September is still two days away, but the season’s final month has already begun. The regular season is scheduled to end on Sept. 29, meaning teams have fewer than 30 days to lock down a playoff spot, and even less time to make up serious ground in pursuit of one. While this weekend will feature three series involving contending teams right on top of one another in the standings -- the wild-card-chasing Orioles and Yankees in the AL East, and first- vs. second-place showdowns in the AL Central (Tigers-Indians) and NL Central (Reds-Cardinals) -- perhaps the most intriguing series matchup will come in Washington, D.C., where the Mets will visit the left-for-dead Nationals, who have quietly crept to within shouting distance of the Reds in the playoff race.
After finishing a sweep of the lowly Marlins on Thursday, the Nats have now won eight of nine, their best stretch of the season — barely edging their 7-2 mark to open the season — and gone from six games under .500 just three weeks ago to three games over. That is a modest achievement, especially for a team that topped the majors with 98 wins a year ago, but it represents the highest peak Washington has reached since before the All-Star break. That stretch has carried the Nationals to within 6 1/2 games of Cincinnati for the final playoff spot in the NL, a field that until recently had been considered all but locked up, with nothing but seeding yet to be determined.
On Thursday, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond all homered in combining to go 7-for-11 with seven runs scored and seven RBIs in the 9-0 rout of Miami. Each of those players was a key contributor on last year's NL East title team and each has carried significant weight for a Washington offense that ranks a surprisingly mediocre 10th in the National League in runs scored. Werth and Harper have OPS marks of .946 and .901, respectively, which would both rank among the top seven in the NL if either had enough plate appearances to qualify, and Desmond, who does qualify, ranks 25th at .821.
Werth's season has been particularly noteworthy. Though overshadowed by his far younger and far more celebrated teammate Harper, the 34-year-old Werth is having what in many ways is a career year. He is batting .329/.406/.540, personal bets across the board, and has a team-leading 21 home runs despite playing just 100 games and missing all but one game in May because of a hamstring injury. He may never fully live up to the $126 million contract he signed before the 2011 season, but he has unquestionably been the team's most productive offensive player.
The even better news for Washington is the schedule. The Nationals face the bottom-feeders of the NL East – the Mets, Phillies and Marlins – for their next 16 games, a trio against whom they are 25-14 this season, good for a .641 winning percentage. If they are to play anywhere close to that well over the next two-plus weeks, they could significantly close the gap on the Reds, who will be facing a gauntlet that includes a seven-game stretch at home against the first-place Cardinals and Dodgers.
The Nationals may still be a longshot, but their odds are not as long as they used to be. According to Baseball Prospectus’ playoffs odds, the Nats entered play on Thursday with a 4.1-percent chance to make the postseason, but that’s up 2.9 percent in the past week alone, the biggest improvement in the National League. Certainly there is a recent historic precedent for such a comeback: The 2011 Cardinals were 9 1/2 games out of the NL wild-card spot on Aug. 30 with 28 games to go and managed to pass the Braves on the final day of the season en route to a World Series championship. That was the result many predicted for the Nationals this season, and though their road to October remains daunting, this much is clear: Their strong finish to August has ensured that their September will be much more interesting than previously believed.