Washington holds a five-game lead over the Braves with 14 to play. (The Braves have 12 games remaining.) That’s still a sizable margin. But it’s not nearly as big as it was a week ago, when the Nationals were 8 1/2 games in front. And if you’re wondering if such a lead has ever been squandered in so short a time, the answer is yes. The 1964 Phillies, long the gold standard of flops, led by 6 1/2 with 12 to go.
(Oh, and if you’re wondering, “How far ahead of St. Louis were the 2011 Braves with 14 games remaining?”, the answer is 4 1/2 games. We know how that turned out.)
In sum, it can happen. Working against the Braves is that they don’t play Washington again. Working for them is that the schedules are imbalanced. All of the Nationals’ remaining games will come against Los Angeles, Milwaukee, St. Louis or Philadelphia — all of whom have reason to believe they can still make the playoffs. The Braves have six games remaining against the out-of-it Mets and Marlins and will end the regular season with three games against the Pirates, who no longer have a realistic postseason chance.
These next five days should tell the tale. The Nats play the Dodgers again tonight — the teams split a doubleheader Wednesday — and then must face the rampaging Brewers four times. The Braves play three games in Philadelphia, and the Phillies have been nearly as hot as Milwaukee. If the Braves can gain a couple of more games by the close of business Monday, they’ll have a chance.
Truth to tell, they already do. The Nationals’ magic number to clinch the division stood at 11 on Sept. 13. A week later, it has only shrunk to nine. If Washington had beaten the Braves even once here over the weekend, we’d have no real reason to get excited. But the Nats didn’t, and we kind of do. We around here know how fast leads can disappear.
By Mark Bradley