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The dangers of having nothing to play for in September

The Nationals have already popped the cork on a division title celebration, and a look at the standings shows several other contenders won't have much at stake down the stretch. Could their comfortable leads set up an October stumble? Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If Dusty Baker needs any pointers on how to finish off a season with his team sitting on a gargantuan lead in September, he should consult the manager for the Washington Nationals' most likely opponent in the first round of the playoffs.

Baker and the Nationals did their part Sunday, beating the Philadelphia Phillies to become the first MLB team to clinch a playoff spot this season. With a 20-game lead in the National League East, they can focus on getting healthy and mixing in some rest in preparation for the NL Division Series. At the moment that opponent is shaping up to be the Chicago Cubs, who hold a tenuous 2.5-game lead over Milwaukee in the NL Central.

Rest and caution aren't typically a recipe for momentum, but Joe Maddon and the Cubs made it look easy a year ago, when they clinched the division in mid-September and still managed to maintain their edge en route to the franchise's first World Series victory since 1908.

So what was the Cubs' secret to October prep?

"We treated it like spring training for the last two weeks,'' Maddon says. "You play to win the games, but you rotate your stock in and out. It's really good for the bullpen. It keeps them sharp without overworking them. And it keeps your guys in the field sharp without overworking them. They get their at-bats. I chose to call it spring training and some people didn't like that concept, but it made all the sense in the world to me.''

Baseball's divisional races are largely a snooze this season. If the Los Angeles Dodgers can maintain their 10-game lead over Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West, four of MLB's six division champions will finish the regular season with double-figure leads. It would mark the first time that has happened since 2002, when the Yankees, Twins, Braves and Cardinals all won their divisions by 10 games or more.

While Dodgers manager Dave Roberts searches for ways to turn things around and Cleveland's Terry Francona keeps riding the wave, Baker and Houston's A.J. Hinch are dealing with a different type of challenge: Do they keep pushing for home-field advantage down the stretch? Or do they back off and run the risk of their teams not being able to "flip the switch" in October?

"You'd be amazed how quickly you can get out of shape -- mental, spiritual and physical shape,'' Baker says. "Sometimes you wonder: Is it better to grind all the way to the end and go in there tired, but with some adrenaline and momentum, than clinching early and losing a little bit of that drive and momentum and having to turn it back on? Because it's hard to turn it back on.

"There are benefits to going to the end when every game counts. And there are benefits the other way. As long as guys don't get stale, you can set up your pitching staff and give guys days to get healthy. There's a delicate balance between the two.''

Some of the greatest managers in history have dealt with the question through the years. During their tenures in Atlanta and St. Louis, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa managed teams that built huge leads and had to hit the reset button in October.

In 2011, the Detroit Tigers rolled to a 15-game margin over Cleveland in the AL Central and advanced to the AL Championship Series before being eliminated in six games by Texas. Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who was renowned for his communications skills, says it's imperative to keep monitoring the pulse of the clubhouse as teams transition from the regular season to playoff mode.

"It's not necessarily formal meetings,'' Leyland says. "You go around during batting practice or in the clubhouse and take the time to talk to everybody. Relief pitchers. Starting pitchers. Position players. You try to remind them, 'We haven't done anything yet, and our biggest moment is yet to come in another two to three weeks or so. Let's pat ourselves on the back and take a day to congratulate ourselves, but then we've got to get right back to work. There's no slacking off.'

"Normally you don't get 13- to 14-game leads unless you have really good players. What a lot of people forget is, guys who are having good years -- pitchers or hitters -- don't want to let that get away from them in the last month. And guys who aren't having the best of years have a month to pick it up. Guys are proud of their statistics. They're playing for jobs and contracts.''

AN ANALYSIS OF runaway division champions reveals two general patterns: (1) Good teams generally continue to play well in September, even when playoff spots already have been clinched, and (2) steamrolling a division is no assurance of October success.

• Since 2000, 27 MLB teams have won their divisions by 10 or more games. The 2008 Los Angeles Angels, who went 100-62 and finished 21 games ahead of second-place Texas, had the biggest margin in that span.

• Those 27 clubs played a combined .607 baseball (2,193 wins and 1,418 losses) through August, while ramping up their cumulative winning percentage to .614 in September/October. So they experienced no drop-off once a postseason berth was in the bag.

• Of the 27 runaway winners, only three -- the 2015 Royals (15-17), 2013 Dodgers (12-15) and 2013 Braves (13-14) -- posted losing records in September/October.

• Of the 27 teams to capture their divisions by double-figure margins, 12 bowed out in the Division Series and 10 were eliminated in the Championship Series. The 2001 Yankees, 2004 Cardinals and 2011 Rangers all lost the World Series.

• Only two of the 27 clubs survived October to win the World Series. Ned Yost and the 2015 Royals rebounded from their poor regular-season finish to go the distance, and the Cubs enjoyed three more raucous clubhouse parties after their mid-September clinching celebration.

Maddon curtailed workloads for some of his prime players down the stretch last season. Aroldis Chapman, Chicago's 2016 closer, logged 10 innings in the final month after throwing a combined 27 innings in July and August. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, Chicago's two biggest sluggers, sat out seven games in September after missing a total of seven in the previous five months. They hit a combined .292 with six homers in the postseason.

"A day off goes a long way,'' Rizzo says. "It's not like you're going to rest guys for five or six days in a row.''

"I don't want to get in a position where we potentially clinch, then sit guys for a large period of time. My goal has been to not to empty their gas tanks through the season and then have to shut them down to get some rest and re-start them again. I didn't feel like that would be the best option."

Astros manager A.J. Hinch

Hinch, in his third season with the Astros, has spent a lot of time dealing with what Baker calls the "spiritual and emotional'' side of the job. The Astros experienced a letdown after an uneventful July 31 trade deadline, only to have their spirits raised when general manager Jeff Luhnow acquired Justin Verlander in an Aug. 31 trade with Detroit. Then baseball concerns were outweighed by catastrophic flooding that devastated their community.

Amid the ups and downs of the season, Hinch has tried to stay true to his April game plan: Houston has three regulars -- Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer -- who are in the lineup each day regardless of the opposing pitcher. From Day 1 of spring training, Hinch wanted to pick his spots with the three to make sure they weren't fatigued come September and October.

"It started in April for me, not because of any lead, but because of a disciplined approach to player usage,'' Hinch says. "I don't want to get in a position where we potentially clinch, then sit guys for a large period of time. My goal has been to not empty their gas tanks through the season and then have to shut them down to get some rest and restart them again. I didn't feel like that would be the best option.''

Fate ultimately took some decisions out of Hinch's hands. Correa missed six weeks with a torn thumb ligament and Springer sat out two weeks with a quadriceps injury, so Altuve and Alex Bregman are the only Houston regulars on track to appear in more than 150 games.

HEALTH ISSUES ABOUND for MLB's runaway winners. Thanks to their commanding lead over Minnesota, the Indians have the luxury of allowing Andrew Miller (knee), Jason Kipnis (hamstring) and Michael Brantley (ankle) to heal according to their personal timetables. The Nationals, similarly, are monitoring the bone bruise in Bryce Harper's left knee in hopes that he can log enough at-bats in the instructional league to regain his swing by the postseason.

"He's making progress,'' Baker says. "But he's got to slide. He's got to play defense. He has to run the bases and slide. This is like going back to spring training. We need him to be Bryce and not just occupy a space on the lineup card. If anybody can do it, he can do it, especially with his youth and his desire and athleticism. But I don't care who you are: We all need time.''

As the season plays out with minimal suspense in several cities, individual and team goals help keep players motivated. Cleveland's Corey Kluber is in a two-man race with Boston's Chris Sale for the American League Cy Young Award, while Altuve is in the mix for MVP. In Washington, Max Scherzer is competing for his second straight Cy Young Award.

The Nationals still have an outside chance to seize home-field advantage in the National League with a strong finish. On Aug. 25, they were 14½ games behind the Dodgers. They've since narrowed the gap to 5½, with a three-game series against Los Angeles on tap this weekend.

"That's always been on my mind,'' Baker says. "I've had some people in our organization say, 'We have to stay ahead of Chicago for home field. We don't have a chance to catch the Dodgers.' I didn't reply. I just thought, 'Well, I've seen some strange things happen in this game.' When you think you're on top of the field, this world can collapse on you.''

As Baker maps out his approach to the end of the regular season, he flashes back to his days as the San Francisco Giants' manager. He was doing some postseason TV work when he dropped by the Oakland Coliseum and saw La Russa giving a refresher course on cutoffs and relays to the Athletics. He might have a few tricks of his own to keep the Nationals engaged now that they've clinched.

Baker's 50 years in pro ball have taught him it's hard to flip the switch. But he also has learned that players have the ability to push beyond their limits if the stakes are high enough.

"Your body gets into a routine, and it can get into a routine of laziness just like it gets into a routine of working,'' he says. "It's kind of like partying over Christmas and New Year's. You don't want to get up. But if you keep going and going and going, you'll be surprised how far you can go. Your body is tired, but your mind keeps telling you to keep going.''

The Nationals, Indians, Astros and Dodgers already have achieved a lot this season. Amid a series of seemingly meaningless games over the next two weeks, their managers will constantly remind them that they still have a long way to go.