|USA Today Sports Images|
Make no mistake, the Nationals still have plenty of issues. And there is precious little time to get those resolved and make an all-out run through the season's final 56 games. But while there isn't a lot of hope of this team reaching October, there is still a sliver of hope, one worth examining.
The good folks at Baseball Prospectus publish a daily "Playoff Odds Report," which is a fun read and one way to look at the state of things in both the NL and AL. The picture they paint for the Nationals isn't a particularly good one, but it's not entirely bleak, either.
In its simulation of the rest of the season, played out a million times, the Nationals emerge as NL East champs only 3.1 percent of the time. They capture one of the NL's two Wild Card berths an additional 4.3 percent of the time, giving them an overall 7.4 percent chance of making the playoffs.
Doesn't sound too good, does it? Well, no. But these things do have a way of changing quickly. For example, yesterday alone the Nationals' playoff odds increased a full 2.7 percent. Every day they win and somebody ahead of them loses, they gain ground.
This weekend, they gained ground not in the NL East but in the Wild Card race, with the Reds getting swept in Los Angeles while the Nationals were winning those three straight games against the Mets. There is now a 7-game disparity between the two, the first time the Nats have been closer to the Wild Card lead than the NL East lead.
So perhaps there's an opportunity to reach October that way, still finishing second in the division but beating out one of the NL Central's three contenders (the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds) and perhaps the NL West runner-up (either the Diamondbacks or Dodgers) for the fifth and final postseason berth.
That, of course, would only ensure a one-game playoff, most likely on the road. So it's not the Nationals' preferred path. The NL East title remains that, so let's look at the most important thing that needs to happen for the Nats to finish first in the division: They have to beat the Braves head-to-head. A lot.
The two teams still face each other nine times over the season's final two months, beginning next Tuesday in D.C. If the Nationals want to have any realistic hope of catching the Braves, they're going to have to go at least 7-2 in those games, maybe 8-1.
That's not going to be easy, and the fact the Nats have gone 3-7 against Atlanta so far this year doesn't bode well. But that's their best (and probably only) avenue toward a second-straight NL East title.
The good news: The rotation is lined up for Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann to pitch next week's series. After that, Davey Johnson might need to finagle things a bit to get his big three as many starts against the Braves as possible.
It still may not matter in the end. The Nationals might not play well enough against everyone else. Or the Braves, who just swept the Cardinals in impressive fashion, might just keep playing well themselves and not give the Nats an opportunity to catch them.
But if you're looking for a glimmer of hope today, on the heels of a nice bounce-back weekend for the Nationals, this is pretty much all you've got.