ST. LOUIS - It probably feels like grasping at straws, but it’s about all the Nationals can do at this point without completely giving up on the season. And they are making it plain and clear they aren’t doing that.
“The energy’s there,” Davey Martinez said after Tuesday night’s 6-4 loss to the Cardinals, the Nats’ third straight and fourth in five games to begin this road trip. “These guys don’t quit. And they’re going to fight to the end. I love them. I really do. They’re playing well.”
The Nationals may be playing well, but they’re not winning. Since the All-Star break, they’ve outscored the opposition by 37 runs (tied with St. Louis for the largest run differential in the National League). Yet they’ve gone 12-12 and thus find themselves stuck at .500 yet again, now a season-high eight games out of first place.
The math suggests they are due to start winning at a higher rate if they can keep playing this way. Teams don’t just outscore their opponents by that much and not emerge victorious on a regular basis. But even if that’s true, is there enough time left for them to make up all the lost ground?
Consider this: To get to 90 wins, the Nationals need to go 30-12 the rest of the way. The Braves need only go 23-21 to get there, the Phillies 25-19.
Forget for a moment the other teams in the race, hard as that may be, and just ask whether the 2018 Nats are even capable of putting together a run like that. Common sense says no, but you may be surprised to learn they nearly did it earlier this year.
The Nationals’ best 42-game record this season was a 28-14 stretch from late April to mid-June. They outscored the opposition by a total of 63 runs. That’s when this year’s team was at its best, and that’s mostly before Juan Soto arrived and also when Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Wieters all were on the disabled list.
So a 30-12 record the rest of the way, it would seem, is at least within the realm of possibility.
Here’s the flip side of that, though: Dusty Baker’s Nationals never went 30-12 during any stretch of the 2016 or 2017 season. They topped out at 28-14.
The 2014 Nationals did do it. They went 30-12 from mid-August to late September. Of course, they were comfortably in first place in the division through that run, facing no real challenge from anyone.
The 2013 Nationals also did it, also at the end of a difficult season in which they failed to meet lofty expectations. From Aug. 8 to Sept. 22 that year, they went 30-12, though they never got themselves to within four games of a wild card berth.
So that’s the backdrop the Nats now face. To get to the promised land, they not only have to play as well as they have during any 42-game stretch in club history, they also have to hope the two teams they’re chasing come back to the pack and made a desperation run possible.