MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Giants-Nats likely merely a prelude to October

Giants-Nats likely merely a prelude to October

WASHINGTON -- If the season ended today -- although it never does when somebody uses that phrase -- the San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals would play each other in the National League Division Series starting at Nationals Park.

That turns out to be really, really convenient, because this very weekend the Giants and the Nats are already playing at Nationals Park. Maybe this series is a postseason preview, but one message coming out of this meeting would be that you don't want to meet either one of these teams in the postseason.

The two managers -- Dusty Baker of the Nationals and Bruce Bochy of the Giants -- were taking dramatically different looks at this particular series, at least when it came to their public pronouncements. This probably had a lot to do with the recent performances of their teams.

With a 5-1 victory over the Giants on Friday night, the Nationals assured that they would enter Saturday with no less than a seven-game lead in the NL East, matching their largest lead of the season. The Giants, on the other hand, have slumped noticeably since the All-Star break, going 5-14, but still lead the NL West.

The Nats currently have the second-best record in the NL. The Giants have the third-best record. The clubs split a four-game series in San Francisco last week, so the winner of this series could have a tiebreaker in hand if the postseason situation requires that.

Pagan's solo home run

"This is big," Baker said. "Those of us who have been in playoffs many times, you realize how important these heads-to-heads are at the end. ... You could very well have to go through San Francisco."

Bochy, asked if this series had particular significance, responded: "I think every series has a significance. Not to be generic here, but we've got to start winning a few more ballgames. Losing series isn't going to work. So this is a big series. Then we go to Miami, and that has to be a big series. They're all big."

The Giants may have been scuffling lately, but you know their postseason pedigree. What is the next number in this sequence? 2010, '12, '14 ... you don't need to be Albert Einstein to reach the correct answer.

It is an even-numbered year. In the past three even-numbered years, the Giants have gone 9-0 in postseason series. Their play the last three weeks will eventually prove to be an aberration.

The Giants were active and impressive at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. They bolstered their rotation with the addition of left-hander Matt Moore. San Francisco bolstered its bullpen with the addition of another lefty, Will Smith. Infielder Eduardo Nunez has not had what you could call a fast start with the Giants, but he was in the midst of the best year of his Major League career when they acquired him.

The Nationals don't have a postseason pedigree, but they are indisputably talented enough to win. They had the best record in the Majors in 2012 and the best record in the NL in '14. This season, Washington is nicely balanced; second in the NL in team ERA and fourth in runs scored. The Nats have managed to stay at this enviable level despite a series of injuries and substandard performances.

Perhaps the most surprising in that second category would be the decline of Bryce Harper, the 2015 NL MVP Award winner. Harper, at 23, should still be gaining on superstardom.

Fortunately, the Nationals have another player making a run at another NL MVP Award. That would be second baseman Daniel Murphy, who is leading the league in batting average, doubles, hits, total bases, slugging percentage, night batting average, average against right-handers and multi-hit games.

Murphy's running throw

For variety Friday night, Murphy made a fine defensive play to get the Nats out of the only jam they were in all night. With runners on second and third and two out in the eighth, Murphy ranged to his right on a ball hit up the middle by Denard Span. Murphy made the pickup and the true off-balance throw and the Giants left the inning empty-handed.

When you say that catcher Wilson Ramos is having a breakthrough season, you risk only understatement. He homered Friday night. So did young Trea Turner, 23, who continued his remarkable transition from the infield to center field.

"He's very mature past his look," Baker said of Turner. "He looks like a kid, but he plays like a man."

Other than that, this one belonged largely to Washington starter Gio Gonzalez who seems to have left his difficulties of earlier in the season completely behind him. He was dominant, pitching seven innings of two-hit, one-run ball.

"We all know what Gio can do," Baker said. "He went through a bad stretch there; hopefully it's over, never to return."

At the moment, the Nationals look more like a team that could make a run in October. But the Giants must not be prematurely counted out, especially in an even-numbered year.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.