The nature of the Nationals’ schedule so far in 2017 - and the overall state of both the National League East Division and the National League as a whole - has left this team in an unusual position: They haven’t played very many games the average observer would consider to have been “big.”
The 10 head-to-head contests with the Mets to date may have drawn some extra attention, but at the time they’ve played the Nats have led their expected division rivals by a minimum of 3 1/2 games and a maximum of 11 1/2 games.
The NL’s top three teams (based on winning percentage) reside in Los Angeles, Arizona and Colorado. The Nationals have played all three, have won the series against all three. And with due respect to the surprising Diamondbacks and Rockies, only the series against the Dodgers drew any kind of beyond-normal attention.
Interleague games against the Rangers, Mariners and Athletics have come and gone with no fanfare. The four-game Battle of the Beltways gets extra attention in both D.C. and Baltimore, but to the players involved it’s just four more games on the schedule.
Which brings us to tonight’s event on South Capitol Street. It’s the first of four games against the Cubs. And while the North Siders may not come to town as the unquestioned world-beaters they were supposed to be on the heels of their first championship in 108 years, they do still bring plenty of cachet to the park with them.
The Cubs always are a draw, no matter where they go. And their allure has only grown in the last calendar year, the greatest calendar year in franchise history.
So even though Joe Maddon’s squad comes to town a pedestrian 38-37, second to the Brewers in the NL Central, the Nationals know these are big games this week.
“I think we’ll get up for them,” manager Dusty Baker said.
Whether this proves to be a good test for a Nationals team that hasn’t been tested much this season remains to be seen. The Cubs are dealing with something that plagues so many champions the year after.
“I don’t think there’s a letdown,” Baker said. “I think there’s a short winter. ... You’ve got a very short winter on your pitching staff, because while everybody’s resting in the month of October and in November now, you’re still playing. When you do win, it’s not usually until December that you feel like working out. If you take a month off or two weeks off, you’re looking at December.”
And that doesn’t take into account the off-the- field commitments in the offseason.
“You get the rubber chicken circuit,” Baker said, using a colorful term to describe the fancy dinners players and teams attend after winning it all. “Everybody wants a piece of you. Everybody wants to celebrate with you, and people all around. Next thing you know, it’s time to go to spring training and you don’t have that much time to regroup physically and mentally.”
Most around baseball expect the Cubs to flip the switch at some point, overtake the Brewers and then run away with their division. But even so, it may be tough for them to leapfrog the NL’s other top teams, which creates quite a potential conundrum in these parts.
If the Dodgers (winners of 10 straight) go on to post the league’s best record, they’ll get to face the wild card winner (currently either the Rockies or Diamondbacks, with nobody else close).
And that means the Nationals would be left to play the NL Central champs in the first round of the postseason. Who’s up for a Nats-Cubs NLDS?
“That’s way down the line,” Baker said. “We’ll worry about that when we get there.”
Fair enough. But forgive anyone for already contemplating those possibilities.
That’s what happens when you don’t have many big games on the regular season schedule.