On Tuesday, the Nats appeared lifeless during an 8-0 whitewashing against the Atlanta Braves. Gio Gonzalez, who has pitched well enough to nudge himself into the Cy Young conversation, allowed more than four earned runs for just the third time this season. Speedster Trea Turner, whose 87 percent success rate on steals is among the league leaders, got picked off first base. Michael Taylor, who has quietly become one of the game’s better center fielders, had an uncharacteristically bumpy night in the field that included a throwing error and a route or two that could be described as less than optimal. And of course there was the whole zero runs thing, which was all the more surprising given that it came against starter Julio Teheran, whom Washington has hit hard historically.
Of course, it’s not like there weren’t excuses.
First and foremost, there’s the mental letdown of having already clinched, which the Nationals did on Sunday when they secured a postseason berth earlier than any team in the past 15 years. Then there’s the physical letdown. Even though Dusty Baker’s club had the good fortune of not playing on Monday following Sunday’s bottle-popping festivities, it looked as if they could have used another off-day ... or five. Not for nothing, they were also missing Bryce Harper, who has absolutely feasted on Teheran to the tune a .459 lifetime average, with seven home runs in 37 at-bats. Regardless of the reason, Washington looked flat-out flat.
“I just don’t think we played very well today,” catcher Matt Wieters said. "Everyone wanted to go out there, play hard and get a win. It’s just a hard game. We came out there and didn’t play well today.”
That hasn’t been Washington's norm lately. The Nats entered Tuesday having won 13 of their past 17 to move within 3½ games of the staggering Dodgers (who are 1-16 in their previous 17 entering Tuesday). With L.A. coming to D.C. this weekend for a three-game set, it’s entirely possible that by the time the Dodgers leave town, the Nats might have leapfrogged them in the standings for the NL’s No. 1 seed. Not that that’s necessarily a good thing.
As it stands now, if Washington winds up as the No. 2 seed, the Nationals would be looking at a division series matchup with the winner of a NL Central Division where the Chicago Cubs are currently on top with a .538 winning percentage -- the lowest of any division leader in baseball. If, however, the Nats end up scoring the top seed and face the winner of the wild-card game, there’s a good chance that their first-round opponent would be ... gulp ... the Arizona Diamondbacks.
If you’re just tuning in, the D-Backs are about as good as a wild-card team gets. They own baseball’s fifth-best record (83-61) and its sixth-highest run differential (plus-136). Their rotation boasts one of the game’s best one-two punches in righty Zack Greinke and lefty Robbie Ray. Their lineup, anchored by perennial MVP contender Paul Goldschmidt and buoyed by deadline acquisition J.D. Martinez, is potent. Their bullpen, which features filth-bringer Archie Bradley, ranks second in the NL in ERA. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve won 16 or their past 20 games and are hotter than any team not named the Cleveland Indians. All of which is to say that, home-field advantage or not, maybe the Nationals -- who are still seeking their first playoff series win since moving to the District in 2005 -- might be better served by holding on to that No. 2 seed. Not that they’re concerned with seeding right now.
“Doesn't matter,” Turner said prior to Tuesday’s game when asked about the possibility of prying the top seed away from L.A. “We had home-field advantage last year. Didn't matter. You're still going to have to win on the road. We've played good ball on the road. Wherever we have to play, you still have to win.”