For Nats fans, now is the time to soak it all in. A pennant race, a late-summer ritual enjoyed in many cities across the US, has hit DC.
For the next six weeks, everyone who owns a Curly W hat or can provide an informed opinion on the Great Stephen Strasburg Shutdown Debate will be watching games, checking scores, and basically living and dying with every pitch, foul ball, and home run that comes out of the NL East.
Today, August 23, the Nats have the best record in all of baseball at 77-47. They are a staggering 30 games over .500, and after taking two of three games from the Atlanta Braves, the Nats sit with a comfortable six-game lead in the National League East.
In 2012, winning the NL East comes with far greater importance than in previous years. Major League Baseball, in their constant attempt to act hip, changed the playoff structure to include two wild-card teams. The two wild cards will then play a single do-or-die playoff game to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
A 162-game regular season decided by a single game. Makes no sense. But again, this is baseball.
To avoid the purgatory of the wild-card play-in game, the Nats simply need to continue to win at their current pace. And they should. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Nats have an almost 100 percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s great, but it does not guarantee winning the division.
Baseball Prospectus also gives the Braves an 89 percent chance of making the playoffs. Diving deeper, BP projects the Nats to win 98 games, an incredible feat. Less encouraging, though, is that the Braves are predicted to win 92 games. One rough road trip or a few poor pitching outings, and the Nats could lose that cushion.
Full disclosure: I am being very greedy here. The Nats have ranged from awful to interesting since their inception in DC. Here they sit as a virtual lock for playoff baseball, and I want to make sure they win the division.
I admit to greed, but I’ll channel my inner Gordon Gecko and say it’s for the greater good. For the Nats to accomplish all they can, to bring this city a National League pennant or, even more, a World Series trophy, winning the division presents a much more realistic road.
In a one-game playoff, anything can happen. A pitcher can have an off night. Hitters can press, sensing the pressure to deliver, and get out of a rhythm. After a remarkable season, the Nats deserve at least a full playoff series, not some abbreviated marketing gimmick brought to us by the same MLB officials who basically endorsed steroids for a decade.
Some will see the Nats’ playoff predictions and determine October baseball inevitable. But in baseball, no lead is ever safe. Just five short years ago, in the same division, the New York Mets blew a seven-game division lead with just 17 games to play. Think about that for a second: up seven games with just 17 to play. The Nats hold a smaller lead and still have 38 games remaining on the schedule.
Collapses happen this time of year. Remember the Red Sox last year and the infamous clubhouse full of fried chicken and beer? Weird things transpire in baseball, and as Nats fans, let’s not start counting our (non-fried) chickens.
That’s what will make the next six weeks of baseball so great. The Braves won’t give up, and the Nats better not let up. Every pitch matters. Every at-bat matters. Ignore the nonsensical ravings from out-of-towners about what should happen with Strasburg, and tune in to what happens on the field.
Most Washington residents have never experienced a pennant race. Let’s enjoy it.
JP Finlay is a lifelong fan of Washington sports. Some of his fondest memories are of RFK Stadium and Redskins Super Bowl parades. Likes: hot dogs, Arrested Development, the beach. Dislikes: Duke, onions, The Big Bang Theory. Find him on Twitter @jpfinlay.