By winning seven straight games and 18 of their past 23, the Washington Nationals have surged back to relevancy. They've been extremely inconsistent all year, but an ultra-talented core and World Series-winning manager are now thinking in concert and executing to perfection with a few weeks of the season to spare.
Sound familiar? It should.
The 2013 Nats have plenty in common with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.
As a refresher, that St. Louis team overcame incredibly slim odds to qualify for the playoffs and then went on to clinch the World Series.
The Cards trailed Atlanta by 10.5 games for the National League wild-card lead on August 24, 2011. They trimmed the deficit to 4.5 games after beating the Braves on Sept. 11, at which point they only had 16 games remaining.
By comparison, on Aug. 19 of this summer, the Nats were precisely 10.5 games behind the Reds. Following both teams' Sept. 13 results, the separation is...4.5 games. Washington has 15 games left on its schedule.
You can't make this stuff up.
It's not as if Johnson's guys are benefiting from a bunch of lucky breaks. They're just finally living up to the lofty expectations we bestowed upon them during spring training.
The Nats have outscored their opposition 128-83 during this 18-5 rampage. Zimmerman has clobbered nine home runs in an 11-game span. Denard Span owns the second-longest active hitting streak in the majors. Rafael Soriano has converted 10 consecutive save opportunities.
Unfortunately, this club didn't reinforce itself for a late-season turnaround like those brilliant Birds did.
St. Louis addressed glaring weaknesses at shortstop and at the back end of the rotation by trading for Rafael Furcal and Edwin Jackson, respectively. Allen Craig was ready to break through into a semi-regular role, which made Colby Rasmus expendable.
Meanwhile, Washington general manager Mike Rizzo flipped veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki for a low-level pitching prospect last month, and by blinking at the wrong time, you may have missed the David DeJesus era. Rizzo shopped him to the Tampa Bay Rays after an awkward three-game stint.
A deep pitching staff enabled the Cardinals to finish off 2011 with a flourish, but the Nats never buffed up their stable of arms. Now, that neglect is coming back to bite them.
According to Amanda Comak of The Washington Times, left-hander Ross Detwiler still has a few hoops to jump through before returning to a major league mound. Mel Antonen tweets that flamethrower Stephen Strasburg was scratched from his start because of discomfort in his throwing arm. Ross Ohlendorf and Tanner Roark will fill in for the time being, so it's difficult to take this team seriously.
The other half of this equation, of course, has to be an abrupt implosion by the Reds.
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Washington won the season series, 4-3, and would therefore get home-field advantage should a 163rd game be needed to resolve a year-end tie for the second NL Wild Card. The Reds must also overcome a few tricky scheduling features. They have seven games to go on their current road trip and six total matchups with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
With that said, Cincy has ample experience when it comes to playing meaningful baseball down the stretch. It also helps to employ a mild-mannered manager like Dusty Baker to radiate positive vibes throughout the clubhouse.
For those who only trust tangibles, John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports that Johnny Cueto continues to progress from a lat strain and eyes an immediate return to the active roster. He has posted a 3.33 earned run average in nine starts this season and a 2.67 ERA dating back to 2011.
Will the Washington Nationals miraculously make the playoffs?
The St. Louis miracle we witnessed a couple of summers ago wasn't unprecedented, and it certainly isn't impossible to imitate.
However, the stars aren't properly aligned for the 2013 Nationals to match that improbable accomplishment.