So the Washington Nationals have clinched. For months now, it hasn't been a question of if that would happen, but when. If you think that skipper Dusty Baker can just sit back and relax now, chomping on his trademark toothpick for the final three weeks of the regular season, think again. Now is when the real work begins. Here are five things that Baker and the Nats need to do between now and the time they square off against the St. Chiwaukeezona Cubinalbackers in the National League Division Series:
1. Get Bryce Harper healthy. Before this happened, the Nats were scoring 5.4 runs per game, second-best in baseball. Since Harper's coyote-ugly injury, which the team said was a bone bruise at the time but appears to have also included a calf strain, Washington is down to 4.5 runs per contest, which ranks 16th in the majors. The offensive outage is hardly surprising given how the 2015 MVP was slashing this season (.326/.419/.614). The question is: When will Harper return? Although he's no longer limping around the locker room and has graduated to light activity (including the wearing of cornrows, albeit short-lived), he doesn't appear close to resuming full-scale acts of baseball any time in the immediate future. If Harper is back for the playoffs -- even if he's not quite 100 percent -- it's a huge boost to the Nats' chances of winning a postseason series for the first time since coming to D.C. If not, their odds of advancing take a hit.
2. Keep Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg healthy. Scherzer is a two-time Cy Young winner who spent the first half of the season looking like he was headed for more hardware. Then the dings and dents started. On Aug. 1, he left a start in Miami after one inning because of discomfort in his neck, which ultimately landed him on the disabled list a couple of weeks later. On Sept. 2 in Milwaukee, making his second outing since coming off the DL, the Nats ace was drilled in the left calf by a line drive and exited the game after five innings and 75 pitches. Despite all that, the 33-year-old righty is probably still the front-runner in what's become a tight Cy Young race, a testament to just how dominant he's been (0.87 WHIP, .175 BAA). Fellow starter Strasburg has been nearly as dominant, ranking fourth in the NL in ERA (2.64) and third in WHIP (1.03). When healthy, which he wasn't when the Los Angeles Dodgers bounced Washington in the NLDS last year, Strasburg pairs with Scherzer to give Baker a one-two punch (more like a No. 1 and 1A punch) that's as good as any in the game.
3. Hit the refresh button on Daniel Murphy. By no means is Murphy having a bad year or anything even remotely close to it. That said, he has looked like a mere mortal in the second half, posting numbers (.280 batting average, 19 percent strikeout rate) that pale in comparison to his first-half stats (.342 AVG, 9 percent K rate). In early August, he was dealing with a hip issue, and Baker has made a concerted effort to rest the 32-year-old veteran, who has been one of baseball's most dangerous hitters ever since an epic 2015 postseason in which he set a major league record by homering in six straight games for the New York Mets. Come October, the Nats will need Murphy to get back to his old ways, especially if Harper isn't whole.
4. Bring Trea Turner up to speed. Turner is finally back from the broken wrist that he suffered on June 29, but he's not the same guy he was. At least not yet. At the time of the injury, Washington's speedster -- who finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting last season -- was terrorizing opposing pitchers to the June tune of a .298 average with 22 steals in 26 games and was leading the league in thefts. In related news, the Nats averaged 5.8 runs per game in June, a half-run more than their 5.3 season average (best in the NL). Since coming off the DL, Turner's hitting .267 with "just" four steals in 13 games. Good, but not great. Even though Baker now has the luxury of resting his regulars as much as needed in advance of the playoffs, look for him to keep his 24-year-old shortstop in the lineup nearly every day in hopes of getting him locked and loaded for the playoffs. Because when Trea Turner's doing Trea Turner things, Washington's offense is a completely different animal.
5. Call "same seats" in the bullpen. It doesn't have quite the same ring as Tinkers to Evers to Chance, but Kintzler to Madson to Doolittle has done the trick for Washington. Since coming to D.C. in two separate deadline deals, the trio of back-end relievers -- which typically mans the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, respectively -- has worked to a combined 2.08 ERA, and solidified what was an abysmal bullpen. Because Ryan Madson missed time with a sprained finger, the threesome has appeared in the same game on only seven occasions. But Washington has won all seven of those contests. In fact, the Nationals have yet to lose a game in which even two of those three guys have pitched (18-for-18). After blowing 14 saves before the All-Star break, the Nats have blown just one save after, the fewest of any team. That one blown save? It came on Aug. 24 when Baker decided to get cute, pitching Sean Doolittle in the eighth and Brandon Kintzler in the ninth. Since then, Baker has kept his relievers in their familiar roles, and it's continued to be a rousing success. Expect the pattern to continue against the St. Chiwaukeezona Cubinalbackers.