ST. LOUIS -- They picked just about the worst possible moment to play their worst ballgame of the season, a 2-hour, 51-minute stinker that ended in a 12-2 thumping at the hands of an opponent who looked far more ready for the postseason than they did.
So why weren't the Nationals completely down in the dumps at the end of a miserable night at Busch Stadium?
"That was a beating, there," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "But we're obviously watching the scoreboard, and the Braves finally lost a game this month. So I guess we can take that as a positive."
Yes, the best thing that happened to the Nationals Friday night took place 554 miles to the southeast in Atlanta, where the Braves blew a late lead to the Mets and lost 3-1 on Chipper Jones Night, failing to gain any ground in the NL East.
So, guess what, folks: The Nationals, with their magic number down to 2, have a chance to clinch their first-ever division title Saturday night.
That kind of takes the sting out of the most-lopsided loss of the season, doesn't it?
"Oh, yeah. Yeah," LaRoche said. "You know it's getting down to the wire. We know that. We obviously like our chances, but nothing's done until it's sealed up. So you're getting beat by 10 runs, you try to look at the positives in it. Forget about this one."
That was the overarching theme throughout the Nationals clubhouse, players and coaches trying to throw this monstrosity out the window and immediately shift their attention to the greater task at hand.
"I don't even want to talk about it," manager Davey Johnson said with a smile.
It may be relatively easy for the Nationals as a whole to brush this one off. It may not be quite as easy for the man most responsible for allowing it to happen: Edwin Jackson.
The veteran right-hander suffered through his worst start of the year, getting torched for nine runs (eight earned) in only 1 13 innings and putting his team in a 9-1 hole before many in the crowd of 39,166 had a chance to settle into their seats.
"Very disappointing and embarrassing," Jackson said. "When your club is in a pennant race and you have a game like that, it definitely leaves a bitter taste in your mouth that you did absolutely nothing to give your team a chance to win."
Jackson didn't mince words when described an utterly forgettable start. He faced 15 batters and managed to retire only three of them. One was a double-play grounder hit by the opposing pitcher. The other two still drove in runs with productive outs.
The Nationals felt this was an anomaly, a one-time blip that carries no significance in the bigger picture. But there are some red flags for Jackson that pre-date this game.
This was the 29-year-old's fifth appearance this month. Only one qualified as a quality start: last Saturday's eight-inning masterpiece against the Brewers. His ERA for the month: 7.92. His updated ERA for the season: 4.13.
Do the Nationals need to reconsider how Jackson (who seemed to be penciled in all along as their No. 3 starter for the postseason) figures into their October plans? Johnson insisted the answer is no.
"I just throw it out," the manager said of this start. "If he usually has trouble, it's early, and he couldn't right the ship. The Cardinals are in kinda playoff mode. They're going to jump all over him. Getting behind, walking people, just gets them more fired up."
Jackson, who owns a World Series ring as a member of St. Louis' 2011 championship rotation, has bounced back from enough bad starts in his career to start worrying now. This was the fifth time he failed to complete two innings, though the first time since 2007.
"Short-term memory, man," he said. "It's not the first game. Just shake it off. I'm not dead from this game. It just definitely leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. But I'm not going to go jump off a bridge or anything because of the game."
Nor should anyone in the Nationals clubhouse harbor such morose feelings right now.
They may have just suffered their worst beating of the season. But thanks to a surprising development in Atlanta, they'll show up at Busch Stadium on Saturday with an opportunity to do something no Washington baseball club has done in 79 years: Celebrate the clinching of a title.
"It wasn't happening tonight. Tomorrow's another day," Johnson said. "We got a little help from our friends. That was nice."