It’s the closest thing we’ll see to postseason baseball in 2021.
A year that began with such high hopes that came crashing down at the major league trade deadline, and has been all about rebuilding since, ends with the Washington Nationals potentially ending their opponents’ season.
And if they couldn’t knock down the Boston Red Sox on Friday, falling 4-2, they’ll have another chance Saturday and a third on Sunday. Any of those games could prove pivotal in the four-team American League Wild Card race.
We know the Nationals’ 2021 season will end after Sunday’s game, and in just the second October since winning the World Series, few fans really care whether they or the Miami Marlins finish last in the National League East.
We know Juan Soto’s chances of winning the National League batting title are all but gone after a 3-for-20 slump and a Friday night base-running blunder that didn’t help his NL Most Valuable Player candidacy, either.
This all wraps a season that started with legitimate hopes for another division title, and included a shooting outside Nationals Park that resulted in near-panic, a five-game winning streak that kept hopes unreasonably high, a trade deadline purge that saw those hopes crash and burn, and an assortment of growing pains and joys with a young, rebuilding team.
But lo and behold, the final series of the season contains a nice little “Easter egg”, if you will.
For not only the disproportionately represented Red Sox Nation, but for Nats fans, and really all baseball fans: A series with postseason-level tension.
“They’re a playoff team so we’re going to try to do what we can to take care of business, and win against those,” Andrew Stevenson told reporters after Friday’s game.
“There’s a good crowd, the environment’s awesome, there’s just that buzz in the air, and getting a little cool, it’s starting to feel like the playoffs again, so it brings back some good memories.”
It doesn’t matter that the Nats have been mopping up for the past two weeks against other long-term non contenders, the Sox’ season is at stake this weekend, and the Nats have no choice but to meet the challenge.
In a three-game set against a club in a four-team race, all separated by two games, just one game can make a difference.
The Red Sox have to feel like anything but a sweep of the Nats will end their season, and Nationals fans have to feel like eliminating another team from postseason contention would be a pretty sweet ending to a season that turned hopeless months ago.
“It’s huge. The crowd was awesome tonight,” Friday’s starter, Josh Rogers, told reporters afterward. “It’s a playoff type of environment. Those guys are fighting for the lives over there, so it’s a good learning experience for me.”
That the Nationals are playing this high-stakes game with a collection of young players trying to prove themselves, with a few veterans mentoring them, is all the more fun.
Ready or not, players who have been out of contention for months will have their most meaningful plate appearances and chances in the field this season this weekend because they’ll have a chance to make a season-defining play.
“Whenever you can have a team fighting for a playoff spot like they are, I think that’s going to up our game a little bit,” Stevenson said. “Hopefully we can build off this going into next year, take some of these big moments we might have these next couple games, and have a little fun with it going into next year.”
In April, we dreamed of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg staring down hitters in elimination games.
Now we’ll get Josiah Gray and a pitcher to be determined staring down the Red Sox in a game that could define both teams’ seasons.
For the Nats’ first full losing season in 10 years, that ending could have been worse.