This is the most important week of the Nationals’ season to date. It’s impossible not to acknowledge that, even within a clubhouse on South Capitol Street that typically tries to avoid looking at the big picture.
“We’ve got to win those games,” right fielder Adam Eaton said of the seven upcoming games against the Phillies and Braves. “It’s important. We’re trying to chase at this point. Not to put too much emphasis on it, but we need to play some really competitive baseball.”
The Nationals have managed to redirect their once wayward season back on a reasonable track again. Three weeks ago, they were 12 games under .500 and looked capable of completely collapsing at any given moment. Now they’ve played .667 ball for three weeks, winning 14 of 21 to steer their way back into the conversation.
But they only gained 1 1/2 games on the National League East leaders in that time, from 10 games back to their current position 8 1/2 games back.
That’s a little bit misleading, because the Nats were 10 games behind the Phillies back on May 25. They only trail the Phillies by 6 games now, but they’ve actually lost ground to the Braves, who have since taken over first place and lead the Nats by 8 1/2 games.
That’s why this week is so critical. Because for the first time in a while, the Nationals have the opportunity to directly impact their ability to make up ground. Every game they win is a game gained in the standings on at least one of these rivals.
And yet the odds of them making up major ground this week still aren’t particularly good. Even if they play well.
Consider this scenario: The Nationals take three of four from the Phillies, then two of three from the Braves. That’s a very good 5-2 week against two contenders.
But the Braves play the Mets the next three nights, and then the Phillies face the Marlins over the weekend. Even if Atlanta goes 2-4 for the week, the Nats would still sit a full 6 games back in the division. Even if Philadelphia goes 3-4 for the week, the Nats would still sit 4 games out of second place.
That’s not exactly a dramatic resurrection of a team’s season.
No, it’s going to take more than one good week for the Nationals to become legit contenders again. It’s going to take a sustained run of excellent baseball. They don’t need to play .667 ball for three weeks. They need to do it for three months.
(Here’s the math: If the Nats play .667 baseball the rest of the season, they’ll end up 93-69. That’s an awfully torrid pace to maintain for so long to simply get to 93 wins.)
First things first. The Nationals need to have a good week against the teams they’re chasing. They’re not going to catch them yet. But they can make a real statement about their ability to eventually catch them if they can keep this up over a longer stretch.
“We shouldn’t beat ourselves these next four games,” Eaton said. “Play good baseball and not beat ourselves. If we play the brand of baseball we know how to play, and play clean, we have a good chance.”