WASHINGTON — Regardless of what you think of baseball as a sport, one thing is undeniable: When there’s nothing on the line, a 162-game season can drag.
That’s only sort of been the case for the Nationals this season. They’ve maintained a double-digit lead in the NL East for virtually the entire season, and their current lead is 19 games — by far the biggest division lead of any first-place team.
Per FanGraphs, the last time the Nationals had less than a 97 percent chance of making the playoffs was May 26, and the last time a non-Nationals team in the NL East had at least a 25 percent chance of making the playoffs was May 15 (the Mets).
Not to say the Nationals should throw a few games in hopes of making the pennant race a little more interesting or anything, nor is it a complaint that Washington is so good. But each win and loss has had so little impact on standings over the past three months or so that it’s understandable if fans have taken a temporary leave of interest.
It’s time for that to change. Something potentially big is happening.
The Dodgers, who were being compared to the best teams of all-time just a month ago, have completely fallen apart, while the Nationals have more or less continued their stellar pace of the season.
Look at this two-month window, from June 7 to August 7, where the Dodgers were absolutely dominant, per Baseball-Reference.
Los Angeles went from 36-25 to 79-32 in that stretch, a mind-boggling stretch of 43 wins in 50 games. But they have been a different team since that time; they’ve lost eight games in a row as of Saturday morning, and 15 of their past 20.
Meanwhile, little has changed for the Nationals except for a somewhat clean bill of health.
Remember in late August when the Nats were basically unrecognizable due to all their injured players? Well, everything changed a few days later. Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Jayson Werth all returned from injury — triumphantly so — and Stephen Strasburg put together his most dominant outing of the season.
Washington is still missing Bryce Harper, and they’ve added top pitching prospect Erick Fedde to the list of players done for the year — he joins pitcher Joe Ross, utility man Stephen Drew, and, in all likelihood, outfielders Adam Eaton and Brian Goodwin — but the team has just kept chugging along.
The Nationals have won five in a row and seven of their past 10 games, they’re 33 games over .500, and there are reasons to believe additional help is on the way. Washington called up top prospect Victor Robles, even though Dusty Baker really doesn’t want fans getting their hopes up, and Harper is progressing toward a return.
So what really changes if the Nationals catch the Dodgers? Home-field advantage in a potential postseason matchup is the big attraction, of course, but will that really make a difference? After all, it’s not as though the Nationals have been dominant at home in season-deciding postseason games.
But despite their previous collapses, the Nationals would certainly prefer to play a series-deciding game in Washington instead of Los Angeles, and they’d definitely enjoy beating the Dodgers in a series-clinching Game 5 in Washington after the Dodgers took the deciding Game 5 from them in Washington a year ago.
(Of course, the Nationals went 1-2 at home in that series while winning one of two in Los Angeles. And the Nationals have actually been better on the road than at home this season, with a 45-27 record away from Washington compared to a 42-27 record in Washington.)
For the little that it’s ultimately worth, especially if the season ends in disappointment once again, there is something nice about finishing the season with the best record in the sport. Don’t tell that to previous iterations of the Nationals (or the Capitals, for that matter), but it’s still a cool notch to have on your belt.
Whether you believe it means anything or not, baseball is infinitely more enjoyable when there’s a race in progress. If the Nationals and Dodgers can keep it interesting as the season winds down, that’s good for fans of both teams, even if the latter’s fans would prefer the team righted the ship.
Buckle up, baseball fans. The Dodgers come to Washington next weekend. It could be lots of fun.