Slow-climbing Nats now have chance to pick up the pace

The Nationals just completed their most important homestand of the season to date. We noted it. They acknowledged it.

And while the 6-4 record they posted against the Diamondbacks, Phillies and Braves may feel a bit disappointing given the opportunities they had to win a couple more games, that’s actually a good representation of what they need to do the rest of the season to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs.

We’ve pointed out that the Nationals have played .667 ball since their rock-bottom, four-game sweep in New York in late May. They’ve gone 18-9 since then to get themselves back to the precipice of the .500 mark.

But it’s unrealistic to expect a team to play at that torrid a pace for much longer. Win 2-of-3 over a full season and you end up with 108 wins. That’s all-time-great territory. And these Nationals, with due respect, are not all-time-great material.

That’s OK, though. The Nationals are capable of playing .600 ball the rest of the way. And if they do that, they’d end up with 88 wins. It wouldn’t guarantee a berth in the wild card game, but it would probably put them right in the mix.

The wild card game has been around for seven seasons now. In four of those seasons, 87 or 88 wins was enough to qualify. Two other seasons required 90 or 91 wins. The only outlier from the bunch came in 2015, when wild card game pitted the 97-win Cubs vs. the 98-win Pirates.

So 88-to-90 wins is a worthwhile target for the Nationals right now. To get to 88, they’d have to play .600 ball the rest of the way. To get to 90, they’d have to play .624 ball.

Are they capable of that over the second half of the season? Well, they’ve done it before.

Doolittle-Bumps-Suzuki-Red-sidebar.jpgThe 2017 Nationals played .617 ball over an 81-game stretch, including an 81-game stretch before Mike Rizzo acquired Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. The 2016 Nationals played .605 ball over an 81-game stretch from April-July.

The 2014 Nationals played at an outrageous .654 clip over the final 81 games of the season. The 2012 Nationals were almost as good, playing .642 ball over their best 81-game stretch.

What did those teams have in common? Those are the four Nats teams that made the playoffs, of course, each of them runaway National League East champs.

None of those teams faced the challenge this current Nationals team does: Climbing out of a significant early hole. That must be said, because it’s a major difference between the 2019 team and the others.

But these Nats have shown over the last month they’re capable of playing as well as anyone in baseball, even with an obvious flaw: the bullpen. Rizzo is probably going to need to address that unit sooner rather than later to help give his team a chance at pulling off a complete comeback.

In the meantime, the Nationals now head into a two-week stretch before the All-Star break that is no less important than the week they just completed. No, they’re not playing the Phillies and Braves again. They’re playing the Marlins and Tigers on the road, then the Marlins and Royals at home.

That’s 12 games against three of the majors’ four worst teams right now. It’s a golden opportunity to pile up wins and get themselves over the .500 mark heading into the break.

In order to get over that hump, the Nationals need to go 8-4 during this stretch. That would leave them at 45-44 at the All-Star break. And it would simply be a continuation of the pace they’ve been playing at for the last month: .667 ball.

And that would put them one step closer to the ultimate goal that would salvage a season that looked lost one month ago but now offers a whole lot more promise.

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