Nationals

Quick Links

Nationals lose out on top free agent target Ben Zobrist

usatsi_8839663.jpg

Nationals lose out on top free agent target Ben Zobrist

NASHVILLE — The Ben Zobrist Sweepstakes finally resolved itself Tuesday night at the Winter Meetings, and though the Nationals didn't land the highly coveted free agent, they can at least take solace knowing he's not headed to their biggest division rival.

The Cubs, never considered among the favorites to sign Zobrist, swept in at the last minute and inked the versatile veteran to a 4-year, $56 million contract, a source confirmed to CSNchicago.com. (FoxSports.com was first to report the deal.)

The Nationals, who a source said were willing to give Zobrist four guaranteed years, were in the running for him earlier Tuesday, but the field narrowed to the Cubs and the Mets later in the day. New York had been more aggressive than any other club in pursuit of Zobrist this winter and now is left scrambling to find a starting second baseman (potentially needing to look into re-signing Daniel Murphy).

Zobrist, one of the game's most fundamentally sound and versatile players, was appealing to the Nationals, but the club wasn't desperate to acquire him. With Anthony Rendon, Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa and prospects Trea Turner and Wilmer Difo already in the fold, they have multiple options around the infield.

That said, the Nationals' interest in Zobrist was legitimate, and general manager Mike Rizzo met with his representatives multiple times at the Opryland Resort this week.

"We put a nice, hard push to acquire a really good player, and we'll see what place he chooses to play," Rizzo said Tuesday afternoon, before Zobrist made his final selection. "But we put a good effort in place, and we think he's a guy that would help his club."

In the end, familiarity may have been the deciding factor for Zobrist. Having spent most of his career playing for Joe Maddon with the Rays, the 34-year-old now is reunited with his former manager in Chicago.

[RELATED: Appreciating Jordan Zimmermann’s Nationals career]

Quick Links

Nationals earliest chance to clinch comes at the start of the week

Nationals earliest chance to clinch comes at the start of the week

“Clinch” is the word everyone will be waiting to hear this week.

The final seven days of the regular season is upon the Nationals. They are in a virtual tie for the wild-card with can’t-lose Milwaukee. Eight games are coming up this week. The process to end doubt starts Monday night.

Two teams -- Chicago and New York -- sit with wild-card elimination numbers of three. Which means the Nationals could be in the playoffs as soon as Tuesday night.

A magic number refresher: Nationals win, they shave a game. Cubs or Mets lose, they shave a game. Combine those things to move quickly into the offseason or postseason.

So, if Washington wins its next three games, it’s assured of a tie. If it wins three and the Cubs or Mets lose once, then the Nationals entered the postseason. Tuesday night is the earliest night for possible champagne popping. You get the idea.

Playing into the final week with so much on the line is new for the organization. It has never been the wild-card team. Usually, the division is wrapped up by now or a middling season brought elimination. Never in between.

Washington clinched the division on Sept. 10 in 2017 in game 143. The clinch came Sept. 24 in 2016 in game 154. Washington was comfortably up 8 ½ games, at that point. Its postseason spot was not in doubt.

But, not so to start this week. A careening year has come down to the final seven days. Washington is close. It could seal entrance into the postseason quickly. It could drag it out and celebrate at the end of the week. It could botch the entire thing, stunningly falling to the side, going home on Sept. 30 instead of preparing for the next game. Tune in to find out.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS:

Quick Links

Wild-card tracker: Nationals hanging on with one week to go

Wild-card tracker: Nationals hanging on with one week to go

The calendar is taking numbers with it, stripping the season down day by day, turning what was a tight wild-card race more into a fight for geography.

Washington enters the final week of the regular season with a hefty schedule ahead and its lead for the right to host the Wild-Card Game gone. The Nationals lost, 5-3, in Miami on Sunday because the bullpen blew yet another lead. As much as things have changed since April and May, one has remained constant: the Nationals’ bullpen is the worst in the league and biggest threat to team success. Their wild-card magic number is four in spite of it. 

Meanwhile, Milwaukee hung on for a 4-3 win against Pittsburgh to sweep the Pirates. The Brewers carried a perfect game through six innings. They used three pitchers -- including eventual winner Gio Gonzalez -- to do it. Milwaukee’s blistering pace the last two weeks has pulled it into a virtual tie with Washington. The Nationals are .001 ahead of Milwaukee with a game in hand. The Brewers hold the tiebreaker should it come to that once 162 games are finally complete.

The Cubs are spiraling. St. Louis scored two runs in the top of the ninth then sent Andrew Miller to the mound to finish a four-game sweep of Chicago. The Cardinals won each game by one run, reaffirming how slight the gap between the postseason and disappointment may be. Chicago manager Joe Maddon is in the final year of his contract. Even with the currency from managing the Cubs’ first World Series win since 1918, Maddon’s chances of returning on a fresh deal appear slim. If Chicago misses the playoffs, they become more unlikely, and looking back at four one-run losses to a despised rival becomes an easy spot to start the grousing.

Chicago’s six consecutive losses have turned the wild-card race into a two-team adventure. Increasingly, the main question is where the game will be played as opposed to its participants. The next seven days will determine that.

Here are the postseason chances for each team, according to fivethirtyeight.com:

Nationals, 98 percent

Brewers, 98 percent

Mets, 2 percent

Cubs, 1 percent

Phillies, less than one percent

Monday, Washington opens a final eight-game homestand with Patrick Corbin on the mound and Bryce Harper in the batter’s box. Philadelphia lost Sunday to drop to 79-75. Its wild-card elimination number is a mere two, which provides the Nationals an opportunity for double satisfaction against the offseason’s “stupid money” spenders. Washington could both eliminate and clinch against Philadelphia by the middle of the week. 

The weekend delivers a tussle with Cleveland which could be meaningless or decide everything. An ideal setup would include Washington clinching its spot before the Indians arrive in town. To follow would be the question of how hard it wants to push for homefield. Can Davey Martinez rest his most-relied upon pitchers the final day of the season? Or will it be a desperate day just create another?

Watching Milwaukee will be more important. The Brewers’ magic number is down to three. Their soft schedule continues this week with visits to Cincinnati and Colorado. Sonny Gray opens the series for the Reds. Luis Castillo closes it. So, Washington can take some solace in knowing Cincinnati’s two top pitchers will be deployed against Milwaukee. However, Colorado, 67-89, is Colorado, and the final weekend against subpar competition gives Milwaukee ample chance to play at home Oct. 1. 

One week to go.

Coming up Monday:

Milwaukee off

Chicago off

Philadelphia at Washington, 7:05 p.m. Eflin (9-12, 4.00 ERA) vs. Corbin (13-7, 3.10)

Miami at New York, 7:10 p.m., Smith (9-10, 4.24) vs. Matz (10-9, 4.16)

MORE NATIONALS NEWS: