Major league baseball’s regular season ends three weeks from tonight. However, for the first time in 79 years that won’t mean the conclusion of baseball in the nation’s capital until the following spring.
Sure, I know that the Nats haven’t officially clinched a postseason berth, but let’s be real, people. With 20 games left, Washington is 14 games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team that’s closest to qualifying for the National League playoffs without currently holding one of the five spots. That means that even if the Nats utterly collapsed without the now-shut down Stephen Strasburg, going 5-15 the rest of the way, the Dodgers would have to go 19-1 just to catch them and force a 1-game playoff.
Folks, that’s just not happening. The best team in baseball over 142 games isn’t going to blow a 14-game lead over the final 20 games.
In fact, unless the Braves sweep the three-game series with the Nats this weekend in Atlanta, it’s pretty safe to say that Washington is also going to win the NL East which it leads by seven and a half games. That edge is so huge that even if the Braves gain a game on the Nats tonight – both teams are off tomorrow — and sweep them over the weekend, Washington would still have a three game advantage with just 16 games remaining (17 for Atlanta).
If the converse happens and the Nats extend their lead four more games to an absurd 11 and a half games by Monday morning, they’ll be on the verge of uncorking the bubbly for winning the NL East. Already leading Cincinnati by two and a half games for the league’s best record, Washington could focus on staying in front of the Reds to ensure home field advantage throughout postseason thanks to the NL’s All Star Game victory.
Of course, it’s not like division titles are completely foreign to those of us who call the nation’s capital home. The Caps won the Southeast crown in 2000, 2001 and from 2008-11 after capturing the Eastern Conference championship in 1998. The Redskins took the NFC East in 1999. But that’s it for Washington’s major pro franchises since the burgundy and gold’s last Super Bowl triumph in January 1992.
And since the Redskins and Wizards have missed postseason four years running while the Caps have won just three playoff series since that lone trip to the Stanley Cup finals – losing in the first round in 2010 despite finishing first overall — the Nats keeping on playing when 20 other baseball teams are done will be something to celebrate.
Of course, the Nats won’t be content just to make the playoffs. Even with the flame-throwing Strasburg sidelined, they seem poised to do some serious damage. Washington is 69-45 (.605) when Strasburg isn’t on the mound compared to a 19-9 (.678) record when he started a game. The former percentage would still be baseball’s best.
The Nats lead the NL with a 3.31 earned run average – Strasburg’s 3.16 mark was just third among its five starters — and is second with 1,180 strikeouts – he leads the way with 197 — and 46 saves. After a very slow start prompted in part by major injuries to outfielders Michael Morse and Jayson Werth, Washington is second with 169 home runs and fourth with a .263 batting average and 645 runs.
Werth (.310) leads four regulars who are hitting at least .285. Second baseman Danny Espinosa, the weakest stick in the lineup, is batting a respectable .255. First baseman Adam LaRoche (29 homers), All Star shortstop Ian Desmond and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman have each gone deep at least 21 times.
Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez leads the majors with 19 victories and is fifth in the NL with a .293 ERA. Jordan Zimmermann (3.01, seventh), Ross Detwiler (3.23, 11th) and Edwin Jackson (3.85) have also been formidable while each active member of the bullpen, led by closer Tyler Clippard (31 saves), has ERAs under 3.19. John Lannan, Strasburg’s replacement in the rotation, fits right in at 3.46.
Baseball’s regular season is seven-eighths complete, but for the first time in four generations, Washington isn’t going anywhere when it’s over except deep into October. So sit back and enjoy it.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin