More than a few times over the past couple weeks I've written words to the effect that the National League wild card was just about wrapped up "unless Washington goes and does something crazy." Lo and behold, it's the middle of September and Washington is hip-deep in what can be legitimately described as "something crazy."
After having easily their best month of the year in August -- they went 16-11 after a terrible July and three prior months of muddling around near .500 -- the Nationals have improved their play even further, sitting at 11-3 so far in September and rocketing from 9.5 games out of a NL wild card spot to, going into Monday's action, 4.5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds. Part of this is due to Washington's schedule: since dropping two of three to the Atlanta Braves from August 16-18th, the Nationals have played the Cubs, Royals, Marlins, Mets, Phillies, Marlins again, Mets again and Phillies again -- the only currently respectable team among that lot being Kansas City (who Washington still took two of three from).
The schedule will get a bit harder to end the season: Despite an improbable third series against the bottom-feeding Miami Marlins -- nine of the team's last 32 games are against Miami -- the Nationals will have to play a final series against Atlanta, St. Louis, and Arizona. But the Nationals playing this kind of baseball isn't completely insane. If anything, the team has been massively underperforming all season, and going by the talent levels of the rosters involved there's absolutely no reason Washington can't win a series against a scuffling Braves team that's trying to get healthy for the postseason, the Cardinals who continue to jockey with the Pirates for first place in the Central, or the Diamondbacks, roughly a .500 team.
The current locus of good feelings about what the Nationals are doing on the field shouldn't be surprising, but for some reason it is: Ryan Zimmerman, Washington's franchise third baseman, has nine home runs in the last 14 days. Over the past month, he has a 1.067 OPS. Zimmerman's star is fading as the face of the franchise -- for better or worse, very soon it's going to be Bryce Harper and there's not too much that can or should be done about that -- but in this playoff chase, Zimmerman has reminded people why he was regarded as an elite player. Speaking of Harper, he's been almost as good over the past month, with a .913 OPS over the past 28 days, and shortstop Ian Desmond has an .823 OPS over that same time span. And since everyone seems to have forgotten about him -- easy to do, thanks to his frequent trips to the disabled list -- outfielder Jayson Werth has a .915 OPS over the past 28 days, which is actually worse than his .933 OPS on the season. With centerfielder Denard Span contributing a .953 OPS over the past month, the Nationals outfield has been one of the hottest units in baseball.
If they don't catch the Reds, of course, that could be a fairly cut and dry case of too little, too late. And it doesn't help that Stephen Strasburg is having forearm problems again. Generally when a pitcher feels discomfort in his throwing forearm, people start freaking out -- and with good reason, because "forearm discomfort" is an extremely common lead-in to an MRI revealing a partially or fully torn UCL, which would require Tommy John surgery. In Strasburg's case that would be even more concerning than usual, since he's had the surgery once already, and while the ability of pitchers to come back from one Tommy John is pretty well established, coming back from two is much less certain. The good news is that "forearm discomfort" can also just mean, well, forearm discomfort -- a mild irritation of one of the muscles or tendons in the forearm, or perhaps more likely considering that Strasburg has already dealt with something like this earlier in the year and come back from it, something like tennis elbow.
Strasburg will throw a bullpen Monday and hopes to make his next scheduled start. This would be an extremely bad time for the Nationals to lose his services -- the next man up when Strasburg goes on the shelf is Ross Ohlendorf, who has done good work this season but is the Washington swingman for a reason. He can't be expected to replace a talent like Strasburg for any period of time without the team being worse for it.
As far as the Nationals' real chances of getting the second wild card, the Reds certainly have room in their schedule to lose a step or two. Though their next three games are against the Houston Astros, the Astros have been playing .500 ball this month somehow -- and more importantly, the Reds still have six games left against division-leading Pittsburgh. There's not much room for failure on the Nationals' part, and a strong showing by the Reds against the Pirates to end year would pretty much doom Washington. Still, a few weeks after looking like their season was all but over, the Nationals are poised to throw some major wrenches into the National League playoff picture.