Published September 05, 2016
Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker sat behind the desk of the visiting manager's office at Citi Field in New York late Sunday afternoon and viewed the printout of the baseball standings.
"I'm just glad that we're in a position not to have an 'x' by our name," Baker said, referring to the designation used for teams that have already been eliminated from their division races. "There's a couple x's already. We want to add some x's."
The National League East-leading Nationals can do just that Monday afternoon, when they begin a three-game series against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park.
Washington comes home after losing the final two games of a three-game series against the New York Mets, including a 5-1 defeat Sunday night. Atlanta has won six straight, including a three-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies that concluded Sunday afternoon with a 2-0 victory at Citizens Bank Park.
One win by the Nationals (79-57) this week will officially eliminate the Braves (54-83) from the National League East race. Of course, Atlanta has been out of contention since April, when it began the season on an eight-game losing streak and finished the opening month a miserable 5-18.
Knocking out the Braves would allow the Nationals -- who are 8 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Mets -- to move one step closer to where they want to be. While Washington is closing in on its third division title in five years, the Nationals/Montreal Expos franchise hasn't won a playoff series since 1981, which is the longest drought among the four major North American pro sports leagues.
"Everybody keeps talking postseason -- let's win this (regular) season first," Baker said Saturday afternoon. "We haven't won this season yet. Somebody (said), 'If you go .500 the rest of the way ...' That's not going to satisfy me or satisfy us. You want to finish strong, and the postseason is something that's down the way. But right now, we've got to keep grinding."
The Braves' postseason hopes are long gone, but they will hope to continue laying the foundation that has been constructed over the past several weeks. Atlanta, which has its second six-game winning streak of the season, is 23-25 since the All-Star break and 17-15 since Aug. 1.
"The past month, the past couple of months, we've been playing really good baseball," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said Sunday. "We got off to a really rough start. You knew it was going to turn around at some point."
A 100-loss season once appeared to be unavoidable for the Braves, but they need to go just 9-16 down the stretch to avoid the franchise's first 100-loss campaign since 1988.
"We're not the same team, quite honestly," Braves interim manager Brian Snitker said Sunday. "I feel good with everybody that goes up there."
Nationals ace right-hander Max Scherzer (15-7, 2.89 ERA) is scheduled to oppose Braves rookie right-hander Ryan Weber (1-0, 5.24 ERA) on Monday.
Scherzer, who had his start pushed back a day in order to get some extra rest, carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning in his previous start last Tuesday, when he earned the win after allowing two runs over eight innings as Washington beat the Phillies, 3-2.
In three starts against Atlanta this year, he is 2-0 with a 4.66 ERA. Scherzer has a 3-3 record and a 4.01 ERA in 10 career games (eight starts) vs. the Braves.
Weber will be making his first start of the season following 12 relief appearances. He has a 0-1 record and a 2.31 ERA in three career games (one start) against Washington.