#CLINCHED! For the third time in four years the @Nationals are NL East champs: https://t.co/LvYB26ZRHl https://t.co/Ptz9I8zxL52017-9-10 21:26:22
With an 88-55 record, the Nationals own the largest division lead in MLB at 20 games over the Marlins. They are the only team in the NL East with a record over .500, and they entered play Sunday trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers by five games for the best record in MLB.
Despite having a division title at stake Sunday, Nationals manager Dusty Baker downplayed the game.
"It doesn't change anything," he said, via Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports. "Just go out and play. We have some young players who are going to play, because our guys have 21 games in 20 days. So these guys need a blow, and [Sunday's] the perfect time. I'm just going to take them all out and go for it."
Making Washington's NL East dominance more impressive is that it has continued to play at a high level with Bryce Harper on the disabled list. The 2015 National League MVP left an Aug. 12 game against the San Francisco Giants with a hyperextended left knee.
Harper was in the midst of an MVP-caliber season before getting hurt. The 24-year-old leads the Nationals with a .326 batting average, .419 on-base percentage and .614 slugging percentage, and his 1.034 OPS leads the majors.
Washington has yet to put a timeframe on Harper's return. General manager Mike Rizzo provided a vague update on the five-time All-Star outfielder's prognosis in a radio interview with 106.7 The Fan on Sept. 6.
"We're very optimistic that he'll play in the postseason; he'll get some at-bats at the end of the regular season to prepare himself for the postseason," Rizzo said, via Federal Baseball's Patrick Reddington.
The Nationals are one of the most complete teams in all of baseball. They are first in starting pitchers' ERA (3.45) and second in runs scored (748). Midseason acquisitions Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson have stabilized the bullpen by combining for 42 strikeouts and 27 hits allowed in 37 innings.
Max Scherzer, who won the National League Cy Young Award last season, has made an excellent case to take home the honor again in 2017. He has a 14-5 record with a 2.32 ERA and 239 strikeouts in 178.1 innings.
With the division title and a playoff berth secure, Washington will turn its attention to getting over that October hump. It has lost in the division series in each of its past three postseason appearances.
The Nationals have been one of MLB's best regular-season teams, however, with winning records in each of the past six seasons. But all that matters now is whether that success will translate into a World Series title in 2017.