The Nationals haven't played to expectations, but they still have a chance at the postseason if they play over their heads in September.
"It gets late early out here."
Hall of Famer and noted wordsmith Yogi Berra wasn't talking about September baseball when he uttered the above, one of his many famous sayings, but he could have been.
The Major League Baseball regular season, it's often said, is a marathon—162 games that never feel quite as much like a day-after-day grind as they do during the "dog days" of August. But as soon as the calendar flips, so does the proverbial switch. At that point, the season becomes a September sprint to the postseason.
That's when it gets late early. Especially for teams that are several games back and attempting to either chase down a division leader or secure a wild-card spot. They need to start winning, like, now.
The good news? Large deficits have been overcome many times. Just ask the Tampa Bay Rays or St. Louis Cardinals, who authored two of the biggest, most dramatic September comebacks in baseball history by claiming playoff berths on the final day of the season in 2011.
Those clubs proved another Yogism to be true: "It ain't over 'til it's over."
For teams on the outside looking in, there's only so much time to catch up, but there are also steps that can help when it comes to pulling off a September surprise.
Step 1: Win. A Lot.
Baseball at this time of year, in many ways, becomes a bunch of theoretical math problems.
Team X and Team Y both have 20 games left, but Team X is six games ahead in the standings. If Team X plays .500 ball (10-10), then Team Y needs to go 17-3 to pass them.
While that's the kind of approach that some players, coaches and fans might get too caught up in, a team trying to mount a comeback needs wins, first and foremost.
Whether battling it out against top competition or simply ensuring there are no hiccups against lesser squads, the team needs to take care of business by piling up wins at a rate well above what it has done to this point in the season.
Essentially, a comeback requires a team to play above its head for a few weeks, which isn't easy but is necessary.
The Washington Nationals, for instance, have hung around .500 all season. In fact, they've never been more than six games above or below that mark. Still, they're only 6.5 back of the Cincinnati Reds for the second NL wild-card position. It's within reach, but only if the Nats play better from Sept. 1 on than they have all year long.
Step 2: Gain Ground
Whenever playing against the team they're chasing, winning is an absolute must.
After all, head-to-head matchups are the best way to ensure that not only the team wins but also that the competition loses—all in one game—as a team tries to gain ground in the win and loss columns.
And if the team in front loses a day game or finishes a night contest early and loses, the chasing team must take advantage. (Hey, a little scoreboard watching can be helpful.)
The Cleveland Indians are a perfect example of this, as they enter play Friday 6.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central—and start a three-game series against them that carries into September. It's the last times those two are scheduled to play each other for the rest of the regular season, so if the Indians want to make a push, they best start by taking at least two out of three.
Step 3: Ride the Stars…
Despite being five-plus months and some 140 or 150 games into a grueling and tiring season, this is not the time for teams to stray from playing studs.
The fact that the roster size increases from 25 to 40 men might make it slightly tempting to give a slumping star a day of rest or to try out a new player, but this is not the time to go that route.
It's better for, say, the Arizona Diamondbacks—six games out in the NL wild-card race—to play their top guys while they still have a shot rather than wonder if a few more at-bats by Paul Goldschmidt or another start by Patrick Corbin would have been the difference between playing and watching in October.
Step 4:…But Utilize the Expanded Roster
As mentioned above, roster expansion allows teams to carry up to 40 players in the final month. While it can be a pitfall to rely too much on this, there are, in fact, ways for savvy managers to take advantage of having more players.
One way to do so? Exploit pitcher-hitter matchups, especially late in games. When the Baltimore Orioles take on the Boston Red Sox in mid-September, manager Buck Showalter could bring in left-handed reliever Brian Matusz—who has held lefty hitters to a mere .170 average—to face David Ortiz in a key spot earlier than normal, knowing he has other bullpen arms to fall back on later.
Same goes for using extra hitters to gain the platoon advantage either throughout a game or in the late innings. It's also useful to be able to plug in a defensive replacement when winning or a pinch-runner when trailing in, say, the eighth or ninth inning. When one run is the difference between winning and losing, one great catch or timely stolen base can decide things.
Step 5: Make the Schedule a Friend Whenever Possible
In September, most teams will have one day off—maybe two, if they're lucky—and that must be treated like gold.
This isn't about using off days to work on something specific or for a mental/physical break for some rest, although those are important factors too. No, this is about making use of the non-game in a strategical way to plan ahead.
A team can utilize an off day to align the rotation over the final few weeks, which can be incredibly beneficial. Ideally, this is done by skipping a starting pitcher who has gone cold at the wrong time—or who isn't good enough to step on the mound in a late-season contest with his team's playoff hopes potentially on the line.
The Kansas City Royals, who are six games out of a playoff position, should make sure James Shields and Ervin Santana get as many starts as possible in September. With two off days in the middle of the month, they can shift things around in order to avoid pitching, say, Bruce Chen any more than they absolutely have to.
Step 6: Hope Like Heck the Other Teams Lose Enough
Executing all of the above is nice and all, but it won't do much good if the team in front doesn't lose enough to fall back and get overtaken.
Take the New York Yankees, who have played better of late. They're 13-7 in their last 20 to get within five games of the second AL wild-card spot, but they're still trailing three teams in the Indians, Orioles and Oakland Athletics.
Only five of the Yankees' 27 September games are against teams they're trailing, and all of those are versus the Orioles. In other words, they won't be able to directly determine whether the Indians or A's lose. Instead, they'll just have to hope.
Obviously, pulling off a big turnaround in the final month is easier said than done, but as the Rays and Cardinals showed, it actually can be done. Following these steps can help, and as September turns to October, maybe we'll be marveling at yet another team or two who completed a how'd-they-do-that comeback to clinch a postseason spot.
Or in Yogi speak: It'll be deja vu all over again.