nats weren't going to make the postseason.
For what it's worth, the Nationals currently sit at 81-78. One more win would secure the franchise's seventh consecutive winning season. Only the Yankees (26), Cardinals (11) and Dodgers (8) have longer streaks.
The Nationals also could finish this season alone in second place, thanks to Philadelphia's late collapse. Nine days ago, the Phillies were five games over .500, hot on Atlanta's tail in the NL East. Eight straight losses later, they now must win out simply to finish 81-81 and at best tie the Nats for second place.
Does that matter to the Nats?
"Absolutely," Martinez said. "We want to finish the season strong, we really do. It's a testament to these guys. Like I've said before: They don't quit, and they are going to keep playing until the last out of every game, and then we'll see what happens. But they've done really well over the past few weeks, and all year.
"We could have fell apart months ago, and they didn't. It's a testament to those guys in that clubhouse, and the trainers and the coaching staff and everybody that's been involved - Riz, myself, the upstairs - to hold everything together and keep them fighting and keep them believing. And we did that for the most part."
A few other things to watch for in this final weekend of the season ...
* Joe Ross is starting tonight's series opener in place of Tanner Roark, who remains at home in Atlanta with his wife and newborn son and will not pitch again in 2018. It was a disappointing season for Roark, who even with a significant second-half improvement will finish 9-15 with a 4.34 ERA and 1.281 WHIP. (Though it should be noted he actually had a slightly worse ERA and WHIP last year.)
* The rest of the rotation isn't set in stone quite yet. Stephen Strasburg is tentatively penciled in for Saturday, with Max Scherzer on Sunday, but Martinez suggested one or both could be replaced if they or the team feel like there's no need to make one more start. Strasburg is 9-7 with a 3.77 ERA in 21 starts (his fewest since he was recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2011). Scherzer is 18-7 with a 2.53 ERA and 300 strikeouts in 33 starts, at this point facing a tough challenge trying to win the Cy Young Award over Jacob deGrom and his 1.70 ERA.
* A few offensive milestones up for grabs: Anthony Rendon needs nine RBIs to get to 100 (which at Coors Field isn't an outrageous suggestion). Bryce Harper needs one more home run to get to 35. Juan Soto needs a strong weekend at the plate (5-for-10 or 6-for-13 or 7-for-15) to finish with a .300 batting average along with a .400 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage.