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Finish line in sight for Nationals

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Finish line in sight for Nationals

NEW YORK -- In expanding the postseason to include two wild-card teams from each league, Major League Baseball opened the door for plenty more franchises to keep themselves in the chase through September.

MLB also, however, lowered the bar to reach the postseason. Had the second wild-card been used over the last decade, the National League would have produced playoff teams with as few as 85 wins. And no team with 91 wins or more would have been left out of October. The average number of wins needed to secure a playoff berth (under the new format) in the NL since 2003: 88.

Guess how many games the Nationals have now won in 2012.

Yes, with a 5-3 victory over the Mets on Tuesday night, the Nationals improved to 88-54. Even if they lose their final 20 games, they could conceivably still wind up reaching the postseason. Win just a couple of times down the stretch, and they're a shoo-in.

It's OK to begin the final countdown, folks. Even the manager admits he's doing it.

"It's time to be looking at magic numbers," Davey Johnson said. "And I've been looking at them for a while now."

Since the skipper gives his approval, there appears to be no harm in pointing out the Nationals' magic number to clinch the NL East is now 13. Any combination of 13 Nats wins and Braves losses would secure the division title.

To merely clinch the NL's final wild-card berth, the magic number is down to seven. A champagne celebration could be on tap as soon as Sunday night in Atlanta, more likely later in the week in Washington, when the fast-fading Dodgers come to town.

Make no mistake, the Nationals are well aware of all this.

"Yeah, absolutely," Bryce Harper said. "We all want to clinch as soon as we can and take that pressure off of us."

They moved themselves one step closer with Tuesday night's win at Citi Field, overcoming Jordan Zimmermann's laborious start thanks to a couple of late rallies against R.A. Dickey and the Mets bullpen.

Tyler Moore's pinch-hit, two-run homer off the first knuckleball he saw from Dickey in the top of the seventh proved the difference, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. The rookie had some minimal experience with knuckleballers in the minor leagues, but "I think they struck me out every time." This time, he wasted no time turning on Dickey's trademark pitch and belting it into the left-field bleachers.

"They're not real fun to face, and he's got probably the best one in the country," Moore said. "I just was fortunate to get one out."

Moore's ninth homer in only 138 at-bats gave the Nationals the lead for good, but the two insurance runs they added in the ninth were no less significant. Kurt Suzuki's RBI single brought home Danny Espinosa to make it 4-2, then after Jayson Werth walked to reach base for the fifth time in the game, Harper laced a single to left, bringing home another run to extend the lead to 5-2.

With the first four-hit night of his young career, Harper extended his recent surge at the plate, raising his season batting average to .265. (It stood at .247 only 18 days ago.)

"I don't think he can swing any harder than he swings, but tonight against a knuckleballer, he used his hands more instead of just trying to crush the ball," Johnson said. "He tried to put the ball in play. He had a good night."

The insurance runs proved crucial, because closer Tyler Clippard served up a solo homer to Scott Hairston in the bottom of the ninth, then allowed another hit to let the tying run step to the plate in the form of Ruben Tejada. Not until Clippard struck out the Mets leadoff hitter could the Nationals exchange high-fives in the middle of the diamond following a somewhat-tense victory.

They retreated to their clubhouse, where the Braves-Brewers game was immediately turned on. A few minutes later, Milwaukee closed out a 5-0 win, dealing Atlanta a blow while raising the Nationals' lead in the NL East to 7 12 games.

All of a sudden, what looked like a critical weekend series at Turner Field may only serve as the Braves' last-ditch hope of making this a race again. Even in their worst-case scenario, the Nationals can't come home next week with anything less than a 3 12-game lead. In a best-case scenario, they could all but lock up the division title.

Worried about conjuring up such thoughts with 20 games still to go? Don't be. The players have been doing it for a while now. They see the finish line in sight at last, and they have no intention of slowing down before they cross it.

"I think it's been that way for 10 days, two weeks," Werth said. "As soon as September rolls around, things are pretty serious. We got a chance to do something here. I came here for a reason, and here we are, Year Two, and we're where we need to be. It's not time to let up now."

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Bryce Harper thanks Nationals fans for support during 2017 season

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Bryce Harper thanks Nationals fans for support during 2017 season

It's been a week since the air was sucked out of D.C. in the Nationals Game 5, 9-8 loss to the Chicago Cubs. 

And now that we've had a few days to decompress from another early D.C. playoff exit, Nats right fielder Bryce Harper decided to take some time to thank fans for their support this season.

Harper posted an Instagram video Wednesday afternoon, with a fresh cut, and thanked fans for continuing to pack Nats Park. In the video he says he looks forward to "chasing that championship" again next spring. 

The 2017 season could be described as a rough one for Harper after missing the last few weeks of the season with a bone bruise in his left knee. 

Harper had a .319 average during the 2017 season, along with 29 home runs, 97 RBI's, 95 runs scored and 4 stolen bases. He is entering the final year of his contract.

RELATED: 20 THINGS SAD D.C. SPORTS FANS SHOULD BE HAPPY ABOUT

National Fans. Thank you!💯 #RedLightRecording

A post shared by Bryce Harper (@bharper3407) on

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Nationals Game 5 meltdown yet another reminder why D.C. can't have nice things

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Nationals Game 5 meltdown yet another reminder why D.C. can't have nice things

On Thursday night, a Washington, D.C. pro sports team did something Washington, D.C. pro sports teams are very good at doing: fall short of making a league or championship game.

The Nationals' disastrous fifth inning against the Cubs in Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series was the beginning of the end, not to mention yet another in a long line of disappointing playoff results for Washington, D.C. sports teams.

You see, Washington, D.C. is the only city with at least three major pro sports teams to not have a single one make a conference or league championship game since 2000.

To make matters worse, Washington, D.C. sports teams have now lost 16 consecutive playoff games in which a win would've advanced the team to the conference or league championship. 

Think about that for a second. Four teams. Zero conference championship appearances since 1998. 

Here's the list.

Washington, D.C. sports fans are not greedy. We can't be. We've had some very good teams recently, with the type of talent, coaching and intangibles needed to win a championship. 

TRY THIS: 20 THINGS DC SPORTS FANS SHOULD BE HAPPY ABOUT. YES, HAPPY.

The last time a major Washington, D.C. pro sports team won a world championship was in 1992 when the Redskins won Super Bowl XXVI.  The last time a major Washington, D.C. pro sports team even made a conference championship game was in 1998, when the Capitals advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, defeating the Sabres to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Washington, D.C. isn't allowed to have nice sports things.

Sure, we have great players and great teams, but when the playoffs roll around, all the nice things go away. We aren't privy to plucky upstarts who run the table and we aren't privy to dominant teams that make long postseason runs.

Washington, D.C. will have its day, eventually. Sure it may only be a conference championship appearance, but for us, that's fine. We don't expect world championships. We just want something to get invested in.

Early playoff exits are rarely worth the investment.