The Washington Nationals have finally shaved off the ever aggravating half game from their Wild Card deficit, as they now trail the Cincinnati Reds by five full games after their off day yesterday. Though there are nine games left on Washington’s schedule, it will be a much easier climb with only full games to worry about, since half a game is essentially an extra win Washington would need.
Cincinnati does have a slightly tougher closing schedule, as they open a three game set against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Steel City and they also close out the season against the same Pirates, a team they have a .462 winning percentage against this season. Washington’s playoff hopes still seem incredibly bleak, but they do have three more games against the Miami Marlins, so things could look markedly different going into Monday morning.
The NL Central has shown it is probably going to be the most competitive division in the National League for years to come. The Reds have shown they are built to win for years to come, the Pirates have finally broken through after being the sexy preseason pick in recent seasons to turn things around and become a contender. The St. Louis Cardinals have been the most consistent team from that division historically, and they aren’t going anywhere, either. Needless to say, that division will not only be a slug fest, but the teams not winning the division will probably sit atop the Wild Card standings.
What that means for Washington is quite simple: The NL East is their only means of making the playoffs for years to come. The Atlanta Braves are no slouches, there is no question about that, and this is simply their year. Not many teams can absorb two everyday players hitting below .200 in B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla and still have an 8.5 game lead in their division and be able to clinch the NL East with their next win and Nationals loss. Of course, Uggla is never going to hit for a high average, but the Braves would need a huge bounce back year from Upton, otherwise they will have serious problems in 2014.
Washington needs to play strong inter-division games and try to win the division every year for multiple reasons. We have already explored the fact that they will have too much competition outside of the division for the Wild Card to be a viable option, but the fact is the Wild Card game should not even count as a playoff game. What it is is MLB’s means of recreating the magical end to the 2011 season, where fans saw two teams with huge Wild Card leads blow both of them on heartbreaking losses, and the teams behind them making the playoffs on dramatic walk-offs and solid wins.
As we also saw last season, a bad call by an umpire will also make or break a team’s season. Sure, it was against the Braves, but the fact is that Washington cannot put themselves into that position. The division for years to come will be much more winnable than it was this season, with Washington’s slow start and Atlanta’s hot start. That will not be the case for years to come, so for the Nationals, it will be division or bust.