WASHINGTON — The Washington Nationals weren’t glued to a game happening some 800 miles away. They were celebrating a birthday, and savoring a win, and packing up for an evening flight to St. Louis. They are, at least publicly, experts at being singularly focused on themselves.
But that does get difficult in September, in the middle of a wild-card race, in a season that was once lost and now has a chance to be something. The Nationals’ victory on Sunday, a 7-0 win over the Atlanta Braves, promised to hold their slim wild-card lead over the Chicago Cubs (1 ½ games back of the top spot) and the Milwaukee Brewers (just one game behind the Cubs). That was the bare minimum. That was if nothing else went right.
Then nothing else went right.
By the time the Nationals finished off their win, Aníbal Sánchez having tossed seven scoreless innings, and Howie Kendrick having collected three hits and three RBI at the plate, the Cubs were sprinting past the Pittsburgh Pirates. They eventually won, 16-6, to stay right in Washington’s shadow. And the Brewers trailed the St. Louis Cardinals in the ninth, and were three outs away from giving the Nationals a bit of breathing room. The Brewers, down star outfielder Christian Yelich for the rest of the year, are trying to push Washington out of the postseason altogether. What happened next only reinforced that agenda.
Nationals bench coach Chip Hale spoke at the postgame news conference because manager Dave Martinez left the ballpark early due to illness. Hale, every bit as positive as Martinez, acknowledged that this was a game Washington needed to take. The Nationals avoided being swept by the Braves. But at Busch Stadium in Missouri — at almost the exact moment Hale broke down the win — St. Louis Cardinals closer John Gant walked back-to-back Milwaukee batters. There were no outs in the top of the ninth and the Brewers had the go-ahead run on base.
Once Hale talked for about four-and-a-half minutes, and began a brisk walk back to the clubhouse, Sánchez emerged with a chocolate cake. Tres Barrera, the Nationals’ fourth-string catcher, turned 25 on Sunday. A group of players sang in the team cafeteria before breaking into a Spanish chant. The Brewers, meanwhile, loaded the bases with one out. Then Cardinals reliever Tyler Webb replaced Gant.
“Focus on every pitch,” Sánchez said when asked if the games are beginning to feel more important. His answer came as Webb began a lefty-lefty matchup with Mike Moustakas in St. Louis. “Don’t make those mistakes.”
Victor Robles, having made a handful of fine defensive plays Sunday, was next to speak with a migrating pack of reporters. Robles has never been in a pennant race. No career Nationals have — not Ryan Zimmerman, not Anthony Rendon, not Trea Turner — because, in Washington’s last four appearances, the team clinched in early-to-mid September. But the 22-year-old still knows the stakes.
“Every day we go out there with the intent to battle with any team we’re playing and put a victory on our side,” Robles said through a team interpreter, and Webb struck out Moustakas as he did. “Today we were lucky enough to do that. But every day we go out there with the plan to win.”
The Cardinals made another pitching change, bringing in Junior Fernandez, betting that he could retire Ryan Braun, leave the bases loaded and, in turn, help the Nationals grow their cushion. That’s when Kendrick — 36 years old, a veteran of anything baseball could offer — began to discuss the last 14 games of the Nationals’ season. Fernandez jogged in from the bullpen while Kendrick offered his thoughts.
The Nationals had already recorded the 27 outs they were responsible for in Washington. They needed the Cardinals to record one more.
“It’s not about how you start but you’ve got to have a really strong finish and we’re still in a good spot,” Kendrick said. “This game today helps and we’ve just got to take each game at a time and I like where we’re at.”
Not 10 minutes later, while the trucks were packed with the Nationals’ gear, while the clubhouse emptied and the team bus filled up, Braun launched a go-ahead grand slam off Fernandez. The Brewers soon won, 7-6, despite the Cardinals scratching across two runs in the bottom of the ninth. The Nationals helped themselves Sunday, doing everything they could to create separation, but the Cardinals and Pirates didn’t cooperate.
Two weeks ago, after sweeping the Miami Marlins, the Nationals had a 4 ½ game lead over the Cubs for the top wild-card spot. They were seven games up on the Philadelphia Phillies — the next-closest team then — and were cruising into the playoffs. But those advantages have been slimmed down with Washington now headed to face the first-place Cardinals. And from here, for what’s remaining of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of year, everything is subject to sharp and sudden change.