The Washington Nationals were a heavy favorite back in March. A season of inconsistency has turned them into a long shot. They do, however, have a shot.
They are starting to finally heat up. The schedule is their ally. The calendar, however, is their foe.
The Nationals arrived at the ballpark on Wednesday having won 12 of their past 17 games, one game into a 19-game stretch against teams with losing records. Stephen Strasburg was set to take the mound against the Miami Marlins in search of a victory that would lift them two games above .500 for the first time since July 19.
The defending National League East champions entered Wednesday in second place in the NL East, 13 games behind Atlanta, a virtually impossible lead to overcome with only 31 games remaining on the schedule, and with just three remaining against the Braves, who have won 12 of 16 games so far between the divisional rivals.
The Nats, however, have worked their way back into the NL Wild Card race. They have played well enough and are healthy enough to have the three teams in front of them in the battle for the two NL Wild Card spots looking over their shoulders.
Pittsburgh entered Monday as the NL Wild Card leader, a three-game edge on Cincinnati, five games ahead of Arizona and seven in front of Washington.
That's why the next 18 games are so vital for the Nationals. It's their chance to make a move before a season-ending 13-game stretch that includes three games at home with Atlanta and four with Miami, and then a road trip that takes them to St. Louis and Arizona for three games each. The Nats are only 20-36 so far this season against teams with winning records.
• Pittsburgh is finishing up a series with Milwaukee on Wednesday and Thursday. Then comes a stretch in which the Pirates host the Cardinals for three games, head to Milwaukee for three more games with the sliding Brewers before making three-game stops in both St. Louis and Texas. Looming down the road are six of the final nine games against Cincinnati, including the final series of the season at Great American Ball Park. The Pirates do, however, have a winning record (31-28) against teams with winning records.
• The Reds finish a three-game series in St. Louis on Wednesday night, and will return home next week from their current road trip to host the Cardinals for four games and the Dodgers for three before three-game sets against the Cubs, Brewers and Astros in advance of the late-season showdown with the Pirates. The Reds are 26-37 against winning teams.
• Arizona, which stands between Washington and the second Wild Card spot, has only 10 games remaining with teams that have winning records, the season-ending series against the Nationals and seven games against the Dodgers.
Rest assured, on top of focusing on the games they are playing, the Nats will be scoreboard watching, because they know they need help -- lots of it -- to overcome the struggles in a season in which they have spent only seven days in first place, the last of which was April 6, and have not been able to run off anything longer than a five-game winning streak.
With 31 games remaining, the Nationals will need to play remarkable baseball even if they do get some help and the teams ahead of them play .500 ball the rest of the way. If the Pirates only went 15-16 in their remaining 31 games, the Nats would need to go 25-6 to catch them. If the the Reds went 14-15, the Nationals would need to go 22-9. Washington would have to go 17-14 to match Arizona's 15-16.
Improbable? Maybe. Impossible? No.
The Nats are relatively healthy, including Strasburg, who is going strong this season after he was shut down early last season because of his workload last year. He may be only 1-2 since the All-Star break, but he has allowed more than two runs in only two of his last eight starts.
Ross Detwiler has been out since July 4 because of a herniated disc, and Taylor Jordan has been shut down because of workload concerns in his return this season from Tommy John surgery. Ross Ohlendorf provided a good enough effort that the Nationals have won all three of his starts.
While there are questions as to whether he has worn down, the Nats do have the option of Tanner Roark, who is 4-0 and has allowed two earned runs in 17 1/3 innings of his four relief appearances since being called up from Triple-A Syracuse, where he both started and relieved this season.
The Pirates continue to make moves to try and ensure an end to their 20-year nightmare in which they not only have failed to advance to the postseason, but have not even had a winning season. They most recently found a needed boost for the outfield in Marlon Byrd and a solid catching backup for Russell Martin in John Buck, both courtesy of the Mets. And they are encouraged about the pending return of closer Jason Grilli, although it will be mid-September at earliest before left fielder and leadoff hitter Starling Marte could return from the disabled list.
The Reds continue to try and piece their pitching staff together. Tony Cingrani, who stepped in for the injured Johnny Cueto and was 6-3 with a 2.76 ERA in 16 starts, has been placed on the disabled list with a lower back strain. Reliever Jonathan Broxton came out of his Aug. 21 appearance with a right flexor strain, and Sean Marshall made only 11 appearances before suffering a left shoulder sprain that required surgery.
The D-backs, meanwhile, continue to look for a way to snap out of a two-month funk in which they have gone 27-30, falling from first place in the NL West to 8 1/2 games back of the Dodgers. Wade Miley is 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA since June 23, but the rest of the rotation is 11-22 with a 4.75 ERA. Six of Arizona's regulars are hitting .250 or lower during those 57 games, including Jason Kubel, who hit .141 with eight RBIs in 44 games over that period before being designated for assignment.
All of which adds up to reason for the Nationals to find hope for a season-ending surge that could return the franchise to the postseason for the second year in a row and only for the third time since its inception in Montreal back in 1969.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.