Is there a realistic chance the Nationals can make it all the way back? Yes, a slight one, but realistic all the same.
The Nationals were expected to be the top team in the National League East. The Atlanta Braves have proved otherwise, but there was always the feeling the Nationals would be in the mix for a playoff spot. Most likely, this team will miss the playoffs and this season will be marked as one of the most disappointing in franchise history.
But this isn't a disappointment the way that the Los Angeles Angels or Toronto Blue Jays are disappointing. The push the Nationals are currently putting together - regardless of opposition - is proving that this team is going to be fine. This team will be in the playoff talk all off-season and as next season begins. They are still young, improving, and if it weren't for a dormant offense that kept struggling in big spots, who knows where this season may have gone?
That's what makes this push so frustrating. Any team could come up with a handful of games that could have been wins. But, this Nationals team went through stretches where they looked like a minor league team incapable of scoring one run. This is regression in its finest form right now. This team will end up over .500, probably somewhere between 85 and 90 wins. That's only a few games off their expectations.
This team did have holes. The bullpen struggled for the first three quarters of the year. When the offense scored, the pitching struggled and when the pitching shut down opponents, the offense was nowhere to be seen. This team wasn't perfect, but it was good enough to be exactly where they are now. The only problem is that the bad part of their season lasted about a week and a half too long. A season is 162 games, and it doesn't matter if a team is good or bad at the beginning or the end, it usually evens out.
The problem for the Nationals is that they may have to wait until next year to finish the job. Their biggest problem is the fact that no team ahead of them is falling back to the pack. The Nationals may be farther back than any team in the hunt for the American League Wild Card, but their path is much easier. There aren't multiple teams to jump in front of. Only one.
This Nationals team is finally putting together the results we expected all through the winter and spring. The problem is that the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals may end up being just out of reach. Regardless, this last stretch has proven that Mike Rizzo knew what he was doing. The process was good, and the results were just off where they needed to be. After the playoffs last year, I said this team needed to learn how to lose before they learned how to win. The NLDS and 2013 season has done that plenty and will provide them with as much optimism going into 2014 as they had going into 2013. The only difference will be this off-season may be five games longer. Is it too early to say "Playoffs or bust" for 2014?