WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle was happy to be there -- for once.
Before taking questions after the game Tuesday night, Doolittle announced he was pleased to finally be talking after a win. His Zoom appearances this season have largely been focused on his struggles. Not Tuesday. He put together his best inning of the season, the Nationals won for the fourth time in five games, and their faint postseason hopes held the line.
They have shifted from among the favorites to join those in the back. Only Arizona and Pittsburgh are worse in the National League. The Nationals’ -16 run differential -- usually a solid indicator of where a team’s record should be -- is the worst in the National League East. As is their 16-25 record, even after this recent bump in winning.
Which leaves these questions: Is something happening? Or was this an unsustainable positive blip?
The wins were against quality teams. Two versus division-leading Atlanta; two against the AL’s best team, Tampa Bay. So, they carry merit because of the opponent. And two were without Juan Soto.
Distinct changes in the wins: better pitching from Max Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez. More lineup balance. Also, some form of realization. The Nationals are no longer saying how much time remains in the season, at least not in terms of there being a long way to go. Davey Martinez acknowledged last week he saw the standings for the first time (and thought the team was further back). Doolittle said Tuesday they all know where they are. The numbers just confirmed the feel of a season slipping away, perhaps taking pressure with it.
There was little left to lose at 19-31 late last May. There is little for the Nationals to lose now with 19 games remaining, Stephen Strasburg out for the year and multiple holes in the team. Keeping on is the only choice. Outcomes will be what they will be.
“There’s a familiar feeling that’s starting to come back in the clubhouse,” Doolittle said. “I wouldn’t say it’s like, ‘Screw it.’ But it’s like, ‘Why not?’ This season has been so weird. So unique already. I mean, why not? Let’s see what we can do. Let’s put our head down and grind these last 2 ½ weeks out and not worry about what other teams are doing.
“We’re well aware of the position that we’re in. But, keep coming to the field every day with the same energy that we’ve had for the last week. We’re getting a lot of contributions from guys. It’s been really fun.”
The fun is unlikely to last. Struggling Carter Kieboom will play third base the rest of the way. His poor offense is a liability at a stop which was manned by an MVP finalist a year ago. The back half of the pitching rotation -- Austin Voth and Erick Fedde -- will both be on the mound multiple times in the final 19 games. Voth can be skipped at least once because of coming off-days in the schedule. But, those two should make at least four more combined starts this season. Since the Nationals need to win 14 of their final 19 games to reach .500 and a legitimate postseason shot, working with two starter ERAs above 5.00 is a problem.
Patrick Corbin has been middling, too.
In all, the Nationals are 17th in runs scored and 23rd in ERA. A dig into more advanced numbers only further defines the maladies. They are also Major League Baseball’s worst defense.
Which leaves them five games out of the final NL wild-card spot. Fivethirtyeight says they have a nine percent chance to make the postseason (they started at 61 percent). Baseball Reference grants them a 12 percent chance to make the postseason. To do so, they will need to take three of four from Atlanta this weekend, at least split a two-game series in Tampa Bay next week, take three of five in three days in Miami, then six of eight the final week of the season. That gets them to 29-31 and on the edge. Don’t count on it.