The Nationals were never really in contention for the postseason this year. They were officially eliminated from playoff contention earlier this month, sealing their third straight season without playing in October since the 2019 World Series championship.
But they have been able to play a role in the upcoming postseason by playing against teams still fighting for a division crown or wild card spot.
Twenty-five of the Nationals’ last 31 games to end the season would have come against playoff-hopeful teams by the end of the three-game series against the Mets that starts at Citi Field tonight. Of those 25 games, 19 are going to be against National League East rivals.
The Braves and Mets have been locked in a close battle for the NL East title and the No. 2 seed in the National League, which includes a bye of the Wild Card Series. The team that finishes in second will host the three-game Wild Card Series starting Friday.
The Mets just suffered a three-game sweep in Atlanta at the hands of the Braves, relinquishing their once 10 1/2-game lead in the division. The Braves now have a two-game lead in the NL East and a magic number of one to clinch the division crown for the fifth straight year. That means any combination of a Braves win or a Nationals win this week would ensure a wild card spot for the Mets, who are still looking for their first division championship since 2015.
The Phillies, after just taking three of four against the Nationals this weekend, are still fighting to be one of those Wild Card teams. They currently hold a two-game lead over the Brewers for that final spot, which made every one of the four games played in three days at Nationals Park important.
So far, the Nats went 2-4 against the Braves, 1-6 against the Phillies and 2-1 against the Mets with three more to play this week. They haven’t been able to coast to the finish line.
Which is probably a good thing, too.
The Nationals are counting on their new young core (along with a group of other prospects in the minor league system) to be a part of their next playoff team. To make the playoffs, you have to play meaningful games in September into October.
With the schedule the way it is now, the Nationals’ young players are getting valuable experience playing important games this late in the year. Even though they don’t mean much for their own playoff aspirations this year.
“They play hard,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We've done it for the most part all year, where they don't quit. They're going to play the last out. For me, I want them to take those, the last inning at-bats into the first inning. And work that way. And let's see if we get some runners on base that way and score some runs early. But they battle and they really battle til the end. And that's, for me, that's a good thing moving forward with some of these young kids. That they're going to continue to play hard and they're going to try to win every game.”
The Nationals have been playing better baseball of late. This month has seen a much better improvement on the field than some of the games played earlier in the season. And it’s showing up on the scoreboard.
Of these 31 games against competitive teams to end the season, 11 so far have been decided by three runs or less.
“It's important that they finish,” Martinez said. “One, they finish up strong. Two, that they are competing against two teams that, one's actually in the playoffs and the other one is competing to get into playoffs. So for this, I talked to them all the time about this is a big moment for you guys, especially young guys. This is playoff, fun, right? I mean, that's what it is. You guys are, regardless of what you think, you're playing to either knock somebody out and for pride really. They're going out there and they're playing hard.”
The players themselves understand this as well. They are looking forward to being the reason either the Braves or Mets don’t win the division, or why the Phillies miss the playoffs.
The crowds at Nationals Park this weekend were not like ones you see for October baseball. But that will change when they arrive at Citi Field later today. And the players are looking forward to finishing their seasons in that atmosphere.
“For a team in our position where we're not fighting for a playoff spot, we can create our own type of playoff atmosphere with that and the thought of these games really matter to other people,” said Erick Fedde. “And when it's in division, you always want to play spoiler. So it's fun for us to pitch in those important games at the end of the year, even though they may not be for us.”