The state of the race with nine days to go

MIAMI - As the clock ticks down on September, the magnitude of every game result grows. And what looked like a tight race only days ago begins to look more comfortable.

No, the Nationals haven’t clinched anything yet. Not even close to it. But in the simple act of winning 6-4 Friday night over the Marlins, and especially in the simple act of watching the Cubs lose three days in a row (once to the Reds, twice to the Cardinals), the Nats have put themselves in a pretty advantageous position.

They’re one game up on the Brewers for home field advantage in the National League wild card game. That’s still tight. But they’re now three games up on the Cubs for a spot in the Oct. 1 winner-take-all game.

And while that might have still sounded too close for comfort not long ago, a three-game lead at this late stage of the season is pretty significant.

All the moreso when you remember the Brewers and Cubs only play eight more games while the Nationals play 10. That means the Nats’ lead in the loss column is even larger: two games over Milwaukee, four games over Chicago.

Let’s do the math. If the Nationals go 5-5 the rest of the way, they finish 89-73. In order to also reach 89 wins, the Brewers need to go 5-3 while the Cubs need to go 7-1. It’s going to be awfully tough for Chicago to pull that off, with five head-to-head games against St. Louis still on the schedule.

Rendon-High-Fives-Soto-Gray-Sidebar.jpgLet’s take it one step farther. If the Nationals go 6-4 the rest of the way, they finish 90-73. As stated here before, 90 wins guarantees at worst a tiebreaking Game 163, because the Cubs can’t win more than 90 games at this point. The Brewers need to go 6-2 to match that mark.

Point is, the Nats and Brewers are in pretty good shape right now. And the Cubs have just about reached the point of desperation.

So a wild card matchup between Washington and Milwaukee looks more probable by the day. Again, it’s far from a lock. The Brewers still could catch the Cardinals, win the NL Central crown and bump St. Louis down to a wild card slot. But Nats-Brewers is the most likely matchup at this point.

Which means the biggest looming question the rest of the way may be: Which city gets to host the wild card game? This is where the Nationals need to maintain a lead over the Brewers straight through the finish line.

If the two clubs end up tied at season’s end, Milwaukee would host the wild card game, by virtue of its 4-2 head-to-head record this year. The Nats, by virtue of a 4-2 head-to-head record, would get to host the Cubs. But that requires a big turnaround at Wrigley Field the rest of the weekend.

So if the Nationals really care not only about clinching a wild card berth, but also of hosting the game on South Capitol Street, they’re going to have to hold off the hard-charging Brewers, winners in 13 of their last 15 games and owners of an awfully advantageous schedule down the stretch (two more with the train wreck Pirates, then three apiece with the subpar Reds and Rockies).

That’s where things stand on this Saturday morning. Check back in 24 hours, though, because these things tend to swing in dramatically different directions based on only a couple of game results.

That’s what happens when you’ve reached the final nine days of the season.

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