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For Nationals, it ain't over til it's over @RichardJustice

WASHINGTON -- OK, so maybe it's too late for these Washington Nationals. Maybe they dug themselves too deep a hole. Almost any reasonable person would agree with that assessment.

On the other hand ...

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"We understand this is baseball, and strange things happen," shortstop Ian Desmond said.

There you go. As mantras go, that's a pretty good one.

"There's so much of the season left," manager Davey Johnson said.

There's another one.

Johnson spoke those words at the end of a long, satisfying Tuesday, when the Nationals beat the Braves twice -- 6-5 in the afternoon and 4-0 a few hours later.

"It sends a good message over to Atlanta that we're not going anywhere," Johnson said.

It's true that strange things have happened in the final weeks of the regular season over the last few years. So even though the Nationals have just 11 games remaining, it really and truly ain't over til it's over.

Right, Ryan Zimmerman?

"I'm proud of these guys," Zimmerman said. "They could have shut it down a little while ago. We decided to go the other way. We're playing great baseball. Hopefully, it'll work out."

The Braves still lead the Nationals by eight games in the National League East, and have shrunk their magic number to four, but the Nationals suddenly have hope, even if hope can be defined a couple of ways.

For one thing, Washington is just 4 1/2 games behind Cincinnati in the race for the second NL Wild Card berth. That's a big number after 151 games, but the Nationals have a chance, which didn't seem possible a couple of weeks ago.

Regardless of how things play out, something important has been salvaged from this season.

Pride? Yeah, that's part of it.

Professionalism? Sure, there's that, too.

When the Nationals had pretty much nothing to play for, they did what pros are supposed to do. That is, they kept playing.

They decided to go hard all the way and see what happened. After all, you never know how it'll turn out.

Human nature being what it is, tough times can splinter a team, a clubhouse, even an entire organization. But something unexpected happened. Zimmerman began to hit. So did Desmond. And Jayson Werth. And Denard Span.

Suddenly, a rotation that had been pretty solid all along began to get some help. And a couple of weeks after the break, the Nationals were transformed.

If they're not the NL's best team at the moment, they're at least in the conversation. Since Aug. 9 they're 27-10. In that stretch, their rotation is 18-6, with a 3.45 ERA. And it's not just Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, either.

Right-hander Tanner Roark, who made his Major League debut earlier this season at the age of 26, has been a godsend.

Roark's fastball ranges from 92 mph to 94 mph, which isn't great in this era of the 99-mph heater, but he has great location, three other quality pitches and the guts to throw 'em at any time in the count.

Roark threw seven shutout innings on Tuesday night to run his record to a dazzling 7-0. Span has reeled off a 28-game hitting streak. Zimmerman has 13 home runs since that Aug. 9 turnaround.

And the Nationals are having about as much fun as any team in the game.

"I'm proud of the way the guys have come together," pitcher Dan Haren said. "I think we've grown close as a unit."

If you ask the Nationals a "big picture" question, you'll get a variety of answers. They know the Reds have six games left against the Pirates.

But the Nationals finish the regular season with six road games against the Cardinals and D-backs. To that end, Johnson has a number in mind.

"We need to win about 90 games," Johnson said. "If we do that, we've got a good shot of getting there."

To win 90, the Nationals need a 9-2 finish. Meanwhile, the Reds would have to go 4-6 to get the Nationals a tie.

"We obviously have to win," Zimmerman said. "If we don't win, nothing happens anyway. You try and win the game that day and hope you get some help from somewhere."

To fall short would be painful. But after a very tough and disappointing 4 1/2 months, the Nationals are at least writing a different ending.

"We wanted to finish the season with some pride," Desmond said.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Washington Nationals