PHILADELPHIA -- And so we have reached the home stretch at last, the final nine regular season games of what has turned into a most entertaining and surprising year for the Nationals.
Much as they would have loved to break out the champagne bottles and plastic locker barriers during the just-completed homestand, the Nationals couldn't quite create enough separation between themselves and the Braves to clinch the NL East title yet. Thus, the celebration is likely to happen on the road this week, either here in Philadelphia on Thursday night or sometime Friday-Sunday in St. Louis.
Wait, you ask, don't the Braves still have a chance to steal away the division crown? Well, technically yes. But the odds are stacking severely against that happening.
The Nationals enter play tonight up five games with nine to play. The magic number is 5, so any combination of five Washington wins and Atlanta losses wraps this thing up.
Think of it this way: If the Nats go only 4-5 the rest of the way, the Braves would need to go 9-0 simply to force a one-game tiebreaker for the NL East title. (And yes, they would have to play that game in Washington next Thursday, with the winner declared division champs and the losers shipped off to the Wild Card game. That's a new rule instituted by MLB this season.)
So in many ways, it almost doesn't matter what Atlanta does down the stretch as long as the Nationals play respectable baseball and don't gag everything away.
The best-case scenario for the Nats would have them clinching as soon as Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park, which would be poetic in many ways after the Phillies clinched three of their five NL East crowns against Washington (2007, 2008, 2010).
Adding to the intrigue, the Nationals could have a chance not only to celebrate on the Phillies' turf but also officially eliminate them from the postseason altogether. Despite a late surge to get back in the race, Philadelphia trails the Cardinals by 5 12 games for the final Wild Card berth. Their "tragic number" to be eliminated is 4, so any combination of four Cardinals wins and Phillies losses puts an end to that long-shot dream.
If the Nationals can't wrap things up by Thursday, they'll head west to St. Louis and bring the champagne with them. That would present a potentially bizarre scenario, one that could see the Nats clinch the NL East and the Cardinals clinch the Wild Card on the same field at the same time.
How would that work? Would both teams dog-pile in the middle of the diamond? Doubtful. Whichever team won the game would likely get to celebrate, with the other retreating to its clubhouse.
And what if the Nationals can't finish this off before Sunday? Well, they would then head back home for the final, three-game series against the Phillies.
On the bright side, they'd get to clinch in front of their own fans.
Something, though, tells me Davey Johnson and Co. have no interest in experiencing that.