According to FanGraphs, the Washington Nationals have an 89.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. According to me, this is great news for the Braves.
The Nats trail the Braves by six games. The Nats have 36 games remaining; the Braves have 34. The rule of thumb is that a team can’t reasonably hope to make up more than a game a week. It’s a rule borne out by FanGraphs, which assigns the Nats only a 13.6 percent chance of winning the National League East.
The Braves and Nats face each other seven more times. They’ve split the first 12 games. The Braves would have to fall apart not to win the East, and they’ve spent nearly five months not falling apart. They’re 24 games above .500, the most this club has been since 2013. Let’s just assume — I’ve been assuming as much since March — that the Braves will finish first.
Let’s also assume they’ll be the NL’s No. 2 seed. They’re eight games behind the Dodgers, cruising in the West, and seven ahead of the Cubs, scrambling in the Central. Ordinarily, you’d rather be the No. 1 than the No. 2. This is one year when you wouldn’t.
The Nats sit first in the wild-card pecking order. They lead second-place St. Louis by a game and a half. There are, as we know, two wild cards. The Cardinals lead the Phillies and Mets by a game and a half for the second one. Ergo, the Nats have a three-game cushion. They’d likewise have to collapse to miss the October festivities, and they’d be happy to be a wild card. Because they’d be a very dangerous wild card.
The wild cards meet in a play-in game. (We around here refer to it as the Infield Fly Game.) The only way the Nats wouldn’t have the edge in starting pitching for that game would be if they met the Mets and Jacob deGrom, and then it’d be a push. The Nats — you probably know this already — have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. All rank in the top 10 of pitching WAR among National Leaguers.
The disadvantage of the play-in is that, even if you win, you’ve probably burned your No. 1 starter until Game 3 of the best-of-five NLDS. The Nats essentially have three No. 1s. They could deploy Strasburg and Corbin in Games 1 and 2 at Dodger Stadium and expect to split. Then they’d come home with Scherzer in Game 3 — this assumes he’s healthy; he’s scheduled to return from the injured list Thursday night — and they’d like that matchup, too. And then, if you’re the smooth-running Dodgers, you could be staring at consecutive elimination games.
Yes, the Dodgers can pitch, too. They’re first in ERA among NL starters. (The Nats are second.) The Dodgers also lead the league in runs and OPS. They’re a team that can destroy so-so pitching, which essentially describes the Braves. But what if a team with top-shelf starters spared the Braves from having to visit L.A. this fall?
I know, I know. This could be a big fat overthink. Washington’s postseason history doesn’t stamp it as spoiler material. Counting its time as the Montreal Expos, that franchise has never won a playoff series. It’s 0-for-4 in winner-takes-series Game 5s. And the Dodgers, who have graced consecutive World Series without winning, might be too big to fail this time.
And I’m not saying the Braves couldn’t up and beat L.A. themselves. With many hands not on deck, they just won two of three over Dodger Blue. But I’d rather take my chances in a best-of-seven NLCS against the Nats — for one thing, the Braves would have the home-field edge — than against Bellinger and Muncy and Ryu and Seager and Kershaw. And here we table the October talk until … oh, maybe tomorrow.
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