Nats still breathing, still believing

Nats still breathing, still believing
September 11, 2013, 12:30 am
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NEW YORK — Yes, the Nationals know they have to keep winning ballgames, maybe every single one remaining on their schedule. But they also know they're going to need some help from somebody ahead of them in the standings, so they fully admit to scoreboard watching even as they're trying to scratch and claw their way to as many wins as they can compile by season's end.

"I'm very aware," Jayson Werth said. "I've been aware for, well, for a while."

So perhaps just as important as the Nationals' 6-3 victory over the Mets on Tuesday was the Reds' second-straight loss to the woeful Cubs. Just like that, the Nats gained back a game in the NL Wild Card race. The deficit now stands at 6 games (only 5 in the loss column) with 18 to play.

Is it unlikely they can make up that ground over the next 2 1/2 weeks and somehow extend their season into October? Absolutely. But is it within the realm of possibility? Yes, it is. And nobody knows that better than Werth.

Six years ago, Werth's Phillies trailed the Mets by 7 games in the NL East with 17 to go. New York, with a powerhouse roster, appeared a lock to win its second straight division title over a still-young Philadelphia club. That, of course, didn't happen. Philadelphia swiped away the East crown on the season's final day, and Werth can't help but see some similarities with his current team's predicament.

"We're not there yet [but] I can see it," he said. "I know it's possible. I've done it. We can see it, but we know what we've got to do. It's obvious what we have to take care of, and that's really all you can focus on. You've just got to hope for the best for the other stuff, but I mean, it's pretty obvious."

If the Nationals can keep playing the way they have for the last month — and not revert back to the form they displayed in the season's first 4 1/2 months — they will at the very least make this thing interesting. Tuesday's victory was their 21st in 30 games, and it leaves them at 75-69, six games over the .500 mark for the first time this year.

Yes, they've beaten up on weak competition. Eighteen of these 21 wins have come against the Phillies, Giants, Cubs, Marlins and Mets. But if they were going to get back in this race, this is what they were going to have to do.

"We're definitely beating the teams now that we're supposed to beat," reliever Craig Stammen said. "It'll come later this month: We'll see if we can beat the teams that are a little bit better."

Indeed, the Nationals still must face the contending Braves and Cardinals before season's end. But before then, they get two more with the Mets and then three more with the Phillies.

They also expect to get Bryce Harper back in their lineup on Wednesday after the 20-year-old slugger blasted balls out of Citi Field during a vigorous batting practice session Tuesday afternoon and emerged with no pain in his ailing left hip.

"I'm excited about that," said Harper, who was examined in Washington on Monday and was told there's no structural damage to his hip, only inflammation. "I think it was nice to be able to go and get a clear mind of what was happening and why I was hurting and things like that. Hopefully I can get through these last 20 games and see how I feel at the end."

Harper's return will be a boost to a Nationals lineup that has managed to be quite productive in his absence, thanks to the scorching-hot Werth (who went 3-for-4 with a homer and two doubles on Tuesday, raising his league-leading OPS to .949) and the resurgent Denard Span (who extended his hitting streak to 21 games).

They'll need more performances from their bullpen like they got Tuesday, when Stammen, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano combined to toss four scoreless innings. And they'll need to keep getting improved defensive play from Ryan Zimmerman (who made a highlight-reel snag and throw at third base) and Wilson Ramos (who threw out two would-be basestealers in key spots).

But the Nationals are proving right now they are indeed capable of playing winning baseball for a prolonged stretch. It may have taken much longer than they hoped — and it may prove too little, too late — but it is happening at last, and it has this clubhouse reinvigorated.

"This team's got fight, there's no doubt about it," Werth said. "We just might've been a little too late. We'll see. I'm not giving up. That's for sure."