On the day they clinched a playoff berth earlier than any team in the past 15 years, the Washington Nationals stuck around.
After a 3-2 victory over the Phillies on Sunday that reduced their magic number to one, the NL East champs stuck around for an extra 90 minutes, glued to the flat-screens in the home clubhouse, and watched Miami lose in extra innings. By the time the Marlins game ended and bottles were popping in D.C., the Dodgers game was well underway. But the Nationals didn’t stick around to watch that one because, well, it didn’t matter. With their magic number at zero, they already had a ticket to the dance. It didn’t matter that the Dodgers were in complete free fall. It didn’t matter that their cushion over Washington for the NL’s top seed had gone from seemingly insurmountable to decidedly surmountable in barely more than a fortnight. None of it mattered. Five days later, with those very same Dodgers in the District for a three-game weekend series, it still doesn’t matter. At least not to the Nationals.
“I focus on how we’re playing,” says Washington’s Howie Kendrick, who spent the 2015 and 2016 seasons playing in Los Angeles and routinely keeps in touch with old teammates like Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Andre Ethier. In other words, if there’s any player on the Nationals who would be attuned to the Dodgers' downturn, it’s Kendrick. Yet to hear him tell it, it’s as if everything’s hunky dory in L.A. “I know they’ve been losing some games, but other than that I don’t pay attention. They're a really good team. They got a lot of talent and I'm pretty sure they'll be fine.”
He’s not the only member of the Nationals who feels that way.
“Not at all,” says catcher Matt Wieters when asked if he and his teammates view the NL West leaders any differently given their epic struggles. “Every team that puts together a major league roster has a chance to win any game we go out there and play. That's the great thing about baseball. You're a starting pitcher away from turning around a streak."
In the curious case of the Dodgers, as you might expect, they were a Clayton Kershaw start from turning around their most recent schneid. On Tuesday against the Giants, the three-time Cy Young winner allowed one earned run over six innings to lead L.A. to its first win following 11 straight losses. It wasn’t Kershaw’s most dominant outing, as he allowed eight hits and a walk and labored through a 34-pitch sixth inning that ended his work day, but for a guy who was making just his third start after missing more than a month with back issues, it was plenty. For a squad that went from being the supposed best team ever to losing 16 of 17 faster than you can say “Sports Illustrated cover jinx,” it was more than enough. Despite Kershaw’s effort, the Dodgers come to D.C. with a 3-16 record since Aug. 26. They're seeming a whole lot more human than they were three weeks ago.
“I'm not surprised there's been a regression,” said one NL scout. “Hell, there's no way that anybody was going to be able to keep that pace up. There was a significant reliance on younger players whose holes have been found, and they’ve relied on some older guys that have been nicked up. It’s the reverse of their perfect storm at the beginning."
L.A.’s imperfect storm nearly wiped out the 15.5-game lead that the Dodgers held over Washington for playoff pole position, shrinking it to as little as 3.5 games earlier this week. Even though it’s since been stretched back to five games, a strong showing by the Nationals this weekend could breathe life into the tussle for top seed. Again, not that they care.
“It doesn't matter,” said shortstop Trea Turner, whose Nats lost to lower-seeded Los Angeles in the NLDS last year, the third time in three postseason appearances Washington has been bounced in the first round. “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 this year. Wherever we play, you still have to win."
The Nationals’ strong road showing -- at 45-27, they boast the NL’s best record away from home -- includes taking two of three from Los Angeles in early June. That was before Dave Roberts’ squad really kicked it into gear. In fact, the finale of that series, a 2-1 Dodgers win in which Kershaw bested Stephen Strasburg, was the first game of that ridiculous 61-game stretch in which L.A. posted a 50-11 record that landed it, for better or worse, on the cover of Sports Illustrated in late August. Three weeks later, the Indians are suddenly the toast of baseball and navy blue is the new royal blue. As for the Dodgers, whose mojo has mysteriously vanished, they seem more likely to turn up on CSI than SI. But if you think their fall from grace has the Nationals feeling even better than they already did about their chances -- both this weekend and this October -- think again.
“Hyping it up is good for the game, good for the fans, but at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter,” said reliever Ryan Madson. “Because once you get to the playoffs, it’s whoever plays the best.”
And whoever plays the best gets to stick around.