Predictions were nearly universal: the Washington Nationals would win the NL East division en route to the NL pennant. A dominant pitching staff and a potent offense would certainly be enough to tear through the rest of the league.
A funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs — the Nationals bats have been nonexistent all season, and they have played around .500 ball most of the year.
To paraphrase my friend and brilliant author John Feinstein, the 2013 Washington Nationals’ season is on the brink.
Tonight at Nationals Park, Washington opens a nine-game homestand, starting with a three-game series against the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves.
But coming into the three-games set with the Braves, the Nationals, with a record of 54-57, are 12.5 games behind Atlanta and 6.5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the final Wild Card playoff spot. If you are a diehard fan, the good news is that there are still two months of baseball left to play.
However, according to Baseball Prospectus, the Nationals have a 0.1 percent chance of defending their NL East title and only a 4.7 percent chance of making the playoffs as a Wild Card team.
What has everyone in baseball scratching their heads is that this is the same team that won 98 games last year and captured a division title. All of baseball has been waiting for Washington to go on a big run. Winning say, 20 out of 25 is something that this team should be able to do on paper.
John Smoltz, a former Cy Young pitcher for the Braves and now-analyst for the MLB Network, thinks that there is still time for the Nats to right the ship and make the playoffs.
“This remains a very good team but they really need that run. I don’t see them catching the Braves, although, we have seen stranger things happen. I still would say they are in the Wild Card race, but it all will be determined on how they play over the next two weeks.”
Despite the odds not on their side, the Nationals still have a glimmer of hope of returning to the post season for the second straight year — but it starts tonight with the Braves.
In a way, it seems only fitting that Stephen Strasburg, who was not pitching in the postseason last year, will get the ball tonight against Atlanta’s Mike Minor. Maybe, Strasburg can be the spark that starts the Nationals on a big-time roll.
Rant Sports columnist Jim Williams is a seven-time Emmy Award-winning TV producer, director and writer. Follow him on Twitter @wordmandc.