For those of you who have been sleeping under a rock, the race for the second NL Wild Card spot is getting ridiculous. Six teams are currently within 4 games of this spot.
Cardinals 75 - 68, 0 GB. @ LAD (4), vs HOU, @ CHC, @ HOU, vs WSH, vs CIN
Dodgers 74 - 69, 1 GB. vs STL (4), @ WSH, @ CIN, @ SD, vs COL, vs SF
Pirates 72 - 70, 2.5 GB. @ CHC (4), vs MIL, @ HOU, @ NYM (4), vs CIN, vs ATL
Phillies 72 - 71, 3 GB. @ HOU (4), @ NYM, vs ATL, vs WSH, @ MIA, @ WSH
Brewers 72 - 71, 3 GB. vs NYM, @ PIT, @ WSH (4), @ CIN, vs HOU, vs SD
D-Backs 71 - 72, 4 GB. vs SF, vs SD, @ COL (4), @ SF, vs CHC, vs COL.
The teams with the better records are playing poorly, and the teams with the bad records are playing well. Over the past two days, the Phillies, Brewers, and Diamondbacks have made up 2 games on each of the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pirates.
The Nationals will be intimately involved in how this race plays out. After the Braves series, the Nats finish out with series against the Dodgers, Brewers, Phillies, Cardinals, and Phillies again. And the Nats have an interest in how this race plays out if they stay in position for the #1 seed, as they may play whatever team sneaks in in the first round.
The Nats have three strategies they can pursue in their games against these teams. Obviously, the main goal for the Nats is to clinch the division and, if they want, the #1 seed. But assuming the Nats have clinched or are confident in clinching, the Nats can, if they choose, decide to (1) play hard against a team they don't want to face in the divisional round (e.g., the Phillies) and not as hard against a team they wouldn't mind facing (Cardinals?). Or (2) they can stubbornly play hard against all of their opponents, letting the chips fall where they may. Finally, the Nats could (3) let up and position themselves for the playoffs, let injuries heal, etc.
I don't expect the Nats to let off the gas until their position is secure. But once they have clinched, it will be a hard decision how to play these games for Davey & co. It would almost be worse to play hard against the Phillies and nevertheless to lose, and have to play them again in the first round. Nightmarish, even. But I think you want to take a shot to knock that team out, if you can.
The race for the final wild card will go down to the wire. The D-Backs have a terribly easy finish to their season after their next series against the Giants, finishing with the Rockies, Giants (who will have clinched), and Cubs. The Phillies have an easy next week against the Astros and Cubs before it gets tougher. Brewers have a tougher schedule and may fall off. Cardinals face the Astros, Cubs, and Astros, but finish up against us and the Reds. Dodgers face the Rockies and a slew of contenders. Pirates have an easy enough schedule, but they in particular have been playing terribly.
If we play the Phillies easy, the schedule favors the Phillies making the playoffs. If we play the Phillies hard, I would bet on the D-Backs or Cardinals sliding in. All told, there's a good chance of a tie and a play in game (or two) before this second wild card spot is decided, and the real play in game can be played.
The question is, how do the Nats want to play these games? Play to win? Play to get healthy and set up for the playoffs? Play it strategically by trying hard against the Phils and letting the other teams win?