There really are no such thing as "must-win" games in baseball, at least not until a team is one loss from elimination. So a late-August date in Miami probably shouldn't be viewed as do-or-die for the Nationals.
Having said that, the Nationals face as close to a must-win situation tonight as you're likely to find in this sport. Losers of four straight, they head to rainy South Florida for a two-game series with the last-place Marlins desperately needing to get back on track before this slump really turns into something of consequence.
The Nationals' cause was helped somewhat by the Braves, who late last night were shut out 3-0 in the opener of their three-game series in San Diego. Thus, Washington's lead in the NL East is back to five games after it slipped to 4 12 over the weekend.
Still, the Nationals can't just count on maintaining a comfortable lead via losses by their lone remaining challenger for the division crown. They're going to need to win their share of games as well, and what better time to start than tonight against a reeling Miami club that has gone 14-25 since July 17.
And what better time to send a red-hot Stephen Strasburg to the mound for one of his final starts of the season. The right-hander, whose closely monitored innings count stands at 145 13, has pitched brilliantly this month (4-0, 1.50 ERA) after an erratic July (2-2, 4.13). Strasburg also has owned the Marlins this season, going 2-0 without allowing a run in three head-to-head starts.
Strasburg's chances to earn his 16th win of the year also will increase if the Nationals get two of their offensive stalwarts (Michael Morse and Ian Desmond) back from minor injuries. Morse has appeared since getting hit in the right wrist by a pitch during the first inning of Friday night's game in Philadelphia. Desmond hasn't played since hyperextending his knee and suffered a mild hamstring strain on Wednesday.
Both players hope to be back in the lineup tonight, though both will need to participate in pregame workouts without hindrance to convince manager Davey Johnson they're ready to return.