WASHINGTON -- If the Nationals needed a reminder of what they have to play for this week, all they had to do was glance above their lockers Monday. A protective plastic covering sits lined above the lockers in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, waiting to be unfurled this week in anticipation of a celebration.
The Nationals returned to D.C. on Monday for their final homestand of the regular season, a stretch of eight games in seven days, with a postseason berth within reach. But first, they understand they still have work to do to secure their spot in the postseason, an accomplishment they inched closer to Monday night with a 7-2 victory over the Phillies.
The win trimmed Washington’s magic number to three, and it can secure a postseason spot as soon as after the nightcap of Tuesday’s split doubleheader. However, don’t mistake the plastic lining in the clubhouse as reason to believe the Nationals are overlooking the challenge in front of them this week -- four more games against the Phillies and three against the Indians -- that sits between them and October.
“If I had it my way, I would do a Chris Sale and rip every single one of them down,” said right fielder Adam Eaton of his former White Sox teammate, who infamously cut up throwback uniforms he didn't want to wear in 2016. “Chris, I love you, but I’m not happy with that. It’s a distraction in my book and shouldn’t have happened. We’ve got to keep it one day at a time and come in here like we have for 150-some-odd games and just continue doing what we’ve been doing. And we’ll be just fine.”
Baseball players are a superstitious group, always hesitant to talk about something before it becomes reality in fear of jinxing it.
For instance, it seemed all but a certainty for weeks that the National League Wild Card game would be hosted by the Nationals, who owned a comfortable cushion at the start of the month for the top spot. That cushion has evaporated, thanks in large part to the red-hot Brewers, who were off Monday but now sit only a half-game back from the top spot and the right to host that win-or-go-home game that seems increasingly likely to be between those two clubs.
A successful homestand this week, however, could ensure at least one more game will be played at Nationals Park this season.
“It’s not easy for other teams to come play here,” Nats bench coach Chip Hale said before Monday's game. “The travel, [the Brewers are] going to be in Denver for the last three, I believe, and we’re going to be here. It’ll be nice to just stay here and play. So yeah, it’s important. Is it the end all? I don’t know. We’re going to play it, if we have to play it on the moon, we’ll play it.”
No one has been more comfortable pitching at Nationals Park this season than left-hander Patrick Corbin, who has adjusted well in his first season at his new home park. He made his 15th home start of the season and was solid again, working around four walks and without his usual wipeout slider to toss six innings of one-run ball with six strikeouts. At home this season, Corbin owns a 1.97 ERA, yielding two or fewer earned runs in 13 of the 15 starts.
No matter where the NL Wild Card Game is played, the Nationals are likely to use one of their other aces, almost certainly Max Scherzer, to start, although Corbin and any other pitcher who makes the Wild Card roster figures to be available with “all hands on deck” attempting to send the Nats to the NL Division Series.
But before that, before the Nationals begin to set up their postseason roster or consider their rotation or even before the preparations for the champagne celebration that seems to be a matter of when, not if, this week, the Nats still need to get into the playoffs before they’re ready to talk about it.
"There are still seven games left,” Corbin said. “Guys are focused on that. Even if we do clinch here, we still want to play good baseball, clean baseball. That's what guys here will be doing."