No real pennant race ever is. The Nats, even though they are four games ahead of Atlanta with seven to play, are in a genuine battle. Everything in late-season baseball works against the pursued and in favor of the pursuer. The chaser is forced, by desperation, to focus on one game, one pitch at a time. That’s the right way to play baseball. The team with the lead is often distracted by praise, magic numbers or hoping the other team will lose; instead of (all together) focusing entirely on the next pitch, play or game.
If you watch the Nationals these days between your fingers, if you take walks to get away from the TV, if you invent good-luck charms or incantations — who thought Washington baseball fans would ever need such things — you’re not choking. You’re just living in the real world.
If you saw the Nats blast three homers in Philadelphia on Wednesday night for a 5-0 lead, but didn’t lose any days off your life as the Phillies clawed back to 5-4 (and the Braves posted another win), then you have better late-inning medications than most of us.
When Jayson Werth, with the Phillies crowd booing, singled home a pair of two-out insurance runs in the ninth, then circled the bases for an 8-4 lead on Bryce Harper’s triple, you could almost hear every Nats fan exhale.
For countless people, generations of them actually, this has been a summer with a nothing-can-spoil-it glow. “Happy” works when the Nats go 14-4 to start April and lead the NL East for all but 10 days of the season.
But these final days, even with that euphemism “a healthy lead,” even when the Nats have already clinched the first wild-card spot, are likely to put fans through a facsimile of the emotional wringer that the players endure.
Why take such a cautious view when statisticians say the Nats entered Wednesday night’s game with a 96.5 percent chance of winning the NL East?
Because I’ve been here before, 15 years ago, with an exceptional team managed by Davey Johnson. Those 1997 Orioles won 98 games and dethroned the AL East powerhouse Yankees. But I learned that it’s often in the nature of leads to dwindle, even if they never disappear. Those Birds led by 91
2 games with 23 left, by 71
2 games with 17 left and by five games with only eight games left. You may notice the parallels with the 2012 Nats, who arrived in Philadelphia this week leading by five games with nine to play.
What happened? On the next-to-last day of the season, the Orioles’ lead was down to two games with two to play and they trailed 4-2 in the ninth inning on the road. Three more outs and they’d have a one-game lead over the Yankees with one to play. Much tension? Oh, yeah.
The Brewers brought in Doug Jones, one of the best relievers in history (303 saves, 21st all-time). He didn’t save that one. Mike Bordick singled, Brady Anderson doubled and Roberto Alomar homered for the clinch.