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Washington Nationals struggling down the stretch; trying to hold onto Wild Card lead

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With losses in six of 10 and nine of the last 15, the Nationals making things interesting in the chase for the NL’s two Wild Card spots.

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Washington’s loss last night left them just a +0.5 game up on the Chicago Cubs in the top Wild Card spot in the National League, and just +1.5 ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers, who have won nine of their last 10 while the Nationals have gone 4-6 in that stretch.

The Nationals have now dropped 9 of 15 so far in September. The rough stretch follows a three-plus month run that brought the organization back into the postseason race.

With an impressive 52-25 run between June 1st and August 31st, the Nats fought their way into the mix for a postseason berth, and they’re still right there in spite of their struggles.

Fangraphs still gives the Nationals a 91.8% chance of winning a Wild Card spot with 13 left on the 2019 schedule, while FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Nats an 87% chance of making the postseason.

“We like this team. We think it’s a playoff-caliber team. We think it’s a team that could go deep into the playoffs,” GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies on last Wednesday’s show.

“We like our chances as much as anybody,” he added. “We think we’re as good as anybody in the playoffs and we’ll take our chances. We’ve played extremely well for the last three and a half months to get where we’re at right now, and I think we need to make a big push here to finish strong, and to get some momentum, and start having aspirations beyond that.”

Since that interview, the Nationals are 3-3 in the last six, with two more to play against the St. Louis Cardinals, against whom they’re now 1-4 this season.

After that it’s three on the road in Miami, with a Marlins team they’ve dominated this season (13-3 in head-to-head matchups), then five with the Philadelphia Phillies (9-5 head-to-head), and three with the Cleveland Indians (87-63; 1.5 back in AL Wild Card race) to end the 2019 regular season.

What is the level of concern with the recent results in the Nationals’ clubhouse?

“I would say this, I said our guys are battling,” Bench Coach Chip Hale told reporters after filling in for ailing manager Davey Martinez in the 4-2 series opening loss in St. Louis.

“We had a lot of tough luck with the bats. We’re figuring out the bullpen. Guys are getting chances to pitch. I think [Sean Doolittle] is starting to come back to the point where we can really trust him late in the game and he feels good about how he’s throwing it. We’re playing a lot of good teams, I think our schedule down the stretch has been really, really tough, and we’re battling and the teams we’re playing are battling the same way, so we just have to do a little better and execute.

“Execution, whether it’s catching the ball on defense, the little things are going to really count at this point in the season, so I’m proud of the guys, they’re busting their tails.”

Ryan Zimmerman, who is 7 for 32 (.219/.286/.531) since returning to the lineup following a 36-game absence as he dealt with a partial plantar fascia rupture, was asked if it’s hard to avoid scoreboard watching and paying attention to the implications of each game.

“Nope,” Zimmerman said.

“Because we play the same when we were 19-31 as we are when we were three games up or whatever we were, and we have what, [13] games left, so go out and play those games and see what happens.

“You can’t control anything, so there’s no reason to think about it.”

They can’t control what other teams do, but the Nationals are in control of their own destiny down the stretch.