Sep 15

No slow lane on the road to the 2014 postseason

It comes down to this: With 14 games left in the regular season, the Nationals visit their division archrivals in Atlanta with a chance to clinch the National League East, drop the Braves below .500 and send them to the outer fringes of the postseason picture.

In a season where they’ve overcome numerous injuries and setbacks, and a year removed from a disappointing out-of-the-money finish, it would be nice if the Nats could clinch in front of their home fans. But it’s a great consolation to have a chance to be the first team to wrap up a division title, and in the home of their nemeses.

But even if Washington does pop the NL East champagne this week, don’t expect the fun to end there. With five teams fighting for four remaining postseason spots, and last-place teams playing spoilers, the Nats will be playing meaningful games through the end of the month, and they may need to go full throttle right to the end.

With a .659 winning percentage since Aug. 1, the Nats certainly deserve the credit for their success, but let’s not overlook the role of some other teams in creating the division situation we have today. The Philadelphia Phillies, at 69-80, have made life tough for both the Nats and Atlanta in recent weeks, while the Miami Marlins, currently 72-76, and most recently the Texas Rangers, with the worst record in baseball at 57-96, have driven the Braves to the brink of elimination from the division race.

This speaks to what makes baseball the best of all professional sports: the integrity of the game. Pro basketball has a draft lottery to keep the worst teams from tanking games at the end of the season. In pro football, teams with nothing to play for, and even teams that have wrapped up playoff spots, routinely rest their star players in the final games. Some of those games can arguably be called rollovers.

Not so in baseball. Even at the end of a 162-game grind, with benches stocked full of eager minor leaguers, lowly teams can find a way to ruin postseason plans. The Rangers are without stars like Prince Fielder, Chin Soo-Choo and Alex Rios, and are playing under an interim manager. It would seem they have no business even playing close to the Braves, let alone sweeping them and finishing with 10-3 throttling as they did Sunday.

The Phillies are an overpaid collection of aging former All-Stars struggling to stay together. But guys like Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett, who has hinted at retirement, have been doing more than just collecting paycehcks. They’ve played their best baseball of the season in recent weeks against postseason contenders.

Need more examples? How about the AL East’s last-place Boston Red Sox, who just took three out of four to knock Kansas City out of first place in the AL Central? Or the Cincinnati Reds, who won two out of three against St. Louis last week to keep the NL Central race close? And what baseball fan could forget the final day of the 2011 season, when the Baltimore Orioles, 29 games out of first place and down to their last out, knocked the Red Sox out of the postseason with the walkoff hit known as the “Curse of the Andino?”

Even if the Nats do clinch in Atlanta, or in Miami this coming weekend, there should be no letup on their part or that of their rivals in the fight for postseason seeding. Just three games separate the current division leaders, the Nats, Dodgers and Cardinals, and each holds a tiebreaker advantage over just one other. The Nats won the season series against the Dodgers; the Cards won the season series against the Nats; and the Dodgers won the season series against St. Louis. Neither of the other two divisions will be settled soon, meaning the leaders, as well as the Giants, Pirates and Brewers, will all likely have to go down to the wire. The Nats will need to keep playing hard to keep pace.

Even if Giancarlo Stanton does not return to the Miami lineup after the brutal beaning he suffered last week, and despite the Mets’ lowly record against he Nats this season, none of the Nats’ remaining games will be easy. They will earn whatever spot they get in the postseason, and so will their counterparts. That’s why we love baseball.