The Nationals’ primary goal for the better part of a decade now has been simple: Win the division.
They’ve done that four times in the last eight years, though of course they immediately were eliminated in the National League Division Series each time. And of course the one time they reached the postseason via the wild card, they went on to win the World Series.
So it might be easy for some right now to think it doesn’t matter whether the Nats finish first or second in the National League East this season. As long as they reach the postseason, they’ll have a chance to repeat as World Series champs.
They would be wise not to think like that.
Despite their remarkable run through their most recent October, the Nationals’ best chance for another one would come on the heels of an NL East title, not another wild card berth.
We forget now just how close they came to seeing their 2019 postseason come to an end the same night it began. They were down 3-1 to the Brewers with two outs in the bottom of the eighth. Four more outs, and that would’ve been it. And we would’ve harped on them for once again being unable to win in the postseason, just like all those previous clubs.
The wild card game is a dangerous beast. If you win it, you’re back on solid footing. If you lose it, you’re out. A division title, and the guaranteed best-of-five NLDS that comes with it, really does increase your odds of going the distance.
So as the Nationals head into the final month of the shortest offseason in major league history, their sights should be firmly set on finishing atop the NL East for the first time since 2017. Which is no easy task, given their competition.
The Braves have finished first each of the last two seasons, and though that hasn’t translated into October success - did you know they’ve now lost their last nine postseason series, plus one wild card game, a streak that dates all the way back to 2001? - they’ve still been in an advantageous position to win in the playoffs.
Atlanta was pretty much in control of the division straight through the 2019 season. They never led by fewer than four games after June 18, and they spent most of September up at least nine games.
The Nationals did, however, cut the deficit by a lot in the regular season’s final week. They began that week 9 1/2 games back. They finished four games back, perhaps a bit of an omen for what was to come after that.
As things stand right now, the NL East looks like it should be a highly competitive division. The Braves remain very good, even with the loss of Josh Donaldson. The Nationals also remain very good, even with the loss of Anthony Rendon. On paper, you’d expect these two rivals to duke it out all year long.
What about the rest of the division?
The Mets, you may or may not remember, finished comfortably in third place at 86-76. You definitely do know they were just forced to part ways with manager Carlos Beltrán before he ever got a chance to manage one game. That’s not a great position to be in four weeks before pitchers and catchers report. As always, there’s a good amount of talent in Flushing, especially on the pitching side. But as always, there’s a whole lot of stuff going on away from the field that could disrupt everything, and who knows how this one’s going to play out this time?
The Phillies expected to contend in 2019 but instead stumbled through the finish line at 81-81, the first time Bryce Harper didn’t play for a winning team in his big league career. They will expect to be better in 2020 under new manager Joe Girardi, but there remain plenty of questions about their pitching staff beyond Aaron Nola and newly signed former Met Zack Wheeler.
The Marlins? Well, you know the drill by now, though it should be noted there is legitimate young talent on that roster, just not enough of it to contend yet.