Hunt for Red October: Time for Nats to extend Wild Card lead

If the Washington Nationals end up making the 2019 MLB Postseason, they can point to this past weekend as a defining series.

The offense broke things open against the Milwaukee Brewers, coming up one extra-innings rally short of a three-game sweep. Instead, they increased their Wild Card lead to two games (1 1/2 over Cubs for the top spot) and kept pace with the Atlanta Braves in the NL East race.

Winners of six of the last seven games, the Nats take their hot streak on the road for four games in Pittsburgh and three in Chicago vs. the Cubs. Seven road games in seven days is a tough stretch, especially when the bullpen pitched 17 innings vs. the Brewers.

Sweep the four-game series and the Nationals could pull within two games of the division-leading Braves (who play three games vs. Miami). Get swept by the Pirates and the Nats could fall back into the five-team scrum battling for the Wild Card.

Here’s how the Nats can help their Hunt for Red October in Pittsburgh:

Playoff chances (via 84 percent
Playoff clinching magic number: 40
National to watch: Joe Ross seems like an afterthought in a series that will likely feature all three of the Nats’ aces: Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Max Scherzer (expected to return from the Injured List and start on Thursday). But it’s Ross who has the hottest hand, allowing just one run in his last three starts (18 innings) with 11 strikeouts. His 2.81 in three career games vs. the Bucs is the third-lowest against any National League team, and he must continue pitching for his spot in the rotation with Scherzer back from injury.
Pirate worth pondering: Statistically speaking, if the Pirates get to the ninth inning with a lead, it’s over. Closer Felipe Vázquez has been outstanding this season, not allowing an earned run since the All-Star break and averaging more than 98 mph with his high heat. Technically, he blew a save on Friday, but he did so after allowing an inherited runner from third base to score. With clean base paths, he’s tough to beat.
By the numbers: Saturday and Sunday marked the first time in team history that the Nationals had scored 14 or more runs in back-to-back games. It was the second time in club history that players slugged eight home runs, which was also done vs. Milwaukee in 2017. In both games, the Nats were the only team in MLB history to hit seven home runs in the first five innings.
Notable quote: “He’s our closer, but we’ve got to get him right.” Manager Davey Martinez promised that Sean Doolittle would remain as the team’s closer after a trip to the 10-day Injured List for a sore knee. In the meantime, he looks to use a committee including Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland and Daniel Hudson.
Series prediction: Riding an exhilarating series win vs. a playoff contender, the Nats need to avoid the temptation to coast through the first half of this road trip. The Pirates are one of the worst teams in baseball and ripe for a Washington team finally playing up to its potential. The Nationals need to leave Pittsburgh with no worse than a series split, but realistically, they should take at least three vs. the Bucs.
Brian Tinsman has covered D.C. sports since 2011, both from the team marketing and skeptical fan perspectives. Tweet your criticisms @Brian_Tinsman.