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With the season on the line, who would you rather be?
For baseball fans, the season’s final weeks can be a manic-depressive time when fortunes turn on a dime. At least that’s how it’s been for followers of the Washington Nationals. We’ve gone from hope to despair and back so many times in the past few weeks, it’s hard to count.
Remember that awful Western road trip when the Nats returned with a five-game deficit to the New York Mets? Wasn’t the season basically over then? How about last week’s trip to St. Louis, when the deficit grew to 6 ½ games? Local and national writers were laying a lost season at the feet of manager Matt Williams, some calling for his immediate firing.
That all seems so long ago. Now the Nats are on a five-game winning streak, and the first-place Mets are skidding into town with losses in three of their last five. The Nats are within four games of the division lead and could cut it to one with a sweep.
So where is the pressure? Not on the Nats. Washington doesn’t have a distracting debate over whether the ace of the pitching staff will take the mound again after Tuesday. The Nats didn’t spend their setup-man on a 41-pitch, two-inning losing effort on Sunday. The Nats haven’t watched their bullpen blow up in two of the last three games. The Nats aren’t starting a pitcher in Monday’s opener who was torched in his last start by the worst team in baseball – a guy who is 0-4 with a 4.25 ERA in his last five starts against the Nationals.
Washington will have to step it up after sweeping an Atlanta team that is contending for the game’s worst record. The starting pitching will have to improve over the lackluster efforts we’ve seen in recent weeks. The Nats are still the team that needs to gain ground, but they have some recent history to draw on.
Last season, the Nats lost two of three to Atlanta in early August to see their lead shrink to 3 ½ games over the Braves. They then reeled off ten straight wins – five of them walk-offs – over the Mets, Pittsburgh and Arizona, rolling their lead to seven games. Atlanta was not heard from again until the Nats clinched the division at Turner Field on Sept. 16.
What about the Mets’ recent history in division races? In 2007 they lost 12 of their final 17 games to blow a seven-game lead to the Philadelphia Phillies. In 2008, the Mets again led the Phillies with 17 games to play, this time by 3 ½ games. They went 7-10 and again missed the postseason.
Mets manager Terry Collins? He’s not exactly Mr. September. His 1996 Houston Astros went 8-17 in September to finish six games behind St. Louis. In 1997, he managed the Angels, who went 10-15 in September and finished six games behind Seattle. His 1998 Angels led the AL West by three games going into September but went 9-15 to finish three games behind Texas. They were tied with the Rangers as late as Sept. 20 but went 2-5 down the stretch.
This three-game series could portend a division race for the ages, or it could give September all the suspense of a 1988 Mike Tyson fight. Who would you rather be? A Mets team with a history of choking, what seems like a million distractions and a 30-36 road record? Or a Nationals team that is rolling, finally healthy and knows how to win? By Wednesday, we’ll know for sure.