Wiping Days off the Calendar
Right now the most important thing for the Washington Nationals is wiping days off the calendar. They have a six game lead over the Atlanta Braves and a two game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers for the best record in the NL. The Nationals’ magic number for clinching the division is 33. That is a combination of 33 Nats wins and Braves losses makes it impossible for the Braves to catch the Nationals. To put that more in real terms if the Washington Nationals play close to .500 ball and go 19-20 in their remaining 39 games then the Atlanta Braves have to go 24-13 just to force a one game playoff. In other words the Atlanta Braves, with a current win percentage of .520, have to play .648 ball to catch the Nationals. That is a 105 win pace.
Don't think for a second that this division race is over. In 2007 the New York Mets held a seven game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies with just over two weeks left in the season. They went 5-12 in their final 17 games and ended up losing the division lead they'd held for most of the season, and the Nationals still have six games against the Atlanta Braves, but even if the Braves sweep those two series they have to play exactly the same as the Nationals on every other day in order to catch them. At this point it would take a catastrophic collapse for the Nats to lose the division.
This is baseball and stranger things have happened. The Nats longest losing streak of the season so far has been four games. They have done that twice and they've only lost as many as three in a row five times all season. The last time being when they dropped the finale of a series win against the Brewers and then dropped the first two against the Cubs on June 25-27. It is very rare for a team to avoid long losing streaks in the way the 2014 Washington Nationals have and that speaks to the strength of their starting rotation. A starting rotation that is second in MLB in fWAR, third in ERA, and first in FIP. Every single day the Washington Nationals are throwing out a starting pitcher with the ability to play stopper, and that has kept them from building up a losing streak that has even made it once through the rotation.
That doesn't mean the Nationals can't suffer a losing streak of that length. August 25 through September 3 the Washington Nationals head out on a three city road trip that starts in Philadelphia but afterwards goes out west to Seattle and LA. The Mariners and Dodgers are both excellent teams with excellent starting staffs of their own, and there exists the very real possibility that not only could the Nationals lose both those series but they could get swept as well. And while the Nats are out west dealing with two contenders the Braves will be playing the Marlins and Phillies at home. If all the stars align then the Nats six game lead in the division could vanish right there and the Nats would then have two series left against the Braves and with the way the Braves have played the Nationals you'd have to give them the edge at that point.
While it is unlikely that the Nationals lose the division lead at this point it is still possible. That Braves, unlike the Nationals, are a team prone to long streaks seemingly balancing every long winning streak with an equally long losing streak. The most important thing for the Nationals is to keep wiping days off the calendar. The most realistic scenario is that the Nats play exactly as they have all season and finish with a .569 winning percentage in their remaining 39. A record of 22-17 giving them 92 wins on the season and meaning the Braves would need to go 27-10 to force a one game playoff. It is very unlikely that the Braves can pull that off and very likely that the Nationals can go 22-17. Stranger things have happened in baseball, but time is on the Nationals’ side.