Suzuki HR caps Nats' best 9th-inning rally, beats Mets 11-10 (copy)

Washington Nationals’ Kurt Suzuki (28) celebrates as he runs the bases after hitting a game-winning three-run home run against the New York Mets in a baseball game Tuesday night in Washington. The Nationals won 11-10.

AH, SEPTEMBER baseball!

For five months, we’ve been building up to the excitement of the final push as Major League Baseball teams vie for playoff berths.

While the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers are already looking at the “magic numbers” for clinching, there are still races in three divisions, with all four wild-card spots up for grabs. And the Washington Nationals, who almost everybody had counted out back in May, are in the thick of it all.

Washington begins a four-game series in Atlanta on Thursday night and a sweep would put the Nationals in a good position to really challenge the front-running Braves down the stretch.

Realistically, however, taking four straight from a team with good hitting and good pitching is asking a lot. And splitting the series would find the Nats leaving Atlanta in exactly the same position as when they arrived.

After a horrendous start, the Nats have been playing good ball since the end of May. The problem is, so have the Braves. For the past six weeks, every time the Nats win, the Braves win. And when the Braves lose, the Nats lose. Washington has been able to gain no ground on the Eastern Division leaders.

If the Nats are going to overtake the Braves, they almost certainly have to sweep this series, because Atlanta is too strong a team to just collapse down the stretch.

Even if Washington doesn’t catch the Braves, the Nats have played themselves into a good position to capture one of the two National League wild-card spots.

But while winning the division would assure the Nats of a five-game playoff series, capturing a wild-card spot only gives them one chance to advance. You play the other wild-card team in a single game. The winner moves on, while the loser goes home. It is all or nothing.

So now manager Dave Martinez has to start thinking about who will pitch that wild-card game if the Nats make it into the playoffs through the back door. During the final two weeks of the season, he has to set up his pitching rotation to be ready.

This is where it gets really tough. If your whole season boils down to one game, you must start your best pitcher. But who is that right now?

Ordinarily, it would be Max Scherzer, but he has had back troubles and missed several starts. And last time out, he was on a low pitch count. Will he be ready? If he starts and is not in top form, remember that Washington has a less-than-stellar bullpen.

Right now, I would go with Stephen Strasburg, who has been Washington’s most consistent pitcher all season. That would leave Scherzer to start the first game in the best-of-five playoff series should the Nats win the wild-card game.

To further complicate matters, suppose Washington does sweep Atlanta this weekend and the division title goes down to the final two or three days of the regular season? Then the Nats couldn’t hold back their best pitcher for the possible wild-card game.

Then they would have to stay with their regular rotation and try to win the division title. But if they didn’t, they would have a beleaguered staff going into that wild-card game.

So maybe it would be better if the Nats don’t sweep this weekend and just start getting prepared for the wild-card game.

If they win the wild-card game, however, things get really tough, because then the Nats would have to face the best team in the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers. If they win the division, they would play the Central winners, either the Cubs or the Cardinals.

Ah, September baseball! The wheels are really turning. So many decisions to be made; so many opportunities to be won or lost.

We go back to the old saying that you can’t win a pennant in April, but you can lose one. The Nats have been playing great since the end of May, but their bad start in April is now the difference in the standings. You can’t win games already lost.

A few final notes. Third baseman Anthony Rendon should get high consideration for the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award this year. No player has done more—both offensively and defensively—to keep his team in the race this season than Rendon.

As far as I’m concerned, the MVP award goes to either Freddie Freeman of the Braves or Rendon, with Pete Alonzo of the Mets named Rookie of the Year.

And Justin Verlander should get the American League Cy Young Award. The Goochland County native pitched the third no-hitter of his career Sunday and has a good shot at a 20-win season.

That old Virginia boy has a good shot at the Hall of Fame if he keeps going at his current pace.

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Donnie Johnston:

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