The Nationals have been a .500 team since a Sept. 7 loss to the Miami Marlins. Normally, it is easy for players to shake off a mediocre 12-12 stretch over a relatively small sample size of games.
But with one of baseball's hottest teams on their tail, Washington had no such luxury. The Atlanta Braves were 19-7 since Sept. 2 entering Monday's game in Pittsburgh, a 2-1 loss that ultimately allowed the Nats to clinch the National League East title.
Even before a 2-0 loss to Philadelphia on Monday, Washington general manager Mike Rizzo expressed little stress about his club's situation. The Braves' push to swipe the division crown in the end should make his team better. It doesn't help that the final 20 games of the season all came against teams that were either headed to the postseason (Atlanta) or in the mix (St. Louis, Milwaukee, Los Angeles Dodgers, Phillies). Even now the Cardinals and Dodgers were separated by just two games entering play Tuesday. The Nats didn't play as well as they wanted down the stretch, but that rarely has any direct impact when the postseason begins and everyone starts again as equals.
"It's always been that way," Rizzo said hours before his club clinched the division title. "We have the best record in baseball, and we haven't clinched yet. That's because there's another team in our division that's pretty darn good, too, and they're playing great ball. So that's kind of the luck of the draw."
There are some concerns, however. Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson were expected to complement top starters Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann in the postseason rotation. But Detwiler has allowed 12 runs, eight earned, in his last two starts and was knocked out in the third inning Sunday in St. Louis. Jackson was decimated in a Friday start in St. Louis with nine runs allowed in 11Ú3 innings and his September ERA is a scary 7.92 in five starts. He will still start Wednesday's season finale vs. Philadelphia.
"I don't believe in having a doghouse," manager Davey Johnson said before Monday's loss. "A guy has a bad outing, you want me to ship him to the doghouse and put somebody else in. It's my job not to be that way."
Tyler Clippard, the closer for much of the season as Drew Storen recovered from elbow surgery, has also struggled lately and been pushed back into a setup role. His ERA in September was 8.03, and he allowed a home run to the Phillies' Darin Ruf on Tuesday.
But it's also a team that has shown great resiliency all season -- whether shaking off a blown 9-0 lead to Atlanta in July or not panicking during a five-game losing in late August that quickly shrunk their division lead. The playoffs are a clean slate for every team with unpredictability built into the system given the nature of the sport and the short series.
"It's like, OK, we can all take a deep breath," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Last few games hasn't gone as planned. But we got it done."