The Scrappy Nationals Are Playing Spoiler Down The Stretch

Washington Nationals v Cincinnati Reds
Washington Nationals v Cincinnati Reds / Jeff Dean/GettyImages

The Nationals won't be making the playoffs, but they've been playing their best baseball lately against teams that might be playing in October. After a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, the team has won four of their last five series, including beating multiple playoff hopefuls. With CJ Abrams and Lane Thomas getting hot at the top of the lineup and the team's pitching proving surprisingly difficult to beat, the scrappy Nationals are giving other clubs some real headaches.

Now that the playoffs have been expanded several times, the divisional and wild card races down the stretch are more hectic than ever. In both leagues there are ten or more teams in the hunt, even this late in the season. It's an absolute shootout, constantly changing and swinging back and forth between contending teams. Nobody knows who will emerge when the dust settles, and every game matters from here on out, even games against the Nationals.

It's common for fans and analysts to look at the strength of remaining schedule for playoff teams. If one team has a run of games against playoff teams and another has games against last-place clubs, then there's an obvious advantage even if the teams are tied in the standings. It's true that it's easier to beat the Nationals than the Braves, but you can't take those wins for granted until the games have been played.

The Reds just learned that lesson, as the upstart club had been a strong contender for the NL Central until stumbling against CJ Abrams and the Nats. The Reds now find themselves neck-and-neck with the Brewers and are at risk of falling behind in the wild card race as well.

How The Nationals Can Make An Impact

The pressure on playoff teams is high right now following the trade deadline and considering the razor-thin margins in the wild card table. The temperature will only get hotter, though, as we approach September and the final deciding weeks of the regular season. Starting today with a double-header against the Phillies, the Nationals will be in games of exponentially increasing importance. They can dramatically shift playoff odds now, and later in September they can even kill a team's chances with a single victory.

The NL East divisional race is likely already decided, but the Nationals have the chance to hurt their divisonal rivals in other ways. Four remaining games against the Phillies start today and seven games against the Marlins come at the end of August and early September, these interdivisional matchups could make or break the wild card race. The Nats also face the Braves for seven games over two series at the end of September, and beating them could potentially make an impact on playoff seeding in the unlikely case that another NL team catches up to Atlanta.

Here's an interesting wrinkle to the Nats schedule down the stretch: the AL East race could be decided by Washington. The AL East, the strongest division in MLB and one of the strongest divisions ever, has five competing teams currently above .500. The Nationals host the Red Sox for three games next week, followed by a trip to the Bronx and to Toronto later in August. The penultimate series of the Nationals season will be in Baltimore against MLB's best team on September 26 and 27th, which could be extremely important for the American League Standings

The Nationals will likely help a few of the aforementioned contenders by getting swept, and they will probably make a dent in a few of them by winning. As the team gives tryouts to some young players, oversees the development of their young stars, and tries to figure out a messy bullpen situation, they'll be playing meaningful baseball all the way to the end.

This is our storyline this year, while we wait on our farm system to produce stars and on our ownership to spend on winning in the future. Any bottom-dwelling team can rattle off wins and hurt a top team when they don't expect it, but the Nationals seem especially capable of doing damage at the end of the season. The team is without Jeimer Candelario but is otherwise intact after the trade deadline, and a solid rotation and some real offensive upside will be scary to even the best teams - just ask the Reds.

Games To Watch

Here are the top three series that I think will matter the most for the playoffs. If the Nats keep up their strong play, they can make a name for themselves as a pesky club that teams dont want to run into. In future seasons, that reputation could translate into a legitimate winning culture. Just because the team is in last place now, doesn't mean they aren't fun to watch, and it doesn't mean they cant pick up some important wins.

Nationals @ Blue Jays, August 28-30, Rogers Centre

Nationals Vs Dodgers, September 8-10, Nationals Park

Nationals @ Orioles, September 26-27, Oriole Park at Camden Yards